People love to play games. Some like board games, others like cards, and others play athletic games long into adulthood. Recently I have been thinking about why people play games, everything from professional baseball to Candyland with their toddlers. While there may be a plethora of reasons people play games, they boil down to two basic needs. Some people play because they are competitive, either against others, or against themselves (like the drive to get a faster time in individual sports).Others play because it allows them to spend time with friends and families, or even make new connections.
In short, some play to win, others play to have fun and relate to people; in reality most of us do both. How the mix of competition verses interaction “plays out” when you play games may have an affect how you experience the game. Without completion you may get bored, without interaction you may become miserable (especially when you lose!). Therefore, healthy play involves a creative balance between these two competing poles.
There is often a similar dynamic at work in prayer. Although, prayer is no game there are also two competing poles in prayer participation. Some pray to have a result and some pray to be close to God. Those who emphasize the results we expect from prayer tend to be more “religious”. Religion involves engaging in spiritual practice for a specific result. Prosperity preachers teach people pray so they will get rich. This is classic religious thinking. It sets up a quid pro quo with God. If I do this, God must do that. This thinking sets up God as an impersonal machine whose code can be cracked so one can get the results he or she wants. Their god becomes no God at all but an impersonal force to be manipulated.
People who pray without thinking about the results at all tend to be “mystics”. The good vibes, warm fuzzies, and intimacy are paramount. The problem with mystics is they tend to become too detached from reality. God only occupies space outside the world not within it. Thus, their god becomes a false god who only has limited power. Whenever God has a challenging word, they think they can retreat to the world where they can escape. When the world beats them up some more, they come back to their safe place and hide. Then they never become transformed into the person God has created them to be, and stay stuck in a tragic cycle of jubilation and despair.
When Jesus taught prayer, he taught us to care about the results. For example, he told us to pray in Matthew 6:11 NRSV “Give us this day our daily bread.” However, Jesus also taught us to care about the relationship. "When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. (Matthew 6:7 NRSV) Therefore, in Jesus, there is something more than a religion, or a mystical experience, there is the One True God who relates to you through the Holy Spirit. In Jesus, both the results and the relationship are held together in His person.
In a healthy prayer life, there will be times when you will need to be focused on the results. There will also be times when you just need to be present with God. The key for the disciple is to open oneself to God’s Holy Spirit to see where God is leading you at this place in time. The point is to hear the voice of Jesus through his Word and then apply it to your life. The Bible will be your most valuable asset in this task.
A living relationship in Christ will have concrete results, but it will also be intimate and even warm as all good relationships are. The goal directed life of the disciple is always focused on the next step of the way. Paul writes in Romans 8:26-27 NRSV; Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
This Lent as we seek to lead people in prayer, we will be offering a five-week prayer course Tuesdays at 7:00PM starting March 15th and Wednesdays at 1:00PM starting March 16th. The goal will be to introduce some different ways of praying that help maintain the creative tension between praying for results and being present with God. We hope these tools will help you have a more fulfilling relationship with your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. May God bless you as you seek to find Him this Lent.
Keep the Faith,