Prayer. It is as natural as breathing. Most of us, regardless of faith, will find ourselves praying instinctively at some point in our lives. Typically, the prayer that flows unbidden from our heart is a prayer formed in our soul that expresses our deep distress as a plea for help or guidance. Or the prayer might be one of overwhelming gratitude that simply cannot be contained as it bubbles up out of our heart and spontaneously erupts from our lips. Prayer can be our innate human response to a situation that suddenly makes us, the supplicant, the one who prays, aware of the enormous magnitude in which we are located and the utter lack of control we wield in orchestrating the fate or the destinies of those we love.
But prayer is not always natural. Prayer can be some of the hardest work a Christian can do. Because prayer does call us into a space in which we admit our complete helplessness to engineer our lives and petition the Triune God of the universe to intercede on our behalf, prayer can be a humbling act of submission we do not want to engage in – especially when we think we have the means to fulfill our potential by ourselves.
Yet, prayer is essential to our lives as Christians. Wesley understood prayer to be an indispensable means of grace that called for deliberate intention and disciplined action. He lauded those who prayed earnestly and lamented those who prayed superficially. In a sermon he delivered to the Oxford establishment, he dressed down the Anglican authorities for their Pharisaical posturing:
May it not be of the consequences of this, that so many of you are a generation of triflers: triflers with God, with one another, and with your own souls? For, how few of you spend, from one week to another, a single hour in private prayer! Who of you have any thoughts of God in the general tenor of your conversation! Who of you is, in any degree, acquainted with the work of his spirit, his super natural work in the souls of men?
Even in his admonishment, Wesley alludes to the supernatural implications of prayer. Prayer is not just how we communicate with God, prayer is how we discover who God is calling us to become. Through prayer, we realize what God is calling us to do and how God is calling us to be as we interact in this world.
Prayer allows us to transcend our finite lives, not so that we can gain control and manipulate events to our advantage. Prayer invites us to touch the eternal goodness of God, to glimpse at God’s extraordinary kingdom. It beckons us to be a part of making it real in this world by the power of the Holy Spirit. Prayer, when infused with divine grace, cultivates our relationship with God, allowing God to change us that we might more and more Christlike. Prayer as a means of grace will not only transform us, the supplicant, but has the potential to transform the circumstances about which we pray. Prayer, when in chorus with the Scriptures, bids divine grace, and our cooperation with it, to do incredible things we can only begin to fathom.
We pray boldly when we ask God to “Search me!” (Psalm 139:23-24), “Lead me!” (Psalm 32:8), “Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8), and “Use me!” (Acts 4:289). Prayer like that requires that we submit ourselves to God’s holiness, allowing him to work in us what we cannot do on our own.
I admit when I read the headlines, catch the ticker on the 24-hour news channels, or scan my newsfeed, I can feel hopeless and overwhelmed. I’d rather find a simple emoticon to succinctly express my feelings than pray about the hardships faced by so many I know and read about. Sometimes, when I don’t know what to pray, I rely on the Spirit in my weakness to pray for me, or I petition God with the mantra, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” At other times, it might be Psalm 23 or another refrain from the psalms to express heart wrenching agony. And, still at other times, it is the doxology that seems most appropriate, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”
It is an incredible thing to have a prayer naturally bubble up from within our soul and suddenly realize that this seemingly unconscious prayer fills our heart. Yet what a powerful and wonderful thing it can be when we regularly pray with all our strength and meet divine grace: our whole self is transformed. What a good thing it is to become attuned to the desires of Christ in our lives. To act with holy boldness, to pray, is to cultivate a life of prayer that demands of ourselves an effort infused with grace so that we might discern the way in which God leads, becoming part of the transforming work God bids for this world.