I mean it never seems to work right? The other day, I prayed for a million dollars but I didn’t get it. When I was young, I prayed about being a doctor. I said “doctor” not “pastor.” That one didn’t come out as expected. However, my prayer about the Dodgers making the World Series seems to have worked out pretty good. Batting .333 in the majors would be considered all-star caliber hitting so maybe it works after all. Whether or not our prayers are answered is often in the eye of the beholder. The devout follower will undoubtedly tell you God hears us. The skeptic will tell you they aren’t sure. And the unbeliever will say it’s a fairy tale people tell themselves to feel better about living in a random and meaningless world. But what does it mean to say that prayer “works?” If our only measure of effectiveness is “did I get what I want?” then probably no, it doesn’t work. At least not in the sense of giving God a divine “honey-do” list and hoping he comes through. If we assume that prayer is like making a wish on your birthday cake, then we’ll be sorely disappointed.
But prayer has tons of awesome benefits beyond just wanting stuff.
It’s true that the results of intercessory prayer has been hit or miss (that’s the kind of prayer where you pray on behalf of someone else), but overall prayer has been scientifically proven to have tons of positive, tangible results. They did a study between prayer and migraines and found that those who pray had fewer headaches and were more tolerant of pain than those who simply meditated. Specifically prayer was more effective than secular meditation. My favorite study done by Florida State University found that prayer helps married life. When at least one spouse offers petitionary prayer for the other, those couples had “increased relationship satisfaction, greater trust, cooperation, forgiveness and marital commitment. Many of these benefits apply both to the prayer as well as the one being prayed for.” Other studies have shown that prayer improves your self-control, makes you nicer, more forgiving, and helps to counter the effects of stress.
Jesus never tells us to do something that doesn’t help us.
Everything Jesus commands is meant to make life better both personally and as a society. Prayer, gratitude, helping one another all have benefits on a micro and macro level. We just read this story a couple of weeks ago but from a different storyteller. Today the apostle Mark shares his version of what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane. As before, Jesus is going off to pray to God the Father while a couple of his disciples go with him. This follows immediately after the Last Supper. But what I hope you focus on in this telling of the story is Jesus’ purpose in praying. When we discover that, I think we can best answer the questions, why pray?
32They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. 34“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”
35Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36“Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
37Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? 38Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”
39Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. 40When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him.
41Returning the third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” – Mark 14:32-42
Praying aligns us with God’s will.
Even Jesus goes to prayer to discern God’s will; that’s the power of prayer. It’s so strong that Christ, in the most difficult moment of his life turns to the Lord in prayer to seek out his will. That’s not to say God doesn’t want to hear what is on our heart, because Jesus still asks him to take this burden from him. He prays, “Take this cup from me.” But the important part is how he ends, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” It’s an attitude of humility but also Jesus aligning himself with what God wants to accomplish in his life. When Jesus tells Peter, “The spirit is willing, but the body is weak,” he’s talking as much to them as to himself. “Pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” Jesus knows this from personal experience, how easy it is to do what YOU want, to avoid the hard work, to turn inward instead of toward God. He knows that the temptations of this world, of the here and now, are far easier to turn toward than the distant promises of God, but they are so much more important than the quick fix or the easy way out. Prayer is about the constant communication between us and God to align ourselves with his will. It’s why Paul writes in his letter to the church at Thessalonica, “16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” By keeping in constant communication, we can stick to the plan God wants to share with us.
But I know it’s not always easy to pray.
Especially praying out loud. Personally it’s one of my biggest fears about being a pastor. I worry about forgetting the Lord’s Prayer, which I have before! My mind wandered for just a split second and I lost my place. Worse is forgetting someone’s name. Have you ever gone on a date and forgotten her name? Or his? How embarrassing is that! But at least if you mess up on a date the worst outcome is you’ll never see her again. But in church? You see that person week after week after week. One time, I made the mistake of not mentioning a guy’s mother during prayer. In all honesty, he was sitting all the way in the back and I couldn’t quite hear who he was asking us to pray for so on my sheet of paper, I left it blank figuring it would come to me later or I could just ask, but when it came time to pray, I forgot and that was the last I saw of him for three months. After the first couple of weeks, I asked why he hadn’t been there, and someone told me he was mad at me for forgetting to mention her in prayer. I called to apologize but he never answered or called me back. Even after he did come back, he refused to come up for Communion for another three months. So I know a little something about praying in public.
Sometimes we worry about saying a “good prayer.”
I have been around people whose prayers just seem to fill you with the Holy Spirit. They are so good, they good offer a blessing over a bowl of cereal and make it into an incarnational experience with Jesus. I used to be part of a men’s small group and we would get together once a week for breakfast and these guys were just the most amazing prayer warriors ever. They would say the most beautiful prayers! And each time we met, everyone would take turns praying. I hated that part. I was so embarrassed by my praying ability. These guys were the most encouraging and loving people, they never would have said something to make me feel less than fully supported. But it was sort of like playing basketball with Kobe Bryant. After you see him make a 360 reverse slam off the backboard, it’s hard not to feel inadequate. But one of the things I learned was that was all on me.
God just wants you to pray.
He wants us to pray when we get up and when we go to bed and all the times in between. He wants us to give thanks, to ask for his guidance, and just to talk. Even though God is with us at all times, the power of prayer is really for us. God already knows what we need, not just what we want. And if you expect prayer to be like the list you make for Santa at Christmas, you’ll be disappointed more often than not. But if you look at prayer as a way to help us to open up our life to where God is leading us, you’ll find a lifetime of amazement. Prayer opens us up for the work of the Holy Spirit. Prayer helps soothe our fears, and to develop eyes and ears for God. If we give in to fear and embarrassment about praying to God, we are only hurting ourselves because a life lived in relationship with god includes lots of prayer. As Jesus taught us, the temptations of the world are numerous and it is all too easy to be lead away from God by them. But if we stay in contact with God through prayer, he can keep our lives on track. If you’re not used to praying, take heart and don’t worry about what you say or how you say it. Don’t worry about “aligning yourself to God’s will.” Prayer is a discipline and like anything else only gets better with practice. Just start by praying and saying whatever it is you want. But just keep doing it. There are tons of benefits to prayer. Good health, longer life, less stress. But the best reason to pray is to find out the peace and joy God has waiting for you. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.