The beginning and end of prayer
The late A.W. Tozer famously wrote that "what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us." For many of us, our thoughts of God are neither very grand, nor very accurate. And our small views of God affect everything: from how we talk, to how we treat others; from how we do our work, to how we spend our free time. And our thoughts of God certainly affect how we pray.
To explore this idea, consider a model prayer from the New Testament, which serves as a helpful model for us, because it shines a light on both the beginning and the end of prayer. It challenges our small views of God, and invites us into a deeper life of prayer with him.
Here it is:
"Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints." (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13)
The beginning of prayer: a personal, triune God
Prayer begins with the Person of God. It's not addressed to a vague god-idea, nor to a distant and detached deity, but to: "our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus." This is a God who has always existed as Father, Son and Spirit. A Triune God.
How we think of God is crucial to how and if we will pray. If we see God as a cold, disengaged, maybe even angry or grumpy taskmaster, there's a good chance we'll find something better to do with our time. But if we see God as a good and kind Father who has eternally loved his beloved Son, and as a Son who loves his Father perfectly, this changes prayer's aroma. All of a sudden, prayer is a privilege—an invitation to enter into and enjoy the loving and eternal fellowship between Father, Son and Spirit. If our view of God is big enough to grasp this core reality that "God is love" (1 John 4:8), has always been love, and desires to share his love with us, then an invitation to prayer is an invitation to experience that love in a profound way.
Sometimes our prayers amount to a timid approach to Jesus—because we think of him as the "nice" part of God—saying something like, "Hey Jesus, your dad kind of freaks me out. He can be pretty grumpy sometimes. Do you think you could ask him something for me?"
The God we actually find in the Bible is a God who is happy to be called "our Father," who adopts us as his own children, and delights in us as his sons and daughters. Jesus carefully drew our attention to this very fact when he taught us to pray, "Our Father, who art in heaven …" (Matthew 6:9b).
So, the beginning of prayer is addressing God as our Father. We are welcomed as children, not slaves. Through Jesus, the Eternal Son of God, we too have become sons and daughters of God. Through the Holy Spirit we are able to address the Father as "Abba." Daddy. (See Romans 8:14-17).
Simply astounding. And if you have never come to God as your gracious, loving, inviting Father, what are you waiting for?
The end of prayer: God-glorifying Christlikeness
So, the beginning of prayer is a God who is our Father and sends His Son so that we can, as sons and daughters, pray. Without a personal triune God, there's little chance prayer would even be an option.
But God is also the end of prayer. When I say "end," I'm not speaking of the cessation of prayer, but of prayer's goal or purpose. So why pray? What's the purpose?
The three petitions of this model prayer in 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13 give us a clue:
The first petition is very specific and practical: "Now may our God … direct our way to you …" (v. 11) Pretty simple and straightforward. These people want to see each other again. And the previous verse tells us why: "we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith." The end goal of this request is growth in faith. They want to continue to help these believers become more like Jesus.
The second petition expands on the first, but centers around love: "… and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you …" (v. 12) In other words, the writers are asking God that their beloved friends would become more like Jesus by being better at loving people. And not just better but abounding in it. They want love to be the thing that overflows from their lives and seeps out of their pores. And because God is love, they (again) are asking God to help these believers become more like Jesus!
The third petition, then, is the result of growing in love: "… so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness …" (v. 13) The more we love, the more we become like God, because God is love. And the more we become like God, the more blameless and holy we will be. So again, the third petition of this prayer is another way of praying that others would become more like God.
So, the end—or the goal, the purpose—of Christian prayer is God-centered, because it's all about asking God to make people who look more like him. And as more people look like him, the more they bring him glory. So intercessory prayer is all about asking God to help others grow to be more and more like him. Do we pray these kind of big, God-centered prayers for people? When we pray for people, do we bring their particular circumstances — blessings, joys, victories, sufferings, trials and losses—and ask God to use these things to make them more like Jesus?
So, the beginning of prayer? It's the glorious, loving, Triune God. And the end of prayer? It's the glory of this same God through people who reflect his character. So, God himself is the beginning and end of prayer. If we can digest this amazing reality, I can't believe that our prayers wouldn't be changed. And if our prayers are changed, our lives and thoughts and actions will be, too. And if we're all changed like this, then how could our churches and our community not also be transformed?
Mike Phay is the pastor at First Baptist Church. He can be reached at 541-447-7717.
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