The Privilege, the Pleasure, and the Power of Prayer
On the National Day of Prayer, Vince Vitale asks us to consider prayer's transformative power.
I am deeply grateful for the chance to speak at the 54th National Prayer Breakfast of Canada for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because it has reminded me of how frequently I underestimate the privilege, the pleasure, and the power of prayer.
“Oh, that would be such an honor!” This was the instinctive, heartfelt response of a graduate student at Yale University when, for the first time in her life, she understood what it means to be prayed for. Her words struck me. What a stark contrast to the temperate manner in which I sometimes approach talking with God. Too often I think of praying or asking for prayer as just part of my duty as a Christian. But, for this woman, a sense of obligation was the farthest thing from her mind. The idea that someone would see her as important enough to take the time to present her concerns to God, and that the God of the universe would actually want to hear about her and even from her — she didn’t hesitate to identify that as a great privilege; and she was right. “That would be such an honor!” What an untainted and appropriate response to the invitation of prayer.
Elevating the privilege still higher is the fact that God doesn’t only want to hear from us when we have praise and thanksgiving to offer. God invites us to bring even our darkest thoughts to Him:
“I’m standing my ground, God, shouting for help,
at my prayers every morning,
on my knees each daybreak.
Why, God, do you turn a deaf ear?
Why do you make yourself absent?
For as long as I remember I’ve been hurting;
I’ve taken the worst you can hand out,
and I’ve had it…
I’m bleeding, black-and-blue…
The only friend I have left is Darkness” (Psalm 88:13-18).
“I feel worn down.
God, you have wasted me totally…
God just stands there and lets them do it,
let wicked people do what they want with me…
Now my face is blotched red from weeping;
look at the dark shadows under my eyes,
Even though I’ve never hurt a soul
and my prayers are sincere!” (Job 16, conflated).
I find it so encouraging that these prayers are not only found in Scripture, but they are uttered by some of the heroes of the Bible. God invites our full range of emotion, from jubilation to desperation and everything in between. The privilege of prayer extends not merely to bringing our “acceptable” thoughts and emotions to God, but to bringing all of our thoughts and emotions to Him.
God invites our full range of emotion, from jubilation to desperation and everything in between.
But even if God tolerates the full range of our rejoinders and requests, does He actually desire to hear them? Does He merely permit us to speak to Him or does He take pleasure in it?
I have an eleven-week-old son, Raphael. Last week was the first time that my wife and I were both away from him for a full workday. It was not an easy day, but when we came home and Raphael saw us, he gave us the biggest, brightest smile and started throwing all of his limbs around in excitement. Our hearts overflowed with joy as our friend who had been watching Raphael turned to us and said, “Doesn’t it feel good to be recognized?”
As much as sometimes I denigrate prayer by praying merely out of obligation, I further distort prayer by imagining that God listens out of obligation. “He must be so bored listening to me,” I think. Surely He has bigger and better things on his mind. But it became clear me when my friend asked that question that God is a parent, and, for a parent, just to be recognized for who you are feels so incredibly good. When we pray, even before we form our first word, we recognize God for who He is; we smile at his presence. And what if that brings Him the joy of a parent returning home to a smiling son or daughter?
Finally, the power of prayer. To think that right here, right now, I can concretely impact the lives of my family, who are over a thousand miles away, simply by praying. How incredible. Imagine having a superpower that can change lives and rarely using it.
I often recall being with a man who was stepping into relationship with God for the first time. He had spent time considering the evidence for God, he had wrestled through a number of difficult questions, and now he bowed his head to pray his very first prayer. And when he opened his eyes, after expressing his heart to God, these were the very first words out of his mouth:
“I have always felt alone and like I had to wear a mask, but now this is the first time in my life that I can take off that mask and be fully myself and fully alive.”
“I have always felt alone and like I had to wear a mask.” How many people in our society feel that? How many people in our lives feel that? How many of us feel that? How different would society look if instead we were to take off our masks and be fully ourselves and fully alive?
I know of nothing other than prayer that can bring such transformation of the human heart, and therefore it is my honor to commend it to you on this special occasion.