Prayer, Relationship, and Depending on God
“Would anybody like to open us in prayer?”
I sit still, staring at the floor with my fingers fidgeting.
“Okay, that’s alright. I can just pray for us.” And the tension dissipates.
I’ve found myself in this situation all too often. From Sunday school to devotion times at my Christian high school to Bible studies with friends, I was never comfortable with praying out loud and dreaded being asked to pray at a Christian gathering.
For the longest time, I told myself that it was just a matter of personal choice, that some people felt more inclined to pray out loud than others, and that I shouldn’t be pressured to pray because doing it out of obligation would make my prayers forced and insincere. I still believe this can be true. I also understand that praying aloud can feel a bit odd, unnatural, or difficult for people, especially if they haven’t done it much before. However, when I started to be honest with myself about why I didn’t like praying in front of others, I realized that there was something deeper and less trivial than just lacking the “experience” of praying out loud. The issue was that I didn’t quite understand why I prayed. Without a clear understanding of this, my prayers never felt genuine, and I struggled to find things to say when praying in front of a group of people.
From previous sermons and Bible lessons I’d heard, I knew the point of prayer wasn’t to recite a giant wish-list off to God. I also knew it wasn’t to rant about my life like I would in a diary, which no one but myself would read. In fact, I knew prayer was to have a conversation with God. But I didn’t understand why that conversation was so mandatory – especially when it felt so one-sided and it seemed as if God knew and willed how everything in my life would happen anyway.
In an attempt to reconcile these tensions I felt about prayer, I went through some instances in Scripture where people pray and God responds. In going through these passages, I’ve realized two things about prayer that have compelled me to prioritize it and hold fast to it in the last few months. The first realization is that prayer is how we develop a relationship with God, who is a personal being. The second is that prayer is an acknowledgment of utter dependence on God, who is also a sovereign being. These points are not mutually exclusive, as each one flows from and into the other.
The first point is repeatedly expressed in Scripture, and Psalm 145:18-19 is one clear example: “The LORD is near to all who call upon him, To all who call upon him in truth. He will fulfill the desire of those who fear him; he will also hear their cry and will save them.” Since God is near to, listens to, and responds to those who pray to him, he is a personal being. How would I have a personal relationship with him if I did not talk to him? In any meaningful relationship, there must be a constant, voluntary sharing between two individuals of the things going on in their lives.
Now, this “personal relationship” reason never clicked with me was because it often felt like God, not I, was the uncommunicative individual described above. Wasn’t the communication supposed to go in both directions? The majority of the time, I thought he didn’t hear me. Or if he did hear, he didn’t care. Since I did not know how to receive or recognize a response from God, I’d pray nonchalantly, let life happen, then say, “Oh, I guess that’s what God had planned to happen regardless of what I asked him.” It was hard to see God as a personal being who responded to and cared for me.
But understanding the second point about how prayer is a form of acknowledging utter dependence on God made the first point come to life for me. Scripture has plenty of examples of people expressing dependency on God through prayer and understanding that God is responsive and caring. God’s answer is not always “yes,” but the people are confident that whatever happens is what God is doing with them in mind.
In 1 Samuel, Hannah prays in anguish for a son, recognizing that no matter what she does, her womb cannot bear children. God then answers with a “yes” by blessing her with a son, Samuel. Thus, in her prayer of praise, she acknowledges the Lord’s care and his power to give her a son. In Genesis, when Abraham asks God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if ten righteous people are found in the city, God agrees. Even though the outcome of the situation is not exactly what Abraham’s expects, he can be sure that God remembers and has Abraham’s interests in mind since he spared the family of Lot, Abraham’s nephew- one of the reasons for Abraham’s request in the first place. When Paul pleads three times with God asking him to remove the thorn in his flesh that is tormenting him, the answer is “no” since he is not healed. But because he has asked for it and is denied it, Paul recognizes that God’s will is for this weakness to prevent him from becoming conceited. To be clear, Paul’s response is not an excuse for us to brush off the suffering we experience in this world as “God’s will.” In fact, there are many cases in which I have never understood why God allowed me or the people around me to undergo difficulties despite our earnest prayers. I’ve seen a family in our church congregation fall apart, a relative’s unbearable financial situation negatively affect their children, and friends lose their loved ones at young ages; this is the reality of the world we live in. It can seem that if God were a good, loving God, he would not let these things happen to us. This is a topic that many Christians and theologians have written on for centuries and are still are grappling with today, and I will not attempt to discuss the full scope of this issue in this piece. The point I want to make is that suffering is a tangible, painful result of sin and should not be dismissed as good simply because God does not immediately take it away from us. At the same time, cutting off all communication with God just because he doesn’t respond to prayers in the way we expect him to is not the most rational reaction either. I am still willing to trust that God works things out even if I don’t understand what he is doing at that moment. And the greatest model for me to follow in these circumstances is that of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus, too, wanted God to remove pain in his life when he asked to let the cup of suffering and death pass from him. But he did not respond with bitter accusations or anger when God said no. Christ’s attitude is evidenced by his prayer, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.” He acknowledges God’s authority in his life, and his example is what I strive to follow.
Returning to the instances of people praying in Scripture, while there is much to learn from each of these stories, they all have a common thread: a person faces a situation or task that they cannot handle on their own or even with a group of people, they depend on God for help, and based on what happens, God’s will and provision become clear to them. Had none of them prayed about these things, they would not have acknowledged God’s work. Without prayer, I lose sight of how much I depend on God, and I become blind to what he is doing. Put another way, the less I pray, the less I am aware of how God is working in my life, and the less personal he seems.
This still leaves the question of why God seems unresponsive when I pray. But after going through these passages, I realized that the issue was not that God is unresponsive to me, but rather that I’m not willing to see his response.
In a situation where I am seeking an answer or solution to an issue in my life, I will most likely pray. But if my prayer is a demand for God to do something a certain way for me, and then if I get upset that he didn’t do what I asked, I’m the one preventing a two-way conversation. I’m the one refusing to see or listen to what God is saying to me through the circumstances he has allowed in my life. Perhaps these selfish demands of mine should not even be considered sincere prayers. Genuine prayers modeled by faithful men and women in the Bible are acknowledgments that they have no power over a situation and that they depend completely on God’s decision for them. Once this attitude is cultivated, it becomes less, “Oh, God doesn’t listen to me and does whatever he wants,” and more “I asked God about it, and this is what happened. He’s already provided for me in so many ways, so there must be a reason he made this happen.”
One concrete way I can see if my heart is in the right place as I pray is by checking my prayers against what is in God’s word. I may be asking for something that is outright unbiblical or in some way contrary to what the Bible deems good and righteous, so knowing what Scripture says and reading examples of prayers can guide me significantly. Additionally, the Bible not only has examples, but also contains truths that can speak directly to the questions I may have. It’s clear that communicating with God is done by praying and by reading Scripture; it’s like inhaling and exhaling. You can’t survive by just doing one; both need to be done harmoniously in order for one to know God.
The act of praying is an act of acknowledging that God is in supreme control and that we as humans rely on his power. If I don’t pray to him, I’m treating him like he’s not the Lord of this universe. Dependence on God is what gets me to see that he provides for me and that I have a relationship with him.
Prayer is, of course, much more than just the two short points I addressed here. But these points have helped me reorient my attitude towards it. I’ve recognized prayer’s necessity and have developed a desire to understand God more through it. I’m still far from where I want to be regarding my prayer life, but identifying these points has been an important turning point for me. If I fail to see that I pray to maintain a relationship of Creator and creation, Lord and servant, Savior and saved, Father and child with God—all of which are characterized by dependence—my prayers become fruitless. Thus, I’ll continue reminding myself that prayer isn’t a one-sided conversation where I tell God things and he does whatever he wants. God does in fact respond to me, everything I possess is provided by him, and praying helps me sustain this relationship with him.
1. Psalm 145:18-19 NIV
2. 1 Samuel 1-2
3. Genesis 18-19
4. 2 Corinthians 12: 7-8 NIV
5. Luke 22:42 NIV
Juhyae Kim ’19 is from St. Louis, MO, and is planning on majoring in Linguistics. She misses her dog and probably spends too much time watching puppy videos online.Tags: love, prayer, suffering, theodicy