While we know that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and unchanging, we also see God willingly interact with people. He can be described as unchanging, or immutable; that is that he cannot be more or less powerful, wise, present, compassionate, patient, etc. as he is. He is all that he is exactly as he is. But this doesn’t necessarily speak to his inability to interact in a given situation or even react to a person’s actions. Why could God not exercise liberty in his interactions with people, allowing himself to respond according to their actions? But instantly we see the contradiction. How can God truly react to a situation wherein he already knows how we are going to act or what we are going to say and therefore already knows exactly what his response will be?
We cannot begin to think that God somehow is capable of learning, or deciding on a particular response that is dependent on being presented with or acknowledging the action of another. This is simply contradictory to God’s intrinsic character. But follow this scenario. My wife is not feeling well so I decide to stop by the bakery on my way home. I pick up some brownies to take home with me. Upon arriving at home, I ask her if there is anything that I can get her. She assures me that she is fine and doesn’t need anything. I press further and ask if there might be any kind of treat that might make her feel better. A smirk glides across her face and she responds, “I could really go for some brownies right now”. Then I whip out the brownies that I had already gotten at the store previous to her request. Now, my getting the brownies was an action irrespective of her asking for them, but still was in response to my foreknowing her request. Just because I knew exactly what she wanted, when she wanted it, and was equipped to provide it to her as she wanted it, did her liberty and free will suffer any intrusion by my perfect knowledge of the situation at hand? Can it be said that my action was really in reaction to her request when it was I that acted first? Was it misleading for me to ask if there was anything that I could get her, when I had already decided on what to get her and had already gotten it? Now imagine this situation applied in every instance of your life. Before my wife can ask me for anything I have already either gotten her what she intends to ask for, prepared to do what she intends to request, or know what she intends to express to me. And all that I give and all that I do is in complete harmony with what I know to be the very best for her. Has it become worthless for her to ask for anything, request anything, or express anything? Has communication become useless?
Think back to the book of Exodus, specifically when Moses is on top of Mount Sinai and all the Hebrews are down below bugging Aaron to make them a golden cow so that they can have something shiny to dance around (Exodus 32:1). That’s not the literal translation from the Hebrew manuscript, but you can call that Steven’s Paraphrase Version. God lets Moses know that he better get down there because everybody is tripping out over this golden calf that they are starting to call a god. God goes on to say that he is going to allow his wrath to burn so hotly against them that it will consume them and then he’ll start from scratch and make a great nation for Moses. This sounds like a sweet deal, and yet Moses begs God not to consume the Hebrew people and petitions God based on God’s own attributes of might and faithfulness. Then the Bible says that, “the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (Exodus 32:7-14). The New Living Translation says it this way that “the Lord changed his mind about the terrible disaster he had threatened to bring on his people”. Now think over to the story of Jonah. God tells Jonah that he better get on over to the city of Nineveh, because God is about to toast that town and Jonah needs to reveal to them how evil they have been in the sight of the Lord. When the Ninevites listened to Jonah’s word, they put an end to their evil and stopped their violence. Jonah 3:9 states that even when they were told that God was going to smite them, they repented because, “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” And so God does. God sees their repentance and as the New Living Translation puts it in Jonah 3:10 God “changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened”.
This concept that God would be willing to revoke a sentence of judgment based on a people’s reaction of repentance is a repeated theme through scripture (Jeremiah 18:5-10; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Amos 7:3). Now think of the illustration of me getting brownies for my wife. God knew that, given the option, Moses would hold the faithful promises of God so dear that he would remind God of the promise he made to Abraham to spare the people’s lives rather than have God build him his own nation. God knew that, given the message and the opportunity, the Ninevites would repent of their evil and have hope in God’s compassion and mercy. Does God’s absolute knowledge of the situation cheapen his invitation for these people to interact with him? Does his foreknowledge of the end result nullify the danger of the initial threat? Of course not! God’s knowledge of how these people would respond to his call does not veto the reality of their freedom, nor does it cheapen the authenticity of their interactions with God.
But bear in mind that not always are God’s declarations accompanied by a conditional clause (Genesis 22:16-18; Numbers 23:20-24; 1 Samuel 15:29; Psalm 89:3-4; Psalm 110:4). When he pronounces a judgment, it is not always contingent on whether or not the people repent. One assumption that we can make in regards to God’s interactions with people is to never assume that he’ll interact the same way with everyone. He threatened to consume the Hebrews, but listened to Moses’ plea on their behalf. He threatened to consume Nineveh, but at first sign of repentance he withdrew his wrath. But he also threatened to make the Hebrews wander the desert of 40 years, and in spite of their petitions, he did not waver (Numbers 32:13). He threatened to allow the Assyrians and Babylonians take the Hebrew nation into captivity and did not relent until their appropriated time in bondage was met (Numbers 24:22-24; 1 Chronicles 9:1). Jesus stood in the garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion and asked God if there might be any other way to get the job done, but finished that prayer conceding that if there be no other way then God’s will be done (Matthew 26:39). This is the apex of God’s interactions with people. We may pray and ask for all that we want, but must do so with the full acknowledgement that what has been decided in accordance with God’s will is what we must expect to be done.
So now what?
We should be thoroughly humbled by the sovereignty of God although this does not always make it easy for us to accept that God will ultimately act in accordance with his perfect will, irrespective of our participation. But it cannot be denied that God repeatedly invites us to come to him in relationship, in conversation, and in interaction. He intervened in human history by becoming a man in order to make it possible for us to eternally interact with our Heavenly Father (John 1:14). He is our Father, and while our Father will do what he knows will bring the most glory to his name, he has made it painfully clear that he desires us to come to him as our Father (Romans 8:15). He desires our fellowship, our questions, our emotions, everything that we feel the need to share with him, to ask of him, to engage with him, he wants it all (1 Peter 5:6-7). So what do we need to know about praying as we pursue this communicative relationship with our Heavenly Father now in light of both what Jesus meant by this invitation and what the reality is in regards to God’s consent to our prayers? How are we to pray? There are three areas that need to be covered in respect to our approach to prayer. First, we need to address how we understand the overall concept of prayer. Second, we need to address how we practice prayer. And third, we need to address what we include in our prayers.
What is a prayer life?
A very common term used to talk about prayer is this concept of your “prayer life”. Someone might ask you, “how is your prayer life?” Or, “are you growing in your prayer life?” And even, “do you have a prayer life?” The idea is understood that we are trying to talk about that part of your life where you regularly engage in the act of praying. We are trying to find a way to conceptualize this practice as if it is only an aspect of our life that we participate in as habitually as possible. I relate it to the same way someone might have asked me how school was going. “Hey, Steven, how’s the college life been treating you?” Or for all you singles out there, “How’s the single life going for you?” And then you take that big step and it’s, “How’s the married life?” We have this unquenchable desire to compartmentalize everything in life. Everything must have its special home and that includes each aspect of who you are. But your relationship with God cannot be put in a compartment that excludes any part of you. God is the one God of all, the King of kings and the Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:16). What makes you think that he should only be the God of your moral life? Or your ethical standards? Why is he not also the God of your extracurricular activites? Why not the God of your social life, business life, married life, single life, college life? He is God of the universe, but he can only be the God of our bible studies? This is why we need to move away from the terminology of a prayer life. Prayer is the fundamental basis of our interactions with God and as a concept it cannot exclude any part of who we are or what we do. Prayer must consciously be present throughout our day. But prayer must also be intentional. It cannot just be a spontaneous, impulsive action that we sporadically do throughout the week. Again, it is the fundamental basis of our interaction with God. He is the God who bled and died for us. We must understand him to be worthy of our intentional time as well as our spontaneous time. So we need to understand prayer as a discipline. It is something that takes practice and takes time and takes energy. When we are disciplined in doing something, it is something we do consistently, frequently, and intentionally. This leads us into how we must understand the practice of prayer.
But isn’t prayer spiritual?
In order to do this, let’s keep in mind my good friend Jimmy. All you need to know about Jimmy is he is my very best friend in the world. He always knows the right thing to say, the right thing to do, and always is able to get it done. He’s the wisest person I’ve ever met and the most important person in the world to me. Now, keep in mind, this is a hypothetical best friend. So Jimmy and I have known each other for a while now and we get along splendidly. He always accepts me and always encourages me to become a little more like him every day, which I take no offense to because who wouldn’t want to be more like the wisest, most compassionate, most loving person in the entire world? So of course, any direction I can get from him to become more like him is always welcome. But the reality is that I’m a busy guy and my schedule doesn’t allow for a lot of hang-out time with my best bud. But not to worry! I’ve figured out a system. When nothing good is on the radio or if I’m just plain bored, I’ll give him a call on my way to work and talk the entire time.
I’m never really quite sure if he is listening, because honestly I never take a break from talking for long enough to hear a response. But that’s okay, because the idea is that I am talking and he is listening. I do this often enough to feel like we’re staying close. A while ago, Jimmy even spent some time writing me this extremely long book that pretty much gave me his entire family history, a list of all of his accolades and accomplishments, a whole story all about how much he cares, and then wrapped it up with a whole bunch of advice on how I can best interact with him and how I can most appropriately respond to his awesomeness. So every once in a while I’ll find some down time and spend about 10 minutes reading through all the parts of the book that talk about how much he loves me. Maybe once a month I read about his family history. And only when I’m hanging out with some of Jimmy’s other friends do I think about his advice on how to best interact with him. But that’s okay, because I have a pretty good idea about what Jimmy is like and seeing as how he cares so much about me, he probably doesn’t mind at all how seldom I talk to him. He’s probably completely satisfied with sporadic phone calls filled with my distracted thoughts as I am attempting to navigate the traffic on my way to work. Jimmy is really my homeboy, and probably wouldn’t want any structure in our relationship anyway. It’s not my style, so it probably isn’t his style either.
You currently should be soaked in sarcasm as the last paragraph was a brutal satire of how so many of us approach the discipline of prayer. We cringe when someone mentions quiet times, because a quiet time infers there being a certain time set aside on a regular basis. This sounds a like lot of structure for being something that is supposed to be spiritual. For some reason, the idea of spirituality being structured sounds like an oxymoron. Being spiritual is thought of as synonymous with being a “free spirit”. We struggle with the idea of something like prayer actually thriving off of structured discipline. I also want to be very clear about what I am not saying. I am not saying that prayer cannot be free, sporadic, spontaneous, and the like. What I am saying is that prayer should never only be that. The only times that we pray should not be limited to spontaneity. Of course when you are in a relationship with someone, you may feel the desire to text them sporadically. So it should also be in your relationship with God. But if the fundamental basis of your interaction with your boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, husband, dog, parents, or best friend was based entirely on sporadic text messages and distracted phone calls you would not have a very healthy relationship. You would probably have a lot of difficulty understanding each other because you haven’t spent the intentional time getting to know one another.
Prayer is a spiritual discipline and as such we must be disciplined in practicing it in order to truly begin to understand the fullness of how it operates in our relationship with God. So I challenge you this week to make a date with God. Set a time and a place. Invite him to meet you then and there. Put it in your calendar. Set an alarm on your phone. Make it at a place that is not your home. Show up five minutes early. And then spend deliberate, intentional time interacting with God in prayer and in His word. And remember, prayer is our conversational interaction with God. A conversation requires that you spend some of that time listening. Take the time to listen. I’m not saying that God will speak in an audible voice to you, while he does choose to interact with some people like that. But take the time to be quiet and challenge yourself to become acutely aware of the presence of God. We often assume, when meeting someone at Starbucks for coffee, that we’ll be there talking for at least 30 minutes and more than likely closer to an hour. Assume that you are going to meet with God for at least 30 minutes, and try to make it closer to an hour. If God is worthy of being the most important relationship in our lives, then our time spent in intentional relationship with him should at least hint toward that.