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Prayer: Who answers whom?

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Tin-can-PhoneEverywhere I’ve lived and travelled, Christians and congregations pray. Yet many Christians tell me they struggle to pray. That prompts me to ask: Why do Christians pray? Do we have our reasons backwards?

Christians often say they pray because God answers prayer. In prayer meetings, church services and home groups, I’ve heard people tell each other their prayer requests, which are then addressed to God for God to answer.

I was once part of a group that kept a weekly prayer list with two columns. In one column, the prayer requests were recorded, one request per line. The lines in the second column were kept blank until someone could report to the group that God had answered a particular prayer request. The group used this exercise as a reminder that God answers prayer.

At the same time, I hear people questioning whether God answers prayer: Does God really stick his finger into our lives to change things? Why would God heal one hospitalized child, but not the child in the next bed, when both their families had prayed for healing? Why ask God if God already knows what we need? Because God is sovereign, what’s the point of interceding on behalf of others?

An ancient footing

Although I don’t have ready answers to all these questions, I’ve been thinking about a fresh way to view prayer, and I’ve found that the Book of Psalms offers an ancient and solid footing.

Instead of starting with the premise that God answers prayer, the psalms begin with the premise that our prayers answer God. We dare to pray because God has already addressed us. Anything we pray – thanksgiving, request, even complaint – is a response to the God who has already spoken.

The first clue to this alternative perspective is in the structure of Psalms. The book itself is organized into five smaller books: Psalms 1–41, 42–72, 73–89, 90–106, and 107–150.

This five-part structure is an allusion to the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis to Deuteronomy) – the Jewish Torah. In other words, the diverse prayers that comprise Psalms are all offered as responses that echo God’s previous communication.

Response to God’s Word

Praying in answer to God’s initial Word is also specifically spotlighted in the psalms. Psalm 1, which introduces the entire psalter, highlights the happiness of people who delight in the Lord’s Torah and meditate on it day and night (Psalm 1:1–2).

The entire psalter is therefore a response to God’s Torah, which provides not merely commandments but also stories teaching God’s people how to live in covenant relationship with God in this world.

Psalm 19 praises God’s stereophonic communication in both nature and Torah. Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem – eight couplets for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet – with all 176 verses highlighting the life-giving words of God. The message: all human speech and vocabulary is derived from God’s preceding communication to the world.

If prayer is first and foremost a way of answering God, it’s no surprise that many of the psalms are celebrative expressions of praise and thanksgiving to him. We thank God in answer to what he has given us.

In addition, the psalms that voice requests to God are framed as responses. The psalmists bring their requests in response to what they have previously learned from God: namely, that he is just, reliable, righteous, present, patient and kind. We offer our requests in answer to what we’ve come to know about God’s character.

Even the psalms of complaint and lament – the most common type of psalms – are addressed to God. They are not mere whistling in the dark, but are offered in answer to God. We cry out in our darkest nights of the soul (as in Psalm 88) as an answer to the God who once spoke but who now seems completely silent to us.

God has spoken

God has already spoken – through nature, events in history, Scripture and most clearly through Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1–2). Anything we pray is, therefore, an answer to God. And when words fail us in prayer, the Holy Spirit is praying on our behalf (Romans 8:26). Once again, God’s words of prayer precede our own.

I suggest we reconceive our prayers as answers to God, not simply requests awaiting his response. What do we say to God both in light of his preceding communication and in light of our life experiences? Do we praise? Thank? Celebrate? Ask? Plead? Lament? Complain?

In whatever way we respond, that is prayer – because prayer answers God.

Andrew-Dyck—Andrew Dyck, PhD (cand.), is assistant professor of ministry studies for MBBS and CMU, Winnipeg. He has been a pastor for 16 years. Andrew and his wife Martha have three adult sons. This article is adapted with permission from www.bringinggifts.com. To learn more about this approach to praying, Andrew recommends Eugene Peterson’s book Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer.

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