Why do people pray? Let me suppose that most of us come to the Lord with our various needs: health, family, finances, etc. All of it is legitimate prayer concern, but there is one deeper universal need in the heart of every person. The need that determines the well-being of our souls and even our eternal destiny. Leo Tolstoy writes, “Everybody is concerned with how to change mankind and nobody thinks of how to change himself.” Let’s be different!
The Word of God gives us this terrible diagnosis, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). The Lord Jesus confirmed this truth, “for from within, out of the heart of men, the evil reasonings do come forth, adulteries, whoredoms, murders, thefts, covetous desires, wickedness, deceit, arrogance, an evil eye, evil speaking, pride, foolishness; all these evils do come forth from within, and they defile the man” (Mar. 7:21-23). The worst evil nests within us. The wicked heart defiles our life much more than sicknesses, financial or marital problems.
Take for example a respectable, decent man, who happens to be unjustly offended. Most likely his hidden sinful nature will be revealed and from the depth of his heart would come clouds of irritation, hatred and bitterness. Prophet Isaiah compared a sinner’s heart with the driven out sea, its waters cast out filth and mire (Is. 57:20).
Deep Christian life starts from a person’s disappointment in himself or herself. How can we change this wicked heart? Some people try will power. But if we believe the Bible, this is a dead-end. Here is what the Apostle Paul writes, “to will is present with me, and to work that which is right I do not find, for the good that I will, I do not; but the evil that I do not will, this I practice” (Rom. 7:18-19). Paul wasn’t weak-willed. In fact, you would likely not find a more disciplined and self-denying person as him. If there was a way to defeat sin by the power of human will, the Apostle Paul would be the first one to do it. The will and even the law are acting in the external world, but our real problem in internal.
Also, if people could have the victory by themselves, Jesus would have died in vain! In Gethsemane He was sweating with blood when he prayed, “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Mat. 26:39). The answer was, “There is not another way!” Christ had to go to the cross to purchase our salvation…
No, just the power of our will is not enough! What is the way out then? How could our hearts be possibly changed?
The answer is already found in the Old Testament, “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them” (Ezek. 36:25-27), and “And I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for the good of them, and of their children after them: And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me” (Jer. 32:39-40). The Lord promised that He would make a New and better Covenant to change and cleanse our hearts. Praise the Lord that through the blood of Jesus this New Covenant is already made!
The truth is that only the grace of God can change us. We are being changed every time we enter His presence. The more we fellowship with the Spirit the more changes we are to expect.
The danger hides when prayer becomes a law, a letter which kills. We escape the danger when we keep the right focus. Prayer is needed not for the sake of prayer itself, Bible reading – not for the sake of mental exercise. Our goal should always be the life-giving presence of the Spirit or as Russian Saint Seraphim Sarovsky said, “To acquire the Holy Spirit.” Every mature Christian practices spiritual disciplines: prayer, Bible study, worship, confession – among the most important. It is a very wise habit every day to set aside a certain time to spend with the Lord. By doing it, we build a natural platform for the supernatural move of God. Salvation Army General Samuel Logan Brengle once was asked which temptation in his life was the greatest. Brengle didn’t hesitate with the answer, “The temptation to want to do something for God each day before I’ve first spent time with Him.”
I think every sound Christian would agree. Nevertheless, even prayer as good as it is, can degenerate into dry religion or even worse than that – to self-righteousness – if it’s pulled away from the grace of God. How than can we practice spiritual disciplines without becoming modern pharisees? It is possible if our prayers and our quiet time is directed by the Spirit. For example, there will be days when the Lord may guide your secret room time to praise and worship, or Bible study, or supplication. We have to be sensitive and obeying. At the same time it’s necessary to have a certain plan which we implement when don’t have any specific directions from the Spirit (and most of the times we don’t). Prayer always is cooperation between us and the Person of the Holy Spirit, who brings life and grace.
Sowing and reaping is a great picture of spiritual life. The Apostle Paul writes, “He who is sowing to his own flesh, of the flesh shall reap corruption; and he who is sowing to the Spirit, of the Spirit shall reap life everlasting” (Gal. 6:8). A farmer sows seeds, then waters and weeds them and the land brings forth fruit by itself. In the same way we develop our relationship with the Lord when we pray and exercise spiritual disciplines. This is our responsibility. The Holy Spirit from His side produces transformation in our hearts, glorious transformation! If in the past we used to be easily irritated, the time comes when our hearts are not departing from calmness and peace. The angry become tender and the hateful becomes loving. Of course it takes time – just as seeds in the ground are going through the long ageing process, in the same way we are changed by the grace of God if continue, “steadfast in the faith which has great recompense of reward” (Heb. 10:35).
So, what are the main goals of prayer? The disciplined practice of prayer can meet the greatest need of the human heart – the transformation of the heart. Transformed people are blessed, therefore prayer is also a way to be blessed! Let’s join the wise king David in prayer, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.” (Ps. 50:12-14).
Yet prayer has also even higher purpose. The first and greatest commend says, “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thine understanding” (Mat. 22:37). Where can we express our love to the Lord better than in prayer? Through prayer we are able to thank God and praise Him for all His excellence. David says, “As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness” (Ps. 17:15). We are truly satisfied when we prayerfully admire the beauties of His Person. Our language is much too limited for such a super-task. Words are not adequate enough when we touch the Person of God. What can we do? One of the possible answers – we can pray and praise God in tongues. I praise the Lord for the gift of the Holy Spirit, which enables us to praise God on a higher spiritual level!
(extract from Andrei’s book “Prayer in other tongues“)