I have noticed, and perhaps many of you have as well, that we, God's people, often treat God like a vending machine. We insert $1 worth of requests and maybe, if it has been a good day and we are in a cheery mood, 25¢ worth of praises and thanks, and we expect an immediate response from the Lord: the exact answer/blessing we had in mind pushed out of the slot we selected—D4: finances, E5: health, A1: wayward children, B3: better job, etc. It falls into the chute below where we can reach in, take it, and be on our merry way without another thought. Is that all prayer is? A mechanical transaction between the one praying and the Lord? We ask, He gives? Or is there something that we are missing as individuals and local churches?
One of the most frequently used Scriptures in regards to prayer is Matthew 7:7-8, which reads, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” We mistakenly believe that by merely asking for something (inserting our $1 into the vending machine), we will receive what we desired.
However, there is far more that goes into earnest, godly prayer than merely stating our needs and demanding a specific outcome from the Lord. The Scriptures give us a solemn warning: “The LORD is far from the wicked: but he heareth the prayer of the righteous” (Proverbs 15:29). The prayer of the righteous… There appears to be a requirement on our part before the Lord will hear and answer our prayers. The Lord gives us more insight into this prerequisite, if you would like to call it such, in 2 Chronicles 7:14.
“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” (Emphasis added)
The Lord’s promise to hear our prayers, forgive our sins, and heal our land is conditional; it is dependent upon us first humbling ourselves, earnestly seeking the Lord, and turning from our wrongdoing. This is not vending machine praying where we insert our petitions, often selfish requests, and then go about living our lives unchanged. The Lord expects more from us before He answers our prayers. Let’s take a deeper look into meaningful, Biblical prayer.
First and foremost, we must approach prayer with the correct mindset: we are entering into the very presence of the Almighty Lord, Creator of heaven and earth and Redeemer of fallen humanity. We need to humble ourselves before Him; all selfishness and pride needs to be checked at the door and we are to lay bare our true, pitiful, sin-marred selves knowing that we are unworthy of approaching the Lord. Yet in His mercy and love, He has granted us—in spite of our sinful condition—the privilege of entering into communication with Him through prayer. “Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms” (Psalm 95:2).
Though it is no longer popular in many Christian circles, we cannot neglect the confessing of our sins. As the prayer ministries coordinator at my local church gently reminds us every week before we kneel before the throne of the Lord in prayer: some sins are to be confessed just between you and the Lord (Psalm 32:5), others should be confessed privately to the one wronged (Luke 17:3-4; Ephesians 4:32), and there are times when we are to confess our faults to one another (James 5:16). Though uncomfortable, confession of our sins and faults is necessary; it is only by truly acknowledging our sinful state and realizing our desperate need of a Savior that we become free from pride and arrogance and become vessels that the Lord bought with His shed blood, can cleanse through forgiveness, and will fill with His Holy Spirit. In 1 John 1:9, we are promised: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And on the subjection of confession, King David penned the hope-filled words, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Psalm 32:1).
Have you ever experienced a prayer meeting in which a group of believers, humbly on their knees, confessed their faults and, with heart-felt pleas, claimed the promise of forgiveness and cleansing for one another? It is powerful, life-changing, and there is a peace beyond earthly understanding that falls upon the group. We can no longer hide our guilt behind layers of justification nor can any self-righteousness remain in our hearts. In this way, we draw closer to the Lord. Ellen White wrote, “We need not try to work ourselves up into an intense feeling; but calmly, persistently, we are to press our petitions at the throne of grace. Our work is to humble our souls before God, confessing our sins, and in faith drawing nigh unto God.” (Ye Shall Receive Power, pg. 27, paragraph 3)
After we have removed the barrier of sin through confession, we are able to give our supplications. Supplication is more than simply making a request. The dictionary defines the word to mean “the action of asking or begging for something earnestly or humbly”. We should always begin our supplications with fervent prayer for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26). We should pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on God’s people to hasten the harvest (Matthew 9:38; Luke 10:2), for God’s people that we may have more love and wisdom (Ephesians 6:8; Philippians 1:9; James 1:5-6), for our families (Matthew 9:13), for the sick and suffering (James 5:13-14), for ourselves that we will not fall into temptation (Matthew 26:41), for those who have not yet accepted the Lord (Romans 10:1), for the governments and leaders of our respective nations (1 Timothy 2:1-2), and for our enemies (Matthew 5:44). Most importantly, we should pray as Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:10) and how He Himself prayed in the darkness of Gethsemane: “…nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Mathew 26:39).
After presenting our supplications to the Lord, we should be filled with a spirit of thanksgiving, acknowledging all of the blessings that He has already bestowed upon us and looking in faith towards His Will being done in our lives and in this world. Philippians 4:6-7 encourages us to “[b]e careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” And Colossians 4:2 says to “[c]ontinue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving.”
One last crucial aspect of Biblical prayer is having assurance. Over the years, I have met too many Christians who live with the constant worry that the Lord will not hear their prayers. What if they had missed confessing a sin? What if they had worded their supplication wrong? What if… what if… what if… These worries and anxieties arise when we harbor doubt in the Lord. It reminds me of Jesus’ sad words to His disciples, “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26) When it comes to prayer, we have the tendency to cast our cares to the Lord’s feet, reel them back to us, cast them to the Lord, then reel them back. If we would let go of our worries and trust in Him completely, we would experience that blessed assurance of forgiveness and faith that He will keep us.
After all, the Lord Himself has promised that He will answer when we call upon Him earnestly and with humility and that while we are yet speaking, He has already heard our pleas (Isaiah 65:24). The Lord is not a vending machine, and we need to be cautious that we never grow so complacent that we begin to treat Him as such. When we seek Him with all of our hearts and humble ourselves, He will not forsake us. At the end of the great commission, Christ said, “…I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20). He has promised that, while we may not always get the answer we desired, we can have confidence that—no matter how dark our situation may seem at the moment—everything will work out for the good of those who love the Lord (Romans 8:28).