The suffering and disruption of COVID-19 has driven people to prayer as never before—but are they praying in the best way?
Maybe that’s not a fair question—who are we to say which prayer is better than another? If the Bible tells us anything about God, it’s that he’s less focused on formal religious behavior than we are. For instance, in one of his best known parables about prayer, Jesus condemns a Pharisee, whose prayer reflected the highest level of Judaism, but affirms a Tax Collector, whose only prayer was the cry of a broken heart, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus says of the Tax Collector, “this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)
As far as God is concerned, it’s the heart that matters most in prayer
As far as God is concerned, it’s the heart that matters most in prayer. Whatever posture, words, setting or character that surrounds the heart aren’t nearly as important.
That’s why God hears the prayer of a prisoner as clearly as that of a preacher.
And why he responds as quickly to the prayer of a child as to a senior adult.
And listens as carefully to an Ethiopian as to an American.
Education, religious background, job, race, church membership, income—none of the categories we often use to determine someone’s status matters when it comes to prayer. God’s hears them all when offered with a sincere heart.
And that explains why prayers offered during a crisis—like the COVID-19—have a special kind of authority. Desperation has a way of purifying the heart.
Praying well takes into account a deeper dimension of prayer
But that’s not the whole story. It’s one thing to pray, especially in times like we’re living in right now (check out one of my previous blogs for suggestions on how to get started praying). It’s another thing to pray well, and that’s where a deeper dimension of prayer comes into focus.
Psalm 62:1 explains what I’m talking about. When it says, “For God alone my soul in silence waits,” we’re not only being directed to the value of silence but also to a way of prayer that’s based more on worship than on petition. Like so many other passages in Scripture, this Psalm invites us to rest in God’s presence before asking him to help with our problems.
Don’t get me wrong, Jesus promises that God is gracious and loving and pleased to respond to our everyday needs: “Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For…your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” (Matthew 6:31-32)
Is our prayer more focused on the gifts than the Giver?
But what kind of prayer is it that focuses more on the gifts we need than the One who gives them?
There’s a sneaky spiritual danger in crisis moments that can turn our prayers away from resting in God’s presence and toward a laundry list of needs, looking to God as the fix-it Man Upstairs.
The Bible uses two familiar images to help us understand the difference. When Scripture talks about God’s “hand,” it means his power to change things that are beyond our control. “Fear not, for I am with you: be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:1)
Seek the Face of God
But when Scripture uses speaks of God’s “face” it means his presence. “You have said, ‘Seek my face,’” David says to God in Psalm 27:8-9. “My heart says to you, ‘Your face, Lord, do I seek.’”
In times of crisis we cry out for God’s hand to work on our behalf. But the greater prayer is to seek his face and rest in his presence.
Our deepest need—in moments of crisis, moments of peace and everything in between—is a relationship with the Father through his Son Jesus by the ministry of his Spirit. Even in the pressures we’re under right now, we can’t afford to forget that.
The truth is that the same principle applies during the time of pandemic prayer as in every other time: The more we look to God’s face, the more confidence we’ll see his hand at work.
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