“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” – Jesus (Mk. 12:30-31)
Earlier in my spiritual journey, during my teenage years, I can remember setting a goal for myself – thirty minutes of prayer every day. Thirty minutes seemed like a nice, round number. It was the length of an episode of Saved by the Bell. It seemed quite attainable.
For the first few days, I figured things were going pretty well. I was enjoying my time of prayer each day, and I was especially satisfied by the realization that I had made a goal and was sticking to it.
However, after a few days, I recognized a strange dynamic at play. I came to grips with the awareness that my motivation wasn’t so much about making meaningful connection with God, as much as it was about feeling the gratification of achieving my measurable goal.
It was as though I had a mental image of God watching over me with a checklist: “Make sure you pray a full thirty minutes today – if you do, I’ll put another star on your chart!”
The actual content of my prayer life was secondary. What was prioritized was a feeling of “right-ness” produced by my own self-generated effort. This is a clear example of wrong thinking about prayer.
The primary purpose of prayer is not to manipulate God to do what we think he should do. It is not to earn brownie points with God. Nor is it to produce in us a certain feeling of “right-ness.” It is not a badge of spiritual superiority.
The primary purpose of prayer is to be properly formed. If the aim of kingdom living is about loving God and loving people, then prayer only exists to serve that purpose. In other words, prayer only has value insofar as it helps form us into self-sacrificial, kingdom-minded, others-oriented people.
Loving well is the fundamental task of a kingdom person. And healthy prayer can help form us into people who love well…not in a contrived way, but naturally. Organically.
“Special experiences, faithfulness to the church, correct doctrine, and external conformity to the teachings of Jesus all come along as appropriate, more or less automatically, when the inner self is transformed. But they do not produce such a transformation. The human heart must be plowed much more deeply.” – Dallas Willard, A Divine Conspiracy
Healthy prayer is one of the most essential ways that this transformation takes place, as we learn how to properly position ourselves under the indispensable hand of the Holy Spirit.
“In prayer, real prayer, we begin to think God’s thoughts after him: to desire the things he desires, to love the things he loves, to will the things he wills.” – Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline
Through healthy prayer, we can be shaped into the kind of people who remain calm and at peace in the face of betrayal. The kind of people who respond to crises with uncommon wisdom rather than react with unbridled emotion. The kind of people who have the power to forgive our enemies. The kind of people who are content to serve in obscurity rather than anxiously grasp for attention.
This is the fruit of the abundant life Jesus wants to cultivate in us. But we cannot skim our way into this kind of life.
Nor can we manufacture this fruit on our own. Jesus said, “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
To live fruitful lives, we must enter into the slow, steady process of healthy, formative prayer that is infused by the Spirit of God. It is a process that cannot be hurried or rushed. In fact, it is a process that takes a lifetime. Like a muscadine vine, we must be carefully rooted, nurtured, and pruned in healthy prayer.
But if we are willing to submit to the process, fruit will be sure to follow.
[The photo above is from the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem, taken December 7th, 2017.]