Chapter 1

The Object of Our Prayers

Part of knowing how to talk to God is knowing the kind of God we address when we pray.

In the book of Revelation, the elderly John recorded a vision he had of end times: “Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: ‘Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns’” (revelation 19:6). The very name of God he uses, “Lord God Almighty,” suggests His omnipotence. And because He is all-powerful, we can ask anything and know He has all power and ability. For example, consider His power with only the stars . . .

Centuries before Jesus came, one of the prophets who predicted Christ’s coming wrote this of God: “Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing” (isaiah 40:26). Scientists estimate that our galaxy contains roughly 100 billion stars, and that there are about 10 trillion galaxies in the universe. Totaling those numbers, we end up with 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. That’s a “1” followed by twenty-four zeroes: And God created them all, named them all, and never confuses one with another.

Looking into the sky with its seemingly numberless stars, we might feel insignificant. That’s how one of the biblical poets felt when gazing up. He asked God, “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (see psalm 8:3-4). Aren’t we mere ants on a small blue dot?

Jesus told His followers, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” Then Jesus added, “Why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these” (matthew 6:26–29). The God who holds all the universe’s power cares for us more than for the birds He made, all 200–400 billion of them. And the ultimate demonstration of His care was that He loved the world so much that He sent His Son, that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life (john 3:16).

God does want us to recognize our smallness, but not so we’ll conclude we’re insignificant. Recognizing our tininess in contrast with the enormity of the Creator’s universe should not lead us to think “I’m too insignificant to bother God” but rather, “God is so great and so big, He can do anything.” When the Virgin Mary learned she would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit, the angel said of God, “No word from God will ever fail” (luke 1:37).

Because the one we draw near to in prayer is so great, it’s only logical that we His creatures should approach Him in humility. Decades after Jesus rose from the dead, His disciple Peter wrote to encourage suffering Christians. And he told them to humble themselves “under God’s mighty hand . . . . Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 peter 5:6–7). Elsewhere, the apostle Paul said that prayer is the antidote to anxiety (philippians 4:6). So we call on our great God and tell Him our anxietycausing “cares”—about the cancer treatment and the broken dishwasher and the wrecked car, the missing keys, and the children’s cavities—because He cares for us.

When I was in middle school, I thought helping me would distract God from doing His really important work. One evening, stomach cramps made me double over in pain. So I cried out to Him, saying, “I know You’re super busy helping the poor, but would You please stop helping them for just a minute to help me?” Then I felt guilty. Who was I to keep God from doing such important work? I needed a bigger view of Him! For God it’s an easy thing simultaneously to help the poor, heal a teen, keep the earth spinning, and keep track of a hundred billions stars.

So we pray because God cares for us, and He is great enough to handle it all. One of the biblical poets wrote, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (psalm 145:18). So He invites us to draw near, and He promises that if we do, He will draw near to us (james 4:8).

If we really grasped the truth that God is both this accessible and this powerful, people would have to pry us up off our knees. In Teaching a Stone to Talk, Pulitzer-winning author Annie Dillard put it this way: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, making up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”

Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?

Dillard is right. We far underestimate the power we invoke. If the God to whom we pray has this much power, praying is like lighting dynamite. Imagine! We have a standing invitation to commune with God the Father Almighty. That’s what prayer is—talking with the invisible, speak-worlds-into-being, keeps-tracks-of-all-stars, sent-His-Son-for-us God.

Yet because our heavenly Father is also invisible and tends not to use sound waves to speak, our experience of Him often falls far short of what we know to be true of Him. Although He has all power, on a day-to-day basis we may feel like we can’t even get the match lit. We pray, and the rain doesn’t come. We ask God to heal, and chooses not to. It can feel like we ask, and He does nothing. That’s why Jesus taught that humans “should always pray and not give up” (luke 18:1). And decades after Jesus’s resurrection, the apostle Paul exhorted some of his friends to “pray continually” (1 thessalonians 5:17). We’re tempted to give up, to stop, to quit. Because it can feel like our prayers stop at the ceiling rather than storming heaven.

Jesus told His disciples, “Ask and it will be given to you” (matthew7:7). Later He told them, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation” (matthew 26:41; mark 14:38; luke 22:40, 46). He also wrote to his protégé, Timothy, saying, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people” (1 timothy 2:1).

Our experience of God’s seeming silence is one reason the Bible talks so much about faith. We may know something to be true, but our experience may leave us feeling like what we believe falls short of reality. The author of the book of Hebrews wrote, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (hebrews 11:1). When we pray, we interact with a Father who is “not seen.” So, often we can’t trace His hand at work.

But we continue to pray, even when our efforts seem to lack results, because we believe that the God who named the stars has counted every hair on our heads (matthew 10:30). And He invites us to ask, seek, and knock (matthew 7:7–8). Fundamentally, we pray because we have a relationship with Him. As parents want their children to communicate, so God desires for us to talk to Him. And conversely, as children want to communicate with good parents, we too desire to know and be known, to express our deepest selves. (Or perhaps if we don’t want that, we may at least want to want it.)

Yet we might wonder why a God who knows everything would even invite us to pray. Doesn’t the Bible say He knows our needs even before we ask? (matthew 6:8). Certainly the act of prayer benefits us by helping us to stop and think about what’s important from God’s perspective. But ultimately much of the answer to “Why pray?” is a mystery, hidden in the God whose ways are so far above our ways that we can’t comprehend them (isaiah 55:9).

When I take my cat to the vet, he hates being in the car—showing how he feels with hissing and clawing and mewing. And because I’m so far above him in intelligence (hopefully), I can’t simply explain to him that I love him and have plans to benefit him. Similarly, God’s ways are so far above ours that His loving plans lie beyond our ability to understand. His love can even come cloaked in what looks like cruelty.

Because God is invisible and His ways are so far above ours, we need help. So we begin with the same request one of the disciples made of Jesus: “Teach us to pray” (luke 11:1). And we find in Scripture some practices to avoid and some to embrace.