By Hal Knight
There are many people who see prayer as a diversion from doing something useful. Their plea to others is, “don’t just pray, do something!” Others value prayer as a means to enlist God’s help to attain things we want. The effectiveness of prayers is then judged by how well it achieves the desired results.
John Wesley saw prayer on a deeper level. Prayer, says Wesley, “is the breath of our spiritual life.” It is the most important way we have to be in relationship with God. For so “much as we really enjoy the presence of God, so much prayer and praise do we offer without ceasing.” (Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, I Thessalonians 5:16) Prayer is so important that Wesley believed it “wisdom to force ourselves to pray; to pray whether we can or not” (Letter to Miss Bishop, Sept. 19, 1773).
Let me note three particular reasons Wesley thought prayer essential. First, as we have said, it is essential to our relationship with God. Here is how he describes it:
The Spirit or breath of God is ... breathed into the new-born soul; and the same breath which comes from, returns to God. As it is continually received by faith, so it is continually rendered back by love, by prayer, and praise, and thanksgiving — love and prayer and praise being the breath of every soul which is truly born of God. And by this new kind of spiritual respiration, spiritual life is not only sustained by increased day by day ... (The Great Privilege of those that are Born of God, par. I.8)
Second, prayer is absolutely necessary for us to receive any gifts from God. This is especially true if we seek these things which God has promised, most especially to know our sins are forgiven, to have our hearts renewed in love and to grow in that love. But it is also the means to ask God to meet our genuine needs, the needs of others and to give us guidance.
Third, prayer makes us receptive to God and increases our desire for that which we ask. We pray, says Wesley, “not to inform God, as though he knew not your wants already; but rather to inform yourselves, to fix the sense of those wants more deeply in your hearts, and the sense of our continual dependence on him who only is able to supply all your wants.”
The goal of prayer, then, “is not so much to move God — who is always ready to give than you to ask—as to move yourselves, that you may be willing and ready to receive the good things he has prepared for you” (“Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, VI, par. ii.5).
Prayer is doing something — it is ever drawing us closer to God and opening us to God’s transforming grace. As we thereby grow in love, we also begin to desire what God desires and look at the world more as God sees it. This enables us to be a faithful part of God’s work in our world today.