By Hal Knight
Richard Foster, in his book Prayer: Finding the Hearts True Home (Harper Collins, 1992), speaks of God longing “for our presence.” God “aches over our distance and preoccupation” and “mourns that we do not draw near to him.” God wants us to return home. God’s “arms are stretched wide to receive us;” God’s “heart is enlarged to take us in.” “The key to this home, this heart of God, is prayer.” (p. 1–2)
John Wesley would have agreed. He called prayer “the grand means of drawing near to God” and said all other means are helpful “as they are mixed with or prepare us for this.” (letter to Miss March, March 29, 1760). It is how we come into the presence of God; it is the central means through which we have a relationship with God.
Commenting on I Thessalonians 5: 16–17, Wesley writes, “Prayer may be said to be the breath of our spiritual life;” it is how we “rejoice ever more.” He goes on to say that as one who “lives cannot possibly cease breathing. So much as we really enjoy the presence of God, so much prayer and praise do we offer up without ceasing.” (Explanatory Note Upon the New Testament)
This is not how most of us commonly understand prayer. Standard dictionary definitions describe prayer as making requests. Certainly this is part of it: We do offer petitions for ourselves and intercessions for others before God. It is entirely appropriate to do so, and we are grateful that we have a God who hears those prayers.
The problem is, when we think of prayer solely as requests, we are apt to think of prayer in functional terms. In the words of Robert Mulholland, we see “prayer as something we do in order to produce the results we believe are needed or, rather, to get God to produce the results.” We want to know how to make our prayers more effective. (Invitation to a Journey, InterVarsity Press, 1992, p. 105)
The problem with this, as Mulholland sees it, is we use prayer to stay in control. We put God on the periphery, close enough to help us attain what we want but not so close as to change our agenda. What we miss is “entering into a deep, vital, transforming relationship with God.” (p. 105) Prayer, says Mulholland, is “primarily relational, not functional.” (p. 106)
This is what Wesley knew so well. “Thanksgiving,” he said, “is inseparable from true prayer; it is almost essentially connected with it.” (NT Notes)
Prayer is giving thanks to God, not only for everyday blessings but especially and always for the gift of new life through Jesus Christ and for a divine love that is eternal. It is in our prayers of thanksgiving that the Holy Spirit makes us into thankful persons, reflecting to others the love we have received in Christ. Prayer is also listening, an attentiveness to God that guides our lives and draws us into participating in what God is doing in the world.
Prayer is our road home to a God who loves us, and the way in which, through trials as well as the good things in life, we can continually rejoice in the Lord.