By Dr. Hal Knight
Recently there has been a public debate over prayer. Persons have been criticized for offering “thoughts and prayers” for victims of things like gun violence while taking no action to address the problem. Sometimes in the process prayer has been equated to doing nothing.
John Wesley was certainly an activist working to alleviate human suffering, but he was also a person of prayer. It’s no wonder why. Prayer, Wesley said, “is the grand means of drawing near to God” (Letter to Miss March, 3–29–1760); it is “the breath of our spiritual life” (NT Notes, I Thes. 5:16).
While petition and intercession are forms of prayer, they are not the whole. The focus of prayer is not on our requests, however urgent, but on God. Prayer is how we remain in communication with God and grow in our relationship with God. In his sermon “The Wilderness State” Wesley says that “neglect of private prayer” is the most common reason people lose their faith.
Thanksgiving is fundamental to prayer. For Wesley “thanksgiving is inseparable from true prayer; it is almost essentially connected with it” (NT Notes, Thes. 5:16). It is an expression of our gratitude to God for life itself, for a new life in Christ, for all of the other blessings God gives us, and above all for a divine lover that never fails.
We of course do turn to God with our petitions (for our own needs) and intercessions (for others). With regard to petition, Wesley insists that prayer is absolutely necessary “if we would receive any gift from God” (“The Means of Grace,” 111.3). Here Wesley is assuming the primary things we seek for ourselves have to do with salvation: forgiveness of sins, new life in Christ, guidance in how to live faithful lives, peace, joy and love. For these promised gifts, our prayers are needed “not so much to move God — who is always more 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,” 11.5).
This does not mean Wesley thought it improper to pray for other things for ourselves. Even more, he strongly advocated praying for others. Prayer for others is an act of love, and regardless of whether the prayer is answered in the way we prefer, it often means much to the person being prayed for that there are others who care.
But Wesley does insist that God answers prayers. He doesn’t try to answer the question as to why some prayers seem to be answered and others seem not to be, at least the way we want. Nor does seemingly unanswered prayer lead him to question God’s love; God’s love is revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ and nothing can take it from us. What he does to is recount the numerous occasions when prayer was answered, including many miraculous healings.
For Wesley as for the Christian tradition prayer is doing something, and it does make a difference. It is not a substitute for other action; but neither is it inaction. At its heart, prayer is communion with God.