Prayer remains a mystery. Nobody argues disagrees about that. We don’t ultimately know all the mechanics of how prayer works.
Sometimes, that mystery is so daunting that it scares us away from praying at all. Or, more likely, we only really pray when we need something we don’t know how to get. A new job. Healing for sickness. Enough money to make rent.
Those sorts of prayers are valid but author and pastor Dr. Derwin Gray says they’re a small part of the full picture of prayer. He talked to us about his book God, Do You Hear Me? and what it might look for us to enter into a fuller picture of a life of prayer.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
So this new book of yours is about prayer. Of all the many things you could focus on, why choose prayer?
I wrote God, Do You Hear Me? Discovering the Power of a Prayer God Always Answers because number one, I have a passion for Jesus and his Kingdom. And number two, I have a passion for people to discover Jesus and his kingdom. Prayer is the front door that opens up this beautiful home with all of these rooms. And in each room is an attribute of God, the ways of God, the passion of God. And we begin to walk in and we kind of say, “OK, this is what I need.”
But what you find is prayer is so much more than asking for what we need because Matthew 6:8 says: “God already knows what we need.” And then Jesus says it again in Matthew 6:32, “God already knows that we need.” We spend so much time asking God for things that we don’t ask God for God.
Prayer is not primarily about getting stuff. Prayer is intimacy with a Father that loves us. One of the beautiful things that Jesus did because in the Old Testament, God has various names that reveal his various actions. When Moses is being used by God to deliver the children of Israel, God gives him His sacred name: Yahweh. I Am that I Am. It means a self in eternal or mighty one. And throughout Scripture, we see that God is the Father of Israel and that Israel is called His son. And then when we see Jesus, He is the eternal son of God in human flesh. And He says for us to call him father, the aramaic, which Jesus used was, was Abba.
The closest that we can get in English is the word pappa, a term of endearment. It’s a term of intimacy. It’s a term of tenderness. We serve a God who has all power and all tenderness. We serve a God who is just and who is gracious. These attributes are not in competition, but they overflow out of God’s divine love. God is love. So therefore He is father. Therefore He is tender. Therefore He is just. Therefore He is holy.
So prayer is God saying, “I want you to see me. And I want you to learn from me. I want you to experience my power because you’re my image bearer and you will bear my image into the world.” That’s called worship.
When we deduce prayer to be a mantra or a spiritual ATM or superstition, we’re really not praying. We’re actually using God and God doesn’t want to be used. God wants to be worshipped. Because when we worship, we become who we were created to be.
These misconceptions you’re talking about — prayer as a mantra, a superstition, an ATM — how have they become so prevalent in our ideas of prayer?
It’s important for all of us to understand that we are a localized people. So as people in the West, we are what’s called children of the Enlightenment. During the Enlightenment, Rene Descartes was a Christian philosopher who was combating atheism and came up with a philosophical thought that he thought would prevent atheism, but actually brought in a secular/sacred divide. And what he said is, “I think, therefore I am.” Before Descartes launched that into to the world. It was because there is a God. You didn’t define who you were. Your higher being did. I am because of the great I am. He’s the one in whom we live and move and have our being.
But once the Enlightenment project began to sweep through Europe and eventually through America, it made us hyper-individualized. When we read the Lord’s prayer, it says “our father,” but we read it is “my father.” And so we have a culture that is very individualized. Then we’ve taken a culture that is very consumer based. So we live in a culture that says this “it’s about you and get as much as you can.”
The Gospel, the Good News of Jesus is saying “No, it’s actually about God.” And when you lose your life in God Christ Jesus, you actually discover your life. And it looks more like Philippians 2:3, which says, “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but consider others better than yourselves.”
So because of our individualism and because of our consumerism, we approach God like he’s a product at Target. “Hey, I’m sick. So let me go to Target and pray down some healing.” “Hey, I don’t have a job. So let me go down and pray for a job.” “I need this to happen. So let me pray.
Even before I was a Christian — I didn’t become a Christian till I was 25 — I would find myself praying prayers, but they really wasn’t prayers Tyler. There was no desire to align myself to God’s will. Prayer does not change God’s mind. Prayer changes us so that we can understand the mind of God. Philippians 2:5 says “We have the mind of Christ.” And the mind of Christ is one of saying, not my will be done, but thine will be done.
So what I’ve tried to do from over two decades of ministry is I want to help people see that that the prayers we’re praying is like splashing in mud puddles compared to what God wants us to do.
What, in your mind, is a better way to think about prayer?
Let’s go back 2000 years in Luke 11 and in Matthew 6:9-13. Jesus’ disciples are like, “Hey Jesus, we see John’s disciples learned to pray. Will you, will you teach us to pray?” So Jesus enrolls them into the school of prayer. He wants to enroll us into the school of prayer too.
Here’s, what’s beautiful about the Lord’s prayer. Number one, the Lord’s prayer is a mini-catechism of the life of Jesus. If someone doesn’t know who Jesus is, you can use the Lord’s Prayer to show them.
Think about it. “Our Father.” No one had a closer relationship to the Father than Jesus. “Your name is holy.” In other words, all other false gods, move to the side. “And I’m the love you with all my heart, mind, soul and strength to love neighbors as I love myself.”
Let’s just pause there. Imagine for just 20 seconds if we could live with this upward, inward, outward love. That we are overwhelmed with the love of God that we love Him so much. Self-hatred, shame and guilt is eradicated because God sees me as He sees his son. Then that moves me into the world to love people with no strings attached. That’s a beautiful day. That’s what it means to say “Your name is holy, Jesus.
What is the kingdom of God? You want to know? Jesus is the kingdom of God. When he healed, he’s the kingdom of God. When he met a Samaritan woman, that’s the kingdom of God. Everything that Jesus did is an embodiment of the Kingdom. And Jesus is saying “when you trust me, I want to invite you into a whole new way of being.” He’s the bread of life. He’s the one who forgives. He’s the one who defeated dark powers of sin, death and evil.
So number one, the Lord’s prayer. Reorients us towards Jesus and who he is. God doesn’t want to be used. He wants to be worshipped. We’re so accustomed to using people that we even want to use God. We pray more for things to go our way. So often we pray very self-centric prayers. I have a daughter that’s 25 and I got a son that’s 21. And when they were younger, they would ask for things that were not in their best interest. And because I love them, I didn’t give it to them. Well, the Lord’s Prayer is God saying, I’m showing you what’s in your best interest. Join me in this prayer become who’ve are created you to be
This sort of gets at why so many of us often feel like our prayers aren’t really being heard. In this context, by your definition, we’re not even really praying.
I think it’s important for us to have humility and empathy, to understand that most people have not had a prayer life model to them. Most of us have been taught that prayer is basically Blab and Grab: “If I say this the right way, I can change God’s mind.”
What I want to do is I want to be a part of a movement where a generation of people actually listen to Jesus’s words and say, “Lord align my heart to it.”
I’m not trying to play devil’s advocate here, but as I’m sure you know, there are times when Christians long for physical healing, don’t know where the next rent check is coming from or can’t afford groceries. How should they go about praying for the things they need?
I’m with you. It’s legitimate. One of the things that I do in the book is I walk people through the section on “Jesus is the bread of life.” As I walk people through Matthew chapter 6, verses 21 all the way through 34 where Jesus is saying, “Hey, don’t worry about what you’re going to eat. Don’t worry about what you’re going to drink. Don’t worry about what you’re going to wear. Hey, I clothed the lilies of the field, the birds.”
He’s saying all these things, and here’s where worry turns to worship. We can either worry or we can worship. Jesus says this in Matthew 6 32: “You don’t think your Father knows that you need these things?” And in verse 33 says, “but seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all of these things will be provided to you.”
So the Lord’s Prayer really gets us back to the heart of the issue. These six or seven lines show God’s heartbeat for you and for me. He’s inviting us to say, “Hey, come in and sit down with me.”
You can order Dr. Derwin Gray’s God, Do You Hear Me? Discovering the Power of a Prayer God Always Answers right here.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.