Giving up something fattening gets a lot of attention during Lent, but prayer is an important part of this season, too. Along with fasting and almsgiving, prayer is considered one of the “three pillars of Lent.”
But, wait: aren’t Christians supposed to pray at all times? Of course, but Lent is the time of the year that helps us refocus on such spiritual disciplines as prayer, good works and self-denial. Pope Francis has noted that “Lent is a privileged time for prayer.”
What is prayer, exactly? I suspect most people think of it as asking God to grant them a favor. I recall the scene in Bruce Almighty when the title character, played by Jim Carrey, is granted the powers of God. One morning, sitting before a computer screen, he becomes overwhelmed with the prayer requests of the world, which total 1,527,503. With superhuman speed, he clacks out answers to all the prayers and breathes a sigh of relief, confident that his work is done. When he checks new mail, he has over three million new requests. “What a bunch of whiners!” he complains.
Is it right to make requests before God? Yes – and the Bible lists numerous instances of supplications for health, children, deliverance and justice for evildoers. Yet this is only one example of scriptural prayer. Let’s dig a little deeper. The most used word for prayer in the New Testament is a compound word. Go back to grammar class and recall that a compound word is formed when two or more words are paired to create a word with a whole new meaning. As an example, “basket” and “ball” are two different things, but if you put them together, you have a word that describes one of the most popular sports in the world.
This biblical word for prayer combines the preposition “toward” with the verb “to desire.” When you put these together, the new compound word implies that prayer is moving toward God with yearning.
I love the picture this invokes. My two-year old granddaughter will sometimes crawl into my lap, rest her head on my chest and whisper, “I love you, Papa.” She doesn’t want a thing from me; she just wants to love and be loved. Imagine God’s joy when we go to Him with the simple prayer, “Lord, I just want to be with you.”
This kind of prayer moves us away from the earthly locus of our wants and desires to the heavenly plane of fellowship with our Creator. Prayer is not limited to requests; it opens wide a relationship. As the old maxim goes, “Seek God’s face before you seek His hands.” God’s hands symbolize His gifts and blessings, but His face represents His very person and presence.
God is not unconcerned about our needs. Indeed, both the Old and New Testament invite us to cast our anxieties on Him because He truly cares (Psalm 55:22, 1 Peter 5:7). But we must be careful here. Our Lord is not a cosmic valet or yes-man. God can’t be ordered around and He doesn’t exist to grant our very wish.
He is a good Father, though. And like any loving parent, God longs to hear from His children and enjoy a relationship with them — and He has given us prayer to do that very thing.