If you keep up with the comments, you probably saw this topic surface in the discussion of a previous post. But what really prompted me to write this entry was a search term that brought someone to Meditations by Night — a search term which just about knocked me off my chair when I read it. Someone Googled this.
“prayer is a means to an end, not an end”
No, no, no, no… O dear Googler. Bless you, but you know not of what you speak.
If prayer is only a means to an end, I will have to borrow a quote from Paul, “we are of all men most to be pitied.” If the only point of prayer is to get stuff from God, our existence on this earth is not a happy one. The reason being, as anyone who has ever prayed can testify, He doesn’t always give us an answer right away, and He doesn’t always answer in the way we expected.
I will say this more bluntly than I say just about anything: Prayer is NOT just a means to an end. It is an end in itself. Do we still ask God for things, and do we still expect to see Him answer? Of course. But there is more going on than the pleading and acquiring of stuff or services. We are talking to God.
Maybe you didn’t catch that. We’re talking to GOD.
The very fact that we are allowed to pray is mind-boggling. So many other religions entrench prayer in ritual and ceremony. You have to light the incense or say the right chants or do weird things with animal entrails in order for “god” to hear you and even be tempted to consider your request. But we, by the blood of Christ, have been given access to the very throne of grace. We can say anything to God at any time, and He actually pays attention to us. That’s huge in itself.
The thing I want to emphasize here though, is that when God gives us the things we ask for, it is not just for the sake of having nice things. It is for the sake of intimacy. Prayer is not an emergency escape. For us, it is our very lifeline. Living well apart from the daily grace of God is not feasible. Living righteously apart from it is unthinkable. Without intimacy, without consistent communication with God, our hearts grow weary and jaded as we try to hack it on our own. It doesn’t work well at all.
This is one of the biggest dangers of viewing prayer as a means to an end. While it sounds okay in theory, when you apply the mindset to real life, it falls completely flat. If prayer is a means to an end, then when we get our “end”, we stop praying. We say, “Gee, thanks, Lord,” we walk away, and we don’t give Him another thought until we hit our next crisis. In the meantime, we lose that lifeline which keeps our hearts abiding in love and humility. We grow more cold and more distant without realizing what is happening to our hearts — kind of like a person who dozed off in class and still earnestly insists that they weren’t asleep. In the end, the gift actually harms us, rather than helping us, because we let it cut off our hearts from our source.
Of course, true intimacy has more than one side to it. We’ve looked at why God does it for our sake, but we also discover that He brings it about for His own sake as well.
The Lord gives (and takes away) to let us know that He loves us and that He cares about how we end up. When He extravagantly blesses us far above what we expected, it’s not just for the sake of going, “Whoa. That was cool.” He does it to blow our minds and fascinate our hearts, to enthrall us with His generous heart and His beautiful nature. Good gifts, even spiritual gifts, are not given for the sake of the gift itself. They are given to draw us deeper into love and to teach us to lean upon Him even more.
Picture a man who’s pursuing the heart of a woman. He doesn’t bring her flowers with the mindset of, “Meh. It’s what I do. Most women like getting flowers, right?” He does it in order to win her heart. He doesn’t give her an engagement ring with an attitude of, “Yeah, whatever. Don’t mention it.” He finds the most beautiful, perfect ring his resources will accommodate, because he wants her heart to leap when she sees it. He wants to amaze her, to prove that he’s serious and to show how much she’s worth to him.
Now, if we broken, bizarre little human beings can get that much straight, why do we expect our God, who loves more deeply and more purely than any of us, to be so business-like with His gifts? How did we get it in our heads that He sits back, folds His arms and waits until we have asked desperately enough? And why do we assume He only expects to hear from us when we need something?
He is not a stoic, all-business God. He doesn’t want our interactions with Him to boil down to lists of services rendered and outstanding orders. He wants friendship. He wants partnership. He wants personal interaction with us. He wants us to become convinced of who He is and how He feels about us. And He wants us to talk to Him. Sometimes that’s even the reason He may delay answering a prayer, not because He’s being stingy, but because He’s drawing us out of our self-centered shells and causing us to fall more in love with Him in the process.
Prayer as only a means to an end doesn’t make sense, and is ultimately unsastisfying. Prayer, if seen as an end in itself as a rigid, religous discipline, is frustrating and tedious. But prayer, if it is an end in itself because it is our vehicle of intimacy, is profoundly satisfying. It keeps us alive and tender when the blessing comes, and it keeps us steadfast as we endure the painful furnace of delay. Prayer is communion with a holy, beautiful God, and is worth every minute of time invested. Thus, I’ll say it again: Prayer is an end in itself. And personally, I would not have it any other way.