You are going to be hearing and reading a great deal over the next few months about the implications of a recently released report by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press on a survey it conducted in the late summer of 2003. It's a comprehensive, 152-page document titled, "Evenly Divided and Increasingly Polarized—The 2004 Political Landscape."
Even the section "Religion in American Life" is viewed in political terms. Candidates for all offices, especially those running for president, are weighing the implications of this major study and changing the way they "package" themselves accordingly. But I would like to zero in on what the survey reflects about prayer in the lives of Americans (and most probably the religiously minded in Britain).
The survey's question on prayer read: "Prayer is an important part of my daily life." Participants had a choice of five possible answers: agree completely, agree mostly, disagree completely, disagree mostly or don't know. What would you guess the American consumerist society would say?
Believe it or not, 51 percent chose "agree completely" (up 10 percent from a generation ago.) Another 30 percent chose "agree mostly," meaning that 81 percent of Americans say prayer is an important part of their daily lives.
I was stunned. Could that many Americans have a clear understanding of who God is? If my reaction seems cynical, it's because I'm thinking of the way Americans live, listening to the way they talk and considering their choices of entertainment.
Surprisingly, 87 percent of the respondents to the survey said that they never doubted the existence of God (69 percent "completely agree"; 18 percent "mostly agree"). So, they must have some understanding of who God is.
But do they have a concept of how God expects them to live?
Some 80 percent (59/21) agreed with the next statement on the survey: "We will all be called before God at the Judgment Day to answer for our sins." It would be interesting to learn what "Judgment Day" and "sin" mean to people, for I suspect that we would find a wide diversity in the answers. Nonetheless, Americans indeed must have some understanding of what is right and wrong behavior in God's eyes. They presumably also are giving some thought to how they measure up to that standard.
Prayer more than recitation
Of course, the survey was about politics, so we wouldn't expect the researchers to ask more on the subject of prayer, but I would like to know what prayer itself means to the average American. Is it a momentary request that they offer up when a need arises? Is it a memorized sentiment that they recite, because they've learned to do so as a child—perhaps just before they drift off to sleep?
And, I would like to know if they have a high level of confidence that their prayers will be answered? Or do they approach prayer like purchasing a lottery ticket, hoping that it might bring them good fortune?
God is quite specific in saying that some prayers He listens and responds to—and some, He doesn't. In poetic but sobering language, the Bible says God's eyes are on the righteous and that His ears are attentive to what they pray about. It adds that His face is "against" people who do evil (Psalm 34:15-16). "Do evil" means more than making the mistakes that any human is bound to make. It implies habitually living contrary to what God reveals is good. We might use the expression, He "turns a deaf ear" to them.
The moral collapse that preceded the collapse of Judah as a nation parallels the end-time period in which we now find ourselves. Jeremiah was God's principal representative at the time. He was a passionate patriot and it grieved him to see people suffering. Naturally, he prayed for them. But God told him a remarkable thing: "Do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them; for I will not hear them in the time that they cry out to Me because of their trouble" (Jeremiah 11:14).
More than not responding to Jeremiah's prayers on their behalf, God would not even hear prayers from the people directly. Matters had gone too far; the nation would have to go through the cleansing of captivity.
Does that sound "Godlike" to you? Perhaps it is surprising to read; look it up for yourself. As we draw closer to the end of the age, more people are going to come face to face with this reality—that the way they live is affecting whether God hears and answers their prayers.
Prayer, consumerist style
Presently, most people living in many of the Western democracies have what they want and more—much more. Clearly consumerism literally drives the U.S. economy, which is based upon people regularly buying vehicles, houses and countless things that they don't necessarily have to have, but simply want. Once people have, they predictably want to upgrade. That's not intended to be a criticism, but rather a reflection of the fantastic blessings God has given us, far beyond the basic needs of food and shelter.
When we are relatively wealthy (that is, in comparison with most of the rest of the world), we do not notice what we do not have. But when that wealth begins to diminish, as it surely will, we will become keenly aware of the fact that God is not answering our prayers.
The apostle James, writing of another time in the history of Israel (Americans, Australians, Britons and other English-speaking peoples, though they do not know it, are part of Israel; request our booklet The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy), observes that anger and greed explode when people no longer have what they want. The norms of a peaceful and structured society break down. A free-for-all, lawless, "winner-take-all" attitude prevails.
He spoke specifically of prayers, explaining to his readers why their prayers went unanswered. It was because they were asking God for "things," as if they were consumers and praying was shopping.
"Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures" (James 4:1-3, New Revised Standard Version).
There is an obvious parallel with the American consumerist mentality. Do people today approach prayer like those supermarket promotions in which contestants are able to keep everything they can snatch from the shelves and cram into a shopping cart in 60 seconds?
Must be learned
Praying is not merely asking God for something. In fact, we must learn how to pray. It does not come naturally, even to people who want to do it properly, much less to people who only pray when they or a loved one are in a tight spot. Jesus' disciples asked Him to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1).
Millions of Christians, reflecting nothing less than the grab-and-run mentality of consumerism, snatch the answer Christ gave them, without bothering to "read the instructions." Most of us know what Christ told them as "the Lord's Prayer" (see Matthew 6:9-13). He gave it to them as an outline or model for them to use in learning how to pray, not as a canned message they were to recite to God. He specifically told them not to simply repeat prepared prayers ("do not use vain repetitions," verse 7)! But countless millions of people do just that. Some even think that their problems can be solved through the prayers of relatives and friends.
Intercessory prayer is important. Jesus Christ is our great High Priest who ever lives to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25.) There are numerous examples in the Bible of individuals praying for other people—and many of these prayers were answered. But a person must come to develop a personal relationship with God the Father and Jesus Christ in order to have an effective prayer life. No one can repent for anyone else. Biblical repentance involves an individual coming to recognize and admit his failings, as well as coming to know his weaknesses, recognizing at the same time his need for God's forgiveness and spiritual strength. It's impossible for one person to do that for another.
Simon the sorcerer did not understand that receiving God's Spirit centers on repentance and faith in the sacrifice of Christ for the remission of sin. When he saw that God gave the gift of the Holy Spirit to repentant sinners through the laying on of hands, Simon attempted to buy the office of minister (consumerism again and hence the term simony). Peter appropriately reprimanded the man in the strongest terms and told him to pray for forgiveness. Failing to grasp the fundamentals of prayer, which include a personal relationship with God, Simon asked Peter to get his sin cleared up by praying for him!
You can read the entire story in the eighth chapter of Acts. It is truly a consumerist approach to prayer.
In most cases we have to come to the place of truly needing help, having been humbled by suffering of some sort, before we are able to pray in the way that genuinely communicates with God. Anyone can ask for something; prayer is far more than that. It's part of and grows out of a genuine relationship that people develop with God. The closest human parallel is that between parent and child.
In teaching His disciples about prayer, Jesus pointed out that even human fathers, who by nature are self-centered, give good things to their children. He then explained that our heavenly Father is infinitely more generous than that to those who ask Him (Matthew 7:11).
In another famous parable, Jesus told of the prodigal son. The story (found in Luke 15) is about a son who wasted every bit of his wealth in true consumerist fashion until he became destitute. The word prodigal means "wastefully extravagant."
It isn't my purpose here to explain how to pray, but rather to bring to your attention that there is much more to it than one with a consumer's approach would understand. Will America and Britain, like Judah of Jeremiah's time, have to go through the crucible of national collapse before its people learn that lesson?
Almost definitely so.
But not every citizen has to go through such a terrible time. Please request our free booklets Transforming Your Life—The Process of Conversion, The Road to Eternal Life and You Can Have Living Faith for a more complete picture of how one can turn to God and truly enjoy the Father-son and Father-daughter relationship He would like to have with everyone. WNP