A.W. Tozer said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us” (The Knowledge of the Holy). People think a lot of things about God, many not necessarily accurate. If what Tozer said is true and if what we think about God is wrong, the most important thing about us is in error. Fundamental errors about him can cause us to live out of fear and guilt and cause others to make mistakes in their thinking about God as well.
What we believe about prayer says a lot about who we think God is. If you believe prayer is how to get things from God, your view of him is reduced to a cosmic vending machine. If you make deals with him, God becomes a wheeler-dealer, open to bargains and ultimately, the one who can crush you if you renege. If you see prayer as an act of appeasement, God is petty and arbitrary and must be satisfied with your offering before he will act in your favor. All of these views bring God down to our level and reduce him to someone who thinks and acts like us—a god made in our own image.
One belief about prayer goes something like this: when we pray (some insert correctly), we release God’s power into our lives and even into the world. Apparently, we hold God back or block him from doing things if we don’t pray properly or if some sin is getting in the way. Not only does this paint a strange picture of a God in shackles, or as one restrained by more powerful forces, it puts a huge burden on us. We are then responsible if the person we prayed for isn’t healed; it’s our fault someone got in a car accident; we can blame ourselves if we don’t get the results we desire. And all of this puts the focus on you and me, not on God, and makes prayer a self-serving endeavor.
The Bible does talk about hindered prayers in the context of marriage (1 Peter 3:7), not as a reflection on God but on us. As the New Life Version puts it, we’ll “find it hard to pray” (because of our attitude and negative feelings).
God isn’t waiting for us to say the right prayers so he can release his power. He isn’t the dad who withholds good things from his children unless or until they say the “magic word,” much as a human father waits for his child to say please or thank you. God loves to hear our prayers, and he hears and interacts with each and every one, whether we get the answer we want or not.
As we grow in grace and knowledge of God, our view of him will grow too. As we’re learning more about him, we need to be careful about taking everything we hear from others at face value; rather, we should hold statements such as “releasing God’s power” up to the light of Scripture and what respected theologians have said. We also need to be aware of how subtle misconceptions about God are inserted into popular and Christian culture and how they masquerade as facts about who he is.
In short, God loves to hear our prayers and isn’t bothered by our not using the right words. He has given us the gift of prayer as the beautiful interaction we can enjoy with him through Jesus in the Spirit.