The language of analogy is very useful in describing spiritual things. Jesus often spoke in parables, using simile and metaphor to draw word pictures. He described the Kingdom of God using common everyday things that people understood, from farming to sheep herding to preparing a feast. The Apostle Paul knew his audience well and often spoke in terms of running a race or an athletic competition. I like to explain Romans 8:28 using the way ingredients come together to make biscuits but of course at some point every analogy breaks down. The kingdom of God is like a man that bought a field; the Christian life in some ways is like running a race; in some ways but still different in others. We have to make sure the examples we use illustrate biblical truth. They need to be accurate and not just clever.
One raindrop or one snowflake by itself is pretty inconsequential. But houses and cars can float away during a flood and 18” of snow on the roof could spell disaster. I once tried to draw the analogy of prayers being like raindrops. As we pray about something really important to us those prayers accumulate like water drops collecting behind a dam. As we ask friends, family and church members to pray for us those tiny drops begin to multiply into a raging torrent of God’s power. My “Prayers are like raindrops” lesson (which could easily become a sermon or blog post) started coming together nicely. Then it hit me: prayer doesn’t really work like that. The illustration was beautiful but the theology was flawed.
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray he warned them not to be like the Pharisees who “think they will be heard for their much speaking.” Jesus prayed a lot but that was about communion and fellowship with his heavenly Father not about the quantity of his prayers. We are told to pray without ceasing and to lift one another up in prayer, but our prayers are not factors in some great mathematical equation. The false prophets of Baal prayed for many hours, crying out to their god and cutting themselves with knives. Elijah said very few words and God answered with fire! There is something to be said for quality over quantity.
Prayer is not a tool we use to manipulate God. In addition to our requests we must also pray according to God’s will. In the model prayer, Jesus says we should ask for God’s will “to be done on earth as it is in heaven.” There are times we simply don’t know what is best and or what course of action to take. We cry out “Abba, Father” and trust in him to care for us. He does, after all, know what we need even before we ask. James 5:16 says “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” There is no indication that such a prayer from two men avails exactly twice as much. We know that God hears and answers prayers. Prayer changes things; sometimes the one who prays.
So what then is prayer like? Imagine you’re hiking in the woods and come upon a baby bear cub. It seems like all babies are cute even if we find the adult versions are unattractive. A bear cub is rather helpless, unable to fend for itself in the wild, and may look to us like a living teddy bear. Do not pick up the teddy bear. You wouldn’t want to be standing there holding Baby Bear when Mama Bear comes back. Bear cubs, tiger kittens, even baby birds will all cry out for their mother. There is nothing more dangerous in nature than a mother defending her babies. That’s what prayer is like. We are small, pitiful and defenseless creatures at the mercy of predators. Our prayers are small voices squeaking out to Mama Bear. We are the baby birds in the nest with our eyes shut and mouths open. We really would be lost and without hope if not for the provision of God our heavenly Father. Jesus said (in Matthew 10) that not even a sparrow falls from the sky that the Father does not notice. And we are more valuable than many sparrows.
The Bible doesn’t compare us to sheep because we are cute and fluffy. Sheep have no natural defenses. Other animals can run fast, jump high, kick hard, shoot out quills or in the case of the skunk spray stink on their adversaries. Sheep are basically food for other animals. Jesus is the good shepherd and our advocate with the Father. Keep squeaking those prayers. When we are weak, God is strong.