Prayer: A Conditioned Reflex
Have you ever been gripped by fear? You know the feeling. Your blood goes cold. You get a shiver down your spine. Your stomach sinks. Your hair stands on end (in my case, that is singular, not plural). All of these are emotions associated with fear.
Then there is the emotion that is often coupled with fear, which is worry. There are a lot of things people can worry about today in our nation: the state of our country, our economy, terrorism, or the threat of war.
And of course, there are personal worries. We are concerned about our health. We are concerned about our family. We are concerned about our future.
When we feel worry approaching, we need to get into the habit of turning to God so that our reaction will be like a conditioned reflex.
A normal reflex is different from a conditioned reflex. A normal reflex comes naturally. For example, if you touch a hot iron, you will pull your hand away very quickly because it is hot. A normal reflex comes naturally. A conditioned reflex, on the other hand, is something you learn over time. You teach yourself to do it.
It can be compared to driving. When you are first learning to drive, you have to consciously think about everything you do. Key in the ignition … look over my shoulder before pulling out … look before making that turn … turn on the turn signal … change lanes. I am coming to a light – hit the brakes now. You had to think about it. But after a while, you get it down, and it comes naturally. You don’t even think about it anymore. You just drive.
Now let’s apply the same principles to fear and worry. Our natural tendency when we are in trouble is not to pray. Rather, it is to worry. Something happens, and we go through various scenarios that start stacking up like dominoes in our minds. What if this happens? What if that happens? What if this other thing happens? But here is what we need to teach ourselves to do: We need to teach ourselves to pray.
It is not what we naturally want to do. Often when we face adversity, our first instinct is to turn to people for help. God can work through people, of course. There is no question that he can provide through family and friends and help us. But ultimately, we should turn to God when trouble comes. And it will come.
One reason we should turn to God and pray is because Jesus told us to. He said, “Men always ought to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1 NKJV). Even if prayer were a difficult thing to do, which it is not, or an unpleasant thing to do, which it is not, we should pray, because Scripture commands us to do so.
Another reason we should pray is because prayer is God’s appointed way for obtaining things. That can sound somewhat mercenary. I am not describing God as some kind of celestial Santa. The fact of the matter is, the Bible tells me that I should go to God with my needs. And we all have needs. Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer,
In this manner, therefore, pray:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. (Matthew 6:9–11)
Jesus taught us that we are to approach God with our needs. Do you have needs right now? Pray about it. Do you need his provision? Pray about it. Do you need his healing touch? Pray about it. Go to God with your request, and Scripture says that your Father who knows you have need of these things will hear you (see Matthew 6:32).
And listen to what James 4:2 says: “You do not have because you do not ask.” Think about this: You might wonder why it is that you never know the will of God for your life. Answer: You do not have because you do not ask. How many answers to prayer would be waiting for you if you would just pray about it? Ask God about it. The worst-case scenario is that God will say no. But what if God says yes?
Prayer is also the way God helps us to overcome our anxiety and worry. The apostle Paul wrote, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). He didn’t say, “In only the big, hairy, scary things of life, pray.” Or, “Just pull out the prayers when things get really bad. Otherwise, just sort it out yourself.” No, he said, “In everything …”
Nothing is too small to bring to God in prayer. He is interested in even the smallest details. We sometimes only think about the big things, but little things can turn into big things. And little problems can turn into big problems. Nothing is too small or too big to bring to God.
There is nothing productive about worry. In fact, the word “worry” originates from an old German term that means “to choke or to strangle.” And this is exactly what worry does: It chokes you spiritually. It creates an emotional and mental stranglehold on your life. It doesn’t ever make anything better. In fact, it makes things worse.
When you worry about the future, you cripple yourself in the present. Worrying does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength. So in times of trouble, don’t give in to your natural reflex of worry. Instead, condition your reflex to pray.
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