Prayer is compared in the Bible to incense. “Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee,” wrote the psalmist, and the angel who stood before the altar with the golden censer in Revelation 5 was given incense to mingle with the prayers of the saints. Incense was very expensive, blended by a perfumer according to a strict formula. It appears to serve no particularly useful purpose. Its smoke and fragrance soon dissipate. Couldn’t incense be done without?
Prayer is like incense. It costs a great deal. Sometimes it seems to accomplish little (as we mortals assess things). It soon dissipates. But God likes the fragrance. It was God’s idea to arrange the work of the tabernacle to include a special altar for incense. We can be pretty sure He included all that was necessary and nothing that was unnecessary.
Jesus prayed: He offered thanksgiving, He interceded for others, He made petitions. That the Son—coequal, coeternal, consubstantial with the Father—should come to the Father in prayer is a mystery. That we, God’s children, should be not only permitted but commanded also to come is a mystery. How can we change things by prayer? How can we “move” a sovereign and omnipotent God? We do not understand. We simply obey because it is a law of the universe, as we obey other laws of the universe, knowing only that this is how things have been arranged: the book falls to the floor in obedience to the law of gravity if I let go of it; spiritual power is released through prayer.
I could say, “God can make my hands clean if He wants to,” or I could wash them myself. Chances are God won’t make my hands clean. That’s a job He leaves up to me. His omnipotence is not impaired by His having ordained my participation, whether it be in the washing of hands with soap or the helping of a friend with prayer. Jesus Christ redeemed the world by the laying down of His life, a perfect sacrifice, once for all. Yet He is in the business, as David Redding says, of “maintenance and repair.” He lets us participate with Him in that business by the laying down of our own lives.
One way of laying down our lives is by praying for somebody. In prayer I am saying, in effect, “my life for yours.” My time, my energy, my thought, my concern, my concentration, my faith—here they are, for you. So it is that I participate in the work of Christ. So it is that no work of faith, no labor of love, no smallest prayer is ever lost, but, like the smoke of the incense on the golden altar, rises from the hand of the angel before God.
**Excerpt originally published in the March/April 2003 Elisabeth Elliot Newsletter.