Prayer Is A Great — And Complicated And Often Uncertain — Thing


(OPINION) A reader in Arkansas wrote me to offer observations and questions about prayer. I found his several emails interesting enough that I wanted to respond here.

“I have long struggled with maintaining a consistent prayer life, especially when it comes to intercessory prayer,” he said. “I am an avowed, active Christian of some 30 years. … The Bible teaches that God is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and all His ways are far above mine, and I am very glad this is so. It also tells me I should pray all the time for all things, but this is where I have lots of trouble.”

For instance, he’d prayed for other people to be physically healed, including for his sister, who still lost her lengthy battle with cancer.

“Was it a lack of faith on my part?” he asked. “Or because God had something else in mind — something above my knowledge?”

Such disappointing experiences led to additional questions for him:

“When the person who talks about (often on social media) how good God is and how much He has blessed her family because her daughter got a full scholarship, or prayers were answered when a son or wife or mother was healed, or how the family and their home was spared during a tornado because God protected them, what must the other folks think?”

Such as, he continued, “the family who struggles because their kid isn’t the brightest and is struggling mightily to help him/her pay for college? The family praying in the same waiting room for the same healing yet their loved one is not healed? The family whose house was obliterated and family members lost in the same tornado? Did God have something against them? Did they not pray with enough faith?”

His are timeless questions about prayer — with implications for faith itself. Prophets, theologians and lay people have wrestled with these issues for as long as people have been praying, for millennia before Facebook or Twitter.

I’m certainly not up to resolving any of this in a newspaper column. Or anywhere else. But allow me to express a few thoughts.

My correspondent is a Christian, and I’m a Christian, so I’m commenting from a specifically Christian perspective. Other faith traditions may regard these matters differently.

As Christians, we’re told to make our petitions known to God. That is, we’re to pray for ourselves and others, and to do so specifically. We can ask for wisdom, or healing, or financial relief, or the protection of our children and friends, or for a thousand other things.

There’s nothing wrong with that and nothing selfish about it. Not to trivialize our adult problems, but in a sense we’re like children bawling for our milk or wanting to be rocked or needing to get our diapers changed. We wail out in our misery. To my mind, that’s fine and to be encouraged. Tell God what you want.

“You do not have because you do not ask,” the New Testament says.

But asking for things, even very good things, isn’t the ultimate purpose of prayer. Prayer’s mainly not about getting stuff from God. We’re not to regard God as some cosmic ATM machine who exists to fulfill our whims if we mouth the right magic words.

Prayer isn’t designed to change God’s mind; it’s designed to change us. Prayer is where we develop a deep and sustaining relationship with our creator.

Mainly, when we pray we ought to speak less and listen more. The real goal is to find out what God wants, which is far more important than anything we want. Often, we don’t even glean that much, however, and prayer becomes about waiting on God in our uncertainty.

The waiting is good, too, although it may not feel so good. It teaches us we’re not in control. It shows us how desperately we need help.

But back to those requests we make. Yes, it’s OK to make them. And when a prayer is answered the way we’d hoped it would be — our loved one is miraculously healed of cancer, as my father was — it’s natural to praise God from the rooftops. Or on Facebook.

Why wouldn’t we be overjoyed? Why would we not give credit where it’s due?

Just as rightly, when those requests aren’t answered as we’d have preferred — the sick person dies, as my mother and first wife did — it’s natural to grieve publicly.

Still, even in those moments, we shouldn’t begrudge those who did get healed, or promoted, or whose kid won a scholarship.

Sooner or later we’ll all be in both situations — we’ll have petitions answered and petitions that vanish into the void. One day we’ll rejoice; the next day we’ll weep. That’s why the Scriptures tell us to celebrate with those who celebrate and cry with those who cry — we ourselves will do both those things.

Prayer isn’t a contest between winners and losers. We’re all winners, and we’re all losers.

God is a paradox. We don’t understand why he grants some requests and not others. That’s part of our great unknowing, which is faith itself.

We’re not able to unlock all the mysteries. Sometimes we can’t unlock any of the mysteries. Sometimes we simply sit amid the great cosmic silence and allow ourselves to be quietly transformed as the Lord deems best.

In fact, that utter surrender may be the ultimate form of prayer.

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