Thursday, April 3, 2008

Prayer: Just Do It?

We've had a couple of interesting discussions over the last week concerning prayer. Some of us apparently have a slightly skeptical attitude about prayer -- we know we are supposed to do it, and we know it's important to be in communication with God, but at times, it can be a struggle to have faith in prayer.

We live in a fallen world. We know that pain, suffering, evil, and death are inevitable. That problem of evil will always be a paradox for us on earth. Why does God allow so much suffering? Why do the prayers of the righteous go seemingly unanswered?

Because of sin, and because of free will, we think we know the answer to the above questions. "God knows best, it's part of his plan, etc." Or, as the great theologians Mick and Keith once wrote, "We can't always get what we want."

The issue of unanswered prayer becomes more of a quandary when we look at many of the passages in the Bible that seem to be so straightforward on prayer.

Matthew 7:7-11, the words of Jesus --
    "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!"
John 14:13-14, again from Jesus --
    "And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it."
How about 1 John 5:14-15 --
    This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us - whatever we ask - we know that we have what we asked of him.
And of course Mark 11 --
    "'Have faith in God,' Jesus answered. 'I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, "Go, throw yourself into the sea," and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.'"
There are a couple choices here, and we could take them as deeply as we'd like. First of all, we could look at these verses more in context, to find what they are truly speaking to. Eric suggested that in John 14, Jesus is speaking specifically to the apostles (and only to the apostles), as he sends them out to work miracles.

Secondly, we could say that everything here hinges on knowing what to ask and having those requests be in God's will. That's the easy answer, that's the "Sunday School" answer (nod to Soebs and Darin), but perhaps it's also the RIGHT answer.

But if it is, it begs a lot more questions.

First, let's be uber-Biblical today and throw out some more verses.

    When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:3)

    You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." (James 4:14-15)

    "This, then, is how you should pray: 'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven...'" (Matthew 6:9-10)
The problem is that we don't KNOW what God's will is. We want to pray specifically, and we want to pray for what we think we need. Often, those feel like righteous prayers. We pray for a child, dying with cancer, to be healed. Surely that is a righteous prayer! We pray for a good job, to support our family. Surely that is a righteous prayer! We pray for a friend's marriage, that it would be reconciled. Surely, a righteous prayer!

But the young child dies a painful death.

The job we needed falls through, and a family has to declare bankruptcy.

The marriage breaks, a couple divorces, and a family is torn apart.

These are all realities of life, even sometimes when you have a huge group of Christians praying around the clock. We can't always get what we want. We tell ourselves that it just wasn't part of God's will. That it's part of some "master plan."

Maybe. But it doesn't make people feel any better. Nor does it do much to convince people of the loving nature of a God who wants us to bring our requests and petitions to him.

What DO we pray for? How do we know when our motives are "pure"? Do we just offer up vague "may your will be done" prayers? Do we make them specific, but then realize that it's quite possible that they won't happen?

Or do we need to change our entire prayer model, and make it more about God and less about us?


Joe B said...

"...the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray, , but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will." [Ro 8:26-27]

Cool. I would ask then, is that saying that we need not pray?

No, I think it is saying that we should go ahead praying in the dark, knowing that the Spirit of God is making up for our ignorance?

void77 said...

Interesting, Joe. I'd always heard that scripture in support of speaking in tongues.

Anyway, I've often wondered if our modes and forms of prayers (especially public prayers) don't come off as nothing more than support group style encouragement. And if so, is there anything wrong with that? I really don't think that we have any ability or right to call down fire from heaven or invoke the acts of God as we see fit, even if our motives are righteous and humble. That basically equates prayer with incantation. If it worked that way, we might as well be pagan.

I don't have answers. I know we should pray, and God tells us to. But I, like others, am confused about the scriptures Scott cites. Even if a few of them could be explained away via context, some seem very straightforward.


soebs said...

And how about the the story of the Centurion in Luke 7? He asked Jesus to heal his servant, told him he didn't need to come, that he could heal him if he wanted to from where he was, and when they returned the servant was healed.

I know, it showed off the glory of God. Does it not show off the glory of God if I pray for God to heal someone of a cancer situation where the doctors have given someone 1 month to live? Was the Centurion just a better believer than I?

Out of these conversations came more conversation between Darin and I, and out of those conversations came a pretty kickin' worship service last night.

I do know that God is King, and who am I to complain about anything. What do I do with those scriptures Scott listed? I don't know, I do trust that the King knows best.

Joe B said...

I would hope that nobody disagreed with Darin's premise that God knows better than we what we need, and he acts accordingly. God knows best, times 10. The things at issue were whether that explains accounts for the very distinct teachings in Jn 14:31 and Mk 11, and whether it is the basic message of Mt 7:7-12.

It is a tremendous truth to be sure, but it was not a discussion stopper. It is a part, not the summary, of Jesus' whole teaching on "answered prayer."

Joe B said...

Re: Void77, I've heard Romans 8:26 used in refernce to speaking in tongues, too. But if you look carefully at it you notice something missing. Yeah, the part about speaking in tongues! It may be related, but it takes a running start and a flying leap to get there. I mean, creation groans a few verses back, no tongues there. We groan inwardly, no tongues there. The spirit groans in a way that cannot be uttered. It sounds like groans the are NOT uttered rather than words that ARE uttered. It really could be related, but Paul just doesn't say enough on the subject to connect it here.

Joe B said...

"I've often wondered if our modes and forms of prayers (especially public prayers) don't come off as nothing more than support group style encouragement. And if so, is there anything wrong with that?"
(Void 3:16)

Interesting point Voidicus. We certainly have certain prayer rituals, some of which seem...funny. Many prayers seem like announcements (when someone asks prayer for "traveling mercies" for their summer vacation, what are they really asking for?)

The "support group kind of encouragement" model is really an explanation for what goes on, even if it is not a biblical model of prayer.

Daniel said...

I've always struggled with how to accept what Jesus said in Matthew 7 about prayer. Is Christ really telling me that if I ask for a house, 2 cars, and a barbecue pit I'll get it? Surely there are strings I'm not seeing. After awhile of praying for miraculous cures and instant results, one can get pretty frustrated when it seems our prayers are unanswered. We all remember the wise Sunday School teacher who said that all prayer is answered--just not necessarily the way we want it. That got me thinking. God's plan is obviously much better than anything I could come up with on my own. Besides, God's going to do what He wants to do anyway. I started looking at "Thy will be done." I came to a point where instead of asking for specific outcomes for specific situations, I would simply ask for wisdom--wisdom to discern God's will for my life, wisdom to understand it as it is revealed, and wisdom to embrace it as better than anything I could conceive. Was I doing something wrong by not praying for that lady's cancer to be removed? All I would pray in that situation was for God to give us wisdom to see the bigger picture and to see his will for this situation. I would acknowledge what we wanted--the miraculous cure--followed by a "but your will be done", which pretty much negated everything I said before that. How do I reconcile that mode of prayer with what James 5:13-16 says, especially the part about the prayer of a righteous man being powerful and effective. Joe brings up an interesting point. We can cop out on the issue of suffering in the world by saying it's because of sin, but isn't that what James is saying here? But back to the prayer issue. The bottom line is I still don't know exactly what the contents of my prayers should be. And to be quite honest folks, my prayer life is somewhere between non-existent and majorly neglected right now, but that's an upcoming entry in my own blog Pray for me, brothers (and sisters, too).

Jesus was a cool dude. Pretty smart, too. Maybe for starters, that, then, is how I should pray.

Macca said...

Joe is correct about 8:26. I had a class on the Holy Spirit at our charismatic Bible college taught by a real revolutionary professor (who would be a great member of Java Jesus). His favorite thing to do was dismantle the favorite Pentecostal "proof texts", challenging us to READ, not infer from the Scripture. At any rate, he spent an entire class one day debunking the "tongues" interpretation of 8:26. Great stuff.

Joe B said...

I am pretty sure that any way you slice the teaching of Jesus about prayer, the bottom of it is that we whould pray, not that we would not pray.

And I am pretty sure it is that he will act, not that he will not act.

There are some apparent variables that intervene: the nature of our faith, the purity of our motives, the alignment of our will with his, maybe more.

The problem with the conundrum we're discussing is that the result is NOT praying. And the cause of the problem is unbelief. (I can vouch personally, I regret to say.)

So maybe my bottom line is that we should pray anyway, be encouraged by the Spirit's intercession for/with us, let God demonstrate his will in his actions, let our faith be increased by watching him do his thing, and overflow with thanksgiving.

The times in my life when I adhere to this way of living my faith grows and my doubts grow small.