Tough Questions About Prayer
1. Prayer and Our Worldview
I don’t think the questions about prayer begin with the act of praying, itself, but rather with the way we see the world. There are perhaps many worldviews, but I think they boil down essentially to two.
a. Secular (Materialistic)
There are actually very few declared atheists or agnostics in the world, but there are billions who live as though they do not believe in God. They have a secular worldview. God is not, in any way, a practical part of their lives. They live lives from a materialistic perspective. Life is lived by what can be measured with the five senses. When prayer is offered it is a last ditch effort in an emergency.
When I was Lieutenant I was stationed with a Marine squadron at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron Four (VMAQ 4) flew EA-6B Prowler aircraft. Their mission was what we call SEAD – suppression of enemy air defenses. As a gung-ho chaplain, I wanted to do what my Marines did, which was fly, so I went through Aviation Physiology and Water Survival in order to fly in the backseat. A part of the training concerned the ejection seat. We went through a trainer and we talked about what would precede the use of the ejection seat on an actual flight. As you may have guessed, that would not be a good thing! The EA-6B is a four place aircraft. You can eject yourself by pulling on one of two ejection handles – one above your head and the other between your legs. The more common way to eject was with what was called a command ejection. The pilot would eject everyone. He would, of course, be the last to go and each person went out of the aircraft at millisecond intervals so you wouldn’t crash into each other above the aircraft. We were carefully instructed that the official warning the aircrew would receive would be the words, “Eject, eject, eject,” and then we would take a more direct approach to the ground. However, we were told that before we heard the words, “Eject, eject, eject,” we would be given another more informal warning that would go something like, “Oh shoot!”
Those who live in a secular worldview would reserve prayer for an occasion such as this. It is for emergencies only and surely couldn’t hurt. The football fans in the crowd this morning are familiar with the “hail Mary” pass. With five seconds left in the game and down by four points, the quarterback sends anybody who can possibly catch the ball into the end zone and throws the ball up into the air over the end zone. As he let’s the ball go he starts a prayer that somehow one of his players will come up with the ball. When all else fails, surely a prayer couldn’t hurt.
While hoping for a miracle, the secular worldview doesn’t believe they are a practical reality. Back in the 19th century there were liberal elements in the church that began to discredit the idea that even Jesus performed miracles. Their explanation of the feeding of the 5,000 was that when the little boy offered his five loaves and two fish, that the others had actually brought a picnic for themselves and when shamed by the little boy, brought out their lunch as well.
b. Biblical (Supernatural)
A biblical worldview is one in which the natural and the supernatural are integrated in the stuff of everyday life. It doesn’t mean miracles are taking place every moment, but it means that there is an awareness of the supernatural in our lives. We daily relate to God. Daily prayer is a reflection of the supernatural worldview. We assume God’s presence and live with that in mind. When it comes to prayer and questions about prayer, worldview makes all the difference.
2. Prayer and Our Perspective
Prayer is primarily about developing a relationship with God. Many of our questions about prayer have to do with asking God for things and feeling like he doesn’t deliver. It is important for us to understand that while petition and intercession are important parts of prayer, the most fundamental part of prayer is that it is conversation with God. We develop a relationship with him through prayer.
Consider the life of Jesus. He not only died for our sins, but he modeled how we should live. When Jesus prayed things happened, but it is fascinating to see that even as the Son of God, he needed to commune with his Father. Consider these passages in Luke alone.
Luke 5:16 Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed
Luke 6:12 Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray
Luke 9:18 Once, when Jesus was praying in private
Luke 9:28 (Jesus) went up on a mountainside to pray
Luke 11:1 One day Jesus was praying in a certain place
Luke 22:41 He withdrew about a stones throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed
We need to approach prayer primarily from the perspective of relationship.
At one point in my life I studied philosophy at the University of Washington. We would discuss important things, but it was from the perspective of intellectual curiosity. Certainly there was a concern for the application of truth to society, but it was in the context of an academic dialogue. Our questions about prayer are far from academic, however, they are very real. Some of our families are going through challenging times right now. Many of us have been praying for them. Answers to prayer is the stuff of life. There is little that is more important to us. So as we look at some questions about prayer, we do it with great seriousness because it affects that walk with God of each one of us.
3. Why pray?
We have already talked about the fact that the basic reason we pray is because of the desire to develop a relationship with God. In John 17, there is a record of a prayer of Jesus. He prayed for you and me and he prayed about our relationship with him.
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23 I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
As followers of Jesus Christ we pray because he tells us to. We are obedient to his instruction for our lives. Jesus says:
9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
We pray because we are convinced that it makes a difference. James writes:
The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with. Elijah, for instance, human just like us, prayed hard that it wouldn’t rain, and it didn’t—not a drop for three and a half years. Then he prayed that it would rain, and it did. The showers came and everything started growing again.
One of the questions that is asked is: “Does prayer change us or does it change God?” I think the biblical answer is that it does both.
Our conviction extends to the fact that we may not see an answer to our prayer immediately, yet we will keep in dialogue with God, much the same way we keep having a dialogue with our spouse or the folks at work about issues in our lives. Some of you may remember when we talked about prayer as transaction. Sometimes we want to put in a coin and have the answer come out just like a coke. It doesn’t work that way in a relationship. There is dialogue – sometimes even bargaining. Just think about your closest relationships.
This working out of a relationship with God has some powerful Biblical precedents. We see it clearly in many of the Psalms as David wrestled with God over circumstances in his life. Job argued with God as he tried to make sense of his life. Jacob quite literally wrestled with God.
4. Why do some prayers seem unanswered?
We have come to the place in our discussion of prayer where we understand that it is primarily about a relationship with God. We have discovered that we sometimes need to wrestle with God in the circumstances of our lives. We have found that prayer changes us and it changes God. We have also discovered that prayer isn’t magic. We don’t plug a quarter into a machine and the answer comes out. But it is also appropriate to notice that God has called us to bring very specific needs to him, but it seems we don’t always get an answer … or at least not the answer we want. Why don’t we see more answers to specific prayers?
a. We don’t always know what is best
Garth Brooks sings a song that so well describes the fact that in spite of our prayers, we don’t always know what is best.
Just the other night at a hometown football game
My wife and I ran into my old high school flame
And as I introduced them the past came back to me
And I couldn't help but think of the way things used to be
She was the one that I'd wanted for all times
And each night I'd spend prayin' that God would make her mine
And if he'd only grant me this wish I wished back then
I'd never ask for anything again
Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers
Remember when your talkin to the man upstairs
That just because he may not answer doesn't mean he don't care
Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.
We often think we know what God’s will is in a specific situation, but the fact is we don’t. We don’t know what God is up to. Isaiah puts it this way:
8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
b. Spiritual warfare
Although God prevails, sometimes spiritual warfare, that is, active engagement with the enemy apparently slows down the answer to prayer. There is a remarkable passage in Daniel.
“ ‘Daniel,’ he said, ‘man of quality, listen carefully to my message. And get up on your feet. Stand at attention. I’ve been sent to bring you news.’ “When he had said this, I stood up, but I was still shaking. “ ‘Relax, Daniel,’ he continued, ‘don’t be afraid. From the moment you decided to humble yourself to receive understanding, your prayer was heard, and I set out to come to you. But I was waylaid by the angel-prince of the kingdom of Persia and was delayed for a good three weeks. But then Michael, one of the chief angel-princes, intervened to help me. I left him there with the prince of the kingdom of Persia. And now I’m here to help you understand what will eventually happen to your people. The vision has to do with what’s ahead.’
It seems that there can be a delay in receiving answers to prayer because of spiritual warfare.
Sin can affect our prayers. According to Peter, quoting the Psalmist:
12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous
and his ears are attentive to their prayer,
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
We can resolve the issue of sin our lives through confession and repentance.
d. We don’t always recognize the answer when it comes
Sometimes God answers our prayers and we just miss what we have received as being his answer. Jesus was the answer to Israel’s prayers. He was the Anointed One yet not recognized (Matthew 16:13-20). I love the story of the old fellow and the flood.
… a man heard that his neighborhood was flooding due to a heavy rain storm. He got down on his knees and prayed to God: “Dear God, save me from the coming flood!” The waters began to rise and a truck came by and the driver said, “Get in and I’ll drive you to higher ground.” The man said no, God would save him. The waters continued to rise. A woman in a boat rowed by. She called, “Jump into the boat and I will row you to safety.” The man said no, God would save him. The floodwaters continued to rise. The man was perched on the roof of his house. A helicopter flew by and let down a rope for the man to grab onto. “I will fly you to safety,” yelled the pilot. “No.” the man said, “I am waiting for God to save me.” The man drowned. He got to the heaven hopping mad. “What are you doing here?” God asked. The man said, “God! I am mad at you! I asked you to save me from the flood and you did not!” God smiled and said, “I sent you a truck, a boat and helicopter? How much more saving did you need?” (Joy Mounts, Christ Church, Summit, NJ).
e. We don’t know everything
If we had time this morning it would be helpful to spend some time with the movie Bruce Almighty. Remember how he became God for awhile. He found making the right choices for people was a difficult thing. Answering everyone’s prayers This comes back to our look at the worldview issues. God is God and we are not. Job had these terrible things happen to him. His friends tried unsuccessfully to comfort him. Job had his dialogue with God, but in the final analysis, this is what God said:
“Why do you confuse the issue?
Why do you talk without knowing what you’re talking about?
Pull yourself together, Job!
Up on your feet! Stand tall!
I have some questions for you,
and I want some straight answers.
Where were you when I created the earth?
Tell me, since you know so much!
Who decided on its size? Certainly you’ll know that!
Who came up with the blueprints and measurements?
How was its foundation poured,
and who set the cornerstone,
While the morning stars sang in chorus
and all the angels shouted praise?
And who took charge of the ocean
when it gushed forth like a baby from the womb?
That was me! I wrapped it in soft clouds,
and tucked it in safely at night.
Then I made a playpen for it,
a strong playpen so it couldn’t run loose,
And said, ‘Stay here, this is your place.
Your wild tantrums are confined to this place.’
Job came to realize that he didn’t know everything, and neither do we. We don’t have a God’s eye view of the universe. In the final analysis, he had to trust the one who made the universe, yet desired a relationship with him.
One of my favorite authors, Philip Yancy, wrote a book on prayer that was published a few years ago. It is 350 pages, but he didn’t exhaust the subject. He tells a moving story of the German preacher Helmut Thielicke. Thielicke’s life was a lot like Job’s. He lost his university teaching position when he refused to support Hitler. He endured the humiliation of interrogations by the SS and the ever present threat of imprisonment. Near the end of the war, he arrived at his church in Stuttgart, only to find that it had been destroyed by an Allied air raid. When he got back home, he found that his home had been demolished as well. His heart nearly broke when he found his famished children licking the pictures of food in the family’s cookbook. He preached a message of hope to his congregation, even amidst the rubble of the building that once was the sanctuary. He encouraged them with the words, “The one fixed pole in all the bewildering confusion is the faithfulness and dependability of God.” These were remarkable words considering their situation in life at the moment. Yet he told them God’s purposes were a thread throughout the challenges of their current circumstances. And he said this:
One day, perhaps, when we look back from God’s throne on the last day we shall say with amazement and surprise, “If I had ever dreamed when I stood at the graves of my loved ones and everything seemed to be ended; if I had ever dreamed when I saw the specter of atomic war creeping upon us; if I had ever dreamed when I faced the meaningless fate of an endless imprisonment or a malignant disease; if I had ever dreamed that God was only carrying out his design and plan through all these woes, that in the midst of my cares and troubles and despair his harvest was ripening, and that everything was pressing on toward his last kingly day – if I had known this I would have been more calm and confident; yes, then I would have been more cheerful and far more tranquil and composed.”
Thielicke pointed his people to Jesus who ministered peace in the midst of the storm. Yancy carefully address the opportunities and questions of prayer and then ends his book with these words:
Sometimes I think about my first face-to-face conversation with God. I have so many unresolved questions, so many laments and regrets. Where should I begin? Various openings play out in my mind, until I remember with a start whom in fact I will be talking to, the One who spun out galaxies and created all that exists. Objections fade away, doubts dissolve, and I imagine myself falling back on words akin to Job’s: “Oh, now I get it.” And then the conversation resumes.