Prayer gets a bad rap. Consider:
- “They couldn’t be bothered to get him the help he needed. Instead they swept it under the rug and ‘prayed.'” (an op-ed piece about Josh Duggar)
- “It is easy to prove to yourself that God is imaginary. The evidence is all around you. Here are 50 simple proofs. #1: Try praying.” (homepage of the atheist website “God Is Imaginary”)
- “Why don’t YOU try ‘not praying‘. Just for a change, get off your knees and do something useful.” (a list of atheist responses to things Christians say)
So to hear these voices tell it, prayer is at best a misguided waste of time; at worst, a supplanter of real action and a proof that Christian teaching is false. Are they right?
This week I prayed for those in the path of Hurricane Patricia, which had been the strongest storm ever measured but which (thankfully) weakened markedly before making landfall. Some Christians would say my prayers helped, but even I am not sure of that. You see, even among Christians, there are widely divergent views on how to pray, why to pray, and what to expect when we pray. If you want a polarizing issue, look no further than prayer.
What prayer isn’t
If you believe that the Bible teaches we can make God do what we want by means of prayer, you are going to be disappointed. Millions— Christians and atheists alike— insist this is exactly what the Bible teaches, and point to a collection of about a half-dozen verses that (viewed in isolation) support the claim. The four most clear-cut are Matthew 18:19, Matthew 21:21, Mark 11:24, and John 14:13-14, the “ask me anything!” verses. Reading the entire rest of the Bible, however, it pretty quickly becomes clear that there is more to it than that.
We know about the scriptures emphasizing the importance of faith, motive, righteousness, OK— but what about the sincere believer asking from the heart? Even in their case, scripture often records that they don’t get their way. King David, the “man after God’s own heart“, pleads for the life of his child, but his child dies. Christ’s disciples attempt to cast out a demon, but cannot. Hebrews 11 gives a roll call of heroes of the faith, yet says, “Not one of them received what had been promised.” Even Jesus himself, in the garden of Gethsemane, asks to be delivered of the cross, and then is crucified.
What is going on here? Simply put: evil happens, and God has his own ideas about how to deal with it. The four most important words on prayer in the Bible are found in 1 John 5:14: “If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us (emphasis added).” Basically, a request that flatly contradicts God’s nature is a non-starter, but even in the case of the good ones, he may have other plans.
What prayer is
All of this raises valid questions: if the Bible’s overall message is that God does whatever he wants, then why include verses like, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it?” And if the only requests that God will grant are those already “according to his will” anyway, then why make us ask at all?
“Ask me anything”
To those who assert that the “ask me anything” verses, if true, can only describe a God who must fulfill any and every request, I would say: watch Ratatouille. In that movie, the preeminent critic, Ego, is like one of these scoffers, ridiculing chef Gusteau’s motto “Anyone can cook!” as though the only possible meaning is that anyone who reads a cookbook can become a world-class chef. In the climactic scene, however, Ego’s worldview is profoundly changed, and he reflects, “…but I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
It is just the same with the “ask me anything” verses. The prevailing focus of prayer in Jesus’ time was on blessing the Lord:
These blessings have God at their center. They contain no personal pronouns — focusing utterly on him, and not on the person praying. They are simply statements that praise God for his goodness.
Against this backdrop, the “ask me anything” verses fall into their proper place, not as counter-Biblical guarantees that God is our lap dog, but as heartfelt encouragements to break out of a too-narrow view: don’t just ask for what is “pious”, don’t just ask for what is “worthy”, it’s OK… ask me anything!
Speaking as a parent, my kids are not always inclined to good communication. As a teenager, my son in particular tended to assume we would say no, so he didn’t even ask, often to his great detriment and ours. We used to beg him to actually speak with us, rather than be limited by his imagination of us. If a teenager can so badly misunderstand parents who daily occupy the same physical space, how much more is regular, unrestricted prayer a vital element in our understanding of God?
Next year, my daughter will be in middle school. Many of her friends have an allowance, but she doesn’t. We’d be happy to give her one— the granting of an allowance is “according to our will”— but she’s never asked. An allowance is a responsibility, and asking us will be one sign that she is ready to take that responsibility seriously. In the meantime, we’re perfectly happy to wait.
The Bible attributes this same mindset to God: “Until now you have asked for nothing in my name.” “You do not have because you do not ask God.” “Ask and ye shall receive.” I have heard these verses described as “God on a power trip”, “God wanting to humiliate us by making us bow and scrape”, “God playing mind games.” None of that makes any sense to me as a parent myself.
It is my belief that prayer is a vital and valuable part of the Christian life. If we don’t get everything we ask for, it doesn’t mean that “the Bible is wrong” or that “our faith isn’t strong enough”. It simply means that relationship with God is like any other relationship. Prayer is important because it is the cornerstone of that relationship. It is how we phone home to our father. It is transformative for us personally. It is so much more than us expecting God to do what we want.