Prayer: Why Bother
February 28, 2019
Updated March 5, 2019
5 comments 553 views
Glasses and Murky Water
A couple of years ago my wife Alanna and I were on vacation at a rented cottage with her family. On a particularly warm and sunny day, we were playing in the water and swimming in the lake. The swimming area wasn’t all that large, about 50 feet of beach front with a dock on one side. The depth of the water stayed between waist and shoulder height all the way down to the end of the dock. Deep enough to jump, dive and swim around—but shallow enough to stand.
As we were throwing a football around in the water next to the dock, Alanna’s Dad dove for a pass that was just out of his reach. He hit the water with a splash, and quickly popped back up. As he emerged from the water, we could tell instantly something was missing. His glasses. They fell off of his face and down into the water. Nobody moved, for fear of stepping on the spectacles. Even though it was shallow enough to stand, the water was murky enough that we couldn’t see the glasses once they slipped below the surface. We searched with hands, toes and what ever else we could find, scouring the area. We searched and searched until it was time to give up and go have lunch.
While seated around the picnic table, ready for lunch, somebody prayed to bless the meal. I don’t remember who, but somebody mentioned the lost glasses, and expressed hopes to God of finding them back. I remember this very clearly, because I remember thinking to myself—what a silly thing to pray for. Is God really in the business of finding lost glasses? I quickly moved on from the thought as the food was dished up, and we ate our meal.
For the next two days, my father-in-law had to wear his prescription sunglasses everywhere and at all times—even at night and inside. It was humorous.
About 2 days later though, while playing out in the water again… someone found the glasses! A highly unlikely event, which for some people, might be a cause for celebration, and deepening of their prayer life. But for many people, me included, it raises a ton of questions. Did prayer actually work? Did God really take time out of his busy schedule of running the universe to help us find a pair of glasses? How often can you count on prayer to work like that? Or is there some other explanation? Perhaps the water needed some time to settle. Maybe it was murky because we were playing in it stirring the bottom up. Maybe we were out of the water long enough for the murkiness to then clear allowing us to see the bottom more vividly, and that is why we were able to find the glasses. God can’t possibly be in the business of answering prayer like that? Can he?
Lost Keys, Wallets and Parking Spots?
If God did help us out, why was he willing to help us find Dave’s glasses but not my Mom’s sunglasses a few years ago when she lost them in a very similar fashion while playing in a lake? Why did God choose to answer the prayer this time and not before? And on the topic of God answering prayers, why does God choose to answer some prayers and not others? Is he really helping us find our keys, sunglasses, lost wallets, or better parking spaces and yet at the same time ignoring our prayers about cancer and world hunger?
How in the world does this prayer thing work? Is it just luck? Is it a game of chance—sometimes you win big, and sometimes you don’t?
Is there a strategy to it? Is there something more you need to do? Is there a particular formula or code, sort of like a combination of the right words, the right amount of breaths between those words, the right music in the background with incense and enough candles? Is it using the right language, or tempo like a rhythm that your to supposed to have in order to get God to answer?
And on the topic of getting God to answer, why do we ask other people to pray for us? Why do we offer our prayers for other people? Is God like a politician, and the more people we can get to call in and leave message on his phone—the more likely he will be to vote on the upcoming bill in our direction? The more people who ask the more likely God will give the people what they want? Is it about getting the right kinds of people to pray? Is it because I’ve been asking the wrong kind of people to pray for and with me that I’ve not been getting the answers I was hoping for? Do we need to ask more qualified people to pray for us and share our requests with God?
Speaking of asking people to pray for us, why do some Christians sit in a circle in someone’s living room or in a church service and share their prayer requests out loud to one another, and then bow their heads to pray, repeating the very same conversation? Was God not listening the first time?
Its Really About Me
And then the more I think about all of these questions (and I’m sure you would share this feeling), the more I notice that my prayers, your prayers—our prayers—are really all about us. Maybe you’re like me, maybe you’re not. I’ll bet if you really examined your average prayer it would probably look like,
Dear God, thanks for this day—now here is all the stuff that I’m up to today, could you put your magical God-touch on it to make it go well? Thanks. Amen.
I heard a pastor point this out once, and it struck me right between the eyes: He said “Isn’t it true that many of our prayers are really just us trying to get God to do the things we think God should do?” Our prayers are just filled with a quick thanks, and then help me, bless me, give me, help me, bless me, give me. Isn’t prayer really just about getting God to do things for me? Sure the circle widens sometimes to the people that I love and care about—but its mostly just for me. And for the most part it feels like a crapshoot as to whether he comes through or not.
And look, I’ve heard some people say “God always answers prayer. He has three answers: Yes, No or Wait.” But the truth is people only ever say this when God isn’t doing the things that we think God should be doing.
Which all really brings us back to this original questions: "What is prayer about? What is it for? Is it really just about asking God for things? Is it really just about getting him to do what we think he should do?"
Because if it is, either I suck at asking, or He sucks at answering.
And here’s why this matters so much, not just for me, but also for those of you reading this:
Some of you have given up on prayer.
Some of you have given up on faith.
Some of you have given up on God.
Some of you have loved ones who have walked away from the church or left faith behind, and they’ve done so for one good and simple reason: a God who seems to help us find our lost keys, sunglasses, and better parking spots but ignores our prayers about world hunger and cancer is not a God worth praying to.
But what if that’s not what prayer is about? What if we've been wrong about prayer?
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Wow! Talk about leaving us hanging! Did you intend for this to be a teaser? It certainly felt that way to me. Not to mention that I am fairly certain that some people, especially those searching for some answers, will be disappointed and perhaps even somewhat resentful or frustrated. To be completely honest, those were some of my feelings with it. That being said, everything you mentioned in your post are very familiar questions , doubts, and concerns that many Christians have when it comes to the subject and practice of prayer...especially among Christians in the U.S. For many of us--even those of us who grew up attending churches in the Reformed tradition--have had a view of God as vending machine or as a type of Santa Clause that gives us what we ask for if we do it the right way, have enough faith, ask or beg long enough, etc.
While I know and believe that there is a place for supplication in prayer, i.e., making requests of God, I also know that is not the sole or primary purpose of prayer...and our requests should not be simply about getting what I want or think I need, deserve, or believe God should do.
I have read many good--and not so good--books on and about prayer over the years. Perhaps one of the best or at least most helpful was Philip Yancey's book, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?
In closing, I think it would be helpful and considerate to let those of us who read your post to know if this is part of a series and when we can expect to read the next one. I hope you will let us know.
Grace and Peace,
Thanks for you comment Jack, it is indeed the first part (and teaser) in a series of posts on prayer that will continue, as I had hoped the last line would make clear - to look for the next post entitled "maybe we're doing it wrong". Sorry that wasn't more clear :) Part 2 will be up next week
Thanks, Corey. I look forward to it and will share this with a few others who might be interested as well.
Great piece, Corey. Frankly I wish there were more people who had the courage to openly ask questions like this! I will not give you the answer; but I will give you my answer, the one that works for me.
To pray means to ask, so it is hardly surprising that for many, perhaps even most, this is precisely what it comes down to.
The most common word in the Hebrew that we translate "prayer" is teffilah which may be taken to mean, "connect." That is, what we call "prayer" is first and foremost a deliberate and conscious connecting with God, or engaging the Lord is a conversation, a dialogue. Fundamentally it has nothing to do with the actual content or nature of that conversation.
One form of the word actually means "to judge." In shirt, when we pray our very words judge our hearts. As do Jews, I always pray aloud and have many an instance where mid sentence I will stop because I realize that my words are outside of the petition, "Your will be done." or that my words reveal something that I personally need to deal with before I come to my Father to talk.
So it has come to pass that in my own spiritual life my conversations are much less about asking for things, than praising, thanking and trying to get my won life in order. When I do "pray" for others, whatever the situation may be, I see it primarily as a way of acknowledging that we are called to bear one another's burdens and to seek from the Lord to know what I am personally called to do. Said differently, I am asking, "Is this concern a call for me to act and, i so, what would you have me do?"
This is a sort answer that is personal and well would serve for a much longer dialogue.
I will end saying that for me the questions, and the struggles are much more rewarding than the answers as I always come away amazed at what a great God we serve.
My initial reaction to this post was that we're not just supposed to bring our grocery lists to God and expect Him to deliver on each item. On the other hand, Jesus did say that all the hairs on our head are numbered and not one of them falls without the Father's will, so He does want to know our petitions and wishes.
Praying is a way of keeping the lines of communication open between the Lord and us. Personally, I prefer to pray in writing because I find it keeps me focussed, and I don't tend to repeat the same requests over and over as I did when I prayed out loud. If anything, I am less distracted when I write out my prayers with my eyes open--try to write with your eyes closed and see where that gets you--than I was when I prayed out loud with my eyes closed supposedly to avoid distractions.
There are things we pray for like world hunger that I believe God left for us to take care of, and if we don't like the answers or lack thereof, it's because we're failing our assignment as the universal Church. God entrusted us to take care of His creation and that, in my opinion, includes providing food for EVERYBODY, so maybe we need to reexamine OUR performance before blaming God for not answering our prayers.
As far as cancer goes, I don't know. He hasn't cured my schizophrenia either, but then I wasn't really anxious for Him to do so. And Christ did not heal all the sick people in Israel while He was on earth.
But yesterday, I wanted to buy a Thank You gift for some neighbors of mine, who had helped me out of a predicament, and I didn't know what to get them that they would both enjoy, so I prayed that He would guide me and He did. I bought them a kilo of African coffee beans.
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