Nearly 16 years into my work as a minister, I still question, “How exactly does this prayer stuff work?” Because honestly, I have had a good number of prayers go unanswered (or at least have yet to be answered)!
Admittedly I sometimes wonder, “Who am I to pray for a situation that at first blush appears hopeless? Who am I to challenge God’s will or to knock loudly on those divine chamber doors requesting, even passionately demanding, a miracle?”
Many Christian brothers and sisters would say, “Who am I to NOT do so?” Are we not encouraged by Jesus to “Ask…seek…knock”?
One of my patients in Arizona was a man in his 50’s dying of cancer.
“Frank” had been battling the disease for over 2 years. During that time, in addition to traditional treatments, Frank was under the care of a faith healer. This healer would come to his home on a weekly basis, lead the family in scripture studies, and then pray over Frank for his healing.
When his cancer showed signs of worsening, Frank was told his insufficient faith was at fault. When the cancer advanced further, the blame fell on the wayward son whose reckless living, according to the faith healer, was detrimentally blocking God’s healing power.
By the time I came into their lives as their hospice chaplain, Frank and his family were spiritually crushed and emotionally wounded. I, on the other hand, was outraged when I heard their story. He was only on our program for a short time but I did my very best at bring peace into this family’s life and offered words of assurance to this man who felt abandoned by his God.
I have often thought of this man and his family, the promises and subsequent accusations of the faith healer, and asked “Since when did the act of prayer mean getting exactly what we ask for!?!”
Certainly there are numerous scriptures to support this. Here are just two that speak of the promises of prayer:
But if you stay joined to me and my words remain in you, you may ask any request you like, and it will be granted! (NLT)
Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. (NIV)
I imagine that Frank’s faith healer was grounding his belief in part on James 5:16: Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (NIV)
But I believe that the best prayer example is given by Jesus, himself, before the betrayal that leads to his crucifixion. “Abba, Father,” he pleads, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me…” (Mark 14: 36a).
Yes, Jesus prays for what he desires—to ultimately be spared his life—but in the end, though he asks, his request is not granted.
Perhaps the true lesson from his prayer is what he wisely ends it with, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” he tells God (Mark 14: 36b). He asks for what he desires, but in the end seeks God’s will for his life.
“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
Kierkegaard’s words couldn’t be more true for me.
What I have noticed over the years is that through prayer I am more easily able to change what I can and accept what I can’t. Prayer teaches me to surrender my own will and my desires for immediate answers and results, and to leave room for God’s grace in God’s time.
I cannot say Kierkegaard’s understanding of prayer makes the act easier or clearer—especially when there are areas in my life where years of prayer for situations or people have gone unanswered. At times I have been left wondering why I even bother lifting up my fervent requests. But as Kierkegaard suggests, when I look back upon my life it is revealed that through prayer my very nature has been evolving.
And perhaps, just perhaps, for this alone I should be grateful.