Luke’s gospel records a time Jesus’ disciples ask Him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” I resonate with that question because it’s one I find myself asking even today. It’s not as though I’m unfamiliar with the practice of prayer or feel there is some secret formula to be unlocked, but sometimes I look around me and at myself and wonder if our prayers bring God maximum joy.
For example: why are we afraid to pray big prayers? It’s easy to throw up occasional prayers about traffic when we’re running late or just before walking into an exam we’re unprepared for? Deep down we know that if God doesn’t come through, we haven’t really lost anything. When we do pray for more significant things, we tend to hedge a bit in our prayers. “Your will be done” can be a sentiment of great faith, but often it’s used as a cop out: “Lord grant my request, but if you don’t (or can’t) I guess that’s okay too.”
Does God answer our prayers when we pray like this? I know He does. I know He does because I’ve hedged many of my prayers in the past and seen God come through. I’ve prayed with great hesitation and God has shown Himself gracious in response.
Yet scripture tells us there are times we can and should be more bold. That’s the sense I get when I read Jesus saying, “Everyone who asks receives and everyone who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Matthew 7:8). Or in John’s gospel, Jesus promises, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14). Or James chides us, “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2).
Context matters. Each of these passages and others like them in the New Testament come with certain qualifications. Read a few verses down in Matthew and Jesus makes it clear He’s speaking about receiving the Holy Spirit. And in John’s gospel, Jesus’ purpose in answering is to inspire His disciples to do greater works than He did on earth. James cautions us that we will not receive our requests of self indulgence.
Yes, I know God is ultimately sovereign in all He does. And yes, His specific will can be hard to determine. And yes, our heart can be deceptive about their true motives. These are all true and yet we miss out on something valuable if we go through our entire faith journeys without once coming to God in tenacious faith to see His provision. David urges us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). To taste is to sample, to gain an experience that builds future confidence.
Jesus tells the story of a widow and a corrupt judge. Day after day, the widow comes to the judge seeking justice and she is repeatedly turned away until finally the exasperated judge listens to her. If persistence pays off with a self-seeking sinner, how much so with our loving Father?
I’m not advocating a ‘name-it-and-claim-it’ approach to prayer. God is never under any circumstances obligated to give us anything. The bible makes it very clear that anything God gives us comes from grace. “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). We do not sits as business partners with God demanding our fair share. Rather the confidence we have is that of a small child with absolute faith in their parent to provide.
This approach to prayer is not an isolated phenomenon of faith. It comes from a lifestyle of communion with God. Unless we experience the goodness of God, every teaching on prayer rings hollow. It doesn’t matter how emphatically we speak of belief, our hearts will never trust a stranger. It would be foolish to even attempt to. Faith grows through relationship. Paul tells us, “Faith comes by hearing the Word of God” (Romans 10:17). It is in relationship that God speaks to us, giving us direction in how to pray (Ephesians 6:18, Romans 8:26-27).
And maybe that’s where we fall short in thinking about prayer. We’ve been told all our lives that we need to have faith in God to do the impossible and perhaps we feel that faith is a conviction we simply have to muster up intellectually. But faith isn’t something we can summon by force of will.
So faith isn’t a conviction we can muster, but it’s one we can reject. It’s my belief that we know how to pray more often than we admit but allow fear to silence our petitions. We all live with the spectre of unanswered prayers. And we know that if we experience that too often, we will have to ask tough questions about why we believe. It’s much easier just to give God an out. We hedge our prayers or don’t pray for anything too specific… just in case. When we don’t have the stamina to pray persistently, we stretch our definition of answered prayer. “I prayed for a car, but I got good weather for walking.” Or maybe, “I prayed for my friend to be saved and she stopped drinking.” There’s a difference between rejoicing in everything and trusting God for too little. If we feel we have to protect God in how we pray, then is He really worth surrendering our lives? If our prayers are too big for God, then how can we trust Him with our future?
Before this becomes more preachy than I intend to sound, I’m in the process of learning this myself. I’m fundraising to become a full time missionary and my sending organization has a fixed budget I need to raise. Not by my will, I’m in a position where I cannot hedge my prayers. I need God to provide a certain amount in monthly donations by a certain time. All I get to decide is whether I will trust God completely or allow myself to get stressed out. So this is a learning experience for me, one I hope will carry through the rest of my life.