Saturday, September 11, 2010

Does Prayer Work?

That's the question a friend of mine asked me this week. Well, at the risk of sounding like a certain hillbilly former president, it depends on what the means of "works" is. That is, if by "works," you mean something like "Will God give me whatever I ask for if I pray?" then the answer is pretty clearly "No." Anybody who has ever prayed and not received their request knows this without even consulting the Bible. But does it "work" in the sense of God speaking to us through it and sometimes giving us the things for which we have prayed? The answer to that question is just as surely "Yes." But it's still a little more complex a "yes" than it might first appear (I mean, you even find this question being asked within the text of the Bible itself-just read the Psalms, or Job, or Ecclesiastes). Here's a summary of how to understand the Bible's "yes" answer:
  1. We are encouraged to ask God for what we want. The Bible contains a host of bold statements about prayer, many on the lips of Jesus himself, such as "And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith" (Matthew 21:22).
  2. Persistence is encouraged. Jesus tells two parables that emphasize this, the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8), and the Persistent Neighbor (Luke 11:1-10). Paul also reminds us of the same idea in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, "Pray without ceasing."
  3. Sometimes, God says "No, my grace is sufficient." Even Paul the Apostle didn't always receive what he asked for. Though there is debate as to the specific nature of Paul's "thorn in the flesh," it's pretty clear that it was a painful situation from which Paul prayed for deliverance. Yet according to Paul's account (read 2 Corinthians 12:7-10), despite his persistent prayer, God's answer wasn't simply "No," but also "my grace is sufficient for you." Paraphrasing a bit, that means something like, "I will be with you through this; I won't take you out of it." Which might not be what we want to hear, but is still a magnificent promise all the same, as Paul learned.
  4. We must believe and not doubt. Even in those places where we have a magnificent promise of God giving us what we pray for, faith remains a qualification for actually receiving it. Look at Matthew 21:22 above: even in an otherwise unqualified statement, we still read "if you have faith." The same qualification is given in James, "But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways" (1:6-8).
  5. God's timing and ours are not the same. That is, even things about which God has made unequivocal promises, His timing is "different," to say the least. Consider Abraham: Promised a land, great blessing, and a nation descended from he and his wife. Yet at 100 years old and with a 90-year-old wife, there is still no son, never mind a mighty nation numbering "like the stars or the sand." Even after the child of promise, Isaac, is born, it's hardly an auspicious beginning. Sarah dies a few years later, and all Abraham has is his wealth (such as exists for a nomad in a tent), a cave at the end of a field as burial plot for his wife, paid for at exorbitant cost, and the solo son of promise, whose wife also has a fertility problem. In the same way, Hebrews 11 reminds us that "These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen them and welcomed them from afar..." (11:13; cf. 39). God kept his promises, but not in the timing that the people to whom He made those promises expected. Consider Abraham again: Did a nation of millions ever descend from Abraham? Did they receive the Land that God promised? Were Abraham's descendants a great blessing to all the nations of the earth (not to mention, One in particular)? Yes, yes, and yes. But God's timing wasn't Abraham's, nor was it that of the others of Hebrews 11, nor is it ours.
  6. God's perspective and mine aren't the same. As a pastor, I've lost track of the number of people I've visited in hospital rooms. I've similarly lost track of the number of people with serious and/or terminal diseases for whom I've prayed. I always pray for healing, but a whole bunch of these people have still died. Yet in many of these cases, I believe that God healed. How is that possible? Well, I think we assume that in order for God to heal, he has to heal the person temporarily, as in He must postpone his/her eventual death a bit longer. Yet that isn't necessarily best for the person. Revelation 21 and 22 make it pretty clear that there is no more "mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (v. 21:4). Which is better, to be permanently healed and live in God's presence in a world without pain, or to temporarily healed, only to die again later, as all of us must? Permanent healing is obviously better. So is "departing to be with Christ," as Paul phrased it (Phil. 1:23). Yet that's not how we think of it. I think the same is true of more "mundane" prayer requests too. God's perspective isn't ours, nor are His ways our ways (Isaiah 55:8).

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