This is the second post in a series about how God answers prayer.
Jesus makes bold claims about prayer. Whenever his followers pray together about something his Father will do what they have asked.
In other words, God answers prayer. Jesus put it this way:
If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. (Matthew 18:19)
And yet, many of us can report disappointment that our prayers go unanswered.
Surely prayers have ascended from the ranks of the unemployed and the homeless, the abused and the sick. Relationships have crumbled and workplaces have remained toxic despite a barrage of faithful prayer. Churches pray every week—even every day—for peace and good harvests, and yet wars and famine still ravage the planet.
How can we reconcile our experience of disappointment with Jesus’ bold promise?
Let’s begin by taking Jesus at his word. God answers our prayers. Not by saying “yes” sometimes and “no” other times. When two or three of Jesus’ disciples agree in prayer, God grants their petition.
And let’s dismiss right now the idea that Jesus was only talking to the hyper-faithful among his followers. He was talking to disciples who routinely misunderstood him, said embarrassingly stupid things, and eventually abandoned him at his time of greatest need for their friendship. (Mark 8:14-17; 9:33-34; 14:50)
Okay. This means that God is answering your prayers and my prayers even when it doesn’t seem like it. The problem lies in how we see things, not in what God is doing in our lives.
There is something distorting and obscuring our vision. Our most basic problem is a case of mistaken identity. We have misconstrued who we are and what our purpose is in this life. As a result, we misunderstand who God is and the role that prayer plays in our relationship with God.
So, who do we think we are and why do we think we are here?
We think that we are self-reliant and self-governing. To use a more philosophical sounding phrase, we consider ourselves autonomous agents. We stand on our own two feet. We shape our lives by the choices we freely make.
Some who hold this view argue that the point of human life is happiness. For the most part they mean earthly well-being: good feelings, physical comforts, career success, and warm family relationships. In other words, the choices we make are guided by the pursuit of happiness as our highest goal.
Others insist that the point of this life is the next life. The moral quality of our choices determines whether we enter heaven or hell after this life is over. That is to say, the choices we make are governed by our hope for our soul’s eternal salvation.
Whether we think of ourselves as pursuing the good life or eternal life, we still think of the pursuit as principally our own. God’s activity is an intervention in the ordinary course of things or simply a judgment when everything is said and done.
This gives us only three possible approaches to prayer, each of which turns out to be unsatisfactory.
The first approach to prayer you might call Instrumental Prayer. It goes something like this:
We pray to God only to get something for ourselves or for someone else. The problem is that we only reach out to God for what he can do for us or get for us. We don’t love God for who he is. He’s just an instrument for pursuing our own agenda.
Let’s call the next unsatisfactory approach Resignation Prayer:
Recognizing that God’s will is sovereign, we may bring our fears, concerns and needs to God, but we always end each prayer with the phrase, “Thy will be done.” The problem is not a desire to align our will with God. This would in fact be a good thing.
Instead, we’ve simply put in pious words our deep suspicion that God doesn’t really care about the tender specifics of our lives. We’ve resigned ourselves to the idea that God won’t do anything for us unless it just happens to be on his own agenda already. This is resignation, not faith.
Finally, let’s look at what we might call Self-Transforming Prayer:
This is especially common among those who loudly classify themselves as spiritual but not religious. Prayer is a spiritual exercise that helps us to change our own souls. It’s a means of spiritual growth that we apply to ourselves.
The problem here is that prayer becomes a way of focusing on ourselves instead of giving ourselves away as the living sacrifice that St. Paul talks about. (Romans 12:1) We spend our energies on self-transformation instead of connected more deeply with God.
Each of these approaches to prayer misses the point in large part because they begin with a misconception of who we really are.
We are not autonomous agents. We are radically dependent beings. And as followers of Jesus Christ, we are people with a mission. Jesus himself has sent us into the world to continue the mission he began himself.
This is the key to understanding how God always answers the faithful’s prayers. And that is the subject of the next post in this series.
(The image above is Frederick Carl Frieseke’s “Woman with a Mirror” found at this link.)