March 29th, 2011 by Dale Fincher
I’ve gone round and round with God on prayer. How we as finite creatures can reach out to an infinite God is baffling. What is more puzzling is that he might be persuaded!
Persuading the Almighty leaves me restless, not because he hears me but that I have this nagging feeling that he should already know better. If my neighbor is going bankrupt, God knows my neighbor more than I do, and knew of the bankruptcy before time began. Why does he wait for my petition before making his move? Or would he have acted already, regardless of my prayers?
Then there are prayers of cross-purposes, where a farmer prays for rain on his crops and, across the street, a wife prays for open skies as her husband sails home. Which prayer is stronger? Which does God answer? My mom said she sometimes prayed that God would make sure the kooky petitions on her behalf wouldn’t get confused with the good ones. Thankfully, unlike karma and boutique spirituality, God’s less interested in who has the most energy and more interested in inviting people into his designs.
Students often write me, “If I pray for God to do something and then it happens, how do I know it wasn’t going to happen anyway? Maybe I just prayed at the right time to make it appear that God was doing something!” Tough question. I don’t want to be superstitious about prayer and assign everything in the world to supernatural happenings. Most of us know better: If my horoscope predicts I’ll have a bad day, that doesn’t mean the stars caused it. In fact, usually when I flip through the horoscopes, I’m wildly entertained at their inconsistency. One entry describes my day as Taurus, the next as Libra. And though I’m a Sagittarius by birth, the predictions differ with each publication (google it and see!) So why does it matter? Many feel like prayer is the same way.
I’ve wondered myself if petitionary prayer is more like a lucky charm than a communication with God. I’ve watched friends use prayer to avoid responsibility, like praying God will open doors without doing their part to knock on them. And I cringe when I hear speakers advertize prayer carelessly, like saying, “If you have enough faith, God will always give you what you want,” or saying that prayer is the only explanation for some events that could be explained in natural ways. By applying answered prayer to everything it can hurt the weaker faith of unbelievers who yearn for a sighting of the hand of God.
Still I’m more frustrated that God answers lesser prayers without answering what to me are far greater prayers. Abraham, I think, felt this when he prayed for Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33). I remember vividly a few years ago when I lost my wallet. I searched for several days and asked God to help me find it. When I eventually did—somehow kicked under my bed—I danced like the woman who found her coin. But as soon as the lost was found, another weight hung on my heart. For years I’d been praying for my mom to be healed of cancer. I’d gladly swap a wallet for a mother. But God doesn’t make prayer-trades.
Some people say that God always answers our prayers with one of four words: yes, no, maybe, wait. But that’s not what we really mean by “answer.” When we weep over unanswered prayer, we weep over prayers ungranted. It’s the granting of some and not the granting of others that is hard.
It is good for me to sit in these puzzles, to press into the heart of God, to humble myself before the mystery of his purposes. I guess, for me, it isn’t ungranted prayer that bothers me so much as the burden that comes with it. I need to be assured of God’s goodness, that he isn’t willy-nilly with his work in the world, that he has the best things in mind, even when it looks like the world is crumbling before me, my family, and my friends. J.P. Moreland once remarked when I was in school that one of his greatest obstacles to faith is unanswered prayers. I relate. Can I still call God good when it seems he’s left me hanging? Do I still continue to make my petitions to him when it seems they make no difference?
Today, I’ve come to understand granted and ungranted prayers in a way that weaves itself into my life, between my desires and God’s, wrestling on the ledge of God’s story.
Rich Mullins once remarked on the characters necessary to the Gospel story. God is needed, so is Jesus. Mary needs to birth Jesus. Corrupt religious leaders to accuse him; Judas to betray; Pilate to sentence; a centurion to nail him up. Of all the people needed in the pivotal turnings of the story, few were nice people. God didn’t need eleven of the disciples to make the story happen. Yet, Rich adds, Mark 3:13 says “Jesus called to him those he wanted.” For us, it is better to be wanted by Jesus than to be needed by Jesus.
I think of petitions in that way. They are more wanted by God than needed.
If God has mapped out human history, if he knows every mark and how to bring all to an apocalyptic climax where the whole world will be washed in redemption or judgment, most details in our everyday lives are not needed to bring his story to an end. Nor can the things needed for his grand finale be changed by our prayers, no matter how fervent we are.
Yet along the way, we pray for things less crucial to his larger story. Many of these things God grants out of his sheer pleasure of working with us. James says, “You do not have because you do not ask God” (James 4:2) His works are acts of abundant grace when his children reach out to bring his goodness into the world.
This allows me to trust that God is not only in control of the cosmos to the last syllable of time, but he is willing to act in my sphere of influence. He lets both my will and my prayers interact with my neighbors. His actions are not hindered because he doesn’t know what’s going on. Rather, without my prayers, he may act in whispered ways because nobody has asked him to act out loud.
Ultimately my burden is made lighter knowing that when my prayers are ungranted God is up to something else, something bigger. I may be intersecting with an essential thread of the grand human story, seeing his finger traced in time, his plan marching to the cadence of his voice. Perhaps even seeing his plans for a moment, like praying to meet our neighbor and then it happens so quickly after we pray; or praying for a right response in an open forum and it, spontaneously rides in on a separate train of thought; or even preserving my own mother’s life far longer than the doctors expected. In these things I notice the golden thread of God’s work playing out and my little parts in the play.
And when my mother died, I grieved, but took comfort knowing I could release her, like an airport good-bye, for a later reunion. And Another is with us to the end of the world.
We can offer thanks for ungranted prayers, for his invitation to glimpse the larger story. After all, would I want him to answer prayers that interfered with his plans? Would I want to prevent my mother the Joy of relief from pain, of sitting at the foot of the Throne, of welcoming the saints as they arrive, of her splendid resurrection on the last day? We ask to know God’s will and I am confident that, for my mother, this is his. How can I not step back from my desires and celebrate the fulfilling of hers! “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done!”
The problem of prayer is less of a problem for me now. But maybe that’s because I better trust the God who holds the beginning and the end. I know he wants me to work with him in the world. He wants me to hand him even my smallest human needs.
In the next fledge, we’ll meditate on how wide prayer goes into the everyday things, where every foot falls on holy ground.