I was having one of those wonderful father moments chatting with my son at bed time when I asked him if there was anything that he would like to pray about. His answer startled me in its raw honesty. He asked, “Why should I pray when God never answers my prayers?” This comment brought to mind many faces of others who have expressed similar disappointment.
When people talk to me about disappointment in their prayer lives, I might ask them to also describe the God to whom they pray. Over the last few years as I have listened to people praying and to their disappointment in prayer, I have come to wonder if they need to rethink their theology concerning the god to whom they pray. Is the God to whom they are praying in fact the God that has revealed himself in Scripture? Just because someone says they pray to god does not necessarily mean they are praying to the God of Scripture.
My growing sense is that the God of the
scriptures has been reduced to a genie in a bottle. You will recall the story of Aladdin and the
Lamp. Aladdin was a poor street kid who found a lamp. When he polished the lamp,
out came a genie who offered the owner of the lamp three wishes—any wish
(prayer) his heart desired—except that the genie could not make someone fall in
love with the owner of the lamp. The connection is obvious. There seems to be a
growing number of Christians who perceive God in this way: a genie who, when
polished, stroked and enticed, will grant our wishes.
Now it is true that we are invited to pray anything and everything that concerns us. I don’t want to suggest that praying for things that matter to us are wrong. The scriptures encourage this and God therefore welcomes honest prayers for help. The Psalms provide raw emotional responses to God in the midst of very difficult situations. God is big enough and welcomes these responses.
We pray because through Jesus Christ, we have access to the very throne room of God (Heb. 4:16). Jesus himself invites us to pray and promises that whatever we ask in His name, He will do it. (Jn. 14:13, 14). Wow! That is an incredible promise that could easily be interpreted as three wishes offered by the genie.
It is important and right to acknowledge the biblical place of intercessory prayer where we are invited by God to express, clarify and seek God’s grace-filled hand (I Tim. 2:1). This is mysterious and marvelously fertile ground for those who seek God first, believing all else will be taken care of by God. But the issue I keep coming back to centers on the heart attitude behind the prayers offered to God. A few questions of the heart might help clarify what I mean.
- Does my heart suffer seasons of anger, confusion, disappointment or anxiety toward God? Or can I say, “Your will, not my will, be done,” authentically?
- Can my heart rest in God’s providence and intention to see Himself glorified in all things?
- Do I find myself marveling at God’s perfection, beauty and indwelling transformation?
- Do I feel I will miss out on something if I don’t pray it first?
To stand before the God who holds the
universe in His hands is a very intimidating thought. I think our words would
be fewer if we know more of the nature, attributes and character of God. But to
stand before a genie is to think we have him to ourselves and to our every whim—that
He is bound to our wishes and self-centered existence.
We in North America
The God of Scripture is far, far greater
than the limits of our understanding and expectations. He is “totally other.”
Paul asks, “Who can know the mind of the Lord or who can give Him counsel? By “totally other,” we mean that we cannot
fully know Him or proclaim that we can know Him. His ways are truly not our
I also believe that the genies we pray to
will forsake us, but the God of the scriptures will never forsake us. So to whom or what are you praying?
Prayer, I think, is our response to the God
who is always working, initiating, loving, directing. It is a posture of expectant
openness to God’s previous action. He is not limited to or by our actions. Some
at this point might argue that we are co-workers with God and therefore have
influence with God about His work and activity (cf. 2 Cor. 3:9). I agree with
this, although it leaves me both excited and dumbfounded. But the key concept Paul is teaching in this
context is that God is the initiator, the leader. We as co-workers are called
to figure out what He is doing and desiring and then work with him to
accomplish those doings and desires.
What if instead of sending a wish list, we asked God a few questions like:
- God how can I serve you in this situation?
- Are there purposes you are hoping to accomplish through me?
- Is there anything I
need to give up or give over to you?
When it comes to praying, I find these
words by Stanley Jones most instructive and freeing: “Today I will not struggle
and try, but surrender and trust.” This posture of the heart helps me settle
into a relaxed attitude about life and its unpredictability. The good theology
behind this statement suggests that God is big, God is in control, God can be
trusted, God is loving and very involved in my life—without me having to inform
him of details He perhaps has missed. One of my mentors challenged me with the
idea that if a Bible-believing Christ follower is not in a state of relaxed freedom then something is
or has gone wrong. God’s directive in Psalm 46:10 needs to be polished and
dusted for its luster to shine bright again: “Be still and know that I am God.”
Ps. 46:10 “Be still and know that I am
God…and not a genie. I know what is best for you and for my purposes—you don’t.
And therefore, what you sometimes wish for is not necessarily the best option