CHAPTER FIVE

PRAYER: WHAT IT AIN'T

PRAYER: WHAT IT IS

 

††††††††††† When Jennifer, my oldest daughter, was tiny, four or five years old,she played withan imaginary playmate named Lisa. During our family prayers each night, Jennifer insisted that we pray for the imaginary troubles of the imaginary Lisa.

††††††††††† Every night Jennifer announced the latest Lisa dilemma: "Lisa is going to Africa as a missionary... Lisa needs new clothes... Lisa is pregnant... Lisa is getting married... Lisa wants a Barbie doll,.. Lisa got run over by a car... Lisa has cancer, Let's pray for Lisa".

††††††††††† This presented me with a dilemma: Should I encourage this behavior? Is it proper to pray about such imaginary troubles?

††††††††††† As I pondered the question, an odd but comfortingthought impressed itself on my mind: Relax, John, just about every worry you yourself pray over is imaginary too!

††††††††††† Obviously there's a difference between imagining and praying but our familycontinued to "pray" for Lisa until a kitten replaced her in Jennifer's affections.

††††††††††† Jennifer is now married to Mike, a fireman, and she works as a registered nurse in a charity hospital where she cares for AIDS and crack babies; she was not always so compassionate:

††††††††††† During family devotions one night when she was in second grade, Jennifer prayed earnestly, "Dear Jesus, please make Joey get real sick so I can have his part in the school play."

††††††††††† She obviously learned to pray like that from me.

††††††††††† Although I have learned to couch my prayers in more refined wording, often I have vocalized the same sort of selfish sentiment when I have wanted something.

††††††††††† Are our selfish greedy sentiments really prayers?

††††††††††† When we question why a specific prayer of ours has not been answered, one question we need to ask ourselves is "Have I really been praying or have I merely been imagining things -- or just wishing?"

John -- slim and trim

††††††††††† For instance, I wish I could lose weight. I have not prayed to Almighty God for me to lose weight.

††††††††††† You see, it would be kind of nice to regain my sleek boyish figure, to lounge on the beach without being self-conscious, to draw an admiring glance from the girls. I'd like that. I even say now and then, "I'd like to lose about 30 pounds"; but I'd like to lose that weight overnight without any discomfort to my self.

††††††††††† I wish I were magically, immediately slim and trim.

††††††††††† I have not prayed to lose weight.

††††††††††† Knowing what I do of him, I suspect that if I were toask God to help me lose weight, he'd put me on a diet. He'd take away my Twinkies. He'd deprive me of Pepsi Cola. He'd cut off my Pringles. He'd feed me celery.

††††††††††† He might even make me exercise!

††††††††††† In other words, God wouldtake my request seriously. More seriously than I do myself.

††††††††††† Are you wishing, or are you praying?

How bad do we want our prayers answered?

††††††††††† I once talked with a woman who made a great show of praying for the conversion of her unregenerate husband.

††††††††††† "I been praying for that man to get saved for 15 years," she said.

††††††††††† She said she had faith that God would eventually save Lester but she wondered aloud why God had not already answered her prayer.

††††††††††† I took her request seriously and offered to go talk with Lester about his soul's salvation.

††††††††††† The idea set her aghast. "Don't do that," she pleaded. "I don't want him upset and it would just set him off if you was to go".

††††††††††† The more we talked about her prayers for her husband, the more it became evident that whatever prayers she uttered, she did not want him converted.

††††††††††† She enjoyed telling all and sundry about his beer-drinking, cigar-smoking faults. She relished telling about the struggles she endured trying to get him to come to church.

††††††††††† His slobishness showcased her virtue.

††††††††††† But it also annoyed her.

††††††††††† It annoyed her to the extent that she wished he'd be a nice guy.

††††††††††† Her concern was not about his soul's eternal salvation but about how nice it would be if Lester would stop his beer guzzling, Playboy reading and dirty talking. It would be nice if he'd shave and dress up and drive her to church Sunday mornings.

††††††††††† But I wonder if she'd really seriously asked God Almighty to save her husband whatever the cost to her.

Wish or pray?

††††††††††† Now there is nothing wrong with wishing and daydreaming.

††††††††††† But we should recognize the difference between those activities and praying.

††††††††††† To wish is to have a desire for something, but it is a relatively weak desire. The term wishy-washy shows how lacking in strength that desire is. We'd like to believe that such and such will happen; but we don't much expect it to and, while it would be nice, we certainly don't intend to work to make it happen. A wish is uttered into the air. It is seldom directed toward anyone in particular.

††††††††††† A prayer, on the other hand, is specifically addressed to Someone. Webster's defines pray as to entreat, to implore, to make an earnest plea. A prayer expresses a strong desire, a real lack, an urgent request. There is nothing wishy-washy about it. Prayer concerns something you really want, something important to you, something you really care about.

††††††††††† Unfortunately I find that I often drift into mouthing vague good wishes when I think that I am praying.

††††††††††† You know the kind of thing; "And bless the missionaries in Africa. And help the doctors doing AIDS research. And fix the economy. And the guys in prison. And Randy and Lisa. And the U.S. Olympic teams. And the whole state of Christ's church and the world... Oh, yes, and Sheba's new puppies too."

††††††††††† And while I feel pious from having done my duty in prayer, I doubt if that sort of vaporizing racks up many points with God.

Why pray when you can worry?

††††††††††† Another thing I sometimes substitute for prayer isnot wishing -- but worrying.

††††††††††† To worry is to repeatedly agitate a subject mentally, to give that subject persistent nagging attention. The word worry originally meant to constrict, choke or strangle; it was used of a dog shaking a rat in its teeth.

††††††††††† When something worries me, I'm the said squeaking rat; and my "prayer" runs something like this:

††††††††††† "Dear God, they are going to cut our lights off if I don't pay that bill by Thursday. And payday isn't till next week. And the hamburger in the freezer will spoil. But maybe we can eat it Thursday afternoon. Or if it begins to turn, we can feed it to Sheba. Maybe we'll have to because I'd forgot that the stove is electric too and we won't have any way to cook. I'll get out the charcoal grill and we can cook on the back porch. That's it. Make a picnic out of it. Have to do something like that to keep the kids amused because they won't be able to watch tv. Maybe I'll read to them some. But if we don't have electricity, we won't have lights either. I know, I'll get out some candles. Better be careful; if one gets knocked over, the house could catch fire. Then we'd really be in a fix. All the clothes gone and us standing out in the street in our underwear with blankets over out shoulders and my hairy legs sticking out. And my books all burned up, how would I work. And the landlord will have me arrested for cooking on a grill inside. But if we don't cook it, the hamburger will spoil. And even if we feed it to Sheba, it might make her sick all over the rug. And we can't shampoo it because that takes electricity too. And If I ask Mrs. Herschel, the old busybody, to keep it in her freezer, she'll know that our lights are off and She'll..."

††††††††††† I can spend hours in "prayer" like that.

††††††††††† Worry focuses on the problem; wishing seldom focuses at all; prayer focuses on Jesus.

What exactly did Jesus promise about prayer?

††††††††††† Lets look at some of the things Jesus taught about prayer in the four Gospels:

††††††††††† First, two passages from his Sermon from the Mount:

††††††††††† "When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."

-- Matthew 6:5-8 NIV

††††††††††† "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

††††††††††† "Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those ask him!"-- Matthew 7:7-11 NIV

††††††††††† These words from Christ's Sermon on the Mount were addressed to the disciples within the hearing of a large crowd of other people.

††††††††††† The promises Christ makes are comprehensive, the conditions he mentions are few.

††††††††††† We are to pray in secret, behind closed doors. God who sees in secret will reward. We don't need to babble because God knows what we ask even before we begin praying.

††††††††††† Ask and it will be given. Whoever asks receives. Prayer demonstrates our child/Father relationship with God. Like the best of earthly fathers, the Father will give good gifts to his children who ask, He certainly gives nothing less than what they ask for.

Figs and faith

††††††††††† Mark's Gospel records Jesus cursing the barren fig tree and the disciple's amazement at the incident. Speaking to the twelve, Jesus said:

††††††††††† "Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins."-- Mark 11:22-25 NIV

††††††††††† Again we see the sweeping scope of prayer -- "Whatever you ask for" -- and two important conditions; we can ask for anything without limit and it will be ours -- if we ask in faith and if we forgive. Jesus repeats these two conditions for answered prayer often but the one he emphasizes most is forgiving others.

††††††††††† Notice the strong link between forgiving and praying -- if you hold anything against anyone. Here again the child/Father relationship shows up; we are to forgive as our Father does.

The petitions of a pest

††††††††††† In Luke's Gospel, just after Jesus told his disciples about his Second Coming, he taught them another lesson about prayer:

††††††††††† "Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said, 'In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.'

††††††††††† "For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming.'

††††††††††† "And the Lord said, 'Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"-- Luke 18:1-8 NIV

††††††††††† Jesus often used comparisons between God and earthly examples which in the mouth of anyone else might seem irreverent -- a thief in the night, a dead body where vultures gather, an unjust judge. In this prayer parable, we see an uncaring man worn down by the woman's persistent asking; will God keep putting us off?

††††††††††† Even when our prayers seem to get nowhere, Jesus teaches that we are not to give up. When we do not see an immediate answer, the temptation is to despair of ever getting any answer; but, as the old proverb goes, "God may not answer when you want him to, but when he does, he's never late!"

Holy praying and unholy living

††††††††††† Luke says that one day when Jesus was teaching the general public in the temple courtyard, some of the wheels of the day badgered him with heckling questions regarding John the Baptist, paying taxes, resurrection and marriage. Jesus used that occasion to teach another important element of prayer:

††††††††††† "While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, 'Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widow's houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely."-- Luke 20:45-47 NIV

Punished for praying!!!

††††††††††† Yes. Here Jesus links prayer with an honest lifestyle. What we think of as shrew business practices can certainly turn our prayers to curses on our own heads! We can legally take advantage of the poor, the underprivileged, the orphan and widow. We can legally turn a profit in the slums. We can turn aside from the homeless. But then even long prayers will not turn aside our great damnation.

††††††††††† You can't live a goat and die a lamb.

††††††††††† A total Christian lifestyle must be linked with Christian prayer -- Trust and Do. Trust in the Lord and do good.

Two things to pray for

††††††††††† Luke says that shortly after the above teaching, perhaps even the same evening, The disciples pointed out the beauty of the temple's construction to Jesus and he foretold Jerusalem's destruction and his own coming again in a cloud with power and great glory; then he said this concerning prayer:

††††††††††† "Be careful or your hearts will be weighted down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap. For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you will be able to stand before the Son of Man."-- Luke 21:43-36 NIV

††††††††††† We are to pray to escape and to stand.

††††††††††† We are to pray about the general dissipation we see around us daily; I frequently use the tv evening news as a prompter for prayer about how fouled up this world is, about drunkenness, drug addiction and the general emptiness life holds for people living Godless lives.

††††††††††† We are to pray about the anxieties of life; you know enough about those already.

††††††††††† We are to pray that we may escape these things. We are to pray to escape the effects of them and we are to pray that we may not contribute to them, so that we will be able to stand before Jesus when he returns.

††††††††††† Again we see that Jesus links the general tone of our lives to our prayers. To pray Christian, we must live Christian. Trust and do.

††††††††††† Andrew Murray, author of The Prayer Life, said, "The prayer life is not something which can be improved by itself. It is so intimately bound up with the entire spiritual life that it is only when that whole life becomes renewed and sanctified that prayer can have its rightful place of power. We must not be satisfied with less than the victorious life to which God calls his children."

If we pray then... WHAT!

††††††††††† John's Gospel tells that during the Last Supper after Jesus washed the disciples' feet and Judas left, Jesus spoke at length about the coming of the Comforter, about Heaven, and about prayer:

††††††††††† "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. he will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it."-- John 14: 12 - 14 NIV

††††††††††† "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing... If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you."-- John 15:5-7 NIV

††††††††††† "You did not choose me, but I chose you to go and bear fruit -- fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other."-- John 15:16-17 NIV

††††††††††† "Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete."†† -- John 16:22-24 NIV

††††††††††† Flabbergasting!

††††††††††† Whatever! Whatever! Whatever!

††††††††††† Anything! Anything! Anything!

††††††††††† Ask! Ask! Ask!

††††††††††† Ask whatever you wish.

††††††††††† Nothing imaginary, worrisome or wishy-washy about this kind of prayer.

††††††††††† I will do whatever you ask in my name... I will do it...It will be given you... The Father will give you whatever you ask in my name... Ditto... Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete!

††††††††††† Wow!

Our part

††††††††††† We are to abide, remain, love, bear fruit, ask. Ask in Jesus name.

††††††††††† Now, we should not get hung up on the phrase in Jesus name. There is no secret formula here; it is simply that on the basis of our relationship with him we can be bold to approach the very throne of God expecting to be well received. As Christ-ones we already do ask in Jesus' name.

What about mystical union?

††††††††††† I have talked with some deeply spiritual Christians who have almost abandoned the literal meaning of the words John records. They seem to feel that prayer means being aware of God's presence, that we should pray about a mystic communion with God and that simple asking for things is an inferior, childish, kind of prayer.

††††††††††† Do you see that idea in the sections of Jesus' teachings we've just read? Is that what Jesus taught?

What about the prosperity gospel?

††††††††††† I've talked with other Christian who seem to feel that God is obligated to give them all the trappings of success and business prosperity because they have prayed for this stuff.

††††††††††† Is that what Jesus taught?

††††††††††† From my reading of the four Gospels, it looks to me as though Jesus didn't have an awful lot to say about achieving spiritual ecstasy through prayer, at least so much so that material stuff drops out of our prayers altogether.

††††††††††† On the other hand, what kind of prosperity did he enjoy? Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but Jesus didn't exactly live in the Zip Code 90210section of Jerusalem. He sat in somebody else's boat to teach. He rode someone else's donkey in his Triumphal Entry. His cross was government property. He borrowed a tomb to be buried in -- and he returned ithardly used. Asking and receiving material things apparently played little part in his prayer life.

††††††††††† All this confuses me.

††††††††††† When I have prayed, I have hardly ever felt the overwhelming presence of the Lord God Almighty High and Lifted Up, the Numinous, the scary presence of pure Holiness that makes me lie face-down on the floor saying, "Depart from me for I am a sinful man".

††††††††††† Neither have I got all that many goodies when I've asked for them.

††††††††††† Sometimes I feel like a Christian chopped liver.

††††††††††† Do you suppose that God is mad at me?


 

You have been reading Chapter Five of the book Why Donít I Get What I Pray For? by John W. Cowart (IVP, 1993)

Click here for Chapter Six

END

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