The Problem of Prayer


I have been wrestling with the concept of prayer lately. I do it… a lot. I believe that God listens to me. But do my prayers really influence God or change his mind? Do I really have the power over God to change the course of history? I’m not sure that I will give you the answer you are looking for and I apologize for that. But I do plan on giving you an honest, Bible based discussion on prayer and it’s a discussion that I am working out in my head as I type. So bear with me if my thoughts get a little deep or messy as I sort through them. Also, I could be wrong. I encourage you to fact check everything I write and then submit your own thoughts below in the comment section. This is a work in progress.

The Dilemma

I grew up with the impression that we can change God’s mind if we just pray enough or hard enough. For example, I remember praying for sick people and asking God for healing. Yes, some of them got better, sometimes miraculously. But sometimes they didn’t and even died. So what happened to the prayers? Didn’t they work? Didn’t I pray hard enough? Didn’t I pray long enough? Wasn’t I serious enough? Didn’t I use fancy enough words or enough thees and thous? And if my prayers were ineffective why even bother? Yet James 5:13-16 says”

13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

These verses make it sound so cut and dry-  1. Be righteous 2. Pray in faith. 3. Sick person is made well/sins forgiven. But so often it doesn’t seem to work like that and I think it’s part of the reason non-Christians are non-Christians. Prayers look ineffective if we don’t get the outcome we desire and one of two conclusions may then be drawn- Either God doesn’t really care about what we pray about and will do whatever he pleases anyway or God simply doesn’t exist. Now before you Christians get all bent out of shape, relax. I don’t believe either of these conclusions. I do think that there is a God and that he loves us and cares about us. But it is legitimate point that non-Christians have and we as Christians need to be able to answer these questions when it comes to our faith.

In fact, there is a verse in the Bible that makes it sound like the squeaky wheel gets the grease when it comes to asking God for stuff. It’s found in Luke 18:1-8. In this story God is represented by the judge and we are the widow:

18 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 what people thought. 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 what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

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?”

Basically it sounds like if you bug God enough then you will get your own way. I don’t know about you but I don’t like that theory and yet there it is in the Bible, in black and white.

Jesus tells another similar story found in Luke 11 right after the Lord’s prayer. The Friend represents God in this story and we are the ones asking for bread:

Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

Really? God doesn’t want to be bothered by me but because I boldly asked, he will give me what I want? I don’t like this concept either. Luke 11 continues:

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Are you kidding me? Everyone who asks will receive? Receive what? Receive an immediate desired response from God? Yet, it has been my experience that it doesn’t always work that way. Why not? And why doesn’t God give me what I want if it’s a good thing that I am asking for. Surely asking for a sick person to become healthy is a noble prayer. Yet we know that sometimes sick people die. But the verse also says everyone who asks receives… so what do you do about the two football teams that are about to play each other. Each has a team member who prays and asks God for the win, but someone will lose. Maybe it’s a trite example but the Bible also says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God,” (Phil. 4:6) I take “in every situation,” to mean every situation, whether big or small. So with the football players, who gets to have God’s favor that day if both are promised to receive what they ask for?

The Set Up

Let me set up a basic framework for what I am working on here. First, I recognize there are different kinds of prayer out there. For you Biblical sticklers out there, I will be talking about prayers of supplication or prayers in which we ask God for something. Also, I will be focusing on Bible verses from the New Testament. This is not because I think the Old Testament is old and outdated. It is because, for whatever reason, God seems to speak to his people differently in the New Testament and going forward. I suspect it has something to do with Jesus coming to earth and dramatically changing the way people interact with God. That’s just a sneaking suspicion I have and not a cold-hard fact that I researched though. I might use the Old Testament but if I don’t I didn’t want anyone to say that I ignored the Old Testament because it doesn’t apply to us anymore.

I also think before we discuss whether or not prayer is even important to God we need to answer some other questions like: What is prayer? Why should we pray? How should we pray?

What is prayer? Simply put, prayer is a discussion with God. Note, I didn’t say talking to God. I think too often we talk… and talk… and talk… and talk… but we forget to listen. Discussions are two-way. There is a time to talk, yes, but there is also a time to listen to what the other person, or in this case, God, has to say. Yes, I know it’s a little weird to think about God talking back to us but if you are not praying with the intention that God will be discussing with you, I would say that your concept of prayer is too shallow.

Why should we pray? Well, the easiest answer I can come up with is because Jesus prayed. If we look to him as a model of how to live our lives, then we should strive to do what he did and Jesus prayed. Often. He prayed for healing, for blessing, for deliverance, for daily needs, for lots of stuff. He also thanked God in his prayers. I’ve missed some things, I’m sure. And in the Old Testament prayer was all over the place, too. Prayer is found throughout the Bible and therefore we can assume that it is an important part of our relationship with God. The question is, what is that role?

How should we pray? It’s a good question and one that one of his disciples asked of Jesus. His answer is what we commonly know as the Lord’s prayer. If you break it down into parts, he praises God, he asks for God’s will to be done, he asks God to supply our daily needs, and he asks for deliverance from evil. I don’t believe that Jesus wants us to hold the Lord’s prayer as a holy thing in and of itself. I think he uses it as a model to follow. Not that it’s a bad prayer, but I get a little annoyed when I’m in a church service and the Lord’s prayer is recited as some sort of ritual. Recitation defeats the very purpose of prayer. Prayer is a discussion with God, remember, and I don’t know about you but I don’t go around reciting stuff at my friends when I speak with them. What I find interesting is he never asks God for anything except for daily needs. Not wants, needs. And instead of asking for stuff He thought was important, he asks for God’s will to be done, not his own. I think this is the beginning of our solution to the problem of prayer but I will talk about this more in the next section.

The Solution?

So here we go. I write The Solution? because I’m sure I won’t be able to come up with all the answers. It may even take me a couple of posts to wrestle with this. It’s true that with Christianity some things just have to be taken on faith. And I may get to the end of this and discover that I have no reason to pray other than the fact that God tells us to do it. In fact we are told to, “pray continually,” or, “pray without ceasing,” (1 Thes. 5:17 NIV, KJV respectively).

And what do we do with problem of “unanswered prayers”? What is the point of praying if God is ambiguous to our pleas? Let’s take a closer look at the Lord’s prayer. Specifically, Matthew 6:10 which reads, “…your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If we are doing it correctly, we are using prayer to constantly (remember the pray without ceasing verse) find out what God’s will is… and ask for it to be done, on God’s time and in God’s way. THAT’S DANGEROUS! God’s will is often different than our own. And like I always tell my husband, “It may be God’s will, but I don’t have to like it!” So we pray. We pray for someone to get better. We pray for a raise at work. We pray for help on a test. We pray and ask for what we want but do we ever really care about what God’s will is and do we really want his will done if it’s contrary to what we desire? Do we really want to pray, “Lord, please heal my mom from cancer, but only if it’s your will”? Or do we pray and beg and plead for God to bend his will to our own and miraculously fix the problem? That may be the way we pray but according to Jesus and the model he set for us I believe it is an incorrect approach to prayer.

Pray for God’s will. Is the answer to all our problems really that simple? I think that all of these questions I have asked boils down to those four little words. If we pray for God’s will, then whatever we ask will be received because we are receiving God’s will (which can not be stopped or altered) and not our own. Do we always have to like God’s will? No, sometimes I really don’t like God’s choices, but if you boil my faith down, this one thing remains- God is in control of everything. I don’t have to like what he’s doing but I do need to bend my will to his because he can see the bigger picture of my life. So it hurts to have someone die that I care about but if I truly believe that God in control, I will seek the way he brings about glory to himself as opposed to argue with him about what he’s doing. This principle is also addressed in Scripture. Remember the account of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane? Let me refresh your memory…

36 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. (Matthew 26:36-44)

Jesus prayed not once, but three times for God to take “this cup” (his crucifixion and death) from him. Three times! And yet we read on that Jesus was crucified and died despite his prayer. Was God not listening? Did God not care? Yes, he was listening and yes, he did care. You see, Jesus didn’t just ask for the crucifixion and death to be taken away. He prayed, please, if there is any other possible way for this (the salvation of humanity) to happen, let it be BUT NOT AS I WILL, BUT AS YOU WILL! The beauty of this idea is overwhelming to me. Jesus, bent his will to God, the Father because he knew that God’s plan is bigger than any pain we can face here on earth! What a glorious thought that we can depend on in times of trouble! God’s plan is bigger than any pain we can face here on earth! (It bears repeating).

So all this begs another question. Is praying just an exercise in futility? If God is going to do what God is going to do then why bother? I pose a question as an answer- Could it be that we don’t change the mind of God when we pray but rather we chase the mind of God? Could it be that instead of asking God for miracles for the sake of miracles, we should ask God to do what he plans to do and bend our will to accept it? What if we prayed, “Lord, my mom is sick. Please, we need a miracle. Show your mighty presence and heal her so that everyone may know that you are God… but not my will, but your will be done.”? What if instead of looking for yes or no answers from God we started looking for his heart and desires?

What if we started chasing the mind of God?

The End


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