Q. I don’t know if I’ve really ever gotten through to God in prayer. Some great things have happened to me over the years and I’ve said, “Thank you, God” for them. I’ve looked up at the stars and said, “Wow, that’s awesome, God!” But I’ve also been through some really tough things, and I’ve prayed about them, too, but I’m not sure what happened.
I knew I should never ask for anything selfish, like riches. I just prayed for God’s will to be evident, or for a really sick friend to be healed, or for some victims of a horrible accident, or financial problems to be straightened out. I’ve tried the “If it’s your will, Lord” prayers. Some worked out, some didn’t.
I’ve read many verses about prayer. One says to ask believing that it has already been done for you. Another says, “Ask, seek, knock.” There’s that parable Jesus told about the widow getting her wish because she wears the unjust judge out with her asking.
I’ve heard a lot of answers to this problem:
“Just trust God and He will reveal Himself.”
“We can never know the Mind of God.”
“He knows the best thing for us, even if we can’t see it now.”
“God wants us to speak with Him as a young child, so keep praying.”
“Jesus showed us how to pray, so follow His example.”
“Many people prayed for things and it came about, so don’t give up.”
I need some assurance at this point.
Thank you for this honest and heartfelt question, which I’m sure many, many other readers of this blog will feel as well. Prayer is central to the relationship we’re meant to have with God, but it’s also complex and mysterious, and I don’t pretend to be able to explain everything about it. But I can share with you some of the things I think I’ve discovered from the prayers in the Scriptures.
I think your question itself illustrates one essential point: prayer is not meant to be primarily a way of asking for things; rather, it’s a way of living in relationship with God. And you’re already living in relationship with God through prayer. You describe how you use it to express your thanks for his blessings and your praise for his wonders. In other words, sometimes there’s not an expectation that a prayer will be “answered” with a particular result. It’s just a way for us to express ourselves to God. I’m certain that in those prayers, you got through.
The Bible is full of prayers of praise and thanksgiving. In fact, biblical prayers typically contain a much higher percentage of praise and thanksgiving than ours often do. So one important thing we can learn about prayer from the Bible is to use it regularly to express our gratitude and wonder to God.
Another important purpose we discover in the Scriptures is this: talking to God in prayer enables us to move from a place where we are questioning God’s power and goodness to a place where we have a confident trust in God, even in troubling circumstances. The most common kind of psalm by far is the “psalm of supplication,” whose essential purpose is to enable the writer to make this move. (This is discussed at length in the Psalms study guide, in sessions 2 and 7-11.) In these biblical psalms of supplication we see people make it to all stages along the way from questioning to trust. It’s a powerful and helpful model for us.
So in this case the expected result is not so much in the world around us, but inside us. It sounds to me that prayer also “worked” for you when you were able to trust God with the really tough things that were happening to you.
But I recognize that your ultimate question is about those times when we are hoping for and expecting a result in the world around us: for someone to be healed physically, or for a material need to be met, or for a relationship to mended–things like that. We would know that we’d “gotten through” if we got the result we were praying for. And what I see in the Bible is that prayer is also meant to be a means by which God can use us as his agents to bring about results like these. In other words, God wants to work through our prayers to achieve his purposes.
We often see this happen in the Bible. For example, the early church in Acts was “earnestly praying to God” for Peter’s release from prison, and he was miraculously set free. We also see it in Nehemiah’s prayer for favor with his king, who let him go to Jerusalem to rebuild its walls. We see it in Daniel’s prayer for the return of the exiles, and in many other places.
However, we also have to acknowledge that in the Bible we see some petitions and intercessions (that is, prayers for oneself and for others) fail to achieve the desired result. Just before the apostle Peter was miraculously released from Herod’s prison, the apostle James was put to death by Herod. But I’m sure the early church was praying for the safety and deliverance of both men.
The clearest example for me is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He made a specific request: “May this cup be taken from me” (in other words, keep me from being executed). But he was crucified anyway. If even Jesus didn’t get what he asked for, how can any of us be sure that our prayers ever get through?
But I think Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane actually illustrates one more important thing about prayer. When God wants to work through our prayers, he calls us into an interactive process of speaking and listening. This process may last for days or even weeks, rather than take place in one concentrated night as in Gethsemane. (I think that’s what Jesus wanted to show us through the parable of the widow and the judge.) Over the course of this process, we come to discern the will of God more and more clearly, so that we can pray with more and more confidence for it. The ultimate goal is for us to receive bold faith from a clear assurance of God’s will, and to see the prayer that’s prayed in that faith answered. I think Jesus’ teachings about “ask, seek, knock” and “believing that we have already received” apply to these cases specifically.
But the description of this process suggests that we begin in a place where we don’t have a clear assurance of God’s will. That’s where the “if it’s your will, Lord” comes in. We begin by saying what we think God might want for us, but with the expectation that we will hear from God in response (if not in an audible voice, then at least in a change of heart, a new perspective, or something like that). In light of that response, we adapt our prayers, and the process of speaking and listening continues until we reach either a place where we are completely surrendered to God’s will, whatever that might be, or a place where we have a confident assurance of God’s will and a bold faith that our prayers will be instrumental in its realization.
It’s eye-opening and encouraging for me to think that, on this model, Jesus in Gethsemane actually began in a place where he wasn’t certain that it was God’s will for him to receive what he was asking for–an escape from the cross–and that he reached a place not where he knew his petition would be granted, but where he was yielded to God’s will, even if it wasn’t what he was asking for. I’d say he definitely “got through” on that occasion, and perhaps, looking back on your experiences, you’ll recognize some where you “got through” in the same way. But I hope you’ll also recognize some experiences where your initial impulse to pray for something turned out to be what God wanted, and that he used your prayers over time to bring about his purposes.