How many of us have prayed for particular graces from God, but may have only experienced what seems to be an unanswered prayer? We may have made a desperate appeal to God “by asking, seeking, and knocking” for a particular job that would bring us out of financial distress, or may have asked for an immediate healing that would restore us to health and lack of pain, or made the persistent request for a child who had strayed from church, or asked God for His intervention in some other very real crisis in life. Have there been times when you have made these or similar requests, and they seem to go unanswered? We may have considered, does God really hear us? Is God so busy with other things, that he has no time for me, the individual? But we can be assured that God does hear our prayers and God does respond, but our prayers are not merely a dialogue in which we speak, God listens, and God fills the orders of our wants, desires, and needs, prayer is so much more. God desires good things for his children because God desires to draw good from out of the evil and brokenness in our lives. God’s very nature is to restore all of creation to God’s holy self and thus, God desires an intimate, loving, relationship with us. It is through prayer that this relationship emerges.
Jesus taught the disciples to pray saying, “Our Father.” Why? Jesus used this form of prayer to emphasize the relational nature of the prayer conversation. Parental love is like no other love we know. Many of us know that our children need guidance because many times, their desires and wants become confused with their needs. “Mom, I NEED that X Box video game system, I gotta have it.” The mother thinks to herself, “Really, you NEED a college fund account so you can get a good education?” So the mother responds to the real need, doesn’t buy the video game but rather deposits an equivalent monthly amount into a savings account. The child didn’t recognize at that moment that the mother responded with their best interest in mind. However, later in life, with more maturity, they come to know the parent’s ultimate concern, especially when they receive an unexpected savings book with sufficient money to get them through college. As the child grew and began to trust their parents, they began to recognize that Mom and Dad really had their best interest at heart. With this point, as the child grew in the knowledge of her parent’s love, her desires and wants seemed to take on a different flavor. “Mom, I know you love me more than I can imagine, and I know that if I ever need your help, you’ll be there for me, you’ll be right there with me in the bad times, and you will always love me; no matter what happens.” Trust emerged, the relationship deepened, the love grew and the nature of the dialogue between parent and child changed as well.
There is an apparent tension in parenting a choice for the parent to either allow the child to make its own decisions, or always to rescue the child from harm. Children need to have the freedom to choose what is important to them and to discern for themselves for which things they willask. Parents must also discern what is important for the child and this too requires a freedom to respond. Without this freedom, the relationship between parent and child moves from loving relatedness, to a transaction of desire-based demands and automatic request fulfillment. That interaction is no longer a relationship but a transaction. An example of a transaction-based interaction is a vending machine. We put our coins in the slot, we make select the produce (we need, want or desire) and out comes the product. The only outcome we consider acceptable comes when the specific soda, candy, or treat that we requested exits the shoot. Any other outcome is the fault of the machine. There is no room here for relational response, for parental evaluation and loving input. It’s just, “I want … you give.” If the receiver does not get what they want, then the only response is … “you’ve failed me.” Prayer is about much more than “I want … you give.”
Our relationship with God should be based on our understanding that God is infinitely good and God is always working to restore the brokenness, the evil, and the tragedy of life. Thomas Oden, a great pastoral theologian wrote, “Only God is so unsurpassably powerful that he is willing to take the “risk” of living in intimate dialogue and communion with a foreseeably fallen, sinful, self-alienating creature, and all this without any threat to God’s own identity and holiness! Surely only God could create such a world.” We live in a world where we are free, self-determining creatures that act and live with the consequences of our abused freedom. Our failure to accept our freedom to love God and recognize that we are God’s own people, and our failure to accept the freedom to love each other, by recognizing that we are sisters and brothers is at the heart of why we abuse of our freedom. Yet, God does not sit idly by and just watch the creation unravel. No, God acts directly in our lives to bring about redemption of the consequences of abused freedom, not just for individuals, but the abused freedom that brings about the evil in all the world. As Oden states, “God opens the way for us to find that freedom again in him, by God willingness for intimate dialogue and communion, with us and that happens through prayer.” Prayer is where we come together with God to ready ourselves for the maturity and growth of our spirit. Prayer is where TRUST emerges. Through prayer, we proclaim our ultimate allegiance and trust in God by representing him in the world, despite the situational end-result of the circumstances for which we pray. Our trust in God’s promised love and faithfulness emerges when we can pray, “Father, give me the grace to recognize your loving presence in my situation, whatever the outcome.” Trust emerges when we pray, “Father, may I know your peace in these times of financial uncertainty, that with confidence I can know that I move, breath and in you I have my being.” Trust emerges, when we pray, “Father, may I have the strength and courage to continue to face this surgery, this pain, the loss knowing that your ultimate plan is for the good I can find only in you.”
“Our Father” as the preface to our prayers, such as that found in the Lord’s prayer, reminds us that our prayers are to be grounded in an ultimate trust in God’s grace, whatever the outcome. Is prayer then merely about “letting go and letting God?” Is prayer merely “OK, just endure what’s happening and believe that it’s all going to be ok?” Well, maybe, because we are a people of hope. We are a resurrection people. By the death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s grace overcame life’s greatest tragedy; death. Our Lord was raised from death to new life. In Him, we have the hope that what may seem our ultimate end, is really not the end of the story. Believing thatGod will ultimately restore us to new life, is our greatest trust and our greatest hope. Resurrection is the fulfillment of the promise that God’s ultimate concern is our good. We can live in confidence of that hope. It is through the power of the resurrection that we can see the possibilities of the power of prayer. God acted in humanity’s existence. God came to us and dwelt among us. God endured our struggles. God acts NOW in human existence. We pray and God answers prayers.
Prayer is not merely a spiritual act that “makes us feel better,” there is a real incarnational/physical power in prayer. Our relational conversation in prayer is a physical and spiritual action in which we ask, we seek, we knock, and by that act, God responds directly, physically, and powerfully in love. Prayer is an intimate dance that draws both we and God into conversation. Prayer changes us and thus, changes our circumstances. The relational nature of prayer effects God’s relatedness to us. Jesus told the disciples, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Prayer changes how we live our lives, how we view our relationships, how we perceive the possibilities of our intimate connection with God. Prayer shapes our belief, reduces our anxiety, gives us hope, strengthens our resolve, and deepens our longing for God’s presence, but prayer takes practice and persistence.
So then, how do we pray? Jesus taught us. “Our Father.” We pray knowing that God’s love is so great, yet there may be times that God’s response to our prayers, may not be immediately apparent. “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done!” We pray recognizing that God does answer prayers and God’s ultimate desire is our good. “Give us this day our daily bread.” We pray recognizing that God knows our daily need for holy dialogue, intimacy and closeness to himself, which will feed and sustain us throughout our lives. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We pray recognizing that we should be ready to forgive others of their failures and shortcomings, just as God has been faithful to forgive us. “Deliver us from evil.” We pray trusting that God is with us in all of life’s circumstances. So pray. Pray with persistence. Pray when all is going well. Pray when it all seems hopeless. Pray even when you have no words with which to pray. Pray when the answers you expect, do not come. Remain persistent in your prayers because it could be, that sometimes God’s greatest gifts, are unanswered prayers.