In the early days of my walk with Christ, I was taught to believe that miracles were an everyday occurrence. The Christians I knew were generous in their definition of what constituted a miracle, as likely to call a good parking spot an act of God as someone’s sudden recovery from cancer. Every situation was treated as an occasion for divine intervention. I confess that this was part of what attracted me to the Christian faith. I was not interested in a God who was merely an abstraction; I wanted to know that God was real. I was looking for a God who paid attention to me when I spoke to Him. It did not occur to me that I was the one who was supposed to do the listening.
I often prayed for God to intervene in my life. But I did not always get what I wanted. I asked Him to heal my mother when she was unexpectedly hospitalized for an illness that the doctors did not seem to be able to diagnose. She died. I asked God to deliver my father from alcoholism. He did not. I prayed to win the lottery (only once). You can guess how that turned out. I am not saying that God has never answered my prayers. Only that God refused my request often enough to know that an affirmative answer is not always a given.
“Them that’s got shall get, and them that’s not shall lose,” Billie Holiday sang. The whole world seems to be divided into a few privileged people who get everything they want and the majority who do not. Why not Kingdom of God too? We often wonder why God grants to others the thing He denies to us. The effect this has on our prayers is often an attitude of ambivalence. We conclude our prayers with a resigned shrug and interpret delay as denial. We secretly think that God is playing favorites. But the truth is we are the ones who suffer from bias. Our memory is selective, more inclined to dwell on God’s refusals than to remember the many times He has granted our requests. Impatience distorts our sense of God’s timing in His answers so that we ignore the winding and unexpected path that leads from entreaty to answer that earlier generations called providence.
Praying Like a Child
Such thinking is childish, of course. Yet there is no spiritual act that is more childlike than the act of prayer. Jesus acknowledges as much when He encourages His disciples to be persistent in their praying and asks: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” (Matt. 7:9–10). When it comes to our most basic needs, God often grants them without our even having to ask. He “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). God “gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25).
God is generous by nature. But He is no pushover. Whatever our prayers are, they are not a means by which we may manipulate God. We cannot bully God or wheedle Him into granting us the answer that we prefer. The divine right to refuse our requests is necessary if prayer to be something more than a merely mechanical or transactional event. Anthony Bloom’s observation about the possibility that those who pray might still experience the absence of God’s presence also applies the answers we seek in prayer. “If we could mechanically draw Him into an encounter, force Him to meet us, simply because we have chosen this moment to meet Him, there would be no relationship and no encounter,” Bloom explains. “We can do that with an image, with the imagination, or with the various idols we can put in front of us instead of God; we can do nothing of the sort with the living God, any more than we can do it with a living person.”
In His teaching about prayer, Jesus described this same mechanical style as the sort of approach the pagans use when they pray, “for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7). The one who piles up words in prayer has lost sight of God. When we cease to relate to God as we would a person, He might as well be a vending machine. At best, we treat God as if He were a mere functionary, the same way we might treat someone who gives us our order at the drive-through. We are hardly aware of them. We hand over our money, take our meal and drive off. We don’t know their name, and minutes after we have left the parking lot, we cannot recall their face.
Our failure to grasp this can turn prayer into an attempt at manipulation. We desperately try to gauge whether the amount of our faith is enough to trigger the desired response from God. This uncertainty, in turn, lends itself to spiritual posturing. We put on a show in the vain hope that we will somehow convince God that we have the kind of faith that warrants an answer. We fuss over our delivery, trying to sound confident and prove that we have enough faith to gain our request. Or we conclude that the weight God will give to our prayers is a function of the number of people we can persuade to take up our request. We approach prayer as if it were an oral petition drive, hoping that the sound of so many others will drown out the uncertainty of our own voice. We mount a lobbying campaign, inviting those we consider spiritual authorities to pray for us, convinced that their prayers have more influence with God than ours.
More than Answers
Miracles do not always lead to faith any more than answers to prayers do. John 6 tells how the crowd followed Jesus to the other side of the lake after He fed the multitude. “You are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill,” Jesus chided them (John 6:26). The Israelites ate bread that fell from heaven and still grumbled about the menu. The disciples saw Jesus raise people from the dead. But when the women came and told them that they had seen Jesus alive after His crucifixion, they thought they were talking nonsense (Luke 24:11). As important as the answers to our prayers are, there is more to prayer than getting. Getting the answer is certainly no small thing, but it is not the only thing. “In Gethsemane, the holiest of all petitioners prays three times that a certain cup might pass from Him. It did not,” C. S. Lewis points out. “After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed.” That one denial, combined with Jesus’ resigned, “Yet not my will, but yours be done,” is evidence that prayer is an exercise in trusting God’s answer as much as it is the act of making our request (Luke 22:42).
When I was a boy, Superman was my favorite television show. I wanted to fly like him, so I did the natural thing. I asked my father to teach me. When he told me that he did not know how to fly, I didn’t believe him. It is in a child’s nature to assume not only the willingness of their parents to grant their requests but their ability to do so, no matter how unreasonable the request may be. One of the first lessons of maturity is that of learning to accept our parents’ limitations in such matters. But where our prayers are concerned, the limitation is with us rather than with God. We are not always the best judge of what we need. Like a child who demands a pony for Christmas, our requests are sometimes frivolous. Others are selfish. A few of the things we ask for may even be so bad for us that God dismisses them outright. Yet, many of our requests are reasonable and even beneficial.
If the Bible reveals anything about God’s power, it indicates that He is a God of miracles. All the miracles of Scripture ultimately point to the miracle of miracles, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection is the central miracle of the Bible, the one which makes our salvation possible. Yet it is a miracle that was possible only because the Father refused the Savior’s prayer in Gethsemane. We do not always understand why God withholds from us the thing we have asked of Him. But we do not need to know why to understand that His answer is good for us. The Father’s refusal of the prayer of His own Son is all the proof we need that sometimes God’s “no” is more loving than His “yes.”
John’s latest book, Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good is available from Moody Publishers. Check out the free small group resources by clicking on the Dangerous Virtues-Group Resources tab above.