The Hand that Moves the World

Not long after I started following Christ, my mother became so sick that my father had to carry her to the car to drive her to the doctor. Unable to diagnose her condition, the doctor admitted her to the hospital, where she grew worse. All the Christians I knew at the time believed that miraculous healing was an everyday occurrence.  I decided that it was God’s plan to heal her. Like the blind man in John 9:3, I thought God had allowed her sickness “so that the works of God might be displayed” in her. What better way to show my parents to the truth of the gospel?

With my heart pounding, I stood at her hospital bedside and prayed, but nothing seemed to happen. Instead of getting better, over the next few days, she grew worse. And then she died. But I continued to pray, thinking that what God had in mind might be even more remarkable. I had read about Jesus raising the dead in the gospels. Maybe that’s what He planned to do. My father had asked the funeral director for a closed casket ceremony. But if God could move the stone from Jesus’ grave, surely that would be no obstacle. I prayed on. I think you can guess how this story ends.

Someone has said that prayer moves the hand that moves the world. But if that means we can force God’s hand by praying, I have found it to be otherwise. To me, prayer seems more like a discipline of waiting than an act of call and response. I am not saying that God never grants my request. Sometimes He does. But He rarely seems quick about it. God takes His time. Days, weeks, months, and even years may go by without any signs of movement on His part.

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The irony, or perhaps I should say awkwardness, of this, is that Jesus claimed that God is not slow. In the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18, Jesus promised not only that God hears those “who cry out to Him day and night,” but that He will “see that they get justice, and quickly” (Luke 18:7–8). It seems that my definition of what constitutes delay and God’s definition disagree.

In His parable, a widow goes to a judge with this request: “Grant me justice against my adversary.” And for some time, the judge refused. But when she kept coming to him, the judge 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 wear me out!’” Jesus aims to contrast the disposition of the judge with that of God. The comparison in the story turns on the similarity between the widow’s experience and our perception that God is ignoring us. Jesus says that God doesn’t delay, but it often feels like He does.

What, then, are we to make of the apparent contradiction between God’s haste and our experience? Those who claim the most for prayer tend to lay the blame at our feet. God can do anything, they say. If our prayers go unanswered, it is not His fault. The reason must be our insufficient faith or our lack of perseverance. Maybe we have secret sin or some other spiritual impediment that places an obstacle in the way of God’s answer. The power is God’s, yet somehow, at least for them, we always seem to be the key that unlocks it.

Jesus’ parable implies the opposite. Where the widow is concerned, all the power lies in the hands of others. She cannot protect herself against her adversary, and she cannot control the judge. Despite the helplessness of her position, nevertheless, she displays a kind of brazenness through her persistence. She keeps coming to the judge with her plea, despite his repeated refusals. One can’t help wondering why anyone would do such a thing. It couldn’t have been based on her confidence in the judge’s character or his sympathy. According to Jesus, he “neither feared God nor cared what people thought” (v. 2). The only plausible explanation is that it was her own helplessness that made her persevere. She had no one else to whom she could turn. Jesus’ point in this parable is really a counterpoint. God is not like the judge. If the widow can be so persistent with someone who has no natural regard for her, how much more should we persist with God, who cares for His own? In other words, the point of Jesus’ story seems to be that the real situation when it comes to prayer differs from our experience.

Jesus says that God doesn’t delay, but it often feels like He does.

The key that unlocks the parable is the language of the widow’s petition. Most of the translations say that the woman asked for justice against her adversary. We immediately think of this as a request with a terminal point. She is looking for revenge. She wants the judge to render a decision against her opponent.

Most of the prayers we pray are like this. They may not be prayers for vengance, but they are terminal in that they have a specific fulfillment in view. We want a particular job. We want God to heal our disease, or maybe we need money to pay a bill. There’s nothing wrong with such requests. Quite the opposite, it was Jesus who taught us to pray for daily bread (Matt. 6:11; Luke 11:3). No request could be more concrete than this.

Furthermore, the bread which Jesus teaches us to ask for is a non-renewable resource. Once eaten, it will be gone. Yet anyone who has prayed the Lord’s prayer instinctively senses that the point of the petition is not terminal but ongoing. We know that having asked for bread today, we will need to ask again tomorrow. We grasp that this is the lesson of the prayer for us. The God who fed us today will also feed us tomorrow.

The widow’s request in Jesus’ parable is similar. The word that some versions translate as justice really means protection. “What the widow was seeking was not fundamentally vengeance on her adversary, but relief from his oppressions,” theologian B. B. Warfield points out in an essay on this parable. Although there may have been punishment inflicted on the man, Warfield explains, “. . . punishment was not the main end aimed at or obtained; it was only the means by which the real end of relief and protection was secured.” The widow’s request was actually a plea for ongoing protection. Warfield points out that Jesus uses her language to say that God will do the same for His chosen ones. When He promises that God will see that His chosen ones get justice quickly, He is: “. . . giving a gracious assurance to them of the unfailing protection of God amid the evils which assault them in this life.”

Warfield’s clarification eliminates the seeming contradiction between Jesus’ application and our experience. God hears us when we cry out to Him night and day. When God hears, He responds immediately. Although He may not always grant us the particular object of our desire, we can be sure that He will act in our interest. Warfield expresses it beautifully when he asserts that the intent of Jesus’ parable was to “deny that God is indifferent to the sufferings of His people; and in its most natural interpretation it declares that as his ears are always filled with their cries he will not be slow to act in their defense.”

God’s ears are always filled with the cries of those who are His.

I have often wondered why God’s failure to heal my mother or subsequently raise her from the dead didn’t shatter my newfound faith in Christ. Perhaps it was because I knew that I wasn’t confident in my prayer. I was young in the faith and still had many of the rough edges of my former life. Maybe it was because I realized how audacious the request was. Maybe I didn’t believe He would grant it to begin with. But I’d like to think that, even in the infancy of my faith, I understood the point that Jesus made in His parable. That God’s ears are always filled with the cries of those who are His. And, no matter how He may respond to our specific requests, He is never slow to act in our defense.

In one of his sermons, Clarence Macartney called prayer the word that conquers God. “What is the word that turns back the shadow of death on the face of life’s dial? What is the word that gives songs in the night and that lifts the load of guilt from the conscience smitten heart?” he asked. “That mighty, all prevailing, God-conquering word is prayer.” Perhaps, the old poet who said that prayer moves the hand that moves the world was right. But if it’s true, it’s not because we can strong-arm God with our prayers. It’s because prayer moves the heart of the one whose hand moves the world.

Prayer and the Character of God

There are some people who are skilled at prayer. I am not one of them. R. C. Trench, the 19th-century Anglican bishop, once described prayer as “the simplest act in all religion.” I am inclined to agree with him. Until I start to pray. Then, a kind of uncertainty overtakes me. I do not feel confident. It’s not that I doubt whether God can grant my requests. I question whether He will. I often feel as if I must somehow win God over to my side of things.

When I first learned to pray, I thought the goal was to persuade God. But how does one do that? I believed it had to do with the manner of my approach. I thought that before God would answer my prayer, I had to show Him that I was sincere enough or convince Him of the merits of my case. When that didn’t seem to work, I wondered if prayer was more like a contractual dispute, and I had failed to grasp the terms. Prayer became a negotiation. I made requests, sometimes even demands, and then offered promises to God in return for the thing I wanted. That didn’t seem to work either.

Prayer may be simple but that does not mean that it is easy.

Then someone told me that prayer was simply a conversation with God. This view was more appealing to me. But I quickly discovered that I am not much of a conversationalist, and neither is God. It was hard enough for me to make small talk with ordinary people, let alone with the Creator of the Universe. I was awkward and easily distracted. I mumbled through my requests, like someone reading a grocery list. If I bored myself, how must God feel? And as for God, His response to my holy chatter, at least as far as I could tell, was mostly silence. Prayer may indeed be simple, but that does not make it is easy.

How Does Prayer Work?

For many who struggle with prayer, ironically, it is God who poses the problem. How do you pray to someone who doesn’t change His mind and who never has second thoughts? God knows my prayers before I pray them (Ps. 139:2–4). The answer is decided before the request has even been made (Ps. 65:24; Dan. 9:23). If there are no grounds for persuasion, and we can convince God of nothing, how exactly is He moved by our prayers? Should we even bother to pray? Maybe we should just wait quietly for whatever God had decided in advance to do.

Of course, this doesn’t fit at all with the way we talk about prayer in church. Those who pray believe that prayer has an effect on God and that He, in turn, acts upon the world around them. So which is it? Do our prayers move the hand that made the world? Or is God’s hand unmovable and our sense that we are partners with Him in prayer merely an illusion?

The theologians teach that  God is immutable. This means that His character, purposes, promises, and plans do not change. According to James 1:17, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” The theologians also say that God is impassible. As theologian J. I. Packer explains, this means “that no created beings can inflict, pain, suffering, and distress on him at their own will.” We cannot manipulate God with our prayers. We cannot wheedle Him until we get our way. We cannot agitate Him into action on our behalf.

The doctrines of God’s immutability and impassibility are a comfort when it comes to His moral consistency. But they pose something a stumbling block where prayer is concerned. If God doesn’t change, then it also follows that we cannot change His mind. If I cannot make Him feel more sympathetic toward my request or convince Him of my argument, what is the point of going to Him at all? If God has already decided what He is going to do, and knows what we will do, then why should I waste my breath?

The Danger of Two Extremes

These are old questions that are hard to answer without slipping into theological difficulty. If we lean too far in the direction of immutability and impassibility, then prayer seems both impersonal and pointless. We might as well be praying to a mountain or a machine. A God who is not moved by our prayers can only respond to them by working out of His foreordained purposes with clockwork precision. What looks to us like results has little to do with our words. The outcome will be the outcome, no matter what we say or do. The whole thing is like one of those clocks that tell a story. The figures may bend and twirl but not of their own accord. They merely show up at the right time and act out the parts that the clockmaker has programmed them to play. This is more like fatalism than prayer as Jesus both described and modeled it.

But if we lean too far in the other direction, we erode the divinity of God. We humanize God, but in the process, dehumanize prayer until it is only a matter of stimulus and response. We pray like the pagans, who “think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7). We attempt to bully God with numbers, soliciting people to pray like political activists collecting names on a petition drive. Or we concern ourselves with empty forms, worrying over the method but ignoring God. This paganized view diminishes God’s role to the point where prayer becomes an occult practice. Prayer is no longer a request or even a conversation but merely a Christianized form of word magic.  If you speak the incantation and follow the right forms, then something is bound to happen. “Do not be like them,” Jesus warns, “for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8).

God is not frozen. He is active and involved with His creatures and His creation.

Divine immutability, whatever it means, does not mean that God is inactive or immobile. God is not frozen. He is active and involved with His creatures and His creation. God does not change, but He does effect change. In the same way, we shouldn’t confuse divine impassibility with impassivity. God is not unfeeling. There are many passages in Scripture that speak of God’s love, His anger, and even His grief. God is not reactive, but He does respond. God is especially responsive to the cry of prayer.

This was Jesus’ point in the parable of the widow and the judge in Luke 18:1–8. Jesus told this parable to His disciples “to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” The tone of the story is one of gentle humor. Although the judge “neither feared God nor cared what people thought,” he is brought to his knees by the persistence of a poor widow. This scenario admits to the imbalance of power that exists between those who pray and God who hears. It also acknowledges what we often feel as we wait for an answer. We worry that the judge has overlooked our case. But the moral of the story is equally clear. God is not like the unjust judge (v. 7). He will respond, and when He does, that response will be consistent with His character. The God to whom we pray is both a just and compassionate judge.

Collaborators With God

Prayer is not a tool that we use to prod a passive God into action. In reality, the movement is in the opposite direction. God uses prayer to draw us into participation with Him and with His work in the world. In an essay entitled “The Work of Prayer,” C. S. Lewis observes that the participatory nature of prayer is consistent with the way God ordinarily works. “Everyone who believes in God must therefore admit (quite apart from the question of prayer) that God has not chosen to write the whole of history with His own hand,” Lewis observes. “Most of the events that go on in the universe are indeed out of our control, but not all.” Lewis compares history to a play “in which the scene and the general outline of the story is fixed by the author, but certain minor details are left for the actors to improvise.”

In another essay entitled, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” Lewis argues that it is no less strange to think that our prayers should affect the course of events than that our actions should do so. “They have not advised or changed God’s mind–that is, His over-all purpose,” Lewis explains. “But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of His creatures.” Prayer changes things. Or conversely, some things do not change if we choose not to pray. “You do not have because you do not ask God,” James 4:2 warns.

Does God know the outcome in advance? Does He know whether we will pray or not? Lewis does not exactly say. But he does acknowledge the difficulty of fully grasping what it means for God to enable free-will to co-exist with Omnipotence. Lewis seems to say that when it comes to praying, we are true collaborators with God. At the same time, he warns that we must not forget that God is still God. “Prayer is not a machine. It is not magic. It is not advice offered to God,” Lewis warns. “Our act, when we pray, must not, any more than all our other acts, be separated from the continuous act of God Himself, in which alone all finite causes operate.” The uncertainty always moves in our direction, never the other way around. God is never uncertain.

Jesus’ Prayer is the Key

If there is a key to this cosmic puzzle, perhaps it can be found in Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. On the night before His suffering, Jesus prayed. “Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). In this prayer, Jesus speaks both of possibility and uncertainty. He speaks of what God can do but in a way that suggests that what Jesus wants may not be the answer that God will grant. As Matthew’s version puts it, “. . . if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me” (Matt. 28:39). Perhaps even more surprising, Jesus speaks of a will of His own that diverges from His Father’s will but is not sin. When Jesus limits His request by saying, “Yet not what I will, but what you will,” He implies that the matter has been settled even before the request is made.

I find the ambivalence of Jesus’ prayer liberating because it shifts the burden of responsibility for the answer to God. It means that I can state my request simply and honestly and then trust God to sort out the rest. The old bishop was right. Prayer may not be easy, but it is simple. Prayer is as simple as the infant’s cry or the beggar’s reach. The power of prayer does not lie in the rigor of its method or the beauty of its vocabulary. Its efficacy does not depend upon the supplicant’s posture or the prayer’s length. The power of prayer is simply in the asking. Our comfort in prayer is the confidence we have that our Father knows what we need before we ask Him.

Prayer is our declaration of dependence upon the God who made the world and sustains our life. It is a moment-by-moment confession that in Him, we live and move and have our being. After all these years, prayer doesn’t seem to be any easier for me. But it really couldn’t be simpler.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.

Help My Unbelief

The first believers I knew talked a lot about faith. As far as I could tell from what they said, faith was a variable commodity. Some had more and others less. The difference mattered since the results one might expect from God depended upon the amount of faith one was able to muster. Perhaps that’s why we spent so much of our time declaring our faith. When it came to prayer, it seemed that quantity was associated with volume. The more faith we wanted to prove that we had, the louder we prayed. I am not sure who we were trying to reassure more. Was it for God’s benefit or ours? It did not seem to make a difference either way. I felt no more certain no matter what the volume, while God did not seem to give my loud prayers any more attention than my soft.

In those days, it also seemed to me that the measure of one’s faith was determined by the size of the request. I thought faith was a muscle and praying was like weight training. The more you exercised it, the greater it grew. The larger the request, the greater the faith. I decided that my requests were too timid. I was asking for pennies when I should have been seeking gold. I decided that if I was going to become a person of faith, I needed to believe God for greater things.

I decided my requests were too timid. I was asking for pennies when I should have been seeking gold.

About that time, my mother’s health failed. She grew so weak that my father had to carry her to the car and drive her to the hospital. The doctors performed exploratory surgery, and she grew worse. I stood at her bedside and prayed that God would heal her. She died instead. I prayed that God would raise her from the dead, the way that Christ called Lazarus from the grave. The casket remained closed. In the months after my mother’s death, my father’s alcoholism worsened. I prayed that God would deliver him from bondage. His alcoholism eventually killed him.

But this is a one-sided picture. It leaves out all the prayers that God did answer, requests both great and trivial. They seem to fade in my memory. Somehow, it is the refusals that stick. Perhaps I don’t want to think about the others because they remind me how often I have been anxious about trivial matters. Each time I have asked for bread, the Father has never given me a stone. Or maybe it is because listening to the full scope of my requests is an uncomfortable reminder of how shrill my voice often sounds when I cry out to God. I may come into God’s presence kneeling like a petitioner, but I speak to Him as if He were a servant. My requests sound more like demands. I sometimes wonder why I even have to ask at all. Why doesn’t God just give me what I want?

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus invites His disciples to make requests of their Heavenly Father. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” Jesus says. “For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). Jesus signals the Father’s welcome by piling on imperatives of invitation: “Ask…seek…knock,” Jesus urges. But there is also embedded in this language a subtle indication that the answers to our requests may not come as easily as we might like. Before we can receive we must ask. Before we find we will need to seek. Before we may enter we must knock.

“Ask…seek…knock,” Jesus urges us. But there is also embedded in this language a subtle indication that the answers to our requests may not come as easily as we might like.

There is a hint of persistence in all of this. For some things, we must ask and keep on asking. We will seek for some time before we find what we want. We will knock, and the door will not swing open for us at once. Nevertheless, Jesus invites all those who are His to bring their requests. The quiet reminder of our need to persist, which is implied in both the word choice and the verb tense, is meant to relieve our fears. Delay does not always signify refusal and refusal is not necessarily a rejection. Like any parent, the fact that our Heavenly Father does not always give us what we want does not mean that He does not love us.

It is a mistake to measure our faith based on the size of the request. It is equally a mistake to place our confidence in the measure of our faith. Some of us have more faith than others. But if prayer is a lever, it is God who acts as the fulcrum. The power of faith depends upon God not on the size of our request. It only takes faith the size of a mustard seed to move a mountain (Matthew 17:20). The thing we ask of God, whether it is great or small, is not the object of our faith. Our faith rests in God.

God is not the object of our faith either. God is not an object at all. We are in a relationship with Him. When we objectify God, we turn Him into an idol. Jesus condemned the objectification of God in prayer when He warned about the babbling of pagans, who “think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7). Prayer does not work like magic. You cannot recite a formula and compel God to do what you want. Prayer is a relational act, and a central feature of any relational request is the right of refusal. Even a child can refuse, though there are often consequences. It is only the slave who cannot refuse, and God will be no one’s slave.

Prayer is a relational act, and a central feature of any relational request is the right of refusal.

Of course, this may offer only cold comfort to those for whom God’s answer is no. Given a choice between a genuine relationship with God and the thing we want, many of us would choose the thing. A relationship seems like small compensation compared to health or love or that job we had hoped to get. We aren’t exactly mercenaries where God is concerned, but we are often little better. We are like the crowd that came looking for Jesus on the other side of the lake after He had fed the multitude. “Very truly I tell you, 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. “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval” (John 6:26-27). When the crowd asked Jesus what kind of work He had in mind, His answer to them was faith. “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29).

Well, we do believe. Or at least, we want to believe. We want to believe enough to get what we want. I admire the great men and women of faith whose biographies once fueled my fantasies of how my Christian life would turn out. But I do not see myself in them. Instead, my prayers sound more the man in Mark 9 who brought his demon tormented son to the disciples. “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid” the man told Jesus. “I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”

I admire the great men and women of faith whose biographies once fueled my fantasies of how my Christian life would turn out. But I do not see myself in them.

I can easily imagine a note of reproach in the man’s voice. “What kind of slipshod operation are you running here, Jesus?” the man seems to say. But Jesus refuses to accept the blame. “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus says, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.” To whom is this rebuke directed? Is Jesus speaking to the father? Is He criticizing the disciples? The answer is that Jesus seems to be talking to both.

Whatever the disciples’ failure was, it was not a failure of confidence. They seemed to have plenty of confidence. They were as surprised as anyone that their attempt to help the boy had failed. Later on, when they were out of earshot the crowd, they asked Jesus to tell them where they had gone wrong. “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” they asked. “This kind can come out only by prayer” Jesus replied. So if the disciples hadn’t attempted to drive the demon out with prayer, what had they done? At least in this instance, theirs was a faith without reference to God. Indeed, this wasn’t faith at all. It was confidence. They had cast out demons before. They could do it again. They thought they had this.

Whatever the disciples’ failure was, it was not a failure of confidence.

Once in Jesus’ presence, the demon threw the boy into a convulsion. He rolled around on the ground and foamed at the mouth. Sounding like a doctor, Jesus questioned the father about the boy’s condition. “How long has he been like this?” Jesus asked. “From childhood,” the father answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

If I were writing the story, Jesus would give His bumbling disciples a sidelong glance to remind them of their failure. He would say something compassionate to the father and command the demon to depart. Instead, Jesus reproves the father. “‘If you can’?” Jesus says. “‘Everything is possible for one who believes.’”

I see myself in the father. Only my point of doubt is slightly different. It is not “if you can” but “if you will.” I know that Jesus can. I’m just not sure that He will. Especially when it comes to those things that I have been praying about for a long time and haven’t seen any evidence of His interest in my case. The father’s prayer is also my own. “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

Here is the measure of faith that God seeks. It is not great faith, equal to the size of the request that we are making. It is not even perfect faith, one that is unmixed with any doubt. It is not self-confidence. If anything, it is the opposite. To me, this man’s request is the purest form of prayer. It is not the blustering assurance of the apostles. Nor is it the scolding complaint of the father in His first approach. This is the cry of the helpless.

God does not scorn our requests, but He will not be manipulated by them either. We cannot use faith as a lever to force God to do our bidding. We cannot bully God with our prayers or make Him feel guilty. Indeed, Jesus has assured us that such measures are not needed. “Do not be like them,” Jesus says when He compares the prayer of faith to the prayer pagans, “for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8).

Here, then, is what faith looks like. Faith is trust. It is the assurance of a child who relies on a parent to provide what is needed. Faith is a trust, which does not always make us feel comfortable, but which is nevertheless convinced that God ultimately knows what is best and that He will do what is right. Faith is our helpless reliance upon God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.

Praying to a Silent God

The house I grew up in had one phone. It hung on the kitchen wall and had a long cord that stretched to the end of the hall. It was barely long enough to reach my bedroom. If I really wanted to talk in private, I had to walk to the nearest payphone. This was long ago, in the days before everyone had their own cell phone. In my teens, I mostly used the phone to talk to girls. But I wasn’t very good at it. I never knew quite what to say. I had trouble reading the mood of the person at the other end of the line. Did they enjoy talking to me or were they rolling their eyes, just waiting for the call to end? My phone conversations were made up mostly of insecure chatter interspersed with awkward pauses. Much like my prayer life and for the same reason.

Those calls, as I remember them, were usually one-sided. My prayer life feels the same. I seem to do all the talking. I know that there are some Christians for whom prayer is a dialogue. They come away from prayer filled with thoughts and impressions from God. It’s as if he has a conversation with them. That has never been true for me. For me, talking to God is a lot like trying to talk to an introvert. He is a really good listener. But he never seems to have much to say. In fact, he never seems to have anything to say, at least not out loud.

The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews says “God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (Hebrews 1:1). But I don’t always feel like God is talking to me. I have often wondered why. Maybe it’s like the phone on the kitchen wall. Because I can’t see his face or hear the inflection in his voice, God seems to be inscrutable. I am tempted to interpret God’s silence as indifference toward me or worse.

I find God’s silent nature to be a mystery. At times it is a frustration. After all, it’s not as if God has trouble with words. He was the first to speak. Genesis 1 tells us that God spoke the worlds into existence. He is also a prolific author. I’ve read his book more than once. Yet for some reason, God prefers to speak through others. He does not use his own voice. Instead, God communicated through prophets and the writers of Scripture.

It has occurred to me that God’s silence may actually be an act of mercy. When the Israelites heard God speak on Mount Sinai, they begged Moses to act as their go-between so that they wouldn’t have to hear it again. “We will die if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer,” they said. “For what mortal has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived? Go near and listen to all that the Lord our God says. Then tell us whatever the Lord our God tells you. We will listen and obey” (Deuteronomy 5:25-27).

It seems that prayer isn’t about hearing God’s voice at all. It is about speaking.  “Prayer is the simplest act in all religion. It is simply speaking to God” the 19th-century church leader J. C. Ryle observed.  “It needs neither learning nor wisdom nor book-knowledge to begin it. It needs nothing but heart and will. The weakest infant can cry when it is hungry. The poorest beggar can hold out their hand for alms, and does not wait to find fine words. The most ignorant person will find something to say to God, if they have only a mind.” The essence of prayer is in the asking.

Although the answer to a prayer is no small thing, it is not the only thing. We do not always get what we want when we pray. Sometimes we make our request and find that we must wait for the answer. Sometimes we ask and get something different. There are times when we ask and it seems that we do not get anything at all. Prayer is not about getting but about being heard. It is also about being known. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” Jesus assures us in Matthew 6:8. I usually know what I want, but I do not always know what I need. My prayers are often ignorant. God’s answers are not.

We find God’s refusals, when they come, hard to accept. Indeed, we have such an aversion to them that some of us have developed a theology of prayer which leaves no room for God to say no. If we do not get our request it is our fault. It means we do not have enough faith. Or the right kind of faith. But God’s right of refusal is proof of the relational nature of prayer. “The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted” C. S. Lewis observes. Lewis offers the prayer of Jesus as irrefutable evidence. “In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him” Lewis explains. “It did not. After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed.”

I think my problem with prayer is that I have misread the silence. Silence can mean many things. It is true that silence is sometimes a signal of irritation. It can be a mark of contempt. But silence is also the comfortable space that has been carved out by long familiarity. Two people who sit together for hours in silent happiness do so because they enjoy being in one another’s presence. Silence is a mark of someone who is listening carefully.

I am not a great man of prayer. I know that don’t pray as I ought. What I have to say to God is usually dull and unimaginative. I am repetitive and sometimes whiney. I am pretty sure that if I had to listen to myself pray, I would soon grow bored. I have moments in prayer when I lose heart. I also know that the fault is mine. I misinterpret the silence on the other end of the line, mistaking it for boredom or contempt when in reality it is the silence of presence. I know that I do not pray well. But perhaps I do not have to pray well to know that God has heard me.

Hope, Agony, & Prayer

There is a homeless man I often see on my walk to the train. All knees and elbows as he sits on the curb, he looks as if his bony form has folded in on itself in total collapse. He holds a cup in his hand, which he lifts high above his head as I approach. Waving it in my general direction he cries, “Can I get a blessing today?” His voice seems strangled, as though it pains him to ask the question.

An observation by C. S. Lewis about prayer brought him to mind this morning. In Letters to Malcolm, Lewis mentions a friend who is waiting for confirmation of a potentially catastrophic diagnosis and is experiencing the tormenting uncertainty that afflicts people in such circumstances. There is hope but there is also the agony of waiting. As you wait, Lewis notes, your thoughts run in circles. You alternate between expectation and despair. You pray, “but mainly such prayers as are themselves a form of anguish.”

When I was a young Christian, I thought the key to answered prayer was to be sure God would do as I asked. This posed a problem for me because I could never find that kind of certainty within me. It wasn’t that I doubted God’s capability. It was His willingness that was in question. I concluded that the purpose of my prayer was to prove to God that I was convinced. But how? Usually, it took the form of posturing. I labored to affect the right tone. I spouted affirmations and made declarations. Sometimes I shouted. If I did not weary the courts of heaven with my voice, I at least grew weary of it myself. And of course, when I was finished, I was no more certain of the answer than when I had begun.

According to Hebrews 11:1, faith is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” But I do not think this means that I must be convinced that God will do what I want in order to get answers to my prayer. It does not even mean that I must be sure that the thing I ask of God is a possibility. Jesus’ qualifying, “if it is possible,” in Gethsemane is proof enough of this (Matt. 26:39). Jesus’ many predictions of His own impending death make this request even more striking. He seems to have known that the request would be refused even before He asked.

This means that we can make our requests of God without possessing absolute certainty of the outcome. It also means that, even when we are persuaded that the thing we desire from God is unlikely, we have permission to ask anyway. We lift the cup of supplication high above our heads and cry out in the agony of hope, “Can I get a blessing today?”

Secular Eating and Daily Bread

Wendell Berry has pointed out that most eaters these days are passive consumers. “They buy what they want–or what they have been persuaded to want–within the limits of what they can get” Berry explains. “They pay, mostly without protest, what they are charged.” It seems as though we can get almost anything but that does not necessarily mean that we can always get what we want. We can only get what is made available to us. It certainly does not mean that we can always get what we really need or what is good for us. Berry points out that specialization of production leads to specialization of consumption. To explain how this affects our eating, Berry points to the entertainment industry as an analogy: “Patrons of the entertainment industry, for example, entertain themselves less and less and have become more and more passively dependent on commercial suppliers.”

Anybody who has spent hours scanning the vast selection offered by their cable provider, only to give up in disgust or settle for something they have already watched once or twice before and for which they are paying too much, will understand his point. Just as we have lost the capacity to entertain ourselves and must now settle for options chosen for us by the entertainment industry, we have also lost the ability to eat for ourselves. We are dependent upon food that has been selected and prepared for us by those who are far more interested in our wallet than our health, despite the nutritional information on the back of the package. We are what Berry calls industrial eaters. “The industrial eater is, in fact, one who does not know that eating is an agricultural act, who no longer knows or imagines the connections between eating and the land, and who is therefore necessarily passive and uncritical–in short, a victim.”

Eating and the economy are obviously linked. We must buy our daily bread since most of us do not produce it for ourselves. Those who do produce food are in the business of selling it. But eating is a matter of economy in a much larger and more theological sense. The term economy comes from the Greek word for household. It speaks of more than buying or selling. An economy is really an ecosystem. It is part of a larger whole. In this respect, every community is also an economy. Daily bread is much more than an individual act of consumption, it is a community enterprise.

The communal implications of eating are in evidence all through Scripture. They are embedded in the Law of Moses, which required growers to leave behind the grain that was dropped in order to provide for the poor (Lev. 19:9–10; cf. Ruth 2). They are implied in the biblical rule of hospitality, an exercise which always involved eating (Rom. 12:13; 16:23; 1 Tim. 5:10; Heb. 13:2; 1 Pet. 4:9). The link between eating and communion was especially evident in the practice of sacrificial meals. Several of Israel’s sacrifices involved eating in God’s presence. This was most vividly portrayed in Exodus 24, which describes how the elders of Israel ate and drank in God’s presence. In 1 Corinthians 10:18 Paul calls those who offered such sacrifices participants in the altar. In saying this he seems to be drawing a parallel with the Lord’s Supper in an effort to persuade the Corinthians to pagan idol feasts (1 Cor. 10:16, 17, 21).

Eating is a communal activity that is tied to the means of production and the well-being of the community at large but it is also a sacred act. In other words, our problem is more than the fact that we have been turned into industrial eaters. Our chief difficulty is that we have become secular eaters. We fail to see the connection between God and our daily bread. Food is still a common feature of the church’s life, but eating is not generally viewed as a context in which we experience fellowship with God. We expect to have fellowship with others but God is mostly on the sidelines when we eat. Indeed, we do not even see our observation of the Lord’s Supper as a meal in any real sense. We regard it as a valuable symbol but do not consider it to be spiritually sustaining in any meaningful way.

In the Genesis account, we find that four of the most fundamental aspects of human life are interrelated: the need for daily bread, work, community life, and fellowship with God. They were not originally the separate and unrelated spheres which we so often experience today. It is just here that Jesus chooses to engage with us on this subject. He does not speak about our quest for daily bread from the comfort of Eden before the fall. He faces it head-on in the broken world in which we now must make our way. His message to us is that the God who provided for our needs in the garden continues to provide for us in the fallen world. He teaches us to pray that our Heavenly Father will provide our daily bread (Matt. 6:11; Luke 11:3). He tells us not to be anxious about what we will eat, drink, or wear because our heavenly Father knows we need these things (Matt. 6:31-32).

But how can we not be anxious in a world where the ground that bears its fruit also produces thorns and thistles and where we must eat our bread by the sweat of our brow? Jesus does not say that our daily bread will come without effort, but rather that we must not think about these things like orphans. “Thank God that this Father is so compassionate and realistic that he appraises the little things in our life (included a warm sweater and our daily bread) at exactly the same value that they actually have in our life” theologian Helmut Thielicke observes. “Thank God that he accepts us just as we are, as living men, with great dreams, but also with many little desires and fears, with hunger and weariness and the thousand and one pettinesses and pinpricks of life that fill even the lives of the great of this earth (one need only to read their memoirs).” Give us this day our daily bread.

Speaking of God

prayingWhen I was a pastor some people addressed me as “Pastor.” Others called me “Pastor John.” Some called me “Preacher” and a few referred to me as “Reverend.” If they asked what I preferred, I usually said, “My friends call me John.” But what about God? How should we address Him? Sir? Your Majesty? Some other title? He has several in Scripture. Jesus reveals the answer in the opening to the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9: “This, then is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven….”

Jesus frames our conversation with God in terms of relationship. Speaking of God this way was not something new. God is spoken of as a “Father” in the Old Testament. But there the title generally speaks of His role as creator and deliverer. When Jesus speaks of God as Father in the New Testament He takes it a step further. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches us to address God as our Father. He teaches us to address God as our Father.

More often than not the thing that shapes our approach to God in prayer is the fact that we want something. It isn’t the only thing we are interested in but it is usually the main thing. It is why we are praying. We are interested in the request itself and the request is certainly not insignificant. But thinking about prayer only in terms of what we want from God can create a problem. Instead of bringing us closer to God, this kind of praying may actually drive us apart.

In his little book How to Pray, Anthony Bloom writes: “Let us think of our prayers, yours and mine; think of the warmth, the depth and intensity of your prayer when it concerns someone you love, or something which matters in your life. Then your heart is open, all your inner self is recollected, in the prayer. Does it mean that God matters to you? No, it does not. It simply means that the subject of your prayer matters to you.”

It is possible for the subject matter of our prayer–the request itself–to be so important to us that it overshadows God. The solution to this problem is not to set the request aside but to recognize that prayer is more of a relationship than a transaction. Don’t just approach God in prayer. Approach God as Father. Don’t just approach God as a Father. Come to Him as your Father.

Most of the people I know are disappointed with their prayer life. Ask them if they believe in prayer and they will say yes. Ask them if they are good at prayer and they will answer no. Usually we think that the problem lies in the mechanics. We don’t pray well. We don’t pray enough. We don’t stay on task. We get bored or distracted. But the root problem is really one of relationship. It is not that we have forgotten how to pray or even that we have forgotten that we should pray. Our problem is that we lose sight of the One to whom we pray.

Theologian Helmut Thielicke observed that we would all be orphans if it were not for Jesus: “There would be no one to hear us if He had not opened the gates of Heaven. We should all be like sheep gone astray without a shepherd. But now we have a shepherd. Now we have a father. What can ever cast us down, what can ever unhinge us as long as we look into that countenance and as long as we can say in the name of our brother Jesus Christ: Abba Father.”

Lord, I believe…

Prayer is the language
Image by Lel4nd via Flickr

 

 A news item in a recent issue of Christianity Today reported that the Albanian Minister of Culture recently signed an agreement giving legal recognition to 135 churches of the Albanian Evangelical Alliance. I could not help but smile when I read the report.    

When I was a student in seminary, Albania was the particular focus of prayer in the Student Missions Fellowship. I had never heard of the country before. The president of SMF told us that its chief distinctive was that it was the world’s first officially atheist country. So that year we prayed for Albania.    

I wish I could tell you that I prayed with bold faith and conviction that one day Albania would be open to the gospel. But that would be a lie. I did pray for Albania. And I did ask God to open its doors to the gospel. But I prayed mostly out of a sense of duty. As I recall, my first prayer went something like this: “God, I know you can do anything. But it’s really hard for me to believe that you can do anything with this. Nevertheless, open Albania to the gospel.” In truth, I thought it was highly unlikely that anything would happen as a result of those prayers. I couldn’t have been more wrong.    

Several years after I graduated from seminary and was serving as a pastor in a church in central Illinois, I received a brochure in the mail from a mission organization. Two things about the brochure captured my attention. One was the fact that the mission was looking for farmers. The other was that it wanted to send them to Albania. “Albania?” I wondered. “Isn’t that the country we used to pray about in Student Missions Fellowship?” Our church was in the early stages of its missions program at the time and I passed the brochure on to Dave VanOrman, one of the farmers in the congregation.    

It was a long shot. Dave was a busy farmer. He didn’t seem a likely candidate for this kind of adventure. But to my great surprise, Dave went to Albania. When the trip was over, he immediately bought another plane ticket and went back, this time taking his wife Sarah with him. Then they went back again. And again. Before I knew it, Dave and Sarah had organized the Planter’s Seed Foundation and for years they have been helping Albanian farmers, working with women in the villages and sharing the love of Jesus Christ with young people. Recently the Planter’s Seed Foundation observed its first baptismal celebration. I would never have thought such a thing was possible. Certainly not back in 1985 when the Student Missions Fellowship was praying for Albania.    

So I couldn’t help but laugh when I read that the 135 churches of the Albanian Evangelical Alliance were given legal recognition this past November. I immediately thought of Dave and Sarah. And of my days as a seminary student, when my prayers for Albania were more like those of the man in Mark 9 who prayed, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” than anything else. Those prayers were as much a confession of my doubt as they were an expression of my faith. The Bible says that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen (Heb. 11:1). And sometimes the fruit of faith is the substance of things we wouldn’t believe, if we hadn’t seen them with our own eyes. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.    

When the Prayer Matters to Us More Than God

In his little book entitled Beginning to Pray, Anthony Bloom writes: “…it is very important to remember that prayer is an encounter and a relationship, a relationship which is deep, and this relationship cannot be forced either on us or on God.” Bloom warns that one of the great dangers we face in this area is the temptation to take an impersonal approach to prayer.

 There are many times when we are ready to pray but we are not ready to receive God. “We want something from Him but Him not at all” Bloom warns. This can be true even of passionate prayer. Bloom asks us to think of those times when our prayers are marked by warmth and intensity. Times when the prayer concerns someone we love or something that matters to us. “Then your heart is open all inner self is recollected in the prayer” Bloom writes. “Does it mean that God matters to you? No, it does not. It simply means that the subject matters of your prayer matters to you.”

 My problem when it comes to prayer isn’t that I have been using the wrong posture or language. It is my angle of vision. I know cognitively that God is one who knows me deeply and personally. He is a God who is acquainted with my thoughts. A God who speaks my language and anticipates my words. This is a God who knows me better than I know myself. And no wonder. This is a God who became flesh and dwelt among us: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:12).

But as long as the prayer matters more to me than God does, it will be a failure. I do not necessarily  mean that it will go unanswered. I may receive the thing I request. But in the process I may miss what I need the most. When it comes to prayer we are, as one writer puts it, like children who receive pennies from a father’s hand. Often more interested in the pennies than the hand that offers them.