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?”

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.