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.

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.