When God is Silent: Praying in the Words of Another

The first prayer that I remember praying was one I learned. It was a bedtime prayer. I don’t recall whether I learned it from my mother or someone else. It went like this:

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

To be honest, this prayer disturbed me. Up to that point, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could die in my sleep. The possibility terrified me. The prayer sounded more like an invitation for God to take my life than a prayer for divine protection. But many people have found it helpful to pray using the words of others. Sometimes, these are rote prayers, like the bedtime prayer I learned to recite as a child. Others pray written prayers that are published.

My Christian experience began among people who looked down on written prayers and rituals in general. They believed that the best prayers were spontaneous, framed in one’s own words. Liturgical prayers (prayers that were memorized and repeated) were part of what they viewed as dead traditionalism, and written prayers were even worse.

Yet, it is just as easy for so-called extemporaneous prayer to be undeveloped and unreflective. Often, extemporaneous prayer is not spontaneous at all but a repetition of phrases and themes that we have learned from listening to the prayers of others. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Everyone learns to talk by listening to the conversations of others. The vocabulary of prayer is much the same. Indeed, plenty of evidence in the New Testament suggests that the early church learned to pray primarily by imitation. One prominent example of this is the form of prayer that Jesus taught when his disciples asked him to teach them how to pray. According to Luke 11:1, Jesus introduced his prayer with the words: “When you pray, say …” Matthew’s version begins with a similar command: “This is how you should pray …” (Matthew 6:9). The prayer’s petitions, which are voiced using the first-person plural, also imply that Jesus expected the church to recite it together (Luke 11:3–4; Matthew 6:11–13).

From its earliest days, the church has prayed in both modes—sometimes by praying the words of others verbatim and at others speaking to God using their own words. It does not have to be an either/or choice. We can pray the Lord’s Prayer word for word as Christ delivered it to the church, and we can also use it as a template by adding concerns that are specific to our lives.

One of the first pictures we have of the church is that of a church that prayed together. This is where we find the disciples immediately after Christ’s ascension. They returned to Jerusalem and went upstairs to the room where they were staying: “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers” (Acts 1:14). Two questions immediately come to mind. First, how could they pray constantly? Second, what did they say?

When some of us pray, our minds wander after only a few minutes! Did the first disciples really engage in a marathon prayer session that lasted seven weeks? Surely they had to take breaks for eating and sleeping. We know that they stopped at least once to conduct business. Acts 1:15–26 says that “in those days,” the disciples took time to choose someone to replace the traitor Judas. As for the content of these prayers, it seems likely that it was a mixture of praying based on tradition, quotes from the Psalms, and specific requests arising out of their circumstances.

Everyone who learns to pray begins by praying words they have heard from another.

James 5:13 declares, “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.” The specific mode of prayer that James recommends for the cheerful is song. The word that is translated “sing songs of praise” is a Greek term that literally means “to play on a harp.” It is related to the word for a psalm and is a reminder of the value of using the book of Psalms as a resource for our prayers and the vital role that singing plays in our overall prayer life. We are used to thinking of singing as an act of worship. Indeed, for many in the church, singing is worship. But singing is also a form of prayer.

Another revealing feature of the command of James 5:13 is the connection that it makes between music and emotion. We know from experience that music has an affective quality. Most of us do not choose our music based on its technical quality but because of the way it makes us feel. The same is true of the church. Today’s church uses music to create a mood and attract visitors. Worship and music are so identified that if someone says that we are going to worship, most people will assume they mean we are going to sing. Yet, when Acts 2:42 lists the priorities of the first disciples, it does not mention music or even worship. Instead, it says that they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Nevertheless, the New Testament does show that music had an important place in the early church. Paul and Silas sang through the night while in prison (Acts 16:25). John’s vision of heaven’s worship includes singing with musical instruments (Revelation 5:9; 14:2–3). John does not describe the melody, only its overall effect. He says that it was “like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder” (Revelation 14:2).

When we sing, we express our emotions as well as our thoughts. Furthermore, there is a physical dimension to music-making. Its sonic nature resonates with us on our deepest level in the most literal sense. “Music is a very bodily business, whether or not the human voice is used,” Jeremy Begbie explains. “Our physical, physiological, and neurological makeup shapes the making and hearing of music to a high degree.”[1] Singing enables us to pray with the whole person and not only with words.

The main thing that troubles those who are uncomfortable with memorized prayer is its liturgical nature. It bothers them that the words they pray are not their own words. Until they pray them so often that they become second nature, it feels as if they are speaking to God in someone else’s voice. But is this really such a bad thing? The fact that some forms of prayer are ritualized speech is not necessarily a condemning factor either. Dead rituals can indeed pose a danger, but in such cases, it is the deadness, not the fact that they are rituals, that poses the problem. Rituals are merely repeated actions that become meaningful to us by their repetition.

Some kind of rote praying is a feature of every Christian tradition, just as every church has its own liturgy, whether it is formal or informal. Everybody who learns to pray begins by praying words they have heard from others. In a way, none of us begins by praying in our own voice. We must first learn a vocabulary and a pattern of speech. It shows us what to ask for and how to ask. It enables us to put into words feelings and desires for which we previously had no name. Over time, what once sounded like an unfamiliar voice eventually becomes a way to find our own.


[1] Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 47.

When God is Silent: Managing Our Angry Prayers

Sometimes when we pray, we are angry with other people. On other occasions, we pray because we are angry with God. When Jonah prayed, it was both. After delivering what may be the shortest and most successful sermon in preaching history, Jonah prayed an angry prayer in which he took God to task for his mercy and then begged for death.  

You might think that Jonah would be happy. Instead, the prophet was outraged. The Hebrew text literally says, “It was evil to Jonah, a great evil and he was angry” (Jonah 4:1). Jonah wasn’t surprised by what God had done (or, more specifically, by what he hadn’t done). Jonah was furious because God had behaved exactly as he expected. “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home?” he complained in Jonah 4:2–3. “That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  

Yet, Jonah’s angry prayers are not an anomaly. Indeed, angry prayers are common enough that those who study the prayers of the Bible have an entire category devoted to them. They call them imprecatory prayers, after a Latin word that means to curse or invoke evil. To be fair, Jonah’s prayers were not technically imprecatory. They were more occasions of grumbling out loud to God. But the anger that prompted them is the same spirit that fuels the imprecations of the Psalms, the laments of Jeremiah, and even a few of the “wish prayers” of the apostle Paul (Galatians 1:8; 5:12).  

Prayers for protection have always been prayed by God’s people. Imprecatory prayers go a step further. They ask for protection, but they also ask God to punish, sometimes with language that we would consider immoderate. For example, in Psalm 69:28, David prays that God would blot his enemies out of the Book of Life. Even more disturbing, Psalm 137:8–9 pronounces a curse on Babylon and a blessing on those who destroy it.  

Anyone who has experienced abuse or witnessed an atrocity can identify with the emotion that energizes these prayers. But we don’t have to suffer abuse to understand the angry prayers of the Psalms and prophets. We have all had the same feelings, though on a much smaller scale, every time someone has wronged us. Yet, there is more than an emotion behind the imprecations of the Old Testament. The retributive standard of the Mosaic law—eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot—shapes them. Leviticus 24:20 summarizes the principle in these words: “The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury” (see also Exodus 21:24; Deuteronomy 19:21).

As a legal standard, the purpose of this command was to limit retribution. The basic rule was that the punishment should fit the crime and not go beyond it. Any penalty must consider the degree of damage inflicted on the victim and the retaliation imposed should not have extreme punitive damages. The Mosaic law’s limitation of the penalty to an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was not exclusive to Israel. It also existed in other cultures, perhaps most famously in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. Possibly we might view the psalmist’s and Jeremiah’s imprecatory prayers as an application of the Babylonians’ own standard of law against them, but the limits set by God’s law on retribution were more than a cultural adaption of advanced Babylonian jurisprudence. It reflected a larger movement in the direction of grace that Jesus Christ would eventually fulfill by his coming. John gives the broad outline of this trajectory when he observes that “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).  

Christ’s inauguration of this full measure of grace must shape our understanding of Scripture’s angry prayers. The advent of an age of grace did not lower the bar of God’s justice. Jesus did not come to overturn the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17–18). Not only did Jesus warn of a coming day of judgment, but he also made it clear that on that day, he would be its primary agent (Matthew 13:41–43; cf. 2 Peter 2:9; 3:7). But until that day, Christ’s dealings with the offender are marked by grace.  

The spirit that shapes our prayers for those who anger us is not the spirit of Jonah but the spirit of Christ. It is not a cry for justice but a prayer for grace. To hear such a thing will undoubtedly rankle some in this era when justice has become a cultural byword. Yet Jesus could not have been clearer on this matter in his teaching. Our model is not the imprecatory prayers of the Psalms and prophets, but the pattern Christ gave us in the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’” Jesus declared. “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43–45). What kind of prayer shall we pray for those we judge to be our persecutors? Paul echoes Christ’s command and clarifies the sort of prayer he had in mind: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:15).  

How, then, should we pray our angry prayers? Given what Jesus says, should we even pray them at all? It doesn’t seem realistic to think that we can deny our anger. To deny it would be to pray through a mask of false piety. We cannot hide our feelings from the one that Scripture says “knew what was in each person” (John 2:24). Nor is it reasonable to dismiss the things that have sparked our outrage. They are important. At least, they are important to us, or else we would not be angry about them. Whether or not the outrage we feel is justified is not the point (not yet, anyway). If we are to worship God in spirit and truth, the truest self at this moment is our angry self. Jesus’ command to love our enemy and bless our persecutors does not mean that we cannot pray if we are angry.  

We do not have to deny our anger, but we must take these feelings in hand and discipline ourselves to pray both as Jesus taught us and as he himself prayed. But if we are to pray as Jesus did, then we must also take upon our lips not only his words of forgiveness offered on behalf of those who crucified him but his cry of dereliction. Before Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” he prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).  

I am not saying that on the cross, Jesus spoke in anger or disappointment with the Father. Far from it. Yet these words of anguish were more than a mere symbol. Just as they truly described the emotion of the psalmist at the time when they were first written, they express the agony Christ suffered as he “‘bore our sins’ in his body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24). It is this reality that makes Jesus prayer a model for us in our anger. When we admit our anger and frustration to God, we acknowledge our ambivalence. On the one hand, the fact that we are praying is itself a recognition of God’s sovereignty. We pray because he is our God. We know that he is in control. In the act of praying, we begin with God and not our problem.  

At the same time, we often feel conflicted as well. Like Jonah, we are hunkered down and waiting to see what God will do for us. If we are not angry, we are at least frustrated by our circumstances. We wonder why the sovereign God would allow such things to occur. This note of frustration is frequently heard in the prayers of the Bible.  

Jonah had a problem with God because he had a problem with the people of Nineveh. Jonah was angry about the evil of Nineveh. But mostly, he was angry because God did not seem to share his anger. Jonah learned by experience what he already knew as a matter of intuition. When you pick a fight with God, you usually end up on the losing side. God is bigger than you are and has all the power. He holds all the cards and knows what you are going to say before you say it.  

The Jonah story ends in silence. God asks, “Should I not pity Nineveh?” But Jonah gives no answer. We, too, are silent but often for a different reason. Sometimes ours is a silence born of fear. At other times it is the silence of artifice. Instead of expressing our real thoughts and feelings in prayer, we tell God what we think he wants to hear, as if God could not see through our charade, as if he did not already know what was in our hearts. It would be far better for us to take our stand with the patriarchs, the psalmists, and the prophets and state our feelings in plain words. It might be better, even, if we were to join Jonah as he sulks on the outskirts of Nineveh and risk engaging God in impolite conversation. Jonah, admittedly, is only barely obedient. But at least he is honest.

When God is Silent-The Art of Praying for Others

When I was a pastor, one of my responsibilities was to pray for the congregation. I usually began every morning in my “praying chair” with the church directory open on my lap. I would look at the pictures and pray for each person by name. It was easy, as long as I was praying in generalities. It was harder when I tried to pray in specifics. Besides asking God to give them a good day, keep them safe, and bless them (whatever that meant), I often found myself at a loss for words.

My problem wasn’t the church’s size. The congregation was small, only fifty or sixty regular attenders. I knew everyone by name. I knew where they worked and some of the details of their lives. I was usually aware when something happened worth praying about: an illness, a job change, a death in the family. It wasn’t rocket science. It seemed to me that being familiar with the congregation should make praying for them easier, but it wasn’t.

Most of the time, when we pray for others, we are either trying to change them or their situation, but we face two significant obstacles. One is the people for whom we are praying. The other is God. It sometimes seems as if neither party is willing to cooperate with our effort. Do a search on books about intercessory prayer on the Internet, and the overall impression you get is that our concerns in this area are primarily concerns of focus and method. Many of the titles describe those for whom we should pray. They are about praying for our spouses and children, our nation, and our churches. We are praying for health, prosperity, and revival. These book titles indicate that we wrestle with the same insecurities and disappointments here as we do with the rest of our prayers. We don’t think we are very good at it. We are worried about our technique and are looking for some way to ensure we will get the response we desire from God.

The first explicit example of intercessory prayer recorded in Scripture is by Abraham. This doesn’t mean that he was the first to pray. Or even that he was the first to pray for someone else. Abraham prayed for Sodom after God told him that he intended to destroy the city. One of the most surprising features of this prayer is that it sounds like bargaining. It was not Abraham who initiated the conversation but God. However, Abraham did have a personal stake in the outcome. His nephew Lot was a resident of Sodom. The way that Abraham keeps driving down the number of righteous people needed to spare the city of Sodom does indeed make it feel as if he is haggling with a merchant in the marketplace. Upon closer inspection, however, there was no bargaining going on at all in Abraham’s intercession. A bargain involves an exchange with some quid pro quo given and received. Abraham offers nothing in exchange for the terms he suggests to God other than an article of faith. He only asks that “the Judge of all the earth do right” (Genesis 18:25).

Of all those who pray in the Old Testament, Moses stands as the premier example of intercessory prayer. One of his most notable prayers occurred when Israel turned from God and worshiped the golden calf (Exodus 32–34). Moses’s prayer seems to stand between God and the destruction of the nation. On the surface, we could be tempted to see God’s anger as a momentary flash of rage that subsides after Moses talks God off the ledge.

A closer analysis reveals much more. If God had truly wanted to destroy the nation, he could have done so while Moses was still on the mountain. Instead, the Lord said, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt” (Exodus 32:7). More than informing Moses of the problem, this declaration is cleverly framed in a way that seems to place their fate in Moses’s hands. In addition to calling them “your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt,” the Lord demands, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation” (v. 10). In the exchange that follows, Moses prays four times and offers three arguments based on what God has already revealed about his purpose and character.

Intercession is not bargaining or talking God
into or out of something.

Intercessory prayer is not bargaining or talking God into or out of something. When we pray for others, we respond to God’s invitation to enter into his purposes. Instead of carefully crafted arguments intended to persuade a reluctant God, we confess God’s promises. His grace, mercy, and justice shape our petitions. The more we know about God, the more confidently and intelligently we can pray.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul is both an example and an advocate for intercessory prayer. He saw intercession as a way of participating with God in what he is doing in the lives of others. Praying for others is a way of participating with God in what he is doing in the lives of others. When we engage in intercessory prayer, we are not trying to direct God’s attention toward someone he is not aware of or in whom he is not interested. When we pray for someone else, we enter into a relationship that already exists between that person and God as their creator.

The apostle Paul’s language of spiritual collaboration places intercessory prayer within a relational rather than a transactional framework. He saw the Corinthians as his helpers through their prayers. Those who prayed for Paul enabled him to preach. Their prayers went on ahead and opened doors (2 Cor. 1:11). The same is true for us. The record of Paul’s prayers in his letters and his requests that the churches pray for him in return provide evidence of a praying network that was the foundation of the apostle’s ministry. Paul not only solicited prayers for himself but invited them to pray along with him for others. When we pray for a friend going through a hard time, we share the load with them. Our prayers can ease their burden.

How, then, should we practice the art of intercessory prayer? To some extent, the answer is that intercessory prayer is the same as any other kind of praying. We bring our concerns to God and ask him to take care of them. The apostle Paul’s prayers recorded in the New Testament provide a simple model that we can use for ourselves. Many of his prayers include four key elements. First, they are addressed to God. But rather than merely saying, “Dear God,” Paul’s openings often describe God by one of his attributes as recorded in Scripture.

The second element of Paul’s prayers is a request. Sometimes these are stated explicitly as petitions and at other times in words that sound more like a wish. The point here is not so much whether he used the optative mood or the indicative when he made his requests so much as it is that he saw those for whom we pray within the framework of God’s care. He was not merely asking for things. He made his requests with a Godward focus. The apostle recognized that a petition is not a demand.

A third feature of Paul’s prayers is that they usually mention those for whom he prays. He has specific people in mind. Paul’s prayers for others are personal and suited to their needs. They are not vague. The third feature of Paul’s prayers is that they usually mention those for whom he prays. He has specific people in mind. Paul’s prayers for others are personal and suited to their needs. They are not vague.

A fourth element of the apostle’s prayers is that Paul often articulates an outcome that he expects to see as a result of God’s answer. These purpose clauses set the apostle’s requests within the larger framework of God’s plan. It is easy to be so caught up in the specific requests we are making that we lose sight of why we are praying at all. Christian prayer is not magic. We are participating in God’s plan for the church, for our lives, and the world at large. There is a bigger picture to keep in view, along with the particular requests that we make. God’s purposes and his promises are a motivator and a guide in all our praying.

There is one other noteworthy feature of Paul’s intercessory prayers. Those that are recorded in the New Testament are generally brief. Often, they are no more than a paragraph or two. Many are only a few sentences. Our prayers do not have to be works of art. They do not have to be long. We can pray while working, playing, or as we lie on our bed at night. Say what you have to say as best you can and leave the matter with God.

When God is Silent-Asking and Getting What You Want . . . or Not

In one of his parables, Jesus compares prayer to someone who asks a neighbor to loan him three loaves of bread when an unexpected visitor shows up at midnight (Luke 11:5–8). In the scenario that Jesus describes, the neighbor is unwilling at first. “Don’t bother me,” the neighbor says. “The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.” What is Jesus’s counsel in such a situation? Keep asking. Be shameless in your persistence: “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need” (Luke 11:8).

Jesus made the same point in another parable “to show [his disciples] that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). This story concerned a widow who kept going to a judge with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary” (Luke 18:3). Because the judge “neither feared God nor cared what people thought,” the woman came to him repeatedly without getting the answer she desired. The power dynamics described in this witty story aptly describe how we often feel when it comes to prayer: helpless, powerless, and frequently ignored.

Prayer is an act of communion with God. But for most of us, it’s also about getting something from God. Most prayers include an “ask” of some kind. We aren’t praying just to hear ourselves talk. Jesus’s primary point, of course, is that God is not like the neighbor or the judge. But it is an important starting point to acknowledge that we often feel that he is. We do not struggle with prayer because it is hard. Our problem is that we are not sure it is worthwhile. We suspect that God is not interested in our case or fear that he will not decide matters in our favor. Delay and denial are the major reasons for this uncertainty. We pray, but the answer does not seem to come. Or we pray, and the response we receive is not the one we had wanted.

Why does God often seem so slow when Scripture assures us that he is not slow? One reason is that our relationship to time is very different from God’s. In 2 Peter 3:8, we are told to remember that “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” What seems to us like a delay is not a delay to God. God’s plans unfold according to his schedule. The fact that time does not limit God does not mean that he has no sense of timing.

While a “no” is probably not the answer we want, it is still an answer.

Jesus began his public ministry with the words, “The time has come” (Mark 1:15). Romans 5:6 tells us that Christ died for sinners “at just the right time.” We are frustrated with the timing of God’s answers to our prayers because we forget that we are also part of a larger drama that is unfolding. As far as our daily experience is concerned, we continue to live on a timeline that unfolds as past, present, and future. We are subject to the limitations of the temporal realm in this present life. Yet, we are also living in the reality of Christ’s finished work. Our lives have been folded into Christ and his kingdom. As a result, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

One implication of this is that our prayers’ answers are accomplished facts even before they have been granted. Another is that we can be certain that whatever form God’s answer may take, it will reflect his loving purpose for our lives. This heavenly perspective casts Jesus’s promise in Matthew 18:19 in a new light: “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” Although the context of Jesus’s promise in this particular verse is narrow—it primarily has to do with the exercise of church discipline—it parallels Jesus’ statements in Matthew 21:22, Mark 11:24 and John 14:13–14.

What Jesus describes in these passages is not a positive attitude but a sphere of authority. Those who ask in faith can be certain of an answer because they operate out of the heavenly realm where God’s will is always done (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2; see also Matthew 26:42). The trouble with the view that sees Jesus’ promises as a blank check which guarantees that we can get whatever we want from God is that it shifts the focus of prayer away from the Heavenly Father so that our only concern is the particular request we happen to be making. This approach to prayer reduces God to little more than a delivery system for the thing we hope to obtain. He might as well be a vending machine. Second, such an approach confuses an affirmative with an answer. It fails to allow for the possibility that God could also answer our prayer by denying our request. While a “no” is probably not the answer we want, it is still an answer.

The Bible offers many examples of notable saints whose prayers were refused by God. Moses pleaded with God to allow him to enter the land of promise (Deuteronomy 3:23–27). David asked God to heal his first son by Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:16–20). Paul repeatedly prayed for God to remove the “thorn in my flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7–9). Most notably, Jesus prayed to be spared the suffering of the cross in language that suggests he was fully aware that such a thing was not possible.

Likewise, there are many in Scripture who waited many years, some for their entire lives, without seeing God grant their desires. Of them, the author of Hebrews writes, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39–40). Although he is not speaking explicitly of prayer, the principle is just as true. The fact that God does not grant our request as soon as we would like may not mean that he will not give it to us at all. His refusal to grant a request altogether isn’t always a sign that God is displeased with us. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we lack the faith to receive it. Sometimes God’s decision not to grant our request has nothing to do with us at all, at least as far as cause and effect are concerned.

Is there ever a time when we don’t get what we ask because it is our own fault? The answer is yes. James 4:2–3 explains, “You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” Prayer is not magic. It does not work like an incantation. We do not get what we want in prayer simply because we voice our desire aloud to God.

There is a kind of assurance in what James says here. It means that we cannot manipulate God by our prayers. We never have to worry that God will give us something that we should not have. At the same time, the scenario that James describes should sober us because it shows how evil motives can subvert a spiritual activity like prayer. The specific motives mentioned by James are greed and envy. But other motives can insert themselves into our praying. For example, Jesus warns of the danger of praying “to be seen by others” (Matthew 6:5). Some prayers are not prayers at all. They are theater. The prayers Jesus condemns in this verse were public displays of piety intended to elicit praise from others. He warns that such prayers go unanswered: “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”

The first principle in prayer is simply to ask. Tell God what you want, as simply as you can (James 5:13-16). Getting something from God is not the only thing. But it is the first thing. Need and desire provide the initial impetus for us to pray. There is no reason to be ashamed of this.

The second principle in prayer is to pray honestly. One of the greatest temptations in prayer is to tell God what we think he wants to hear instead of what is really on our heart. There is no point in putting on airs. He already knows what we think.

The third principle of prayer is to persist. This advice comes directly from Jesus. Pray and do not give up. We persist in prayer, not because we think it will put pressure on God to grant our request but as an expression of faith. We continue because we believe that God’s interest in us and in our needs is persistent. Persistence is evidence of our dependency, not a sign of our doubt.

God is not like the reluctant neighbor or the unjust judge in Jesus’s parables. It is God’s nature to give “good gifts” to his children. God hears us whenever we cry out to him. When God hears, his response is immediate. Although he may not always grant us the particular object of our desire or grant the answer according to our preferred timetable, we can be sure that he will always act in our interest.

Picture of Jesus praying in Gethsemane with the caption "Sometimes the best answer to our prayer is "No." With a picture of the book When God is Silent by John Koessler and a caption "Pre-Order now for a 30% discount at lexhampress.com

When God is Silent-Awkward Conversation

Some conversations are just hard: telling someone about the loss of a loved one; talking to the kids about the facts of life; informing an employee that their contract will not be renewed; making small talk with a person whom you have virtually nothing in common. But few conversations are quite as challenging as trying to talk with someone who seems to have nothing to say.

I say this to make a point about God, or to be more precise, to make a point about our experience with God. God does not seem to be much of a conversationalist. He is mostly silent when we talk to him. We know from Scripture that God has a voice. According to the book of Genesis, the first words ever spoken were God’s words: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). Yet, the Bible also shows that God is no chatterbox. God indeed spoke to Moses “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11). He spoke to Abraham the same way, but ordinary conversation has never been God’s primary communication mode, at least not the kind of conversations we are used to having.

God has chosen to speak through others most of the time: prophets, preachers, and occasionally angels. Even then, God has never shown himself to be what you could describe as voluble. His words have been, for the most part, relatively few and sometimes far between. Long gaps of years, decades, centuries, and even millennia separate the occasions where God speaks to his people.

We assume that it would be a comfort to hear God speak directly to us. Yet Scripture suggests that we are more likely to be unnerved by the experience. When Israel heard God’s voice, they were so put off by the experience that they begged him to stop. God came to Elijah in a gentle whisper, but on Sinai, it was with a shout and in a blaze of fire. “Go near and listen to all that the Lord our God says. Then tell us whatever the Lord our God tells you,” they begged Moses. “We will listen and obey” (Deuteronomy 5:27). It seems more likely that if God spoke directly to us, we would react as they did. Or we would put our hands over our ears in stunned silence as Job did (Job 40:3–5).

We assume it would be a comfort to hear God speak directly to us.

Taken as a whole, the Bible describes many occasions where God revealed himself to specific individuals, but very few had a face-to-face conversation with him (Exodus 33:11; Numbers 12:8). As the writer of Hebrews observes, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe” (Hebrews 1:1–2).

Whatever prayer may be, it is not an ordinary conversation. Believers in every generation have understood prayer as one of the means by which God communicates to his people. Yet it is a conversation where we do the majority of the talking. In prayer, we approach God but do not see either face or form and do not hear his voice. Therefore it is a conversation that lacks all the normal cues we rely upon for meaning. When we talk to God, we cannot rely upon inflection, body language, or facial expression to gauge his response the way we can when conversing with others.

Prayer differs from ordinary conversation in another respect. Those who pray often talk to themselves as well as to God. The self-talk of prayer is not a pep talk or even positive thinking. When we talk to ourselves in prayer, we remind ourselves of the truth we already know. We remember God’s disposition toward us and base our expectations upon it. This kind of prayer talk amounts to a confession of faith made in the presence of God.

If prayer is not a conversation in the ordinary sense, then what is it? Prayer is a conversation that moves primarily in one direction. It moves from the believer who prays to the God who hears. God’s silence does not mean that he is unresponsive. The first assumption of faith is that we have God’s attention. 1 John 5:14-15 assures us: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.”

The key to understanding John’s bold and frequently misunderstood promise is to note that to “hear,” in this sense, means something more than to take notice of something. To hear as John uses the term is to grasp the full implications of something. God knows both our desire and our true need. He also knows how our request fits into his plan.

It might help if we thought of prayer as communion instead of conversation. The essence of communion is shared experience. The mistake we make is to interpret God’s silence as absence or disinterest. In true conversation, listening is interaction as much as speech. Listening may even be more of an exchange than words because, to really listen, we must enter into someone’s experience.

Sometimes when we pray, we feel like we need to do something to attract God’s attention. We are like a person on the ground waving their hands at a plane passing high overhead, hoping that someone up there will see us. God does not have to come down from on high to take note of us. We do not need to arrest his attention. Although we often talk about “coming” into God’s presence, the truth is that we are already there.

We are not trying to capture God’s attention but responding to an overture that he has already made. Not only was God the first to speak, he spoke to us long before we ever uttered a word to him. He has revealed himself in creation and by his written word. We do not need to feel God’s presence to know that he is present when we pray. Psalm 139 assures us that wherever we are, God is already there. “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” the psalmist says. “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (Psalm 139:7–8).

The awkwardness of prayer should not put us off. It does not originate with God but with us. We have felt uncomfortable with other conversations we have had and have pushed through the discomfort to say what needed to be said. How much more should this be true when it comes to God? “You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways,” the psalmist declares. “Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely” (Psalm 139:3–4). We do not need to feel that God is near to be in his presence. We do not need to be comfortable to pray. We do not need to speak nicely to be heard. Before we have even uttered a word, God knows our minds and hearts completely.

Do We Really Need Another Book on Prayer?

As I was writing my most recent book, When God is Silent, I had to ask myself a question. Do we really need another book on prayer? C. S. Lewis once observed that he had never come across a book on prayer that was of any use to him. He said that he had seen many books of prayers, but when it came to books about prayer, the writers usually made the wrong assumptions about the reader.

I have often felt something similar. Books about prayer don’t seem to fit my situation. They either assume that I don’t want to pray or that I don’t know how. Neither is really the case. My problem lies elsewhere. I don’t like the way God treats me when I pray. Our conversations seem awkward. Over time I’ve discovered that most people are like me. We pray, sometimes frequently, but there is something about the experience that leaves us feeling uncomfortable. We aren’t sure why.

After giving this question thought over many years, it seems to me that many of the problems we have with prayer have nothing to do with motivation or method. They are the sort of problems that we might describe as relational. How do you carry on a conversation with someone who never seems to talk back to you? Why do we feel like God is sometimes unresponsive to our wishes? In my latest book, entitled “When God is Silent,” I address questions like these and many more.

In the end, the secret to prayer is not a matter of method or even motive. The key to prayer is God Himself. I have written this book to do more than answer questions like these. It is my hope. Indeed, it is my prayer that as you read, you will also gain a sense of God, of His goodness, and the rich welcome that is waiting for you every time you approach Him in the name of Jesus Christ.

People of Prayer-Today in the Word Interview

I am a little late with this. I should have posted it January 1. I am this month’s devotional writer for Today in the Word and the topic is People of Prayer. You can watch my interview about it below with my friend and colleague Jamie Janosz, who is Today in the Word’s managing editor. If you would like to read the devotions, you can find them here. The devotions are short, so if you want to catch up, it should be pretty easy. I also write the monthly “Practical Theology column for Today in the Word and you can find it by clicking on the tab at the top of my web page. Speaking of prayer, I am thrilled to be writing a monthly column on the subject for Mature Living during 2023.

All of this might give the impression that I am an expert on the subject of praying. Well, I suppose that as a preacher, former pastor and Bible college professor, I am a professional. That is to say, I know how to pray out loud in a group. But I’ve never felt like an expert. My personal prayers have always seemed like a bit of a train wreck to me. Or rather, as I often like to refer to them, “awkward conversations with God.” That’s why my January column on the subject in Mature Living was entitled “Prayer for Amateurs.” On the one hand, when it comes to prayer, we are all experts in the sense that most of us have cried out to God in one form or another. Yet most of us feel that we aren’t very good at it. Go ahead and pray anyway. The secret to praying is not in the way we frame our requests but our confidence in the fact that God hears (1 John 5:14).

I am excited about the upcoming release of my latest book, entitled When God is Silent: Let the Bible Teach You to Pray. It should be coming out in August from Lexham Press but you can preorder your copy now at Amazon. I’ll be talking more about in in the coming days in my posts.

Heaven Can Wait

Have you ever wondered how fast God is? It sounds like the kind of question a child might ask. But for many of us, the honest answer would probably be, “Not as fast as we would like Him to be.” Although 2 Peter 3:9 says that God is not slow, waiting is so much a feature of the redemption story that Revelation 6:11 tells us that even the souls in Heaven must wait.  

Nobody likes to wait. Because of this, our prayers can sound more like demands than requests. We are like the man in the crowd in Luke 12 who called out to Jesus and demanded, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (Luke 12:13). Instead of sympathizing with the man or listening to his case, Jesus cut him off with this unsympathetic rebuke: “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:14-15)).

There is something unsettling about Jesus’ answer. It doesn’t fit the picture we have of Him. Although we don’t know the specifics about this man’s situation, we can make a few educated guesses. It is obvious that the man believed he had been wronged. It also seems reasonable to assume that his brother was the first-born, who had a right to 2/3 of the estate. Perhaps his brother had decided to keep the entire estate for himself. What is more, it seems likely that, given the circumstances and the nature of the request, this older brother was in the crowd when his younger sibling made this demand of Jesus. Jesus, however, shows no interest in protecting the younger brother’s legal rights in this matter. There are two parts to Jesus’ surprising response. One is an assessment of this man’s false view of Jesus. The other is an implied evaluation of the man’s motive in making the request.

When the Answer Means More than God

Both responses provide an important reality check for us. The first remark is a reminder that Jesus is not at our beck and call. He is not some kind of heavenly civil servant whose primary function is to make sure we get what we want or even that we get our fair share. Jesus’ unsympathetic answer is a blunt reminder that God does not necessarily share our interests. Jesus’ second remark is uncomfortable evidence that we cannot always trust our motives, even when the law is on our side. Viewed from the perspective of the man who made the request, this was a question of justice and equity. Jesus, on the other hand, perceived that it was a symptom of his greed.

Jesus’ blunt refusal to consider this man’s demand uncovers a dark truth about our impatience toward God. It suggests that sometimes our prayers are marked by what might be described as a kind of atheism. Not a denial of God’s existence but dismissal of the personal dimension of prayer. We are no more interested in God than we might be in the clerk at the counter who hands us our merchandise. The important thing for us is the answer. Not the one who grants our request.

In his book Beginning to Pray, Anthony Bloom reminds us that the intensity of our praying is not necessarily evidence of devotion. He asks us to think of the warmth and depth of our prayer when it concerns someone we love or something that matters to our lives. “Does it mean that God matters to you?” Bloom asks. “No, it does not. It simply means that the subject matter of your prayer matters to you.”

I am not saying that our requests are trivial or even necessarily selfish. I suspect that for this man in the crowd, receiving his inheritance was not trivial at all. It was a very big thing. Perhaps he was depending on it. But sometimes the things we are waiting for from God grow so large in our estimation that they stand between us and God. They may even become more important to us than God Himself.

Unequal Treatment

Sometimes God’s responses to our prayers seem uneven. He does not treat everyone the same. It may seem to us that God bestows answers too quickly on those who have ignored Him. They are excited about getting an answer to their prayer. It is as if they have discovered a world that they did not know existed, and in a way, they have. We are excited with them, at first. But after a while, there is something about their praise reports that may irk us. We have been praying for many of the same things and are still waiting. Why do their answers seem to come so quickly? Surely, it cannot be that they have more faith than us?

God is not a vending machine.

It is possible, of course, that they do have more faith. In Christ’s day, it seemed that those who knew the most about Scripture also had the greatest trouble believing Jesus. Faith does not always correlate with knowledge of Scripture or with spiritual age. Some who know relatively little in comparison with us may outstrip us in faith. While those who have walked with Christ a long time are sometimes still weak in faith. But this is not the only, perhaps not even the primary, reason for the difference. God’s dealings with us are personal in the realm of prayer, just as they are in everything else. God is not a vending machine that thoughtlessly dispenses the blessings we want when we punch the button of prayer. Neither is He a kind of heavenly bureaucrat who doles out the same portions to those standing in the prayer line. God’s answers are suited to His purposes for us as much as they are to our needs.

A Symptom of our Fear

In an essay on the efficacy of prayer, C. S. Lewis describes a startling observation about prayer he once heard from an experienced Christian: “I have seen many striking answers to prayer and more than one that I thought miraculous,” this person said. “But they usually come at the beginning: before conversion, or soon after it. As the Christian life proceeds, they tend to be rarer. The refusals, too, are not only more frequent; they become more unmistakable, more emphatic.”

The impatience we feel while waiting for God to answer our prayers is really a symptom of fear. We worry that God may reject our request. What is more, this fear is not without a warrant. Jesus’ blunt rejection of the man in the crowd is one of many refusals recorded in Scripture. But even without these, our own experience is testimony enough to prove that God does not always give us what we want when we want it.

God will grant some requests merely because we ask, as long as our request is accompanied by faith. Scripture says that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ in faith will be saved (Acts 10:21; Rom. 10:13; cf. Joel 2:32). Anyone who lacks wisdom is encouraged to ask for it (James 1:5–7). But the majority of our prayers fall into a category that we might describe as discretionary. The outcome is uncertain. God may grant them, or He might choose not to do so. Even if He does give us what we want, we do not control the timing. Another person may receive the answer in a moment, while we must wait for months and even years.

Waiting as an Act of Faith

Waiting for God is a fundamental discipline of faith. The closer we are to the end of the age, the more it will be required of us. “Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming,” James 5:7–8 urges. “See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.” The farming analogy in this passage does more than point to waiting as an inevitable fact of life. It is a reminder that a fundamental conviction about the goodness of God must accompany our waiting (2 Pet. 1:3). We are not merely waiting to see what will happen with our request. We are waiting for God to act on our behalf. He who hears our prayer is the one “who causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). Our waiting is energized further by the certainty that we will not have to wait long, at least by God’s standard of time. “The Lord’s coming is near,” James assures. 2 Peter 3:9 makes a similar promise when it says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

An old hymn describes God as “unresting, unhasting, and silent as light.” But the Bible says that God is in a hurry. According to Scripture, God watches over His people the way a cook waits for a pot to boil, or the watchman on the wall eagerly looks for the coming of dawn (Isa. 60:22; Jer. 1:12–13). Despite what the hymn writer says, speed is a characteristic of all God’s saving acts. That’s because the speed of God is the speed of redemption.

Is God Hard of Hearing?

Despite the countless number of books on prayer that have been written, C. S. Lewis observed that he had never come across one that was of any use to him. Ironically, he made this observation in a book he wrote about prayer. Lewis said that he had seen many books of prayers, but when it came to those written about prayer, the writers usually made the wrong assumptions about the reader. Or, at least, they made the wrong assumption about the kind of reader Lewis was. “The author assumes that you will want to be chatting in the kitchen when you ought to be in your cell,” he observes. “Our temptation is to be in our studies when we ought to be chatting in the kitchen.” 

I have often felt something similar. Books about prayer never seem to fit my situation. They either assume that I don’t want to pray or that I don’t know how. Neither is really the case. My problem lies elsewhere. I have been praying for as long as I have been a Christian. Longer, even. I’ve never felt that my problem with prayer was a matter of mechanics. Prayer never seemed like rocket science to me. You just talk to God. When I became a pastor, I became a praying professional. That is to say, prayer was a part of my job. I prayed publically as the church worshipped. I opened board meetings with prayer. I led the church’s weekly prayer meeting. I prayed for the congregation in my study. And I prayed with those who came to me for counsel. Over time I discovered that most people are like me. We pray, sometimes frequently, but there is something about the experience that leaves us feeling uncomfortable and vaguely dissatisfied. We aren’t sure why.

Our Problem is Relational

It seems to me that the primary problem most of us have with prayer has nothing to do with motivation or method. Our problem is relational. We don’t like the way God treats us. We feel like we are doing all the talking. It’s hard to carry on a conversation with someone who never talks back to you. After a while, a person begins to feel like the other party in the conversation is disinterested. Even when we do get an answer to our requests, they rarely seem to take the form that we anticipate. God’s disposition is unreadable and His paths seem oblique.

The main reason for this is because prayer is a conversation that moves primarily in one direction. It moves from the believer who prays to the God who hears. God’s silence does not mean that He is unresponsive. Good listeners are often silent when they are paying attention. It is true that in ordinary conversation, silence can also mean other things. When we try to talk to others, people may respond with the silence of disinterest, rejection, or even complete absence. But where prayer is concerned, the fundamental assumption of faith is that we have God’s attention. If we ask whether God is hard of hearing, Scripture’s emphatic answer is no: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5:14–15).

The one guarantee we have in prayer is that God always hears us. But there is more to this hearing than awareness of our requests. The key to understanding John’s bold and frequently misunderstood promise is to note that to “hear,” in this sense, means something more than to take notice of something. To hear as John uses the term is to grasp the full implications of what we say. God knows both our desire and our true need. He also knows how our request fits into His plan.

John’s condition that our requests must be “according to His will” is not God’s liability clause designed to protect His reputation if we find the answers to our prayer disappointing. This is a condition that implies that we have a responsibility to consider the nature of our requests before we make them. Do we have a warrant to ask such a thing of God? Is it something for which He has told us to pray? How does the request fit with a larger understanding of God’s general will and plan for our lives? What is our motive in asking? God’s hearing of our prayers includes an assessment of everything that lies behind them.

We Misinterpret God’s Silence

We misinterpret God’s silence if it leads us to think that we are the initiators in prayer and that God stands by impassively as we wait to see what He will do for us. The Scriptures paint a very different picture. They show that God moved in our direction first. “The first word is God’s word,” Eugene Peterson explains. “Prayer is a human word and is never the first word, never the primary word, never the initiating and shaping word simply because we are never first, never primary.”

woman in black jacket and black pants sitting on white staircase

For this reason, Peterson describes prayer as “answering speech.”   Consequently, our prayers are a conversational answer to what God has already said. Prayer is a response to an invitation, extended to us through Jesus Christ, to express our needs and desires directly to God. The fact that God does not answer in kind when we speak to Him in prayer does not mean that God has nothing to say. As the hymn writer declares, “What more can He say than to you He hath said, You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?”

Scripture is an essential companion to prayer, not only because it teaches us how to pray but because it shows us where the conversation began. The Bible tells us what God has already said. By reading it carefully, we develop a way of thinking about prayer. We begin to understand the one to whom we are speaking.

It is easy to accuse God of being unresponsive to our prayers because we cannot hear His voice. But the truth is, we are the ones who are disengaged. God has spoken first, but we do not take His words into account. We are deeply interested in getting what we want when we pray but not nearly as concerned about God’s wishes. I am not saying that we have never read the Bible or that we have no interest in God. Only that we tend to be single-minded. We do not bother to consider God’s point of view. We are waiting for Him to respond to us when, all the while, He has been waiting for us. We are hoping that God will say something new without bothering to orient our prayers to what He has already said.

Would we pray differently if we believed that God’s silence meant that He was truly listening? It might help if we thought of prayer as communion instead of conversation. The essence of communion is shared experience. We usually interpret God’s silence as absence or disinterest. But in true conversation, listening is interaction as much as speech. Indeed, genuine listening may be even more of an exchange than words because, to really listen, we must enter into someone’s experience.  We have all had conversations where the other party did not really hear what we were saying. Their silence was merely a pause before speaking. We ourselves have been guilty of this. Such conversations are not conversations at all but merely an exchange of sounds.

Silence & Presence

Silent listening is essential to genuine conversation. It is also a common attribute of the experience of communion. Every happy couple knows that the joy of conversation is not the chatter but the pleasure of exchanged presence. The Christian idea of communion is rooted in the biblical concept of koinonia, a Greek word that means fellowship or sharing. Sometimes koinonia speaks of our experience with God, and at other times, of our experience with other believers. There is a connection between these two. In 1 Corinthians 1:9, the apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians that God had called them “into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Such language denotes a special kind of relationship.  It is a fellowship or union with Jesus Christ. The church celebrates this relationship when it observes the Lord’s Supper, a rite that we often call “communion.” But the spiritual communion Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 1:9 is something more. Fellowship with Christ is an abiding union with our savior. Those who have been called by God and have trusted in Christ are themselves “in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

This union is what Jesus prayed for when He asked that all those who believe “may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17: 21).  He went on to ask, “May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one.” We often view Jesus’ words as a prayer for church unity, and unity is partly in view. But Jesus was asking for much more. Our mistake has been to see Jesus’ words as a statement of aspiration. Interpreted this way, Jesus’ words are more of a wish than a prayer.

If desire were all that Jesus meant, He might as well have said, “Father, I hope that they will be one.” Indeed, this is exactly how we usually hear this text preached in church. The emphasis is not on what God has done in response to Jesus’ prayer, but on what we are supposed to do if it is ever going to be a reality. Instead of a prayer addressed to the Father, we have changed it into a sermon preached to the church. But the “may be” of verse 21 is not a maybe. It is a “let it be” that echoes the Father’s declarations at creation. Just as God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, Jesus prayed, “Let them be one in us and in one another.”

What does this have to do with our prayers? It means that communion is a state before it is an experience. Communion is still a fact even when we do not sense its reality. God hears us when we pray, even when the silence leaves us feeling like we are talking to an empty sky. God is present when we pray, even when we do not sense His presence. Sometimes when we pray, we act as if we need to attract God’s attention. We feel like a person on the ground waving their hands at a plane passing high overhead, hoping that someone up there will see them. But God does not have to come down from on high to take note of us. Nor do we need to arrest His attention. Although we often talk about “coming” into God’s presence, the truth is that we are already there. Whenever we pray, and even when we are not praying, we are always in the Father and the Son. God cannot be any closer than He already is. Even if we were in heaven (Rom. 10:6-8).

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.

Picture of cover of Dangerous Virtues by John Koessler

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.

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.”

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.