James 3:13–4:3, 7-8a
Mabel prays fervently to win the lottery, but it doesn’t happen. Bert prays for a hard Brexit, while Fred prays for the whole thing to be cancelled. Both prayers cannot be answered. Gladys prays with all her heart that her son won’t die, but he does. Lizzie prays for her daughter to pass all her exams, but she doesn’t.
I suspect that we’ve all experienced that sort of non-answer to prayer. Perhaps we can all remember desperately pleading with God to produce some particular result in some particular situation. And perhaps we can all remember that despite the desperate pleading, sometimes nothing happens.
Some of my examples were sillier than others, but if you look at all the examples, you’ll find it impossible to know where to draw the line on what is a reasonable prayer and what isn’t. And pretty much all of us have the experience of prayers not being answered.
And so many Christians have developed ways of dealing with this situation. We might tell ourselves that God says “no” and has his own reasons for saying “no”, reasons which we are unable to identify because we are unable to see the big picture. So, we can still retain our faith in God despite not receiving the answer we require from our prayers. Or we might blame ourselves for praying with the wrong words so that God is unable to hear us. That saves us from having to face the fact that maybe God doesn’t answer prayer. Or we might convince ourselves that a door is closing because God wishes to open a new door for us, a door which we can’t yet imagine.
In highly stressful situations, those situations which strike at the very heart of our being, it’s difficult to face the fact that maybe God won’t answer our prayer in the ways which we desire. Because if God is not going to do what we ask him to, especially in situations where we have nowhere else to turn, what’s the point of prayer? If prayer can’t be guaranteed to solve the situation as we wish it to be solved, why bother to pray? If my partner or my child or my best friend is seriously ill, but I can’t guarantee that prayer will instantly enable healing, why bother to be a Christian? Why bother to pray for healing if the person might die anyway?
Clearly this was a problem in the early church, because James addresses this in his letter. He said, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”
If we think that prayer is there in order to answer our desires, whatever those desires might be, then sometimes we’re going to be doomed to disappointment. It will be something like Old Mother Hubbard going to the cupboard and discovering that it’s bare. The vast storehouse of riches that we believe God has in his power and that we expect to come our way because we’re Christians, won’t necessarily materialise. Of course, sometimes prayers will be answered exactly as we wish them to be answered. But sometimes they won’t. And we have no way of predicting when our prayers will be answered as we wish and when they won’t.
Where this leaves me is asking what is prayer really about? Perhaps the prime reason for prayer is to communicate with God and to allow God to communicate with us. The Iona Community say this about their service of prayers for healing: we prayer because each person and situation is known to God, not as a problem to be solved, but as a focus for God’s acceptance and love. We are not seeking to change God, but to change the world.
If we can begin to view prayer not as the magical answer to all our desires, but as the means of meeting with God and growing into an intimate relationship with God, all these problems over God’s failure to answer prayer become resolved. We can begin to pray not in order to get something out of God, but in order to share precious moments with God. We can strive for the answer to prayer being found within the praying, rather than some material benefit to be gained as a result of the prayer. If can begin this journey, prayer can become richer and more rewarding.
Prayer isn’t really meant to just be listening to someone else in church, nor something dreary to be muttered as quickly as possible before getting into bed at night. It’s no wonder that prayer fails to produce the required results, and so it’s quickly dropped. It’s then a very short step to claiming that God doesn’t exist, and therefore that prayer doesn’t work.
If prayer is to be real, it must move beyond this way of thinking. If prayer is to be real, it must move beyond a shopping list of things we require from God. If prayer is to be real, it must move from talk into silence, at least some of the time. If prayer is to be real, it must give God space to respond. If prayer is to be real, it must allow God to respond as God wishes to respond, not as we wish him to respond. And it must accept that whatever God’s response might be, it will be in our best interests because God loves us.
This sort of prayer requires practice. It isn’t easy to feel God’s presence. Sometimes prayer is dry and boring. Sometimes it feels like talking to yourself with no one at the other end. But at other times it can produce experiences of ecstasy, spiritual highs in the presence of God himself. Prayer is worth the effort, because it is how we draw near to God.
“You ask and do not receive,” said James. But then he said, “Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.” If you want your prayers to be answered, work at your prayer until it becomes a deeper prayer which brings its own rewards. Then you’ll experience the presence of God, and the answers will come thick and fast.