[For some of you, this will be a continuation of both our Taking Root study last week and our church adult study on Sunday morning.]
As shocking as it might seem, the idea of prayer as ‘getting God to do something’ is actually a pagan idea, not a biblical one. But when we talk about getting prayer ‘answered,’ this is often what we mean. Whenever we start to focus on how we’re praying—rather than on God to whom we’re praying—we begin to slip into manipulative prayer. If we’re worried about using the right pious phrases or spiritual words, praying for impressive lengths of time, whipping ourselves up into an emotional state so that we can really move God when we pray, etc., and we’re doing all of this so that God will answer our prayer (i.e. do what we ask), then we’ve started attempting to manipulate God. Thankfully God is gentle and patient with us, understanding our need to grow and mature. But this is still an error that we don’t want to fall into.
There are some passages of Scripture that emphasize ‘not giving up’ or ‘persevering’ in our prayer. If we don’t look at these texts carefully, it’s easy to get the wrong idea. Let’s take a look at one that sometimes confuses believers, Luke 18:1-8:
One day Jesus told his disciples a story to show that they should always pray and never give up. “There was a judge in a certain city,” he said, “who neither feared God nor cared about people. A widow of that city came to him repeatedly, saying, ‘Give me justice in this dispute with my enemy.’ The judge ignored her for a while, but finally he said to himself, ‘I don’t fear God or care about people, but this woman is driving me crazy. I’m going to see that she gets justice, because she is wearing me out with her constant requests!'”
I can’t tell you how many people have said to me: “See, the woman had to hound the judge until he did what she asked, and God is teaching us to do the same thing with him!” But is this what Jesus is teaching us in this story?
Those who were with us on Sunday morning will recall a similar story (in Luke 11:5-8). During our discussion, I referred to some of the imagery from Psalm 23. Do we believe that the Lord is really our Shepherd? Of course, we do. Then how often do we get down on all fours and follow him out to some pasture where we munch on grass and then go and stick our face in the water for a cool drink? That’s silly, isn’t it? We don’t do that because we know the Psalm is speaking figuratively about the way God cares for us. We understand there are limitations to the metaphor.
The week before, we studied the story of the “good Samaritan” in Luke 10:30-37. Jesus ends the conversation by telling the expert in religious law to “go and do the same.” Does this mean that the man was supposed to convert and become a Samaritan, hang out on the road to Jericho and search for a man who had been robbed, beaten and left for dead? No, we understand that Jesus was teaching the man to show the same kind of mercy, to love his neighbor as the Samaritan did in the story. We need to see that we don’t just settle for an easy, surface application of a parable; we have to really understand what Jesus is getting across to the people—and to us.
So what’s happening in our story? Right away, we tend to identify with the widow. She’s in need. She’s been a victim of injustice. She desperately needs help. Is she like some of us? Definitely.
But the first character that Jesus mentions isn’t the widow. It’s the judge. What is he like? He didn’t care about anybody else—not the will of God or the needs of the people around him. All he cared about was himself. Is this a picture of God? Not at all! This isn’t anything like God, is it? So if the judge isn’t a picture of God, then the way the woman has to wear down the judge is not a picture of how we are to pray to God. This isn’t a comparison; it’s a contrast.
The reason why we should always pray and never give up is that God isn’t like this judge. After all who is actually able to hound God and pressure him to do something for us? If we had to resort to this level of coercion to convince God to act, then we may as well despair now because if God wants to ignore us, he’ll ignore us! There’s nothing we can do about it. We could never pour on enough pressure to make him do anything!
But God is not hard and uncaring. He’s not unmoved by our pain and trouble. We see this most clearly in Jesus’ love for the people. So we can have confidence that God is not like some pagan deity (that’s who this judge is really like) who we have to beg, bribe or cajole to get him to help us. God isn’t like the judge, he’s like Jesus! God loves us and already knows what we need before we pray about it.
“Then . . . if God already knows what I need, why do I have to keep praying and not give up? Why do I have to pray at all?” Because prayer is not about getting God to respond. It’s about getting me to participate in what he’s doing.
Let’s broaden the question. Scripture makes it clear that God wants us to evangelize, to share the Good News with those around us. Why us? Couldn’t God do a much better job of communicating the Gospel than we can? Doesn’t he have a much better idea of who needs to hear and when they’re ready to listen? Why doesn’t he just bypass us and reach the people directly? You can’t disagree that the job would be accomplished much more quickly and in a much better manner, can you?
When someone is suffering emotional pain, why doesn’t God have us step aside and let the Holy Spirit do all the comforting directly? Why does he insist on also ministering through us? It’s not that he can accomplish more or produce better quality ministry through us. But, for some reason, he wants us to participate in everything he’s doing.
Those of you who are parents, have you ever had your young child “help” you with a project? Let’s say you’re painting the house, and your three-year-old wants to help. Do you finish much faster and more efficiently because of their help? Then why is it such a delight when they’re helping you? Because you’re more concerned with your child than you are some paint job (that will have to be repainted eventually anyway). This is your child working alongside you, sharing in what you’re doing, focused on the same things you are. You’re doing it together.
So you show them where to paint, and you praise their efforts—and then come along behind them and fix where they’ve splattered paint everywhere and somehow make it right. “Look what we did together!” You do this because you love them and want them to be with you. And I’m sure God does the same thing for us all the time.
“But God responds to our prayers.” Yes he does, and I’m so glad of that. But be careful of thinking this is a clear ’cause and effect’ kind of thing. Let’s say your six-year-old son has decided to put together a model airplane, and he gets a model that’s way beyond his ability to put together on his own. You offer him help, but he pushes you away. “I’ll do it myself!” So you say, “Alright, buddy, you can tackle this all on your own.” And—when you can see he’s getting frustrated—you remind everyone: “Bobby wants to put the model together himself without any help.” Until, finally, Bobby comes to you and, in a small voice, tells you that maybe he can’t do it all by himself, and would you help him?
Do you respond? Of course. Are you wanting to help him? You’ve wanted to help him all along. But it was more important that he come to the place where he recognize his need for help and where he’s willing to ask you for help. This illustration is somewhat flawed, because our children can ask for things that we didn’t anticipate. But we can never surprise God.
When we pray, we’re not telling God anything he doesn’t already know. And when he responds, it’s not because we’ve somehow thought of the perfect solution for him to put into motion. “Oh Lord, this is what I think you should do in this situation. Amen.” Sometimes he may delay doing what he desires to do until we get with his program. But when he responds, it’s always according to his will, it’s always what he intended to do all along.
So when we pray for someone’s healing, what we are saying, in essence, is: “Lord, we want to be a part of what you’re doing in this situation—because we know that’s what you want. We don’t know exactly what you intend to do in this circumstance, but we know that you love this person and that you desire to work in their life in a powerful way according to your perfect wisdom and timing. We confidently, but humbly, make our requests. But we’re not asking you to conform to our idea of what should happen here; we’re asking you to help us pray according to what you intend to do. And we know that what you do will be the best outcome for everyone involved. Thank you for choosing to involve us in your work, and even to work through us.”
So always pray and never give up. God is not like the uncaring judge, and we don’t have to hound him to get him to listen. In fact, this is just what Jesus said when he himself commented on this story:
Then the Lord said: “Learn a lesson from the unjust judge. Even he rendered a just decision in the end. So don’t you think God will surely give justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will grant them justice quickly!”
God wants us to be with him, not only in relationship with him, but sharing in his mission. He not only makes us part of his family, he makes us part of the family business. And prayer is a key way we participate in God’s mission. This is why Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “May your kingdom come.” Our prayers shouldn’t be mostly about our own petty desires and preferences. They should be about furthering the kingdom of God, in our own lives and the lives of those around us. When we pray according to God’s will, reflecting back to him his concerns, his mission, his heart, then we’re beginning to learn what communing with God through prayer is really all about.
[This is all I have planned for our series on prayer. If you have more prayer-related questions, email me or let me know in the blog comments. If I don’t receive any prayer questions for us to tackle, then we’ll move on to another topic next week. (Feel free to submit any questions or topics that you’d like to study.)]
Why is prayer sometimes so . . . strange?
Prayer: Learning from the pros
Persevering prayer: Always pray and never give up [see above]