One of the joys in participating in a Christian community of faith is praying with and for one another. It’s a great privilege and even greater responsibility to lift each other up in pray, especially in times of difficulty and need. The Bible teaches that we should “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) and that we should “ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Luke 11:9)
With that in mind, every once in a while, when good news arises over something folks have been praying for, I will hear or read this response: “Prayer works.” I understand the sentiment behind the expression, and agree 100% that prayer “works.”
But what about those times when things don’t turn out so well… when the cancer isn’t cured, the job offer falls through, or the relationship fails or never materializes? What do we claim about the result of our prayers when they are not answered the way we hoped and desired? If a favorable outcome is the basis by which we can claim “Prayer works,” by logic, couldn’t we just as easily claim “Prayer doesn’t work” when things don’t turn out so well?
Seems silly doesn’t it? Of course we know and believe in the power of prayer. And yet, only acknowledging God’s activity at work when results are favorable can lead to questions about God’s motives and involvement when outcomes disappoint and even crush us. As a follower of Christ, I believe it is important to sift through the conversation and speculation, and acknowledge the truth of what we know and don’t know regarding how God answers prayer.
What we do know is God’s motives towards us.
Scripture reminds us that the foundation of God’s relationship with us is love. In fact, the Bible describes God’s nature purely in those terms: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8). Because God is love, we can be confident that His motives in dealing with us are based always on love and nothing else. God has no hidden agendas; He can only act in love.
In response to His disciples’ request to teach them to pray, Jesus taught them to begin prayer by addressing God as “Father.” In order to confess our God as Father, we also make an important distinction about ourselves: we are His children, and the relationship between father and child is anchored in love. 1 John 3:1 reminds us: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.”
It’s a beautiful image of our relationship with God, isn’t it? As a father loves his children and responds to them in love, so too does God respond to our needs brought to Him in prayer. He responds in love.
What we also know is that God created us and knows infinitely more than we know. He knows what is and isn’t in our best interest. Good parents do not always give their children what want and when they ask for it because not everything a child desires is good for him or her. Instead, a good parent gives the child what is best for him or her. It is the same way in our prayers to God. God gives us what is best for us, according to His wisdom, love and care. We are His children and He gives us what is best for us, and at a time when it is best for us.
And that brings us to the things we don’t know – the mysteries of faith.
Why God allows bad things to happen to good people and vice versa in spite of our prayers is not always, in fact rarely, understood. People have debated the issue for a very long time (take a look at the conversation between Job and his friends in the Old Testament). Rather than trying to assign blame or motive, I believe the best alternative is to grasp a different reality – that there are some things in this world we simply can’t explain and must/should count as mysteries, known only to God. We do well to trust and leave those things in God’s hands.
Because we live in a world broken by sin, by faith we cling to the truth that Jesus overcame sin and all its bad effects with His life, death and resurrection. Though trouble may barge into our lives – even in spite of our prayers – Jesus assures us that He has overcome all trouble and will one day restore us to Him in a way that far exceeds anything we could ask of God through prayer today.
So how are we to respond in those times when the results of our prayers don’t go as we asked for? Jesus ended His prayer in the garden of Gethsemane with “Not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42) That’s a good model to follow in our own prayer lives.
There’s a story from the Old Testament that provides a powerful insight into how we are to respond to God regardless of the outcome of our prayers. It involves King David and a prayer he brought before God to save the life of his child.
David had an adulterous affair with another man’s wife. When she became pregnant with his child, David had her husband killed in order to cover up the affair. David was confronted with his sin, and ultimately repented of his wrongdoing, but not before God punished him by cursing the life of his child. Even so, David prayed fervently to God to spare him, as any father would. Scripture tells us he fasted and laid flat on the floor pouring his heart out to God in prayer for seven days. Sadly, the child died. And when David learned of the news, his response to the outcome was remarkable. The Bible tells us “Then David arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes. And he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped.” (2 Samuel 12:20) David received the worst news any father could hear, and yet, went and worshiped the Lord… then got on with his life.
What does this story teach us? It appears that along with praying to God to spare the life of his child, David also prayed for obedience to God’s will when and how it was revealed. And when it was, even thought it was not the outcome David had prayed for, David trusted God’s love and wisdom, choosing to live a response of “not my will, but yours, be done.”
Does prayer work? Yes it does, because God has given us a relationship with Him through prayer. But bigger than that, we do well to remember in our prayers that it is “God at work”…and His work is always perfect and good. And so as we pray, we lay all things on our hearts and minds before God. And because of His love for us, we also pray that our will be conformed to His, trusting in His answers to our prayers…because His answers are always motivated by love.
(Image Credit: Luca Rossato)