Prayer used to confuse me. Or I should say, prayers asking for specific outcomes used to confuse me. Like, “please let my car start” or “please let that guy I have a crush on notice me”. Worthy or not, these are the “please give me what I want” category of prayers. Or sometimes “please let reality not be reality for me just this once”. I used to pray such prayers with great fervency. Jesus said ask and you shall receive. If I just believed enough, it would be granted to me. It was prayer as magic. But magic isn’t real. And it never worked. As a matter of fact, people who spend any time around me will tell you that I have remarkably bad luck. I got 5 flat tires this summer. At least twice a year my mail is returned to the sender for no apparent reason. And those are almost always two pieces of mail with money in them. As a child, I got sick and missed the class field trip 3 years in a row. It was probably the only time I was sick all year. That’s just the way it has always been for me. I don’t know why. But I can tell you that my magical thinking prayers never helped anything.
For a while I thought it was me. I just didn’t believe enough or trust enough. And philosophically I had problems with asking God for things like that. God is God. He will do what He wants. But a curious thing happened. After being married for a couple of years, there were certain things about my husband’s attitude that I couldn’t deal with any more. But for whatever reasons, I knew that it would be counterproductive for me to be confrontational with my him about it. So I prayed and told God what I needed my husband to be told. I remember doing it two or three times and each time, usually within 24 hours, my husband would come to me and say, “I feel like God is telling me . . . ” and nearly word-for-word what I had said to God would come out of his mouth. At the time I took it as God’s way of telling me that my prayers really do matter to him. It wasn’t until years later that I also realized that it was also a sign of agreement between God and myself. God would not have taken my words and used them like that if he was not in agreement with them, I don’t think.
Other people may be able to heal or bring money showers or push a car out of a ditch single handedly. I have no such ability. As a matter of fact, given my luck, you may not want to ask me to pray for you at all! At least when it comes to the physical world. Over the years I have pondered why this is so for me and for most people I know. There are some pretty specific promises in scripture about prayers being answered.
The first, most obvious answer is that we are asking for the wrong things. Jesus said in regards to our physical needs, “seek first the Kingdom and all these things will be added unto you.” The Kingdom is a spiritual kingdom. It is spiritual things we must seek. The physical will follow. Or so the theory goes. At the very least I can report that God’s standard of living seems to be much lower than my own preferred standard of living. But I’ve never gone hungry, I have enough stuff to make my house really messy and I’ve never slept outdoors for lack of other shelter. And that’s more than a lot of humanity can say. I’m still trusting that there are much better things ahead for me, but for today, what I have is enough.
The other thing which I have come to see is that often whether a prayer gets answered is for our spiritual benefit or not. Some of these are the “thank God for unanswered prayers” genre. But others are much less clear. The benefit of what was being asked for was so clear. The disappointment and anger of not having the prayer answered was so sharp and hurtful. Why are those prayers not answered? What it comes down to, I believe, is what you need in order to grow closer to God. If something is going to destroy you or if you are going to be destroyed if you do not get what you are asking for, God may step in. Think of how long and how innocently the people who Jesus cured had suffered. These were people whose lives were destroyed. They needed this healing. It was a spiritual as well as a physical rescue. Notice that Jesus reassures each of them “your sins are forgiven”. These people would live the rest of their lives in peace no matter what happened next.
But mostly we must walk through whatever comes our way without obvious divine interference. No doubt God is at work in all sorts of subtle ways, but we are so attuned to the difficulties we are facing that we often miss his hand at work. And the lack of rescue tests our faith. Does it hold? Can it stretch? Will it allow God to walk beside us when we struggle? Will we lean on him – even when we’re angry? And so prayer after prayer goes unanswered as we lean further and further into God.
And as you lean into God, you start to learn his secret: he may not answer our prayers for reality to be something other than it is, but he is always faithful to help us be other than we are. From his stores of peace, patience, hope and love He gives with abandon. What you pray for in the spiritual realm will be given as bountifully as you are able to receive it.
And now when I can’t pray my car into being fixed, I figure that means I’ll be fine without it. I’ll just have to lean on my spiritual abundance to see me through.