Hosea 1: 2 – 10
Colossians 2: 6 – 15
Luke 11: 1 – 13
A woman stood up in church when the priest asked if anyone would like to share a recent answer to prayer, and thanked God profusely for healing her daughter of a debilitating skin disease. Everyone clapped spontaneously as they all knew how much her daughter, who had once attended their church, had suffered.
A man sitting next to her rose and shared that he had been praying for his brother, a faithful, parishioner in a nearby town, for healing from cancer for many years. His brother had not improved and two nights earlier his brother had died, leaving a wife and three teenage children. A stunned silence greeted this announcement, and people were so embarrassed, they hardly heard the man go on to say how much the love and support of the parish had meant to him during the past year when his brother had suffered a great deal of pain.
Right there is what I call the problem of prayer. In fact it’s more than that. It’s the problem every Christian faces when dealing with a loving God who does not always act the way we want him to act.
Given that prayer involves all sorts of things like confession, praise and thanksgiving, Jesus’ parable focusses on the asking part of prayer, i.e. our asking God for something.
The stock responses to God’s apparent deafness (after we have got over the thought that maybe we were praying incorrectly) is
- to think that either God does not care,
- or that God knows the suffering is good for us; that we will eventually see the wisdom of what we have gone through.
But that too is inadequate, and only contains half truths.
The point is this: we will never know, in this life, why God answers some prayers in accordance with our requests, and doesn’t answer others the way we would like.
The great Kathryn Kuhlman, who probably presided over the most spectacular of healings ministries, confessed she did not know why God answered some prayers and didn’t answer others.
And the truth that God always answers prayer (it’s just that he says yes to some, wait to others and no to the rest) is simply stating the obvious. It doesn’t help us a great deal.
There is some truth in the idea that the purpose of prayer is to draw us closer to God, but that is merely a positive by-product of prayer, it is not the main thing.
In the latter part of the Gospel reading, Jesus tells the story of the friend who is reluctant to help. Does this imply God is reluctant to help us? Clearly that is not true.
The advice given is to keep on asking because eventually the friend will give in and help. Okay, the message is clear, we should be persistent in prayer. As I said, that will have the positive by-product of keeping us engaged with God so that we might hear God.
But then Jesus says a few things that require closer inspection.
9 ‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
Is Jesus just repeating himself here? In other words, are ask, seek and knock simply synonyms? Are they the same thing? Or is Jesus describing a process that holds a truth about effective prayer?
One thing we do know is that God is not simply going to give us everything we want. He implies this in the next verse: 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?
You may remember the movie, Bruce Almighty? It was about God answering prayer, a topic that is so popular the film made $484 million US$ worldwide. In the movie Jim Carrie’s character criticises Morgan Freeman’s character (he was playing God) for not answering enough prayers with a “yes.” As a result he’s offered the job of being God for week. He eagerly takes it on and starts answering every prayer positively; and of course all chaos breaks loose.
But if Jesus’ words do describe a process that holds a truth about effective prayer, what might it be?
Someone described it as a journey from self-centredness towards God-centredness. For that to work we have to do a little interpretation. We are asking for the way to God’s house, seeking God’s house by following the directions we received, and finally knocking on the door of God’s house when we arrive.
All this is another version of the purpose of prayer being to change us (and hence the nature of our requests) rather than about persuading God to act on our behalf. Again, this is a by-product. It is not the actual intention of prayer. We do pray to get things from God.
There is no clear answer to this question, but those of us who are Christians all have some answer, even if it’s held at a subconscious level. We have to have an answer or we’d grow to dislike God who clearly is capable of giving us anything we ask for, but doesn’t.
An immature response would be a childish one. i.e I’m a child and God is a parent and he knows best so I’m just going to submit mindlessly to his will.
A more mature response is to understand:
- that God is mysterious (we will never understand everything about God)
- that he is our friend nonetheless and has an understanding of things on this fallen earth that make it impossible for us to receive everything we want,
- but also that he still wants us to exercise faith as we ask because as St Paul points out, The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5: 6)
That is why of the two people we began with who got up in response to the priest’s request to share a recent answer to prayer, the man’s testimony about the love of the congregation in his time of hardship was much more worthy of applause than was the testimony of the woman about her daughter’s skin problem.
Both were of course reason to be joyful and to thank God, but the congregation’s response betrayed a slight immaturity that lies in all of us, and the question we should be asking ourselves as we pray is this: do I want Jesus more than I want an answer to my prayer?