Monday, 18 August 2008

On Praying and Prayers, and Why Some of Them Don't Get Answered

Why do we need to tell an omniscient God what our needs and secret desires are? Shouldn't he know already? Why does he make us wait? Does he take pleasure in our grovelling? Why doesn't God just give us what we want?

Why have we fasted and You do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?' Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire, And drive hard all your workers.
Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist. You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high.
Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one's head like a reed And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD?
Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free And break every yoke?
Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will speedily spring forth; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; You will cry, and He will say, 'Here I am.' If you remove the yoke from your midst, The pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness,
And if you give yourself to the hungry And satisfy the desire of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness And your gloom will become like midday.
And the LORD will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.
(Isaiah 58:3-11)

You ask for something but do not get it because you ask for it for the wrong reason-for your own pleasure. (James 4:3)

We squeeze our eyes shut and rhyme off a Christmas list, address it to God instead of Santa, and sit back with the idea that God is somehow bound to deliver. This is not the prayer the Bible describes, nor does it give us a handle on the Living God.

What is the purpose of prayer, if it is neither the exercise of reciting our wishlists nor the wrestling into submission of a reluctant deity?

Prayer is first of all my recognition of who I am, and who God is. It is my opportunity to relinquish my responsibility for the lack - to lay the burden of my need and my longing before the One who can take responsibility for it. Prayer draws me into the very heart of God and allows me to share his thoughts and his great longing heart.

As I come near to the God who is Love and lay my burdens down, I am drawn into a circle of shared understanding. I begin to see, not through my own priorities of fear-driven pain-avoidance, but as Love sees. As I name my hurts, my worries, my wants, he puts them in with his own, and I am allowed, as much as I will, to see things as they truly are. Most amazing of all, I am allowed to join Love in his great aching and longing over his own broken creation. I participate in the hurt of his loving, and I know the comfort of his love toward me in my brokenness.

In prayer, I am reminded that Good is far greater than the petty ideas of comfort and self-satisfaction that we humans seek so doggedly. As I pray, my self-centred wants are deepened and transformed until I begin to long after those things that God himself longs after: the redemption of the broken, and the filling of the whole universe with Love and Light and Truth - beginning with your heart and mine.

When my requests remain un-granted, I am sure of this: the God who hears is ignoring my worded request for good things because instead he is satisfying the cry of my heart after the Good I cannot name. There are two reasons I am sure of this: the Bible promises it: And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28), and I have tried it. Never has God refused my request for a good thing and not given me instead the Good I couldn't have imagined. Every bitter, painful thing I have surrendered to him in prayer has been sweetened and time after time I have seen the very thing I begged to be set free from become the means by which I have received my deep heart's desire.

The God who hears my prayers has proven himself faithful to his word again and again and again. He doesn't always save me from hurt or hunger or embarrassment. He doesn't make me immune to the difficulties or the indignities of ordinary life. But God is changing my selfish thinking, bit by bit. I have been surprised to find him less like Santa Claus, and more like my Mother. He is filling every corner of my life with a Good that is more like carrots than candy, and with every passing experience, I learn that His love doesn't always mean giving me what I think I want.

He hears all my prayers, but sometimes he doesn't obey me. Thank God.