I can ask a question that would bring the religious world to a screeching halt if it were to give it
due consideration. And no, it’s not about whether God exists; it’s about whether he really answers prayer as he is widely assumed (across many religions) to be doing.
Is it really what time we think it is? Are the promises that we Christians cling to in the Bible really as far-reaching as we think they are? And were they really intended for us and for our time?
When one looks at how seldom we get what we ask for in prayer, one might well realize the similarity between what we are doing and mere wishing. We rarely get what we ask for, and when we do, it keeps us going another ten years, asking for stuff we mostly do not get! And how often do we stop to admit the possibility that, as far as we know, we might have gotten what we asked for by pure chance, without God having lifted a finger to make it so?
And here’s something that’s wildly ironic: If you press someone to explain why they didn’t get what they prayed for, start the stopwatch and see how long it takes them to appeal to God’s wisdom in the matter! See how quickly they come up with the right answer! And even so, when pressed further about the possibility that God simply does not answer prayer in the way he is so popularly assumed to answer it, will they further apply the common sense of what they just said, and declare, “Wow, God must be even wiser than I thought!”? Probably not. They are more likely to turn the tables on you, and to count you a faithless person, preferring to keep the dream alive that God is ever at the ready to answer our prayers.
And in my mind, this shows that they don’t really like a model in which God rules the world by his wisdom. They would prefer instead that he ruled it by answering their prayers—giving them what they ask for. And they are so adamant about that that they have blinded themselves as to what’s really happening.
Now, whether God answers prayers or not—and how many, and how often—we could certainly decouple ourselves from that topic to examine the topic of God’s wish for us to live in his “imagine” and in his “way”, and to mature to be like Jesus. And we could see the number of times that Bible speaks of him as a father, and talks of him disciplining his children and chiding them to grow up into godliness. So what if that’s what our whole experience on this Earth is mostly about? What if it’s about God putting us into a world in which there is both good and bad, and in which we ourselves must choose? And what if we don’t have to choose but once? That is, what if he wants us to “endure” and “overcome” and to learn to live godly lives in Christ Jesus, playing the long game, as it were, no matter how much we have to endure?
And what if we, in contrast, were short game people, who only wanted what we want, and right now? And what if we saw no real value in the image and the way and in maturity, but instead, created for ourselves a twisted religion that was mostly about feeling good—and feeling good about ourselves—in the moment, with hardly a concern for maturing to be much like Jesus?
I think that our church culture is fixated (in a bad way) on asking God for stuff and for outcomes and for feelings. Imagine Adam and Eve in that lush garden praying to God for food, when he had already set out such an array of things to nourish them! And I think our culture is something like that. Are we intent on learning and growing from what we go through on this Earth? Or would we rather try to pray our way out of that learning and growth? Do we want to become more and more responsible as we mature in Christ? Or are we looking for a way out? Do we want to learn to deal with disappointment and sadness and death—which all seem to be rather obvious features of this world—or do we want an escape from it?
So while I cannot prove to you that God answers zero prayers today (and am not even adamant in such an opinion myself), I’m pretty sure that we’re not with the program if we’re more fixated on asking for something nicer, rather than dealing righteously with what’s right in front of us. I see so many people whose first suggestion at trouble is “Pray about it, bro!”, and who are yet obviously negligent in acting as Jesus would to solve problems. And I think we’ve got ourselves a huge Christian culture that is riddled with this sort of irresponsibility and lack of accountability to God for the good management of the lives he has given us.
In short, many seem to be praying for a way out, quite as the average school child would rather put off a lesson than to learn it.
Whatever is the truth about how God interacts with us, it quite obviously does not match the popular beliefs about it. But what I want to know is this: Why are we not more eager to embrace the lessons that life in this world can teach us? Why do our prayers so often constitute little more than wishes for a way out of the difficult growth? How have we become so spoiled and unruly in this very world into which he has deliberately set our lives for this reason:
“God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.”Acts 17:26 NIV
At the Last Supper, Jesus assured his apostles thus:
John 16:33 NIV
And at least two camps will emerge on how to interpret that last sentence, “I have overcome the world.” Some will take it as if Jesus had been saying,
“Don’t worry; I have overcome this world, and you can do it, too”
And others will interpret it thus:
“Don’t worry; I have overcome this world so that you don’t have to!”
And I know I’ve opened a can of worms here. Surely, there are some gathering up scriptural one-liners with which to fight me, but it’s still true that:
If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.Proverbs 18:13 ESV
Am I saying, “Quit praying for stuff?” Is that really the point of this post? No! The point is this: Work out the life you have been given honestly, rationally, and responsibly, rather than trying to escape the challenges and responsibilities by asking God for a way out. Give careful consideration to the possibility that God put you here to train you and to mature you for eternal life, and not merely that you could enjoy yourself while you are here. Do what you can to make things better, and if you find that you are not acting toward that end, be especially alarmed at your prayers for God to step in where you yourself are unwilling to act. Work at such things with all your heart, as if doing it for God.
I could build quite the case for all this from scripture, but if you’ve been around for a while, you could, too! The question, then, is not whether you know these things, but whether you will accept them—whether you will accept the fullness of God’s purposes for your time here on the Earth. The obvious (to me) response to not getting what you ask for in prayer is this: “If it’s really a good thing, then what am I willing to do to make it happen?”
So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.James 4:17 ESV
If just praying about it were a suitable substitute for doing it, James missed a stellar opportunity here for telling his audience so!