|RAYER CHANGES things."
It’s a great slogan. But as with many great slogans, might there be problems in the details? For example, What exactly is prayer? What are its basic elements? Is it critical whom we address—whether “God,” “Lord,” or “Jesus”? How essential is it that we make clear that the petition is being offered in Jesus’ name? Is posture critical—eyes closed, hands folded or lifted in some way, kneeling, standing?
Then what do we mean by “changes” (as in “prayer changes things”)? Is change always for the better? And what do we mean by “things”—material objects? circumstances? Is the anticipated change permanent, or is it temporary?
I don’t answer all these questions here, but they’re important to consider.
The Practice of Prayer
One of the disciples, after observing Jesus in prayer, said to Him: “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1). One implication of that request is that John (the Baptist) had taught his disciples to pray, and that Jesus’ prayers, somehow, were attractive to His own disciples.
Jesus showed no hesitancy about the request—He did not interrogate them as to why they wanted Him to teach them to pray; nor did He raise any questions about prayer itself or about the differences between His prayers and those of John. Instead, He simply said to them: “Pray in this way,” and then proceeded to give them a short, simple, straightforward prayer, one that’s still used by individuals and in corporate worship services today.
If we consider prayer to be communication with God, then the Scriptures record a multitude of prayers, beginning with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Abraham’s life would provide many examples, with discussions between him and God spread over long periods of time. Abraham’s chief servant specifically prayed to the God of his master when sent to find a wife for Isaac (Gen. 24). Rachel prayed for a son; Jacob prayed before meeting his twin brother, Esau, on the way back home; Samson prayed in his last moments. And we have, among others, prayers by Hannah, David, Solomon, and Daniel.
With so many prayers in the Old Testament, why did Jesus’ disciples ask Him to teach them to pray? And why did the Gospels include this story? Might there be an underlying reason? It’s an intriguing question, without a clear answer.
Many of us pray frequently. We were taught to express thanks for various things, including the food we eat. But those are often pro forma prayers. And though we’ve probably gone beyond the “Now I lay me down to sleep . . .” we learned as children, for many of us the evening bedside prayer is still pro forma. Many of us spend time in extended prayer only when we face a crisis: finding a job; overcoming some health problem; facing family issues, a critical exam or interview, or a testimony in court.
Jesus said: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matt. 7:7, 8).
How does the “prayer warriors” concept fit into this
If I understand the term correctly, a “prayer warrior” would be someone who does battle using prayer. But it’s not totally clear to me whom or what the battle is against. If the idea is to pray strongly enough that the person praying prevails, then one interpretation could be that the “foe” is really God, since the idea is to prevail so that God will give the answer they want.
That does sound a bit strange, however, giving the impression that we could wear God down if we pray long and hard enough. It’s as if we can turn God into a celestial bellhop or concierge, if only we pray enough. Yet the above text suggests that the door will be opened for everyone who knocks.
That seems like a simple equation, doesn’t it? Do this and get that! What a deal! And what a great incentive to become a follower of God! We can get whatever we ask for!
A while back my wife, Kristine, and I worshipped at a church where we heard about the difference between belief with a lowercase b and belief with a capital B. The former was described as an intellectual agreement with something, while the latter pertained to something we were willing to stake our lives on. In relation to prayer, the idea is that if we really had faith with a capital F (or belief with a capital B), we should be able to ask God to cure any disease or even resurrect someone and expect it to happen. Powerful stuff!
And the stories we read in the Bible back that up! Take Elijah as an example. He prayed over the body of the widow’s son and the boy came back to life (1 Kings 17); and he prayed at Carmel for fire to descend from heaven, and it did (1 Kings 18).
But then we also read about Elijah begging God to let him die and God ignoring his entreaty, sending him an angel instead (1 Kings 19)—an outcome he never asked for. And Jesus Himself prayed that the cup would pass from Him, but His prayer went unanswered.
We might make the point that Jesus did qualify His request with the statement that God’s will be done. But, doesn’t this raise a further question? How would we know the difference between our prayer not being answered because it was not God’s will versus our prayer not being answered because we weren’t persistent enough?
Let’s Take Another Look
I note that Jesus’ command to “ask, seek, knock” in Luke 11:9, 10 is sandwiched between two rather similar illustrations. Just prior to the reference is the story about a friend at midnight seeking to borrow bread; and following it is Jesus’ statement about a father not giving a snake to his child who asks for a fish.
In the first illustration, the homeowner, although in bed with his family, rises to the aid of his friend because of his friend’s persistence. It seems a key text for persistence in prayer, doesn’t it? The lesson seems to be that if, with capital-F faith, we pray loud and persistently, God will eventually give in and comply with our requests—even if it’s just to get us off His back.
What a concept! Is that the lesson?
In the second text, Jesus compares the goodness of humans to that of God: “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?” (Luke 11:11).
Then comes the clincher—and to make my point, I want to give it first from Matthew’s rendition: “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11).
Given that last statement, why is it that life does not always turn out the way we want? We ask for things that to us seem good and beneficial, but have not always received them. We prayed for the right answer to give in an interview, but didn’t get the job. We prayed for safety, only to have a car break down or a collision occur. We prayed for healing of our human relationships, for reconciliation of our marriages, for the return of our children to the faith in which they were raised, but have not seen the answers. We prayed for physical healing—for friends, family, or patients—only to watch them worsen and die. We prayed for peace, only to see war break out. Thinking about my own experience, I was not selected to go as a student missionary to Peru back in college, even though I’d prayed as diligently as I knew how. I failed to get several jobs I really wanted along the way, even though I’d prayed hard to get them.
What part of the small print in the prayer contract did we not understand? Is it not God’s will (remember the “Thy will be done” clause) that His children live and be healthy and at peace? Isn’t it His will that we succeed? Of course it is. So why the apparent failure? Is it that we need to be stronger “prayer warriors”?
Then there’s the added complication of conflicting prayers, so to speak. In the old example, a child prays for a sunny day for a picnic while a farmer prays for rain. Two sports teams each pray they’ll win. Don’t such prayers place God in a conundrum? In such cases, does He just reward the more persistent prayer?
I would suggest that one way out of the apparent dilemma is to read the last clause of the text before us—this time in Luke’s version. Notice (in italics) how it reads: “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).
That rendition helps us see the emphasis of the passage is that God, who delights in giving us good gifts far better than human parents give to their children, promises that if we ask, He will give us the Holy Spirit.
That’s simply marvelous!
For most of us, receiving the Holy Spirit will not mean a mighty wind and fiery tongues settling on our heads as in Acts 2. But Scripture is clear about the fruit and the gifts of the Spirit.
We read in Galatians 5:22, 23 that “God’s Spirit makes us loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled” (CEV).* And in his first letter to the believers in Corinth Paul writes that the gifts of the Spirit are tailored to each of our abilities and needs. He says: “The Spirit has given each of us a special way of serving others. Some of us can speak with wisdom, while others can speak with knowledge. . . . To others the Spirit has given great faith or the power to heal the sick or the power to work mighty miracles. Some of us are prophets, and some of us recognize when God’s Spirit is present. Others can speak different kinds of languages, and still others can tell what these languages mean. But it is the Spirit who does all this and decides which gifts to give to each of us” (1 Cor. 12:7-11, CEV).
The Need for Balance
Do we run the risk of “spiritualizing away” Jesus’ promise with this understanding? Maybe so; but not as great a risk as expecting our religion to always result in material benefits
if only we “knock” hard enough. If the latter were the case, then how are we different from (so-called) “rice Christians,” who join the church simply for the benefits (food, jobs,
education) that accompany membership?
Yes, God does give good gifts—even material gifts. He promised Abraham a son and a great nation of descendants. He made Solomon exceedingly wise. And He saved the lives of Esther and Daniel in answer to prayer. There’s nothing wrong with asking, with telling God what’s on our hearts, with praying for the good of others and for ourselves (intercessory prayer). If we are indeed friends of God, there should be no topic that’s off limits to discuss with Him. Some of God’s friends (Abraham and Moses, for example) have even “argued” and “bargained” with Him.
But we should always keep in mind that, notwithstanding their prayers, these saints of old did not always see things go right with them. Isaiah was assassinated; Jeremiah was imprisoned in a slime pit; Stephen was stoned to death; James was beheaded; and Jesus was crucified. What we can be sure about, however, is each of them was given the promised Spirit in answer to their prayers. How else would Isaiah, for example, spend as much time as he did focusing on the need to care for others? And how else could Stephen have died (as had Jesus before him) asking for forgiveness for his tormentors?
The prayer Jesus taught His followers is a beautifully simple prayer and can certainly be used to focus our thoughts. But I doubt He ever meant it to be the prayer we must always pray. Jesus’ idea, I think, was to give His followers a short, simple example of prayer, in contradistinction to the long, loud, self-promoting prayers of the religious leaders of the day.
And Jesus, I believe, also taught persistence. We should not lose heart—whether we’re praying for alleviation of world hunger, for honesty in government, for healing, or for peace. We must do what we can, but also pray. We should ask God to take our effort and multiply it; to do what we cannot fully do for ourselves or for others. Then we should ask Him to increase our faith in the power of the Holy Spirit.
What Prayer Changes
What then can we say about the need to “ask, seek, knock”? I think Jesus was not here teaching that there’s a prayer equation (if it were a simple equation, then God would be our slave!). Rather, He was trying to teach His disciples—then and now—that God loves us and will give us the best gifts. That it is indeed appropriate to tell God about how we feel and what we’d like to have for ourselves, for others, and for the world, expecting that God will give us the best gift to meet our need at the right time and circumstance; that even when oppressed, we can be loving and patient; that in times of doubt we can have faith; that even when everything seems to be falling to pieces, we can have self-control; that in war, we can be at peace.
Questions for Reflection
1. This article perhaps raised more questions for you than it answered. How have you personally grappled with similar issues?
2. The article makes a critical comparison between Matthew 7:11 and Luke 11:13. How significant is this emphasis to understanding the meaning of Jesus' message on prayer?
3. What have ou personally learned about prayer over the years? What three things would you share with a young Christian seeking help on this subject?
4. What's your most memorable prayer experience?
It may well be that prayer changes the person who is praying more than it changes the circumstances around them. Part of the change may be recognizing that God has given us a great gift, even though it may not have been what we prayed for at the time.
And what greater gifts could we ask for than to be “loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled”? Which all comes with the gift of the Spirit.
May it be so for all of us.
*Scripture quotations identified CEV are from the Contemporary English Version. Copyright ” American Bible Society 1991, 1995. Used by permission.
Lester N. Wright served seven years in various locations in Africa, taught two years at Loma Linda University, and is now deputy commissioner/chief medical officer for the New York State Department of Correctional Services.