I used to think prayer was simple: ‘Ask, and you will receive.’
Not anymore. Experience tells me it isn’t that simple at all: I often don’t get what I ask for, even when I’m pretty sure I have asked ‘in Jesus’ name’ and in line with what I reckon is the divine will.
I’m talking here, of course, about ‘petitionary prayer’: bringing requests to God. The New Testament writers, including Jesus himself, urge us to do that, and most of us do it regularly. ‘Lord, heal my child.’ ‘Let me get the job I was interviewed for.’ ‘Could you please temper my grandson’s autism.’ ‘Deal with that noisy neighbour who’s making our lives a misery.’ ‘Please stop Mum’s dementia from getting any worse.’
One problem, of course, is that answers to prayer are unverifiable. My child got better, yes, but would she have got better anyway, if I hadn’t prayed? After all, non-religious people often get things they long for. No-one can say for sure. Or if she didn’t get better, was it because I didn’t pray enough, or with sufficient faith (whatever that means)? So many unanswerable questions!
It’s not all bad, however. There have been a handful of occasions in my seventy years as a committed Christian where a prayer of mine has brought such a striking and immediate response that I will never doubt that God did it. But the majority of the many thousands of my everyday requests remain in the grey area.
And a huge number have not been answered, in that I didn’t get what I asked for. Christians have come up with all sorts of clever ways of explaining that. ‘It was answered,’ they say; ‘it’s just that the answer was No.’ Which is not very satisfying at all. Yes, I trust my heavenly Father’s love, and I know that his perspective is far broader than my own little world, but it’s still frustrating and puzzling to hit yet another brick wall or ‘brass heavens’.
This has made me more selective these days about what requests I bring to God. And that, in turn, has made me explore other types of prayer. Praise and thanksgiving is one such type, and no Christian worth the name will be short on offering that to God, so no issue there. But what about ‘set prayers’?
I was raised to look down my nose at these, as examples of the ‘vain repetition’ that Jesus warned against. Even saying the Lord’s Prayer was frowned upon in my circles. ‘Proper prayer’, I was taught, would always be extempore and from the heart, led by the Spirit. What a sad mistake—as if only ‘off the cuff’ prayers are in those categories! I have come to see that the Lord’s Prayer and other liturgical prayers from the church’s long history have immense value. I have learnt quite a few by heart, to my enrichment, and use them daily.
Someone has wisely said, ‘When you can’t pray, say your prayers.’ I have been blessed in using the General Thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer, along with prayers from Phyllis Tickle’s devotional series The Divine Hours, and a variety of other sources. I find they keep my communion with God on sound lines and provide a security in that, in praying them, I am one with the countless believers who, down the centuries, have used them to channel the outpouring of their hearts to God.
And the benefits go further than that. Set prayers help shape our thinking and serve to form our character. When our thoughts and ‘talking to God’ are in danger of going off-piste into potentially dodgy territory, the boundaries of these ancient prayers keep us safe. They pull our focus back to the Lord himself, and away from selfish or misguided aspirations.
Along those lines, I am also finding ‘centering prayer’ helpful. This is a ‘contemplative’ practice used by Christians throughout the history of the church and revived in recent times by the Cistercian monk Thomas Keating. It involves coming consciously into God’s presence for a period of, say, twenty minutes, not to ask for things, or even to praise him—in fact not with words at all—but just to ‘be’ before him. It is ‘centering’ in the sense that we pull right back from the chattering of our minds and imaginations to simply rest in his presence.
But back to petitionary prayer. Why does so much of it seem to bounce off the ceiling?
The ‘word of faith’ people put the blame squarely upon us, the pray-ers. We need to have more faith, they say. We should repeat relevant Bible verses till we go all glassy-eyed and ‘break through’ to God. I’m unconvinced, in spite of the fact that some of them are truly godly people. Their definition of ‘faith’ is, I think, open to question and their grip on reality sometimes painfully tenuous.
Others hold that God doesn’t give us what we ask for because he often can’t. His nature, they explain, is love, and love by definition ‘does not insist on its own way’ (1 Cor 13:5), so he needs the cooperation of human and other agencies in order to change things. That doesn’t go down well with Calvinistic types, but it is something to think about. It certainly goes a long way towards explaining all those unanswered petitions.
So those are my prayer puzzles laid bare. Don’t worry about me, please. In raising these issues I’m not backsliding. The fact is, I pray a great deal more now than I ever did before. I ‘seek God’s face’ daily with determination. I love him and trust him wholeheartedly, and I hope you do, too.
And please don’t bombard me with Bible proof-texts on prayer—I’m familiar with them all. I’m just a learner doing my best to grapple with how they work out in practice, and I’ve still a long way to go. So I’ll wind up by echoing ‘one of his disciples [who] said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray…”’ (Luke 11:1).
- I relate one of these in my memoirs (p94-95), regarding being stuck with a group of youngsters on a dangerous mountain when darkness fell. Available here: https://www.davidmatthew.org.uk/index_htm_files/DM%20Memories.pdf
- A ‘how to’ leaflet on centering prayer is here: https://contemplativeoutreach.org.uk/leaflets/MethodLeaflet.pdf
- More on this in T.J. Oord’s book reviewed here: https://dmatthew34.wordpress.com/2020/07/25/god-cant/ Another book, by M.G. Karris relates the principles specifically to prayer and is reviewed here: https://dmatthew34.wordpress.com/2021/10/07/review-problems-with-prayer/