Living in a world where typhoons kill thousands and tornadoes level neighborhoods, we often ask why we pray. In the midst of our frustration, there has to be a better justification than “prayer works”, and the answer must be more than just “Scripture says we should pray”. God gives us reasons to exercise this spiritual discipline, and these are best exemplified in the life of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
He prayed, and prayed often. Unlike the Pharisees, however, he made sure to pray alone in “desolate places” (Mark 1:35). Being alone in conversation with God is one of the many dimensions to the praying life, taking time every day to listen for His voice. Since we abide with the Father through Christ, it is essential to keep the lines of communication open. Jesus also demonstrates that prayer is about submitting our will to the Father’s, as He talks about in the Lord’s Prayer and as He enacted when He prayed in Gethsemane (Matthew 6:9-10, 26:36-44). Continual prayer will attune the believer to God’s plan, and habituate us to ask for the Father’s will instead of their own. Prayer ultimately becomes self-denial, in favor of relying upon God. Finally, Jesus says prayer is how we make our requests known to God, so that He may bless us and provide those things for us (Luke 11:9-10). As our Father through the adoption in Christ, God wants us to come to Him, even though He knows our needs, and ask with faith that He will not turn us away or give us bad things.
Now, it is that last promise, repeated in the epistle of James, which seems the most troubling. Most often, believers pray to God asking for something, and they have every right, by the covenant of grace, to do so. Jesus says “ask and you shall receive”, and James says, “let him ask in faith, with no doubting…for that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord” and later “you do not have, because you do not ask,” (James 1:6, 7; 4:2-3). The promise, predicated that we do not ask for something that is sinful or unhealthy, is that God will give us whatever we ask, that we shouldn’t doubt He will give us that which we ask of Him. Yet, we know that God has His plans for the future, which He sees with the same eye that watches our present, being the eternal I AM; so He already knows what we will or will not receive. These two principles seem at odds, as if God writes us a blank check when the budget is predetermined.
Practically speaking, we know God doesn’t always give us what we ask for in prayer. It doesn’t take many years walking with Christ to find that praying for something and having faith of receiving, does not mean we will receive. Perhaps asking for a new bike as a kid wasn’t the best use of prayer. It seems obvious that asking God for material possessions makes Him too much like a banker, which doesn’t foster a good relationship with Him as a son or daughter. However, what of the case when, during the Civil War, both sides included godly men who fervently prayed for the respective preservation or dissolution of the Union? God cannot satisfy both of their prayers, but He promised His children, found on both sides, that if they ask they shall receive from Him, as their loving Father. The righteous’ requests are often turned down, and we shuffle off the difficulty of reconciling our expectation to His action by retreating to the conclusion we did something wrong.
The disappointment that southern Christians inevitably felt was probably not because they were all iniquitous. Even considering slavery, Jesus didn’t predicate ‘you can expect to receive if you don’t ask for things beyond your immediate person’. He simply said ask, and you shall receive. So, when we do not receive simply because God’s will did not permit it, what does that mean? God’s open-ended promises for prayer are so often met with a contradicting reality, which suggests error, though we as believers refuse to accept scripture as fallible. If we must abandon the promise of receiving when we ask, since God’s sovereign plan may not coincide with that request, why do we bother praying with expectation?
It would seem the answer lies in a redefinition of receiving, and a reminder of the third reason for praying, namely drawing near to God. Notice that Jesus did not say “ask and you shall have what you asked for”— He said you shall “receive” and then goes on to say that earthly fathers won’t give snakes when asked for bread. The point is that our heavenly Father knows how to provide good things for His children, which may or may not include what we pray to get or to happen. We shall receive good things, maybe even the good things we wanted, but the most important exchange is the trust we have that God will provide.
This is especially hard when we ask and we ask and God still doesn’t give us what we faithfully and righteously requested, which might be why God refuses the request. He wants us to rely upon Him in the midst of that disappointment, since He is the giver of every good thing, if not at our every convenience. We should pray with expectation of either the good we want or some better good that God chooses, but in both cases we receive. Being denied what we ask is frustrating, even disheartening, which is why God asks us to trust Him in those moments. If He doesn’t give us the object or result we prayed for, He will give us His perfect peace to endure the continued lack, if we abide in Him. Christians should pray in faith that, whether or not God answers our prayer the way we want, He is faithful to provide above and beyond what we need or ask, because He is our sustenance, not the things we ask of Him.
That is why we pray especially in times when prayer seems empty and hollow, because God is our salvation, not the circumstances in which we pray or that follow after our prayers. If faithful prayer can only exist where good things flow, how can we live a life of suffering as Christ did? He expected in Gethsemane that the Father would provide Him either with deliverance from evil or strength to pass through it. We should do the same. When culture turns against us, when it seems God is removing His hand from our prosperity and will not soon restore it, then it is the time to pray and draw closer to the Lord, in full assurance that He will answer and provide for His people.