I’ve read several books and articles on prayer over the years, listened to the prayer experiences of others, and even witnessed my own answered prayers. Yet I still find how little I understand the mystery of prayer, and how quick I am to doubt its power when things don’t go my way.
I recently finished reading Philip Yancey’s book, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? I found Yancey’s research and thoughts on the subject the most relevant I’ve read.
Rather than perform a thorough book review, I’ve summarized four of my own key takeaways on prayer and broken them into individual blog posts, so I hope you’ll check back for Parts 2, 3, and 4.
(The ensuing posts On Prayer are in no way a substitute for Yancey’s book, and I give Mr. Yancey the credit for all of the examples I’ve paraphrased from his book. I strongly recommend you read the entire book on your own (click here to order from Amazon), as you will no doubt come away with your own personal applications for prayer, as well as a strengthened response to the question, “Why pray?”)
So let’s jump in for Part 1 On Prayer.
God is not a magician. Somewhere along our journey, we’ve been taught to believe that if we have enough faith, we can ask for anything–even moving mountains–and it will happen. Doesn’t the Bible allude to promises like this? Didn’t Jesus say we could move mountains if we only had the faith of a mustard seed? (Matthew 17:20) I don’t claim to have superman faith–it’s probably closer to that of a tiny seed–yet I’ve never moved an ant hill short of kicking it, let alone a mountain.
I recall as an impressionable young boy my attempts to move objects with mind power alone; such is the imagination of an 8 year-old. I’d heard that if I believed strongly enough, if I had the faith, I could move an object with my mind.
When I was growing up, my family had a basement pool table. I remember leaning over the table, focusing on the 8 ball, visualizing it rolling over the felt-covered slate, and believing that my gaze actually had the power to push the ball using an invisible force.
As you would expect, the ball sat motionless. I’m confident that if the billiard ball had a brain, it would have been laughing hysterically at the blond-haired kid with coke-bottle glasses and furrowed brows, willing the slightest movement from ol’ Number 8.
My 8 year-old intuition produced two assumptions from that experience: 1) If it were possible to move the ball with mind power alone, then I lacked the faith or power to do so–maybe I needed more practice–or 2) It’s altogether impossible to move an object with mind power. I landed on the latter.
That example falls more in line with telekinetic mysticism than the Christian view of prayer, but isn’t Jesus claim of moving mountains pretty much the same thing, except that it’s based upon the level of our faith in God (vs. ourselves) to move an object? Jesus never lied, so how do we wrestle through his assertion?
What we’ve failed to understand (or maybe were never taught) is a stipulation found in 1 John 5:14-15, where we read “if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” (italics emphasized) In other words, God’s will trumps our will…always.
So you still want to move a 62 square-mile clump of rock by raising your hands and shouting, “Mountain–move!” That’s great. My next question becomes “Is moving an entire mountain God’s will or your will?” Will it serve God’s purpose for humanity, or your own curiosity to test Jesus’ claim? Big difference.
Let’s bring it down to a realistic level. I’m paying off credit card debt, debt that binds all aspects of my personal finances. I can pray day and night for God to provide a large sum of money to become debt-free. And you know what? God has the power to answer that prayer. But should I expect Him to grant my wish? After all, it was by my own choices that I purchased the 46″ flat-screen TV, the family trip to Disneyland, the Christmas gifts–all on credit vs. the wiser notion of saving. It was I–not the world, not the devil, not God–who shackled myself to the burden of debt.
And doesn’t that request assume that God is a genie in a bottle? Can I convince God to wave a magic wand and do my bidding if I rub the right way? If I have enough faith?
If the government has the power to bail out greedy corporations, how much greater is God’s power to bail me out of my own problems? Doesn’t the Bible say to ask whatever you wish, and it will be given to you? (John 15:7) I don’t need millions of dollars; ten to twenty thousand would suffice.
Sometimes our will and God’s do line up together, but more often I find that my own will selfishly falls far from God’s good plan for my life. So then, should we even “bother” the God of the Universe with these types of self-serving requests? Should we ask God for money, for a nicer home, for a successful career, a new car, for well-behaved children, for the right spouse, for a little peace and quiet in the midst of our daily chaos? And should we expect Him to answer?
We’ll explore the answer to this question and others in the following three posts:
Part 2 On Prayer: Dealing with Unanswered Prayer
Part 3 On Prayer: How Should I Pray?
Part 4 On Prayer: Why Bother?