Tuesday, April 01, 2008

the problem with prayer

A little pastor/communicator whining here: prayer is difficult to talk about. I’m going to ramble a good bit here…

First, it’s one of the least confident aspects of my life, as in: I’m-a-little-better-practitioner-than-you-which-makes-me-more-competent-to-talk-about-this-than-you. Talk about feelings of “pastoral inadequacy”. Second, it’s way too big a subject to cover in thirty minutes. Do I give a prayer apologetic (the purpose of prayer)…or talk about prayer practices (the mechanics of prayer)…or provide lab-time for prayer (extended prayertime in the celebration)…or laser in on a specific aspect (how to hear God’s voice, confession, prayer of faith, etc.)…or contextualize prayer (heart condition/attitudes)?

Plus, it’s murky. Yancey talks about writing a book on the unanswered prayers of Jesus. We tend to think unanswered prayers give credence to the inefficacy of prayer and, worse, throw doubt into the mix. But put Jesus in the middle of that; did he ever doubt? If we consider real doubt as a lapse of faith and therefore a sin (Romans 14:23), then the answer is no according to Hebrews 4:15. But are we sure a lapse of faith is sin?—and what aspect of doubt? Doubt that God is a good father? Doubt that God is hearing us? Doubt in our perceptions of the nature of our relationship with God? When Jesus cried “My God, why have you forsaken me?”, was he making a statement of truth—that God had turned his back on him as he became the sin-sacrifice in our behalf? That opens up another can of theological worms on the debate regarding the nature of the atonement. Or was he prophetically echoing David’s lament from the Psalms, giving us another clue to his messianic fulfillment? That seems too cold and calculating and demeaning to his humanity. Or if he was expressing his feeling of aloneness—an emotional moment like weeping as he approached Jerusalem—can we be so sure as to make our emotions distinctive from our doubts?

Prayer takes me down winding roads. But the most troubling question is always: why doesn’t God seem to answer our prayers?

This one is complicated. Sometimes I think about the classic line from Bruce Almighty when Bruce screams at God: “The only one around here not doing his job is you!” It helps if I—and this is dangerous territory—try slipping into God’s cosmic shoes.

Try out this metaphor: suppose a man—we’ll call him Bob—comes to me and asks me to help him find a job. No problem; we begin networking together—agencies, friends, etc. But then I discover that over the years he’s had trouble keeping jobs. As I probe the issue, I find Bob has a particular addiction that has caused him to underperform at work. Now imagine that he actually admits this and allows me to work with him on this problem and we find an issue in his childhood, say, an abusive father, which caused years of shame and inferiority to fuse in his psyche. Now suppose we connect Bob with a phenomenal therapist/counselor who begins the work of unraveling the thread of ignominy woven through his life. And so we begin reweaving the fabric along with the tough work of forgiveness. But we still haven’t found Bob a job because though the job is the urgent problem, it’s not the real problem.

Now make it more complicated. Suppose before I meet Bob, his uncle in Peoria emails me and asks me to help his nephew in Cincinnati with some money from our benevolence fund. The uncle doesn’t know about the other aspects of Bob’s life; he only knows that the bank is about to foreclose on his nephew’s home and that foreclosure is the real problem.

Now make it worse. Suppose Bob isn’t really that interested in dealing with his addiction issue; he says he just needs a freakin’ job. And what if the uncle is not really emotionally invested in all this; he’s just doing his job as an uncle and asking for financial aid for Bob?

Answering the uncle’s request gets tricky.

Okay, so the metaphor isn’t clean, but imagine being God. And what if eighty-seven other people applied for the particular job that we finally found for Bob who is still struggling through his addiction? And those eighty-seven lives intersect with thousands of other lives in intricate ways that affect the course of their lives. Now imagine someone one hundred years from now who will be affected in some way if Bob gets that job and not their grandfather who therefore has to move to Cleveland but oddly enough met a man there who helped him surrender his life to God. If the butterfly effect in chaos theory has any credibility, it sure makes all of this extremely magnificently and beautifully complex.

And don’t forget to mix in the element of faith; Jesus did say that some things happened as to the degree of our faith. Can’t get around that; just can’t blame everything on it. Been there, done that. Drives you crazy.

Oh yeah, don’t forget the spiritual warfare component as well.

I’m just saying it gets very complicated in how prayers are answered. And if the best we can believe is that regardless of a prayer not being answered as we thought it should, God is good, then that’s good. And God has a job that sucks.

I had someone ask me if I leaned toward Calvinism or Arminianism. I said yes…and I wasn’t trying to be clever. I have a feeling that the truth lies outside the scope of my little IQ points. Obviously free will and predeterminism play into how we pray. Perhaps I can move my pawn freely as I see fit, but I imagine God is about a half-a-billion moves ahead on the chess board and is well-able to cause me to move a particular direction when I believe I’ve fully dreamed up and chosen the move on my own. He’s the Ultimate Cosmic Bobby Fischer. And will checkmate us all eventually.

One last thing I know about prayer: a person with poor hearing talks louder.


  1. Jesus, saying he was abandoned on cross
    I had Jesus spoke to me about this issue since my dad abandoned me. I think the Father did turn his back on Jesus on the cross, Jesus said he knows what I went through since he had the same thing happen to him. I feel this was Jesus's biggest deal, being abandoned by the Father, probably because I focused on it.

    Its been my experience when I help people and people help me, I am only in control of me. I tried helping this guy one time, spent like months on my couch finally I threw him out. I realized I can not control his situation, he has to do his part. Same goes for me, I have to do my part and I have, been through 12 steps 3x, therapy, talks with friends, etc ....

    I turn over control over people's situations to God. Its too overwhelming for me to do otherwise. I think that is the reason why so many pastors quit, they do not turn it over to God every day.

    I have been on the prayer team so long, it has been my practice to turn over every prayer to God during prayer time. Its kind of wierd when I actually succeed that I remember little of the person a week later. I think its God's way of protecting me.


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  3. Now that my headache is gone from even sticking my tiny toe in God's big shoe with your "Bob Metaphor," I am real thankful for that rule of thumb: "There is a God. . .He's not you."

    Thanks Dave, for reminding us that we need to get over ourselves when we come to the throne and grasp the perspective of all those prayers flying around and us thinking only our plea/agenda matters. It sort of reminds me of
    that scene in Bruce Almighty where the guy says he is overwhelmed and God smiles and tells him that it was only a four block area he was listening to. Does Bruce learn from this? No, he actually thinks he can organize all those pleas into an intricate system of Post It notes. Thanks for the reality check, Dave. Now I won't go back to my whining to God about my wish list, at least not right away.

  4. "One last thing I know about prayer: a person with poor hearing talks louder."

    you should trademark this. It's fabulous.

    now I'm off to work on my hearing, before I work on my prayer.