By David Johnson, Class of ’20
A couple weeks ago, I was browsing through Reddit, and I saw an interesting meme at the very top of the list of trending posts. Someone shared a Star Wars picture of Leia talking to Luke, in which Leia asks Luke for help after the Death Star attacks Alderaan in Episode IV. Luke fondly and sincerely responds with something similar to the following: “Oh, no! My thoughts and prayers go out to the people of the rebellion, and I hope everything goes well!” After Leia complains about this, saying that these thoughts and prayers are useless and that Luke needs to take action, Luke fondly and sincerely updates his Facebook profile to commemorate the bravery and sacrifice of the rebels, and designates himself “Safe” from the destruction of Alderaan.
I usually don’t like political memes all that much, but this one was a bit interesting, as it reflects the common mentality about prayer that our culture entertains today. Rather than a meaningless exercise in response to a crisis, prayer as the Bible describes it may be the most meaningful and powerful thing a believer could ever do on a daily basis. If it really is true that the average, normal person like you and me has interpersonal access to the Creator of the universe, and that He is available at all times and under all circumstances, and that He is faithful to respond to our prayers, then I can safely say we have struck gold in a modern-day world of rocky circumstances.
Flipping the Stereotype
In Christianity, prayer is meant to be just as meaningful (if not more so) as a conversation you might have with a close friend or family member. Prayer is direct, personal communication with God, and it helps us really get to know God in a powerful way. It can be used under almost any circumstance, and for any purpose: “The Scriptures command us to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and to be ‘praying at all times’ (Ephesians 6:18), ‘daily’ (Matthew 6:11), and often alone in secret, as Christ himself taught us (Matthew 6:6), but also together with other believers (Matthew 6:9–13)” . Just as you could phone a good friend at any time, and expect some kind of response from someone who really cares about you, you can expect God to respond in a deeply personal and meaningful manner, even if it’s not given in the way, or with the timeliness, that you expect.
It’s not like God needs us to pray to him; he’s the self-sustaining God of the universe, after all, and is not in need of anything. Anything we need or want is already known to Him, before you even decide to pray (Matthew 6:8). Rather, he wants us to converse with him for our own benefit out of His love for us. When I was younger, my siblings and I would use Legos to create buildings, cars, massive armies that would pretend to fight each other, and other things. Then, we’d spend hours playing with these Legos. But why would we do that? It’s not like we needed to play with Legos the same way we needed to sleep, eat, and breathe. We just wanted to because we couldn’t help but get lost in the universes and characters we had built. We wanted to spend time out of pure enjoyment and love of the activity. Similarly, God created humanity in His image (Genesis 1:26), and this very desire for fun and creativity that my siblings and I had reflects the eternal pleasure that God experiences, and wants us to experience, simply by spending time with him.
Infinite supply, little demand…
Prayer can be used to understand God’s will for your individual life, and understand God’s plan that he’s revealed in the Scriptures. And yet, despite being a valuable means of having a closer relationship with God, many people simply do not pray. Why might this be the case?
One of the reasons I’ve heard is that people don’t really think God will respond. But you know what I find so ironic about this? Interestingly enough, the main reason why people don’t hear from God is precisely because they don’t think God is going to respond to them! They sort of approach prayer, well, on a prayer. They ask God for something hoping He might respond, but they don’t really get their hopes up because they’re not convinced He will actually respond. The Bible describes such a person as being “double-minded,” blown about by fear and hesitation “like a wave of the sea” (James 1:6-8). If you don’t believe God will answer your prayer, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise that God won’t respond.
But if you pray without reservation and with the understanding that God will guide you, God hears you immediately (1 John 5:14), and you can expect that he will answer the prayer, even if he doesn’t answer you immediately or in the way you expect. I’ve seen many examples in the Old and New Testament where even God’s prophets offer somewhat doubtful prayers to God, but they almost always did so with the expectation that God would respond, correcting and/or encouraging them according to His Word (see Habakkuk 2:1). This kind of intentional, motivated prayer is really what separates people who do hear from God regularly and those who don’t.
When God chooses to answer
One of my favorite pastors, Jon Courson, once summarized this idea with an interesting thought: “Without God, I can’t. But without me, he won’t” . In other words, even though God will absolutely let his will be done in the world around us, in many cases he will not act upon the things we want him to do unless we ask him. In fact, if you look at the various miracles Jesus performed while he was on Earth, they are almost always done after people respond to Jesus’ invitation to be healed and/or experience these miracles. Jesus only calms the storm when his disciples frantically call out to them, even though Jesus doesn’t seem to care about them (Mark 4:35-41). He heals the sick woman after he saw that she had reached out to him for healing, saying that it was her faith that made her whole (Luke 8:43-48).
On the other hand, Jesus doesn’t perform a miraculous sign for the Pharisees when asked for one, because he knows they really don’t want fellowship, or a personal relationship, with God (Matthew 12:38-40). Jesus could not perform many miracles in his very own hometown of Nazareth because they wouldn’t accept his message or reach out to him in faith, thereby making his miracles useless in turning them from sin (Matthew 13:53-58). In both our prayer and Jesus’ personal interaction with real-world people, God longs for us to ask for His blessings, direction, wisdom, and help, and to do so in faith. Only then will his response to us carry the most weight or impact.
This is why the Bible says that “you do not have because you do not ask God”; this is because we often engage in prayer “with wrong motives, that [we] may spend what [we] get on [our] pleasures” (James 4:2-3). Seriously; we’ve all had prayers where we ask God for something we really want that we claim to need, like all A’s on our final exams, a new car, etc., and when God doesn’t respond in the way we like, we blame him. But what if God doesn’t give these kinds of things to us because either 1) we asked for it out of selfishness or 2) it wouldn’t really be good for us in the long term, and as a loving Father, God couldn’t bring himself to give it to us? That’s one of the reasons why prayer is so interpersonal. A loving father doesn’t give into the immediate or unwarranted desires of his young child. He nurtures that child by not only 1) refusing to give the child something that would end up harming them but also 2) helping that child realize what he/she actually needs (i.e. helping the child distinguish between what they actually need and what they really want.
What if, by getting a perfect score on every exam you ever took, your ego got inflated to the breaking point, and you made a critical, career-ending mistake later in life? What if by getting a new car or winning the lottery you start making very poor decisions with your money, and end up spending more than you have? There is a reason why the very first prayer Jesus tells his disciples about says “Give us today our daily bread,” not “give us this day everything I want” (Matthew 6:9-13). Daily bread lets us live every day, while at the same time helping us realize just how dependent we are on God’s providence every day after. God is the ultimate Heavenly Father, and as such, knows what answers to prayer, and gifts to us, will best suit our needs and what will not (Matthew 7:11).
When His voicemail seems full
But I think there is one more, and probably the most common, reason why people don’t really want to talk with God. Many people, especially those who have gone through a crisis, blame God for not answering them during their greatest need. This goes back to the issue of God answering prayer in a way we don’t expect. The story is more common than you might think: a family member gets injured, sick, or in an accident, and a Christian prays deeply that the family member will be healed; the family member doesn’t recover, and the Christian becomes angry at God for seemingly not doing anything. In fact, the famous actor and staunch atheist Stephen Fry made headlines back in 2015 for accusing God of being an “utter maniac” for allowing children to die of cancer and the like .
In all honesty, I won’t pretend to know everything about how God chooses to heal some people and not others (but I believe there is a good, and intellectually satisfying answer, to the problem of pain and suffering, and if you’d like to get a basic understanding about that, I’d strongly encourage you to take a look at this article and this one). I can’t explain why God chooses certain situations over others, but I can understand the heart of God through prayer. One of the things I’ve learned is that, while God does place a high premium on our own earthly well-being, but he places a much higher premium on his relationship with us and our eternal well-being. The Bible describes Jesus not only as God sent down to earth, but also a person who has taken on all the troubles, pains, and issues that come along with taking on a human nature. Hebrews 4:15 says that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin.” By coming down to earth and living as a human being like the rest of us, Jesus demonstrated his willingness to come alongside us and help us through our troubles when we ask Him to.
I also know that our own individual sin very much affects the way in which we pray, and affects the likelihood we will hear back from God. Unrepented sin can prevent us from truly understanding God’s will and direction in our lives, because when we focus too much on our own strengths and diminish the impact of our mistakes and sinful lifestyles, we won’t really see the need to pray. It goes back to the issue of whether or not we expect God to respond. If we are comfortable with our sin, or at least unwilling to deal with it, then we won’t be as attentive to what the Lord is telling us. The Scriptures indicate that it is our sins and iniquities that “have separated [us] from [our] God” (Isaiah 59:2). But if we are willing to lay our lifestyle of sin before the Lord, and ask Him to redeem us from it, he guarantees us that he is faithful and just to give forgiveness to us (1 John 1:9).
You see, God is not insensitive to our sins and troubles, and in fact has transcended them by dying on the cross for us all. I still pray to God when terrible tragedies and problems happen in my own life, because I still trust that God understands my sins and problems much better than I do, and that he is uniquely qualified to help me process whatever things I may be dealing with, even when it’s hard to understand exactly what God may be trying to tell me. I can also trust that God is faithful to provide for us when we ask him, just like he sustains the rest of the Creation (Matthew 6:26-30).
Thinking outside the Lego Box
Unlike what someone might tell you, God isn’t just out there looking down on us waiting to make a mistake, ignorant of what we might be asking of him. He wants to accomplish his great plan and story through our lives, a beautiful story of how He has overcome sin and death to rescue us. Since God exists and longs to hear from us, prayer is not some useless thing that redneck conservatives do after hurricanes and mass shootings. It’s meant to be a personal, beautiful interaction between God and his creation. In the scriptures, God enjoys listening to prayer as if it were a sweet fragrance from a candle or offering (Psalm 141:2, Revelation 8:4). In the same way that I enjoyed playing with Legos with my siblings when I was younger, simply out of love for the activity and my own enjoyment, God enjoys interacting with his creation out of love for us.
One of my favorite verses, one that I’ve had memorized for a long time, is James 1:5; “If any lack wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” It reminds me of what, I believe, are the most important things to keep in mind about prayer: 1) we even have the ability to talk with the Creator of the universe for crying out loud, 2) wisdom and guidance through prayer is available at any time, 3) God is generous and loving in responding to us, and 4) if you believe in faith that God is capable and willing to respond, he will (even if it’s not in the way you were expecting). We’ve reached a crisis in our modern times where people just don’t realize how effective and meaningful prayer actually is. If people in the world around us continue to cut themselves off from their lifeline, Jesus Christ, and refuse to communicate with him like any normal person would with a fellow friend, then they quite literally haven’t got a prayer.
 Jones, Mark “What If I Don’t Want to Pray?” http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-if-i-don-t-want-to-pray. Accessed 20 January 2018.
 Jon Courson, “John 5 – Revisited.” http://www.joncourson.com/teaching/teachingsplay.asp?book=john&teaching=W9049&mediatype=audiofile. Accessed 21 January 2018.
 Osborne, Samuel, “Stephen Fry was asked what he would say to God if they met. His answer is being investigated by police.” http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/stephen-fry-blasphemy-god-ireland-confronted-by-met-a7722191.html. 7 May 2017. Based on a 2015 interview.
 Robert Velarde, “How Can God Allow So Much Evil and Suffering?” http://www.focusonthefamily.com/faith/becoming-a-christian/is-christ-the-only-way/how-can-god-allow-so-much-evil-and-suffering. Accessed 21 January 2018.
 J. Warner Wallace, “Why Doesn’t God Answer All My Prayers?” coldcasechristianity.com/2013/why-doesnt-god-answer-all-my-prayers/. 11 October 2013.