Some may look at the title of this blog and decide they have no time for such a long read. Another reason to pass on this post is that it is an unpost in some ways. Instead of sharing profound insights (have I ever?), I am telling folks what I don’t know. But if, like me, you have had a curious and troubled relationship with prayer, this might help. I have discovered that what I don’t know about prayer gives me more, not fewer, reasons to pray.
I don’t know what good petitionary prayer does. I have no doubt that it does good, but I am uncertain what that good is. It is easy to see how prayers of adoration, surrender, and confession help us to grow spiritually. But don’t petitionary prayers set us up for disappointment? Spiritually, don’t they do us more harm than good as we cope with prayers that go unanswered and seem unacknowledged? Isn’t it safer to expect less of God? Isn’t it better to keep our relationship based on what God has done for us on the cross through Christ and not on what He is doing in response to our prayers?
These questions make sense to me, but we face a huge problem. Jesus invites us to ask for things in prayer—even our daily bread. He commands us to keep on asking, seeking, and knocking (Luke 11:9-13). In Luke 18 we are told a parable about how we “ought to pray and not lose heart.” The parable is clearly urging us to believe that God responds to persevering petitionary prayer. We can’t abandon petitionary prayer without disobeying Jesus. We must keep asking.
Except sometimes, God doesn’t answer. Of course, some claim God always answers prayer, but sometimes says “No” or “Not yet” or “Not that way.” Perhaps, but we should not assume that an unanswered prayer is an automatic “No”. God is perfectly capable of making us hear His “No” and his “Wait”.
Here is where something I don’t know helps. I don’t know exactly how much my faith or lack of it determines answers to prayer. Jesus sometimes cites a person’s faith or the faith of friends (Luke 18:42) as the reason they are healed. Sometimes a lack of faith in the person praying or the people receiving is seen as limiting what God can do. Jesus, we are told, did few miracles in Nazareth because of their unbelief (Matthew 13:58).
But I don’t know how to sort out how my faith, the faith of those I pray for, and the faith of the community I live in all combine to hinder or help my prayers be answered. I don’t know, and suspect we can’t know. But we can do what faith does. We can obey and pray—and keep on praying even if we don’t get an answer. Sometimes faith is a gift. I have experienced this a handful of times. Most of the time, however, it is a muscle that gets stronger as it is exercised, and we exercise faith every time we pray. It is okay for us not to know how faith works in prayer as long we keep growing in faith.
Another thing I don’t know is God’s timing. I am sometimes haunted by thoughts of all the people like Anna and Simeon who had prayed for the Messiah, looked for the consolation of Israel, but died before Jesus was born. My father died without ever seeing real revival or a visitation of God on this little town of Myrtle Point. I have been praying for a saving move of God in Myrtle Point for over thirty years. I have only seen churches close and things get worse. I doubt that the corruption of the Pharisees and the oppression of the Romans made the time of Christ seem like prime time, but Simeon had been told he would see the Messiah before he died. I have a few “before you die” promises I cling to. But regarding most things, I have no sense of God’s timing. So I just pray.
Adding to the mystery of God’s timing is the possibility that prayers are like seeds. They may disappear into the ground and do nothing for years. Our blessings and intercession may plant a seed that others water. A seed upon which God’s truth will shine in days or years from now. A minor but important truth embedded in the parable of the sower is that he threw seed everywhere—not just on the good soil. So I pray.
I don’t have much grasp on when and how answers to prayers might be hindered by spiritual warfare. The prince of Persia delayed God’s answer to Daniel’s prayer.It is interesting that Daniel mourned and fasted the same amount of time that the prince of the Persia opposed Gabriel who was responding to Daniel’s prayer. Did Daniel’s prayer and fasting help Gabriel in some way? Daniel was heard the first day but prayed 21 days. How does this work? I don’t know, but Paul says our battle is not against flesh and blood but “the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” So I persevere in prayer for places and people.
I also don’t understand the cumulative effect of prayers. What if the prayers of Simeon and Anna were just the final touches on centuries of prayer? What if their prayers were combined with all those who prayed before them? I think we never know when prayers hit a critical mass that opens the door for God to act. What if my prayers for Myrtle Point stand on the shoulders of my father’s prayers? Cornelius was told by an angel that his prayers and alms had ascended as a memorial before God. This declaration suggests that the cumulative result of prayers and generosity to catch God’s attention. Of course, God does not need to be reminded of anything, yet he asks us to remind him of our needs—to build memorials of prayer. I don’t know how this works or the timing of it, but I know I want to do it. Daily I lay prayers before God for my family and community, brick by brick.
And what if my prayers now are woven together with the prayers of those who have gone before us. What unknown or unseen power might that give our prayers? I don’t know. But we are told Jesus is now at the right hand of God interceding for us, so I suspect my parents are doing the same. Once, only once, I sat on the hill in the cemetery with a hand on the headstones of my mother and father. I prayed for my four sons—and looked not at the headstones but at the sun setting in the west. I asked my prayers to be joined to the intercession of my mother and father. Although I think this idea is biblically sound, I have no idea how or when it works. But I pray.
I also don’t understand the legalities of prayer. Adam and Eve’s choosing to believe the serpent instead of God opened the door to all kinds of evil—that Satan now has legal right to do. So I think the reverse is always true. Our prayers that declare our faith in God’s Word and His loving character opens the door for the God’s kingdom to come and will be done. More prayers, as acts of faith and obedience, swings the door wider. Perhaps because I am a Westerner, I don’t understand the power of blessings and curses. But words matter, so I fill my prayers with blessings.
And related to this, I don’t know how our prayers impact those rebelling against God. But when we stand before God and intercede for them, I believe we give God legal grounds to thwart Satan’s plans to destroy them. We give God just cause to show mercy to those who have earned judgment. In Ezekiel 22:30 we are told God looked for, but could not find, someone to stand in the gap so that He would not have to destroy the rebellious and idolatrous Israel. Does this mean our intercession will result in God saving our rebellious sons and daughters? I don’t know. But it helps. For the sake of my sons, I have made noise, waved my hands, and cried out to God, “Lord, have mercy and let your lovingkindness fall upon them!” I want to be God’s Exhibit B for why they should be given mercy and grace. Jesus himself is Exhibit A.
But I still don’t know how to pray when love, fear, and loss shred my heart. How do I pray when my only prayers are tears, and I can barely breathe? And no matter how much I want to hear the comforting voice of God, all I hear is my pain, all I see is the emptiness of losing those I love? How do I pray with real faith for God to save the lives of those I love, when better Christians have prayed the same prayer and seen sons, wives, and husbands die. I don’t know. But Psalm 58:8 assures us that God “has taken account of my wandering; put my tears in Thy bottle.”
I do not know what God does with my bottle (kegs?) of tears. I know He has seen me, heard me, and has not left me alone. I know my tears are precious in His sight, and I keep coming into His presence in all my brokenness and with all that I do not know. Because like Job said after scores of unanswered questions, “I know that my Redeemer lives.”
So I pray.