“Constant in Prayer”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.” (Luke 18.1-8a)
Jesus’ parable and commentary in this passage is comforting and encouraging. As he taught on many other occasions, the main takeaway is that we’re foolish to spend our time and effort on worrying, when God himself is watching over us, ready to hear our requests. Yet, despite what Jesus says here, we surely all know from personal experience that we do not always receive the things we ask of God. Jesus himself prayed, “Remove this cup from me” (Mk 14.36), meaning the burden of death on a cross, bearing the sins of the world on his shoulders. How did that work out for him? Or what about the Apostle Paul? He suffered some bodily affliction he earnestly desired to be rid of, and reports,
Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12.8-9a)
It’s a flowery “No,” but a “No” nonetheless. So is God on the hook to give us what we ask, or not?
James provides us with two possible explanations for God’s refusal to heed our prayers. In the first, he tells his audience, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (Ja 3.2b-3). While upholding the general recommendation that we pray, rather than worrying or becoming bitter over wants, he points out that God is not only interested in in granting our requests, but also assessing our motives. As any parent knows, there’s a vast difference between a child requesting $20 to give to someone who needs help buying groceries, and one requesting that same $20 to spend on a new toy that will be a brief source of amusement, soon forgotten.
The second possibility appears in another of James’ exhortations to pray:
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord… (James 1.5-8a)
The one who doubts—not so much that God will give him what he wants, as that God is listening and able to answer—undermines his own prayer. Do either of James’ helpful notes explain the rejection of Jesus’ or Paul’s prayer? Not at all! While they’re valuable lessons for us to learn, they don’t do much to answer our question!
“And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1Jn 5.14). Here’s our explanation. It was not God’s will that Jesus be spared the full experience he and his Father had planned since before the foundation of the world; neither was it God’s will that Paul’s body be a perfect specimen of health and strength. God had more important things in mind: “my power is made perfect in weakness.” God wanted Paul’s fleshly body to be obviously imperfect, the better to demonstrate that the power and glory were from God, not man.
Understanding that it’s not just about our own gratification will help us immensely in our prayers. God always answers, but often the answer is “no,” and we may not always know the reason why. But we should remember that the reasons, whatever they may be, are more important than our imperfect, fleshly vision of the world and our place in it. In fact, even Jesus’ prayer, our first example of God’s refusal to grant a request, acknowledged this circumstance—immediately after begging, “Remove this cup from me,” Jesus concluded, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mk 14.36).
So, how should we pray? Despite knowing a great deal from what God reveals to us in his word, we don’t always know his will in every minute detail. How can we avoid asking “wrongly,” as James says? First of all, we can follow Jesus’ example of acknowledging in our prayers that we don’t know what’s best and yield to our Father’s unimaginably greater wisdom. But we shouldn’t let this keep us from making requests, nor should we worry excessively about accidentally asking something against God’s will. His answer to Paul wasn’t harsh, and Jesus reassures us, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6.8), even if we ourselves don’t know. In fact,
“the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (Romans 8.26)
He doesn’t expect us to have his level of knowledge, understanding, or wisdom. We should do our best to emulate his good will, and make our prayers accordingly. We ought always to pray and not lose heart. Our heavenly Father loves us, and wants what’s best for us. “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Ro 12.12).