We are commanded to pray and told that what we ask for in prayer will be given to us. Sickness will be healed and good things will be given. “Ask and it shall be given unto you”, says Jesus, “seek and you will find.” For some of us these statements, and others like them, are a barrier to prayer, they stand between us and God and we turn to him with our hearts full of longing, our minds brimming with things we would see changed, healed, transformed.
We know that often people ask for what they need and are disappointed, that people of faith pray fervently and still see their loved ones die, their families collapse, their children stray. We suspect, furthermore, that the idea of a God who could make things better but doesn’t because he isn’t asked in the right way conflicts with our conception of a loving God who reaches out graciously and generously.
I remember vividly the first time I was asked whether I would lead the prayers of intercession in our church in Edinburgh. I had no hesitation at all in refusing. “I’m sorry”, I said, “but that form of prayer makes no sense to me, I couldn’t do it and mean it, although I sometimes find hearing it moving and helpful.” This remained an issue for me as I entered my education for ministry. I knew that it must make sense, since it is so central to our faith and our tradition, but I couldn’t work out how. I knew I needed to find the way and I put my trust in the God who had called me to lead me into it.
The key moment for me was reading an article, I don’t remember where or who it was by, that argued that when we pray we are, more than anything else, expressing our faith and trust in God. When we ask for the things we most want and need we’re not really trying to tell God anything he doesn’t know, after all he can read the innermost secrets of our hearts, is familiar with things about us that we hide even from ourselves. Nor are we trying to persuade or manipulate him, such an attempt would be futile and ridiculous. No, we are expressing our belief that all that comes to us comes to us from God and our hope that his grace will grant that we get what we want and want what we get. We are not making the hopeless effort to impose our wills on God but reaching out, yearning, for a full alignment of our will with his and, thus, his with ours, we are praying that all will be as we want it to be.
What’s more this work of ours, this striving to express ourselves fully to God in hopeful expectation that his will be done and our wills fulfilled, is one of the most important things we do, on behalf of God. Remember that for the core Christian tradition the innermost meaning of human being is its representation of God, we are made to be his image, that created entity that is his likeness in creation. Part of this is also that we represent creation to him, we stand in the midst of what God has made as that which most profoundly connects it to him, as we turn to heaven in prayer. This special kind of speech, this address to the creator, to the King of Heaven, isn’t a simple selfish seeking of favour, it is central to being what God intends us to be. Without fervent and heartfelt prayer we fail really to be human.
So, if prayer is both indispensable to faith and at the heart of human being, if a faith that doesn’t trust God to hear and respond is not faith at all and if a person who doesn’t pray is not yet a human being as God intends him or her to be, what do we do with the painful reality of things prayed for and not received? How can we sincerely and trustingly pray when we are so often disappointed? All those prayers for peace and all this war! So many pleas for healing and so much sickness! So much yearning for life and death everywhere!
There is no easy and complete answer to this question, this question that is so impossible to avoid. My own answer, which I offer to you only as a starting point, since I am no paragon of prayer but find myself in this pulpit responsible before God for speaking of him and even, perhaps, for him, comes in two parts.
First, faith, to be faith, trusts God even when all seems lost and God appears to have turned away. The great exemplars of faith include Abraham, preparing himself to sacrifice Isaac while believing still in God’s goodness and his promises, include Job, angry at God and demanding to know why he is suffering but never losing his faith that an encounter with him is possible and will give relief, include Christ, praying in agony at Gethsemane, pleading for the cup of suffering to be taken from him but concluding, not my will but yours.
Secondly these stories of faith and of encounter all end happily. Isaac is spared and Israel founded. God comes to Job in the whirlwind and restores all that is lost. Above all Christ is raised from the tomb into eternal life.
When our prayers appear to go unanswered we are called to keep faith with God, to believe in his promise of resurrection and new creation, to believe that, in the fullness of time, all will be well, all ills mended, all losses restored. Ultimately our prayers express our trust that the one to whom we pray will be true to his word, will make all things right.