Do We Get What We Pray For?

Don: Jesus said:

“And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” (Matthew 21:22)


“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!

“In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:7-12)

His first statement is conditional upon belief; the second is unconditional. But the bigger quibble is that many people ask God for something but don’t receive it; that God does not answer prayer as advertised. Is it because they didn’t believe enough? Or is it because God doesn’t care or (worst of all) doesn’t exist? Seemingly unanswered prayer is the biggest single cause of doubt and skepticism about God.

Since the beginning of Time, men and women everywhere have believed in a supernatural Being who has the power to answer our prayers, no matter what we ask. It’s an intoxicating belief. From childhood, we are taught to pray to allay our fears, to give thanks for our meals, to pray for Mommy and Daddy, for things that we have lost and things that we have found, to pray when we are happy and when we are sad. Every occasion of our life commands and demands a prayer. In childhood, we are told story after story of answered prayer—from family members, from church, and so on.

In church, we seldom hear stories of unanswered prayer. It passes unremarked when the prayers of a whole church fail to save the life of a cancer-riddled child. Did they pray in an ineffective manner? Had they not enough faith? The questions are not raised.

Recent research on the frequency of prayer among American adults published by the Pew research center found that:

  • More than 75% of American adults say they pray at least weekly
  • 23% say they pray “seldom or never”
  • 98% of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 29% of Jews, 59% of Catholics, 61% of Hindus, 69% of Muslims, 85% of Mormons, 79% of evangelical Protestants, 86% of people who believe in heaven, and 72% of people who believe in hell say they pray on a daily basis
  • Married people are three times more likely to pray on a daily basis than unmarried people
  • Republicans and Democrats pray at about the same frequency
  • Women pray slightly more often than men
  • Baby boomers pray more than Gen X or millennials.
  • Ethnically, whites pray the most, Asians pray the least, blacks and Latinos pray about equally

The study also found that those who considered themselves closest to Jesus felt that they did not know sufficiently how to pray, reflecting the appeal of the disciples to Jesus:

It happened that while Jesus was praying in a certain place, after He had finished, one of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John also taught his disciples.” (Luke 11:1)

It also reflects these words of the Apostle Paul:

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:26-28)

Nevertheless, we are told to…

…pray without ceasing;… (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

Jesus responded to the disciple’s request as follows:

“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

“And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.

“Pray, then, in this way:

‘Our Father who is in heaven,
 Hallowed be Your name.
 Your kingdom come.
 Your will be done,
 On earth as it is in heaven. 
Give us this day our daily bread.
 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
 And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’]” (Matthew 6:5-13)

The passage begs the questions: What is “hypocritical” prayer, meaningless/repetitional prayer, and Gentilian prayer? There is a suggestion that effective prayer has a quantitative as well as a qualitative aspect.

We tend naturally to cling to a way of prayer, and want everyone to follow it. We have a national day of prayer. We have special weeks of prayer for our churches and schools. We have prayer bands and round-the-clock prayers. We think that the more people praying, the more likely the prayer will be heard and answered—the more effective it is. We also think we can improve the effectiveness of prayer through qualitative enhancements such as fasting, candles, incense, giving alms. prasads (offerings to the Hindu gods), and so on. Prayer is so universal that we tend not to question it, or to stop to consider the teachings of Jesus and Paul on the subject.

Anonymous: We cannot expect our prayers to be answered if we pray with unforgiveness in our hearts:

Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. (Mark 11:25)

Mikiko: The New World Translation of the Bible, used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, gives part of the Lord’s Prayer as follows:

“You must pray, then, this way: “‘Our Father in the heavens, let your name be sanctified. Let your Kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also on earth. (Matthew 6:9-10)

God’s name is very important. It was mentioned about 7,000 times in Scripture, but most translations removed His name and substituted “Lord” instead. In prayer, the search for His Kingdom is paramount:

Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. Keep on, then, seeking first the Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:32-33)

God knows what we need before we pray. He sees inside our hearts. So in that sense, any prayer is fine with Him.

Aishwarya: Should we pray with a specific outcome for an individual in mind, or should we pray for the general welfare of humankind?

David: The outcome that Jesus taught us to pray for is that “Thy [God’s] will be done.” But since we cannot know God’s will for sure, we cannot be sure what the outcome will look like. The promise of “Ask [anything] and ye shall receive [it]” is modified by the statement that God will not give you anything that is bad for you.

Mikiko: Our prayer must be in harmony with God’s will.

Robin: God wants us to be honest in our prayer, and to have faith that the result will be God’s will, whether we understand them or not.

Pastor Ariel: There are two parties to a prayer, but one of them lacks knowledge of the Other. God knows us, of course; but we do not really know God. Through the process of prayer, of dialog with God, we become changed by it, just as we are changed by our dialogs with other human beings—we cannot help but be changed somewhat, somehow, by coming to understand the other’s perspective. A fellow church man, who is African American, challenges individual members of the Ku Klux Klan to maintain their racist views after they have gotten to know him through dialog. In nearly every case, the KKK member has abandoned racism after getting to know him. The purpose of prayer is not to win the lottery; rather, it is to begin to understand the entity to whom one is talking.

Delight yourself in the Lord;
And He will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalms 37:4)

This might sound like an incitement to buy a lottery ticket but it is much deeper than that. The real “desires of your heart” are what He places there, not what you dump in it. He changes what it is we are looking for when we reciprocate His desire to be known by us. Prayer is an incremental opportunity to learn who God is, and as a result we are changed and aligned more with His will.

Donald: Dialog suggests a two-way conversation, whereas prayer seems to be a one-sided conversation. Accepting that God’s will be done is key. To expect anything else is certain to disappoint. And we do expect something else and we are disappointed, as in the case of the child with cancer. We fail to recognize that all lives end in death. But we also pray for the general wellbeing, for goodness and mercy, and so on. To me, the purpose of prayer is to acknowledge the Creator, our Father, and His will. Yet the Scriptural “Ask and ye shall receive” tempts one to present a more specific wish list in one’s prayer.

Jay: I agree that prayer is intimately linked with the will of God. That is what opens the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done.” It’s natural for us humans to seek to understand what God’s will is as it relates to us. I don’t think we can know that with any degree of specificity; we can know it only in broad generalities, such as His will is that we love Him with all our heart and that we love one another as we love ourselves. The trap of prayer is in seeking specificity, and “Ask and ye shall receive” seems to set that trap. I think the intention of prayer is to sacrifice our will to the will of God. When Jesus said to ask with “believing” I think He meant to ask in the belief that the will of God will be done. Since the will of God will always be done, the answer to any prayer asking that His will be done is bound to be answered positively. The difficulty we have is in believing that God’s will is being done, as when the child with cancer dies. Being aligned with the will of God has no bearing on the physical quality of life. It does not guarantee worldly happiness or prosperity or health. But it does guarantee something greater than these. Prayer is an exercise in sacrificing one’s will to the will of God.

Pastor Ariel: Are you saying that praying is x and the will of God is y, and that y always follows x?

Jay: The flip-side of the questions is “Can I influence or change the will of God?”

Pastor Ariel: Jesus was highly relational, and entered into dialog with anyone—Samaritans, Roman centurions, publicans, prostitutes—anyone. He was much less interested in working miracles for them than He was interested in engaging them in conversation and building a relationship with them. If the dialog were limited on one side to God’s will, where would be the room for relationship building? Scripture indicates that God responds to our prayers as any loving father would to a child, not as an imperious dictator. And a child does have some influence over its father.

Jay: Which reminds us of the admonition to be as little children. Children often ask for things that the father knows is not good for them, and will tend to feel hurt when they don’t get what they want. But, in the end, their love for their father does not change. The younger the children, the sooner they stop sulking and accept the will of their father. If God truly is a loving Father, what need is there for his children to influence, to change, what He does for them? What would they gain?

Pastor Ariel: But then, why would the Bible record Abraham talking with God about Sodom and Gomorrah? God did not invite Abraham’s opinion, but Abraham gave it anyway and God responded to it. God wants to restore us to our pre-Fall situation, and part of that is being like Him. Through developing a relationship with Him, we begin to resemble Him more and more. Abraham did not want to see Sodom and Gomorrah perish any more than God did. God gives us the opportunity to ask things as He hopes we would ask; that is to say, in a way that reflects alignment with His will. If the child were to say: “Dad, I’m watching too much TV, so I’m going to concentrate on my homework instead,” the father would be delighted. But the father would not be displeased to hear: “Dad, can I turn on the TV if I do my homework first?”

Jay: The problem comes when we ask our Father for something He, in His wisdom, will not grant. That is when we begin to question our faith in Him, and that can destroy the relationship. It is critical for us to understand that “Thy will be done” means that sometimes “My will may not be done.”

Chris: God showed His will to Abraham by destroying Sodom and Gomorrah in the end. It was through his dialog with God that Abraham learned to understand God’s perspective on Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham did not really change God’s mind about Sodom and Gomorrah, but God was able to enlighten Abraham. If we don’t know what to ask, the Spirit will ask for us, but the result will still be the enactment of God’s will.

Pastor Ariel: If the Spirit is going to pray for us anyway—and is guaranteed to be aligned with God’s will—then why should we bother to pray? I maintain that prayer is necessary to developing a relationship with God. God said:

Come now, and let us reason together.” (Isaiah 1:18)

God invites us, wants us, to get to know Him. He creates contexts and opportunities for us to get to know Him—not necessarily to know His will, but to know Him. If we only say the things our Father wants to hear, it defeats the purpose of getting to know Him. We can’t know the fullness of His will, but He wants us to be close enough to get some sense of it.

Chris: Once, at the end of a long day, myself and four friends were a long way from home and locked out of our car as night descended—or so it seemed. The driver’s door was locked, but for a long time nobody—including the AAA guy who came out and a locksmith who failed to unlock the driver’s door—thought to try one of the back doors. I for one prayed for help. When someone later walked to a back door and tried it, it opened. I believe that it was God who cared enough about what was a pretty serious predicament to open the car door.

Michael: I don’t expect my prayers to be answered, but it doesn’t stop me from praying, when it seems to be the only option available. But I no longer blame myself when my prayers go unanswered: I blame God instead, knowing that whatever I say is not going to change the outcome. But this is still having a relationship with God.

Robin: Abraham’’s heart learned compassion. In contrast, Jonah was all for death and destruction, even when God tried to teach him compassion. We have to allow for the possibility that what we ask for is not the best, and we have to accept that God wants nothing but the best for us.

Don: Unanswered prayer is the single biggest reason why people doubt the existence of God. We expect that God hears our prayers and when we get no response we doubt that He exists. Hezekiah (2 Kings 20), doomed to die of an illness, asked God for a reprieve. God seemed reluctant to grant it, yet Hezekiah was healed anyway. Hezekiah’s will was done for the moment, but in the end, because he did not die at that time, he went on to lose all his wealth and much of his family, and of course he died anyway. It is as if the son asked his father for bread and was given what seemed like bread but turned out to be stone.

We need a better theology of prayer. We will continue to examine this in coming weeks.

Aishwarya: Irrespective of the wills of God and ourselves, I sense that prayer helps us, somehow, and that therefore we should keep praying.

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