The Expectation vs. the Reality of Prayer

Jesus criticized the Pharisees for both the quality and the quantity of their prayers. He also criticized their expectations of a quid pro quo for their prayer, fasting, and the giving of alms. I suspect most of us are like the Pharisees. We think if we pray more, longer, better, with more people, faith, sincerity, and zeal that God will give us what we ask for in our prayer. In fact, Jesus did indeed say there is a quid pro quo, but it is that the more hypocritical one is in religious practice, the more one will be condemned for it.

The Lord’s Prayer is the perfect prayer given to the Disciples by 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.” And He said to them, “When you pray, say:

‘Father, hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
‘Give us each day our daily bread.
‘And forgive us our sins,
For we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.’” (Luke 11:1-4)

The Lord’s Prayer is a community prayer. The personal pronouns are plural “us”, “we”, and “our”; not “me”, “I”, and “my”. The request for daily bread is not so much a demand for a physical object as it is an acknowledgment that God provides for us. In the Greek, it can be read as: “You give us this day our daily bread; You forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors.” These are statements or acknowledgments, rather than requests.

The call for the kingdom to come is a call for heaven to come to Earth, bringing with it peace and joy and kingdom principles such as going the extra mile, going to the back of the line, and loving one’s enemies. To pray is to surrender to the will of God. The only quid pro quo in the Lord’s Prayer is that we will be forgiven in proportion to how we forgive others. It is a quid pro quo with our fellow human being and with God.

What outcome can be expected from praying the Lord’s Prayer? What were the outcomes of other famous prayers in the Bible?

The Prayer of Hannah

Elkanah had two wives: Hannah, whom he loved but was barren, and Peninnah, who bore him children and was nasty to Hannah. One day, …

…, greatly distressed, [Hannah] prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. She made a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give Your maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and a razor shall never come on his head.” (1 Samuel 1:2-11)

The outcome was that she did indeed have a son, Samuel, and she did what she promised and gave her son back to the Lord. In other words: She got what she wanted, but had to give it back.

The Prayer of Hezekiah

King Hezekia was mortally ill. When warned by the prophet Isaiah to put his house in order because the Lord had decided he should die, he…

… turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, saying, “Remember now, O Lord, I beseech You, how I have walked before You in truth and with a whole heart and have done what is good in Your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. Before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Return and say to Hezekiah the leader of My people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of your father David, “I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; behold, I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the Lord. I will add fifteen years to your life, and I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria; and I will defend this city for My own sake and for My servant David’s sake.”’… 

So God did as asked. However, after some Babylonians came to visit Hezekiah, Isaiah asked him:

“What did these men say, and from where have they come to you?” And Hezekiah said, “They have come from a far country, from Babylon.” He said, “What have they seen in your house?” So Hezekiah answered, “They have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing among my treasuries that I have not shown them.”

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord. ‘Behold, the days are coming when all that is in your house, and all that your fathers have laid up in store to this day will be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left,’ says the Lord. ‘Some of your sons who shall issue from you, whom you will beget, will be taken away; and they will become officials in the palace of the king of Babylon.’” (2 Kings 20:1-21)

Thus, the immediate outcome of Hezekiah’s prayer was the granting of his request for life but the final outcome was a disaster for Hezekiah and his kingdom.

The Prayer of Job

When Job suffered a series of catastrophes in life, he asked God why a faithful servant of God such as himself should be punished in this way. God responded by asking Job, in no fewer than 77 questions, if he could do the mighty things that God did. Chastened, Job replied:

“I know that You can do all things, And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” ‘Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask You, and You instruct me.’ “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You; Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:2-6)

God did not answer Job’s prayer directly, but in the end, Job was enlightened.

The (unspoken) Prayer of the Three Hebrew Worthies

Ironically, there is no prayer here, in a dire situation—inside a fiery furnace—where one would most expect it. Prayer, the worthies said in essence, was not necessary, because, as they told their tormentor King Nebuchadnessar:

… our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18)

The outcome was uncertain, but the faith was absolute and no prayer was uttered.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus was about to be arrested, He prayed that he would not suffer but that God’s will, not His will, be done (Matthew 26). He clearly did not expect His to prevail over God’s.

These examples show a wide variety of outcomes from prayer. Life is full of unanticipated, and often prayerful, events. What should we expect? Is it more noble not to expect anything? Or to turn to the wall, like Hezekiah, and pray passionately for what we desire?

Jesus told this parable about prayer:

Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart, saying, “In a certain city there was a judge who did not fear God and did not respect man. There was a widow in that city, and she kept coming to him, saying, ‘Give me legal protection from my opponent.’ For a while he was unwilling; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge said; now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)

The unjust judge, who answered the widow’s prayer only under pressure, is the opposite of God, the just judge as described in this passage:

“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! (Matthew 7:7-11)

God does not need our pleadings.

Almost everyone prays, and almost everyone expects something in return. Might our unrealistic expectations for prayer lead to the sort of woes the Pharisees suffered? Is there such a thing as a bad prayer? A good prayer? Would we recognize them?

David: It is shocking to me that Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer omits its key line: “Thy will be done”. To me, that line alone is the complete, the perfect, prayer.

Donald: Christ knew his destiny in the Garden of Gethsemane yet asked to avoid it. Knowing what He knew, why bother to pray? Is it a case of praying “in any case”? Is there a benefit in that? Patients do it when the doctor tells them they are likely to die. Is it just a matter of starting a conversation with God, with no real expectation of being spared from death?

Michael: We concluded in a previous discussion that prayer is important even though it does not result in what we want.

Kiran: I think we thought that it was like wifi—when you connect to it, your system automatically gets updated. We thought that prayer makes us honest about ourselves, and that (as Paul said) we don’t know how to pray. But there is benefit in prayer.

David: We usually think of prayer as an “ask”. But that is only one narrow application of prayer. Wikipedia provides a broader definition (citing Jevons):

Prayer is an invocation or act that seeks to activate a rapport with an object of worship through deliberate communication.

“Thy will be done” is a statement of faith, an affirmation of belief in God. It is not a request. What can we expect from saying it? It may depend on the individual. To me, it enlightens by giving a purpose to life. In process theological terms, our purpose is to help God Become. It’s good to be reminded of that, lest we forget; hence, say it daily—aloud or in the head (I don’t think God cares which, but if aloud then it should be done out of the hearing of others.)

Robin: Christ’s Gethsemane prayer was His final example of the triumph of spirit over flesh. His humanity did not want pain and sorrow, but He relinquished what His humanity wanted and accepted instead what His spirit wanted. It led Him out of desperation and into peace.

Don: Could a church survive if it told its members that prayer might or might not get them what they want?

Robin: We have to look to Jesus. It might be dangerous to teach that prayer will get you what you want.

Kiran: We should always add that it is OK if prayer does not deliver what you ask for, because it will always deliver what is best for you.

Robin: Faith should not depend on God’s doing what we want.

Donald: If allegiance goes to some entity other than God, then we can see, in our own heart of hearts, where our priorities lie. If prayer is only for the purpose of my asking for something to come my way, it’s a pretty shallow relationship. Contrast that with paying daily visits to an elderly relative with dementia: Though apparently one way, the relationship, the love, the allegiance, are all that matter. The posture of prayer seems important too: Sometimes we kneel, sometimes we stand.

Don: We teach our children to pray. We encourage them to ask for things. Sometimes the prayers are answered, and sometimes not. Members of this class have testified to having had their prayers answered. What should we teach children to expect from God?

Dewan: I have had prayers answered when family members have been gravely ill. Jesus promised His followers peace and joy and forgiveness of sin, but he did not promise a pain-free life on earth. He did not guarantee answers to selfish prayer to fulfill sinful desires.

Donald: We pray not to suffer, yet suffering can bring positive results, such as helping us to see were our real priorities should lie.

Jeff: All religions have some form of prayer. It seems to me that the act of prayer is a declaration of one’s acceptance of subordination to a higher power. I can think of no examples in scripture of prayers prayed from a position of strength.

Jay: It is an expression of faith that an unseen, unheard higher power exists to hear one’s prayer. My children ask me for lots of things I won’t give them. They might sulk for a bit but in the end my refusal to answer some of their “prayers” does not at all diminish their belief in my love for them. It does not damage our relationship. It seems that as we grow out of childhood, we expect more from our prayers. The quid pro quo seems to grow stronger.

In Gethsemane, Jesus clearly did not want events to unfold as he knew they would. He prayed for His suffering to end “if possible.” And He asked not just once, but twice. That is troubling, since first of all anything is possible for God, and secondly because if Jesus Christ, the perfect human being, the one with the strongest possible relationship with God, cannot get God to answer His prayer, what chance have we?

Kiran: In the end, He did get what He wanted in the sense that His death did not last forever. He was resurrected.

Jay: But why pray for that? He knew that would happen.

Kiran: Prayer is an expression of gratitude, serving to remind us of the good things we receive, whether we are “religious” or not.

Jay: It’s a faith-based self-assessment. But we have perverted it into a means of fulfilling selfish desires.

Jeff: …With some backing from the Bible!

David: And is this how we teach our children to pray? A parent does not have to teach a child to ask for a candy. All they have to do is teach the child to talk, and the child will figure out the rest. (Come to think of it, do we really teach children to talk, or do they learn to talk on their own?)

Jeff: A parent can explain to a child why it can’t have the candy. But our prayers go into the ether, with no explanation for the results.

David: That’s my point. How can you teach the inexplicable to a child? Is it really necessary to teach a child how to pray? Might it even be wrong to teach a child how to pray, given that we don’t really know ourselves and therefore might teach the wrong thing that the child has to struggle to overcome as an adult?

Kiran: We can teach children that they are not all-powerful. We can teach them that they are vulnerable.

Donald: We often give them examples of answered prayers.

Jay: We should teach them that whether they pray or not, God’s will will be done. But who wants a religion that says you can’t leverage God for yourself, as Hezekiah did?

Jeff: God Himself said we could leverage Him! There is scriptural support for this.

Don: Hezekiah did all the “right” things and got what he wanted.

Robin: We all get answers to our prayers, but sometimes they are a “No!” —and we don’t like that.

David: I don’t think we all want something out of God. Whether I want it or not, God’s will will be done. I am glad about that because I cannot imagine anything better than being surrounded by and related to ultimate Goodness. Of course I want my parent to give me what I need but I also know that I don’t know what I need and I believe that my parent does know what I need. What is there not to like about that?

Donald: What does a homeless person pray for?

David: What did the oppressed in the Beatitudes pray for? Perhaps nothing, perhaps for an end to their suffering. But in either case, Jesus assures us, they received God’s blessing, His grace.

Donald: Is this a First World problem? We here are well off and lead comfortable lives compared to many. Do people lacking the silver spoons we may have been born with not have a right to pray for one?

Jeff: Yes, and they are guaranteed to get it, according Mark 11.

Don: To be continued.

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