We often pray because we want God to intervene in our affairs on our behalf. Some people seem to be successful at it, others not at all. Churches hold up the first as prayer warriors, paragons of virtue, lauded for their faith and admired for their devotion. As for the others, however, we question their faith, and wonder about their connection to God. Why is it that in their case prayer seems to fall on deaf ears?
It is convenient to ascribe God’s lack of response to a prayer to its not being His will to grant it, or else to a lack of adequate faith in the supplicant. Is there a usable, actionable concept to help us understand what to expect from prayer? Should God be at our disposal? For prayer to make a difference, we must have realistic expectations, lest we find it futile and disappointing.
A Lifeway poll found that nearly half of all Americans, including more than one in five of those professing no religion, pray daily. Of them: One in four say God answers all of their prayers; 37% say God answers some of their prayers; but only 3% say that God answers none of their prayers.
A recent Carnegie Mellon study also found that among millennials, 53% look to religion for guidance yet 62% talk privately with God. This suggests that millennials are not giving up on God but are bypassing religion to reach Him.
Lifeway found that while 74% pray for their own needs and difficulties and 42% pray for their own sins, a generous 82% pray for family and friends and 38% pray for those who experience natural disasters. At the other end of the generosity scale, only 12% pray for politicians and 5% for celebrities. 41% pray for people who mistreat them, 37% pray for their enemies, and 21% pray to win the lottery. 20% pray for success without effort (such as passing an exam without study), 15% pray to avoid discovery for a bad deed, 14% pray for revenge on someone who hurt them or a loved one, 13% pray for their sports team to win, 9% for bad things to happen to bad people, 7% to find a good parking spot, 7% to avoid being caught while speeding, 5% for success in something of which God would not approve, 5% for someone’s relationship to go bad, 5% for someone to get fired, and 4% for someone to fail.
A Christianity Today poll found that 25% of respondents with incomes higher than $150,000 pray for bad things to happen to bad people and nearly 20% for someone to get fired, while (respectively) only 8 and 5% of respondents making between $75,000 and $150,000, and only 1% earning less than $30,000 did so. The survey concluded that an empathy gap exists between the rich and the poor.
The Lord’s Prayer is the ideal prayer taught by Jesus to His disciples. It is a communal prayer, not an individual prayer. It asks God to “Lead us not into temptation.” In the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of His arrest, Jesus reminded them of the danger of falling into temptation after He found them sleeping, telling Peter:
“So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:40-41; repeated verbatim in Mark 14:38-39)
One might suppose that of all things, sleep would be the antidote to temptation, yet Jesus wanted them to be awake and to pray in order to avoid it. How might prayer help us avoid temptation? What did He mean by saying “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”? Was He talking about the disciples or about Himself—about His own temptation?
Luke adds a different perspective. According to Luke, Jesus told the disciples before they fell asleep and before He Himself prayed:
“Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray, saying, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.” Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him. And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground. When He rose from prayer, He came to the disciples and found them sleeping from sorrow, and said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” (Luke 22:39-46)
What is the relationship between prayer and temptation? How can the end product of prayer be a state of freedom from temptation? Eve was tempted not simply to disobey God by eating a forbidden fruit, but to be like God. This desire to be like God seems to be the human condition, as the serpent was evidently aware. During His retreat to the desert, Jesus Himself was also tempted by the devil to turn stones into bread, to show off his divinity by jumping off the roof of the temple, and generally to use His godly power to help Himself (Matthew 4).
The common theme of these various temptations seems to be a desire to be like God. How can prayer overcome that desire and forestall the temptation? What was Jesus trying to tell the disciples—and us—in his admonition to be awake and pray to avoid temptation?
Donald: If we see someone asleep in church we tend to be offended, though we all do it sometimes! Or they are on their phones. Is our situation in church different from that of the disciples in the Garden? Is sleep more excusable in one than in the other?
David: Luke said in the quoted passage that Jesus found the disciples sleeping “from sorrow”. So theirs was not simply an escape from a boring sermon. We think of sleep in the aftermath (or even in the midst) of tragedy as a blessed relief.
Don: Sleep is also a relief from temptation, yet we are admonished not to sleep in circumstances such as the disciples found themselves in in Gethsemane. We associate temptation with sin, but we can also be tempted to do good, or to do something morally neutral. In and of itself, temptation is not sin.
David: Jesus was saying that sorrow is not reason enough to sleep. He Himself was in agony yet He did not escape into sleep; instead He prayed, and fervently at that. He was saying “Now is not the time to sleep: It is the time to face your sorrows.”
Jay: Temptation seems to me to be associated with straying from God’s will—from the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done”. Prayer is a strengthening exercise for will alignment. Will cannot be aligned unconsciously—it can only be aligned while in a state of consciousness, and it is not easy, as Jesus demonstrated by praying three times for it in Gethsemane. Repetition breeds focus.
Donald: Perhaps prayer is like a spiritual strengthening exercise. It builds upon itself but the results become apparent only over time.
David: It’s clear from the passages today that it is God’s will that we suffer, just as it was Grandma’s will that we suffered when she forced spinach down our childhood throats. Our will is not to suffer. We want ice cream, not spinach. But in Gethsemane Jesus says: “No! Face up to your suffering, as you see me face up to mine!”
Donald: He wanted the disciples to stay awake so they could suffer along with Him?
David: It looks that way to me.
Robin: It’s rubber meeting road. You can’t just be a fair-weather believer. The disciples also got to see a change in Jesus in His distress and sorrow—something they would not have been used to. His doubt and fear would have shocked them even more—almost as if He were succumbing to temptation. He had convinced them that He was the lamb of God, yet here He was doubting God.
Jay: There is no doubt that Jesus suffered from Gethsemane until his Resurrection. And there is no doubt that His suffering was the will of God. Ordinary humans don’t want to say “Thy will be done” under those circumstances, but that is the message in the Lord’s Prayer and it was Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane. We may argue that Christ’s case was different, that He had a grand purpose—the salvation of the whole world; but His suffering was just as real and personal as it would have been for you or me. Could it be that it is God’s will that we too must suffer for some grand purpose we can’t understand?
Robin: It’s difficult to tell the difference between God’s description versus His prediction of suffering. After the Fall, He described the earth as cursed, and predicted that the Man and Woman would suffer as they never had before. We have to be careful in ascribing cause and effect here, lest we read a vengeful God into it. We may think God punished us for our sin, whereas in fact our suffering is a natural and inevitable result of breaking the law. People struggle with the idea of a vengeful God.
David: It seems trite to sum this all up as “No pain, no gain” yet that is what it amounts to. In the Beatitudes, suffering begat blessing and the sight of God. To evade suffering is extremely consequential: You will not see God.
Donald: Then we should pray for suffering? The church that preaches this may not attract many worshipers! When I consider my relationship with God, I think of Him as a peaceful river, a comforter, a lamb. It is hard to associate these with suffering.
Jay: Because of the Fall, we can only experience the world through contrast. I cannot appreciate the peace of a river without also knowing it in raging flood. Can we appreciate joy without experiencing sorrow? Peace without suffering? Love without hate? Heaven is defined as the place where we can do all those things, but first we have to get back in. The fact is that we are out. We Fell from heaven.
Kiran: Jesus prayed that His suffering had a purpose—to help others. A mother does not begrudge suffering for her baby. She does not think of herself when her baby is in need. She has a higher purpose. Perhaps that is the grand purpose of suffering: To help others.
Robin: God is telling us not to lose hope and faith through suffering.
Donald: I still struggle with the notion of a God who wants His children to suffer.
Jay: We ignore the enormous suffering of the Egyptians from the Ten Plagues, but when we ourselves suffer we are all over God with demands to stop it, and with complaints when He does not.
Donald: Then He goes and heals the sick. Go figure… if you can!
Jay: We can’t understand why God does what He does. Prayer is about accepting the will of God, “as is”. To assess His actions as good or bad is dangerous.
Donald: Why pray for an outcome if suffering is the goal?
David: The Hebrew Worthies had no expectation of any outcome when they stepped into the furnace. We have no idea whether, and if so how much, they suffered from the fire before God intervened. We read only: Have faith and you will be saved! But the Worthies had no such thought. “God’s will is what it is,” they practically shrugged.
Jay: The Worthies did not question God’s will, but we do. We want to know why.
Donald: So we should not ask for God’s protection.
Jay: God is not waiting for us to ask for protection, so why pray for it?
Donald: I pray for a relationship with God. I hope for His protection. It’s a question of loyalty, of showing where I stand, of pledging allegiance.
Jay: The question is one’s motives for seeking the relationship. It cannot be based on selfishness. But when you take the selfish quid pro quo out of the relationship, what is left to pray for?
David: Faith is not an investment, with an expectation of dividend. In fact, there is a dividend in that God’s will is done. We just don’t see it as dividend. The ultimate faith, as demonstrated by Jesus in Gethsemane, is to suffer without any expectation of anything. A relationship with God is strictly a one-way street with regard to suffering. We have to believe that all things work together for good (Romans 8), that all things are God’s will. But that’s a hard sell to humans.
Jay: We must distinguish between the personal good and the greater good. “All things” includes bad things as well as good things. They are all God’s will. Accepting this brings peace.
Don: Maybe it’s not that God wants us to suffer, its that He does not usually intervene in our worldly affairs. The Worthies knew and were content to live by this belief. It’s hard for most of us to do so. It’s easier to fill churches with holy roller preachers than with simple believers like the Worthies. Perhaps the temptation Jesus wants us to avoid is not the temptation to sin but rather the temptation to control God and make Him align with our desires, rather than the other way around.
Donald: Different personalities might have more or less difficulty with this message. We think of church as a place of refuge from suffering, yet it seems it should be the ground zero of suffering.
Jay: It is hard to consider the Ten Plagues without accepting that God did it, that He brought immense suffering on the Egyptians.
Don: We don’t care about that, because they are the bad guys. Recall the statistics we began this meeting with: Up to 25% of people, with the rich in the top percentile and the poor in the bottom percentile, pray for bad things to happen to bad people.
Suffering was the common theme in the prayers of Job, Hannah, Hezekiah, and even Jesus, as well as in the non-prayer of the Hebrew Worthies. We need to understand this, and figure out its relationship to temptation.
David: We should pray to suffer.