THE CHALLENGE, FRUSTRATION, AND SATISFACTION OF PRAYER

I just counted the books in the prayer section on my book shelf and I have over 25 of them. I’m pretty sure I have read all of them, and would think I’d be much better at prayer than I am. The title of one of the books, The Struggle of Prayer by Donald G. Bloesch, probably describes a lot of us in terms of our practice of prayer. It certainly does me.

I can relate to Professor W. David O. Taylor’s assessment, “My own prayer life comes and goes. At times I have prayed faithfully every morning before starting the day’s work. At other times I have managed only tired prayers at the end of the day, and they often have not been very good prayers. At still other times I have found myself without prayer, or, more truthfully, without any desire to pray.”

I want to pray, and I want to pray regularly, but that is a challenge for me. After all these years I have still not settled into a daily and consistent routine of prayer. I think Anthony Delaney’s observation that “we pray a lot more when we are trouble than when everything’s going well” is spot on. And I think he’s right because what he says is true for me.

The Bible says a lot of about prayer as well as gives us a lot of examples of prayer. Jesus clearly expects us to pray as three times in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:5-7) he tells us “when you pray . . .” what to do and what not to do. In verses 9-13 he gives us a model to follow. In his final instructions to the Thessalonians in his first letter the Apostle Paul tells them “pray continually” (I Thessalonians 5:17).

Pastor and author John Starke encourages me with his suggestion that “the Bible imagines prayer to be a very ordinary thing for very ordinary people.” (In other words, you don’t have to be a spiritual giant to pray.) And then he convicts me with his observation that “It’s not an overstatement to say that the most transformative thing you can do is to begin to spend unhurried time with God on a regular basis for the rest of your life.”

Professor Taylor’s definition of prayer also encourages me: “Prayer is a funny thing, of course, it is about talking to God and listening to God. In practice, prayer is anything but simple.” I think praying can be simple, but listening to God in prayer for me is more challenging.

I think for many who pray, what can be frustrating is what we consider no response from God. With simple honesty, in one of his books Scot McKnight notes “we lay ourselves before God and sometimes we get what we want and sometimes we don’t.” As I have heard many believers say, God sometimes says “yes,” sometimes he says “no,” and sometimes he says “wait.” It’s the “no” answer and the “wait” answer that frustrates many who pray.

I would not charge anyone whose prayer answers were “no” or “wait” of being guilty of his warning, but Pastor Dustin Crowe’s words are worth our consideration, “If honest, many of us pray self-centered, self-absorbed, selfish prayers that sound more like ‘my kingdom come, my will be done’ than ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

In his book Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer C.S. Lewis makes a powerful point. He says the clearest asking prayer in the Bible is Jesus’ request in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Lewis writes, “He asked, but did not get what he asked for. But he asked with a reservation—‘nevertheless, not my will but thine.’ This makes an enormous difference.”

I’m thinking the challenge and the frustration of prayer are both real, but my prayer life could be much more satisfying if I would follow Jesus’ example and ask with the reservation he did.

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PRAYER, FAITH, UNANSWERED PRAYER, AND TRUST

All of us who are Christians would agree that prayer is an important aspect of the Christian life. While driving to a meeting yesterday I realized my prayer life had waned. Right then I acknowledged it to the Lord (without bowing my head and closing my eyes!) and resolved to get back on track.

This morning I read in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters Screwtape’s observation that if his subject [a Christian he was tempting] was attending to God Himself, both he and Wormwood would be defeated. Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood was that the simplest way to prevent such a thing was “to turn their gaze away from Him [God] towards themselves.” I wondered if that is what I had done. Later I was reminded of one of the great testimonies in the Old Testament about this matter.

Most readers will remember the account of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3. These three young Jewish men refused to obey King Nebuchadnezzar. He had set up an image and ordered on his command everyone to fall down and worship it. In keeping with the king’s mandate, because of their refusal, they were going to be thrown into a blazing furnace.

Daniel 3:16-18 tells us their response to Nebuchadnezzar, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.”

Even in their trying situation Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were clearly attending to God Himself and did not turn their gaze away from God toward themselves. Even though we are not told they prayed, we can assume they did. And I think we can be encouraged and learn from their response.

  1. Note their commitment expressed by telling the king they didn’t have to defend themselves to him.
  2. Note also their faith that God was able and could save them
  3. Note finally their acceptance of whatever God decided.

In his book Eyes Wide Open Terry Lewis observes their words even if he doesn’t “is not a lack of faith, it is the acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty.” Lewis then makes application for us, “What God does about our situation is up to Him, but we do know that He is able!”

In terms of the title of these thoughts – PRAYER, FAITH, UNANSWERED PRAYER, AND TRUST – I’m suggesting it takes faith to pray as well as trust in accepting it when God says no to our prayer requests.

(For those who may be interested, I recommend the new collection of C.S. Lewis writings on prayer entitled How to Pray: Reflections and Essays.)

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