The Two Ditches of Prayer
Posted on 2021-05-25 22:30:00 in Foundations
Note: This post is one of a series of 'foundation' posts I hope to write, where I share things I've learned through the years and have frequently repeated to others.
There are two dangers, like two ditches on either side of a narrow path, which we encounter when we pray. The dangers both involve our expectation of how God is going to respond to our prayer.
The first danger is fatalism. This is the danger of the person who will say, "God answers every prayer, but with yes, no, or wait." Those three responses exhaust every possible outcome. We may as well be praying to a rock, or a statue. The same "answers" will always come from anything, or anyone, you might pray to, because there are no other possible answers than "yes," "no," or " wait." This observation is thus meaningless. Not harmful, perhaps, but not helpful, either.
Fatalism is also a danger for peoplw who emphasize strongly that every prayer should end with the words, "Thy will be done." This is obviously a petition in the prayer Jesus taught us, and it is not meaningless (like the "yes, no, wait" claim above). Many people, though, misunderstand Jesus' words. He is not telling us that we ought to stop and remind ourselves before we finish praying that the Father will not change His behavior because we asked Him to, or that He is going to do whatever He does regardless of our prayer. No, Jesus is having us ask that the Lord break down every barrier that does not want God's name to be holy, or His name to be hallowed.
What fatalism does is get us to believe, before we even rise from our knees, that God has many reasons to ignore us, and we should just buck up and prepare to get an answer we don't like. Such prayer may seem "deep" and "spiritual," but it is so draining that eventually it will sap us of our energy.
The second danger is manipulation. This is the danger of people who pull out verses such as, "in that day, you will ask the Father whatever you want in my name, and the Father will hear you." Even the holiest of our prayers can be tainted with selfishness. The woman who prays that her husband will attend church may spend more time thinking of how nice it would be to sit with him there, and not so much how God is missing him if he stays home.
This ineradicable selfishness does not enter into the theology of the manipulators. They claim, boldly and happily, that if one prays with sufficient faith, one will receive the desire that one pours out to God. When disappointments ineviatably come, the manipulator says, "you did not pray with sufficient faith." Here, unlike the fatalist, it is all up to us, rather than being up to God. Many have lost their faith, or had it weakened to the vanishing point, because they mistakenly believed that they could pray in faith an restore sick children, or perform nearly miraculous deeds.
I think that the fatalist is not really different from the manipulator. Instead, the fatalist anticipates possible failure, and reinforces against the disappointment with the arguments above. The manipulator is more innocent, but also a bit more selfish. There is no reason to think one is better than the other; but they do have differing opinions, and may not always get along.
The way to avoid these two ditches is to realize that God never really says "no" to us, but rather that He has something even better in mind. Jesus famously in the garden of Gethsemane asked for a way out of the suffering and humiliation He faced; there was no relief for Him there, but what He got was much better in the end. Similarly, Paul says that God declined to remove his "thorn in the flesh," but it is noteworthy that Paul did not consider this an offense of God, but rather something to brag about, because God told Him directly that weakness of the infirmity was better than strength.
Every time you pray for someone or something, you should be positive that the prayer will be answered. When you are disappointed, do not be shy about bringing your complaint to God. He is faithful, and this expectation will lead -- after some regrettable heartache in some cases -- to a greater awareness of How God works, which is the mystery of the ages.