Saturday, May 9, 2009

Why Do We Bother With Prayer?

I have been thinking about this a lot lately - why do some prayers that people pray get answered and some don't? More importantly, if there are prayers that don't get answered, then perhaps God picks and chooses what He wants to do. And if that's the case, why would we even bother with praying? And if God is influenced by our prayers, then that would seem to indicate we have some power over God - that we can in some way tell Him what to do. This would hurt the idea of God being sovereign though. If God's in entire control, which I believe He is, then we can't actually move God to do anything (we have absolutely no power to influence Him) - and again, why would we bother to pray?

So, I am actually teaching on this tomorrow and I've had some time to do some reading and get more information from some other folks. There are three main criticisms we have for prayer. First, that it's just a ridiculous idea. Why do we have to tell God what to do - doesn't He know? Do we really think He cares about our tiny problems? Isn't prayer essentially bullying God into what we want Him to do? All of these things boil down to - it's ridiculous to think this works at all, for numerous reasons. Second, prayer is unnecessary. Look how many people get along just fine without prayer - they have jobs, make money, good health, etc. They get through life without prayer just as well as we do with prayer, sometimes better. You're just wasting your breath - you'd get that stuff even if you didn't pray - it's totally unnecessary. And third, prayer is unproductive - it doesn't always work. What about all the things people have prayed for and NOT gotten? Tests that were failed, aunts who never got better, lotteries that were never won by you, peace in the world that hasn't happened. People pray about that stuff and it doesn't happen, so prayer doesn't really work. Let me address each of these individually.

First, prayer is ridiculous.
Us getting what we ask for depends on us asking first. But this isn't because God is dumb and needs to be told, or that we coerce Him to do our bidding. It's more that He's always ready to give, but we're not ready to receive. When we pray and ask God for things, it is our way of submitting to Him and acknowledging that we are ready to receive from the only One who can give. It's us reminding ourselves and God that we are totally dependent upon Him. God doesn't just drop tons of gifts all over the place regardless of whether people are ready - He waits for them to ask. So, it's not ridiculous, it's the way we let God know we are ready to receive what we know He can give and wants to give.

Second, prayer is unnecessary.
There is an important distinction to note in this discussion. There are two types of gifts - creation gifts and redemption gifts. Creation gifts are bestowed by God as the Creator, and to all creation. Whether you are a believer or not, because you were created by God, He bestows gifts upon you - life, air, rain, food, and the rest of the benefits of being a part of His creation. Redemption gifts are given out to those who have been redeemed - those who have accepted Christ. These gifts are wisdom, hope, increasing faith, strength to get through tough times, forgiveness, etc. These things are not given to all, but to those redeemed.
Creation gifts we get without asking, so yes, there are things that all people get whether they pray or not. But there are other things that people definitely do not get unless they pray, and these are the things we REALLY need to get through life. Those people who make money and have families, but are not redeemed, they have a much tougher time getting through life than a believer because they don't have access to the redemption gifts, except through other people who are believers who touch their lives. So prayer is necessary.

Third, prayer is unproductive.
In Matthew 7:7-8, Jesus says "Ask and it will be given to you....everyone who asks receives." But this isn't true, is it? Tons of people ask for things they don't get. This statement is not to be understood as an unconditional, no-strings-attached, offer to anyone in any condition. Prayer is not magic. It's not, 'well I prayed it so God has to do it.' You can't control the sovereign God of the universe, regardless of how much you wish it was that way. If you got everything you asked for, do you really think that would be a good idea? Are you so smart that everything you ask for would REALLY be for the best? Or, since you're not the only person who's praying, what if everyone got what they wanted? Looking further into verses 9-11 of Matthew 7, Jesus uses the illustration of parents and children. If a child asks for something (like something to eat), what parent would give them something useless like a stone, or harmful like a poisonous snake? The parent knows what's best for the child based on what they ask. How much MORE does the all-knowing, good God know what is best for us? Regardless of what we ask Him for, or how often we ask, or how persuasive we try to be - God is not going to give us something that is harmful or useless. He is only going to give us what is good for us - or for the situation we are praying about. God wants what is best for everyone, and this is evidenced through the way He answers prayer. So, when our prayers seem to be unanswered, it's because God knows it's better not to do that (it's for your own good) - it's not that He doesn't hear. Jesus assures us of that in verses 7-8.

So, if you've stuck with me through to this part, you might be thinking - well then what's left to even pray for? Why even bother if God is so picky? He's only going to do what He wants anyway... Yes, He IS in control - He's sovereign and that's far better than us being in control. He will give you good things, when you are ready to receive them. Prayer is necessary for us to let God know that we're ready and we're depending on Him. Prayer also shows God that we trust Him - that we believe He CAN do what we ask.

Prayer is our conversation with God, and it's important, necessary, and it works. But we have to understand how it works in order to benefit from it.

*Many of my thoughts in this post are based on John R.W. Stott's "The Message of the Sermon on the Mount."

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