The Problem of Prayer
The Importance of Prayer
“People should always pray and not faint.” Jesus in Luke 18:1.
“More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.” Alfred Lord Tennyson.
“God does nothing but in answer to prayer” John Wesley.
“Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath, the Christian’s native air.” James Montgomery.
“To talk to people about God is a good thing. To talk to God about people is better.” E.M. Bounds.
It has been the testimony of the church throughout the ages that praying is one of the most important things a Christian can do. I learned that rather slowly in my life. I remember the sharp rebuke I received in 1969. I had gone with a Church History field trip to spend a weekend at a Cistercian monastery at Gethsemane in Kentucky. It was a monastery that had taken a vow of silence and it was glorious. 48 hours of blessed quietness. Each of us was given a small cell about 7 feet long and 5 feet wide. Then several times during each night and day cycle there were calls for prayer and we would gather together with the monks for corporate prayer.
The silence was substantially maintained until Sunday afternoon when we were told that the abbot would be available to field questions. We seminarians were full of questions and challenges. We wanted to know how they could justify living in a world where there were no TV’s, no radios, no newspapers and no communication with the outside world. We asked them how come they were not engaged in evangelism or education or social outreach. The questions poured out of us, each one holding a condemnation of these monks who had escaped from reality. The wise Abbot was not fazed by our questions. And then I learned in part my lesson. He said in substance, “there are millions of you out there doing those works, spending all your time in those activities. But there are very few who have committed their entire lives to prayer. We believe that prayer is vital to the welfare of our world, and the men here have committed themselves to praying. They have not retreated from the world, here they bring the world constantly before God.” And I sensed in those moments that he was right. If prayer is important, it is worthwhile for some people to commit their whole lives to it. I left that monastery feeling much more kindly about the monasteries of our world. And since then I have not been able to get prayer off my mind.
How important is prayer? All who become Christians do so because someone has prayed for them. All persons enter the kingdom of God in the very moments of their own praying. We enter into a community that spends a considerable part of its time in prayer, if that community is authentically Christian. And for the rest of our lives we will find that every millimeter of growth in life is a result of our relationship to God, which is moved along by the dialogue of scripture and prayer. Many of us find ourselves opening every day with prayer and closing every day with prayer. Every time we eat we say a prayer of gratitude. Dozens of times each day we may find ourselves whispering a prayer to the ever present Father. Prayer is a pervasive reality of the new life in Christ.
And yet: It is in the matter of prayer that most of us feel like rank amateurs. Let me tell you my story in brief.
I came to know Christ on October 10th, 1961. 50+ years ago. That was over 18,000 days ago. There has not been one day in all those years that I have not prayed. It would be safe to presume that I have prayed at least 5 times a day for all those years. (Simply because I eat three meals a day over which I return thanks.) That makes over 90,000 prayers that I have prayed, not counting all the other non-scheduled occasions on which I have prayed. Nonetheless, I must confess to you that I feel less expert at prayer than almost anything else I do. I feel like a rank beginner in the school of prayer. If I had practiced piano 90,000 times I would be a world-class concert pianist, but I have no such image of myself in the matter of praying.
The Problem of Prayer
I find, however, that I am not alone. Many Christians in their franker moments will admit that praying is one of the most meaningless things that they do. Gardening, cooking, reading or ditch digging are meaningful. Something useful is accomplished, but prayer is a problem for many of us. It is such a problem that many of us have given up on it altogether or reduced it to a 60 second exercise to get the day launched.
I want to pass over the usual instruction about praying and try to face head-on one of the major problems in our praying that causes prayer to be a 60 second event instead of a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
There are undoubtedly many reasons for the eclipse of prayer, and I cannot deal with all of them, but I do want to respond to one of the reasons prayer has declined in importance in current Christianity. The question comes to the fore over and over again, and is expressed at times in pain and bewilderment, “Why doesn’t God answer most of my prayers?!” The problem of unanswered prayer may be one of the major reasons some of us give up.
There are countless stories out there of prayers that seemed to be unanswered. Quite recently a friend lost his wife, a young mother, who died shortly after the birth of their second child, due to an inoperable cancer, in great pain and confusion in spite of the prayers of thousands.
I know another who lives with chronic illness that undercuts all apparent usefulness and does so in spite of the prayers of the good people. And I can repeat too many stories of children who are severely crippled due to accident, and the prayers of countless people seem to have made no significant difference. The church is full of the stories of prodigal sons and daughters who have not returned to a parent’s home in spite of the fervent prayers of family and friends.
The prayers that I am talking about are not silly prayers that do not deserve answers. Let me tell you of Canadian Pierre Berton’s response to prayer to underline what I mean. He tells us in his book, The Comfortable Pew why he left the church: “My Sunday School teacher … explained that dogs certainly did not go to heaven, because they had no souls. I was quite shaken by this revelation…. I was more shaken by the three discoveries that followed. First I learned that Santa Claus … was nothing more than a figment of a pleasant adult conspiracy. Second, I learned the stork did not bring babies…. The third discovery was even more shattering. For months my Sunday School teachers had been impressing me with the power of prayer. “If you pray hard enough” they had said, “God will answer you.” One night I prayed very hard to God to give me and my sister two small, self-propelled automobiles. It never crossed my mind that when I hurried out of the house early the next morning they would not be there. The discovery shook me. And from this point on, I began to be skeptical of everything that was told me by the adult world in general and by my church in particular.” (p. 16)
We can understand why God would not answer those kinds of prayers. They are silly and superficial. But prayers for the life of a parent, the health of a child, the salvation of a son or daughter, or a job for the unemployed, are not prayers for luxuries, but prayers of extremity, prayers for necessities.
And the facts appears to be, that it is not that God fails to answer an occasional prayer, but that he does not appear to answer most of our prayers. That’s right, MOST of our prayers.
But let me take that assertion back for a moment and clarify what I mean. I share the conviction that God actually answers all prayers. Some are answered “YES”, some are answered “NO” and others are answered “NOT YET”.
For when we pray God does not ignore us. God is not like that at all. God is not ignorant. To be ignored by God would be terrible. Have you ever asked a question of someone only to be ignored? Terrible! That is the most unsatisfying of answers. To be ignored by God is the punishment of hell, not earth. On the day of the final Judgment some may hear those appalling words “depart from me, I never knew you.” and they will in some terrible way be excluded from the presence of the omnipresent God. Hell is to be ignored by Him. But earth is not hell! We are not ignored by him. The hymn writer has said it clearly enough,
He stood at my heart’s door
in sunshine and rain
and patiently waited an answer to gain,
what shame that so long he entreated in vain
when he is so precious to me.
God stands in the life of every human being and calls and knocks, and would never ignore our response to that calling. God is not deaf or absent or pre-occupied. He hears all prayers. Even the most feeble or most brief. O no! God hears and he answers all our prayers. But very often he says “NO”.
And the question then comes flooding back in a similar question, “Why does God say “NO” to most of my prayers?” This is the question that will occupy us for the next few chapters.