NOTE: I’ve added an update to this post here. (7/30/2011)
“NOTHING FAILS LIKE PRAYER.”
I read this on the bumper of a truck as I drove through the parking lot at work. (The other sticker read: “Real Men Hate Jesus,” so I think there was a theme.) Years ago, this would have made me unbelievably angry and defensive; this particular day, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. This was an obvious case of someone for whom something had gone horribly wrong in his life, whether to himself or someone he cared deeply about. One does not advertise such feelings merely as a result of a distrust of – and disbelief in – the Christian church. This level of antagonism must be precipitated by a morally or emotionally disastrous event. Whatever it was, this man felt betrayed and lied to. The belief that prayer is not only a myth, but also a maliciously propagated one, is not as uncommon as many might imagine, even if it is not as blatantly proclaimed as in this case.
The fact is that most of these feelings are based on what can be read in Scripture. Here is a sampling of quotes from Jesus about prayer:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be open to you. For everyone who asks, receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.”
– Matthew 7:7-8
“And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”
– Matthew 21:22
“Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.”
– Mark 11:24
“If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.”
– John 14:14
“Until now you have asked nothing in My name, ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”
– John 16:24
It seems pretty clear according to these passages that we need only ask, and we will get our hearts’ desires. It is also clear that something is amiss, because we clearly do not get everything we ask for, even when it is something that is not for us at all and is prayed out of complete selflessness and a Christian regard for our “neighbor.” Knowing this, is it true not only that “nothing fails like prayer,” but also that Jesus deceived us (or at least was misquoted)? Two things help us find the answer to this question: context and our own experience.
As for context, let us look at the verses above within their context (expanded verses in bold):
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be open to you. For everyone who asks, receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him?”
– Matthew 7:7-11
“So Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree [Jesus caused the tree to wither], but also if you say to this mountain, “Be removed and be cast into the sea,” it will be done. And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”
– Matthew 21:21-22
“’For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, “Be removed and be cast into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.’”
– Mark 11:24
“And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.”
– John 14:13-14
“Until now you have asked nothing in My name, ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. These things I have spoken to you in figurative language, but the time is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figurative language, but I will tell you plainly about the Father.”
– John 16:24-25
Although the context of these verses in no way diminishes the power or the promises they contain, they give certain requirements and explanations. Jesus clearly requires that the petitioner believe without doubt, ask in the name of Jesus, and follow His commandments. You cannot simply ask for whatever you want and then immediately receive it. There is also the caveat that someone who lives the life that is required will only pray for that which is good, beneficial and corresponding to His will. Before he was crucified, Jesus prayed the following: “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). His prayer was not unanswered; in fact, He received exactly what He prayed for – the Father’s will be done. Here Jesus gives us an example of effective prayer. And, as C.S. Lewis claimed, “For most of us the prayer in Gethsemane is the only model. Removing mountains can wait.”
“Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers”
– Garth Brooks
As far as our own experience, we must face the reality of the situation. We are not blessed with omniscience, and certainly do not have the foresight to see the possible effects of our deepest desires. We have all prayed for things to happen that, years later, we have realized would not have been the best even for ourselves had the prayer been answered. If two people pray for opposite results, can they both be praying for what is right? It is absurd to assume that it is even possible to grant contrary requests, were we so inclined. In addition, those who claim that prayer fails are viewing it on a temporal – rather than eternal – time scale; when are we to assume that prayers should be answered? If you are praying, then you are admitting a belief in the eternal characteristic of the human soul. There is no reason to expect that your prayers will be answered in your own measure of time when every action has eternal consequences. I have prayed numerous times through every stage of my life for financial security, yet I am aware that if that goal had been realized when I was nineteen years old, I would never have had the opportunity to become the man I am now. Who truly believes that we should get everything we ask for at every moment?
This brings me to the divine wisdom aspect of prayer. In Matthew chapter 6, Jesus introduces the Lord’s Prayer with the following statements: “Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.” God knows what we need before we ask, and yet He asks us to pray. He is omnipotent and can give us anything we want, and yet He holds out. Why? I see the answer everyday with my own child. I am not omniscient, and I am certainly not omnipotent, but I have claimed that I will give my daughter anything she desires (if Granddad doesn’t get it first!). I even know many things that she wants without her expressing even a hint. There are two separate issues here. First, I realize that she doesn’t need everything she wants; in fact, I would be doing a great disservice to her if I gave it all to her. “Spoiled” is never a nice description for a little girl. Second, I have a responsibility to prepare her for the rest of her life. She needs to ask for things, out of obedience to me and because the rest of the world is in no hurry to cater to her every need. As parents – even imperfect and mistake-prone ones – we often know best. We certainly should be given the benefit of the doubt (assuming we have earned it with our daily parenting) in all responses over those who do not know her as intimately or necessarily have her best interests in mind. How much more should the benefit of the doubt be given to God in his answers to prayers. It is important to note that all prayers are answered; some are answered in the affirmative, some in the negative, and some with “Ask again later.”
If I pray that someone I love survives cancer, is that definitively a request for the best possible scenario? Possibly survival would entail more suffering and a more debilitating collapse. The very best thing may be that her suffering ends and she is called Home to be with Jesus, and suffer no more. We will never know (at least on Earth) what may have happened; we only know the results that actually do happen. If I pray that I make it to work on time to avoid being fired, and I’m late – does that mean my prayer was not answered? Maybe I will find a happiness unattainable elsewhere in my new place. The whole idea brings to mind W.W. Jacobs’ horror short story, “The Monkey’s Paw.” In it, the main character is given three wishes by possession of the paw. His wishes are granted, but not in the way he expects. He wants money, so his son is killed at work and he receives a settlement. He is thinking only of what he wants, not what must occur for this to happen. I would love to see world peace, the end of all hunger and suffering, and universal comfort, but in such a world, there is no room for any of us to discover the peace and joy that is present in a relationship with Jesus Christ. I don’t know why things go the way they do, but I have faith that it will be shown to me in the end.
“It is quite useless knocking at the door of heaven for earthly comfort; it’s not the sort of comfort they supply there.”
If I were to revise the original bumper sticker, it would read, “Nothing fails like faithless prayer.” Faithful prayer can certainly be refused, but the faithful seeker will understand and accept the refusal as the greater decision by an infinitely good and wise God. If we misunderstand the nature and purpose of prayer, then we are unlikely to be satisfied with the result. We have to realize the context of the Biblical promises, and understand the application of those promises to reality, rather than dismiss prayer as an archaic and impotent act. I have not only experienced answered prayers at many times during my life, every blog that I write exists solely as the product of the prayer that precedes each entry, prayer that I can produce something that is more than what I am capable of by myself.
 There are many verses throughout the Bible that demonstrate the Christian doctrine on prayer, and 1 John 3:22 and 1 John 5:15 are especially pertinent to this section. Also, the Lord’s Prayer is given by Jesus as the standard for what a prayer should be (Matthew 6:9-13).
 Lewis, C. S., Wayne Martindale, and Jerry Root. The Quotable Lewis. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1990. p. 484.
 This is not to imply that God is simply a cosmic Magic 8-Ball. Rather, as a being that exists outside of time, his patience is by definition endless, and his answers may not come in the time – much less the form – that we may desire.
 This is referenced in James 4:3: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.”
 This is not to suggest that prayer will have no results: God makes it clear that prayers are answered, it is simply understood that requests are granted that are in accord with His will and eternal plans. Along with predestination, this is a deeper subject than I am prepared to tackle today, although I certainly have some thoughts that I would love to share.
 C.S. Lewis, id.
 It is important to note here that I am not claiming that the injustice and suffering in the world is a result of God’s will, much less His judgment. These are the result of the choices that we all make every day, both consciously and unconsciously. They are the result of a fallen race that chose pride and selfishness over obedience and love. The need for prayer, along with all the other Biblical doctrine, is merely part of His redemptive work in this world. His will is that we could live in the Edenic state he created us to be a part of.