Is prayer a slot machine? If not, why do we seldom get what we expect or want from it?

Why can’t I find a job? Where is my future spouse and why haven’t I met him/her yet? Why is _____ not healed yet? What must I do with my life? Why did you let ______ die? If you’re real, God, why haven’t you proved it to me? The list of questions is long.

Yet people still pray.

What is it that drives us to our knees in reverence of someone (or something) greater? This prostrated attitude seems to be a natural impulse of humanity, since the thousands of years of human history is one grand tapestry of seeking the Divine. We just can’t shake our concept of God.

There must be something to this prayer thing–something real and potent; it can’t be just a soothing technique.

In Luke 11, a disciple sees Jesus praying and inquires how he himself should pray. Jesus responds with what we know today as “the Lord’s Prayer.” But what is interesting to me, though, is the parable that follows in verses 5-13. A man has a guest in his home and is running low on provisions, so he goes to his friend in the middle of the night and asks for some food. The friend doesn’t want to get up and help because that would require waking the entire household (it’s a one room house). But since the man is bold enough to come in the middle of the night, the friend obliges his request (the language could also suggest that the friend obliges the request out of fear of being dishonorable if he were to deny the man in need).

The point of the parable is that we must trust God to answer our prayers, no matter the circumstances (see Jam. 1:5-6). Jesus is saying we must not be ashamed to ask God for what we desire (Luke 11:9-10) because he wants to come through for us like a father does for his child (11:11-13), giving us exactly what we need.

The reality is, though, that we are often like toddlers, assuming we know what the answer to our prayers should be. We demand so much from God, and, fortunately for us, he is too loving and omniscient to grant us our every prayer. This is what happened in Bruce Almighty when Jim Carrey’s character got the chance to be God for a time. He received “prayer e-mails” from the entire world, and to make it easier on himself he answered “yes” to them all. What followed was a catastrophic mess.

Perhaps most perplexing are those times when we’re like infants, not knowing what we need or how to ask for it (see Rom. 8:26); we just know we need something, and so we abandon propriety and spill out our soul in a jumbled heap before God.

Indeed, life hands us lemons and we don’t always want to make lemonade. The world continually gives us reasons to be restless, and the prayer of a restless soul tends to be messy and distasteful. Yet despite these restless lemons, Jesus puts us at ease by giving us to be bold. We are allowed to get it out, lay it out and hash it out as if our prayers were sessions of group therapy with the Holy Trinity. God doesn’t care what we say or how we say it as long as we say it to him with the boldness of a trustful child. To deny this is to put God in a two-dimensional box.

God yearns for us to understand how much we need him, and bold prayer is the clearest evidence of a needful soul. Prayers acknowledge our dependence on God, and he uses them to refine our trust in him–the type of trust that’s satisfied with letting him be the Author of the Story we all find ourselves in. When we trust God’s penmanship, we have peace in knowing that he’ll give us what we need, when we need it. This truth ought to put all worry aside (Matt. 6:33).

Trusting God ushers in opportunities where we get pulled into what he’s up to–into experiencing a life of real love for one another. Prayers then become more about engaging with his Story than they are about making our individual roles easier or understandable.

So no matter what answers we may want or expect from prayer, the only Answer that matters is found in the One to whom we pray–the One who crafted our bodies and souls–and that’s worth more than whatever it is we’re praying for. Only with this in mind will we feel free to lay it all out before God with the boldness of a child and have the readiness to embrace whatever follows.

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Sources:

Liefeld, Walter L. “Luke.” In Matthew, Mark, Luke The Expositor’s Bible CommentaryVol. 8, 795-1059. Grand Rapids, MI: The Zondervan Corporation, 1984.

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