Asking the right questions about prayer
Marion and I are part of a small group that has been doing a study of the latest book by Philip Yancey. It’s a look at the activity of prayer, and asks the question “Does prayer make any difference?” I’ve been finding this study both rewarding and frustrating. Rewarding because at times Yancey raises some very pertinent and challenging points. Frustrating because I often find that he is asking the wrong question about prayer.
To adapt an old analogy by Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse, asking whether prayer “works” is like asking whether withdrawing funds from a bank “works”. It works if the funds are drawn on an account to which you have legitimate access and a big enough line of credit to handle your request! Cynics would argue that it also works if you successfully practice identity theft – but that’s where the analogy breaks down, because God is smart enough not to get fooled by identity theft in prayer. With God, you can’t draw on someone else’s account – unless, of course, the account you are drawing on belongs to Jesus. If you have surrendered your life to Jesus, then his account becomes your account – and his account has an unlimited line of credit!
So if Yancey is asking the wrong question – although admittedly a very common one – what would be the right question? I’d like to suggest that a better question is not “does prayer work” but “how does it work”. I won’t try to give a complete answer to that question here, but I’d like to suggest that a large part of our problem with prayer is a problem of perspective. To be fair, Yancey does address this point in his book, quite helpfully at times, but I still come away feeling that his personal struggles with prayer have injected a heavy dose of skepticism, so that we end up with a very mixed picture.
Yancey suggests that even Jesus had the experience of unanswered prayer. I beg to differ. Jesus did pray some prayers that have not yet received their answer in full, but His relationship with the Father was so intimate that He was able to say I know that you always hear me. That doesn’t sound like unanswered prayer to me. Jesus understood the Father’s heart and only did what He saw the Father doing. Even in his most agonizing prayer, when struggling with His upcoming sacrifice, He ended up in a place of surrender and trust. Not only that, He made it abundantly clear to His disciples that the reason for His struggle was so that they would be able to come to the Father with complete confidence and know that their prayers were always heard.
So although I, too, struggle with prayer at times, I am fully convinced that the problem is on my end, not on God’s. If we prayed with more of Jesus’ perspective we would find prayer far more consistently satisfying and fruitful. I know this to be true both from Scripture and from experience – my own experience, and that of countless others who have learned to base their prayer life on Jesus’ relationship with the Father.
So what do I mean by praying with Jesus’ perspective ? Here are some keys.
- Jesus was completely confident in His Father’s goodness and assumed that His Father’s will is always good
- Jesus prayed with confident access to the Father. The one exception was his cry from the cross – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? – but the whole point of his undergoing that experience of rejection by God was so that we wouldn’t have to
- Jesus understood spiritual warfare and knew that there is no neutral ground
- Jesus consistently listened to the Father’s voice and rejected the Enemy’s enticements – which of course is only possible if you are intimate enough with God and His word to know the difference.
- Jesus understood that the prayers which consistently get answered are prayers that are aligned with God’s purpose which is to overthrow the Kingdom of Darkness and establish the Father’s Kingdom
- Jesus’ own will was completely aligned with His Father’s will
- Jesus understood perseverance and knew that victory comes to those who don’t quit
- Jesus taught and modelled the unity of believers and the prayer of agreement
You may say “yes, but that was Jesus – surely we can’t be expected to pray like He did?” Well – that’s not what Jesus said! He fully expected that we would be able to do His works. I’ve seen glimpses of this at times – not the full picture, but enough to convince me that His promise is real. I believe with all my heart that before Jesus returns, there will be a church that prays with all the authority and faith of Jesus and the apostles – and with similar effects. I want to be a part of that end-time prayer movement that shakes kingdoms and sees the Father’s will established on earth! How about you?