I truly hope that we get an extensive Q&A section with God one day. Just in case, I've been stockpiling questions that range from the inane (Can You make a bear do a funny dance for us?) to the more serious (Why was there such massive confusion about Your character?). But one of my first questions will be "What's the deal with prayer?"
I have been around the church since I was a fetus and, while I know that prayer is incredibly important, I am absolutely befuddled by it. Does it change God's mind? Is it mainly to get us aligned with God's will? Does God listen to the prayers of the righteous or the sinner or just the individual that is not an absolute jerk? Do we abuse prayer to the point that it diminishes our chances of God hearing us?
And it probably isn't even prayer in general that has me so lost. I completely get praying to thank God and praise God. I understand praying that God would be with us in trying times, because I think the act of praying is a reminder that God is with us. I get praying for God to mold us into the type of people that God wants us to be because, again, the act puts us on that road.
I don't get praying for God to intervene with events: healing sick people, helping people in dire financial situations, pushing field goals wide left, etc. There is scripture to suggest that God will listen and intervene in these situations though it's kind of like the wind in that we have no idea when it's going to happen or where it's coming from (actually meteorologists probably do know those things).
There just seems to be an arbitrariness to it in my mind. Let's say that someone has medical tests coming up and they pray fervently that the results are good. When those results come back they way that they desire, they say, "God is faithful and answered our prayers!" Different person in a similar situation does the exact same thing, but the tests come back with bad news. Is God not faithful to that person? Did God not answer their prayers. Did God give a resounding "NO!"? And what if the second person is a more humble and righteous person than the first?
Does the good happen because God intervened? Does the bad happened because made it so or, at the very least, chose not to act? Is all of this stuff that would have happened regardless but we load it up with enough spiritual language that it produces an explosion of theological conjecture? What about parts of the world where life is just absolute hell but every prayer for safety and health seems to just ricochet off the heavens and crash to the ground? I have no freaking idea.
This is where you will probably say, "Chris, God's ways are higher than our ways. You need to stop asking these questions." And that first part is absolutely true. There is so much about God that I could not even begin to comprehend. God works on a level that is always going to be lightyears beyond me.
But I'm still going to ask questions. I have heard people cite "God answers prayer" as a reason to believe in God. And I understand where people are coming from when they say that, but the way in which we typically talk about prayer requests and God's yes/no/maybe/later/hahahaha answers to those requests? It seems like a crapshoot.
Crapshoot is harsh, but I guess what I am getting at is we need to be very, very careful about how we talk about prayer. It is a spiritual practice and not a proof. It is aligning our heart with God, not another pull on the slot machine in hopes that the cherries will line up. And even as I write about this, I feel bad because a lot of the people that talk so much about God answering prayer are fantastic people. They are people way, way better than me. Because of that, I kind of hope I'm wrong.
Do I believe that God answers prayer? I think so. I believe that God is not some sort of divine watchmaker letting things run and I also would like to believe that we can move God's heart. Yet I am personally (and this is me) uncomfortable with looking at an event and saying, "God totally did this." As a side note: you have probably figured out that I'm not Calvinist in my theology.
So should we stop praying for sick relatives, poor families in our churches, or our national leaders facing complex diplomatic situations with almost no easy answers? By no means! If for nothing else, I believe that saying those prayers attunes our hearts to act towards our relatives, neighbors, and others in the way that God wants us. Yet more than that, Jesus tells us that we are to pray and believe. And I do believe, but I pray God helps me with my unbelief.
Prayer is good. It is valuable. It is something that increases our love for God and neighbor. But is a huge mystery to me. That is something with which I will continue to wrestle and may I continue to do so. Amen.