Friday, February 22, 2008

Whatever You Ask

I never had the view of prayer that some children have, where you ask for ponies at bedtime and expect to see them out on the lawn the next day. Instead, I had an educated and informed view of prayer, in which we ask for things that we believe are within God's will, having faith that he will answer. If we get what we ask for, then it was God's will. And if we don't, well, then I guess it wasn't God's will after all.

It makes sense if you don't think about it very hard. But as an adult, it occurred to me that there was no way at all of proving that this was an accurate approach. Whatever happened would happen, and it was only after the fact that we would find out if it was "in God's will." Christians jump excitedly on the research studies that claim to prove that prayer makes a statistical difference in people's healing, even those who don't know they're being prayed for. But if it was so wondrously effective, why would people even need to do the studies? Wouldn't it be common knowledge, even to the unbeliever?

You'd think so. But it isn't, and I can no longer engage in the mental discipline required to make every event in life, great and small, be an answer to prayer.

I overheard a conversation recently between two men who were planning a very tightly scheduled, complicated 10-day tour for a college band and choir. A day's worth of their schedule had apparently fallen through, and they were weighing the options for the affected events. This was an unwelcome and frustrating last-minute hitch, and they were both trying to maintain their composure. The student said, "Well, if it doesn't work out, at least we know it was all part of God's plan." The professor nodded sagely and agreed. And I thought, "Huh?"

Did it never occur to either of them that maybe it was just a screwed-up coincidence that they were going to have to plan around, and that one day of the spring break musical tour of a small Christian college might not be part of a grand cosmic plan? I doubt that the possibility ever crossed their minds. To think of it in those terms would be to consider that very little, or perhaps none at all, of their so-important plans were part of anything grander than the perfectly respectable goal of making good music for people who would enjoy hearing it, and seeing some beautiful parts of the Pacific Northwest along the way.

I understand their desire to believe that every aspect of their travel schedule was overseen and directed by God, because I grew up with that same perspective. It infuses your plans with confidence and a sense of holiness, because after all, you asked God first! But then what? What happens when the plans fall through? What happens when the hosts cancel and part of your tour collapses, when the money pledged to the building project doesn't materialize, when you choose your education, your relationships, your career, all in good faith, and it turns out you chose wrong? The standard answer is straightforward -- it wasn't God's will. But I am coming to believe that it's a bad answer, because the whole premise is wrong from the beginning.

On the subject of prayer, we have the following useful comments from Scripture:

"This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him." (1 John 5:15)

"Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. " (1 John 3:22)

"Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, ... you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done." (Matthew 21:21)

And the most blatant of the bunch, "And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it." (John 14:13)

Even a moment's thought reveals these promises to be patently untrue in any practical sense, so we immediately set to work to make them be true, because they're the Bible, they must be true. Some have caveats built in -- we must ask according to his will, we must have faith and not doubt, our hearts must not condemn us. But some don't. Some passages just say, "Ask, and I'll do it." Which is simply, unavoidably false. And so the logic gets more convoluted, the semantics more complicated, and the point more lost, all in an effort to explain away a principle which then turns out to be a foundational part of our faith.

Against all reason and proof, we continue to believe that God will hear and answer everything we pray about. The result, all too often, is that we spend time praying that perhaps we should have spent researching, planning, investing, doing. We don't make backup plans because God is our backup plan. But what if he doesn't come through? What then? What if he said he would do whatever we asked, but he doesn't?

Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it.

Whatever you ask, I will do it.

Whatever you ask.


1 comment:

Aaron K said...

People keep praying in the face of its ineffectual nature for many reasons. You have touched on a few. A full list can be found here:

We humans are apparently wired up that way. That we have evolved intellectually to finally be able to see these biases and react to them is a miracle in its own right. Too bad more of us don't see it.