An atheist who goes by the nom de blog “ylooshi” raised this question about my pre-Christmas post on Wishing and Celebrating:
Then it occurred to be, even before I left the paragraph above, that if you replace “wish” for “prayer,” you really haven’t changed the criticism….
The author both criticizes ineffectual wishing the world was different and then appeals to an ineffectual superstition to make the world different. The kettle has thus referred to the pot as blacker than he. Perhaps “Christian” in the blog title was an adjective and not a noun after all.
My “wish” for the holidays: that more people begin to think and rise above superstition. But we cannot just wish for this sort of thing. We must make efforts to spread inquiry and rational thought; reach out to those around us -inspire them to think and engage them in discussion and debate, and, where appropriate, push them into both.
His posted was titled “Coffee pots, kettles, and several shades of black.” There’s a neat play on words there (the whole thing started with something I had found written on a Starbucks coffee cup). I wish I could write headlines that well. I posted a comment in response, or tried to, but today I see it never showed up there. That happens sometimes.
So is there a real difference between Christian prayer and ineffectual wishing? I think every Christian wonders about that sometimes—even Christians who blog about reasons to believe. Even Christian leaders.
A while ago I was having lunch with a small group of Christian leaders at a conference. One of them was an author and speaker with a worldwide reputation; he is a leader in his field of study. Many of you who read this have read his books or heard him speak. Another was a somewhat recent convert from another religion. This second person was telling us the story of how he decided to follow Jesus Christ. He was (as he told us) being led toward belief through the lifestyle and the persuasive arguments of a close friend, but the distance from his former religion to Christianity was great. He asked the Lord for a vision to confirm the reality of Christ, and he was granted one. In spite of that he wasn’t ready yet, so he asked for a dream as additional confirmation. Very soon he experienced a dream that other members of his religion (quite unintentionally, on their part) interpreted in a way that clearly pointed toward Christianity.
That still wasn’t sufficient for him, though, so he asked for another dream, and the same happened: he had a dream that he shared with other members of his religion, and again they (not he) gave an interpretation that was clearly Christian. And even that wasn’t enough for him. He asked God for one more.
At this point in his story the other listener in the group, the world-renowned author and speaker, slapped his knee and laughed, and said, “I can’t even get a prayer answered, and there you go asking for a fourth sign from God!”
The fourth sign did come, and that convert from another religion has become a very bold witness for Christ. But it was striking to hear a prominent Christian leader say, “I can’t even get a prayer answered.” No, that was not an absolute statement; he was joking with us when he said it. Still I think every Christian has sometimes wondered whether his or her prayers were anything more than wishes. The Psalmists asked repeatedly, “How long, O Lord?” Unanswered prayers are no deep dark secret in Christianity: even the Bible’s authors asked hard questions about prayer. They show up all over the Bible’s main prayer book, the Psalms.
Several months ago I began keeping a prayer journal on my computer. Some of my prayers are what I call “ongoing,” which would include things like health, family members’ spiritual and character development, and other important yet non-specific matters of that sort. They are the sort of prayers for which quick and distinct answers are not expected. Some, on the other hand, are quite specific requests. Many of them have by now come to a conclusion such that I can tell how the prayer came out. I’ve recorded a total of 89 with a “yes” answer, and 13 that didn’t turn out the way I had prayed they would. I certainly would not say that “I can’t even get a prayer answered.” I’m sure the other leader I mentioned above wouldn’t say that either, if he were speaking in a more serious context.
And yet I keep waiting for God to answer other prayers: prayers for specific financial needs, prayers for a magazine to accept an article I’ve submitted, prayers for people to follow Jesus Christ, and much more. Every new prayer is a new test, in a way: Will God really act? Or are these prayers anything more than pious wishing?
That all depends on one question: Is there a God who answers prayer? (I also wrote something to that effect last time.) If not, then ylooshi is right: prayer really is just rationalized wishing. If there is a prayer-answering God, though, then at least some God-directed desires are considerably more than wishes. There could still be misdirected, false prayers based on pure selfishness or misapprehensions of God’s will, but there can also be real prayers that really get answered by the real God.
The Psalmists believed the prayer-answering God really existed. Still they asked “How long, O Lord?” I ask the same question about my unanswered prayers, and yet I remain convinced that God is and that he answers prayer in his time and according to his good wisdom.
The Psalms were not written as apologetical treatises, and (in case it has escaped notice) neither is this blog post. (This might be confusing for readers who are accustomed to me writing on reasons for belief.) This post is less about “why believe;” and more about “what it’s like to believe.” Could I mount a reasoned defense for God’s existence in spite of unanswered prayer? I think so. My apologies must go, however, to those who would like me to do that, so that they could argue against it. I have decided not to do that in this post. Apologetics is not my only purpose as a blogger and a Christian. Sometimes I fear that by focusing on it so much here, I’m falsely communicating that it’s all there is to belief or to a relationship with God.
This is what it’s like to believe: it means to be confident of much and yet to remain unsure of much. It is to know that God is real and that living in relationship with him through Jesus Christ is the greatest thing in the world. Yet it is also to wonder, frequently, what God’s purposes are. It is to be sure that prayer prayed according to the will of God will be answered, and yet to spend much time puzzling over his will for specific matters. It is to be constantly aware that God is in control, which means that I’m not, and neither are my prayers.
One thing is certain: the Christian faith is a lot more sound and secure with some prayers going unanswered. Apart from putting us as usurpers in the place of God in the world, and besides the obvious absurdities (no sports team would ever lose a game), getting every answer we want would also undermine God’s relational purposes for us. If all we had to do was toss a thought skyward and get what we wanted, why then, that’s all we would do. Instead, however, we find we must persevere in prayer. Many speak of “wrestling with God,” or “agonizing in prayer:” struggling through questions and enigmas, searching out God’s guidance over long periods, pursuing difficult answers in the midst of much mystery. “Answers” to hard, earnest prayer like this, in whatever form they come, are often incidental to its main effect in us: deeper intimacy with God and knowledge of him.
And this is the final answer to ylooshi’s question. Is praying any different than wishing? Yes, real prayer is very different; for the one who really prays in Christ knows that it’s not just about getting what we want. It’s about growing up in the deep knowledge and infinite love of God. You can’t just wish for that.