paul nicholson

The power of futile prayer

In Me on November 11, 2013 at 4:10 pm

The Village ChapelI’ll be honest: for a long while now, prayer has been something of a challenge for me. I have downright dreaded it. Somewhat individually, but especially in groups. I think I’ve just been around too many churches in the past where prayer was mostly passive-aggressive giving of unsolicited advance (and in some cases, passive aggressive request making) between members of the group who are “praying for one another” and “sharing prayer requests”. It would often go something like this…

Fred: “I’m struggling with my finances. Please pray that God would help me […and that one of you will drop me one of those awesome anonymous checks I often hear about]”

Leader: “Sure thing! Let’s Pray – ‘God, please help Fred pay off his credit cards first and help them know how to live within his means.'”

I just got tired of it, and took to Jesus’ instructions on how to pray very literally. Normally this is a fine thing to do, after all.

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. – Matthew 6 1-14 (also in Luke 11:1-13)

I sincerely tried to research what Jesus and in general all New Testament scripture said on the topic of prayer. Most of it, logically, seemed to backup my conclusion of taking Jesus’ command to pray only where God can hear you. Basically: Don’t pray out loud.

So I started passing on every invitation to pray in a group setting. I would only pray silently to myself. I even introduced the concept to my son older Ian (who I already could tell was giving me his wishlist during his nighttime prayers) and I would even find myself doing it by ending my prayers with “and God, please help us to get lots of good sleep tonight so we can have energy for a fun day tomorrow”. So Ian and I started praying quietly in our heads. Sometimes I would ask him if there was anything he wanted me to pray for him or if he would like to tell me what he prayed about. Sometimes he would, sometimes he wouldn’t. And that was great with me. I felt like he was still taking it very seriously and very much still praying. (I still pray aloud with my youngest as he wouldn’t get the ‘in your head’ concept).

Of course this also gave me great ammunition to look smugly on all other church-goers who participated in praying aloud (read: most of them). Another one of my great faults is enjoying (though not consciously) sitting quietly knowing that I am know something ‘better’ than others around me. You’re reading the blog of the person who still owns the domain after all (though I’ve never used it – any one have an idea for a good wiki they want to start?).

The other element of my prayers – the actual content – was something I found sometimes difficult to. I had fallen into a pattern of basically only repeating the first part of The Lord’s Prayer, that is “Thank you God for being a loving God. Your will be done”… and that was often it. It was my overreaction to both the ‘name it and claim it’ crowd and those who would prescribe their preferred solution to a situation in prayer. I knew the Bible told me to take my concerns to him – the core topics at least – and to pray for my daily bread, but it somehow felt weird asking God to specifically address a situation in a way that I specifically wanted him to. I knew perfectly well that I don’t have the perspective that God does. I trusted that God loves me and will provide for me what I need. So why would I offer a specific solution to a situation that I know God already has a solution in mind for. This train of thought went so far as to practically eliminate the need for more than the most truncated prayers of thanks which, quite honestly, were further watered down by my barely subconscious egotistical pride and confidence that I was a self-made man.

Then this past week we were studying Mark 14 at church. While our pastor concentrated most of his sermon on other portions of the passage, I was drawn to vs. 32-42 and in particular:

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” – Matthew 14:35-36

Two pretty major things jumped out to me.

  1. I think it’s fair to assume from this passage that Jesus prayed aloud and He was ok with others hearing Him. While we don’t know His exact reasons (companionship? security?), Jesus went out of his way to invite His closest friends, Peter, James, and John, to come with Him and asked the rest to stay. It is fairly safe to assume that the only way we know what Jesus was praying is because he prayed it out loud and one or all of those three heard Him (before dozing off). This is a bit of an assumption from the facts presented, but I feel like it’s a safe one. The only other explanation is that Jesus told someone what he was praying sometime later. While possible, that seems highly unlikely (“Hey, Jesus, welcome back from 3 days in Hell. It’s amazing you’re here and I’m in the presence of a risen Savior and all, but I’ve really been wondering for the past few days, what did you pray about right before you were betrayed?”)
  2. Jesus not only specifically asked for something He really wanted in the situation (“take this cup from me”), but it was something he knew He couldn’t have. If the thing he was asking for had been granted to him, His whole reason for coming to Earth would have been for naught. But He asked for it anyway. Think about that. On the brink of it all, Jesus asked for God to reconsider His plan for the Universe. And because I believe Jesus never sinned, that means this wasn’t a sin. It is ok to go to God with a request we know is probably not going to be granted. More so it is certainly ok to go to God with a request of something we would like to see happen. Of course what Jesus ended his prayer with must be ours, “Your will be done.”, but there’s nothing wrong in the asking. I’m reminded of a recent discussion I had with some friends at church over C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. I made the comparison of my two young boys: I have no problem with them asking me for candy or for a toy at the store, as long as they ask me, then leave the request and are ok with my decision (and yes, this actually does sometimes happen). If they incessantly whine and throw a tantrum if I say “no”, then that’s not ok. Rebellion = bad. Sharing your desires with a heavenly Father that loves me = good.

I’m still not sure if I’ll be volunteering to pray at church anytime soon. And when I asked, my son said he still prefers just to pray quietly in our heads together, but at least for now I know that there’s not a thing wrong with praying aloud. And that there’s nothing wrong with not only bringing my needs to God, but sharing with Him how you wish things could be. As long as I stay in a mindset that He’s the ruler of all space-time and has a much better idea of how things should and will turn out than I do.

  • Amy Jones

    I just read one of Lewis’s essays on prayer to refresh myself on what prayer really is. I’m seeking direction and have my preferences, but I’m really relieved that God knows best and has a plan that I fit into. And I can be who I am in the process (verbal processor, talker). Thank you for this.

  • Jamie Tyson

    I recall being at your place and praying before a meal and noticing a certain apprehension…but I definitely feel where your’e coming from. My church just bought a new building and there have been lots of extra “prayer meetings.” I don’t usually attend those but I was asked to help lead worship before one the other week. It was torture. I came home and said to Hannah “I think I’m a crappy Christian.” She agreed that it’s very difficult to be a part of a prayer meeting at our church and she gets very frustrated.

    The funny thing is that I left the prayer meeting and went on my own to the new sanctuary (which is far from ready to host a church- it has gaping holes in the floor and rubble strewn about) and prayed a little and it felt like a weight was lifted; like I really could talk to God on my own.

    I guess I’m saying there is a place for public prayer and a place for private prayer. I think praying aloud with my son helps him to realize I have a relationship with God. That’s pretty much limited to short prayers before meals and a little “thank you for taking care of us” before bed. I hope that in time he’ll ask and I’ll be able to explain that my time with God is mostly silent, and frankly, at its best when I write my prayers because my brain wanders too much to have a silent conversation with God.

    The other thing…the number of times Christians say “just” during a prayer baffles me.

  • I agree with Jamie that there is a place for public prayer and private prayer. I think the second thing that jumped out to you is huge in the context of this conversation. Jesus prayed the cup be taken from him. This is a direct reflection that he was fully human and fully divine, as his humanity took over in that moment. I think that illustrates if Christ himself can ask for a revision to history, then it’s definitely accepted and expected for us to be able to pray with the full understanding that our request may not be in our best interest or his divine will, so we may not get it. Much like my daughter will ask for something and if it’s not in her best interest, she’s not getting it, but I don’t want her to stop asking for things in the future. Great post, sir!

  • that’s awesome, Jamie. Thanks for sharing that.

    And, yeah, saying “just” is a funny qualifier often added to prayers. I think it’s just awkward for people and it’s an unnecessary modifier to their prayers to take the edge off a little.

  • Exactly. It’s amazing how much my having children has modified how I see the world, but especially my relationship with my Heavenly Father. Obviously very different and I can’t project myself and my situation on him all the time, but it definitely helps me see some things differently.