Listen: LifeWords Q&A Podcast, Episode 81
Prayer can be a mysterious thing. Sometimes we may feel God’s presence when we pray, other times we don’t. Sometimes we may see amazing answers to prayer, other times we may feel like he’s not listening. You may at times ask, “If my prayer isn’t answered, why should I even bother?” David Reay shares his ideas in this episode of the LifeWords Q&A Podcast.
Welcome to the LifeWords Q & A podcast, where we love to tackle the hard-to-answer questions about the Christian faith; the ones that may leave you a little bit stumped sometimes. I am your host, Clare Bruce, journalist from Hope 103.2 radio station in Sydney. And with me is our ‘wise counsel’ David Ray. G’day David.
Good to be here again.
Yeah, good to have you along. David is a pastor, for those of you who have not come across his work before, he’s also a writer and a broadcaster. And after many years of thinking and talking about faith, there’s really not a question that he won’t try his best to answer.
Now, as we record this, we’re right in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic, of course, which means for you, David that you’re pastoring a church largely over the internet. What has that been like?
Through phone, through internet we are keeping in touch with people. It is difficult because some people are handling it a bit better than others. We hope it’s only temporary. We’re making the most of the situation and finding the wonders, the great advantages, of some technology – but at the same time thinking, “Hey, this is – it’s not quite ideal”.
Yeah. Well, let’s get stuck into our question of the week this week, and it is a timely one. It’s about prayer. And specifically, those prayers that don’t get answered, or seem like they don’t get answered. Why don’t we always get what we asked for when we pray? Where do you start, David?
Well, one obvious answer is we sometimes don’t get what we asked for, because we’re asking for the wrong things. Even the Bible says that – you don’t get what you’ve asked for, because you’re asking for selfish things. So if you’re asking for the wrong things, God’s not going to give us the wrong things. He’s going to give us good things to those who ask him. And some of the things we ask for are not good. But in many cases, Clare, it’s a little bit more complicated, because so many people ask for a good thing: that my child gets better; that my best friend gets to know Jesus. And so, there’s all sorts of good things, seemingly good things, we ask for – but we don’t get an answer for now.
“Sometimes he says, “No”, because you haven’t asked for a good thing. Sometimes his definition of good differs from ours. And sometimes His timing is rather different to ours.”
There’s no easy answer to that issue, except to say that first of all, sometimes we did get an answer, but not quite the answer we thought. We’ve asked for what we thought was good thing, but God’s given us another thing that might not at first seem good, but in fact turns out to be good. And at other times, we ask God for a thing, which again, we assume is good, but God says “Yes, but not quite yet”.
So sometimes he says, “No”, because you haven’t asked for a good thing. Sometimes his definition of good differs from ours. And sometimes His timing is rather different to ours. So there’s all sorts of reasons that we may not see the answer to a prayer. But technically speaking, there’s no such thing as an unanswered prayer. I mean, God is always listening and hearing to our prayers.
Something that I think some people ask – particularly people who, maybe they’re curious about faith, but aren’t quite convinced, or perhaps people who are feeling a bit stale in their faith – they might feel the question arising, “What is the point of praying at all, if all of these things that I’m asking God for aren’t coming to pass?” Especially, I guess, in a crisis like this pandemic we’re in, where some families are facing one lot of bad news after another.
I think there we have to address a deeper issue, which is how we understand prayer. It might seem a shock to people to hear what I’m going to say, but, when I pray, I’m not really, nowadays, asking God for things. I’m, rather, expressing my heartfelt desires, I’m expressing my wishes and my hopes, I’m expressing my confusion and my doubt. But my prayers, and our prayers, must never degenerate into just sort of a shopping list. “This is what I want today, this is what I want, this is what I want,” and they all may be legitimate things, but as soon as we make prayer functional like that, we run into a problem. Because if I see prayer primarily as a way of getting something I want from God, when God doesn’t give it to me, I’ll give up on prayer – and what’s more, I’ll probably give up on God.
So it’s a very dangerous sort of philosophy of prayer to have, which is basically confining prayer to petition.
How I see prayer very much apart from praise and thanksgiving and confession, which we all must do, I see prayer is really sharing my heart with God and thus keeping connected to him. So in other words, I might say, “God, I would love this to happen”, “Oh dear me, I wish this would happen”, or “This is on my heart, Lord” – and leave it with him. Rather than saying, “Now listen here God, I want this, this, this, this, this, and I insist that you give it to me”. That takes a lot of the pressure and the burden off prayer, because I’m no longer seeing prayer as “Okay, I’m going to ask God specifically for things and assume I’m going to get them”.
Now that doesn’t mean to say I don’t ask God for things, but I asked for them in a certain way. But I then have to leave it up to God, rather than stamping my foot like a spoilt child and saying “Listen here God, I told you twice, I told you three times and still haven’t answered me”.
To me, that’s liberated my prayer life – I just say, “Lord, this is on my heart”. Will you grant it? I don’t know. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t.
I love that. I actually brought along with me a quote, which reflects exactly what you’re saying there, from an article on Ravi Zacharias. And he had a fantastic statement about prayer. He said, “it’s not a slot machine for getting what we want. It’s about communion with God. Prayer is not so much bringing God to our beck and call, it is the process with which our hearts get conditioned to receive His will. Prayer is not really a control of God as much as it is a surrender to the will of God and the peace that comes in the process.”
I loved that.
And I couldn’t agree more with that. I think that’s absolutely right. Clare, what am often cast back to is the Gethsemane model of prayer that Jesus prayed in Gethsemane. He says, “Father, I want this cup to part from me”. In other words, he shared a desire, he shared what was on his heart. This is what he wanted. He didn’t want to be crucified! Of course not, no one would. But then at the end, he said, “But your will, not mine, be done”.
“Ultimately, my definition of prayer is very much an expression of our helpless dependence on God.”
So we balance those two things. Sure, we express our desires to God, absolutely. He knows what they are anyway. So let’s get them off our chest. But at the same time, as your quote says, it’s not really us sort of saying, “Now listen here God, you’ve got to do what I’ve asked you to do,” but rather, “May you start to align my heart with your heart, that my desires increasingly become your desires”.
Ultimately, Clare, my definition of prayer is very much an expression of our helpless dependence on God.
Can you leave us with a tip David for how to pray, then, when we have a lot of things that are really weighing heavily on us. People with serious illness, people who have lost jobs, people with wayward children – those are things that don’t go away quickly.
No, they don’t.
So how would you recommend that we pray when sometimes it feels like all we have is a shopping list of worries?
Yeah. I think God understands that. Very much so. But it’s important not to – this is going to sound really weird, but not to pray too much about the things that are on our minds. Commit them to the Lord. And by all means, from time to time, get them off your chest. But I would say, day by day, you just simply mention that in one sentence to God. A person that you’re praying for? Mention that person’s name, and you don’t have to go over all the details. God knows what’s on your heart. God knows your pain and your hardship. So my tip would be, don’t feel as though you’ve got to go over and over and over it – because what happens, your prayers become worry speech. You’re not really committing it to the Lord, you’re just simply worrying out aloud, with an Amen on the end of it. That puts the focus on the burden.
Rather, intersperse your prayers with praise and thanksgiving as well as your petition. And that starts, then, to put the focus on God, not the problem. Prayer must always be focusing on God.
Awesome. Thank you David. If you have enjoyed this episode of LifeWords Q&A, recommend it to your friends. And we’ll catch you next week.