I know I’m not alone in my heartache at not being able to visit my aging friends in care homes on both sides of the Pond, all now on pandemic lockdown. In England, I had been making regular visits to my dear friend, Glenda, whose body has been ravaged by Parkinson’s, often throwing her into despair. On one of my last visits, Glenda could barely speak, but struggled to plead, “I want to die. Help me to die.” What a gut punch! How does one respond? Collecting my thoughts, I suggested we pray that God take her swiftly if it was his will. And so we prayed, fervently and sincerely. A few quiet minutes had passed following the prayer when Glenda suddenly whispered, “It’s not working!” Bless her, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry! The fact that only days later Glenda was as sharp and bright as I’d seen her in two years could generate an important discussion about the perils of euthanasia. But it is prayer I want us to think about for the moment—this global moment when so many prayers are being lifted up for loved ones far and near, and for a fearful world desperate for healing and economic security.
Almost everyone prays sometime or another, if only in a crisis. Even those who normally wouldn’t be caught dead talking to God start talking to God if they’re about to be caught dead! The hard question is whether we believe God answers our prayers. If we thought he didn’t, why keep praying? Yet if we truly think he does, why don’t we pray more ardently? The problem is that too often it seems God doesn’t answer. Think about all the times you’ve prayed for a healing that never happened, or for something you desired that never came to pass. Must we simply rationalize that God hears us, but, for his own higher reasons, doesn’t always bestow our requests? Yet, what about the promise that whatever we ask in confident faith will be ours (Mk. 11:24)? Was Jesus truly serious in his parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8), suggesting that “pestering prayers” can actually move God to act? Did James (in 5:13-18) really mean that the prayers of the righteous work powerfully? (What does that say about Glenda and me!)
Sometimes we pray with such little expectancy that we’d be amazed if our prayers were dramatically answered. Consider the time when Peter’s fellow believers gathered to pray that he be released from prison (Acts 12:1-17), then reacted with shock and disbelief when suddenly he showed up at the front door! Not many mountains fear being moved by such feeble faith! Of course, Jesus conditioned his own agonizing prayer in Gethsemane (Lk. 22:42) with “Thy will be done,” reminding us that prayer is always a matter of divine discretion. Yet, that singular unanswered prayer (Lord, thank you!) stands as the only prayer of Jesus never granted. Not so with us. Despite our fervent, faith-filled petitions to God, thousands will die in this horrific pandemic. And even if there seems to be a “miraculous recovery,” how can we know with any assurance that our prayers made a difference? Might it possibly have happened without divine intervention? While thanking God is never inappropriate, cause and effect remains murky.
Perhaps the purpose of prayer is not primarily asking and receiving, but shaping us in holiness. To pray for healing is to acknowledge God’s power. To pray that God’s will be done is to be humbled in heart. To pray for daily bread is to be increasingly dependent on God. To pray that our sins be forgiven is to recognize our brokenness. If ever we’re tempted not to believe in prayer, could it be we’ve misunderstood the more important object of the exercise?
“Merciful Father, deliver us from this present evil…and mold us more perfectly in your image.”