Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Does Prayer Work?


This is the first post in a series about how God answers prayer.
Jesus himself instructs us to pray.  Moreover, he promises that, when we gather together as a body, the Father will answer our prayers.  He says: 
If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. (Matthew 18:19)
Jesus tells us that he is the Truth and that we can stake our very life on his promises.  (John 14:6; 5:24-27; 6:40)

Just as Jesus promised, many of us have experienced answered prayers.  
And yet, we have probably all experienced unanswered prayers, too.  And it can make us doubt Jesus’ words about prayer. 
This poses a serious problem.
If we can’t believe him about prayer, then why should we believe him about the forgiveness of our sins or the hope of eternal life? If he could be mistaken or lie about one thing, what he says about other things could be just as unreliable.

An unreliable Savior is no Savior at all.  Skepticism about prayer undermines our ability to trust Jesus Christ.  So having a reasonable account of how God answers our prayers is not a theological sideshow.  It touches the very heart of our faith.
It’s no wonder then that we Christians sometimes rush too hastily to explain what seem to be unanswered prayers.
Here are a couple of common explanations that miss the mark.  You’ve probably heard some variation on these themes:
This first common misconception is this.  God doesn’t answer prayers unless you’re faithful enough.  For example, you have prayed for a loved one’s recovery from an illness to no avail, or your prayers to get a job you desperately needed didn’t even get you an interview.  This perspective leaves only you to blame. 
But Jesus himself said that even faith the size of a mustard seed will do remarkable things.  And let’s face it, you don’t pray at all unless you have at least some grain of faith.
Here’s another unsatisfying explanation for apparently unanswered prayer.  God responds to those prayers.  He just says, “No.”  As we’ll see, this is almost on the mark, but it fails to pass both the letter and the spirit of Jesus’ own teaching.  
Jesus said explicitly that what we ask in agreement with each other will be done by our Father in heaven.
There is no denying that things just don’t turn out the way we expect or even want with some frequency.  However, it’s important for us to see how what seems to be a “No” from God or an unanswered prayer is in fact an undiluted “Yes!”
This first step in adjusting our theological lenses is to clear away some basic misconceptions that distort our understanding of prayer.  That will be the topic of the next post in this series.  As I’ll show, we’re the victims of a case of mistaken identity.  And that identity is our own.
(The image above is Paul Gauguin's Breton Woman in Prayer and can be found at this link.)

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