Some years ago, a friend’s child got sick. Then she got sicker. …
The child recovered, but she had not survived the experience unscathed. Neither, of course, had her parents.
During that difficult time, a group of friends were discussing prayer. “I keep praying for her,” said one. “I pray while I’m doing the washing up, while I’m walking the dog, when I wake up in the night. But I am no longer sure what it is that I am doing. I don’t see that it makes much of a difference. I don’t know, any more, why I am praying.”
Jesus said, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
Some petitions are easy to dispose of. It would seem disrespectful, even blasphemous, to ask in Jesus’ name for a financial windfall, or the success of a sport’s team; we don’t really hold Jesus to his guarantee when we know that we’re misusing it, abusing his generosity, mocking the gifts of God. And there are some logical problems, too. If I win the lottery, what happens to the prayers of all the others who are asking in Jesus’ name for their own payout? If my team wins, what happened to the prayers of the other side? For God, all things are possible, but God has kindly created a world in which some sort of order prevails, so that we are not driven mad by its unpredictability and caprice. My God, if everyone who prayed for a prime parking space in Christmas shopping season at the mall got one, what would that do to the landscape?
Those are the easy ones. But what about the bigger picture, such as need for wisdom in government, compassion in the courts, intelligence in scientific research, humility in our dealings one with another, peace between people and their nations? We ask for such things, we are mandated to ask them in our Prayers of the People, but sometimes we wonder if we are seeing any results.
There’s a comic strip that was going around Facebook a year or so ago, which I saw again recently, in which someone is afraid to ask God why there is still poverty and war and suffering in the world. Why is he afraid to ask? wonders his friend. “I’m afraid God will ask me the same question,” says the reluctant prayer.
Harry Emerson Fosdick suggests that sometimes, we “attempt to achieve by supplication what can be achieved only by thinking,” thinking things through; working things out, ways in which, says Fosdick, just as much as in prayer, we make ourselves partners with God in the world. Jesus taught his disciples to pray for their daily bread – and he fed the multitudes with bread and fish. Jesus says plenty about works in this passage – much more than he does, in fact, about prayer. “You will do greater works than these,” he promises. Works demand work.
In a more personal and poetic vein, John Newton, he of “Amazing Grace” fame, wrote this hymn:
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.
’Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
Lord, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“’Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”
So, prayer is not always answered as we expect. Prayer is not the only way in which we cooperate with God nor God with us. And petitionary prayer, or intercessory prayer – the prayers in which we ask good things for ourselves or for others – are not the only kind of prayer that God entertains.
Still, it is hard, when we are in the position that my friends and I were in a decade ago, helpless, hand-wringing, wondering what Jesus could possibly have meant when he promised to do what we ask in his name if not this: to ease, to remove the suffering from a child, and her family.
Fosdick points out that the Bible is full of unanswered prayers. From the prayer of Job: “I cry unto thee, and that dost not answer me: I stand up, and thou gazest at me,” (Job 30:20), to the prayer of Jesus: “If it be your will, take this cup from me,” the Bible is full of prayers that are left poignantly unresolved. But are they unanswered?
God, in good time, speaks to Job out of the storm; it may not be the answer Job expects, but God does answer him, and God asks Job, “Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” (Job 40:8)
God gives Jesus the grace to end his prayer, “Yet not my will, but thine,” and the strength to follow through.
Jesus says, “Believe in God. Believe also in me.” Trust me.
We may not know what we are doing when we pray, but God will not turn away from us because of our ignorance, or if we use the wrong words. This is one of the reasons that we pray in Jesus’ name:
“Christ our Head gathers together all the dim and faltering prayers of his members, our futile prayers, our sighs and groans that cannot be put into words, our numbness and our silence, and he interprets and presents them to the one God and Father of all.
That is why we regularly end our prayers with the words, ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ … by which I mean that Jesus Christ my Head and the Head of the whole Church will explain to my heavenly Father what I have been trying to say and what I have failed to say, and that it is because of him, and not because of any virtue or merit in myself, that I Know I shall be heard.”
So Alec Roper Vidler, in his Windsor Sermons.
Jesus says, “Believe in God. Believe also in me.” Trust me.
I wonder if that is what it means to become a holy people, a royal priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God, proclaiming the works of the one who has brought us out of darkness into light. It is nothing less than to gather up the prayers of the people, the groans and sighs that cannot be put into words, and the curses and cries that can, and to present them to God as a spiritual sacrifice, in the name of Jesus Christ, who interprets them and present them to the one God and Father of all.
We have all known of prayers that have been answered, and they bolster our faith. It is our spiritual sacrifice to continue to be faithful in prayer, to continue to pray even when we don’t know what we are doing, what we are saying, what God’s answer will be. It is our spiritual sacrifice, as a priesthood of believers, to believe on behalf of the world in God, and also in Jesus, to place our hope in the Resurrection.
It is the work of the church to gather the prayers of the people in Jesus’ name. You who have received mercy, you are a royal priesthood, consecrated and appointed on behalf of the world to lift up its prayers to God, in Jesus’ name, to offer your faith as a spiritual sacrifice, trusting in the loving kindness of God, which never fails, never falters, never ends, even in the face of death.
In the name of the Risen Christ, Amen.
 Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Prayer (National Board of the Young Women’s Christian Associations, 1915), 126
 Fosdick, 122-3
 Vidler, Alec Roper, quoted in Love’s Redeeming Work, compilers Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, Rowan Williams (Oxford University Press, 2003), 641-6