At the risk of being like that colleague at work who blurts out the Strictly/X-Factor result before you’ve had a chance to watch this week’s episode, I’ve got something you need to know: prayer doesn’t always work.
You heard it here first, ladies and gents: threads Writer Says Prayer ‘A Sham’.
Before you all start writing letters to the editor, let me clarify that. Prayer doesn’t always work the way we want it to.
Prayer always works. The Bible is very clear that God always hears the prayers offered up to him by His people. He is always listening – in fact, He knows what we want before we ask – Psalm 139:4. It’s just that sometimes the answer is: “no”.
So what do you do with that? You’ve done everything right – repented of any unconfessed sin, forgiven everyone who has sinned against you, prayed persistently, prayed with faith, reminded God of His promises, even fasted and, in extreme circumstances, put your phone on silent – yet still the answer doesn’t come.
First, we can learn a lot from the examples of those who have walked this road before us – and take comfort from the fact that it’s a very well-worn path, trodden by some extremely godly men and women. In my Bible reading earlier this week, I came to the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel. If you’re not familiar with the story – you can read a quick précis here.
The bit that stood out to me was David’s response, when, after he had prayed and fasted for seven days, he learned that his request for God to spare his baby son’s life had been denied: he got up, washed, dressed and “went into the house of the Lord and worshipped” 2 Samuel 12:20. His servants were amazed – how could he respond like this?
The answer is, because David knew who was God and who was not. David wasn’t God. He presented his request with passionate pleading, but when the answer came back in the negative, it didn’t shake his understanding of God and His goodness, wisdom and righteousness one iota. God is worthy of our praise, all the time, regardless of our circumstances. We may never understand why He sometimes says yes, sometimes says no and sometimes remains frustratingly silent, but David’s example is one to that we should all aspire.
It’s hard. I know it is. I’ve been walking with a pretty big unanswered prayer for years now. I don’t know why God hasn’t answered it, but I choose to believe it’s because He’s God and I’m not, and that I have to live – and live well – in the midst of that. One resource I’ve found massively helpful on the way is Pete Greig’s God on Mute. Add it to your Christmas list.
The second thing to remember about prayer, though, is it isn’t a Christmas list. It’s not just about presenting requests and rushing to the tree to see which have been granted. It’s about conversation, relationship, friendship, listening as well as talking, getting to know the lover of your soul.
My word limit is up, so I can’t go into detail, but if you want some ideas on how to rethink about the sorts of conversations you could be having with God, this sermon from Stef Liston is creative, realistic, honest and helpful. Stef begins by thinking about the kinds of interactions that go on in his relationships on a normal day, and relating those to prayer. If you haven’t got time to listen, start here: tell God: “I love you”. That’s one kind of prayer that always ‘works’.