“…for we know not what we should pray for as we ought…” (Rom. 8:26)
According to the great apostle, Paul, unless the Holy Spirit guides us, there’s a good chance our prayers will be misguided. Left to ourselves, we are more apt to “ask amiss” than not (James 4:3). He even goes on to say that perhaps the most meaningful prayers are not made up of spoken words at all, but simply “groanings.” I would not be surprised to find when I get to heaven that much of what I thought was prayer, wasn’t; and those times when I felt that people and situations were beyond my control or even my prayers, the sweet Holy Spirit was groaning to God on my behalf.
We are told that our prayers should always be specific, but I’m not sure that’s the way all our prayers should be framed. I am aware that Elijah prayed for fire and got it, and Joshua asked that the sun stand still, and it did; but I am also aware that Paul prayed for relief from a physical torment of some kind, but didn’t receive it, and Jesus asked to be spared from the cup of God’s wrath, but ended up drinking it all. Are we to assume that the first two had more faith than the second? In the case of Paul and Jesus Christ, the will of the Father was acknowledged and accepted (Matt. 26:42; 2 Cor. 12:8-10). Were they wrong to ask? No, and neither are we. But I don’t think our spiritual maturity should be measured by how many direct answers to prayer we can give testimony to. What I do know is that frustration and discontent over (seemingly) unanswered prayers soon turn to questioning and accusation against the goodness of God.
I have always been impressed and encouraged by the story of the Syrophenician woman who petitioned Jesus on behalf of her daughter who was possessed by a devil, as found in Matt. 15: 22-28 and Mark 7:25-30. I am struck by the fact that instead of asking for her daughter’s lifestyle to change, or even that she become a follower of Jesus—both things I know she truly wanted—she got to the root of the problem by asking Jesus to cast out the devil that kept her daughter from being able to exercise her will. She did not ask Him to make the girl do right, only give her the chance to do right. And Jesus answered her prayer.
I don’t know about you, but when it comes to my children and grandchildren, I find myself giving God fairly specific instructions on how I want my prayers for them to materialize. Of course, in some cases, the need is so plain that the request is obvious. But at other times, I may be zeroing in on my own desire (which could be admirable), while God has something entirely different and better in mind. For that reason, when I find my prayer involves overturning another’s will, I am trying to learn to tread carefully, and not assume personal omniscience.
Here are some things about prayer that I know for sure, because Jesus left His disciples and us a concise model to lay alongside our own (Matt. 6: 9-13). I know God wants me to come to Him as a Father, but with reverence (“Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name”). I know I should put God’s will above all else on earth (“They will be done in earth, as it is in heaven”). I know He wants me to come to Him not just in my extremities, but daily (“Give us this day our daily bread”). I should realize that my forgiveness of others is somehow related to God’s forgiveness to me (“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”). I can be sure that I will be tempted to do evil every day, and daily communion with God is my only means of defense (“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”). Finally, I know that with God as my Father, I do not need to fear anyone or anything, now or ever (“For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen”).
I readily admit that beyond this example given by our Lord, I am woefully unlearned. I console myself by knowing that God is more interested in whether or not I believe that when I pray I’m talking to Him, and that He answers me. Can He trust me to believe that when it seems (to me) that He has not given me “the desires of my heart,” it may only be because He loves me too much allow my heart to overrule His good and perfect will? I can truthfully say that after all these years, I am finding that as important to me as my petitions to God may be, it is fellowship with Him that woos me into the prayer closet.
O, Lord, teach me to pray!