Several years ago, I went through a period where my prayers seemed to bounce off the ceiling unheard and unanswered. It got to the point where I was afraid to pray for anyone because I was sure bad things would happen to the people I cared about if I asked God to help them.
I have since emerged from that dark night with a stronger faith and an unshakable certainty that God never leaves us and always hears us, even when our skewed perceptions lead us to think otherwise.
A new day has dawned on my journey of faith, but I still wrestle with the perplexities of being a Jesus follower—the conundrums I don’t understand, the complexities I simply can not wrap my mind around.
Two Views of Prayer
My role in prayer is one of these recurrent themes I spend a lot of time trying to figure out. I live in the tension between two ideas of prayer that are both true to some extent, yet must be kept in balance. I have an intellectual and spiritual tug-of-war within me that wonders,
How do my prayers and God’s sovereignty interact?
Ask and You Shall Receive
On one end is a philosophy of prayer that says if I have enough faith and not too much sin, God will do whatever I ask.
Jesus said, “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Matt 21:22) He told us our faith in him will heal us (Mk 5:34, Mk 10:52,Lk 17:19) and that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective (James 5:16).
These verses inspire me to dream and ask and believe and receive.
The trouble is, my experience of God often is a lot messier than it looks on paper. There are times when I pray what I believe to his will with faith and in his name and nothing happens. At least nothing that I am able to perceive anyway. The situation gets worse instead of better as I struggle to find God’s hand at work in my world.
Emphasizing my faith as the mechanism that moves the hand of God can produce within me arrogance and presumption and profound disappointment when my friend with cancer dies, the marriage I’ve been praying for self-destructs, and my own baby is stillborn while my husband whispers prayers over my swollen tummy.
My confidence in the power of prayer and my own ability to execute it properly withers. I’m left wondering what I did wrong and where God went.
He Does Whatever He Pleases
On the other end, I come to a place that primarily emphasizes God’s sovereignty. My prayers feel useless because “God’s gonna do what God’s gonna do.” It seems the only right prayer that has an assurance of being realized is “Thy will be done.”
With this fatalistic viewpoint, I wonder why I should even pray all. I become apathetic. I feel helplessly at the mercy of a powerful God who seems too distant to hear my cries.
The Lord does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths.
Two Places I Don’t Want to Camp Anymore
I have camped out on both extremes and found that neither accurately reflect the truth of how God wants to interact with me. He wants me to come to him with my concerns, but he has made it clear he is no genie in a bottle.
My inability to wrap my mind around the balance of God’s sovereignty and his guidance to ask for miracles and healing, provision and wholeness, used to keep me up at night.
What do I do when I call out to God and it gets worse instead of better?
How do I know if I’m praying his will or my own?
Did he really mean, “Ask for anything in my name and I’ll give it to you”?
Why does God rush in like a knight on a white stallion in some cases while in others he seems to remain silent and distant?
Why can’t he just make it clear and tell me how to pray?
My trial and error, hit or miss praying doesn’t feel like it’s “powerful and effective.”
Am I doing it wrong?
“I will still sleep peacefully with answers out of reach for me.”
~ Nicole Nordeman, Someday
What I Really Want
The truth lies somewhere between these extremes where the God Most High stoops down to listen to me—not because I have enough faith to manipulate his will, but just because he loves me.
As I spend more time with him, I realize the growth of our relationship through prayer is more important than the prayer itself or the end result. I discover that what I really crave is not answered prayers, but God himself. He is the One I long for. What I thought were the desires of my heart turn out to be merely the prompts that drive me to the One my heart desires above all else.
I am learning to rest in the mystery of God and his unsearchable ways. I don’t know why he chooses to answer some prayers miraculously and not others.
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!
Although his ways are unsearchable, his heart is knowable. I need look no further than the cross to see the magnitude of his love revealed by the depth of his suffering.
When I can’t trace his hand, I trust his heart.
There’s a lot I don’t know. But there are a few things I do.
I know his sovereignty is supreme and that he holds all things in his hand. And in his sovereignty, he told me to pray. He told me my prayers matter. That they make a difference. I know he wants us to be close and that our relationship blossoms when I make the effort to express my heart to him.
So I will keep praying,
and receiving whatever he gives whenever he chooses to give it,
knowing with certainty that every “yes” and every “no” is spoken over me gently in perfect love and flawless wisdom.
Keep praying, and trusting, and receiving.