Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. 1 Thessalonians 5: 17-18
I think for many Christians, myself included, prayer can be a struggle. If you glance at some of the more well-known scriptures concerning prayer, even the Bible appears to provide conflicting information on the subject. In Luke 11:9, Jesus clearly states, “And I say unto you, Ask and it shall be given you, seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”
But, what about those times we don’t receive that for which we have asked…and asked…and asked…and even asked? What then? When I was spiritually parched, unanswered prayer left me feeling empty and confused. I often wondered, “What is the point of prayer if it isn’t answered?” Why should I bother if God is going to do what he wants regardless of what I pray?
What I didn’t bother to ask was this: who was I praying to in the first place? What was my picture of God? Was it accurate? Was I praying to the holy, wise, and caring God of the Bible, or was I praying to a God of my own creation? Was it, perhaps, a mixture of both?
OUR VIEW OF GOD AFFECTS OUR PRAYER LIFE.
I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that the state of our prayer life is dictated by our view of God. If I enter into prayer thinking of God as some kind of wish-granting, mystical being, I will be disappointed when the genie lamp runs dry. On the other hand, if I only see him as a distant, uncaring God, I will avoid prayer altogether and face life’s battles alone. It is only when I have a scripturally accurate view of God that I can see the value of a dedicated, on-going prayer life regardless of outcomes.
Of course, this all sounds well and good, but how do we reach that goal? In my case, it meant destroying my shallow, distorted view of God so I could finally see clearly the wise and just God of the Bible.
GOD – GENIE IN A BOTTLE?
As most of us do in the early days of our faith, I had an immature understanding of what “relationship with God” actually meant. I had been saved, baptized, and joined a church. So, I was good to go! I thought, wrongly, that as long as I attended church, tithed, and didn’t commit any of the “really big sins” everything would be rosy and bright. I was, after all, a child of God now, surely this meant spiritual, physical, and financial blessings would abound and trouble would keep its distance. Life’s tribulations and tragedies were for other people, not us. It really wasn’t terribly necessary to lock yourself away in your prayer closet or to pray without ceasing. Everything would just flow…right?
Wrong. So very, very wrong. There is nothing in the Bible that states we will receive immunity to difficulty in life, regardless of how faithful we are in our walk with the Lord. In fact, Jesus says quite the opposite in John 16:33: “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulations: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”
However, in my misguided, lackadaisical early days of faith, I bought into the idea that God had, indeed promised me a rose garden as long as I behaved. Surely, that was in the scriptures somewhere. Although, how would I know? I barely read the Bible at this point.
Another issue that muddied the waters, was that the church I attended veered dangerously close to preaching “prosperity theology.” The church was certainly not responsible for all of my prayer problems, however, this preaching can reinforce the notion that life will be a breeze as long as you do a, b, c, and d.
Today, I understand this is a scripturally inaccurate and spiritually immature view of God. It is also a dangerous view because guess what happens when tragedy and hard times inevitably enter your life? Your “faith” crumbles into dust, and your view of God becomes even more warped.
GOD – DISTANT, UNCARING CHESS MASTER?
Many years ago, whilst I still saw God as some sort of Santa Claus, I experienced the sudden and unexpected death of someone close. This incident involved my former husband’s family, so I won’t share a great amount of detail.
On a normal, “business as usual” Saturday night many years ago, I sat at the dining room table eating dinner with this young family member and listening as they told corny jokes. Sunday morning, this person was gone. That was it. No warning, no expectation, nothing. It was an event that completely changed my outlook on life and my view of God.
Because I held such a shallow, untethered view of who God was at the time and had an undeveloped relationship with him, I had nothing to cling to when faced with the tremendous weight of this shock. There was no firm ground to root myself in or to draw strength from. Instead, I felt empty, scared, and lost as I tried to make sense of it all.
I managed to keep up the faith facade for a while, but inside I knew this was serious. I was afraid. My genie-God had morphed into a cruel and sadistic god much like those portrayed in the 1980’s movie Clash of the Titans. I envisioned him sitting upon his throne, shrouded in mist, with an enormous chessboard stretched out in front of him, smiling as he indiscriminately moved human chess pieces from one season of turmoil to the next all for his personal amusement.
There was definitely no hiding from it – I was in a full-blown crisis of faith. During this time, I never quit talking to God in some way or form, but it was not what I’d necessarily call prayer. It was often conversations and hand-written letters, some angry, others anguished but all tainted with confusion and fear.
For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end. Jeremiah 29:11
THE ACCURATE PICTURE: A JUST, HOLY, AND LOVING GOD
I wish I could tell you my complete collapse of faith was short-lived, but it wasn’t. (Are they ever though, to be fair?) I was stuck in this spiritual desert for at least 15 years. It took that long, and many more ups and downs, to demolish my weak, shallow view of God’s character and to replace it with the truth.
Today, I am confident that God is who he says he is. When I look back on my personal “wilderness journey,” I can see that although I collapsed, God did not leave me. He was paying attention to those anguished conversations and angry letters. While my sight was obstructed by grief, anger, depression, and despair, God was still quietly at work bringing the healing I needed to see him clearly. If He hadn’t been, I wouldn’t be writing this post today.
You see, the reality of this Christian life is that God never promised me, or you, that rose garden. We live in a fallen world. We have free will – bad, horrible things will happen. Prayers will seemingly go unanswered, but still we must continue to pray. It deepens our relationship with God; the more we pray, the more we will hear him – not in some loud, booming voice, but through the quiet, still assurance of the Holy Spirit. Through prayer, we can access that peace which surpasses all understanding – a peace we need every day but especially when we can’t understand the reasons why.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are you ways my ways, saith the Lord. Isaiah 55:8
Not My Will
I think we also forget an important caveat when we struggle with prayer: we are to pray that God’s will be done, not ours.
In Luke 11:2, before he ever mentions anything about “ask and ye shall receive,” Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer as a framework for how we should pray. If you’ve done much reading on the subject, you’ve undoubtedly heard this before, but it is worth hearing again. The prayer that Jesus recited states, “THY Kingdom come, THY WILL be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It is not MY will.
For some of us, relinquishing our own will in prayer is a very real, and probably constant, challenge. However, if we at least have an accurate picture of who God is, we can better accept his will because we know that ultimately God wants what’s spiritually best for us.
JESUS ALSO STRUGGLED
We can also find some comfort in remembering that even Jesus struggled with accepting his Father’s will. In Luke 22:41-42, Jesus asked to be released from this unimaginable burden he’d been given of bearing the sins of the world. Yet, ultimately and even though he fully understood what it meant for him, Jesus followed his own teaching and prayed that not his will, but his Father’s be done.
And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast, and kneeled down, and prayed, Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done.” Luke 22:41-42
WHO ARE WE PRAYING TO?
Taking a close and honest look at how we see God is the first step in building a meaningful prayer life. Of course our view of God is going to affect how we pray, why we pray, and our expectations of prayer. If we see God as Santa Claus, we will always be disappointed and spiritually stunted. If we see him as a distant, uncaring god with no interest in relationship with us, we will feel hopeless and lost. If, on the other hand, we see him as the caring and forgiving God that he is, prayer will become a time of quiet communication through which we build a stronger, personal relationship with a God who is our comforter and hope not only when things don’t go our way, but for an entire lifetime.