If tomorrow you found a genie in a bottle and they granted you three wishes, what would your three wishes be? Now, as anyone knows who has seen Disney’s Aladdin, you can’t wish for more wishes. So barring that, take a moment and imagine what you’d wish for. I’ve vacillated between asking for things that help humanity like “world peace” and things of a more personal nature like a trillion dollars. I don’t know how long world peace would last, but it would be pretty nice. And with a trillion dollars I could end world hunger AND have enough left over for a nice house and a car. At least that was my thinking back when I was 10.
When it comes to prayer, we sometimes have a 10-year old theology.
We treat God like a genie in a bottle. We pray when we need something and then wait for it to happen and we think there’s something wrong when things don’t go our way. In fact, we get pretty upset about it because we treat God as if we only had three wishes. Often, we ignore God unless we need something huge as if we’re saving him for the really important stuff. Miraculous healing. Getting that job we’ve been hoping for. Fixing our relationships. The big stuff we feel we can’t do on our own. We don’t come to God with silly things like being a better spouse or being a good parent. We can take care of that ourselves. Just go to Barnes and Noble and buy a book on it. We don’t need God for THOSE things. So when we come to God with our big requests, we kind of expect him to answer. After all, isn’t that what he’s there for?
Some people take this to an extreme.
I had a friend who believed God would give you ANYTHING you wanted if you just had enough faith. Seriously. Anything. I questioned her about this and asked, “So if I wanted a Ferrari, God would just give it to me? Like POOF, here’s a Ferrari?” And in all seriousness she said yes. That if I had enough faith and just prayed over and over and over again for a Ferrari then God would give me a Ferrari. I must not have prayed hard enough. Or had enough faith because I still don’t have a Ferrari. Not that I want one. The insurance alone wouldn’t be worth it. But I must have done something wrong since that prayer never came to pass. In her mind, God’s ability to grant wishes wasn’t limited by number or size. It was all based on your faith. If you didn’t have it, you didn’t get it.
These are just a couple of the bad examples of prayer theology out there in the world today.
And the Bible doesn’t do a lot to clear those things up. Not unless you spend time actually studying it. Sometimes I cringe when I read certain passages like the one from Luke (Luke 11:5-8). It seems as if Jesus himself is saying that if you pester God long enough, he’ll eventually give you anything you want. Forget about love, God responds best to “shameless audacity!” Right? Isn’t that what it’s saying? But that isn’t what it’s saying. Jesus is trying to tell us to put our trust in God. We should be bold in our prayers instead of timid. We should pray with persistence not because God will give in, but because our persistence is evidence of our trust in God. I know it seems like a cop out, but God doesn’t always answer our prayers in our time or in our way. But God is not bothered by our persistence. The other message Luke offers us is when we pray in our need, especially in our need to help others or to act in ways that honor God, God will respond. Again, it may not be in the way we want or expect, but God is honored by the focus and meaning of our prayer. You notice in Jesus’ example it wasn’t about a guy praying to get a Ferrari. It was about a neighbor wanting to offer hospitality to a friend who has just returned on a journey. Now you can question why that friend came to your door in the middle of the night in the first place, but probably because that friend is in need. And that changes the dynamic of the story. If you are knocking on God’s door to do God’s will, God will respond. If you’re bugging God for your own selfish ends, you’ll probably get a different response. Take a look at this passage from our reading today.
5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. – Matthew 6:5-8
Prayer is about the heart.
Prayer is not about “what,” it is about “why.” Look what Jesus tells his disciples, “…for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” He doesn’t require you to pray to transmit your needs. He already knows them! Prayer is about something different. Prayer is about your earnestness to be in relation with God. Prayer is about trusting in God. It doesn’t matter what words you use or how many words you can cram into one sentence. Do you remember the story about the tax collector and the Pharisee who both go to the temple and pray? The Pharisee goes on and on about what a good follower he is and he demeans the tax collector right in front of him. And the tax collector has a very simple, short prayer. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” That was it. And that was the prayer God was hoping for. Humble, sincere, trusting. That’s what matters to God.
The most effective prayers I’ve ever offered were like this.
They came not from my desire for something, but from my humility, sincerity, and willingness to trust in God. And I actually did this once as Jesus described. I actually went into my room, closed the door, and just laid there on the floor in prayer. We were living in Georgia and my District Superintendent called me to let me know that he had found a place for me to serve. The church I was at, Roswell UMC, was downsizing staff and as the newest member I was first on the list to go. So my DS was looking for a place for me and found a church in Covington, GA. Covington was about 2 hours away from our home (more with traffic and in Atlanta there is always traffic). Plus, they had a parsonage so we’d have to live in town and Cassie would have had to commute to work, meaning she would have to leave the house at about 5am each morning and return about 8pm each night every day. And at the time our girls were very young. Covington is also racially divided and I have to be honest I was a little worried about that. It just seemed to be the wrong fit for our family and for the gifts and talents God had given me. So I prayed about it. I literally went into my closet (my closet at the time was actually big enough for me to lay down inside of it), closed the door, and just prayed. I didn’t offer God a wish list. Instead I just said, “God, I can’t believe this is the place you want me to serve. It just doesn’t seem to be where my gifts would best be used, but if this is your will, I’ll make it work. But if it’s not, then please open a door and I will step through it.” After praying like that for a while, I got up and went into my office where I was working on some paperwork and in less than an hour I got an email from Rev. Mariellen Yoshino asking how I was doing. We had met at one of the Japanese Clergy Caucus meetings and she had recently been appointed to be one of the DSs out here in our Cal-Nevada Conference. So I told her about my situation and that I was praying about it and almost immediately I got a response asking me to hold on. About an hour later, I got another phone call from my DS saying an amazing opportunity opened up in California and the Bishop has given permission for me to talk to the DS out there about it. He even said, “You know Craig, you don’t have to accept the position since it is out of conference, but we can’t offer you anything like this.” After I got off the phone with him, I talked to Rev. Mariellen who said she’d like me to come out to California and meet with a church she had in mind. So I did. Up until that point where I had laid down in prayer and just turned it over to God, everything had been going wrong. There was even more to the story than just that, but nothing seemed to be going our way. Then in one swift movement, suddenly new opportunities blossomed right in front of us. To me it was an answered prayer in the most profound and stunning way.
There have been other moments like that, too.
Times when I was humble enough to know I knew nothing. Times when I was actually able to lay down my fears and anxieties at God’s feet and trust in his judgment. Only in those moments was I really open to his movement. Only then did I hear God speak into my life in such a profound way. And I can tell you for sure that in each instance I did not know what to expect. God’s answer was completely different than what I would have picked for myself. And yet each answer was amazing. I don’t know how God will answer your prayers. I don’t know that you’ll even know when he does. I am sure there are many instances where God has impacted my life and at least for the moment I haven’t realized it. But I do know God is not a genie in a bottle waiting to answer your every need. I know God doesn’t base his answer to prayer on how hard you pray or how often you pray or how persistent you pray. I know God doesn’t promise to give you everything you want, but instead will be there for you in your need. So I encourage you to pray strongly and boldly and with your full trust in God. And know that God is listening.