Prayer is of course more than asking for stuff. It would be a gross distortion of our relationship with God to reduce prayer to petitions. Yet for some reasons we don’t wonder nearly as much about the mechanics of praise as we do about effective “prayer requests.”
The Bible has given us lots of assurance about the efficacy of asking: “Ask and it shall be given. Seek and you shall find … Whatever you ask in my name … Whatever you ask in faith, believing … You have not because you ask not”, etc. These kinds of passages have inspired great faith and, in many cases, amazing results. They have also given rise, for some, to a sense of entitlement, i.e. a “name it and claim it” approach that teaches me that I can have anything I want as long as I pray with the right kind of faith. Such an understanding borders on a magical view of prayer that is downright pagan: If I say certain words in certain ways, then I can virtually require God to bring me the benefits I demand.
Entitlement and manipulation lie on the same extreme end of the prayer question.
On the other extreme stand fatalism and complacency. Scriptures that fuel this position include words like “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content … Not my will but yours be done … I asked the Lord three times … and he said ‘My grace is sufficient for you.’”
Contentment with gratitude is a good thing. But complacency, at its worst, generates no motivation to pray. Under the pretext of respect for God’s sovereignty, complacency leaves this world without the intercessory mediators that God says he seeks. This attitude can be so fatalistic that it abandons the collaborative role God has given us in bringing his kingdom to earth. That is no place to land.
You might solve this tension by saying that the line we need to draw is between requests for ourselves (be content) and those for others (be assertive). But the Bible has too many examples of people who earnestly sought favor for themselves and were rewarded as well as others who selflessly pursued kingdom objectives yet didn’t receive what they requested. That line between altruism and self-interest is a good one to keep in mind, and it can help bring some good discipline to our praying, but it doesn’t solve the tension altogether.
You could also say, just pray for those things that are clearly “God’s will” in the Bible. But if you pray for the salvation of a friend or the power to remove a sinful habit, does that always happen? We know his will is “that none should perish” but some do, even those for whom we pray. We know that God’s will is that we would be entirely sanctified, but even with faithful prayer, we fall short. So that solution doesn’t seem to settle the issue.
While some people “resolve” a tension by collapsing it in favor of one extreme or the other, I’m going to continue my default preference to live with it and live in it. I hear a divine invitation to a space where assertive expectation and grateful contentment coexist. So, how do you continue to verbalize in daily prayer the needs in your life (both yours and others, both clearly God’s will and sometimes not) with restless earnestness, while living that same day in freedom, rest and confidence? I don’t propose to answer this but rather to suggest that this is the place we do live when we pray biblically. Hebrews 11 is filled with faith-full people. Some were part of great miracle stories while others were tortured and died without rescue.
No difference in the faith. Just a different outcome on earth.
Part of the “answer” to the disconnect from Hebrews 11 comes in chapter 12. All of us are cheered on by this great cloud of witnesses, now in heaven, led by Jesus the Author and Perfecter of our faith. He was among those who died but now lives. He is the one who brought heaven to earth not only when he prayed for miracles but when he submitted to the Father’s will – and to a death he briefly prayed to avoid. In his life and death we find a perspective from eternity – of “answers” to some prayers now and to others in due time. Hebrews hints that the deferred answers were even better than anything this world has seen.
The Bible leaves us with an invitation into the mystery that is prayer. Any simple explanation for “how it works” is likely to be off the mark. Should we have expected a relationship with the God of the universe to be simple?