What about when someone prays and nothing happens? When righteous people pray for legitimately reasonable things and then they do not occur, what are we to say? How can the Christian maintain the authenticity of prayer on the one hand, and yet acknowledge the counter-examples of a good pray-er. The problem is even greater when the praying is done under desperate circumstances, but without obtaining the desired goal. How does the Christian reconcile God's apparent lack of concern? Let us consider five ways for such reconciliation.
1. Part of the reconciliation is found in Jesus admonition to keep on asking. Jesus Himself seemed to know one request alone was not sufficient. Admittedly, we do not know why this so. We can take some guesses. Perhaps the timing may not be right. So we go on asking. More likely, we are not ready to accept the answer God wants to give us. Again prayer, properly understood, is not simply making requests, but a conversation enabling us to move into a place of receptivity to the answers God wants to provide for us.
2. If prayer is an expression of faith, then we as people of faith go on asking. Faith is not a one-time event, but a continuous disposition toward God. Therefore our prayers are an expression of an ongoing faith. We continue to trust. Therein lies part of the value of prayer for us. Prayer is a faith builder and a relationship developing process.
Here is another factor. God is the One to whom we pray because He has the power to "deliver the goods." We are saying in our prayers, "Lord, I am not in charge here. Our requests may not be the best, but we are speaking to the God who knows what is appropriate and what is needful. He, in His sovereignty and in His great wisdom, with the power to be everywhere present begins to bring circumstances together. God takes our prayers, even inadequate and selfish requests, and brings about good beyond our praying.
So the idea of snapping our fingers and seeing the celestial servant leap to meet our requests is simply an inadequate understanding of both God and prayer. If our prayers are truly big, then God must take time to marshal the resources of personnel and circumstances to meet the requests we have made.
3. Praying is also getting in tune with what the right requests are. We are inclined to be very narcissistic and self-centered. We tend to start with where we are, rather than with the larger scheme of things. In prayer we might ask, "God, where am I praying incorrectly? How could my prayer be improved? What do You want to say to me? What message do You want me to bring to the world in which I live? How can I free You to work?" Such praying ushers in a new dimension of spiritual maturity and relationship.
4. A saying often quoted to God is His promise to us, "Where two or three are agreed about one thing . . . ." Notice this prayer promise requires us to marshal allies. We forget that part. We are to form allies, not only to assault heaven with our requests, and that's what we often think, but rather to work together toward a high and noble purpose.
Every Christian faces the difficulty of trying to determine whether to pray for an adjustment of circumstances or to align with God's will. How can the Christian spiritually discern what to do in the context of being a good pray-er? We want to be a good steward of our time and we do not want to encroach on God's territory. So how does the Christian discern how to pray or what to pray for?
Prayer includes seeking for discernment. Again prayer is not a list of requests recited in some ritualistic fashion. Prayer consists of imploring, questioning and dialoguing with God. This kind of relationship makes prayer so valuable to us. Discernment comes from careful listening to a friend.
Meditation is a part of praying, too. Meditating is like sitting down to mull over a problem. We look at an issue from five or six different points of view. That is what prayer is, creatively enjoying time in the presence of God.
We should customarily begin our day with the Bible, a devotional book, a prayer list, and a Daytimer. In this case we are saying, "God, I'm not wanting You just to bless, but to direct my day." From our prayer times come the names of persons we believe God wants us to contact. So we might jot a note to a family who is bereaving, a sister who needs some support at this particular point in her life, or a colleague we just want to contact.
Somehow God prompts us in ways we only barely understand. But the longer we become accustomed to God's voice, the more confident we will become in responding to Him. Yes, there is a sense in which God's voice has a recognizable tenor. No, He does not always speak audibly. Still, we can become mindful of how He prompts and urges.
5. The practice of prayer is more valuable than the products of our prayers. People who are not accustomed to praying by listening to God, are inclined to declare, "Well, I asked God for something and He didn't answer. So why should I believe in Him any longer?"
Often, such a statement is akin to saying, "I want to understand something, but I'm not willing to probe, explore or evaluate. I just want it when I want it." Another example would be someone wanting to know the content of books on a library shelf, but not being willing to read the books.
How does the common, average, every-day unspiritual person know how to pray? Should we ask God to adjust our circumstances or align our wishes to God's will? If we must wait until we have learned to hear God's voice, are we not sort of "paralyzed" until we arrive at this high level of spiritual development? Fortunately, this is not the case.
Historically, biblically, and experientially, God has spoken to the simplest of persons. God does not require spiritual greatness on the part of His hearers for Him to deal with us. So can persons expect God to respond to them early in their attempts to communicate with Him? Yes, and we need to recognize we come to God as learners. Just as an infant trying to take her first few staggering steps gets the encouragement of a mom and a dad, so God helps us in our first attempts.
But we must never be so satisfied to believe the first attempts are the height of where we can go. While we can soon begin to sense God is directing us, a fully operant spiritual maturity takes time and practice. We all are on the journey. Some started a little bit earlier. Some had track shoes on and made it a little quicker. But God still deals with people at the point of their openness. Nothing brings openness any quicker than the disciplined time of worship and conversation with God. Prayer and praise are not just for the experienced or for the saintly, but for the beginner, too.
We can answer the dilemma of what to pray for by the practice of prayer.
To study about prayer is not to learn to pray. By praying, we learn how to pray. We learn how to appeal to God and how to listen to God. When Jesus' disciples said, "Teach us to pray," Jesus led into a prayer, which we now see as really a framework, or an outline, for future praying. Because He actually prayed with them, He didn't need to say, "Now first of all, I want you to do this. And secondly, this would be the way to do it." He did not give a list of principles. He just said, "Our Father, which art in heaven . . ." and He launched into what we call the Lord's Prayer.