As I recall my own life of prayer, prayers I have heard, and conversations I have had about prayer I can’t help but wonder if the coke machine isn’t our primary teacher of prayer. Think about it. We put in the correct change, make our selection, and get what we want. “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” So we offer the coins of our wants and needs, our beliefs, and our good behaviour. We tell God what we want and expect to get what we asked for.
All that works fine until it doesn’t. Coke machines are great until they take your money but give you nothing or give you a Big Red when you selected a Diet Coke. Look how we respond when that happens. We get mad. We push the button again and again. We hit or kick the machine. We tip it side to side. We did our part and expect it to do it's. It’s not so different with prayer. Some will get angry. Some will feel hurt or betrayed, lose faith, even leave the church.
I don’t have a lot of people coming to ask me, “Why was my prayer answered? Why did I receive exactly what I asked for?” I know prayer is answered. Sometimes we ask and receive, search and find, knock and the door opens, but that is not their concern. They want to know why they asked but did not receive, why they searched but did not find, why they knocked but the door never opened. We all do.
“Ask and it will be given you. Search and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened for you.” That’s not just my story. It’s your story too. It’s the story of everyone who has ever prayed. We’ve all lost our money at least once.
I don’t know why some prayers seem to be answered and others seem to go unanswered. I don’t have any good answers or explanations but I have heard some really bad ones. “You didn’t pray hard enough.” “You didn’t have enough faith.” “You were asking for the wrong thing.” “It’s all a mystery and someday we’ll understand.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “Something better is coming.” I can neither believe nor accept any of that. That is nothing but an attempt to bolster a coke machine understanding of prayer. We’ve got to let that go. It’s wrong. It hurts people and it perverts who and how God is.
When I hear those kind of answers and explanations I can’t help but remember another man praying on a Thursday night. He prayed with words, sweat, and blood. “Please, please, please Father.” They crucified him the following afternoon. Ask. Search. Knock.
I don’t understand how prayer works but I know this. It is not about the coins. It is not a mechanical process. It is not a transaction. It is not the transmission of information to God.
In the midst of not knowing or understanding maybe the most and the best we can do is to echo that disciple’s request, “Lord, teach us to pray.” We are always beginners, always learning to pray. Jesus’ response is not an explanation of prayer or how it works. He does not offer a formula or magic words. He does not give us the correct change for the coke machine. Instead Jesus teaches about who and how God is. “When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
God is holy and we are his divine children, holy sons and daughters. That’s a given, a reality, before we even open our mouths and before we ever offer our coins or make a selection. The relationship already exists. That’s how Jesus begins his teaching. Prayer is about relationship and presence. We’re not telling God something that God does not know. We are reminding ourselves of what already is, always has been, and always will be.
That relationship means that our life, our existence, our very being, comes from our Father. Jesus speaks of that as daily bread. We are too often convinced that we are or must be independent and self-sufficient. Prayer reminds us that we are “unself-sufficient.” We ask each day for our daily bread. That does not mean we are deficient but that our sufficiency comes not from ourselves but from God. It means that God sustains and nourishes our life. That’s another way of talking about relationship and presence. Those lines about forgiveness, ours and others? Again, that’s about relationship and presence, with God and each other.
If prayer, as Jesus teaches it, really is all about relationship and presence then there is only one answer to every prayer. God. I don’t just mean God answers our prayer but that God is the answer; God’s presence, life, love, beauty, generosity, compassion, forgiveness, wisdom, justice, mercy. God gives God’s self as the answer to our every prayer. Jesus tells us that. If you, he says, know how to give your kids good things “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit.”
Perhaps the greatest difficulty of prayer is that sometimes we just want to offer our coins and push the button. We don’t want God. We want something from God. We want God to change our circumstances.
While God can and sometimes does change circumstances, I am increasingly convinced that God, more often than not, changes us. God’s self-giving sustains, nourishes, strengthens, empowers, emboldens, and enables us to face the circumstances of life. We do so, sometimes with joy and gratitude, other times with pain and loss, but always with God. On my better days I know this and that’s enough. On those other days? It’s “Lord, teach me to pray.”
This is why Jesus tells us that we “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). He knows that we are tempted to lose heart by what seems like unanswered prayer. We do have small faith. Jesus knows this and he wants to grow our faith. God tells us there are complicating factors that delay answers to prayer, but he doesn’t mean for those factors and delays to make us prayer agnostics and give up. He wants us to press into his promise because there is no mountain he cannot move.
Those who abide in Christ, and have Christ’s words abiding in them, may ask whatever they wish, and it will be done for them. What does such a life look like? It looks like the Old Testament saints listed in Hebrews 11 who really pressed in to know God. It looks like the faithful men and women of the New Testament. And it looks like the lives of audacious saints throughout church history who have taken God most seriously at his word — the George Mueller's, the Charles Spurgeon's and a host of other men and women.
If “whatever you ask in prayer” has not happened yet, do not assume it can’t or won’t. Don’t give up. This promise is an invitation to come further up and further in to knowing God. And those who have taken God up on this invitation testify that the audacious promises of God are for those audacious enough to believe them.
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