There once was an ancient myth about a guy named “Tantalus.” When he died, his eternal punishment was to be placed in a vat of water with a fruit tree hanging overhead. Despite his hunger and thirst, whenever he would reach out the water level and tree branch would move just beyond his reach. It’s where we get the word “tantalize.”
In the modern era, we have our own version of this: it’s called the break room snack machine. We’ve all probably been there at one time or another. We go to work. We forget out lunch. We’re stuck in the break room, selecting the most substantive snack items from the vending machine. We open our wallets, un-crease a gently-used dollar bill, slide it into the machine…and there’s always that fraction of a second when time stands still, because we momentarily think the machine took the bill—only to slide it back. So we smooth it out some more, flip it over, un-crease the corners…lather, rinse repeat, right?
Stop and think—have you ever felt like this in your prayer life? Have there been things you’ve earnestly prayed for but gotten no answer? Have you felt as if you have to either change your “approach” or give up?
Jesus tells his disciples a story that highlights this tension:
And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, 6 for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? 8 I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. (Luke 11:5-8)
The story speaks of persistence—but persistence is only half of the equation. The real focus is the character of the friend. If God’s blessings are rooted in grace, then I needn’t fear that our relationship is like a vending machine. I persist not because I fear a flaw in my character; I persist because I can lean solidly against his. This is why long-term (even lifelong) prayers provoke joy rather than frustration: because even in the silences I can trust inn God’s character.
In his book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard speaks to those who “give up” when the “vending machine” fails to take our dollar. He speaks of those who shift their focus to “nice” things—the sorts of things that tend to occupy our “prayer requests:”
“Prayer simply dies from efforts to pray about ‘good things’ that honestly do not matter to us. The way to get to meaningful prayer for those good things is to start by praying for what we are truly interested in. The circle of our interests will inevitably grow in the largeness of God’s love.”
What do you pray for? Chances are your desire to pray for “good things” might actually reveal that you see God more as a vending machine than a faithful friend. Don’t miss out. Keep asking. Keep praying.