Does God answer every prayer? (Luke 11:9-13)

If the gospel teaches us that God’s neither a vending machine nor an IRS agent, then what is He, exactly?  That is, can we trust that whatever we pray for, we’ll get?  There’s a good chance that you have a long list of prayer requests that have gone unfulfilled.

When God doesn’t say “yes” to your prayer requests, does that prompt you to keep praying, to stop praying, or does it make you distant from God altogether?  Why?

If we return briefly to Luke 11, we see that Jesus follows the story of the friend at midnight with a familiar analogy

And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13)

God’s desire is to satisfy our needs and even our desires.  He’s good; we can trust Him.  But Jesus also qualifies this by saying—later, to His disciples—that “whatever you ask in my [Jesus’] name” will be done (John 14:13).

If you’re skeptical, you might point out that there have been multiple studies on the effectiveness of prayer on the health of hospital patients.  None of the results have been conclusive.  So what does that mean?

It means we might be asking the wrong question.  Maybe the purpose of prayer isn’t to get an answer as much as seek the Answerer.  That is, perhaps the greater purpose of prayer isn’t to focus on the gift but the Giver. 

If that’s true, then we can be confident that God’s perfect plan is greater than my desires.  Stop and think for a second: have there not been things you’ve prayed for—yet not received—that would have had a negative impact on your life had you gotten what you wanted?  Maybe it’s a job that you desperately wanted, but the company ended up going under within a year.  Maybe it’s the hope for a particular person for a spouse—but God’s “no” spared you from a lifetime of regret.

God’s answers are according to his will and purpose, yet he invites us to engage with him in asking for things we need and desire.  It’s a bit of a mystery, then—that God would be in sovereign control of human history, yet allows human interaction to weave its way into his eternal plan.  That news should therefore not frustrate us, but encourage us, bolster us, and draw us further into his presence.

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Beyond the Vending Machine (Luke 11:5-8)

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.

 

Why pray? (Luke 11:1-4)

Does prayer “work?”  Surprisingly, prayer remains a vital part of American spirituality.  Several recent studies have shown that—based on survey results—something like one-half to two-thirds of all Americans claim to praying every day.  And that’s independent of their religious affiliation.

I’ve noticed, though—in my own life as much as anywhere—that the urgency of prayer tends to reflect our own circumstances.  When all is well, my tendency is to rest on self-sufficiency.  Why pray?  I got this.  Yet when things go poorly, I am unhappily confronted with my own needy dependence.

I find myself wondering if this is why so many of us have such difficulty asking others to pray for us.  Sure, asking people to pray for a friend or relative—that’s a perfectly “churchy” thing to do.  But pray for ourselves?  There’s a vulnerability there that’s just not comfortable.

When Jesus’ first followers spent time with him on earth, they couldn’t help but be impressed with his devotional life.  Jesus surely enjoyed an intimacy with his Father that attracted the attention of his disciples:

Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” (Luke 11:1)

Now, we should probably note that all Israelites knew what to pray.  They’d been reciting lines from Deuteronomy 6 their whole life (something called the Shema prayer): “Hear, oh Israel: the Lord your God is one.”  But even if God was one, the Jewish community had become fractured by Jesus’ day.  We might imagine that John the Baptist borrowed some spiritual elements from the Essenes—a group of desert hippies he probably drew some inspiration from.

Jesus offers them—and us—something of a model:

And he said to them, “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 who is indebted to us.

And lead us not into temptation.” (Luke 11:2-4)

Now, some of us may have grown up repeating this until we were able to mouth the words without thinking.  Repetition may be the straightest route to memory, but doesn’t necessarily provoke intimacy.  Jesus’ point was that our prayer lives should be marked and shaped by profound intimacy with God.  Yes; personal requests (such as for provision and forgiveness) are a part of our prayer lives, but it is intimacy with God that allows us to be made complete.  In his recent book on prayer, Tim Keller writes:

“Prayer is the only entryway into genuine self-knowledge. It is also the main way we experience deep change—the reordering of our loves. Prayer is how God gives us so many of the unimaginable things he has for us. Indeed, prayer makes it safe for God to give us many of the things we most desire. It is the way we know God, the way we finally treat God as God. Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and be in life.” (Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, p. 18)

Few things are as valuable as this intimacy.  Prayer is a means to this end.  When I am preoccupied with my own ends, my own fulfillment, my prayer life becomes stunted through selfish, slavish devotion to my own happiness.  But when prayer becomes a means toward relationship, joy flourishes independently of my circumstances.   The clouds roll back.  Wonder reappears.

Jesus’ parables on prayer, therefore, are powerful ways of confronting his hearers with their own attitudes toward prayer.  Join us this Sunday as we explore what Jesus has to teach us on this important subject.