How to pray prayers that definitely don't work
For Christians, prayer is an answer to virtually every possible question—right up there with Jesus and the Bible. (And Apostolic Tradition, of course, for those of us who have unchecked the "Protestant Reformation" box on our heavenly applications.) It’s almost as if the little prayer hands emoji was created just for us so we can let each other know we’re praying for each other without actually using words, which is just so deep.
Prayer is our go-to when we’re faced with struggles (which is pretty much every waking hour for this toddler mom), and it’s the main thing we encourage others to do when they are also in need. And when it comes to new believers, we always encourage them to pray for every situation, assuring them with this promise that God will hear them, and answer.
I remember several years ago, when my husband and I were still in the earlier years of youth ministry, we had a young student whose deepest desire was for her parents to get back together so they could all be a family again. She was taught to pray about it, and she did so with all her heart. I’ll never forget the look on her face the day her father married her new stepmother. Throughout the ceremony and in every picture, she had this heartbreaking look of total loss and disbelief. I’m pretty sure that’s when she stopped praying, and she has not believed in God ever since.
So what happened there? Did her prayers not work? Did God not hear her? Was her faith not strong enough? What went wrong?
Sometimes I still look back at the chaos that ensued and ask, “God, where were you on that one?”
I’ve had my own fair share of moments when God has not come through for me the way I prayed so hard that He would. When I was pregnant with our son, I wanted my labor, delivery and postpartum phase all to go a very particular way—completely unmedicated, no complications, 100% natural breastfeeding. I prayed for that! I believed for it! So when I ended up having major complications and an emergency C-section followed by several traumatic postpartum health problems, accompanied by difficulties with breastfeeding… Sometimes I still look back at the chaos that ensued and ask, “God, where were you on that one?”
If we’re honest, we probably all have at least a few of those moments where we ask, “God, where were you on that one?” Or even, “God, where are you right now?” But if we’re really, really honest, then we can probably admit that what we’re truly asking is, “God, why didn’t you do what I wanted you to do?”
Which is a very different question. And we’ll get to that.
As for the first question, when we’re genuinely trying to figure out where God was or is in any situation we can always find evidence of Him. Maybe not in the way we wanted Him to show up, but always in the way that He does. And maybe we will never see the whole picture this side of eternity, but there is always at least a little grace to be found.
"Want to tell God what His job is? Want to give God instructions? Yeah, that does not work."
With our son’s birth, I experienced God’s grace through friends who brought us food and Communion and compassion, and in loved ones who traveled a long way to be with us in the first days of our son’s life. I see God’s grace in the fact that my husband—who was an active duty Army Ranger at the time—was not overseas or in training at the time, but on his first day of block leave when my water broke, and able to be there with us through it all (I really needed that). And our son was born perfectly healthy and beautiful. Thank you, God, for that.
I also recognize that I was dealing with a lot of control issues while in the process of becoming a new mother. I had my lists spelled out, describing exactly how I wanted everything to go. And I was believing God for just that. As it turns out, I wasn't asking God to be in control; I was trying to be in control while asking God to back me up. My prayers were attempts to get Him to catch my vision and get on my team.
So that’s why I can tell you, because I know now from experience, that trying to control God is the one sure way to pray prayers that do not work.
Want to tell God what His job is? Want to give God instructions? Yeah, that does not work. Because as Narnians have so often reminded us about Aslan, “He is not a tame lion.”
But He is Good. He is The King.
Authentic prayer really is all about bending something, but that something is not His will to ours. It's ours to His. Our knees before His throne. Our foolish pride before His unfathomable power, with faith that His is truly the best, most loving will possible, because He is Love, and we are still just becoming whatever it is we are to become.
Ultimately, we are the ones who are changed by prayer, not God.
Sometimes, I’ll still bring lists with me into prayer, but they’re very different lists now. Not so much exact descriptions of how I want things to turn out. They're really just all the circumstances that are on my heart. I hand them over, and simply say, “Here, Lord. This. Your will be done. Help me to know what that is.” And then, get this: I ask Him what is on His heart! And I try to listen to what He might say. Because touching hearts with Jesus is really the essence of prayer.
I lay myself down. And reach up. I ask God to be with us, and grant us every grace we need. I pray that He continues to love us into existence.
And that pretty much works every time.