I think sometimes that I don’t understand anything about prayer. I pray quite a bit, mind you. It’s just that I don’t understand a lot about it. I sometimes pray for good things, and they are denied. At other times, I pray for myself or others to be spared bad things that still happen. How does prayer work? How do I know what to pray for? How about you? Do you ever wonder about such things?

Maybe at least part of our problem is in praying for wrong things. If that is the case, then I certainly begin to see how praying could be confusing. When we are wrong-headed in what we ask, we can hardly blame God for failing to answer. Let me try to make sense of what I am struggling to say.

Peter and John were called before the religious authorities of Jerusalem in the earliest days of Christianity. They were ordered to stop preaching about Jesus in the city. They were, in fact, threatened that bad things would come down on them if they didn’t stop. Duly warned, they were released.

When the two men got back with their friends, they reported everything that had happened. Then they prayed. "And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness ..." (Acts 4:29 NRS)

My fear is that I would have prayed for something different! For the officials to back off? Sure. For divine protection from them? Absolutely. For a “new call” for my ministry? Perhaps. But they prayed neither for protection nor a new assignment. They prayed for boldness to say what Jesus had told them to say.

Maybe you and I shouldn’t pray for more money and things; let’s pray instead for the ability to appreciate what we have, manage it wisely, and use it generously. Maybe we should pray less to have our life-annoyances taken away; instead, pray for patience and to realize that God’s grace is sufficient, no matter what. Maybe we even should pray less about good health and success; we might pray rather to be content, dignified, and courageous in coping with our lot in life.

I would have prayed for something different!
It’s certainly within God’s will to pray for daily bread and deliverance from trials. The Lord’s Prayer models as much for us. But even Jesus prayed for things in Gethsemane that he qualified with "not my will but yours be done."

Sometimes God’s will is better served by one of his people bearing a cross with courage than by having her problem vanish. That’s why we seek to surrender to his will over our own. That’s why we accept the mystery inherent in his will.

At the end of the day, I should probably worry less about understanding the nature of prayer and simply pray.