I think sometimes that I don't understand anything about prayer. I pray a lot, mind you. It's just that I don't understand a great deal about it. I sometimes pray for good things, and they don't come. At other times, I pray for myself or others to be spared bad things, yet they still happen. How does prayer work? How do I know what to pray for? Do questions such as these ever bother you?
Maybe at least part of our problem is in praying for wrong things. If that is the case, then I can 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.
Back in the earliest days of the church, Peter and John were called before the religious authorities of Jerusalem. 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:
O Lord, hear their threats, and give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word (Acts 4:29 NLT).
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 an ability to appreciate what we have, manage it wisely, and use it unselfishly.
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 challenges.
It's certainly within God's will that we pray for daily bread and deliverance from trials. The Lord's Prayer models as much for us (Matthew 6:9-13). But even Jesus prayed for things in Gethsemane that he qualified it with the following statement:
Yet I want your will to be done, not mine (Mark 14:36 NLT).
Sometimes God's will is better done when one of his people bears a cross with courage rather than have her problem eliminated. That's why we surrender to his will over our own. That's why we accept the mystery inherent in his will.
When all is said and done, I should probably worry less about understanding the nature of prayer and simply pray.
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