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How Do You Get Prayer to “Work”?

I say unto you, “Ask, and it shall be given. Seek and you shall find. Knock, and the door shall be opened unto you. For whoever asks, receives; and whoever seeks, finds; and to whoever knocks, the door is opened.” – Matthew 7:7–8

What a promise! Do you need anything? Just ask, and you’ll get it. Do you have problems that seem to have no solution? Just seek, and you’ll find! Do you only see closed doors in front of you? Just knock, and they’ll swing open! Getting from God’s hand everything I lack, everything I desire, and everything I want is what prayer is all about, right?

I’m not sure why, but sometimes I have problems swallowing that.

Jesus teaches us to start our prayers by remembering we belong to God’s family—the family that God has rescued and is gathering together from all nations.

I knew a precious lady—a friend I used to go to church with—whose name was Phyllis. Phyllis was an attractive, active, pleasant woman, full of zest for life and still quite young. She had a great husband named Fred who loved her, two married children, and her first grandchild on the way. Phyllis and Fred loved the Lord and were faithful in church. They were always in their place every Sunday.

One day, Phyllis was taking her customary jog when she noticed a nagging pain in her side. At first, she thought she’d pulled a muscle, but the pain persisted for several days, getting even worse. Finally, she went to the doctor. After a battery of tests, she learned that she had liver cancer. Immediately, she began the most aggressive treatment available. She went through all the misery and suffering that goes with chemotherapy and radiation, but her condition continued to worsen.

Finally, the doctors told her that the only hope of a cure was to have a liver transplant; however, to qualify, she must be clear of cancer in every other part of her body. Another even more intense battery of tests followed.

One by one, her vital organs were cleared until the very last—her lungs. I was in the room with Phyllis and her family when the doctor came in to tell her that there was a spot on one of her lungs, and that, because of this, there was nothing more they could do for her. She would be sent home and made as comfortable as possible until she died.

Immediately, we prayed, placing her in God’s hands, asking him to do what the doctors couldn’t do. During the weeks and months that followed, Phyllis and her family prayed fervently. A group of friends from church went to her house and had a special prayer meeting, asking God for healing.

About the same time, another faithful member of the same church, a friend named Nate, who was about Phyllis’ same age, was diagnosed with a serious and life-threatening skin cancer. We also prayed for Nate. The same group of friends went to his house and had a special prayer meeting. The same people. The same request. The result? Nate got well and is still in good health today. Phyllis, after months of excruciating suffering, died.

What are we to do with this? Here were two people who loved God, who were committed to him and ready to serve him. Both of them trusted in the Lord for healing. One was healed. The other was not. How do you explain it?

How do you get prayer to work?

Some might say it’s a question of morality: God listens to the prayers of good people and ignores the prayers of bad ones. But I’ve seen so much suffering by so many dedicated, moral people (and also the apparent blessing of a few people I didn’t think deserved it) that I’m just not buying that explanation.

Others might say it’s a matter of faith: you have to believe … hard. Maybe Phyllis just had that hint of doubt, and consequently, she wasn’t healed. But I remember a particular father who cried out to Jesus and said, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Faith has to be something more than just believing hard.

Prayer, after all, is not getting what we want from God. It’s receiving from God all that he wants to give

Still others might say that it’s a matter of asking according to the will of God. My problem here is that I have so much difficulty sometimes understanding just what God’s will is in a given situation. Do I have to wait until I’m certain of God’s will before I can pray? I just can’t see God expecting us to live in this constant guessing game about what’s going on in his mind.

All of this leads me to the question that Jesus’ disciples asked him at the beginning of this passage: “Lord, how should we pray? John the Baptist taught his disciples to pray. Why don’t you teach us?”

Jesus responds with a sample prayer that is only 45 words long, a promise, and two parables to give them an idea of just what prayer is. Maybe these stories can help.

Story #1: The Friend Nobody Wants

The first is a story about the kind of friend nobody wants. He shows up, knocking at his friend’s door at midnight, knowing that all the lights are out, and the family is most certainly asleep in bed. It’s an awful time—convenient for no one but himself. And the worst of it is, he has a ridiculous request: “I have a visitor in my house—another friend who came to see me—and I have nothing to feed him. Couldn’t you get out of bed, wake up your kids, bother your family, lose some sleep and wreck your work day tomorrow—just for the sake of going to your kitchen and getting me some bread to feed my houseguest?”

I like to think I don’t have any friends who would abuse me that way. But, in fact, I have had friends just like that. They only appear when they want something. One friend of mine customarily says (joking, of course!) “What are friends for if you can’t use them?” The truth is, I don’t consider people like that to be my best friends. They appear in front of me at the most inconvenient moments with some silly demand—and they won’t let me go until they get what they want. They’re not friends; they are people who see me as a means to their ends. They’re users. But at the end of the day, according to what Jesus says in verse 8, it’s not because the caller was his friend that the guy got up to take care of him—it was because of his boldness, his persistence, his stubbornness, and his unmitigated gall! Giving away the food was his only way to be free of the man, so he got up and gave him what he wanted. This story provides some interesting implications for prayer, don’t you think?

When I was a kid, my parents were missionaries in Mexico, and they worked with another missionary by the name of JT. He was legendary for his persistence. The story of how JT got his permanent residence papers is well known. Usually, it took months or even years to get papers, but he wanted to do it during the summer break of the school where he taught. The first day, he went to the immigration office with his paperwork and placed it on the counter in front of the appropriate official. The person said the words that all immigrations officials say, the world over, “Come back in 2 weeks.” (This doesn’t mean that the papers will be ready in 2 weeks, it just means you can come back in two weeks.) JT said, “That’s OK, I’ll wait.” And he sat down with a very thick book next to the person’s desk and waited. Ever so often, he would go up to the counter and say, “So where are my documents now? Are they ready?” Before the end of the day, this official expedited his documents, stamping, and signing them and sending them on to the next bureaucrat, just to get rid of JT. JT followed his documents to the next office and did the same thing. At the end of the day, he went home to rest, but the next morning he was right there when the office opened up again, book in hand, ready to irritate, annoy, and put people on edge until he had his visa in hand. Result: JT accomplished in two weeks what it sometimes took two years and thousands of dollars to do—he got his visa, and it didn’t cost a dime!

Is this what prayer is? Is it cutting through the red tape of heaven by our pure stubbornness and obstinacy? Is it making a pest of yourself, bugging God until He gives you what you want? After all, prayer is a matter of getting what we want from God, right?

Story #2: The Boldness of Claiming

Maybe the second parable will shed some more light. It’s an entirely different story. The person in the first parable gets what he wants not because of his relationship, but because of his boldness. The person in the second parable gets what he wants because of the relationship. It’s the story, or at least the image, of a father and son. If the child asks for a piece of bread, Jesus says, the Father isn’t going to give him a stone. And if it’s an egg he wants, the father isn’t going to give him a scorpion. Of course not! The boy is his son! He has rights! Fathers give the best to their children, not the worst. Let’s take advantage of the fact that we’re children of God. Demand from God what you want. He’s obligated to give it to you. It’s your birthright.

There are quite a few people who proclaim a message just like that these days. “God is a father who loves us. Like any father, he wants us all to be healthy and wealthy. If we don’t have everything we want, it’s  because we are not claiming our rights as his children.”

I used to work in a small church that was down the road from a massive “prosperity” church. The pastor of that church was famous because he was on TV every day, inviting people to a life of riches and well-being. All you had to do, according to him, was to send your money to his ministry and, in so doing, claim your birthright as a child of God. It was a huge church—a cathedral. Thousands of people went there, and thousands more sent the man millions and millions of dollars. Occasionally, some of these people would show up in our church. I called them the “refugees of prosperity.” They had given everything to this man and had ended up disappointed, disillusioned, and defeated.

Is this what prayer is? Claiming our birthright? Storming the gates of heaven and demanding what we want from our heavenly father because he’s obligated to give it to us? After all, prayer is all about getting what we want from God, right?

I don’t know. I still struggle with this.

It seems that, if this is true, the result will be spoiled children. And if it’s not, the result will be disillusioned children. There must be something more that we’re missing. And I think it might be in the very last verse of the passage.

The Answer to Prayer

Jesus says, “If you, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”

Who said anything about the Holy Spirit? I thought we were talking about loaves of bread, fishes, and eggs. Sure it’s figurative language, but it makes sense that when we translate it into our contemporary lives, we’d be talking about houses, healings, and automobiles, right? No one asks for the Holy Spirit—and why would you? The Holy Spirit doesn’t make your life any easier. He convicts you of sin. He calls you to confess and to repent—change things around in your life. He reveals truth—truth that you’d often prefer to stay hidden! He demands commitment. He comforts us when things go badly, but I’d personally prefer that things just didn’t go badly so that I wouldn’t need any comfort. The Holy Spirit gives gifts to God’s children, obligating them to use them in serving him. The Holy Spirit produces fruit, binding us to live with the character of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is not necessarily at the top of most of our lists of things to ask God for; however, Jesus gives this one particular application in his teaching about prayer.

Maybe we should take a closer look at what Jesus is teaching in this passage. He responds to his disciples’ question, first with a model prayer that is made up of six brief requests—only one of which has anything to do with material things. And this request is just for the necessities of life. All the others ask for priorities that are not of this world—“Hallowed be your name . . . Your kingdom come . . . Forgive us . . . Lead us not into temptation . . . Deliver us from evil.”

Next, he tells two parables and makes a promise. One parable calls us to be bold in prayer—persistent—entering with confidence in the presence of the Lord to make our requests. The other parable speaks of God’s desire, as our Father, to always give us the best. But it doesn’t say that the Father will always give the piece of bread, or the fish, or the egg that the child asks for. It may be that what the Father gives is a nice warm vegetable soup. The promise says that whoever asks, receives. But it doesn’t say that he always receive exactly what he asked for. It says that whoever seeks, finds, but it doesn’t say that what she finds will be what she expected. It says that whoever knocks will find that the open door, but the scene on the other side of the door may or may not be what you imagined.

I’m starting to get the feeling that prayer, after all, is not getting everything we want from God. But if it’s not that, what is it? 

Prayer is About What He Wants to Accomplish

Maybe Jesus is telling his disciples—and, by extension, telling us—that prayer is more about what he has come to accomplish than it is about giving us what we want. He didn’t come to make us happy, or comfortable, or prosperous. Jesus didn’t come to fill our lives with houses, healings, or automobiles. He came to make us holy, to make us new, and to make us fruitful. We expect prayer to change things, and we are right to do so. But the first thing that prayer changes is not our circumstances or our health or our financial status. The first thing prayer changes is us!

Prayer is not about getting what we want from God. Prayer is about receiving from God’s hand what he wants to give. It is about opening our lives and our hearts to be changed, transformed, and prepared for his kingdom.

Conclusion

Remember my friend Phyllis? Let me tell you the rest of her story. From that day in the hospital and on, she and her family and friends began to pray fervently that God would cure her. As the weeks and months passed, she continued to grow weaker and weaker in her body. But an amazing thing happened. Even as her body weakened, her spirit grew stronger and stronger. At a certain point, she called her children to her and said, “I am confident that God is going to heal me. He may heal me by working a miracle in my body so that I can continue to live a while longer on this earth. Or he may heal me by taking me on to be with him in heaven now. I want you to know that either way, I’ll consider it God’s cure, and I’ll be happy.”

During those last months, her suffering was unimaginable. She lost so much weight that sometimes, from one week to the next, I couldn’t even recognize her. But at the same time, her face grew more radiant with each passing day. And her life during those days was an unforgettable blessing to everyone who knew her. Her family experienced a spiritual growth and depth of relationship with God they had never encountered in the best of times. Her Christian friends were encouraged and challenged every time they were around her; it was as if we could see eternity in her eyes. And her friends who were not believers saw in her such a compelling picture of God’s grace that some of them came to Christ as a result. No one who knew Phyllis during those days escaped the hand of God reaching out to us through her. And when the day of her death came, it was like a gift—a liberation. And her funeral was a celebration of God’s grace and provision.

Prayer, after all, is not getting what we want from God. It’s receiving from God all that he wants to give.

Ask, seek, and knock. Be bold in your prayers. Be persistent. And be trusting. Be prepared for God’s presence to change you. Come to your Father with a passion for receiving from him what is best!

Dr. Glenn Watson teaches preaching at the Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary. He is passionate about preaching that is Bible-based, gospel-driven, and story-shaped. He blogs at Preaching Prof.