I am convinced that most Christians – at least more than who would admit it – consider prayer to be something of a hit-or-miss proposition.
What I mean by that is that we, and I include myself in this, approach prayer as a sort of crap shoot: we pray so that God will do something (without knowing or daring to assume what), we pray in hopes He’ll intervene (while knowing it is equally possible He might choose not to do so), and we pray for God’s action or guidance (without knowing what that guidance might be to or about).
Prayer, in other words, illustrates the heart of a particular Christian tension: the gap between what God can do, and what we as believers think or know God will do. And if you say you haven’t felt that tension, you’re lying. As Christians, we know that God can do…well, anything. He can bring the dead to life. He can defeat death. He can heal sickness and deformity. He can save souls. He can fill His children with the Spirit. He can create from nothing. The list goes on and on.
But when it comes to what God will do… Well, believers don’t often know. At least not in certain ways. And our prayer life forces us to acknowledge that. I remember many years ago in my old home church a dearly beloved woman in her fifties, a wife, mother, and grandmother, was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Her family was devastated. The church immediately devoted itself to prayer. Serious prayer, in hopes of a miraculous healing. Teams of prayer warriors gathered at the church on bent knees and with faces to the ground in shifts to pray. Believers fasted and prayed. The woman and her family prayed.
And then, unfortunately, she passed away. And not only did she pass, but the process of her dying was unexpectedly lengthy and painful for both her and the family. Believers were crushed. Some announced the death as an answer to the requested prayer – “She was miraculously healed! In heaven!” – in what has always sounded to me like trying to scratch out victory on a technicality. Some people simply said, “God could have healed this woman miraculously on earth, but chose not to do so.” And that, I think, comes closer to the truth. God can do anything we ask…but sometimes He won’t.
I think that truth can infect our prayer lives. Because if most of the things we are praying about fall into that gap – the gap of “God can do something about this, but I don’t know if He will, so I’ll just pray about it anyway” – our concept of God as not granting us any certainties becomes contagious. Our prayers become shrugs, a default tossing-up of our concerns to God in hopes He will act today on the things we care about, a resignation to peace no matter the circumstances.
But here’s a new flash: we are meant to pray in certainty, as believers. We absolutely are meant to pray with the expectation of God doing specific, certain things in response to our prayers. We are meant to be able to ask for x thing and to expect that God only not can give us that, but will give us that. I am beginning to believe that the majority of our prayers should not be “I know you can do this, God, if you want,” but “I know you will do this, Lord, as You have said.”
The difference between the two lies in the subject of our prayers.
Don’t misunderstand me. It is good to pray for healing and miracles and signs and interventions and God’s work in situations. Philippians 4:6-7, which is the verse I have been living lately, encourages us to “in every situation…present your requests to God.” But a lot of time these desires for godly intervention comprise the bulk of our prayer lives. And it’s true that in the Bible there are no guarantees of answer for these prayers. God does not say He will always miraculously heal the dying or the sick. He does not promise to make your problem go away. He does not promise to help sort out the troubling thing for you. He can, but He does not say for certain that He will.
Rather, the certainties in the Bible are the promises we receive in the Word. Like in Philippians 4:6-7 where we are promised that if we present the things we are anxious about to God with prayer and thanksgiving, we will then receive “a peace that transcends understanding.” Or that “there is now therefore no condemnation” for believers in Christ (Romans 8). Or that God will always provide a way for believers to escape temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13). These are the things that God not only can do, but will do. He has promised! It is written! About these matters there is no need to shrug and say, “Well, if God wills…” God does will. And His word is not void.
In the past five days I have become more convinced than ever that if we are going to have a faith that matters, we need to practice a faith that matters – we need to exercise our faith when we pray. God has given us a storehouse of riches in His word and said, “Just ask, and you can have anything you want.” Instead, in our prayer lives we tend to see something shiny in a shop down the street, point at it, and hope it’s His will for us to have that instead. Might we not be wiser to reverse it? Might we not practice our faith in asking God for things that He has promised to give – and then expecting them?
In closing, I’ll tell you what this has looked like for me recently.
I hate flying. Hate it. Have to do it anyway. And my prayers about flying have ranged from “God, make it so I don’t have to go” (doesn’t work) to “God, make every plane flight perfect so I’m not freaked out” (happens about 50/50) to “God, make me love flying” (nope). I know God can do those things, but in asking, knew He very well might not will to do them. Instead, on my last trip, I began to pray fervently the promise of Philippians 4:6-7, which for me looked something like: “…okay, so I know that if I am anxious about this and I approach you with it with thanksgiving, whatever happens you will give me peace. You promised. You willed it.”
And so He did.
Please know I’m not asking you to stop praying for all the little and big things that fall into the gap between what God will do, and what God can do. Just be sure, in the meantime, to bulk up your prayer life with the promises found in the Word – the things that God has told you that He not only can do, but will do. Praying in such a way is a practical way to practice and strengthen your faith. Rather than relying on your ability to shrug and say “well, if God wills it,” praying the promises and praying for the certainties God has promised will test your ability to believe what God says – and it is a blessing through which God has permitted you to test His Word.