Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Nature of Prayer

The other day, someone asked me if God grants us things for which we do not ask. I was finishing a hospital visit, and, as is my custom, I asked if there was anything in particular for which I should pray. I ask that question for several reasons. First and foremost, I want to be sure that the "patient" is given the chance to name precisely what is on her/his mind. But I also want to gauge what the outlook is for the "patient" and the family. What are they hoping for? What are they expecting? How can I provide pastoral care that is appropriate for a particular situation. For example, when a person stops asking for healing and starts asking for peace, it tells me something.

When I asked if there was anything for which I could pray, she said that she wanted us to pray for healing. It was a bold request. No one--doctors, nurses, specialists, family, patient, or priest--expects this particular situation to end with a cure. Before I could react to her request--either verbally or physically--she followed up with her question. Should we ask for it? If we don't ask for it, will God give it to us? Doesn't the bible say that God only grants our prayers if we ask for it?

As I said to her, I don't know where that is in the bible...or if it is in the bible. Perhaps it's a particularly limited interpretation of passages like Mark 11:24: "Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours." I explained that I didn't know the scriptural warrant for that approach to prayer, and, although I'm not one to disagree with the bible, I don't think that's how prayer works.

On Sunday, we will pray a collect that says a great deal about what we believe prayer is all about:
Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
I wish I had been quick enough on my feet to recall this prayer in that bedside moment. These words are very familiar to me, but they escaped me when I needed them. In fact, I say a form of these words almost every time I offer a concluding collect after the prayers of the people in our liturgy, and still they were just beyond my grasp. And perhaps that is the point. Sometimes we don't have the right words, but we trust in prayer that God knows better than we do.

I believe this statement is a gateway to meaningful prayer, and I hope it will become more permanently engrained on my heart. We are ignorant and sinful. We cannot see the big picture well enough to know what to say to God, and, even if we could, we still wouldn't have the spiritual composition necessary to ask for the right things.

Prayer is fundamentally an acknowledgment of our weakness. We say to God, "I need help. I need something." And, when we pray, we are making those requests to the one who is always able to help. We are not directing our prayers to a store clerk who may be out of stock or a magistrate who may have fallen asleep. We are praying to God, who always knows what we need even before we ask--and even if we fail to ask.

As I explained in that hospital room, God is not waiting for us to say the right words before he will take care of us. God's love and provision and blessing is always, always bigger than the words we use. When we search for the right words, therefore, it is not to make our request more powerful or specific but so that we can better recognize the source of the answers to our prayers. We ask for healing so that, when healing comes, we recognize that it is from God. We ask for healing so that, when healing does not come, we recognize that God is still answering our prayers though perhaps in other ways. But we never, ever conclude that God withheld his healing, blessing, or love simply because we did not ask for it. Unconditional love means just that--unconditional. God's love isn't conditional on our behavior, our recognition, or our requests.

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