For many, there appears to be a problem with prayer. "It's a one-way conversation." "It doesn't seem to work." "God takes too long to answer." "God does what He wants anyway."
Crushed between the mortar and pestle of life, it's easy to think there's a serious problem with prayer: God. When God doesn't answer according to our will, we can get frustrated. We can feel like our prayers are just floating around the galaxy, too insignificant to catch the Creator's attention. In the midst of this disappointment, we're often too slow to accept that the problem with prayer is not God, but us.
The Problem of Misunderstanding Prayer
I used to think that life would be a lot easier if God answered a few more strategic prayers — just a couple key petitions to remind us that He's listening. I was convinced that a profound healing here and there would add spice to the life of the church.
Then God healed Karen.
Our Sunday school class gathered for desperate prayer the night before the surgery to remove a tumor from Karen's brain. The surgery would probably render her unable to speak for a long time. Leading the prayer, I asked God to comfort her husband, daughter, and family at this time of crisis, to help the surgeons, to speed her recovery, and — if He willed — to miraculously heal her.
Of course, that last part was just for show. Although I believed God could heal Karen, I was certain He would use less glorious means. As we drove home, I even told my wife, "Karen will probably never be the same again."
The next morning the tumor had disappeared.
I assumed Karen's response would be just as profound as God's answer to prayer. After all, when a person experiences the awesome intervention of the Almighty God, we should expect an explosive revival, right?
Less than a year later, Karen left the church and divorced her husband.
I had always thought answers to prayer would strengthen faith and ignite thanksgiving. Disappointed in Karen's response, I was reminded that even the Israelites grumbled and rebelled in the midst of powerful answers to their requests (Numbers 11:1-4).
You see, the problem with prayer is not God, but us.
The Problem of Abusing Prayer
When I was a new Christian, I mistakenly followed the "prosperity gospel," the "name it-claim it" theology that overwhelmed Christian television and bookstores — and continues to overwhelm today. "Don't make negative confessions," I was told. "If you're sick, confess that you're healed!"
On one occasion, I mentioned to a self-proclaimed "prophetess" that I was going bald. Instantly, she placed her hand on my head and shouted, "No you're not — in the name of Jesus!" That "prophetess" treated prayer like a credit card she could whip out at any time to make major purchases.
We may not be as extreme as that woman, but we can all fall into the trap of abusing prayer. While we may tack on a halfhearted "Thy will be done," deep down we think, "No! My will be done!" Yes, Christ said, "Ask, and it will be given to you" (Matthew 7:7), but his brother James reminds us, "You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives" (James 4:3).
Once again, the problem with prayer is not God, but us.
Correcting the Problem with Prayer
After a dozen years in Bible college, seminary, and Ph.D. studies, I'd hoped to finally have a handle on prayer. I don't. In fact, the more I pray, the less I understand its profound mysteries. However, I've come to several conclusions that might help correct our perceived problems with prayer.
First, we need to understand that the purpose of prayer is not for God to please us, but for God to change us. If a father constantly gives in to a little child's whiny demands, we'd take him for a lousy parent. Why, then, do some think God's a stubborn God when He doesn't give us everything we want? We need to trust that God is wise and powerful enough to answer rightly — and right on time. 1 John 5:14 says, "This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us." That is, God won't jump at every loose-lipped confession. Prayer offered up in true faith submits to His will — our sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3). God's will is to change us, not please us.
Second, we need to accept that the power of prayer is perceived in even the smallest response. I'm convinced that humans don't fully comprehend how little we deserve God's love and grace. Consider that what we regard as "crumbs" of answered prayer may really be bountiful feasts once we realize that God owes us nothing (Genesis 32:9-10; Luke 7:6-9). When we adjust our attitude about our own unworthiness to receive God's favor, we'll never regard "small" answers to prayer as insignificant.
Finally, we need to acknowledge that the process of prayer is not as important as the attitude of prayer. When God chose in His sovereignty to heal Karen, He did so even though none of us expected it. Our feeble prayer was a simple act of faith — turning our worries over to God's care (Philippians 4:6; 1 Peter 5:6-7). Christians can get hung up on method, worried that they haven't said the right words, haven't prayed hard or often enough, or haven't believed deeply enough. That's hocus-pocus, not prayer (Matthew 6:5-8). If you're concerned about not praying with the right words or for the right things, memorize Romans 8:26 — God's Spirit even helped Paul pray!
Of course these reminders are easy to read, but they're not easy to live. To our finite human minds, we'll always perceive "problems" with prayer. Are you struggling with your prayer life, not seeing results, wondering if God is listening? It might be time for an attitude change. It might be time to finally accept that the problem with prayer is not God, but us.
Adapted from Michael J. Svigel, "The Problem with Prayer," Insights (October 2005): 1-2. Copyright © 2005 by Insight for Living. All rights reserved worldwide.