Sometimes we pray like pagans and barter with God. "God, if you will do this or that," we beg, "then I will stop what I've been doing and start doing something else!" Pagan prayer - and much that passes for Christian, I fear - is like a giant roulette wheel at a gambling casino. You want to get well. Or you are desperate to pay bills. Or you are scared you are going to die. So you wish hard, close your eyes, and spin the wheel. If you are lucky, you get what you want!
Authentic prayers of faith are different. We go to the Lord and do what is normal and right. We ask his help. We throw ourselves on his mercy. But we do so with the caveat, "Not my will, but yours, be done!"
That is terribly risky, for we sometimes discover that God doesn't want the things we want. Sometimes he prefers that we learn to be content with what we have than to have all our cares banished. So Christians pray for health, deliverance, and long life; we more often remain ill, continue to struggle, and eventually all go to the grave. That isn't injustice. It isn't failure on God's part.
It is faith lived in the real world. When we get a Hezekiah-deliverance answer to our prayers, our duty is to tell of God's faithfulness to our children and to sing his praise in the key of gratitude; when we get a Jesus-in-Gethsemane answer, our duty is to bear witness of God's Easter-faithfulness to our children and to sing his praise in the key of hope. God hears and responds to our prayers.
"But how can you say that God 'hears' and 'responds to' our prayers if you admit that we don't always get the deliverance for which we pray?" someone objects. "Suffering is always a bad thing!" The only real answer I can give that question is in the form of an illustration rather than an explanation.
"During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.
"Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him . . ." (Hebrews 5:7-9).
Do we really have the right to demand more of prayer than came of Jesus' experience in Gethsemane? He was not spared suffering. And his suffering perfected him within his Father's will. Can it not play a similar role in ours?
Pray about anything and everything that is of concern to you today. But don't pray to dictate; pray to seek God's heart.
Ask for his will to be done, not yours.
Leaving God to be God is at the heart of an authentic Christian prayer.