Thursday, September 1, 2011

Getting God To Do What We Want

Often, when people talk about prayer, what they really want to know is how to get God to do what they want. There have been a number of studies that have attempted to see if prayer could be used for medicinal purposes. The result has been mixed. Some studies indicate that people come through surgery better when people are praying for them while others indicate they don’t or even do worse when people are praying for them. But no matter what the study results show, the goal of the prayer was to get God to do what we want. And that’s just a little silly, when you think about it. God is bigger than the Universe. Our expecting God to do whatever we want is similar to an ant walking across our kitchen counter asking us to put out some sugar for him, when we’re more likely to squish the little creature, and rightly so. We are nothing compared to God. And yet, the lines of communication are open between us and God. Jesus did that for us on the cross. The Bible encourages us to pray. What then is the purpose?

Some people have said that prayer is more about getting us in line with God than it is about getting God to do what we want. In some ways, that makes a lot of sense. Imagine if the ant asked for sugar and we could tell it, “I’m not going to put any on the counter, but I spilled some syrup by the stove this morning that I haven’t had time to clean up. If you guys will clean it up, that would be great.” Ants don’t listen when we tell them such things, so we squish them, but if they could, it would be similar to our asking the Lord for something and him pointing us in a different direction. But this theory on prayer has its problems as well. Consider the mother who is sitting at her baby’s hospital bed, anxious to know whether he will live or die. Only an idiot would go up to her and say, “You’re young. You can have another baby.” It might surprise you how many well meaning people will approach a single purpose who longs for a spouse only to say, “Marriage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” The problem with this theory is that it implies that whatever state a person is in, no matter how much pain it may cause him, he should be happy with it because it is what God wants for him. He should pray, but only to help him learn to accept the hardships God has dumped on him.

We seem to have a problem. Prayer isn’t magic, though some denominations teach that it is. You can’t buy a book of prayers that have worked for other people and receive what they received by praying their prayers. Putting the phrase “in Jesus’ name” at the end of every prayer doesn’t force God to do what we want, though I’ve heard people say they thought it did. God does what he pleases. But prayer has little purpose if it doesn’t change things. Oh, sure, we can offer up thanksgiving. We can offer up praise. We can confess our sins and say we’re sorry. All of that can take the form of prayer, but that’s usually not what we’re talking about when we talk about prayer. If God is going to do what he is going to do anyway, what’s the point of asking him for anything? God knows our needs, so we might as well learn to be happy with whatever he gives us and skip all the bellyaching.

The funny thing is, there are plenty of examples in the Bible where people prayed and God granted their requests. There are also examples where they didn’t receive what they asked for and even some where they regretted that they received their request. To be fair, there are examples of people who prayed and God gave them a better understanding of the situation. Going on these examples, there’s more to prayer than just aligning our desires with God’s or requesting the things we need. There really is some degree of getting God to do what we want and it is significant. But God is neither a person we can trick or a puppet on a string. So just what is this thing we call prayer?

Consider Philippians 4:6,7, “Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” The phrase “be careful for nothing” here means, “don’t worry.” The opposite of worry appears to be that we make our requests known unto God. And verse seven does indicate that the result will be peace, but we shouldn’t take that to mean that the only thing God will give us is peace. It doesn’t say, “ask God to give you peace concerning this,” it says, “let your request be made known unto God.” God wants us to ask for things.

I see it like this: What the Lord is saying is “it’ll be okay.” He wants us to make requests of him. He doesn’t promise that we’ll always get what we ask for or that we won’t face hardships, but it’ll be okay. If we believe we’re going to heaven, then even death isn’t final. We may lose a loved one in this life, but it’ll be okay. But there’s more to it than that or there would be no need for us to make our requests known to God. What the Lord is looking for from us is trust. He wants us to trust that everything will work out in the end, but he also wants us to trust that he will take care of us in this life.