Dear Working Preacher,
If you’re going to preach on the gospel reading from Luke this Sunday, I have some advice for you: clear some time on your schedule for additional pastoral counseling in the coming weeks.
Luke’s account of Jesus teaching his disciples to pray, and especially of Jesus’ additional comments on prayer, will stir up strong emotions and invite difficult questions. There are few things harder to talk about than prayer, especially when Jesus seems to say that believers can and should ask for anything they need and count on God’s affirmative answer.
This passage, as much as any other in the Bible, has created some intense difficulties for believers about the nature and efficacy of prayer. Take for instance, the young boys in my first congregation who prayed everyday that their dad be cured of cancer. He wasn’t, and they wanted to know why. Or consider the young woman in another congregation who told me of years of sexual abuse by her father. She told me she prayed and prayed that it would stop. It didn’t, at least not for many years, and she wanted to know why.
Unanswered prayer, in light of these verses, creates a huge crisis of faith. It puts honest believers in a bind between wondering whether God failed or they did. Most of us, believing it unfaithful to fault God, blame ourselves instead. We must not have had enough faith, or we didn’t have a sufficient number of other Christians praying for us, or we just didn’t pray the right way. Take the young woman I mentioned. She couldn’t understand why God hadn’t answered her prayers. She was just a little girl, defenseless and hurting. What had gone wrong? Eventually she concluded that she must not have prayed correctly. Since then, she said, she’s very, very careful about how she prays.
So what do we do, Working Preacher, when this kind of text presents itself and we know these kinds of stories and questions are lurking among our congregation? I’m honestly not sure. But maybe that’s the place to start. Perhaps we should start by acknowledging that prayer is difficult to understand. Perhaps by admitting our own limitations we’ll free our hearers to admit theirs, to ask their difficult questions without feeling unfaithful.
Perhaps, if we begin with our honest questions, we can then move to our honest convictions. For while there are lots of things I do not understand about prayer, there are two things I believe passionately. God wants us to pray. More than that, God wants us to ask for anything. The word many Bibles translate as “persistent” in Jesus’ parable on prayer (anaideia, 11:8) would actually be better translated as “shameless.” Our petitions to God, Jesus says, should be bold, audacious, shameless.
Prayer is more than asking for things, of course. Prayer is praise; prayer is thanksgiving; prayer is conversation; prayer is questioning; prayer is arguing; prayer is lamenting. Prayer is all these things and more. But prayer is also — and perhaps fundamentally — asking God for what we most need and desire…shamelessly.
Why do I think asking is so central to prayer? Because it affirms our fundamental dependence on God. God has given us many, many gifts, yet we never stray far from our original condition of ultimate dependence on God’s mercy, goodness, and provision. When we ask God for something in prayer, we acknowledge both our need and God’s goodness.
The second thing I believe is that God listens to our prayer. There is nothing more important to God than being in relationship with us, and so when we speak we can count on God’s attention. When my first child was born, I was overwhelmed by how much I loved him. I couldn’t get over how strong in the very first moments of his life was my desire to love, protect, and provide for him. In those initial moments, I looked forward to a lifetime of relationship, a lifetime of listening and talking, of laughing and even crying, together. If so with us, Jesus asks, how much more so with God (11:13).
So God wants us to pray, and God is listening. Beyond that, to be honest, I don’t know much. When the young woman gave me her rationale for why God didn’t answer her prayer, I told her as gently as I could that I didn’t think prayer worked that way, that I didn’t think prayer was like a vending machine that said “correct change only.” I admitted that I couldn’t explain why God allowed the abuse to continue, but that I absolutely did not think it was her fault. Further, I told her I believed God loved her, then and now. I said that I also thought that God was with her, suffering with her, holding onto her even at the darkest moments. I knew then and still know now that this can sometimes feel like small comfort amid our deep pain. Yet I believe in a God who meets us in the darkest, hardest, most painful moments of our lives. I believe in a God who knows pain and suffering, fear and loss first hand. I believe in a God who in Jesus took on our life and our lot and died so that we might know there is no where we can go that Christ hasn’t already gone, and that there is nothing we can do — or have done to us — that God cannot love and forgive, redeem and save.
What makes prayer hard is that we want so very much — and so very understandably — to know how it works. We want to understand prayer as a mechanism, as a formula, as something we can practice and perhaps master. Some of Jesus’ words in today’s gospel complicate these kinds of questions as well as any answers we might offer. But I think that beneath the mechanical question of “how” pulses the relational question of “who.” And here Jesus’ words do help. To whom are we praying? We are praying to the God who shamelessly loves us like a parent, but even more than we can ever imagine loving our own children.
I know these reflections may seem inadequate to the task before us. In a conversation with a friend some years ago along these lines, she finally asked with a measure of frustration in her voice, “Do you believe in prayer or don’t you.” I thought for time before answering, but finally said, “I don’t know if I believe in prayer, but I do believe in the God who listens to our prayers.”
I don’t know if all this helps, Working Preacher, but I do invite you to join in the struggle to give voice to our questions about prayer. I think this is one of those things that almost all Christians wonder about at one time or another, and sometimes with great urgency, and yet it is also something that we rarely talk about openly. Perhaps by making space in your sermon for our questions, you will help create space for both our speaking and listening. These conversations won’t be contained to the sermon, of course, and shouldn’t be. Perhaps they’ll continue in the pastoral counseling sessions I mentioned. Or maybe in the adult forum. Or maybe even in our homes and places of work. I hope so, because this is something we need to talk about…with you, with each other, and with God, boldly bringing our questions and convictions, our hopes and fears to the One who loves us deeply, passionately, shamelessly. I pray that it will be so.
Thank you for all you do, Working Preacher. Even more, thank God for you.
PS: If you’re preaching on Colossians, check out Deanna Thompson’s reflections on the full divinity of God residing in Christ and his body in relation to her experience with cancer.