I heard an interesting sermon on prayer the other day. It didn’t go full-blown name it and claim it, but it did miss a very important facet of prayer that I think is doing harm to the body of Christ.
In today’s self-help saturated church, people are led to think that if they have enough faith, sow a seed of expectation, and speak things into existence, their prayers will be answered by an all-loving “God” who can’t make a move until they activate their faith. Most sermons I hear on prayer will take Old Testament Law and promises made to the nation of Israel, and lock those into surefire promises for every one of us today.
The standard “7 Keys to a Better ________ (fill in the blank)” has become a formula in the modern evangelical church. No, this pastor didn’t go there at all. He preached out of James 5:16-18. When he got to the part about the prayer of a righteous man, he correctly explained that it is Christ that is righteous alone. And for those who are in Christ, we stand righteous before God based on the work of Christ on the Cross and not our own works and so we qualify for our prayers to be heard and to be effective. There wasn’t any allegorizing of the story of Elijah in verse 17. He didn’t narcissistically eisegete himself into the story at all.
So why did the sermon fall so flat for my wife and me?
Because the one facet of prayer that seems to be so widely ignored, or fumbled through, was not addressed. And that is, what do you do when your prayers are not answered? Sure, one could say prayers are always answered as yes, no, or not yet. We are told to stand strong on the promises of God and be patient. Everything in the Lord’s timing they say. Can I be honest enough to say that after 19 years of praying for a child, and to see that child worse off than ever, telling me to be patient and to have strength is the last thing I can receive in that moment? You can insert any example: family with cancer, drug abuse, a spouse has an affair and leaves you, etc. There are just times where it does not work out and people are going to ask, then why pray at all? Because, for them, it has not been effective.
As I sat looking at my wife with her look of anger, hurt, and defeat over her own prayers that have not seemed to be effective, I began to console her the best I could. I said, maybe we are being sold a faulty set of goods. Maybe the promises we are standing on are not the ones we need to remember during these times of sorrow. I began to think, what are the promises of God? I came up with this list for her as we spoke. They are no “7 Keys to ______ (fill in the blank),” but it was an honest look into our own situation.
Promise 1: The forgiveness of sins.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
-1 John 1:9
This may not seem to have anything to do with your child’s situation, cancer, divorce, etc., but it is everything. It means that our best life is not now, and that through penitent faith in Christ, your sins are forgiven and your eternity is with him. I find it important to remember no matter how bad it gets down here on earth, this isn’t all there is to the story. I think it is also important to remember that, in some of our hardships, we are praying for what amounts to a person’s own sin and walk with the Lord. This obviously doesn’t work in every situation like sickness, but if your kid has decided to walk away from their faith, and make destructive decisions, it is they that need to repent and turn to the Lord. We can’t blame Satan or God for our own sinful decisions.
Promise 2: Jesus didn’t promise to solve every problem, but he did promise to be with you during everything you go through.
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.
Jesus says this to the disciples right before his betrayal and crucifixion. He doesn’t say, “I am going to the cross, and after I do, mansions, divine health, and prosperity for everyone!”
In the world you will have tribulation. And yes, we sure do. And it’s heartbreaking, and it hurts, and it seems so dark and alone when it happens. And in those moments, our prayers are communing with God who is right there by our side. There is comfort. Even if there is not remedy, there is comfort knowing this isn’t all there is to our existence. We didn’t get screwed out of our best life now. Our best life is in Christ in whatever we face.
There is comfort knowing you are not alone.
I don’t know if this really answers the everything. For my wife, it seemed to give some comfort knowing at least there is “real” in the Bible. That it isn’t false sunshine being shoved at you when the truth is that life is bat crap crazy and you just want off the crazy train. The pain is real, and his presence is real as well.
May God comfort you in your times of tribulation. Keep praying. Amen.