Recently, a parent reached out to me asking for help. The children were upset at God because multiple important prayers related to the health and well-being of friends and family hadn't been answered. They've been taught by the Church that prayer is about telling God what you want, and because God loves you and cares for you, you'll get what you want. Even Jesus said, "Whatever you ask in prayer, you'll receive" (Matthew 21:22, Mark 11:24, John 14:13, and John 16:23-24!).
They complained, "If that's prayer, where's God when our prayers aren't answered?" That's a tough question. Jesus asked it himself on the Cross. But Jesus didn't approach prayer as a means to an end. Instead, Jesus' prayers sound more like him talking to someone he loves. Prayer is a conversation.
I can hear your objection: I've never heard the Lord verbally talking to me. Throughout the Bible, you'll often read "And the Lord said" or "The Lord spoke to so-and-so, saying". But no sounds have resounded from heaven telling me what to do. God has never spoken out loud to me. Conversations involve talking and listening. In prayer, talking is easy, but how do we listen?
Few people probably hear God speak out loud, but the blessing of Christianity is that we believe in a god who became incarnate in Jesus Christ. Not only do we have the life of Jesus as a witness to God's will, but we have the prayer he taught us as a guide as well as the whole of Scripture and the saints who testify to God's will. With gifts like these, we can find God speaking to us the same way one might know what a partner or parent might say even when they aren't present.
Take the Lord's Prayer as a simple example. What do we hear God telling us in this prayer?
Jesus calls God "Father". Is it the role of parents to fix all our problems? If God's the best parent, then maybe God's more concerned about comforting us and helping us learn how to love rather than doing all the work for us.
We pray "Your will be done". Maybe this implies that my will isn't always the same as God's will. That's always tough to swallow. But it makes us ask: What is God's will? And just because it's not our will doesn't mean it's the opposite. If we want someone to live and they are clearly going to die, does it mean God's will is for them to die? The Scripture repeatedly screams no! What is God's will?
We repeatedly ask God for help in this prayer. So even if we don't understand God's will, should that stop us from begging for help? By no means!
What might praying like this look like in real life? Here's an example of a real prayer I prayed with that parent to help them learn how to converse with God, as the family struggles with the news of a terminal illness:
God, I want you to take it away. I want you to undo it. I want this day and this news to never have happened. I want Grandpa to never be sick, to never die.
But this day did happen. Grandpa is sick. You've blessed this world with healing tools like there's never been before, but even then it may take a miracle. I want a miracle!
But let's be honest, God. We treat miracles as these you-should-fix-everything-always events, yet the only miracles in the Bible are the ones that are used for a specific purpose. I don't understand why you don't deal out miracles willy-nilly.
Yet I do understand why. Because you're goal isn't to fix all our problems for us. It's to fix us so that there are no more problems to fix. Miracles fix the effect, but you really want to fix the cause.
Don't think this doesn't mean I don't still want a miracle. Maybe you could use it to strike new faith in many people. That's be awesome.
If a miracle isn't your plan, then help me in this moment. Because I DON'T UNDERSTAND! I don't know how to deal with it. It's like all the wrong in the world has moved into my body, and it's overwhelming (and I'm saying this knowing I'm not even the one who has cancer - ugh, even in my prayers I'm selfish, God).
Just, just... God, hold me. Comfort me. Give me that peace Jesus talks about. Because I don't want to spend my Grandpa's last days, if this should be what they are, so angry at you that I can't fully love him. That's what's really the most important. Help me love Grandpa. Even when it's hard. Even when it breaks my heart because it means watching him die.
Because I think this is why you brought me to this moment, so that he doesn't forget your love as he dies. So that he doesn't die alone. So that he doesn't die in despair or depression but in hope and faith.
Maybe that's my really prayer, God: Help me to be your presence to Grandpa, that he may live or, if it must be, die with the joy that only comes from being loved. Amen.
The prayer started with wanting a miracle. Yet as I listened to God, I began to move from an overwhelming sense of pain to wondering what God would want for Grandpa as he dies. The demand for a miracle never left, but God helped me hear what Grandpa needs from me. It hurt to admit the truth, but I was changed simply because I listened. If I never spent time with God to say with full honest, "Grandpa's probably dying and I feel like my world is being destroyed and how did I just make this all about me?" would I have been able to hear God ask me, "What does Grandpa need from you right now?"
When you pray, remember you're having a conversation with God. Don't just list off your Christmas list and say "Amen". God is not "Super Santa". Take time to listen. Wonder how the witness of Christ and the words of our faith help you with your concern. I constantly find God changing my thinking on every request I make. But more importantly, I find myself probing the heart of God, trying to make sense of how God loves me and the world.
That's prayer at its best: Putting us right in the center of God's love.