Sunday, 22 March 2015
TEACH US TO PRAY 4: PERSEVERANCE
This week our Lent group was, ironically, about what happens when nothing happens when you pray. We've all been there. The somewhat extravagant claims made by Jesus about 'asking anything in my name' were felt by some to be unfortunate, to say the least. Clearly we sometimes ask for things which don't appear to happen, and, in extreme cases, it can make us feel abandoned.
A common one for me was praying the baby would sleep. Or stop coughing. Or not get another cold. Please can we get a parking space at the Dr's. No. Please can I get at least 3 hours sleep before I have to get up and go to the supermarket. No. Please don't let it be chicken pox. It's chicken pox.
Interestingly, depending on your background, it would seem that some people, when things go wrong in life, and prayer doesn't seem to 'work', just think 'this is normal', and carry on with their Christian faith regardless, while others say things like 'what is happening...I don't understand... where is God?' It must just depend on your point of view I suppose.
Problematically, Jesus did go around saying 'whatever you ask for, in prayer with faith, you will receive' (e.g. Matthew 21:22; Mark 11:24 and John 14:13) sometimes adding the handy caveat 'in my name', which does somewhat narrow it down. So what are we to conclude when prayer remains unanswered?
One thing is simply to persevere - it might be a question of timing. Here's a notable difference in how prayer is seen by different people: if you take a 'slot machine' view of prayer, it won't come as a surprise that often the machine won't work and your result will fail to pop out when you want it. However, when the disciples asked 'Lord, teach us to pray', Jesus began by saying 'when you pray, say 'Our Father'. Prayer is a relationship with a loving parent who wants to give us good things. When we persevere in prayer, sometimes over years, we are changed and we grow closer to God. Someone has described it as a father trying to teach his child to ride a bike. The best way is not to hold onto the child as tightly as possible, but hold the saddle instead, sometimes taking your hand off when they're not looking. This way the rider grows in confidence; the child grows up; the believer learns to stand on their own two feet.
It used to bother me that I couldn't honestly say 'I heard God tell me so-and-so' but I've come to realise that divine guidance is more subtle than that. When I look back at so many moments in ministry, to where God's hand seemed very present, I can see I just followed the faintest of hunches, but they for the most part turned out to be serendipitous.
And where there appeared to be silence, it didn't necessarily mean absence.
A final thought we took away from the group this week was that perseverance, when you keep going in the face of (as yet) unanswered prayer, develops in us something even more precious than faith. And that's faithfulness. This quality shines in so many persevering Old and New Testament characters, who themselves lived with unanswered prayer (including Jesus) but continued to cleave to God anyway. Much more than singling you out as the lucky one who always hits the jackpot in prayer, faithfulness shows what kind of person you are. Faithfulness is a quality worth waiting for.