Prayers that work

Can you think of the times you’ve called out to God without a response from him? Do prayers seem to bounce back from heaven? Have you ever asked him, “Where are you when I need you? Why don’t you answer me?” Do we need to find some magic formula to stir God? Or to placate him first? Does he even exist?

I was at this point once; starting to think God was a fantasy for fools. But that changed when he answered me. After that moment—when I first came to faith—prayer came alive for me.

Yet I say this as a confession, not a boast. Here’s why.

I used to approach God on my terms, not his. I expected him to support me in my sin: something he, as a good God, never does. How likely, for instance, is it that the head nurse of a treatment center will give a flask of whiskey to an imploring alcoholic? And what is the prospect that God will answer my prayers when I’m in active rebellion against him?

This analogy may seem misplaced at first glance. Many prayers even among non-Christians are selfless: offered for the healing of a friend or relative; for a marriage to be restored; or employment to be gained. And God certainly doesn’t have a ‘sin-o-meter’ to measure whether we’re naughty or nice before he hears a prayer. So why use the analogy of an addict searching for codependent support?

The analogy points to a larger context for prayer: to a proper relationship with God. Am I asking God to do my will? Or am I coming to ask God—as my loving Lord and shepherd—to share his love with others? If I’m united to Christ I know his compassion for those who need to be healed, restored, or employed is greater than my own. And that’s always true of him no matter where my heart is towards him.

So the question of relationship is the proper starting point as we think about prayer. Are we still sinners: those who prefer independence from God? Are we maintaining a pretense of semi-divinity even as we pray to the only true God? Are we asking God to serve us when, in crisis, we realize he alone has the powers we wish we had?

The underlying issue is an ambition to be like God. It comes with a desire to control life: to avoid pain and death while gaining comfort and security. And, with us, to have our friends and family avoid pain and find security.

This is the life of sin. God allowed—but did not impose—this sin in the world. Why? To expose sin for what it is: a destructive reversal of all God’s ways. And the Father sent the Son to rescue us from the reversals of sin. He not only paid the price of sin—dying our death for us—he also wants us to despise sin before we join him in eternity as his bride.

In effect this age immunizes believers to the devil’s offerings. We’ve tasted sin and now—after tasting Christ’s alternative love—we hate evil. So the epic story is relived in each soul that repents: Adam got what he wanted and we now get what Christ wants. To ask the question again, do we still want what Adam sought, or have we acknowledged our sin and repented?

Sin, by this measure, is the starting point of faith. Jesus said as much: “For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). Sinners, in light of Christ’s saving call, then, are all who think they are righteous even as they remain independent of Christ life and love.

As further background, sin was conceived by the devil to take the goodness out of all God made to be good. He replaced it with opposites. Moral light is replaced by moral darkness; truth is displaced by falsity; life is replaced by death; and an endless cascade of options for life-away-from-God pours out as normal life.

This independence can mimic goodness—offering happy vacations, good health, and successful employment—while resisting the reality that we were made by Christ and for Christ.

So what we hate about this life—and what we pray to avoid—is the fruit of the devil’s ambition to build a kingdom of freedom from God. Yet the truth is that if sin had not entered the world we would have avoided disease, suffering, deceit, despair, and death.

So my discovery of prayer came by way of repentance. It finally dawned on me that we are not in a position to expect God to do things just to please us. The real question is whether we have moved back under his caring leadership as our God and shepherd: no longer in rebellion against him, trying to “be like God.”

With this reality before us as followers of Christ we come to prayer with a new heart.

We start our prayers with God in view, not self. And, given the stubborn habits of the past, we even need him to inspect our hearts: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).

And then we speak to the Father as Christ prayed, “not my will, but your will be done,” knowing that he can be trusted by every measure of goodness.

And, finally, God invites us to pray constantly and with confidence—assured that God’s Spirit equips us to “judge all things” and to have the “mind of Christ” as we pray (1 Corinthians 2:15-16). Does that guarantee what we ask for?

Yes, as long as our bottom-line request is this: “Lord, I want your name to be honored in whatever you choose to do.”



  1. Gretchen

    I had an interesting experience recently related to prayer. The pastor asked, “How many of you feel guilty about how much time you spend praying?” Virtually everyone in the congregation raised their hand. I may literally been the only one who didn’t. I’m fairly certain that those around me would have interpreted this as pride, as though I think I am such a “champion pray-er” that I have no need of “improvement.” In truth, though, the reason I don’t feel guilty is that my prayers are not about my trying to be disciplined enough to please God. My prayers are about coming to the One who, as you point out, is my loving Lord and Shepherd. To feel guilty about how much we pray or don’t pray is a focus on self, not a focus on the loving God to whom we pray. Even in something as intimate as our prayers, our enemy seeks to distort what God intended as a rich, wonderful communion between the Himself and His children. The more we know God and His heart through His Word, the more we pray with trust in His kindness and love towards us. Thanks, Ron, for pointing our hearts to the One who loves us so deeply.

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