Monday, September 7, 2015

Prayer: Does It Work?

Back when my husband was first going through his conversion to the Catholic faith, I was a spiritual midget. I was starting to grow, just a little bit, but I was still very immature in my faith.

Unfortunately, because I was the best role model my husband had at the time, I did a lot of unintentional damage to his relationship with God because of my faulty understandings about prayer.

So, I'm revisiting this topic in order to help you avoid the mistakes I've made.

Misunderstandings about Prayer

Prayer is perhaps the most misunderstood tool in the arsenal of the Christian faith. Even people who have been attending Church for decades can have a faulty understanding of it that doesn't come to light until they are facing down a tragedy such as the loss of a loved one or a natural disaster strikes that tears everything from them overnight.

I have had many conversations with atheists and agnostics, with people of little faith and none, and during the course of these conversations it is inevitable that I will hear this statement: "I tried prayer and it didn't work."

This statement tells me that this person has a deeply rooted misunderstanding about what prayer is and what it is designed to do. The misunderstanding quite often leads to people getting angry with God for His perceived failure or walking away from faith altogether as they convince themselves it's not worth it.

What Prayer Is Not

The person who says prayer doesn't "work" has the misunderstanding that God is a supernatural vending machine, and prayer is the coin that you put in the slot to get it to give you what you want. Naturally the person who views prayer in this manner will be disappointed or even feel a sense of betrayal when that isn't how it happens.

I did, too, in the beginning. I heard Biblical statements that stated, "If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer" from Matthew 21:22 as a promise that if I just prayed hard enough and believed strongly enough, I could get whatever I wanted. I didn't read for the correlating passages that cautioned that "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions." - James 4:3
It is normal for the spiritually young, no matter what their physical age, to deal with prayer in this manner. It's understandable. They are still figuring out how the whole relationship-with-a-supernatural-being is done. As you grow in your spiritual maturity, however, you come to a point where you realize that you've been looking at prayer the wrong way.

What Prayer Is

Prayer isn't a coin. It is a cell phone. It allows you to have a conversation with a being whose knowledge is unlimited, whose lifespan is eternal, and who lives outside of time and space. The responses we get from a conversation with such a being are not likely to be predictable. Predictable things may be comfortable, but they don't help us become our best selves.

Conversations with God challenge us, confront us with uncomfortable truths, force us to grow in ways we didn't know we needed to grow. Those conversations will lead us down paths we never dreamed of taking, bring us to places we never imagined, and help us to become our very best selves. That's how you know that prayer is working. It is changing you for the better.

The True Test of Prayer

God’s goal for all of humanity is that we love one another as He loves us. He sent Jesus Christ to answer the question of “How far must I go to love my neighbor?” That answer was, “All the way to the cross.”

We must learn to love our neighbor so much that we are willing to die, to surrender our lives into their hands, to endure abuse and lies and humiliations, if that is what it takes to save them. And to do that for them with no guarantee that they will ever accept or appreciate what we have done.

If you want to know whether or not prayer works, use the right measuring stick. It isn’t whether or not you get what you want that tells you your prayer is working. It is who you become along the way that does.

Prayer and the danger of False Hope

When you pray with false hope, which is what you are doing when you treat prayer like a gimmick or God like some kind of vending machine, you damage your ability to hold on to hope. The disappointment and bitterness you can feel when your prayer doesn't seem to get answered can lead you to doubting God's love for you which leaves you vulnerable to the lies Satan will tell you as he tries to persuade you that God doesn't really care or that He doesn't exist.

Hope in the Right Things

Don't put your hope in God giving you what you want. Put your hope in God's love for you. Know that if God does not give you what you want, it is only because He loves you and wants better for you. But sometimes getting better things for you requires suffering.

Praying in the Midst of Suffering

You should pray when you're suffering, just understand that prayer will not remove suffering until it has achieved the aim for which God allowed it in the first place. God doesn't cause pain needlessly. Sometimes suffering is the only way that He can bring about the answer to the prayers you are offering up.

Suffering is there to encourage us to examine our lives for the problem that's causing the pain, to compel and motivate us to get out of our comfort zones and take an action we might not take otherwise, to show us the truth about where we are spiritually and where we still need work, and to give us an opportunity to grow in our capacity to give and receive love. Suffering, as much as we hate it, is good for us.

I know for a fact that I would not be where I am now if not for the suffering God allowed me to go through. I wouldn't have accomplished so many of my goals and my hopes and my dreams if not for suffering. I hated every minute of it, fought with God over it, begged Him to take that suffering away from me, but as I look back on it now, I understand what He was doing in me through that suffering.

Are You Struggling with Prayer?

If you're struggling with prayer, if you're finding it hard to pray, if you've been disappointed in prayer, let me know. Leave your comment below. If you've got stories about how prayer helped you become a better person, or about how your suffering eventually led you to greater things, I would love to hear them. Let's encourage one another in prayer, and talk about the realities that go with it.

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