All Christians have a specific struggle we all have to come to deal with: why is it that our prayers do not come to fruition? Didn’t Jesus say if we had faith the size of a mustard seed, we would move mountains? Did Jesus tell the disciples ask anything to ask anything in his name and He would do it? There are a few common answers we commonly provide to this question: 1) we do not have enough faith, 2) what we are asking for is not in God’s will, 3) God is waiting to fulfill it at the right time, 4) God fulfills our prayers in surprising ways that we don’t see. For each of these type of explanations, there is Scriptural support we might marshall for each of them. However, at the same time, each of these explanations may be offered as a way of resolving cognitive dissonance, so that they one of these answers can become a “favorite” go-to explanaton for the failures of our prayers.
But what if our problem is that we try to answer this question is starting from the wrong premises? What if the problem is the way we read the Scriptures about prayer to find a set of rules and explanations for how prayer works? Our assumptions about the Bible is fraught with the idea that what Jesus says to his disciples automatically applies to me, without concern for the nature of the discipleship that disciples underwent. Or, we might read 1 John’s or James’ words about prayer and think it immediately applies to be me because I call myself a Christian. There is a certain assumption within our understanding: that the Bible is a set of laws, including about prayer, to applies to everyone who claims citizenship. But what if the Bible’s statements about the power of prayer isn’t democratic? What if the words about prayer aren’t intended as a set of laws for all people who see themselves as a citizen?
Now, you might be tempted to think you can anticipate where I am going with this. You might think I am saying not everyone who claims to be Christians is really Christian. But that isn’t it. I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of faith and devotion of the many people I know, many of whom have struggled with medical conditions, personal tragedies, difficult circumstance. This isn’t about narrowing the circle of who we consider to be Christian, who has faith, etc. that often times leaves people feeling judged.
Or, you might think I am saying that Jesus’ words of prayer only refers to the disciples. But that isn’t what I am saying either. There are two plausible reasons why the Gospels would record the memory of Jesus’ words of prayer to the disciples: to either legitimate the power of the disciples or to provide an insight into the power of the Kingdom of God. There is not a hint of trying to legitimize the disciples; in fact, Jesus words about prayer delegitimizes the power of the disciples in that he criticizes the inability of the disciples to heal an epileptic because of the smallness of their faith. So, I do think Jesus’ words on prayers is expressing something about the power of God’s Kingdom.
I am not wanting to narrow the circle, but in fact I am wanting the circle to be widened. I am not wanting to legitimate only specific authorities, like the disciples, but I desire to see the power of God called forth through prayer realized. But what I am expressing is how our way of reading the Bible leads us to something: we want to have access to the power of God through prayer so that we can control the things we see in our lives and the world that we do not like, or even that we say is against God’s will. As a result, we look for Jesus’ words on prayers to be statements of how to control this power: if you just add this one ingredient, whether it be faith, the right type of request, etc. the power of your prayer life will lift off. Underlaying this style of interpretation is the assumption that everything that is true about what type of prayers God responds to and how God responds to them can be boiled down to one or a few statements. If it isn’t expressed, then it isn’t important, so all that is important about our prayer is what is explicitly said by Jesus, or even the writers of the NT. So, we think we simply need to master our hearts, our minds, our desires, our actions, etc., etc.
But what if Jesus, and the writers of the NT, aren’t making isolated statements that are meant to exhaustively express all that is true about who and what God responds to in prayers? What if Jesus critique of the failure of healing by the disciples in Matthew 17 isn’t about Jesus saying, in a remix of the Beatles favorite song, “all you need is faith?” What if Jesus was identifying one reason why people’s prayers fail rather than saying why all prayers fail? What if what the Bible says about prayer are words that are apropos for certain person or certain circumstances, but are not intended as a universal, systematic treatise?
Then that means the power of prayer isn’t something we have access to simply because we are citizens of God’s Kingdom. We aren’t being given blueprints in how to control or manipulate God to do what it is that we want, because there are some set of statutory laws and rules that God must work by. I would suggest our democratic ethos in the United States and the West has inclined us to think the Scriptures about prayer are a set of rights and laws about prayer that determines our access to prayer, rather than a set of words that are meant to form people so that they may learn who and what God responds to in prayer. The Scriptures, in recording the pedagogy of Jesus, the NT writers, etc., offers pedagogical instruction about prayer, not a lawyer establishing the rights, rules, and processes about the power of prayer in God’s kingdom.
In other words, there are a litany of reasons why God may not answer our prayers, but this isn’t to suggest he pedagogical instructions about prayer are wrong. The failure is on our end, to place a burden of systematicity and universality on various instructions about prayer that were not intended. Our prayers do not get fulfilled for a litany of reasons: It can be due to our the smallness of our faith. It can be due to us asking for things that aren’t truly within God’s heart and will. It may be because we have a narrow view of what is good and God has a broader view of what is good. It could be because we aren’t ready for God to answer our prayers yet. It could be that God is answering our prayers but in a way that we didn’t expect.
Psalm 37 provides a powerful psalm that can help provide insight into God’s faithfulness and our pleas before him. While it is a prayer principally framed within the context of a conflict with enemies, the heart of the psalm expresses the way to receive God’s faithfulness. “
Trust in the LORD and do good;
Dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the LORD;
And He will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the LORD,
Trust also in Him, and He will do it.
He will bring forth your righteousness as the light
And your judgment as the noonday. (Psalm 37:3-6)
Here we see the psalmist expressing God’s faithfulness coming in response to how people respond to God. He doesn’t provide an outline of what we need to do in ourselves; the psalmist does not engage in some form of navel-gazing to find what within themselves will bring about God’s faithfulness. He simply says, trust in God and do good. He exhorts them to delight themselves with God. He challenges them to commit their ways of life to God. In other words, if you trust God, do good, take pleasure in God, and openly share your plans with God, he will be faithful to you. But what is being outlined here in the Psalm isn’t a systematic expression of the conditions of God’s faithfulness, but a poetic sketch of faith and faithfulness of people. If you are faithful to God, which trusting, doing good, delighting in God, and being open with God are concrete expressions of, then God will be faithful. It may take time (Psalm 37:7), but if someone is faithful, which is not something that can be reduced to our behavior or conformity of any one single condition in ourselves but is expressive of our whole person, the psalmist expresses a confidence that God will be faithful.
So, if I were to attempt to systematize all of this into one ovearching principle, it will be this: God answers the prayers of those who God has formed to be of one heart with Him. Jesus times with the disciples was a time of formation so that they would grow to be one’s who would do greater works than even Jesus did. As our hearts are formed to be faithful to God, so will the power of God through prayer be realized. In what ways do our hearts, minds, intentions, habits, and desires need to be formed? I can’t give you a systematic answer to that question. But I can say this: the Bible contains a lot more exhortations in trusting God and His faithfulness and it calling people to seek righteousness, justice, goodness, and holiness than it does telling us how to get God to answer our prayers. And perhaps, it is this desire to access God’s power through prayer that is part of the problem: perhaps it hinders our trust in God and our seeking what God calls of us, because our wrong focus means we aren’t focused on us being faithful but, in a sense, making God faithful to us.