The Skeptic's Prayer
Of all the Christian disciplines, prayer is the most disconcerting. We are to call on the Lord while he may be found, pray without ceasing, petition without pretense, and the smallest amount of faith can move mountains. Sin hinders our prayers and confession releases them. The prayer of a righteous man works mightily, and the prayer of faith can heal the sick. Prayer is a conduit of praise and thanksgiving. We can pray confidently knowing that we are heard, and feel secure when we are too distressed to say anything. Prayer is a mystery experienced daily by millions of people.
I pray. I pray daily. I pray boldly. I pray specifically. I pray for the mundane, and I pray for the spectacular. However, if you ask me if my prayer is effectual I would have to stop and think for a minute.
People will tell you that God answers either with a yes, a no, or wait. That is a convenient truth that is rather unsettling. Discerning the difference between a no and a wait can be difficult, and is often determined by my desire. The more I want it the more it becomes a wait. How long do I request something before I acknowledge it to be a no? Yes is easier to ascertain.
A skeptic will point out that many of our yeses are coincidence. "Thank you lord for finding my keys." "Thank you lord for opening up a closer parking spot." These types of prayers are dismissed as trite and presumptuous.
I confess that I participate in an activity where my expectations are low. Not that I don't think God can or will answer the prayers of his people, but rather I have little confidence that he will answer mine. Someone might say that is the problem, my faith. I think it is that my experience proves it to be true.
I have spent a lot of time asking God to lead me in the direction of my life. I have been a pastor for 30 years, I have a doctorate, I have skills and gifts for teaching and speaking, but I am not involved in any of those as a vocation. After receiving my doctorate, believing that was the direction of God's leading, I put my resume on the market. When a handful of opportunities presented themselves I fasted for an extended amount of time, praying that God would open the doors and give me the desires of my heart. Each rejection pierced my soul because I had spent a lot of time and money preparing, and God was saying no. But it was the desire of my heart. I prayed boldly and specifically, I had fasted, prepared, and patiently waited, and nothing.
Good meaning believers affirmed for me that God must have something better in mind. I am still waiting for that better thing. You see, I have prayed for the sick, prayed for the lost, prayed for the wayward and hurting only to find them ineffectual. I have judged myself and asked God to search my inner being to find any sin that might stand in the way. At times I feel as if I have a hidden sin, deeply insufficient faith, or completely abandoned by God.
So, why do I pray? Years ago I found myself in a park looking for a diabetic pump. It had been stolen from my son's shoe while he was swimming. It was dark and hours since the event. We didn't have $5000 to replace it. I prayed that I would find it, but I didn't. During my search behind buildings and bushes I stopped and questioned the content of my prayer, what was I praying for? Was I hoping the the thief tossed it aside, brought it back, or dropped it by accident? Was I asking God to miraculously make it appear? I changed the focus of my prayer, "God provide for me in the way that is best for me." We never found it, but the insurance company bought a brand new one and we had it within twenty four hours. Some say that was a miracle.
I believe that God works all things together for good toward those who love him and are called according to his purpose. I believe that he will keep his promises to provide for my daily needs if I seek his kingdom first. I believe that he cares for me and that when I am helpless his spirit works in and around me to provide in ways that are best for me and my family. I believe that he is directing the course of history to bring about the consumption of the ages. I believe that I am important to him, but not the central focus of his will. I believe that prayer aligns my perspective with his. I believe that prayer unties believers, comforts the hurting, and gives expression of our hearts to God. I believe these things, so I pray.
I am a skeptic of my own understanding. God will do what he will do regardless of my prayers. He invites me to join him in an honest conversation and allows me the freedom to wrestle with my doubts in the unknown. One day we will see clearly, but for now we look in a dim mirror. Of all the disciples, I have empathy with Thomas; the doubter, the questioner, the disciple. Yet, in it all I want you to know that I am praying for you, because I am going to beat down the doors of heaven. I'm just saying...