Remember the first time you ever had a prayer answered? Maybe you were tempted to wonder if it might have been a coincidence. It was nice of you to give God the credit, but maybe you really did pass the exam on your own. And as for that illness…perhaps it would have gotten better anyway, with or without prayer. Could it be that you prayed and then fortuitous circumstances—not God—”answered” it?
If you pay attention, you’ll spot evidence accumulating that you can’t brand as accidental. I noticed this when one of my relatives got into a complicated mess and was due to suffer some severe consequences. As a new believer, I knelt down and prayed fervently for forty-five seconds (Okay, so I’m not a prayer warrior). Within a day or so that person’s situation had resolved in every single way. It could no more have been luck than a summer breeze accidentally untying a double constrictor knot. This and other situations persuaded me that my prayers were not being answered by the fairies of probability.
I’ve always believed that God can hear and do things. It just took a while to believe that He would hear and do anything for me. This early stage of discipleship in prayer has to do with learning the lessons of asking and receiving. The point is to find out that God is gracious and attentive and kind. He gives.
But for a long stretch, I didn’t really need anything. Those years could hardly have been characterized as prayerful. I was in the prime of health, as fresh and spry as a piglet bathed in buttermilk. My small family came close to looking like a Leave it to Beaver episode. The church I led constantly made news in our extended fellowship for being on the forefront of new breakthroughs in worship and outreach. I was roundly loved in the ministry network where I served. My finances, while humble, were secure—people had my back. Although I certainly did pray, I didn’t need to. Or so I thought.
I was smart enough and energetic enough to solve problems that did emerge. I suppose I fit the profile of the typical ministry type who relies on books, trainings, principles, and techniques to keep from going to his knees. It worked for a while. Then, like in Exodus, a strong east wind blew all night and brought a swarm of locusts. Challenges mounted that no management dexterity could handle. Troublemakers in the church rose up, doing the same tired things they’ve always done in church history with whisperings and divisions. In the years to come I found myself in new territory, church planting, facing financial constraints, dealing with small but painful health issues, and facing personal problems I never knew I had.
Backed into a corner, my prayer life took another turn. No more could I kneel, make a token request, and then get up and forget about it. Prayer turned into long conversations, wrestling matches, and occasionally, resentment. It went on for years. Whatever happened to simpler times, when I could ask and be done with it, when answers usually appeared days, if not hours, later? Here is what I (and probably you) had to learn: you can’t have a relationship with a vending machine.
Before He appointed the apostles, Jesus spent the entire night in prayer. If it were all just a matter of getting some wisdom on whom to pick, that could have been solved in about fifteen minutes. It would have meant going through a list of potential names and removing the wrong ones through the process of elimination—Father, how about this one? Yes or no? Yet, He prayed “all night” (Lk 6:12-13). Something more was apparently going on than getting an answer to a question or solving a conundrum. In this and many other situations, Jesus modeled prayer as relationship.
That’s where we’re supposed to go. Prayer ought to become a language not only of asking for gifts, but knowing the Giver. It’s for fellowship, for sharing, for disclosing, for confessing. I have to admit that it was a dialect I hadn’t been interested in learning.
These days I feel like the guy from another country who apologetically says, “I speak a le-e-e-tle English.”
I speak a le-e-e-tle prayer.