Hopeless Prayer

Hopeless Prayer

What the rescue of the Chilean miners didn’t teach me.
“Ask and it shall be given.”
So lots of people asked that 33 miners trapped a half mile beneath the earth be rescued. And they were.
It’s the sort of thing that makes prayer that much harder, don’t you think?
Some people make it sound easy. “God has spoken to me clearly and guided my hand each step of the rescue,” Carlos Parra Diaz, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor at the San Jose mine, told The Guardian. “He wanted the miners to be rescued and I am His instrument.”
When extraordinary things like this happen, it brings out the megalomania in some people. But I think a local Catholic priest had it right: “God has heard our prayers.” Lots of prayers from lots of people.
And it was given.
When this sort of thing happens, I feel like I’m being set up. If prayer never “worked,” I could deal with it sensibly. I could just give it up. Or give up one type of prayer—intercession. Just stop praying that God would do this or that, change this or that. Prayer could just be communing with God. But when God answers prayer like this, it sets up this god-awful expectation that God gives to those who ask.
“Ask and it shall be given” is a nice, warm saying, but it should really be, “Ask and sometimes it will be given.” Or more realistically, at least in my prayer experience, “Ask and once in a blue moon it will be given.”
Answers to my prayers happen so rarely that I am SHOCKED, SHOCKED, when they happen. I’m not talking about everyday prayers—for safe travels or healing from a cold. God seems to take care of travelers and colds whether I pray for them or not. I’m talking about prayers for things I really care about, people I’m really worried about—that a friend might come to know Jesus, that a loved one will be healed of cancer, that a relative will give up drugs. There seems to be an inverse prayer corollary in my life: the more important the prayer, the less likely it will be answered. But indeed, once in a while a big prayer is answered—like the college friend who became a Christian, or a church member who was healed of cancer—and my jaw drops and my eyes fill with tears. I’m astounded, again, that God would answer prayer.
This after living the Christian life for over four decades.
* * *
When it comes to the REALLY BIG prayers, well, I’m a hearty believer. I regularly pray for peace on earth, but it hasn’t done any good. Still, Jesus said it would happen, and so as far as I’m concerned, this prayer will be answered.
Some day, far in the future. That’s the rub with REALLY BIG prayer. It’s so far in the future that it feels pointless to pray it. It’s so assured of happening—whether I pray or not—that you think, What’s the use?
And yet Jesus tells me to pray such prayers: “Our Father … thy kingdom come.” Pray for the thing that’s going to happen whether you pray or not. Pray for the thing that is so far in the future and so unimaginable that you feel silly praying for it.
He’s also the one who said, “Ask and it shall be given.” I’m pretty sure he meant this for big and small prayers, and everything in between.
Ask for things that are likely to happen whether you pray or not.
Ask for things that are unlikely to happen.
Ask for things that get answered sometimes but not others.
Ask when you feel like asking is selfish. Ask when your asking feels foolish. Ask when you feel hopeless.
And it will be given.
* * *
It’s that last state—feeling hopeless—that characterizes my prayer life most days. I have so few important-to-me prayers answered that I’m afraid to pray for such things anymore. Who wants to be disappointed with God again?
So I find stories like the answered prayer for the Chilean miners more irritating than inspirational. As a CNN story says, the miners “showed us there is hope even when the worst seems certain.” Well, for me when the worst seems certain, I have the hardest time having hope. Sorry, CNN. Lesson not learned.
Fortunately, having a hopeful feeling when the worst seems certain is not a Christian idea at all. When the worst seemed certain, Jesus pleaded with God to avoid it. It was not a prayer confident of bright tomorrows: “Take this cup from me. But not my will, but yours be done.” It was prayer grounded in the realism of unanswered prayer, to a God who is to be prayed to because he invites us to do so whether we feel like it or not, to a God who runs the universe splendidly, whether we pray or not.
Here’s the lesson I have learned from Jesus, a lesson reinforced by four decades of failed prayers. It doesn’t matter how I feel when the worst seems certain. Jesus didn’t say, “Ask when you feel hopeful.” He just said ask. And he said it will be given.
What exactly will be given is not entirely clear! When it will be given is not noted! How it will be given is not specified! Jesus is being his usual elusive self in this enigmatic saying.
But two things seem clear. First, we are to ask God for things that are important to us, no matter how we feel about God or prayer or the thing prayed for. In Jesus’ theology of prayer, there is no hint that prayer is the way we transcend desire, as if having desire was a sign of spiritual immaturity. Desire is apparently what humans do, something woven into the fabric of our humanity from day one, a divine gift, the first hint that we are made for something outside ourselves, a something that can only be realized by taking the first small step of asking. Prayer is not a way to overcome desire, but the first thing we do with it.
Second, once we announce our desire to God, it’s his job to deal with it. Prayer is not manipulating heaven to fulfill our desires. It’s putting what we desire into the hands of a loving, if inscrutable, God and letting him fulfill it in his time, in his way.
Of course, sometimes he’s gracious enough to answer it in our time and in a way that makes sense to us, like reaching down into the bowels of the earth to raise those who were as good as dead.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker), and the forthcoming Chaos and Grace: Liberation in the Spirit (Baker, 2011).
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