Does Prayer Ever Fail Us?

We all struggle with prayer. This is the case for the most seasoned of Christians and those newest in the faith. We wrestle with unanswered prayer; we struggle to find the appropriate language for our petitions; we may even occasionally feel a lack of spiritual vitality as we pray. For every Christian there are times where the act of praying seems harder than it should be.

Despite our struggles, God promises to hear our prayers. Not only does God promise to hear, but God promises to respond. Jesus affirms this. His parable of the persistent widow is told specifically to encourage the disciples to “pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). The availability of God’s presence, met in prayer, is foundational to our understanding of God.

And yet, we have all found ourselves in times of discouragement resulting from unanswered prayer. If I pray for a friend’s healing, and that healing does not occur, did my prayer fail? Did I not pray enough, or in the right way? Was there a phrase, a psalm, or a spiritual discipline I should have used which would have unlocked God’s righteous power upon my friend?

Prayers left unanswered seem to condemn us. During these times, we often harbor an unsettling question; “Does prayer really work?” Or, put another way, “Did prayer fail us, or did we fail prayer?” Neither option appears encouraging to our faith.

Is there a third option? Is there a way to faithfully believe that our prayers are powerful and effective, while at the same time giving voice to our frustrating prayer experiences? Can we believe that our prayers can cause miracles to occur, and still recognize that we may not see them take place? In short, if we want to believe that prayer never fails, what do we need to know about prayer to affirm this?

Prayer Is about God’s Will, Not Our Own
Prayer is not about you or me. Prayer is about the power and presence of God. This means that our experience of prayer might not be exactly what we wish it to be. Prayer is more about God’s will and plan than our own.

When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, he instructs them to pray “Our Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us this day our daily bread” (Luke 11:2). This is the way Jesus himself prayed to the Father. Thus, it is a model upon which we build our own life of prayer. “The Lord’s Prayer” continues to govern the prayer-life of Christians to this day.

Because we are so familiar with these words, we often overlook the structure of the prayer itself. Jesus did not offer the disciples a simple poem to recite. Christ’s instruction highlights an important spiritual movement within prayer itself.

The first petition of the prayer is to pray that God establish God’s kingdom and will on earth, and in our lives. This sets the tone for everything else that follow. Essentially, we open ourselves to God’s will before we issue our petitions and requests. Prayer, at its heart is about aligning ourselves with God’s work in the world.

This is the prayer that Jesus himself modelled. When alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, just prior to his betrayal and crucifixion, Jesus prays that his upcoming death pass him by. Jesus offers a prayer about his own life, and his future experience of the cross.

Yet as he does so, Jesus grounds this prayer in the ultimate desire for God’s will to be fulfilled. “My Father,” he prays “if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). For Jesus, prayer was never about getting what he wanted, it was about living out the will of the Father.

If we wish to pray like Jesus, we can never make prayer about establishing our own kingdom. James writes “You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives that you may spend on what you get on your own pleasures” (James 4:2-3). It takes a certain amount of holy stubbornness to keep our vision on God’s will and kingdom.

Prayer Is about a Relationship, Not a Response
Our heartfelt desire for God to establish the kingdom frees us to pray for specific things in our lives. We long for the kingdom to be revealed in us, and through us. Such a longing not only informs what we pray for, it also gives us boldness in prayer. We can pray for healing.

We can pray for change of circumstances. We can pray for divine intervention. In doing so we are praying that God’s kingdom is revealed in these places. Such things are open and available to us precisely because God invites us to join in the work of the kingdom. This is part of the relational covenant we enjoy with God.

This relationship we have with the Lord, however, does not promise us that God will always respond in the way we would like. Occasionally, the will of God confronts us, and challenges us. The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God’s ways are beyond our ways, God’s thoughts beyond our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8).

Like a parent who cannot say “Yes” to every whim or wish of their child, God often moves in ways unexpected. This means, even our most holy and righteous requests need to be presented in humility.

Like Job crying out God, sometimes the Lord does not always provide answers to our questions; like Jesus responding to the death of Lazarus, sometimes Christ’s response appears delayed. These are experiences we all walk through.

Yet none of these experiences mean that our prayers have failed. What these experiences point us to is that God is active beyond the limit of our finite understanding, perception, or desire.

The true grace in prayer is not that we always get what we want. The true grace, extended to us by our heavenly Father, is that there is nothing that cannot be voiced. There is no request, lament, petition, or prayer that God will not receive in love. Ultimately, prayer is never about the response we receive; it is always about the relationship we enjoy with our savior.

There Is No Secret
The fact of the matter is there are no secrets loop-holes for prayer. Yes, God dwells close in prayer; yes, we can hear God’s voice; yes, God answers prayer. These are promises rooted in scripture. While these are a reality for us, they do not dictate a prayer-experience of perpetual positivity.

Could it be that our struggles in prayer challenge us to move past a myopic, self-pleasing understanding of prayer? After all, a prayer-life that is safe and comfortable rarely transforms our lives.

Struggles with prayer encourage us to push past a desire to chase after easy answers and comfortable feelings. True prayer is not dependent on an emotional experience. Believing that praying rightly somehow equates to warm and fuzzy emotions, or a divine “yes” to every request, is misguided. This is to set our vision on ourselves, instead of the presence and will of God.

Prayer is a journey; it is not a skill we master. Prayer, for the follower of Jesus is a way of being, an internal movement of heart and spirit through which we respond to the Lord’s presence in us, and in the world.

We need to recapture the radical notion that struggles in prayer may, in fact, be an invitation to journey deeper into the kingdom. Prayer is not simply something that we add onto our lives, it is the very ground out of which our life grows. To be frustrated with prayer is to be formed by it.

Christian prayer involves wrestling. It involves lament. It involves argumentation. It involves persistence. We see this in the lives of the faithful men and women of scripture. We should not, therefore, be discouraged or disheartened when it occurs for us.

Prayer places us before the Lord, who, at times, confronts, and challenges us. Prayer never fails because prayer, at its foundation, is about reaching out to Jesus. And because Jesus never fails, so too can we be confident in our prayers.

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