Tuesday, November 13, 2012


A friend sent me the following e-mail the other day:
I saw this post on facebook today.  "...She developed a blood clot which has caused her great injury, and could end her life if it goes badly from here. She has great care and great friends. Now I would like you... my facebook family... to pray for Melissa along with me. Please ask God to heal her of this situation. Thank you for sharing in this effort."

This reads to me like God has inflicted or allowed this condition on this person and is content to sit back and do nothing unless a lot of us start praying. What would life, death or sickness even look like to God? If I pray for this am I really saying, "God, you messed up. This lady shouldn't be sick..." That sentence seems a little absurd. I remember reading somewhere in Matthew, Jesus saying not to pray for things, that God knows what you need. The only kinds of prayer that make any sense to me at all are:
1.       Prayers of gratitude/thanks (gratitude for life, not for scoring a touchdown).
2.    Prayers for guidance.

3.     Maybe prayers for strength, in terms of convictions, not physical strength.

If you choose to share any thoughts on this I am interested. (Or, you probably already have posted thoughts, in which case a link would be great.)

The above questions and comments are similar to those I’ve often heard, even uttered or at least, thought myself.  What should I pray for?  How should I pray?  If God is sovereign, why pray at all?  The following remarks are not intended to be definitive answers, but simply thoughts on the subject that will hopefully be of some help in moving toward answers.

Looking back over my 300+ posts, I realize that I haven’t said much about prayer, even though it is essential to my life, though I found a few posts.  One was A MODEL PRAYER, in which I made some comments on what is known as the Lord’s Prayer.  This was part of a series I had been doing on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Another, CORPORATE CONFESSION, was a plea for the church to adopt the form of the great Old Testament prayers to our current situation.  Another was PRAY FOR OUR PRESIDENT, another plea.

I have always been hesitant to speak or write on the subject of prayer, one reason being that I have this little uncomfortable feeling that my personal prayer life is inadequate.

But, I also find that it’s hard to know where to begin.  The Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is full of prayers – conversations with God, as well as instructions/ commandments on how prayer is to be done.  One would think that I, who for years taught theology in college, would have a clear theology of prayer.  I don’t.  The following thoughts are not an attempt at that, but simply to interact with the above questions.

First of all, we can take comfort in the fact that God knows our weakness and ignorance in prayer and doesn’t seem to be bothered by it.  In fact, He has provided us with a divine “Interpreter” to make sure we get it right.  As Paul tells us in Romans 8:26, 27:

“And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we don’t know what we should pray even as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with unspoken groanings.  And He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is because He intercedes for the saints according to God.”

We are ignorant, but God provides every believer with the indwelling Holy Spirit as Paul explains earlier in this chapter.  The idea I get from this is that though I in myself may pray in ignorance as to the “what’s” or “how’s” of prayer, the Holy Spirit reads my intents and communicates these with the Father.

Of the many instructions on prayer in the New Testament, one seems to override the others:  “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  Though there have been many attempts at explaining this passage, or explaining it away, we are confronted with what at first seems an impossible command.  And yet, I and many others take great comfort in this command.  Here’s my take on the command.

I am to live every moment of my life in the consciousness of the presence of God.  He is aware of every thought I think and every word I speak.  So when I reason, when I plan, when I daydream, He, in the person of the Holy Spirit, is in on my reasonings, my plans and my daydreams, whether or not I am clearly conscious of His presence.  So in a real sense, every thought I think, even every sentence I write is a prayer.  And, of course, there are many times during the day when I actually utter a prayer, whether formally or informally.

I’ll not here attempt to deal with the fact of God’s sovereignty in life, death and illness, except to say that the Bible teaches over and over again that He cares about our pains and sufferings and we are told to take them to Him and to make our requests to Him, not because He doesn’t know, but because He cares.

“Don’t be worried about anything, but in everything, with prayer and entreaty with thanksgiving make your requests known to God” (Philippians 4:6).

I am a firm believer that God is the One who heals.  In fact, I believe that all healing comes from God, whether He uses medical means, natural means or an occasional miracle.  I also believe that even though we may pray for healing we must recognize that it is always in His sovereign control.

Uni and I receive many requests similar to the one referred to above.  They come by facebook and e-mail.  We often pass them on to others.  At times, we stop as soon as we read a request, utter a brief prayer and then move on.  Sometimes we write them down on our daily prayer list.  And many times we ourselves initiate a request.  It is comforting to know that there are brothers and sisters around the world praying for and with us.

The passage referred to above – Matthew 6:8b, “… your Father knows what you need before you ask Him,” is not meant to discourage but to encourage prayer.  Perhaps I should repeat my comments given in my post, A MODEL PRAYER:

“The question is sometimes asked; if He knows what we need, then why bother to ask? I have to say that there are no easy answers to this question, even though many have been attempted. But I’ll take a shot at it.

First of all, though He knows our needs, we don’t always come to Him with our needs, but rather with our wants. It’s not that He doesn’t often give us our wants; He does. But I believe that what He seeks for us in our prayers is that we make our needs into our desires.

We are like little children. We want stuff, we want toys, we want pleasant things. We are often satisfied with lesser things than our Father seeks for us. But He knows what our real needs are.

And I believe that while He desires to meet our needs and does, His real longing is that we seek Him. Not simply what He can provide, but Him. As a father and grandfather, I believe that in a small way I can understand this. I am not a wealthy man. I cannot (as God) provide rich gifts for my children and grandchildren. But I can provide them with love and my great desire is for them to reciprocate.”

I recommend Philip Yancey’s book, Prayer:  Does it Make Any Difference?http://billball.blogspot.com/2010/07/pray-for-our-president.html


KenMullins said...

Rev 5:8 "And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints" changed my prayer life. I now strive to pray in such a way that my prayers are worthy incense for God. Therefore my prayers now focus much more on thanksgiving and adoration and much less on give-me. Nevertheless I still bring my needs before God has He has commanded us to do--I just spend less time doing so and more on praise.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for responding to my question; it brought my understanding to a different place.  It still seems odd for me pray for a person of whom I have no knowledge, but I also see that while a prayer such as this may not change the condition of the subject person, it does change me. 

A few months ago I was competing in a difficult race.  70 miles in, after a night of running in sub freezing temperatures through knee deep snow and mud, it had gotten hot, my feet were a mess and I decided to quit.  I never said a prayer to finish the race nor for strength, but suddenly I had this deep gratitude for being privileged to run in the mountains.  I finished the race.  The last 30 miles were physically punishing, but the gratitude never left.  Im not a Biblical scholar, nor a very good Christian (which is why you get email from me), but for me, the race represents life and the gratitude represents prayer.  


Judy McCollum said...

Bill, I appreciated your comments and also comments by Chris. I often hear the local Christian radio station pray for "a lady's wish to have her insurance company pay what's due her because she desperately needs the money" or other such nonsense (my opinion). Someone said "we do the possible (using common sense in life's issues) and God does the impossible (when we are at the dried up brook)." Could you address what we should be praying for besides praising more?

Bill Ball said...

Judy: I believe as I mentioned above, that for the believer every thought is a prayer. So, in a sense, nothing is off limits for prayer - God is big enough to handle them all. He knows our needs. As James says (4:2b), "...you don't have because you don't ask." At my age I utter many brief prayers during the day for God to help me find my misplaced glasses, coffee cup or whatever.
On the other hand, he also says, "You ask and don't receive because you ask with bad intents, that you may spend it on your pleasures" (4:3).
I wouldn't necessarily classify the request you mentioned as nonsense. It was a prayer for justice that reminds me of the story Jesus told in Luke 18:1-9. But I have heard plenty of trivial prayers.
Perhaps our problem is proportion. Look at Nehemiah's prayer in 1:4-11. He spends 8 verses, praising and confessing and one verse on his specific requests.