"Is prayer a waste of time?"
Has that thought ever crossed your mind when it seemed as if your prayers got no higher than the ceiling? Have you ever wondered whether God was listening, then quickly felt ashamed for thinking such a thing?
Over the years, I've discovered that even the most committed believers have doubts. We ask God for the same thing for years, maybe even decades, and wonder if we're beating our head against a brick wall.
Why doesn't he answer? Why doesn't he give us what we need?
If there's one thing all Christians can agree on, it's that prayer is a struggle. Sometimes it's an outright battle. What we disagree about, however, is the nature of that struggle.
Americans, especially, spoiled by the plenty in our country and accustomed to instant gratification, often try to use prayer selfishly. But the Norwegian Ole Hallesby, in his classic book, Prayer, saw that attitude everywhere:
"From the very beginning we approach prayer with a grave misconception. Our selfishness knows no bounds…Natural persons in their relation to God have this one purpose more or less consciously in mind: How can I, in the best way, make use of God for my own personal advantage? How can I make Him serve me best now, in the future, and throughout all eternity?"
Here are some ways we can make our prayer a waste of time:
1. When we try to get wealth, a mansion, luxury car or fancy clothes because we want to impress other people, through the so-called Prosperity Gospel.
2. When we tell God exactly how we want a situation to turn out, as if he's a waiter and we're ordering a steak.
3. When we believe that we actually know better or more than God.
4. When we ask God for anything that would break his Commandments or principles.
5. When we pray in public and try to impress others with our "holiness" or piety.
6. When we insult God by treating him like a magic genie who exists to grant our every wish.
The instances above are pretty specific. Don't get the idea that I think prayer is a waste of time. God designed prayer so we can talk to him, so we can tell him our hurts and failings, our successes and joys, and yes, so we can ask him for legitimate needs.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus commands us to pray for both our small needs and large needs. He paints a picture of a loving, compassionate Father who is understanding of our faults and selfishness.
And, we are told that if we do not know what to pray for, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with prayers that are in God's will. (Romans 8:26-27) We often think we know what to pray for, but we really don't, because we can't see the big picture and the future as God can.
God always hears the sincere prayer, from the heart, even if we stumble in how we say it or what we ask for. Our hurt is his hurt. He knows things about us we don't know ourselves.
No, I can't explain why some good, legitimate prayers are not answered in the way we want, like prayers for a spouse or healing. Some things we'll only understand in heaven.
On my nightstand is a little plaque from Psalm 37:4:
"Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart."
Several years ago, I didn't understand what that meant. But over the past decade or so, as I "delighted myself in the LORD," drawing my happiness from God instead of material things, my perspective began to change.
When we pray for more of God, a better understanding of God, being able to see God's love in our life, and an intimate, soul-deep relationship with God, he will answer that kind of prayer in an overwhelming way, so majestically that we will finally understand that everything else we have prayed for pales in comparison.
God has been what we wanted all along and when we realize we can find our delight in Him, we will have the true desires of our heart.
See that astronaut in the photo above? He's tethered to his spacecraft by that gold-colored lifeline. You and I have an even more vital lifeline: prayer.
Prayer is how we stay attached to God, how we draw power and strength from him, how we get encouragement by thanking him for his goodness, and how we communicate our needs. Prayer is a vital lifeline for single women and men.
Then why, why, is prayer frustrating so much of the time?
I think part of the reason is that it's so different from the usual conversations we have with other people. We get audible, understandable feedback from them. Sometimes it seems as if God is silent, or just as bad, we can't understand why he answers the way he does.
In one respect, we're like that astronaut pictured above. We're out of our natural environment. Oh, it seems like earth is our home because we were born here, but our real home is heaven. We came from God, our Creator, and if we choose, through accepting his Son as Savior, we will return to him after we die.
In the meantime, we're trying to communicate in our earth senses and earth language, and while the Bible is usually pretty clear, prayer is often hard to figure out.
As I've gotten older, I find myself asking for less and thanking God more for the good things I already do have, and many of those are not tangible, material things. I'm grateful for my home and car and my savings, of course, but I'm also thankful for my family, my work, my friends, and the salvation Jesus provides for me.
I don't know about you, but for me, God often answers my prayers through the Bible. That's why I read it every day. It never changes, yet we can read the same passage dozens of times and God my speak to us in a different way each time. As we're reading, the Holy Spirit provides insight and wisdom. He even helps us figure things out that are way over our heads.
You have to have strong trust in God and solid belief in heaven to be calm in your prayers. My personal belief is that heaven is where all wrongs will be made right, where all injustice will be corrected. Nothing gets past God. He will make the disabled whole, the lonely will know love, and the bewildered will understand.
In the meantime, we need to make constant use of our lifeline of prayer. The more we talk with God, the more natural it feels. He loves to hear how our day is going, what delights us, what frustrates us, and especially how much we love him.
God is ready. He wants to hear from you, and he will answer back.