Prayer...What's the point?
Luke 11: 1- 13
Prayer has been on my mind much this week.
I was at a drinks party and found myself with a person that simply wouldn’t stop talking – they weren’t talking with me – but at me. They simply wouldn’t stop describing everything that was happening for them in their life in minute detail….if I had a rare moment to say something - everything I said was then used to perpetuate their own concerns and interests. Eventually I was simply silenced, I gave up - and as soon as I could - I not only got away from them - but left the party….
Reflecting on this I wondered if this is how God experiences me in prayer - how often do I simply come into his presence and talk continually about my ever increasing list of worries and desires -– and once I finish saying what I want to say – I all too often don’t stay around and listen for God’s response or guidance as my creator and loving Father.
Prayer has been on my mind for other reasons recently with all the political changes at Westminster over the past few months – and especially this week. With all of this I have been reflecting on the nature of prayer - what it is all about and why do some prayers seem to get answered and others don’t.
Looking at our Gospel passage today it looks like these and other questions related to prayer have been around a long time…
Luke 11 begins with Jesus “praying in a certain place.” When he has finished praying, one of his disciples asks, “Lord, teach us to pray…” (11:1). In response, Jesus offers a three-part teaching, including a model prayer, a parable about prayer, and some sayings about prayer.
In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus invites his disciples into a deeply personal relationship with God, encouraging them to call upon God using the same name he uses -- Abba, Father. He invites his disciples to call upon God as children call upon a loving parent, trusting that they belong to God and that God wants for them what is good and life-giving.
To illustrate that God is our loving Father, Jesus tells the story of the friend who calls at midnight for bread and the parable teaches us that if friends - with all their mixed motives and self-interest - still do the right thing and help - how much more so is it the case with God who is perfect and desperately wants to give us what is good and life-giving.
Jesus goes on to say: “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (11:9-10).
For me and I’m sure for many of you this morning this is perhaps the most difficult part of the text because our experiences of prayer frequently seem at odds with these words.
So often we have asked and not received; we have searched and not found. In spite of our most fervent prayers, we have lost loved ones and people around the world continue to go hungry and experience violence, disease and natural disasters.
If God is like a loving parent who desires to give what is good and life giving, why do so many prayers seem to go unanswered? There are no simple answers to this question - though simple answers are often given.
For example, one answer given is that it only seems that God has not answered our prayers; God always answers, but sometimes he says no – or possibly not yet.
There are times, perhaps, when that is the case. We do not always ask wisely, and God, to be a truly loving God, must refuse our request. Yet this explanation cannot account for the many cases in which our requests must surely be in tune with God’s will.
Another explanation often given to the problem of unanswered prayer is that “everything happens for a reason.” This understanding resonates with teaching found in Job for example. The book of Job is complex, but one of its messages I think is that it does not in any way deny that God is in total control and introduces us to the idea of God’s permissive will - where God as all powerful acts - but also at times allows things to happen that are not his will or his way.
You see, if God is all powerful and all knowing even the bad stuff is therefore known and allowed by God. These times of departure from God’s will fall within his Divine Providence but that does not mean that he causes evil - the understanding is that he permits things for a number of reasons, principally to permit our free will and also for the a greater long term good….that may well be beyond our understanding right now. In time God can and will bring good out of sadness, failure and evil. Indeed, this is at the heart of our faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
What else can we say about unanswered prayer? Let's look at free will a bit more…
God, as a loving father, has always based his love on free will – we are invited to come to him - but this is always a choice. Holy Scripture is also clear that there are powers of evil active in the world and when these powers of evil meet our sin or failing - and we use our free will to depart from the way of God - we interrupt God’s will and love for us.
Perhaps God has sought to answer many of our prayers already – through the Good News - Jesus has shown us how to make a better community - a better nation - a better world – God’s Kingdom come -- but we exercise our free will poorly and fail over and over to do what is right for ourselves and others. We only have to look at Ukraine and Sri Lanka to see this in action.
Surely, we need to play our part with God in the fulfilment of prayer – we have to repent – we have to start afresh - and take direct responsibility for improving our lives and our world. To use our free will and the guidance of the Gospel wisely.
Saint Theresa of Avilla’s stressed this understanding of Christianity when she said:
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
Finally, I think in this passage Jesus is trying to teach us something additional about the nature of prayer.
The reading ends with - ‘If you then, who are evil know how to give your children what is good – how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask’.
Prayer then, according to this teaching, is not primarily about getting things from God but rather about the relationship we have with God through the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is saying that the blessing we receive from prayer is the gift of the Holy Spirit - and this blessing is about closer union with God.
In this light the passage then is an invitation into a deeper, more honest, and more trusting relationship with God - our God who desires to be known chiefly as loving parent, provider of all that is good and protector of all in need.
Prayer therefore is relational and is about being with God and receiving his blessing through this intimacy with the Holy Spirit.
More Holy Spirit you see is the answer to prayer.
I’ll end with a reflection by Mother Teresa on prayer that perhaps encapsulates this teaching:
"Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts."