Our Disappointments With Prayer

“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). These words of Jesus (and others like them) immediately raise questions: Jesus couldn’t have meant what He said here, could He? Aren’t there many exceptions to a statement like this? But doesn’t this turn prayer into some kind of magic formula of faith and answer?

But underneath the intellectual balking lies something much more telling—our own disappointments with prayer. We all have stories of unanswered prayer: presents that didn’t come as kids, parents that got divorced, jobs that never came through, loves that were unrequited, sicknesses that weren’t healed, and loved ones that died. To talk about prayer at this level is to uncover our worst disappointments. Is Jesus trying to raise our hopes so that they can be dashed again? Wouldn’t it be better just to ignore or at least explain away what Jesus seems to be saying here?

I have known many such disappointments myself. One of the most stinging had to do with career. I was convinced in my early 20’s that God wanted me to be a missionary, and I actually got training for that in seminary. But my experience of working in other cultures was disorienting: I felt emotionally chewed up each time. Despite my prayers to be changed, no change came. I felt God had let me down, and I had also let Him down. I went back into youth ministry after seminary, painfully confused. How was I to make sense of all this in light of Jesus’ teaching on prayer? How are any of us to make sense of the disappointments?

Perhaps we can find a clue in a strange place—a movie we have all seen and loved: It’s a Wonderful Life. In the film, George Bailey prays two very different prayers. In the first one, he is at the end of his rope, knowing that he is going to jail over the lost $8000 dollars. He prays for God to help him in a bar and instead gets punched in the face! Distraught, he goes to kill himself by jumping off a bridge, only to have Clarence the angel appear! It’s not the answer George looked for or expected, but it turned out to be an answer nonetheless. 

But the whole movie turns on the second prayer. As he learns what would have happened if he had not been born, George begins to learn what he really longs for. It’s not escape from life by suicide or $8000 to repay the debt. He doesn’t even care what happens to him anymore. He just wants Mary and his family back; he wants his old life of helping others out of poverty and debt. George learns that his life has been wonderful after all, because he has tried to serve everyone else around him. Here he finds the greatest joy of all: others loving and celebrating him at the end of the movie. 

This is exactly the motion Jesus is inviting us up into with His teaching on prayer. It’s not about us anymore. It’s about something higher and deeper than our stories. It’s about the Kingdom of God, the story Jesus is telling, and entering that story will give us our deepest joy.

This is precisely what Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer. With the first three petitions we learn that it’s first about God’s name, God’s kingdom, and God’s will. This means abandoning a life of trying to magnify our names, build our kingdoms, and pursue our wills. Only then are we invited to ask for provision, forgiveness, and protection for ourselves. You may sigh and think that praying this way is somehow the end of praying for what you really want in life. Think again. Think about what happened to George. When it was no longer about him, that’s when he learned what he really wanted anyway; that’s also when he got the answer he asked for in prayer, and along with it a depth of joy he had never known before.

This is the life Jesus is inviting us up into with His teaching on prayer.

It’s an invitation worth accepting.

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