by Mark Gutman

My last three columns have taken a look at some popular views about prayer: (1) Get God to do what you want = pull the cruise ship over to your rowboat; (2) talk “nicely” in prayer instead of talking about what worries us or angers us or bothers us in any way; (3) pray “safe” prayers to avoid the problems caused by lack of answers.

How do we deal with “answers to prayer”? Even if people understand prayer to work as a vending machine (see “Santa, Safety, and Specificity – May column), and even if they don’t realize the benefits of talking with God as with a friend (see “Talking With a Friend” – April column), at least some people claim to have lots of answers piled up. Look at the books of answer-to-prayer stories.

But while you’re reading those books, check out the experiments that have been performed regarding the efficacy of intercessory prayer. The experiments have not worked out as many prayer promoters have hoped. While I’m all for prayer, I have trouble believing that God would work the way the experiments have been designed to hope he would work. I’m bothered at the idea that God would heal one person with a medical problem in a hospital while leaving another to suffer, simply because the latter patient was not in the preferred prayer group. Experiments so far have not shown that God acted that way. Some have interpreted parts of the experiments as proving that “intercessory prayer works” but the problems with the methods of the experiments and interpretations of the data are numerous.

The books of answered prayer also imply that the only answers that count are “Yes” answers. If I stood up in a meeting and told about how God answered my prayer when my dog was sick, I’d probably get a lot of frowns from listeners if I explained that God answered No. I suspect someone explain to me that No answers don’t count as answers to prayer; only Yes answers count.

Somehow, prayer as the opening of the heart to God as to a friend has been crowded out by the thought of prayer as “name-it-and-claim-it.” The more spiritual you are, the longer your list of miraculous answers. But I’ve chatted with friends for hours and not asked them for anything except time and attention. I don’t remember ever nearing the end of a conversation with a friend and saying, “Wait a minute. This isn’t a good conversation. I haven’t asked you for anything.” But for some people, prayer doesn’t seem like prayer if we don’t ask for things. After all, isn’t that what prayer is about?

If we are really concerned about something, it is natural to ask anywhere we can think of for help. But friends who learn that we are only coming around to ask them for something may wonder what kind of “friend” we are. Even if we butter them up before we ask. Even if we use a formula (adoration-confession-thanksgiving-supplication). If friends learn that we are mainly talking with them in order to get something from them, they may learn to avoid us, the way we try to avoid solicitors. Regardless of how God may regard us, if we just see him as an emergency tool we might do a little reflecting on what “friendship” really means.  

“Conversation” implies two-way talking. When we talk with God, isn’t it fair to let him talk too? When I start talking with God, I may feel the way the psalmist does in Psalm 109 (see my April column). I may be smoldering or so fired up that the only thing I can think of is vengeance. I may be worried or jealous or feeling other negative emotions. But as I talk with God and honestly admit my emotions and my negative side, I often find my strong emotions lightening up. And then I’m ready to start reading the Gospels or other helpful passages and ask how they apply to my situation. When I first start talking with God, I may not be in the mood to listen to him, to read his word. My conversation with God is more a monologue. But as I open up to God I can become more ready to make the talk to God into a talk with God, in which I let him say something back to me.

Have you ever noticed someone on one end of a phone call who didn’t say anything? The person who was holding the phone might have been able to put it down and go away for a few minutes because the other person was doing all the talking and didn’t seem to be asking the quiet person to say anything. Would some observing your prayer life describe it that way? Would your prayer life be described as a one-sided phone call?

Why not make prayer into a conversation with God? Are you worried? Angry? Jealous? Discouraged? Chat with God about it. You can tell him things you might not even dare say to your spouse or close friend. But God invites you to unload, to get the pressure released by “opening up” to him.

Instead of turning prayer into a list of things that we don’t think about much (“missionaries and colporteurs”, the lost souls in Africa, “the leaders of our nation”, our church leaders, etc.), talk with God about what is really on your mind. And have a Bible nearby so you can let him talk back. If you’re driving a car or working, you may be limited in how much you can read a Bible, but you can still let your mind reflect on what you remember of Bible verses or on how Jesus treated people.

Thus, answers (replies) to prayer are found in the Bible, the same as answers in my conversations with friends. I don’t need to hide the No answers. I can face the fact that I don’t always get what I think I want. (Sometimes I’ve discovered that I wished I hadn’t got what I thought I wanted badly.)

We don’t need safe prayers (“bless John Smith”) or lists of answers to prayers when our prayer focus is on talking with God and listening to him as we read his word.

The Message Bible renders Matthew 6:7,8 as “The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They're full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don't fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need.” As we get away from prayer as a list of requests, we’ll find ourselves enjoying more of a chat with God – where we even give him a chance to answer. In a conversation that’s not one-sided.