Sunday, January 13, 2013

Whatever You Ask For? (John 14:12-14)

When things are not good, one of the things we Christians do is pray. This is one of the things that people who are not believers don't fully understand: "You mean you just think that if you ask God to fix everything then it will all be OK?"

Well, yes, that's what I hope will happen. If someone is sick, I want them to get better. I don't diagnose, prescribe or treat -- I leave those things up to the people who are trained for them. But what I can do is pray. Sometimes that prayer is answered in a supernatural way, even if most of the time it is not. But if I want someone who is sick to be well and I believe God exists, why wouldn't I pray? And if I'm going to pray, it's because I believe that what I pray for might happen. If I didn't, why would I pray?

Of course, the reality is that prayer is often not answered in the way we want. We pray for someone who is sick but they don't get better. We pray for a relationship to heal but it doesn't. We pray that people hit with a disaster somehow miraculously survive it with little damage or injury, only to find widespread destruction and loss of life. If your life is like mine, then what you have prayed for doesn't come to pass sometimes -- maybe even most of the time. This is ordinary. It's a part of Christian experience. It's normal to feel disappointed or sad if a prayer is not answered the way we want it to be answered.

The problem can come when we let those "unanswered prayers" affect our walk with Christ. If our faith wavers because our prayers aren't answered, maybe our faith wasn't based on following Christ, but on how much Christ resembles Santa Claus. We get the idea that if a prayer is not answered the way we want it answered, that must mean God is not present, or at least that he doesn't care. Really? Frankly, this is one of those times to be glad God is not a human being, because the question, "Hey God! Where were you when things were bad?" would probably get answered with, "Eh. Where were you when things wre good?"  

Let's consider what it might mean if all of our prayers were answered the way we want them to be. We could pray for an end to all sickness and infirmity in the world, right? Just pray it all away so that no one ever gets sick or has any kind of debilitating or harmful medical condition. We pray it tonight and when we wake up, every doctor and nurse and pharmacist and what have you is out of work. Sure, if offered the trade between their jobs and permanent good health for everyone on Earth, they probably would have taken the deal. But nobody asked them. We just prayed their jobs away.

Or take the prayers of the people who buy lottery tickets. I bet many of them pray that they have picked the winning number. If all of those prayers are answered "Yes" by God, then you've bought a  Powerball ticket that will win you a couple of bucks and change. Next time you watch Bruce Almighty, see if you can catch when that exact scenario happens after Jim Carey has been given God's power.

Remember being a kid just starting out in the mysterious boy-girl world and praying for the boy or girl of your dreams to like you? Think how often your crushes changed. Or think of how many times more than one girl had a crush on the same guy, or vice versa. What happens then? People don't divvy up like lottery tickets. Whose prayer gets answered?

The reality is that even though I pray because I want something bad to change or something good to happen, I know that a lot of time my prayers will not be answered the way I want them to be. Yes, sometimes they will, but often they won't. And chances are pretty good that I won't know why, maybe not until a long time has passed. If my faith is based on what comes out of the Heavenly Vending Machine when I drop in my prayer tokens, then I haven't got a very solid faith at all. 

Why does Jesus say things like he does here in John, then? Why does he say, "Whatever you ask for in my name, I will do it for you," if it's not going to happen that way? Well, once answer is that Jesus may not be speaking literally here. We know that he sometimes teaches with parables, where the true meaning is not only the meaning on the surface of the words. He also sometimes speaks in hyperbole, exaggerating what he says to get his point across. Is he lying to his disciples and to us? No, no more than our parents lied when they told us "You can be anything you want to be." My folks said that to me, even though they could tell pretty early that I was never going to be an NBA center, whether I wanted to or not. They didn't lie to me. They just didn't want me to think small when it came to my plans for my life. They and I both knew not to take "anything" literally in that sentence.

Look at what it would have to mean if Jesus was literal here. My prayers could take away your free will. I like your car, and I pray, "God, I would like this person to give me his car." Now. maybe I'm generous and take over the payments, but if I don't you're stuck paying for my new car and the one you have to buy to replace it. When we say things like, "Well, he meant that only when we pray for things that are part of God's plan do we get them," we're reinterpreting that statement anyway, so why not in a way that suggest Jesus wants us not to limit ourselves when we work for him. It makes more sense if we're talking about Jesus and serving God; the other ways make sense if we're talking about Santa and how to stay on his "nice: list.

So we pray, and we pray big. We believe prayer may happen the way we ask. Or sometimes we find that in the midst of the worst, the fact that we can pray at all is a sign God has not forsaken us, no matter what it feels like. So yell at God, pray to him, argue with him, whatever. As long as you're still talking to him, he can work with that.

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