Perhaps the most concise and beautiful description of prayer is found in the book Steps to Christ, “Prayer is the opening of the heart to God as to a friend.”
There is a depth of meaning here. The words assume that we view God as a Friend. Yet, God is often viewed as a stern judge during prayer – someone to be pled with, rather than someone to talk to. This view of God’s character negatively changes the tone and content of our prayers.
Hiding in the Bushes
After Adam and Eve rebelled against God, we are told that God came to meet them, “walking in the garden in the cool of the day…” (Genesis 3:8). It seems obvious that this was not the first time God had come to talk with Adam and Eve. Prior to sin, they experienced walking and talking with God in the cool of the day. After their sin at the Tree, however, their picture of God was severely distorted by the Serpent so that they now feared God. In addition, shame and guilt had further warped their image of God causing them to hide. In their minds, the one who came searching for them was a stern judge, not a friend.
From this day forward, most of humanity has taken the position that our rightful place, when it comes to talking with God, is in the bushes. In the Old Testament, the hallmark of paganism is fear of angry gods who need to be appeased with flowing blood, preferably the death of the firstborn child. Throughout the Dark Ages, many entities were placed between God and his children – saints, priests, Mary, etc. Many today have the idea that “God is too holy to look on me. When he looks at me, he sees Jesus.” This thought could be comforting if our picture of God is the stern judge, but this view also negatively impacts our conversation with God. Do we really need as many barriers as possible between us and a holy God?
This debate is a central point of contention in the book of Job. Job maintains that God is someone that you can open your heart to as a friend. As Job describes his past relationship with God he said, “I long for the past, when God took care of me, and the light from his lamp showed me the way through the dark. I was in the prime of life, God All-Powerful was my closest friend.” (Job 29:2-4)
Viewing God as his “closest friend” did not diminish the “All-Powerful” nature of God in Job’s mind. It’s true that Job complained, but his complaints against God reveal the nature of their friendship:
“I still rebel and complain against God; I cannot keep from groaning. How I wish I knew where to find him, and knew how to go where he is. I would state my case before him and present all the arguments in my favor. I want to know what he would say and how he would answer me. Would God use all his strength against me? No, he would listen as I spoke. I am honest; I could reason with God; he would declare me innocent once and for all” (Job 23:1-7).
To Job, God was someone you can reason with and someone who listens rather than unleashing his power against the honest complaints of his children.
For Eliphaz, God looks down his nose at humanity, and even on his own angels. God is anything but a friend.
“Can human beings be really pure? Can anyone be right with God? Why, God does not trust even his angels; even they are not pure in his sight. And we drink evil as if it were water; yes, we are corrupt; we are worthless.” (Job 15:14,15)
Bildad agrees that we are worthless – light-years from friendship status:
“Then what about a human being, that worm, that insect? What is a human life worth in God’s eyes?” (Job 25:6)
Most telling of all is the final argument of Elihu who said:
“I won’t ask to speak with God; why should I give him a chance to destroy me? God’s power is so great that we cannot come near him.” (Job 37:20,23)
For Elihu, we need much more than a bush between us and God. Of course, in the very end of the book, God says that Job said of him what is right and rebuked the three friends. Perhaps what pleased God the most about Job was his defense that God is someone who desires open and honest conversation and friendship – even when the words are blunt.
Sophisticated Ways of Hiding
Most people today would reject the idea that they are hiding in the bushes from God, yet there are more subtle and sophisticated manifestations of our fear. For example, the belief that God looks on us with displeasure, leads to a façade relationship in which real open and gritty conversation is blocked. In this “conversation” with God, the appearance of having said a “good” and “appropriate” prayer is more important than gritty honesty in prayer. As a result, unspoken rules of how to pray and a certain formality in prayer take the place of the way we would talk to a friend. The vocabulary that is used changes and sounds more fitting for the time of the King James Bible. The tone of voice becomes “holier” and there is a tendency to say what we think God wants to hear, rather than what is really on our minds.
As we will see, the prayers of those who are labeled as “friends of God” in the Bible look and sound nothing like this!
How Friends Talk to God
Abraham trusted God and “…was called God's friend” (James 2:23). Consider the way that Abraham responded to God when discussing Sodom and Gomorrah:
“Abraham approached the LORD and asked, ‘Are you really going to destroy the innocent with the guilty? If there are fifty innocent people in the city, will you destroy the whole city? Won’t you spare it in order to save the fifty? Surely you won’t kill the innocent with the guilty. That’s impossible! You can’t do that. If you did, the innocent would be punished along with the guilty. That is impossible. The judge of all the earth has to act justly.’” (Genesis 18:23-26)
Can you tell the judge of all the earth that “you can’t do that” and that he “has to act justly”? Abraham was not shy about telling God what was on his mind. Isn’t that how we talk to our friends?
Moses is another friend of God. He even spoke with God “…face-to-face, just as someone speaks with a friend” (Exodus 33:11). Yet, consider how Most spoke with God on occasion:
“Then Moses turned to the LORD and said, ‘Lord, why do you mistreat your people? Why did you send me here? Ever since I went to the king to speak for you, he has treated them cruelly. And you have done nothing to help them!’” (Exodus 5:22-23)
Later, Moses was even more direct:
“Then he said to the LORD, ‘Why have you treated me so badly? Why are you displeased with me? Why have you given me the responsibility for all these people? I didn’t create them or bring them to birth! Why should you ask me to act like a nurse and carry them in my arms like babies all the way to the land you promised to their ancestors? Where could I get enough meat for all these people? They keep whining and asking for meat. I can’t be responsible for all these people by myself; it’s too much for me! If you are going to treat me like this, have pity on me and kill me, so that I won’t have to endure your cruelty any longer.’” (Numbers 11:11-15)
This is how God’s friends spoke to him when the situation called for it – authentic, honest, and gritty.
David was “…a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). Many are concerned with the violent prayers of David. For example, in Psalm 139, David spends the majority of the Psalm telling God that he knows him inside and out, every thought and word even before David thinks it or says it. He repeats this over and over and then, almost as if to say, “you know what is really on my mind, God, so I am just going to tell you!” David then unleashes what is in his heart:
“O God, how I wish you would kill the wicked! How I wish violent people would leave me alone! They say wicked things about you; they speak evil things against your name. O LORD, how I hate those who hate you! How I despise those who rebel against you! I hate them with a total hatred; I regard them as my enemies.” (Psalm 139:19-22)
This prayer does not give us permission to hate our enemies – Jesus would disapprove of that. The prayer is inspired, however, as a model of how we are to talk with God if we do hate our enemies. In other words, God already knew that David was fuming with rage. Would God rather have David pray with lofty sounding words of praise, or would God rather hear what was really on his mind? The prayers of David illustrate that God wants the “real” you in prayer, not the “fake” you. The Psalm 139 prayer concludes with David reflecting on the evil in his heart and that God would lead him in a better way:
“Examine me, O God, and know my mind; test me, and discover my thoughts. Find out if there is any evil in me and guide me in the everlasting way.” (Psalms 139:23-24)
In the context of David’s hateful thoughts, he concludes with the desire that God would root out the evil that lurks within. This is a prayer that suggests the beginning of healing for David’s “un-Christian” desire to punish enemies rather than to forgive them, love them, and to pray for them.
Psalm 77 is another prayer with a different set of challenges:
“I cry aloud to God; I cry aloud, and he hears me. In times of trouble I pray to the Lord; all night long I lift my hands in prayer, but I cannot find comfort. When I think of God, I sigh; when I meditate, I feel discouraged…I spend the night in deep thought; I meditate, and this is what I ask myself: ‘Will the Lord always reject us? Will he never again be pleased with us? Has he stopped loving us? Does his promise no longer stand? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has anger taken the place of his compassion?’ Then I said, ‘What hurts me most is this— that God is no longer powerful.’” (Psalm 77:1-10)
Has it ever been true that “God is no longer powerful”? Of course not! But, this is how David felt and so he told God what was on his mind. And, if you read the rest of the Psalm, God reminds David of the many powerful things he has done in human history. “I will remember your great deeds…I will recall the wonders you did in the past. I will think about all that you have done; I will meditate on all your mighty acts…” and so on. At the end of the prayer, the relief in David’s heart is palpable. David’s authenticity in prayer was the window God needed to communicate the reality that he has acted throughout human history and will do so again.
Jesus and Prayer
Jesus makes it believable that we can speak to God as Friend. God came as a human being to show us how we can relate to God. As a counter to the claim that “God is too holy to look on sin” we see Jesus (God in human form) eating and drinking with sinners including prostitutes, drunkards and those with less than stellar reputations.
Jesus had friends. When Mary and Martha sent a message to Jesus about Lazarus, they said, “Lord, your dear friend is sick.” Jesus then told his disciples that “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep…“ (John 11:3, 11). And, when Jesus arrived at the tomb, he was moved to tears by the suffering of those at the tomb and by the death of his friend.
Much more could be said about the subject of Jesus and prayer, but I would like to highlight two most unusual ideas that Jesus shared with his disciples in the Upper Room. We know that there was more Jesus wanted to say, but his disciples were unprepared to comprehend his words (John 16:12). Yet, Jesus pushed forward to communicate that God’s preferred method of related to us looks more like a friendship than it does a master-servant arraignment:
“I do not call you servants any longer because servants do not know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends…” (John 15:15).
Perhaps even more remarkable are the words of Jesus about how we can approach the Father in prayer:
“I have used figures of speech to tell you these things. But the time will come when I will not use figures of speech, but will speak to you plainly about the Father. When that time comes, you will make your requests to him in my name, and I do not say that I will ask him on your behalf…” (John 16:25-26).
This is such a counterintuitive passage that some have quoted this by leaving the “not” out: “I do say that I will ask him on your behalf.”
Other translations of this passage seem to make the words of Jesus even more daunting:
“I make no promise to plead to the Father for you…” (JB Phillips)
“I do not promise to intercede with the Father for you…” (Goodspeed)
Why would Jesus not ask, plead or intercede with the Father when we present our requests to him? The answer is too good to be true: “…for the Father himself loves you.”
This is the central image of the Father that should be in our minds when we come to God in prayer. Despite all of our failings, “the Father himself loves you” – the Father is the same as the Son in heart, mind, and character. The Father’s love for us is not eclipsed by the Son. Rather, Jesus came to make us believers that the heart of love that God has for each of us is far beyond our ability to comprehend. Jesus’ words in the Upper Room should greatly encourage us when we come to God in prayer!
God’s Character and Unanswered Prayer
What does it say about God that children die of leukemia even though family, friends and extended faith communities come together in prayer?
The Bible is unambiguous that prayer is effective. For example, James tells us that “The prayer of a good person has a powerful effect” (James 5:16).
Years ago, I had a patient whose daughter died of leukemia. She prayed and her church family prayed, yet her daughter died. In her mind, there were only two possibilities for the death of her daughter. First, it was God’s will – “God wanted my daughter to be with him.” Second, those praying for her healing did not have enough faith – “If only I had enough faith, she would have been healed.”
Both of these ideas were destructive. What kind of a God “wills” the death of a child? This option angered my patient about God. The alternative was no better because the notion that her daughter died because of her own lack of faith created guilt and self-loathing.
“God’s will” and the faith and prayers of his children are both important variables for what happens in this world. I would like to submit, however, that these are not the only two variables that explain human suffering and “unanswered prayer.”
The Complexity of Human Rebellion
The Gospel of Mark, in the midst of describing Jesus healing and casting out demons, has this unusual verse:
“He was not able to perform any miracles there, except that he placed his hands on a few sick people and healed them.” (Mark 6:5)
It sounds odd that the Son of God could not perform many miracles in this town. Is this because it was God’s will or because Jesus lacked faith? In this case, both options are wrong! Rather, because God has created this world in a way that his children have the freedom to either choose for or against him, this allows for the possibility of rebellion against his will. God wants friendship but friendship is only possible if it is freely accepted and if there is the capacity for friendship to be rejected. If God’s will trumps human freedom, God does not really have friends – he has pets. Freedom allows for the possibility of evil, but is not the cause of evil.
Our freedom to choose for or against God’s will has a ripple effect on those around us. We are not an island to ourselves. For example, an individual may selfishly choose to run a company that ruins the environment. Despite God speaking to his conscience that money and power are not good reasons to destroy the planet, he resists God’s will. As a result, perhaps children are exposed to environmental conditions that promote cancer. Question: should God prevent the natural consequences of this? Should the negative effects of human rebellion somehow be miraculously negated by God? Or, should God manipulate our world in such a way that only “bad” children get cancer?
God’s will does counteract the effects of human rebellion. And, the prayers and faith of God’s people matter, but we can’t make a math formula out of it. What happens in our world is remarkably complicated. For example, the genetic and epigenetic effects of sin add an additional layer of complexity as science is discovering the negative effects that alcoholism, substance abuse and countless other negative behaviors has on subsequent generations – as “the sins of our fathers” also impact our world.
The Complexity of Angelic Rebellion
There is yet another layer of complexity to our world that needs to be recognized in the context of suffering and unanswered prayer.
Daniel chapters 9 and 10 record the prayers of Daniel that his people would return to Jerusalem. Yet, nothing seemed to happen. Finally, an angel comes to pull back the curtain and to explain what was going on behind the scenes since Daniel prayed:
“Daniel, don’t be afraid. God has heard your prayers ever since the first day you decided to humble yourself in order to gain understanding. I have come in answer to your prayer…The angel prince of the kingdom of Persia opposed me for twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief angels, came to help me… Now I have to go back and fight the guardian angel of Persia. After that the guardian angel of Greece will appear. There is no one to help me except Michael, Israel’s guardian angel. He is responsible for helping and defending me.” (Daniel 10:12, 13, 20; 11:1)
Who is the “angel prince of Person” and the “guardian angel of Greece”? All we can say for sure is that these are cosmic powers that are opposed to God. In addition, it would appear that Daniel’s prayer was an important factor in this conflict.
What does this story tell us about prayer? God’s response to Daniel’s prayer was to enlist angelic forces to combat the demonic powers that were controlling the nations that were opposed to his will.
This story further highlights the complex subject of prayer by incorporating the effects of the angelic rebellion. Daniel's prayer should remind us that Satan, “the prince of this world” (John 12:31) is actively involved to oppose God’s will. Daniel’s prayer should encourage us to identify with God’s will for this world and to pray. Daniel’s prayer made a difference in the cosmic conflict. So can ours.
It is great good news that God is the kind of Person that we can talk to as a friend. We should open our heart to him with the mindset that we are meeting our best friend – walking and talking in the cool of the day. God can handle everything we have to say to him. The key for us is to be authentic, honest and completely transparent.
We have also seen that, in the complex setting of human rebellion and the cosmic conflict, our prayers matter. We may not always see the effect that they have, but we should be reminded of the story of Daniel and the great efforts expended by God to make his prayer a reality.