To my mother who epitomizes faith seeking understanding.
One of my favorite tricks of nature is the skipping stone. If you throw a stone across the face of the water at just the right angle, with just the right velocity, and a high enough angular momentum (to keep the flat stone parallel to the surface) the stone strives against its apportioned metaphoric role in life. Quite simply, it refuses to sink like a stone.
For a little while anyway. Eventually they all sink. For those without the skill maybe only one skip, or embarrassingly, none at all. Just a deep sploonk to remind us of our incompetence. But to those with the will, the determination, the skill, yea, the copious amounts of free time, stone may be the master of water and gravity for perhaps even ten skips. But in the end, they all sink.
I find that prayer is like this. We think if we can put together the right ingredients, then perhaps God will intervene, even if only briefly, into the natural state of affairs that is our lives. A sickness won't run it's course. A job will be provided immediately. A spouse won't leave. Whatever it may be. And the ingredients aren't hard to figure out. We'll need to be humble for sure, earnest, "living right" is probably key, faith must be critical, and sometimes we'll throw in a bargain just to sweeten the deal. If you've been a Christian for a while you've probably also heard a three point sermon on prayer which added even more specifics like praying purposefully, powerfully, and with perseverance (or something that started with three P's).
But even when we manage to put all the ingredients together we find that sooner or later the stone sinks. We don't get what we ask for, in fact we get the exact opposite. Our prayers go unanswered and sink into the murky, mysterious abyss that we have given the name God's Will. This is actually where we begin to run into trouble. When your prayers go unanswered, what does that mean? Does it mean you don't have faith? Does it mean God doesn't care? Or perhaps he's not there after all? Maybe we didn't pray with the right ingredients or in the right way. Unanswered prayer appears to present a problem to faith.
I don't pretend to know why God does or doesn't answer any specific prayer. But I know that in the Bible prayer is always more than asking God for things. It is at least that, but it is much more. Critical to understanding the pillar of prayer, however is the cornerstone of the relationship between man and God. How do we relate? That question must be answered to set the parameters we could expect in the communication between man and God.
The basic category for understanding God's work in the world as given through the scriptures is that of a Father to his children. Those who come to Jesus Christ as their savior are given a Spirit of Adoption. This means that besides knowing God as a powerful creator, we are brought into an intimate relationship with God, where we are his children and he is our Father. This means that although he will exercise his fatherly discipline in us for our training and good, he may also grant us the desires of our hearts, specifically when they aren't bad for us. And furthermore he is not punishing us because all of our punishment fell upon Jesus. When children complain and wish they didn't have to go to school and ask to stay home all day, we as good parents make our children go to school anyway because although they will have to suffer in the mean time, it will be for their good in the end. However if this same child wants the latest video game, we may grant it to them simply because we love them and because we want them to have the desires of their hearts. This is the controlling picture in the Bible and it is used in such a way that we are actually to understand it as more than metaphor. We are to cry out to God as our Father.
It is this relationship with God as Father that makes all the difference, and this is unique in the world religions. Buddism, Hinduism, Shinto and others teach that there is no ultimate personal god to answer your prayers. Perhaps prayer may bring you into alignment with reality and thus produce a different perspective on the events in your world, or prayer and worship of a lesser god may manipulate them into providing the desired result for you. But the ultimate reality is impersonal. In Islam, God is thought to be sovereign, but we must submit to him rather than address him intimately which would be considered disrespectful. In Judaism we learn that there is a creator god who is personal, sustains the universe, and intervenes graciously on behalf of his people. But it is only the Gospel which teaches us that this god is triune, that he has come into this world not to rule but to suffer in love for his creation and that he desires to be personally known as Abba, Father.
And in this relationship with God as Father, which is granted to us through our allegiance to the Son, knowing God takes the center stage of prayer. What is your main aim in communicating with your earthly Father? Well when you were young, it probably was to get things from him, or to manipulate him, or to ask permission to do something you like. But as you mature, you desire to know him. What was his life like? What kind of man is he, really? What was his family like? And the more you talk the more you desire to know him, because after all you are made in your Father's image. Now when it come to God it is the same. And the more we do get to know God through spending time with him in prayer and scripture reading the more we know his character and the more we can trust him, even when the circumstances in our lives seem opposed to the idea that God is in control, and cares, and is powerful enough to act.
Let me explain. My father is one of the hardest working men that I have ever known in my life. He is the kind of guy that believes you can sleep when you're dead, NOT when you are home on Spring break from college! So if someone came to me and said, I visited your parent's house and it is in disarray, and furthermore it is because your father has become lazy and just sits around all day drinking margaritas and watching TV. I could tell you for an absolute fact that it is not true. Why? Because I know my father's character and as a result I trust him. And I have learned that from years of being with him, talking to him, spending time with him, watching him at work, and watching him always come through.
When you pray, the most important thing you can do is get to know God. Get to know your heavenly Father. And as time progresses you will find that he proves himself faithful over and over and over and over again. He did for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, David, and a host of others. And as you remember the cross of Jesus Christ you begin to know with your whole being, as though you could touch it and taste it, that God loves you and cares for you deeply. When the cross of Jesus Christ becomes a controlling reality in your life you simply cannot doubt God's fatherly care and concern for you because he has been so faithful to you in the past.
So you see that faith is blind and it is not blind. It is blind in that you simply cannot see all the plans of an almighty, sovereign god and often must trust him despite every evidence to the contrary that he is at work in you and in our world. But, faith is not blind, because you are not trusting in faith, or prayer, or spirituality, but in the God who has proved himself to be faithful a thousand times before. You are praying to the God who gave Abraham a child in his old age, who provided a wife for Isaac from among his own people, who blessed Jacob when no one else would, who made Moses a spokesperson though he could not speak, who brought salvation to the house of the pagan Rahab, and who raised his son Jesus from the grave. And to those who know the Lord, a hundred other examples of his faithfulness are found in a life of faith.
So once your relationship has been established, ask away. What father does not care to hear what his children desire and give it to them? He will give you the desires of your heart that will make you holy. And it has been my experience that sometimes he will give you the desires of your heart that will not make you holy, so that you may eat of the fruit of the tree that you have planted and taste the bitterness that comes from roots planted in soil other than the word of God.
And so as you face another obstacle in your life and pick up another stone to cast upon the waters of uncertainty, wondering whether this rock will sink, know this. That the God whom you know so well will always work his will to make you holy, and the God who did not spare his only Son will always love you well, whether the stone sinks or floats.