The Good Gift of Prayer
Even a casual reader of the Bible cannot help but notice many bold and staggering promises made concerning prayer. Perhaps none is more direct than Jesus's statement in Mark's Gospel: All things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you. Matthew and Luke record similar promises. Those who seek after God knock and God will open the door. All things that are asked for in prayer, with belief, will be received. So strong are these promises about prayer that the Greek language in which they were originally translated indicates that what is asked for is already accomplished. The one praying simply needs to believe the answer has already been received.(1)
It was reading bold promises like these found in the Bible that troubled English author Somerset Maugham. In his novel, Of Human Bondage, he tells a fictionalized account of an incident with prayer from which his faith never recovered. The central character in the novel, Philip, is a young boy, full of faith, who has a clubfoot. When Philip reads this verse from Mark about prayer, he is overjoyed. Now he would be able to play football with the other boys. The relentless teasing would cease and he wouldn't have to hide his foot any longer when swimming with other children. Philip immediately "prayed with all the power in his soul. No doubts assailed him. He was confident in the Word of God. And the night before he was to go back to school he went up to bed tremulous with excitement... He remembered at once that this was the morning of the miracle. His heart was filled with joy and gratitude. His first instinct was to put down his hand and feel the foot which was whole now, but to do this seemed to doubt the goodness of God. He knew that his foot was well. But at last, he made up his mind, and with the toes of his right foot he just touched his left. Then he passed his hand over it. He limped downstairs just as Mary Ann was going into the dining room for prayers, and then he sat down to breakfast."(2) His foot was not healed and his faith was destroyed.
Unanswered prayers prayed with utter conviction are particularly difficult to understand. Maugham, who had a stutter, prayed fervently for healing, but like his character Philip, his prayer was answered with a resounding "no" and his faith was never the same. Jesus implies in his teaching on prayer that like our earthly fathers, God longs to give us what is good in response to the asking, seeking, and knocking of prayer. "What father, if asked by his son for a fish will give him a snake? Or if his daughter asked for an egg, he would not give her a scorpion, would he?" Yet for Maugham, or his alter-ego Philip, how could he see his stuttering or that clubfoot as a good gift, when all it brought him was merciless teasing, rejection, and misery?
Egon Schiele, Agony, oil on canvas, 1912.
Most people—religious or non-religious—have experienced the pain of unanswered prayer. Whether in the simple prayers of childhood, or in the fervent prayers of the deeply faithful, it is an all too common human experience that prayers are answered with a resounding “no” or with what can feel like indifferent silence. Prayers for God’s protection, God’s healing, and God’s intervention are answered for some, but others suffer accidents, injuries, illnesses, or death despite fervent prayer. Sometimes when we are most desperate to hear God’s voice, there is only a vast silence in return. Perhaps, we are tempted to give up praying all together. Emily Dickinson wrote of this temptation to despair over unanswered prayer:
There comes an hour when begging stops,
When the long interceding lips
Perceive their prayer is vain.(3)
Even if the divine answer is "wait," the months and years of waiting can stretch on interminably making the most patient intercessor wonder what "good" gift could come in the endless waiting. So what is the good gift promised by Jesus?
Matthew and Luke present parallel teachings on this promise of prayer except that what Matthew implies, Luke makes explicit. In Matthew's account Jesus tells his disciples that the Father will give what is good to those who ask Him. In Luke's account, Jesus defines what is good and tells us that God will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask. How might one understand the Holy Spirit as God's abundant answer to prayer—even those prayers that go unanswered or receive an unwanted answer?
First, Christians believe that the promise of the Holy Spirit is the promise of God's presence through all the circumstances of life. The Bible speaks of the Holy Spirit as the comforter, the one who comes alongside.(4) The promise of God’s presence is meant to sustain, even in the mystery of “no” to our specific requests. Moreover, prayer is more than simply receiving answers to requests. Prayer is about joining in with the Spirit who groans on behalf of the creation. Indeed, as theologian John Calvin claimed about the prayers of lament in the Psalms, they are “among the unutterable groanings of which Paul makes mention in Romans 8:26, ‘For the spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.’”(5)
In this way, Christians understand God’s good gift as the hope that God is present no matter what life brings. Hope that God is with us, and that God’s Spirit is groaning with us in our suffering offers reassurance that we too can rise from the ashes of the most crushing events and circumstances glimpsing what beauty remains and how God redeems.
Unanswered prayer will always be a mystery. For every person who prays, there will be times when it seems the gift is a scorpion instead of an egg, or a snake instead of a fish. The recent and untimely death of my colleague Nabeel Qureshi from cancer is a fresh and painful example. Thousands prayed for his healing around the world. Yet perhaps as we wrestle with prayer, God’s bold promise to send the Holy Spirit is in fact the answer we hope for: the good gift of the Father’s abiding presence, the power of redemption in the Son, and the promise of God’s creative, ongoing work to make something beautiful from the chaos of our lives.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) See Matthew 7:7-11; Luke 11:9-13.
(2) Cited in Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 216-217.
(3) Ibid., 213.
(4) John 14:16, 26.
(5) Cited in J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015), 156.