Called By Name

Even a casual reader of the Bible cannot help but notice the 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” (11:24). Matthew and Luke record similar promises.[1] 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.

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.

So 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?” (see Matthew 7:7-11 and endnote 1). 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?

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 “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.

And yet the Bible makes it clear that pain does not go unnoticed in God’s eyes. Psalm 56 speaks of God figuratively storing up our tears in a bottle and the Book of Revelation looks forward to a day when God will wipe every tear from our eyes. In the meantime, however, it is perfectly acceptable for us to cry, to question, to throw our grief before the God who laments along with us. In fact, a good portion of the Scripture is a record of such lament and groaning before God.

The Psalms give voice to the lament of those who wonder about the presence of God in the midst of suffering and silence. “Evening and morning and at noon, I will complain and murmur, and God will hear my voice,” the psalmist writes in Psalm 55:17. In Psalm 73, we hear despair and hope together: “When my heart was embittered and I was pierced within, then I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a beast before you. Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you have taken hold of my right hand. With your counsel you will guide me, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have in heaven but you? And besides you, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (verses 21-26).

What is so encouraging about this Psalm is that even when we are angry with God and embittered against God’s seeming indifference to our prayers, this does not put us out of God’s reach and presence. “Where can I go from your presence and where can I hide from your love?” the psalmist asks in Psalm 139. The answer is nowhere! “If I make my bed in Sheol (the place of the dead) behold, You are there!”

Good Gifts

So what is this good gift promised by Jesus?

Matthew 7 and Luke 11 present parallel teachings on this promise of prayer—and 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?

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. God’s good gift is the hope that God is present no matter what life brings and that He knows us each by name.

I am reminded of a season when my late husband and I worked among the homeless in Boston. Like so many other homeless individuals all around our country, they were merely faces in a crowd, a nuisance to be avoided, or simply another panhandler asking for money. One gentleman in particular, sprawled against a building in a self-induced alcohol coma, became a fixture for me and the other passers-by in Boston’s financial district. He was stepped over and generally regarded as simply another facet of the building against which his stupefied body slumbered. He had no name or value to me, or to anyone who daily passed him by on those cold streets. In fact, at times he seemed barely human.

That is until we began to be involved in a ministry that made a point of calling people by name. As we participated in this ministry that saw the nameless among us, we learned their names: Bobby, Jim, Fred, John, Daniel, and Carl. We ate meals together and talked with each other. We listened and shared. We asked them to come in off the streets and into a place of warmth and solace. Soon, we couldn’t walk the streets of Boston without seeing these as persons we knew by name, these same ones who were formerly unknown to us. Now, I saw Bobby and Jim, Fred and John; they were known to me, and I to them.

There is something about being known and called by name that gives each of us dignity and worth. To be able to look someone in the eye and say his or her name communicates knowledge, oftentimes warmth, and a sense of value: I care enough to know your name.

In prayer, God invites us into his presence, where we are known and loved. We are invited to pour out our hearts to Him, for God is a refuge and promises in his presence there is fullness of joy.[5] Likewise, Jesus says of his followers, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name” (John 10:3).

Prayer, then, is so much more than simply receiving answers to requests. Prayer is an invitation to relationship with God. Prayer is about joining in with the Spirit who rejoices with us, comforts us, and even groans with us. 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.’”[6]

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. Yet perhaps as we wrestle with prayer, God’s bold promise to send the Holy Spirit is the only answer we could 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 an adjunct member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.

[1] See Matthew 7:7-11 and 21:22; 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] See Psalm 62:8 and 16:11.

[6] Cited in J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015), 156.

This article appears in the 26.1 edition of our award-winning magazine, Just Thinking. Click the button below to download a PDF of this edition.

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