I take the Bible seriously and try to apply wisdom contained therein to my life. Recently, I realized how much I have taken unique (unique means: being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else) examples from the Scriptures and believed they apply to all people, everywhere and for all time. For example: (1) Moses reasoned God out of his plan to destroy the Hebrews after they worshipped the golden calf; (2) Abraham reasoned with God regarding his plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah; (3) Gideon challenged God to provide a sign with his fleece left out overnight, twice; (4) Many more.
Whether or not we believe these incidents actually happened or if these people even actually existed, they are part of the biblical story. Regardless, these are not examples for prayer today. Why not? I cannot reason with God about specific situations in my life because (1) I don’t know exactly what God is thinking or wanting to see happen or do, and (2) I can’t get in a tête-à-tête (a private conversation between two individuals) with God.
I realize that there are those who believe that God does speak to them and so they do experience a tête-à-tête, but that’s not my background, theology or experience. Prayer is, for all practical realities, a monologue. In order for it to be a dialogue, the speaker must assume in his/her mind what God might be thinking and wanting to see happen or do. I have never been able to do that. I can tell God how I’m feeling. I can pretend that I’m reasoning with God, but I really have no idea what God thinks of my logic and whether my efforts to persuade God have had any impact.
Yes, I have the biblical texts which provide numerous examples of what the authors of those texts believed God thinks, says, does, wants, etc. These are generalities that I have to work with and figure out how they apply to my specific life situations. But I’m not Moses, Abraham, Elijah or one of the later prophets. I don’t have conversations with God because I can’t. I can choose to believe that God hears my prayers, that he responds in some fashion to my requests and thus, to believe the much-quoted faith statement, that “prayer changes things.” But I can’t prove that belief. My experience of over 40 years of praying tells me that I can’t know because more often than not the really significant and serious things I’ve prayed for appear to not have changed a thing.
Does that mean that I should throw prayer out the window? I think that depends on what I understand prayer to be. For me to pray, I have to dissociate myself with the “consumer mentality” of modern western Christianity. To quote Terry Fretheim (OT scholar and theologian),
“In my experience, prayer in this culture is often shaped by efficiency, time constraints, success, and especially individualism. Prayers tend to focus on petitionary matters, especially prayers that center on the pray-er or those close to the one who is praying. A consumer mentality is often in the air, where short-term perspectives prevail and immediate results are expected. The function of prayer seems often to be like Weight Watchers: we want discernible results, something that is measurable and quantifiable, and quickly.” [Creation Untamed, Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, p. 127]
While I agree with Fretheim and believe I have, for most of my 4 decades of faith, seen prayer exactly as he describes it in the above quotation, I take exception to how he closes out this discussion of chapter. He states,
“To conclude, prayer is a God-given way for God’s people to make a situation more open for God, to give God more room to work, knowing that God desires to be close to people. In all this, we are to recognize that God always has our best interests at heart. Prayers do shape the future in ways different from what would have been the case if no prayers had been uttered.” [Creation Untamed, Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, p. 148]
Instead, I believe that what I do as a follower of Jesus in this world, in ways that are consistent with and motivated by genuine love for others, has far more to do with shaping “the future in ways different from what would have been” than if no loving actions were taken. If prayer is what enables, motivates, inspires and energizes me to live in more loving ways with more people on more occasions then there is power in prayer to help shape the future and impact the world. In the last several years, I have come to believe that aligning my mind and my heart and my will with God’s will—as best as I can figure that out—is the only true, abiding, and provable purpose of prayer. “Father, not my will but yours be done.”