“Prayer is weakness leaning on omnipotence.”
W. S. Bowd
Prayer is a nebulous thing. It can be a frustrating endeavor, its effects unpredictable and often unknown. Its mystery can be discouraging when we, in direst need, enlist it to seek victory over death, which in a fallen world is an unavoidable fate. It’s just that we so ferociously want to curtail tragedy when it seems particularly unfair or horribly premature.
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been slammed with several pieces of disquieting news. I learned that afriend, Mona, who saw her cancer return again weeks ago, is no longer responding to the chemo that was staving off the disease’s power to end her life. She knows her days are counted. In her own words, “This is in a sense a gradual death… God is still good. I can still trust Him.”
And earlier this week came devastating news from former student Elizabeth Goodwin. I watched her survive the death of her father when she was a teenager and rebuild her life after such a great loss. Just a few months ago, her third daughter, nicknamed Simi, was diagnosed with leukemia when she was just 7 months old. Another indescribable blow. The Goodwins learned this week that the transplant didn’t work and that there’s nothing left in the medical arsenal that will save Simi’s life. Only a miracle will.
Several years ago, I read a book by Dutch Sheets called “Intercessory Prayer.” I don’t agree with everything he writes, particularly in the latter portion of his work, but his definition of prayer as it relates to God’s partnership with us is brilliant, Biblically sound and absolutely logical—mystery, inscrutability and all.
Prayer doesn’t bounce off the ears of a deaf God. Prayer doesn’t just temporarily distract us from the pain of real life in the real world. Prayer isn’t the invention of overwhelmed humans faced with challenges larger than they could tackle alone and seeking, through intercession, to “pass the buck” to a fictitious higher power.
No—prayer is His endowment in us of the ability to affect the course of life in this world. Don’t get me wrong: He is still the sole ruler of the Heavens and earth, His plans for us beautiful and redemptive (and more often than not derailed by the free will we so carelessly use to hobble His best for us).
But He also gave us the supreme responsibility and honor of releasing some of His power in this world through our prayers. Some of them won’t get answered in a way we recognize, some of them will go unanswered for years, and some of the answers will leave us baffled, angry or confused, but every prayer we say is counted and important—another opportunity for us to partner with God in promoting His plans for this agonizing planet.
“We must begin to believe that God, in the mystery of prayer, has entrusted us with a force that can move the Heavenly world,and can bring its power down to earth.”
My favorite prayer image is from Revelations 5: bowls of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. Our prayers don’t float up into a void and dissipate. They’re collected in golden bowls. They amass. They build in power. And then they are released. That image gives such credence to the concept of communal prayer, of multitudes praying toward the same goal.
But what about Mona, Simi and Jim, you might ask. What about the recent victims of tornadoes, floods and wildfires in this country? What about the vanished children whose parents pray day and night to be reunited with them? I wish I had answers for every painfully incomprehensible circumstance.
When my prayer feels futile, I remember C.S. Lewis’s statement that prayer, at the very least, changes me. It focuses me on God and makes me dependent on Him. I may not understand how God chooses to move or how His omnipotence interacts with disease and death, but I know how frail, hopeless and purposeless I’d be without Him. I know His heart. I trust it. And sometimes that just has to be enough.
Whatever our frustrations with the mechanics and outcomes of prayer, it is often our first and last recourse when faced with the untenable. We’ll never understand it all, and there may be times when we want to throw in the towel, but as someone who has received the kind of peace that can only have come through the prayers of believers who cared enough to intercede without guarantees or manuals, I can only urge you to pray. As Jesus urged His disciples, “Pray and don’t give up.”
“Prayer can never be in excess.”
C. H. Spurgeon
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