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A few years ago, an evangelical pastor published a 93 page book entitled The Prayer of Jabez. It has sold over 10 million copies, and is based on a single verse in the Old Testament book of 1 Chronicles. The verse tells us that an ancient Israelite named Jabez prayed a simple prayer and God answered it. Here is the prayer: "Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my territory, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!"
In the opening pages of the book based on this prayer, the author tells us that God is waiting to give us much more than we can imagine. The problem is that we have not thought to ask God for the blessings God wants to give us. He declares: God has "unclaimed blessings waiting for you." (p.17)
He poses a question: "Is it possible that God wants you to be 'selfish' in your prayers?" He says that "such a prayer is not the self-centered act it might appear, but a supremely spiritual one and exactly the kind of request God longs to hear." (p.19)
The author believes that most Christians have been a little too shy in asking God for exactly what we want. He wants to spur us on, so that we won't be embarrassed to ask God for things. In fact, he believes that we have been thwarting God's will by not submitting our requests
He tells a story that illustrates his key point. A man dies and goes to heaven, where Peter meets him at the gates and gives him a tour. During the tour, the man notices an enormous warehouse with no windows, and only one door. The man asks to see what is inside, but Peter warns him that he does not really want to know. The man begs Peter to let him go in, and Peter relents. The warehouse is filled with row after row of shelves, all full of white boxes tied with red ribbons. The boxes have people's names on them, and the man asks Peter if there is a box with his name on it. Peter says there is, but that the man will not want to see what is inside. The man rushes to the aisle with his name in the alphabet, and finds his box. He slips the red ribbon off of the box and peers inside, and then heaves a deep sigh of regret. The box is filled with all the blessings God wanted to give the man while he was on earth, but he did not get them because he never asked. (P.25-27)
The author's point is that we must ask for more. He wants us to feed that envious urge within us that reasons: "My neighbor has it and so should I!" He also wants to feed our inner child that declares: "What is the purpose of God, if not to give me what I want?" The author seems oblivious to the portrait of God he paints - a God who has a storehouse full of blessings, but will not share them until we beg.
Can you imagine a parent who withholds food from her child unless the child asks? Who withholds love, support and security, unless the child specifically requests these things?
The author seems unaware of the God of the Bible who take the initiative in creating us and a marvelous world filled with beauty, food and fellow creatures; the God who takes the initiative in loving us; who takes the initiative in forgiving us; who takes the initiative in showing us the path that will lead to death and the path that will lead to life.
Pathetically, many people buy this image of a God who hands out favors provided you ask. These days you do not hear much about the Prayer of Jabez, but its theology is as popular as ever. Surf the cable channels and you will find TV preachers hawking some version of the prosperity gospel. To hear them tell it, God is like a magic vending machine. Slip your prayer through the slot, and out pops whatever you request. You simply must believe and your dreams will come true.
Some will use this morning's text from Matthew to support such thinking. "Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you...If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask!"
If people did not question the meaning of this passage before the Haitian earthquake or the Indian Ocean tsunami or the terrorists attack on September 11 or the time they prayed for the healing of a loved one to no avail, surely they are wondering about it now.
What do these words of Jesus mean? "Your Father in heaven will give good things to those who ask." Some interpret these words simply: "If you pray for good things, God will give them to you." While we wish that were true, we know that life is not always so accommodating. Jesus knew that, and Matthew knew it too. Matthew tells the story of Herod slaughtering all the young children who were born in the vicinity of Bethlehem when Jesus was born. He also tells us of the unjustified beheading of John the Baptist. Jesus and Matthew knew that good people suffer unjustly.
That is why I do not think Jesus intended for these words to be understood in the way many have hoped: ask for what you want and God will deliver. Incidentally, that is not what the passage says. It says God will give good things to those who ask. It does not say what those good things will be.
And if you look at this same passage in the Gospel of Luke, you find that Luke did not record these words of Jesus exactly as Matthew did. Where Matthew says God "will give good things to those who ask," Luke says, God "will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask." What do we get from God in prayer? God's Spirit. This is going to come as very disappointing news to those who were eyeing a sleek Ferrari!
Grasping the nature of prayer is challenging. Yet because it is not easy, does not mean it is not essential. Prayer is vital for anyone who wants to go beyond a surface-level existence to a life with true depth.
God does not deny us good gifts unless we specifically ask for them. God seeks to work good things in our lives, and prayer increases the effectiveness of God's work in the world. Christ called on his followers to engage in prayer, and that "suggests the possibility that our prayers make a difference to God, and perhaps even make a difference in what God can do in the world."1
Does intercessory prayer have any kind of impact? Most of us have prayed for things that did not come to pass, and we are troubled by the times we have prayed for something undeniably worthy and the prayer was not answered.
Some believe they are defending the Bible by saying that God answers all prayers, but sometimes the answer is "No." Is that right? Does God simply say "No," when we pray for children who are starving? Does God say "No," when we pray for wars to cease?
My idea of prayer used to be straightforward. Prayer was speaking and listening to God. The speaking to God was relatively easy, the listening to God was difficult beyond words. However, my life experiences and shifts in my theology have altered my notion of prayer. Speaking to God has become more difficult as I have learned to take seriously what is reasonable to pray for and what is not. When I am flying, I do not pray for my plane not to crash. God does not want any plane to crash and I certainly do not believe that my prayer can keep a plane aloft. I can pray for the pilots to remain alert, because I may be able to send a small amount of positive energy that has an influence on them, but I have no illusions that I can control their actions or the weather our flight will encounter or numerous other variables. Likewise, when I am at the bedside of someone who is breathing her final breaths, I do not pray for a last-second, buzzer-beating miraculous healing.
I'll never forget the night I visited a young woman in the hospital who was in the final stages of life. She was a friend, but not a member of my congregation. There were two other ministers visiting her that night also, and at one point someone asked everyone to clear the room except for the three pastors who would pray for Donna. Despite the fact that she was on the verge of death, the other two pastors prayed for God to perform a supernatural miracle and heal her. I found their prayers out of touch with reality and death denying. So, when it came to my turn, I prayed that Donna would feel God's loving arms comforting her, that she would be released from pain, that she would not be afraid, that she would know God's peace and the assurance of eternal life. Donna was unable to respond so I cannot say what impact the prayers had on her in her final hours. I do know that when I reach the end of my life, this is the kind of prayer I hope someone will pray for me.
How does God strengthen us or guide us or heal us? Perhaps God touches us with suggestive energy below the threshold of our consciousness. Prayer, meditation and dreams sometimes bring these impulses to the surface and enable us to clarify them, but many of the impulses are deeply embedded within us, and have a subliminal impact on us. Although they do not enter our conscious awareness, they influence our thoughts and our physical well-being.
Perhaps our prayers for others work in a similar fashion. When we pray for others to be healed, could it be that we send loving energy that touches them in unconscious, but positive ways? And since God seizes every opportunity to urge people to respond to the best possibilities given their situation, perhaps God uses our prayers as positive energy in their lives - energy that urges healing. Those prayers might make the difference in an illness that has not yet reached an irreversible stage.2
Suppose you had a loved one who was seriously ill. Many of you do not have to imagine such a scenario, you are living it. You could pray that God will urge all the healing processes within your loved one's body to mobilize. You could pray that he will keep a positive frame of mind and a hopeful attitude about recovering.
While prayer is, in many ways, a mystery, I believe it is a great deal more than simply talking to ourselves. God works with the world as it is, and seeks to lead it to the best possible tomorrow. Human beings are an important factor in what the world will become because we have freedom to accept or reject God's urging. As we respond positively to God, God is able to offer better outcomes, but when we reject God's best influences, we limit what is possible.
Your loved one could enhance his healing by cooperating with his doctors. He could maintain a hopeful attitude and strengthen his ties with his family, friends and church. He could focus on what he would like to do when he gets well. If his current condition could go either way, he might tip the scales in his favor.
Of course, the ultimate outcome may not be up to him. Not everything is possible. We are limited by the time and place in which we live. We're limited by financial resources and availability of treatments. And the greatest restriction on us is our mortality. All of us are terminal. Most of us will overcome numerous illnesses during our lifetimes, but the final one will be fatal. So, whenever we pray for a loved one to be healed, we do it with the knowledge that our prayers will not always be successful. Yet, despite the fact that our prayers cannot keep our loved ones alive forever, I believe they can make a difference in the healing process. In the past 25 years, a number of scientific studies have attempted to measure the effect of prayer on a person's healing. Several of these experiments have shown that prayer can "increase the healing rate of surgical wounds and can speed up the recovery process."3
Of course, healing is not always physical healing. Sometimes it is being at peace at the end of our lives. The longer I live, the more prayer becomes a mystery. While I think I understand it better than in my younger years, prayer stubbornly eludes my grasp. I do not believe God denies us blessings until we ask or that God will heal my loved one simply because I offer a sincere prayer. But I have seen things happen that defy explanation: people who have gotten well when they were not expected to recover; people who have acquired remarkable strength when they could have been overwhelmed by suffering; and people who have shown extraordinary courage when standing face to face with death. There is much about prayer I do not understand, but I have seen its power and that's why I hope all of us will keep praying.
1. Marjorie Suchocki, In God=s Presence, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1996), p.18.
2. Ibid., p.59.
3. Larry Dossey, Prayer Is Good Medicine, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), p. 5.
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