When Prayer doesn’t work


Most of us have some sense that we need to pray for things, and for the people who are dear to us, so that God will do good for us and for them. Most of us have also experienced the distress that comes when it seems that our prayers are not answered, or even that God is not present to hear our prayers, If we are not careful we can easily fall into a false understanding of the Christian life, where God is the source of good things which he will give us if we perform some religious activities, or the source of good feelings that are comparable to those we experience and desire in a secular context. Such a view misses out on so much that is Good News and which is the true essence of Orthodox Christianity. God is not the source of good things or good feelings, but is all goodness and love himself. He does not ask us to pray for gifts but to give ourselves entirely to him that we might receive him in his own fullness.

If I do things for my wife only to receive kindness from her then I am not acting in love but only with a mercenary attitude in which my actions are intended to produce a particular response for my own benefit. If I truly love my wife then I will seek to do that which is an expression of my love simply for the sake of love and not in the expectation of any reward or response. Indeed, we know that often when we intend to do something good for someone it can go wrong and be misunderstood. But this is never a reason to cease to act in love. The expression of love is itself enough reward, whether or not we gain something in return.

Likewise our relationship with God must exclude any and all transactional and commercial attitudes. If we are praying because we want to receive material things from God then we are not praying to God at all but to a construct, an idol, that we have created. Prayer is union with God in the heart, and to pray is already to receive everything, since true prayer is to enter into the presence of God, who gives himself to those who seek him.

We are certainly to pray for ourselves and others as the Scriptures teach us. Nevertheless we must avoid offering such prayer in the same faulty attitude that having done something religious God must now give what we have asked for. There are two passages in the Gospels which I believe present the right attitude to us when offering prayer for our own needs and those of others. In the first case there is the account of the healing of blind Bartimaeus. He sat at the roadside in the dust, blind and unable to escape his circumstances. When he heard that the Lord Jesus was coming along the road he began that ceaseless cry which is the basis of the Jesus Prayer. He cried out loudly and insistently, Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.

What is required of us is this prayer of Bartimaeus. An expression of faith, hope and humility. He asks for no more than mercy and he receives all that God wills for him. The Lord instructs that he be brought to him and he asks him what he is crying out for, and he responds that he wants to be able to see. Nothing more. He doesn’t tell Christ how to work the miracle. He simply cries out, have mercy, here is my need. We should not doubt that God knows our needs more than we do. He does not need us to tell him of them, indeed he does not need our prayer at all. But we need to be and become men and women of prayer for our own sake, and for our own salvation. Bartimaeus has to keep on crying out for mercy. He didn’t quietly cry out once or twice and then give up. Indeed, when he was told to be quiet he cried out even louder and more insistently. And his cry brought him into the presence of Christ where he found the healing he was seeking, yet it was according to God’s working and not anything he suggested himself. What did he know other than his need, and that in Christ there was some hope of healing. So he did all that he could, he cried out without ceasing making a simple prayer, Lord have mercy.

It was not the use of many words which brought an answer to his prayer. It was not his having a clear idea of what needed to be done to heal him. It was perseverance in faith and hope which brought him into the presence of Christ and allowed him to find healing. His unceasing prayer was the expression of his unfailing faith in Christ.

Likewise, in another passage describing the paralysed man brought to our Lord Jesus by his friends. Their love was expressed without words but with action. They had no great idea for the healing of their friend beyond bringing him into the presence of Jesus. They carried him together. He was too much a burden for one to bear. And when they found the crowd around the house they did not abandon him there. When they found that the press was too great around the door they did not abandon him there. They took him onto the flat roof, and finding no way in to the building they did not leave him there. But with their bare hands they tore away at the roof itself and finding Jesus before them they lowered him carefully into his very presence.

What does the Gospel say… When he saw their faith. Not the faith of the man who was sick with the palsy. But the faith of those who brought their needy friend into his presence. They had said nothing. Their prayer was in their perseverance and effort, and their perseverance and effort was a prayer. They had not ceased in their endeavours until their friend was brought into the presence of Christ, and they were confident that it was enough to bring him there.

Sometimes it seems to us that prayer doesn’t work. We have prayed for some situation or for the needs of a friend and it appears that God has not heard, or has not answered in the way we expected. Believe me, I have 52 years experience of thinking in such a way, and in praying with the intent of moving God to act as I willed and wished.  When I was younger I believed for a while that it was necessary to picture to myself in great detail exactly the answer to prayer that I was demanding of God. I meant well, but this was a completely false understanding of prayer, and especially of intercession. How could I possibly know what was best for myself of for any other person? I knew nothing beyond my own very limited vision of things. I could never see the situation in the context of the infinite and unimaginable matrix created by our human relationships. All I could see was that I wanted this to happen, and I was willing to pray a little in the expectation that it would happen. Didn’t it say, whatever you ask you can have?

Decades of not seeing things work out as I expected, and very slowly learning through painful and difficult experience that I actually had no idea how things should turn out, have changed my understanding of prayer. Even last year, just 12 months ago, in the middle of very desperate circumstances, I could not have begun to imagine that my life would turn out as it has done only a year later. And since I could not have imagined this outcome, this positive and fruitful and blessed outcome, how could I have prayed for it, and described it to God as something I demanded he work out?

What have I learned as being the nature of prayer? It is that what we require more than anything, to become truly human, and to experience the transformation of our life which is the meaning of salvation, is to become men and women of prayer, because prayer is union with God in the heart by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Prayer is not something we do, it is something we become. When it remains something we do only on occasion as we remember then we have not yet begun to experience the abundant life that God desires for us. But to pray as we remember is the beginning and the entrance to such an abundant experience of God as being ever present. To pray as we remember is to offer the little we have, the five loaves and two fishes. But God desires so much more for us, and gives himself as heavenly bread and a fountain springing up within us when we desire him with our whole heart. When we pray as a matter of life and breath then we experience the unfailing presence of God, and this transforms our perception of everything.

I have learned that prayer is not a matter of many words. I no longer assume that I know how God should work out his will for my salvation and that of others. Now my prayer is often that of Bartimaeus. Lord, have mercy. Will he not have mercy in accordance with his own will and his own infinite understanding of all things? But I have also learned that one of the greatest lessons we must learn in the Christian spiritual way is that of perseverance. If prayer is not for God’s benefit but for our own, then it is our own perseverance which teaches and transforms us. It teaches us how much we really care about some situation. If we are unceasing in our prayer, if the object of our intercession is always in our mind and heart so that we are ceaseless in crying out, Lord, have mercy, then we are becoming prayer and no longer just saying prayers. If we pray for some person or situation then it reveals that our concern is truly heartfelt and that we are willing to make the sacrifice of ourselves, our time and our attention for this need.

Bartimaeus didn’t stop crying out. The four friends did not allow any difficulties to obstruct them. They did not allow the fact that walking through the door of the house to see Jesus was impossible stand in the way of their concern for their friend. Shall I mention other examples from the parables? The widow who wanted justice and so didn’t stop bothering the judge until he gave it to her. The man who had a friend visit at night and needed some food and so didn’t stop bothering his neighbour until he have him something to feed his visitor.

The Gospel writer even makes it clear to us, crystal clear, what these parables are about. St Luke says, Jesus told this parable so that we would learn to keep praying and not give up.

I think that this is why it seems to us that sometimes our prayers are not answered. We pray a little and then we give up. We give up very often because the situation we are praying for does not mean as much to us as we would like to imagine. We think of ourselves as caring people perhaps, but we find it hard to imagine praying for an hour, or for two hours, or unceasingly, for some difficulty that we or others are facing. We can visit the cinema and watch a film for a couple of hours. We can play video games long into the night. We can spend hours revising for exams at school and university, and to increase our chances of promotion at work. But if we are honest with ourselves we do not always want to spend the same effort in prayer and on our spiritual life. Having given up and failed to keep praying, how can we be surprised that our prayers seem to be unanswered? We have been asked to persevere and we have failed to do so. Our Lord criticised the disciples in Garden of Gethsemane when he most needed their support and they all fell asleep. His words are spoken to us all it seems to me. Could you not watch even for an hour? It seems then that the most usual reason for our prayers remaining unanswered is that we have given up praying, or we pray only occasionally and half-heartedly for some situation.

There are other reasons though, why prayer is not answered as we wish. We are often asking only for material blessings, and the Fathers of the Church do not teach us that we are to pray for these. The Scriptures are clear. Seek first the Kingdom of God and all the things you need will be added unto you. When the Fathers write about those passages in the Gospels where Christ promises to answer prayer they make it very clear, as do the Scriptures themselves when properly considered in context, that Christ promises to give freely to those who seek grace and understanding of God’s will. We may always ask for more grace to become those men and women God desires us to be and created us to be. We may always ask for more understanding of God’s will. But even in this context, we must be aware that God requires us to use what we have received, and not be like the foolish servant who buried and wasted what he had received from his master.

When we use what God has given, and especially when we have prayed to receive grace and understanding, we will receive more, as God promises and in accordance with his will. When we ask only for material gain we should not be surprised that God does not always bless us as we demand. His intention for us is that we become spiritually mature, and this requires us to pass through trials and testing so that we might learn to have faith and to trust God with our whole heart. He does not wish to allow us to remain always children, though we are to be childlike. He desires us to grow up in to the maturity which belongs to spiritual men and women, and in this maturity is the experience of becoming truly human, truly alive to God, ceaselessly dwelling in his presence.

People often contact me and complain that God has not taken away their sinful habits. Often I ask them about their spiritual life and in many cases they are not making very much effort at all, and even blame God for their lack of commitment. God does not usually just take away sinful habits, but he will give grace and strength to make a beginning of overcoming sin if we truly desire it and will do all those necessary things that are required to co-operate with his grace.

St Theophan the Recluse had to write to his own spiritual children and remind them that the spiritual life required effort and commitment, and that it was not possible to just pray a prayer and discover that all our problems had disappeared and we were entirely spiritual people. This is surely true. We want all the benefits from God without much effort and ask for material things, or for spiritual things in a worldly manner. What if it will take a lifetime to become a spiritual man or woman? Are we in it for the long term, or do we demand everything now? If we are praying for a friend, or for our congregation will we pray only once? Is that the extent of our commitment? Or will we pray unceasingly, as much as we find strength and grace to do so, in order that we might be those who do not give up in prayer. When we do not pray very much at all and for the wrong things and in the wrong way we should not be surprised that God who loves us does not give us what would harm us to receive, even if it is a good thing, because continuing to believe that we can become spiritual without any effort is harmful.

Another reason why it often seems that God is not answering prayer is because of sin in our life. Sometimes this leads us to imagine that we can bargain with God. We might say, I’ll stop this sin if you give me the job I want. This is not Christianity. It is paganism. The reason we wish to abandon sin must be because we desire union with God and this is impossible for the one who is bound in sin. A marriage cannot exist on the basis of such transactions, nor can our spiritual relationship with God. We cannot become authentically human with such an attitude.

If there is sin in our life then we must resolve to resist it by God’s grace, and this must become the first and constant subject of our prayer. It is the fervent prayer of a righteous person, a holy person, that has power according to St James. How can this be? It seems to me that it is because the holy person, one who has given their life to God, is best able to pray in accordance with God’s will and in union with the Holy Spirit of God. And such prayer, as an expression of God’s own will, expressed fervently by those whom God has made as the stewards of this created order, makes possible the intervention of God in the world.

Are you praying for some situation, even praying earnestly? Then add to your earnestness the grace of holiness. The one who is given to sin cannot live in the grace and presence of God by the indwelling Holy Spirit, and if prayer is union with God, and the desire for this union, then we cannot intercede for ourselves or others in such a condition of heart. The prayer which God responds to from a sinful man or woman is that of repentance, of the humble and wholehearted desire to be restored to the presence of God. Every other prayer, when offered by someone given over to sin, is in one way or another an attempt to bargain with God and is not prayer at all.

So we must stop asking for things for ourselves and others, and we must offer prayer from holy hearts. But even in such a case we still very often find that we are called to be patient. This is surely because the development of faith, of trust in the divine care of our Heavenly Father, is of greater importance to us in the loving will of God than the immediate provision of everything for which we ask, however good it might be. In my own experience I have found that God provides in so many and often unexpected ways, but very often he has required me to be patient beyond that point I imagined I could be patient. It is at this point that we have to exercise faith. When everything is working out as we expect, even when it is difficult, then we are not trusting God but in the plans that appear to be working themselves out.

It seems to me that even in the case of those who are praying with perseverance, and who are not asking for material gain, and who are seeking to be holy, this delay in receiving that for which we ask is experienced quite often. As we grow in wisdom and in grace we understand that this delay is also for our salvation. While we are still overwhelmed with care and concern, agitated by frustration and filled with conflict, then our lack of faith is made manifest by such a delay. This is not a delay in God’s kindness or his love, but it is for our good, so that we understand that even having matured in the Christian life we are still also motivated to a greater or lesser extent by the desire to receive things from God. Perhaps the things we ask for are of a better quality, and more spiritual, but while we adopt the same transactional argument – I have prayed, now where are the things I have prayed for? – we have much more to learn.

Finally, it is also the case that we sometimes pray for things that God is desiring we ourselves to be doing. The Good Samaritan did not pause to offer a prayer for the Jewish man who had been beaten up and left on the roadside. He himself became the answer to the man’s needs. What if he had prayed and then complained that God had left the man in pain and distress? How often do we pray and fail to ask how we could answer, even in a partial manner, our own prayers? Yet it seems to me that this is often the case. It is as though the Lord says, I heard your prayer, and sent you as the answer to it, but you were not willing to be my hands and feet and share that love I have for the one for whom you prayed.

What is our part, and how do we experience the transformation of prayer, it is in praying with effort and perseverance, and not giving up. It is in setting aside prayer for worldly things and seeking grace and understanding of God’s will. It is in being patient and learning to trust God. And it is in finding that we ourselves are already able to answer our own prayers in many circumstances and to some extent. God does not fail to answer prayer when we truly pray, and when we truly pray, standing in the presence of God already, then we are willing and able by grace, to wait patiently for his provision.

He does not fail, but too often we have already decided how he must provide. When we wait for the provision of God, making it our responsibility to offer unceasing prayer for those for whom we are concerned, and for ourselves, then he will act in his own time, for our good at all times.

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