God Doesn't Answer Prayer With Short Answers
The great masterclass of prayer is found in the Lord's Prayer. Good theologians in the history of the church have not taught more profoundly on how we should pray than when they have expounded each petition of this prayer. There is no secret code to prayer to achieve our whims and wishes. Prayer doesn’t work that way. Prayer is much grander than receiving positive answers.
The goal of modern Christian prayer is to get God to say yes and say it quickly. They plead, and bargain, and beg, and work themselves into a frenzy to get God to give them what they want. If their desires are supernatural, even better, it’s an opportunity to show how big their faith really is. But that is wrong, and in the whole sense of the word, selfish.
Perhaps the modern method of the seeker-sensitive and consumer-driven church is to blame for this marketing approach to prayer. And that may be the case for Christians attending those churches. This problem with prayer, however, extends to well-meaning, down to earth, conservative churches too. They, too, commonly pray in such a way to get something from God. That means the problem is much bigger and more immersive than the modern church pop-culture.
The essence of the problem is in how Scripture is treated. Often, ideas from outside the Bible are brought into the Bible, making the Bible say what it doesn’t say. While this is the case for most of our troubles, the other improper treatment of Scripture is familiarizing ourselves with the text of Scripture to the point of missing the meaning of the text.
The Lord’s Prayer, in particular, is one of those familiarized passages. It may come as a surprise that in it, we find everything we need to know about prayer. We find the God to whom we pray and the reason for prayer.
Those who simplify prayer into repeatable words miss the communion with God in prayer; those who simplify the types of prayer miss the richness of prayer; and those who simplify the answers of prayer miss the purpose of prayer. When we miss the richness of communion with God in prayer, we most certainly miss the purpose of prayer—the richness of communion with God is the purpose of prayer.
Commonly, well-intended believers categorize the answers of prayer into three categories: yes, no, and maybe (or not yet). If we have a positive answer to prayer, the answer was yes. Likewise, if the answer is not what we hoped for, the answer was no. The third answer is always the toughest to navigate. If any amount of time elapses between prayer and answer, we easily assume the answer to come from the third category. Yet, we remain suspended between yes and no.
This method of understanding prayer, however, completely disintegrates in the Lord's Prayer. Out of the entire prayer, only two petitions have immanent and practical consequences. But before we get to the practical prayers, a significant amount of seemingly impractical prayer takes place, acting as sort of a cushion on which to rest practical prayer.
According to Jesus' outline of prayer, the purpose of prayer is to conform us into His image through communion with God. In prayer, spiritual interests must precede and govern physical interests.
The opening lines are filled with massive meaning—so great indeed, it would take a book to fill. To call God our Father means to be regenerated and adopted through Christ. To pray to our Father "in heaven" is to pray to the One who rules and reigns over all things. To combine the two is to pray with fearful familiarity.
Next, we exalt God above all else. We adore and magnify Him. For onlookers, this seems most impractical, especially in our times of need. When we need God to act, what use is it to praise Him for who He is?
The answer is in the next two petitions.
To pray for God's kingdom to come and His will to be done is to rightly position ourselves in prayer, especially in response to recognizing God for who He is. Since our flesh is inclined to sin, our ultimate need in prayer is to submit ourselves to God's will. This means prayer cannot exist apart from Scripture—to submit to God's will means to submit to Scripture. In submitting to God, the needs we bring before Him will split into perceived and actual needs. Unless we first do this, all we do in asking God to grant our prayers is asking Him to grant our wild and sinful fantasies. When we submit to the will of God, our perceived needs fall away, and our actual needs are brought before God.
Now we can bring our "prayer list" to God, asking Him for our "daily bread." With the previous petitions as the cushion, this prayer will look similar to what we find in Proverbs 30:8, "Give me neither poverty nor riches." We ask not for poverty, so we do not resent God, and we ask not for riches, so we do not forget Him (from Augustine, Letter 130). Instead, we ask, as John Calvin put it, "only what is expedient for Him."
There is also a communal aspect to this prayer: "give us our daily bread." Prayer for our basic needs includes prayer for the basic needs of others. If we have not crushed our will in favour of God's will, we will not be able to pray for the benefit of others with pure motives.
The remainder of the prayer is concerned with keeping us from evil, both inward and outward. In this, the practical side of the first three petitions is seen. If we are to truly praise God for who He is and desire for His rule in our own hearts and the hearts of everyone else, we must be kept from evil. We must be conformed into the image of Christ.
The Lord's Prayer is not for repetition but for guidance in true prayer. It tells us we should expect more from prayer than short and simple answers. Sometimes our prayers are answered with yes, no, or maybe, and perhaps we can use those as general categories, but there is a whole lot of life-changing, faith-building, and patience-testing attached.
If practical benefits and blessings from God are our main concern, or if we look for a quick "yes" from God, we can be sure we are not praying as we ought. The Lord's Prayer doesn't have simple answers. It has life-changing answers.