Much has happened over the last couple weeks that is worth comment, but I will contain my comments to one particular event which happened the last Sunday before Christmas (12/18/11). I had been leading the youth in preparation of a Christmas play/cantata that we were to perform that Sunday. We were about 10 minutes into the play, and during the second song, while I was leading the congregation in “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” Mrs. Ethel Brown (our pianist) suffered a massive stroke and collapsed into the floor. We cancelled the remainder of the service and play (which we were fortunate enough to be able to perform the following Wednesday evening) and I immediately began leading the youth in a prayer vigil. At the time, I assumed that she had suffered from a stroke, but none of us knew the severity. Mrs. Ethel (as we all call her) had suffered from two simultaneous aneurisms, one in each hemisphere of her brain, both too far interior for operation. In other words, there was nothing the doctors could do but sit and wait.
Now, at this point, you’re probably thinking exactly what the doctors told us: “There’s no hope.” One doctor, as I recall, even told us that he’d never seen someone live who suffered that severe a stroke. He told us, “I deal with facts, not hope.” (Some bedside manner he had! Quite the charmer…) So, we continued praying. Oddly enough though, not even the family was praying for Mrs. Ethel’s survival just out of a desire to keep her around. Even the family was praying for God’s will to be accomplished and for him to be glorified. Many of us prayed for God to spare Mrs. Ethel to prove to an unbelieving doctor that God–not facts and statistics–is in control. And he answered our prayers. Mrs. Ethel Brown is currently undergoing therapy and rehab. She has regained much cognitive ability and awareness, and though she still has a long road of recovery ahead, her survival is nothing short of a miracle and an answer to prayer. It gave me great joy as I was able to tell the youth on Wednesday night that their prayers had been answered.
There are many examples in the Bible of specific answers to prayer. One that caught my eye today while I was reading is David’s requests in Psalm 21:1-7. David asked for God’s blessings and length of life, and “You have given him his heart’s desire and have not withheld the request of his lips” (v. 2). I have often wondered what the difference is between prayers that are answered and prayers that are not. David tells us, though, why his prayers were answered in verse 7: “For the king trusts in the Lord…” Those prayers which are answered are those which are prayed from faithful reverence to God. In our drive-thru society, all too often we approach prayer like a fast food menu. “God, I’ll take a number 1–a happy life–and can I get some wealth and prosperity on the side? Oh, and that’ll be to-go; I’m in a hurry to get to work.” But when Jesus modeled prayer, the first thing that he prayed was praise (“Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”) and a request for God’s will to be done on Earth just as it is done in heaven. How is God’s will done in heaven? Without question, complaint, doubt, or reservation.
Many people assume that if God is in control of everything that happens and knows or predestined the future then prayer is pointless. After all, if God is going to do what he has already planned to do anyhow, then your prayer is not going to change anything! But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of prayer. Do we really wish for the infinitely wise, all-knowing God of the universe to change his plans based upon our sinfully tainted desires and finite understanding?!?! How absurd! How dare we approach the throne of God as if we were sitting in Santa’s lap reciting our Christmas wish-list! Prayer that works, prayer with the right purpose, is prayer for God to align our desires with his, not prayer that asks God to align his desires with ours. We do not pray for God to change his plan, but for God to change our hearts. David’s prayers were granted because he trusted in the Lord, and it can be inferred from other passages in the OT that God’s desire to prosper David was firmly rooted in his desire for the other nations to see Israel’s prosperity and come to serve Israel’s God. David knew that. When he prayed for blessings and prosperity, he didn’t pray from a selfish, greed driven desire to get rich and live a good life, he was praying for God to be glorified (see v. 13).
Similarly, our prayers for Mrs. Ethel to be healed were answered because it brought God glory to demonstrate his power in impossible circumstances, not because God felt sorry for her family and knew how much it would hurt them to lose her. Though God does love his children and has compassion on them during the trials of life, we all must die someday. It is simply a matter of when and how. When we pray for a loved one, or a difficult circumstance, or for blessings, let us not pray out of vain, selfish ambition, but out of a desire for God to be glorified. God may be glorified in demonstrating his power over sickness and death by healing our loved ones. God may be glorified in giving great material wealth and many possessions to his faithful servants. But, God may also be glorified through the persistent faith of his children who suffer unimaginable difficulties, loss, and poverty (See the book of Job). Regardless of the outcome, let us pray to align our will with God’s and save our wish-lists for Santa.