“It’s nice to receive what we pray for, but the added benefit is the assurance we gain that God hears our prayers and answers them. However, some carry this to an extreme and jump to the conclusion that prayer is something of a magic wand, that if we do prayer with the right sound, in the right manner, with the right phrases, and in the right posture, God is obligated to answer.”
I need to sound a warning. In our day, many people have rediscovered the power of prayer. This is a good thing; there’s nothing more thrilling in the Christian life than to pray specifically, to express a desire, to make a request or a petition to God, and then see Him answer that request specifically and clearly. It’s nice to receive what we pray for, but the added benefit is the assurance we gain that God hears our prayers and answers them. However, some carry this to an extreme and jump to the conclusion that prayer is something of a magic wand, that if we do prayer with the right sound, in the right manner, with the right phrases, and in the right posture, God is obligated to answer. The idea seems to be that we have the capacity to coerce God Almighty into doing for us whatever it is we want Him to do, but God is not a celestial bellhop who is on call every time we press the button, just waiting to serve us our every request.
You might reply that the Bible seems to say that God is willing to give us virtually anything we ask for. You might note that Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). You might recall that Jesus said, “Whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (Matt. 21:22). You might even note that He said, “If two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven” (Matt. 18:19).
We must be very careful in our handling of these verses, taking care to interpret them in their context. Think about it—any number of people would like to see a cure for cancer. I’m sure that I could find at least a few people who would agree with me about this, so if two or three of us got together and agreed that a cure for cancer would be good, and then we prayed about it, would God be obligated to answer?
Jesus clearly said, “If two of you agree on earth concerning anything … it will be done,” but He made this statement in the context of a vast amount of information about authentic prayer that He had already given to His disciples. We cannot simply come to a text and pick out a verse without examining all of the qualifications our Lord gave in His full teaching of prayer. To do so is to risk ending up with a magical view of the matter.
One of the reasons we’re drawn into superstition and ungodly practices is that we are creatures of time. As a result of that fact, we’re anxious. We don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring. My first prayer as a child was: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” That last sentence always scared me, the part about dying before I woke up. I didn’t know whether I was going to die before I would wake. Actually, not much has changed since then. I don’t know what this afternoon is going to bring into my life. I don’t know what tomorrow, next week, or next year is going to bring into my life, and neither do you. We live always on the edge of eternity, as finite creatures. And that puts anxiety into our souls.
Isn’t it interesting that one of the most lucrative businesses in the United States of America in the twenty-first century, a time of great educational advance, a day of exploding knowledge, continues to be the practice of astrology. I’ve said many times, I could ask my seminary students to name the twelve tribes of Israel, and I’d be very happy if they could name eight or nine. But I could ask them to name the twelve signs of the zodiac, and virtually every one of them, given enough time, could name all twelve. I don’t think that meant they were more into astrology than biblical history, but it did suggest that astrology is a phenomenon that is widespread in our culture. Why? Because we want to know the future.
That is not what living in Christian faith is all about. My tomorrow and your tomorrows are in the hands of God. We make our requests before Him and we trust our tomorrows to His sovereignty. I’m delighted that my future is not in the hands of the stars or the soothsayers. Rather, my future is in the hands of the will of the sovereign God.
This article previously appeared on Ligonier.org, and is used with permission.