Should We Pray for Specific Outcomes or for God’s Will?
by Travis Pickell
Whose Will Will I Trust?
The following sermon was delivered at Woodside Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Yardley, PA on Sunday, May 16, 2010. It was part of a sermon series on common questions about prayer, entitled Prayer: The Original Wireless Connection.
Good Morning, (Good Morning)
The question I want to discuss with you today is, on one level, very simple and on another level quite a bit more complex. The question is this: When we pray, should we pray for specific outcomes or just for God’s will? I am going to tilt my hand a little bit, and give you the easy answer now. Should we pray for specific things or for God’s will? Yes! We should. We should most certainly pray for specific things and for God’s will to be done. This is the simplistic answer, and while I think that it is absolutely true, it doesn’t quite get to the heart of the question, which is a very important one and one that should be asked.
In fact, if we really stop to think about it, the question really is a profound one. It has to do with the content of or prayer – what should we pray for? Is it better to pray for some things than it is to pray for others? If it is, how do we know what we ought to pray for? If what we pray for isn’t important, why do we pray at all? It causes us to stop and think about exactly what it is that we are doing when we pray. Why do we pray? What do we hope will happen as a result of our prayers?
Unless I miss my guess, the person who is truly asking the question “Should I pray for specific outcomes or just for God’s will?” is not doing so as a theoretical question. As a theoretical question, it can be kept at a distance, played with like a puzzle. Here’ an example: “It’s the closing seconds of the Superbowl and the game is tied—the Eagles are on offence, the Giants on defense. The Eagles are marching down the field and with 5 second left on the clock, they call out their kicker, David Akers. And in the seconds before he kicks the ball, you know that there are millions of people on one side praying that he makes it, and millions on the other praying that he misses it.
Whose prayers will win?
Or maybe the real question: is God a Giants fan or an Eagles fan?
As a side note, this is one of the dangers of going to seminary, where you think about theological puzzles like this and you lose sight of the practical. Because the person who is really asking the question whether to pray for specific outcomes or for God’s will, probably isn’t thinking about football. They are more likely thinking about their sick parent, spouse or child. They want to know if it is OK—against all odds—to pray for them to be healed. Maybe the person who asks this question is sick or hurting. Should they pray for God to do something about it, or should they accept it as God’s will and move on? What they really want to know is whether or not their prayers matter to God.
Jesus was the greatest prayer who ever lived. If prayer is the original wireless connection, he had full-bars at all times—he had a clear connection to the Father. If we want to know how to pray, we can do no better than to look at what he taught about prayer and how he lived it. In the scripture passage read this morning, we see Jesus wrestling with the exact same question that we are talking about. Jesus is in Jerusalem with his disciples for the Passover, and it is the final week of his life. Within a day, Jesus is going to be handed over by one of his very own disciples, to the leaders of his very own people, to be crucified at the hands of the Roman Army—and he knows it. Not only does he see the writing on the wall, but he has explicitly told his disciples that he must suffer and die so that the scriptures could be fulfilled.
With all of this in mind, let’s turn again to the text and see what we can learn about how Jesus prays. “Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples,
‘Sit here, while I go over there, and pray” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to the point of death, remain here and watch with me.’ And going a little further he fell on his face and prayed” (Matthew 26:36-39a).
The first thing we learn from Jesus is that his prayer flowed from his experience. All authentic prayer should begin there. We cannot begin anywhere else. Jesus says that he is “sorrowful to the point of death,” meaning that he is so sad and troubled that he may not be able to survive it. In another account of this story, Luke tells us that “he prayed in agony, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). And as a result Jesus “fell on his face and prayed” to God the prayer that was in his heart. He brought to God all his anguish and pain and fear and he prayed to God. Prayer must begin from our experience and our need because that is how it is with all relationships, and prayer is first and foremost about a relationship.CS Lewis saw this. He said the following:
“It is no use to ask God with factitious earnestness for A when our whole mind is in reality filled with the desire for B. We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us. Even an intimate human friend is ill-used if we talk to him about one thing while our mind is really on another, and even a human friend will soon become aware when we are doing so.” (CS Lewis, Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer)
Anyone who is married knows that this is true. You cannot have a true, intimate relationship if you do not entrust to that other person what is on your heart. If you were always worried about saying the “right thing” to your spouse or your friend the relationship would become stilted and fabricated. Besides that, my wife can tell when something is on my mind. She knows me and she knows when I am holding something back. Sometimes we are afraid to pray about something that is on our heart because we feel shame about it, or we do not want to feel silly praying about it. But God know us, he already knows what is in our hearts and there is no point in pretending that he doesn’t. It is better to bring it before God in prayer. Jesus’ prayer flowed out of his experience because he had an intimate relationship with the Father—a relationship cultivated by earnest prayer.
And what did he pray for in that Garden that night? “Father if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). Not only does Jesus pray for something very specific, but he also prays for something very bold. As I mentioned before, Jesus knew exactly what he was doing in Jerusalem. Earlier in this chapter Jesus tells his disciples “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified” (Matthew 26:1). Then, when the woman poured ointment on him he praised her because she was “preparing [him] for burial” (Matthew 26:12) and in the upper room that very night he foretold his betrayal at the hands of Judas (26:24-5) and Peter’s denial (26:34). Which makes it all the more puzzling why Jesus would pray for something like this.
I am not really sure if Jesus was holding onto some hope that our redemption could be won in another way, or whether he prayed this prayer for the sake of all of us who follow him. Either way, the one thing that we can learn from this prayer is that it is ok to pray for specific outcomes—even big, bold prayers that seem impossible. “We must lay before him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.” Thomas Merton, another one of my favorite writers wrote,
“The man whose prayer is so pure that he never asks God for anything does not know who God is, and does not know who he is himself: for he does not know his own need of God.” (Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island)
If we really know God and his power, we will cast our anxieties and cares on him in prayer because we know that that is where they belong. Is something weighing on you? Is there a relationship in your life that is strained, maybe to the breaking point? Pray about that. Is there a job opportunity out there that seems perfect for you, where you can use your gifts and passions and do something you care about? Pray about that. And one more example, which may or may not be autobiographical. Is there someone in your life, who although they maybe don’t even know it yet, you just know that you and she are made for each other, destined to get married and have little kiddos and a white picket fence, and go on a grand adventure of life… now, if only she knew your name and would give you the time of day – its even ok to pray about that.
Now, of course, there is a difference between praying for a good parking spot at Wegmans and praying for our friends and family members to know Christ—but it does not lie in the specificity of the prayer. As the prayer life deepens, the content of our prayer requests may change and mature. But that doesn’t mean that we cease praying for specific things, as demonstrated by Christ’s profound prayer in the Garden that night.
Jesus’ prayer, however, did not end simply with his request of God. His prayer in full was “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). Jesus brings to God what is truly in his heart, but he recognizes that if what he wants differs from what God wants, then God’s will takes precedence over his. How can Jesus pray such a prayer when the stakes are so high? What would it take for someone to pray this way?
When I was a little kid, I got my very first bike and I was so excited. It was red, it had a bell, and training wheels. I would ride that thing all over the place. Then one day my dad asked me if I wanted to learn how to ride my bike. “Ride my bike? I ride my bike all the time.” But when we went out to the garage I soon discovered what he meant, because he had taken the training wheels off. Does anyone else remember learning to ride a bike? What do you do? Your dad or mom grabs the back of the seat, and runs along with you, and they tell you to pedal as hard as you can, and then they just let go—and you are just supposed to trust that, for the first time in your life, your bike will stay upright without the training wheels to guide you. As a kid, I wanted to keep my training wheels on, it was easier, and I knew that it worked. But I trusted my dad, and so I did what he told me, and never looked back.
Jesus trusted his Father. That is the only way he could truly pray a prayer like that in the Garden that night. He honestly brought to God what he had, but once he had placed it in God’s hands he trusted that God would take care of him. It couldn’t have been easy to honestly say those words “Nevertheless not as I will, but as you will”—nor is it easy for us to honestly say them when we pray about the most difficult things in our life. The real issue that lies behind the question, “Should I pray for specific outcomes of just for God’s will” is the issue of trust. Whose will do you trust. If you trust in your own will you may pray for specific outcomes all day long, but God is not Santa Claus. He does not exist to give you what you want. But if you trust in God’s will you can honestly bring him your anxieties and requests and trust that he will hear them—and here is the thing about praying this way. Jesus prays three times in the garden, but his second and third prayer are slightly different than his first. Where before it was “if it is possible, let this cup pass,” it becomes “My father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” (Matthew 26:42). The shift in emphasis is subtle, but important. As Jesus prays in the Garden his will starts to become aligned with God’s will. Jesus entered the Garden with profound anxiety, and he leaves with profound power. Through prayer Jesus is prepared to face his trial, as also we are prepared to face ours.
There is one more reason why Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane is so instructive for us. Our lord offered up a prayer in Gethsemane that night, and he did not get what he asked for. There are many promises in the Bible about the effectiveness of prayer. We are told that whatever we ask for in Christ’s name, with faith, he will do it (John 14:13, Matthew 21:21-22). “Ask and it will be given you, seek and you will find, knock and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7). And that the “prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). These are wonderful promises, and they are true. But if we read them without also keeping in mind Jesus prayer in Gethsemane, we may become discouraged. We may begin to believe the lie that if only we could muster up a little bit more faith our prayers would be more effective. Listen friends, if any person or book leads you to believe that if your prayers don’t “come true” then the fault lies in you, don’t listen to them. Jesus was the most righteous person who ever lived—righteousness itself—and he still asked for something that he didn’t get. Does that mean that his prayer was not “powerful and effective”? Of course not. In the book of Hebrews we are told that “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Hebrews 5:7). The wonderful truth is that God hears our prayers, that he listens to them—they do not simply vanish into thin air. The Bible says that all the prayers of the saints are like “golden bowls of incense” before God (Revelation 5:8). Honest prayer before God is never “ineffective” because God hears it and what ultimately matters is that we recognize that God is not only in control, but that God is trustworthy, and that God wants to be in relationship with us.