Why pray?: On asking with faith, receiving heartache, and the example of Jesus

After two years of praying for a child, my husband and I were ecstatic when we finally became pregnant with our miracle baby. We thanked God for answering our cries and began to prepare for life as a family of three. Months later, a kindhearted doctor looked us in the eyes and explained that our long-awaited child appeared to have a condition that was “incompatible with life”. We clung to scriptures reminding us to God’s goodness and his power to heal. Hundreds joined us in praying for a miracle. We came before the throne of God daily with requests for our son’s healing. Our long-awaited child was born on August 16, 2015 and died in our arms later that same day. 

We prayed for another child and I miscarried. Again. And again. And again. 

Months later, I became pregnant with our sixth child. Everything was textbook normal until my body unexpectedly went into labor at only 22 weeks gestation. I found myself on hospital bedrest, desperately trying to keep my baby inside of me. Everything inside of me wanted to cry out to God to have mercy on me, but I felt too weary with disappointment and feelings of betrayal. What was even the point of prayer?

So, why do we pray? 

I think it’s helpful to first take a step back and define what prayer is and what it is not. Somewhere along the line, culture, media, and our own experiences have likely shaped our perception of prayer. Prayer doesn’t require specific words or a specific language. Prayer is simply talking to God. It is not just asking God for things, but it can also include thanksgiving, praise, repentance, and even grief and lament.

The simplest answer is that God asks us to. Scripture is filled with instructions to pray (Matthew 6:5-15, Romans 12:12, Ephesians 6:18, Philippians 4:6, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, 1 Timothy 2:1, and James 5:14, just to name a few examples.) Second, we pray because we can. Prayer is something we often take for granted. There was a time when we didn’t have the privilege to converse so freely with God and we GET to because of Jesus. Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” The word confidence means being able to speak freely, without fear or shame. We no longer need to go through a priest or walk through a list of rituals to communicate with God--Jesus is now our high priest, who made a way for us to approach God as our Father. 

The example of Jesus

Jesus models prayer for us throughout the gospels and I am particularly encouraged by Jesus’ prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before he was turned over to be crucified. Jesus--God in human likeness--knew the horrific death he would die, the separation he would experience from the Father when he took on our sin, and that he would rise again, conquer death, and be restored with the Father. Even with this knowledge, Jesus’ soul was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matt. 26:38) when we considered what was coming. He knew the victorious ending, yet he was distressed to the point of sweating droplets of blood as he pleaded with the Father to provide another avenue for the salvation of his children to be accomplished. Yet in his very next breath, he submitted to the will of the Father. “Not as I will, but as you will.” In other words, “I trust what you have decided.” 

We have the freedom to humbly ask our all-powerful and sovereign Father for miracles, for healing, and for restoration. We can ask, fully knowing and trusting that God has the power to do this, just as Jesus did. Yet at the same time, humbly submitting in our next breath “not my will, but yours be done.”

My favorite scripture comes from II Corinthians 12, where Paul prayed three times for his “thorn in the flesh” (we don’t know exactly what ailed him) to be removed from him. In his pleading, he submitted to the sovereignty of God who assured Him that “my grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in your weakness.” 

We have the freedom to pray for physical healing, knowing that God can heal. And we can trust that He is sovereign and good regardless of whether we receive that healing or not. Nancy Guthrie describes this so well in her book “Holding Onto Hope”. She writes:

“Often, I see the body of Christ put so much into pursuing God for healing. With great boldness and passion and persistence, we cry out to God, begging for physical healing. And in these prayers, there is often a tiny P.S. added at the end where we say, ‘If it be your will.’ But shouldn’t we switch that around? Shouldn’t we cry out to God with boldness and passion and persistence in a prayer that says, ‘God, would you please accomplish your will? Would you give me a willing heart to embrace 𝘺𝘰𝘢𝘳 plan and 𝘺𝘰𝘢𝘳 purpose? Would you mold me into a vessel that you can use to accomplish what you have in mind?’ And then, perhaps, we could add a tiny P.S. that says, ‘If that includes healing, we will be grateful.’” ⁣⁣

I believe it is an act of worship when we submit and seek first His will, just as Jesus did. It glorifies Him when His creation is acting in submission to Him. It can be so tempting to tell God that he MUST heal, because He can...and He certainly can. But this leads me into my next thought…

How do we respond when the answer is no?

If you’re like me, you may bristle a bit when you read scriptures like Matthew 7:7-8; times when Jesus tells his disciples to “ask, and it will be given to you.” Perhaps, like me, you acknowledge the accuracy of scripture, but have a hard time reconciling this when you’ve asked, sought, and knocked for something (something good, even) and the outcome was incredibly painful. 

I’ve spent hours wrestling through this alongside my friend (and Through the Lens co-host) Holly, who lost her son Benjamin a few months before we lost Ethan. Holly recently shared a quote from Jen Wilkin’s book “In His Image”. Jen writes, “Jesus’s disciples, overwhelmed with the cost of following him, would not have heard his statement as an invitation to request new fishing boats or bigger houses.  They would have heard them as an invitation to request spiritual resources--patience, courage, compassion, perhaps--or wisdom.” This challenges me to ask, seek, and knock for things that are eternal, rather than things (even good things) that are temporary. 

The women’s ministry at my church is currently going through an inductive study on 1 John and I’ve been meeting weekly with a small group of women on my friend's back patio. As we dove deeper into 1 John 3, I found myself bristling yet again as we read the words in verse 22, “And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight.” We wrestled through the words together, stepped back to look at the greater context, and ultimately landed on this: the prayers referred to would not be for worldly priorities and personal gain, but for what pleases God. When we are transformed by the Holy Spirit, our desires shift to align with God’s heart and a desire to bring Him glory. What we pray for is within His will.

Perhaps I bristle at words like this because of the way the “prosperity gospel” has crept into western Christianity. The prosperity gospel teaches, even subtly, that affluence, health, and a “good life” are the result of following Jesus and that suffering is only the result of our sin. You may hear things like “Follow Jesus and your life will be easier” or “Have enough faith and Jesus will give you (fill in the blank earthly thing).” This way of thinking contradicts the teachings of Jesus, in which Jesus promises us suffering. Prosperity gospel is a false gospel. Jesus guarantees struggles for His children and assures us that we will face trials. He reminds us that the poor, the mourning, and the meek are blessed. He promises us an even greater gift than wealth, physical health, or status. He promises us salvation and eternal life with Him. 

I heard a lot of prosperity-driven statements when we learned of Ethan’s prognosis. Things like, “God is going to heal him because of your faith.” These words troubled me because they didn’t line up with the experiences of those around me and, even more importantly, they didn’t line up with scripture. While God invites us to come to Him with confidence, He does not choose to answer our prayers based on the number of hours we spend on our knees or how much sweat forms on our brow when we talk to Him. He isn’t holding a scale, just waiting for our prayers to heap up on one side causing it to tip in our favor. God doesn’t need our prayers to act. He is infinitely bigger than this and we cannot mess up His plan by not praying “hard enough” or having enough faith. Sure, we can miss out on the blessing of communing with Him and the way He draws near and transforms our hearts when we pray, but we can’t screw up His good plan. The prayer of faith isn’t certain that God will provide us with the specific earthly thing we ask for, but rather it is certain of WHO God is. It is certain of His character, His power, and that He hears us. The prayer of faith is confident, yet submissive. It rests in the goodness of God, even when the details don’t make any sense in our eyes. 

I’m always encouraged by the account of the man who was born blind, from John 9. The disciples see this man and ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” I’ve asked similar questions. What did I do to deserve this? Where did I go wrong in my prayers? Did I not have enough faith? I’m so encouraged by Jesus’ response, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God would be displayed in him.” 

Praying for miracles

I’ve heard pastor and author Tim Keller describe Jesus’ miracles as a restoration of the natural order, prior to the fall. Miracles, whether those of Jesus in the New Testament or those God does today, give us a glimpse of how the world was created to be before sin and brokenness entered our world. Miracles also give us a glimpse into a future of restoration--when Jesus returns, and every tear is wiped from our eyes, and the new heavens and the new earth is established.

In addition to pointing us toward Eden and toward future glory, Jesus used miracles to authenticate his divinity and to prove he was who he said he was. Many people believed and followed him based on miracles he performed, culminating with the ultimate miracle of the resurrection. 

In his book Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry As a Human Being, Zack Eswine says that “Miracles never remove our need for Jesus.” He talks of the inconsolable things of the world, like death, poverty, injustice, war, physical suffering, as reminders that healing is not the same as heaven. He says:

“Miracles are real and powerful, but they do not remove the inconsolable things. Those whose leprosy Jesus healed coughed again or skinned their elbows. Those who were blind but now able to see could still get a speck of burning sand stuck in their eye. The formerly lame could still fall and break their leg. Lazarus was raised from the dead only to find his resumed life filled with death threats. Moreover, the raised friend of Jesus would die again someday, along with this company of the healed. Bodily healing in this world is not heaven. Sickness and death are inconsolable things. Their healing reveals Jesus but does not remove sickness or death from life under the sun. A soldier survives combat only to die in a car accident on the way home (or forty years later of cancer). Miracles never remove our need for Jesus.”

God already did the only miracle that truly sustains us for eternity, which is providing a way for us to be reunited to Him based solely on grace alone. God didn’t owe us that, nor does he owe us anything above that, yet Hebrews tells us we can boldly approach the throne of God with confidence knowing He hears us, loves us. Praise God that He doesn’t rely on the fervency of my prayers to accomplish His will. No amount of earthly miracles can take away our need for Him, nor can any amount of earthly suffering or brokenness separate us from His love and faithful promises.