Many people in the religious world have an erroneous understanding of prayer and how it works. Sadly, this misunderstanding often has detrimental effects on their faith. Frequently, they view prayer like a vending machine- I put my coin in, make a selection, and then automatically receive the item of my choice.
However, when they “put their time in,” pray for something, and then don’t receive it, their faith is shaken or even shattered. Either there is a God that does not listen to prayer or who does not love them enough to give them what they asked for, so why even bother?
All communication with their Maker is halted. And just as you cannot have a healthy relationship with anyone when the communication only goes one way, you cannot have a healthy relationship with God if you are not talking to Him.
One basis for this misunderstanding of prayer is a misapplication and misinterpretation of verses such as
- “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Matthew 21:22)
- “If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.” (John 14:14)
- “In that day you will ask nothing of Me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you.” (John 16:23)
With so many promises of giving us whatever we want when we are His children, shouldn’t we expect prayer to result in the fulfillment of our deepest desires? Do we not have a right to be angry when we don’t get what we want after praying for it?
Apart from the fact that many of these verses are taken out of context if applied to every Christian, there are many other reasons why this view of prayer is wrong.
Did Jesus Get Everything He Wanted?
When it comes to how we are to understand prayer, let us look to the chief example, Jesus. When Jesus prayed, were all His requests immediately granted? No. In fact, in His moment of deepest anguish and most dire need, He was denied. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from Me. Nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42)
This “cup” that Jesus referred to was His death by crucifixion, a horrible, bloody, torturous death. Jesus asked to be spared from this cruelty and pain. He was in such anguish over it that the Bible tells us He sweated drops of blood.
However, the Father denied this request, and Jesus went dutifully to the cross. If God answered, “No,” to His Beloved Son, He will answer, “No” when needed to our prayers too.
God answered, “No” to Jesus for our sake. If Jesus had been spared the humiliating and terrible death on the cross, we would not be saved from our sins. Thus, we have proof that God will always act in our best interest.
Does God Give Us Whatever We Want?
If you are a parent, you know that you should not gratify every desire of your child. You will say, “No” many times because it is what is needed for your child.
Thank God that He does not give us what we pray for every time! If He did, we would get things that we do not need or not get things that we do need. Or perhaps we would get things that we need but at the wrong time.
We can trust that He will answer our prayers according to His incredible love and wisdom. As it is written, “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)
Therefore, if we don’t receive what we asked for, we can conclude that we didn’t need it or that it may come later at the right time.
How Did Jesus Pray?
It is also extremely important to note how Jesus prayed. In the prayer in the garden, He prayed, “not My will, but Yours, be done.” Since He is our example, we need to pray the same, no matter how deeply we desire what we are asking for; we must submit our will to God’s.
Therefore, if we are aligning our desires within His will, we will in fact always get what we ask for because we are asking for things only within His plan. This negates all requests that are self-serving.
“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”(James 4:3)
However, this doesn’t mean we can never ask God for something that we want. In the Bible, we see many examples of personal requests.
Hannah asked God for a son (1 Samuel 1:11).
Paul asked God to remove his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:8).
Hannah’s request was granted, but Paul’s was not. Did this mean that God loved Hannah more than He loved Paul? No, He knew what each one needed and answered their prayers accordingly.
It is important to note that God told Paul that “His power was made perfect in weakness” (2. Corinthians 12:9). God was able to use Paul’s pain to make him a stronger Christian by teaching him reliance on God’s power instead of his own. The answer may not always be easy or what we would want, but God promises to work all things for our good (Romans 8:28).
What Do You Want From God?
If we can understand the purpose of prayer, then we can avoid discouragement. It is our means of communicating with our Heavenly Father, praising Him, confessing to Him, pouring out our heart to Him, and making requests of Him.
A question to consider: do we spend all our time asking and not giving back? Is it one request after another and very little else? When we do make requests, we must be careful to ask according to His will, knowing that He will answer each prayer but with an answer that is in our best interest. This includes an answer of, “No.”
God is not a vending machine that gives us anything and everything for which we ask. Let’s not treat Him as such!