Prayer Is About Relationships, Not Outcomes

Ryan Fan

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This is a meditation on prayer, something I’ve been thinking about and doing of late amidst a storm in my life. Should we pray for God’s will and plans or for our will and plans? The answer seems obvious, that we should always pray for God’s will for our lives instead of our own. We’re not God and God is God, but although that part is simple and easy, large complexities lie beneath the layers, in the context of the gospel. Yes, we should always trust God’s will, but in a personal relationship with God also be honest about the things we yearn for.

In a sermon from Woodside Presbyterian Church, titled Prayer: The Original Wireless Connection, the speaker begins similarly questioning what outcomes we should pray for. We should pray for both specific outcomes and for God’s will. The heart of the question asked is “what should we pray for?” and “What do we hope will happen as a result of our prayers?”

This is not a theoretical question, but for those who pray, it’s a prayer that manifests itself in practice almost every day. It’s not a question that we can keep at a distance, because for so many of us it’s a very practical question. Few people genuinely pray for something in the distance, like who’s going to win an election or football game, and the person asking if we should pray for our own desired outcomes are about the people and immediate concerns in our lives. We pray for our sick mothers, fathers, siblings, and children. I pray for my sick mother all the time. We pray to plead God to comfort the suffering and afflicted that we can see first hand.

“[We] want to know if it is OK — against all odds — to pray for them to be healed…Should they pray for God to do something about it, or should they accept it as God’s will and move on?”

At the heart of that question is a basic spiritual insecurity: do our prayers matter to God? The sermon then moves into following the example of Jesus, as the greater prayer who ever lived. Prayer is a means of connection and building a relationship with God. So if we want to learn to properly learn how to pray, to know how to do it in the ways that God intended us to, and the Scripture passage that the sermon looks at is Matthew 26, when Jesus is in Jerusalem with his disciples in the final week of his life. He is about to be handed over to people who want to crucify him and betrayed by one of his most trusted disciples, and he knows it.

But even in Jesus’s wisdom, we must ask this question: why does Jesus pray if he knows what’s going to happen? “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.” But it is in how Jesus prays, and what results from it that we see the answer.

In Matthew 26:36, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus tells his disciples to “sit here, while I go over there and pray.” In Matthew 26:38, he notes to his disciples that “my soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” In Matthew 26:39, Jesus fell on his face and prayed: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”

Jesus’s prayer started from his experience, and “we cannot begin anywhere else.” His note that he is “sorrowful, even to death” shows that his telling that his forecoming betrayal, denial, and death are still outcomes he still feels troubled and depressed about. Luke 22:44 describes how Jesus prayed in more detail: “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground.” To God, Jesus oriented and was honest in his prayer, about all his pain and suffering at what was about to come. “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.”

Like a marriage or any relationship, we cannot have a good relationship with God if we censor and try to purify our emotions and feelings in prayer. We can’t fully surrender unless we trust God with what’s on our minds and hearts. We’re purely human, and we have intimate needs and longings. I’m personally too prone to making sure everything I pray is saying the “right thing,” that I pray more to thank God than for any specific outcome or to be honest about how I feel. And, I ask myself, what if I were to take that approach in conversation with friends and family? Those relationships wouldn’t be genuine, and I would secretly be seething in resentment and frustration.

The best of my friends can always tell when something is on my mind, when I’m holding back something that’s been bothering me. And God does, too. “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 we shouldn’t because God already knows what’s in our hearts, and “it is better to bring it before God in prayer.” Jesus has a pre-established relationship with God, and that allows his prayer before him in the Garden of Gethsemane to be fruitful.

In the Garden, he prayed “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me,” praying for a specific outcome that is confusing because, again, Jesus already knows what’s going to happen in Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial. But it is a bold prayer, expressing that natural human need and inclination to avoid pain and suffering. Perhaps Jesus was holding onto hope that there could be another way for humanity’s salvation, that he wouldn’t have to die and be nailed to a cross. Or maybe he was praying for the sake of his disciples and those of us who follow him.

But what we learn is that it’s okay to pray for bold, specific things, maybe even things that seem impossible. In fact, it’s dishonest to never ask God for anything. Rev. Thomas Merton, famous Catholic monk and theologian, wrote in No Man is an Island, that “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.” Knowing God’s power, as Christians, we should pray our fears and anxieties to him, so we can be healed, because “we know that is where they belong.”

If there are relationships in our lives that are weighing on us to a breaking point, we should pray about that. If there’s a relative or close friend who’s not doing well and very sick, we should pray for their health. And if there’s someone in our lives that we think we’re made for, that we’re destined to get married with, “it’s even OK to pray about that.” It’s okay to pray about specific outcomes and things.

Our prayer lives will develop, and I will admit that mine is still very immature, but “that doesn’t mean we cease praying for specific things, as demonstrated by Christ’s profound prayer in the Garden that night.” But it is also important to not let our prayers stop at our requests. The latter half of Matthew 26:39 is Jesus pleading with God to let things happen “not as I will, but as you will,” suggesting that even what Jesus wants in his heart might differ in what God wants and plans, and that “God’s will takes precedence over his,” even when what is on the line is Jesus’s own life.

The reason that this was okay is that Jesus trusted his Father. “He honestly brought to God what he had, but once he placed it in God’s hand he trusted that God would take care of him.” The most basic issue in prayer is trust, and whose will we trust. God is not Santa and won’t grant everything we want. But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t hear our fears and desires. In Matthew 26:42, Jesus prays to God, “my Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” The shift here from his previous prayer is that “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.” By praying his fears, Jesus becomes prepared to face the biggest trial of his life.

Obviously, Jesus didn’t get what he asked for. As almost a cruel joke, he still died on the cross and was betrayed and denied by his closest friends. “Jesus was the most righteous person who ever lived — righteousness itself — and he still asked for something he didn’t get.” But this doesn’t mean that prayer isn’t powerful and effective. That doesn’t mean Jesus’s prayer simply vanished into thin air when Jesus prayed in the Garden. All prayers, and especially the really honest ones, mean that we’re turning towards God and trusting him, and “honest prayer 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 God wants to be in relationship with us.”

So prayer isn’t a transaction or a means to a tangible outcome, but a way to have an intimate and strong relationship with God, and that is the prize above all prizes.

Originally published at https://www.theodysseyonline.com on May 6, 2019.

Photo by Jack Sharp on Unsplash

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/ryanfan

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