I don’t know quite what I think about petitionary prayer; once you raise those sticky questions about God intervening in the world sometimes but not others, it all gets so complicated. But I’m more than a little skeptical of any theory of prayer that treats God like a vending machine who dispenses blessings if only you can come up with the correct combination of change. Rather, I’m drawn to the idea that the point of prayer is relational, that it’s not so much about coaxing stuff out of God as about developing a relationship with him.
That’s how I like to think about prayer in the abstract, at least. But to be honest, I don’t necessarily live that way. The truth is that few things motivate me to pray more fervently than being in a situation where I desperately want something, whether it be answers or help. I may roll my eyes at the vending machine theory, but that doesn’t stop me from occasionally rolling in quarter after quarter to see if this time it might work.
And then I really don’t know what to think when it does.
On a couple of occasions recently, I’ve found myself in the classic Primary scenario in which I’ve lost an object, and the thought has occurred to me that I could pray about it. I’ve felt rather silly, but I’ve kind of figured what the heck; it couldn’t hurt. And so I’ve prayed. And then the missing object has surfaced–not after a while, but right away. What makes this even wackier is that I’m not talking about situations in which I desperately needed car keys to rush a sick child to the hospital. These have been situations in which I just happened to want an item for something non-urgent, and I couldn’t find it.
My relationship with God has often been rather turbulent. I’ve been mad, at times even enraged, about things that have really hurt–answers that have never come, life circumstances that have felt like more than I could handle. I’ve prayed so many prayers that I felt were utterly ignored, and that’s only left me feeling angrier.
And then God, who seems to have nothing at all to say regarding so many of the issues that matter most to me, tells me something as mundane as where I left that thing I’ve been looking for. I don’t know what to make of that. Of course the skeptic in me says, hmm, God or coincidence, but I can’t entirely argue myself into disbelief, as bizarre as the situation seems. And I find myself feeling some spark of hope that if God is in fact aware of aspects of my life that are this trivial, maybe he’s not as unconcerned with the larger matters as I so often think he is.
In contemplating this, I’m also reminded of the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son in Luke 15. Because not only do I lose things; I myself am terribly lost, more often than not–sometimes more like a coin which gets misplaced with no choice in the matter, and sometimes more like the prodigal son, as a result of a conscious decision to walk away. And as distant as I may feel, as overwhelmed by sin or despair, I am comforted by the image of a God of lost things, one who is faithfully keeping track of where I am.
- 16 February 2007