Prayer and the Unknown

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Prayer and the Unknown

Acts 17:22-31

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

John 14:15-21

The Promise of the Holy Spirit

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

We have covered most of the day to day types of prayers we make, from prayers for help, prayers for guidance, prayers for personal discernment, prayers of adoration and thanksgiving, and prayers of confession and comfort. That is not an exhaustive list. Indeed there is at least one more type of prayer that we pray on a regular basis that needs to be discussed: the unknown prayer.

Unknown prayer? What does that even mean?

Sometimes we have a need or something we need to communicate to God but we do not know how to say it. Maybe we struggle keeping a reverent and respectful demeanor with God and are fearful about bringing up the subject. Perhaps we really don’t even understand the situation enough ourselves to know what to ask or say. Whatever the problem, the Holy Spirit comes through for us. Paul writes:

Romans 8:26-27

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

When we are first getting to know Jesus, there are a lot of prayers we pray like this. There is so much we do not know. As we grow older and wiser, having spent time with God, these prayers do not become less important, they become more important. The longer I follow God, the more I see how much I don’t know. Some may take this as a kind of anti-affirmation of faith… feeding the notion that there is nothing that can truly be known about God, but that completely misses the point. We can indeed know God, just as we can know one another. There are just always going to be gaps I this lifetime. There will always be room for the mystery.

It is a mystery that is meant to be embraced.

1 Corinthians 13:12

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Where are you experiencing the mystery of God in your life?

What prayers is the Holy Spirit praying for you today?

Prayer for Comfort

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Prayer for Comfort

Genesis 8:13-19

In the six hundred first year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and saw that the face of the ground was drying. In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. Then God said to Noah, “Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” So Noah went out with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families.

Confession and comfort are two sides of growth in prayer. Together, these two kinds of prayer encompass steps 4-10 of the way to recovery and spiritual maturity.

This kind of prayer involved more than wires whispered at a bedside. It is prayer with hands and feet. We go to Jesus as our mediator between God and ourselves, but we also need to go to Jesus to mediate between ourselves and others. It is confession that follows along the line of the teaching Jesus gave in a general sense I response to paying taxes. If you owe your neighbor an apology, God expects you to give it to her. If you owe your neighbor more than an apology, Jesus expects you to pay that as well. Zaccheus it’s a phenomenal example of this from the gospels and Paul writes to the Romans the same thing. Owe no one anything but love.

This kind of full-bodied confession is costly. Between the jabs of confession we need comfort. We need reassurance that, even if we have not been and are not okay in the present, God is meeting us and making a way. There may be no more beautiful and concise picture of this than what James, the brother of Jesus wrote to the churches: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

It is terrifying seeking reconciliation sometimes. It does not always go well. Sometimes it seems to make things worse because it is often easier to ignore a problem than to address it, especially if there is no convenient solution within our grasp. The healing comes not from our own strength, but from God. The promise we have about comfort is not that we will not suffer, but that we will not suffer alone and that healing and joy will follow.

John 14:27-29

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

Prayer for personal discernment

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Prayer for personal discernment

John 8:31-38

True Disciples

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word. I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.”

The third prayer we pray is a prayer of personal discernment. As we listen to God’s guidance we begin to begin to compare our actions first, but eventually our very character with the truth that god speaks to us.

This prayer reaches from God, through our own spiritual ears, and into our hearts and leads us into what those following the 12 Steps refer to as a “moral inventory”. Jesus led His disciples in this practice routinely, often in debriefing moments after healing and teaching the crowds around Him. He tested them even as He led them to learn to test themselves.

Here in John’s gospel we are shown the important link between our disobedience and sin. We sin, not only out of rebellious choices, but perhaps even deeper, because we are slaves of sin. The popular song below reminds us that in Christ we have freedom from that slavery to sin and death, or more specifically as the song suggests, to fear. What does fear have to do with slavery to sin? Fear keeps us from looking at it.

From the bloody cinema classic, The Usual Suspects, we get the line: “The greatest trick the devil every pulled was convincing the works that he did not exist.” This article, from Heathwood Press examines the progression of such a notion, but ends up in a form of self-condemnation, tripping over the concept of the devil “myth”. Mythos does not mean make believe. It means does not describe the truth or falsity of a claim. It refers to the format it is communicated – specifically, as a story. (For example, any explanation of the creation of the works that begins “thousands of years ago, in a place far, far away” is told as myth whether it is followed by the story from Genisis, the Big Bang, or Star Wars. Scientific, verifiable evidence would be video footage of the actual event.) When we make an external evil non-existent, we lay the blame squarely on ourselves. While in one light, this provides motivation to change, it also begs the question: Why haven’t we learned to overcome evil as a society? if the answer to that is that we are unable, it logically determines something (or someone) holding a dominating power over our will. Hence, as Jesus says, if we win, we are slaves to it. Fear holds us back from confronting that fear – and our refusal to confront it leads to an inability to change.

One last example from the pagan works on the importance of naming the enslaving forces in our lives comes from Plato in his Allegory of a Cave. Truth that we cannot see has power over us. Truth that we will not see has just as much power, but it is more tragic. What Jesus gives US is the ability to see, little by little, that power that enslaves us, so that we, in turn, can return and ask Him for help.

What sin has enslaved you?

Prayer for guidance

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Prayer of guidance

Proverbs 3:1-12

Admonition to Trust and Honor God

My child, do not forget my teaching,

but let your heart keep my commandments;

for length of days and years of life

and abundant welfare they will give you.

Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you;

bind them around your neck,

write them on the tablet of your heart.

So you will find favor and good repute

in the sight of God and of people.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,

and do not rely on your own insight.

In all your ways acknowledge him,

and he will make straight your paths.

Do not be wise in your own eyes;

fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.

It will be a healing for your flesh

and a refreshment for your body.

Honor the Lord with your substance

and with the first fruits of all your produce;

then your barns will be filled with plenty,

and your vats will be bursting with wine.

My child, do not despise the Lord’s discipline

or be weary of his reproof,

for the Lord reproves the one he loves,

as a father the son in whom he delights.

The second prayer we get is a prayer of guidance. This often comes in response to our first prayer for help. Unlike our first prayer, this is often one we do not speak aloud ourselves. It is one we listen to and receive from God. It is His response to our cry for help.

Pick up your mat and walk.

Go and dip yourself in the river seven times.

Go and wash in the pool called Siloam.

It takes a willingness to listen and trust to benefit from this guidance. Some fair-weather friends of God only trust so long as the money keeps coming in. Real faith does not rely upon prosperity though. Real faith is willing to forego wealth in exchange for whatever and however God, Who knows better than us, chooses to provide. Real faith does not rely on physical healing. The dying thief who shouted to Jesus, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” was not praying a prayer of faith and trust. He was not listening for guidance. The man opposite him though, even in the midst of his suffering was willing to listen. It was the listener who heard the words “Today you will be with me in paradise.

What will help you listen to God today?

What do you hear God saying to you?

Prayer for help

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Prayer for help

Psalm 102:1-17

Prayer to the Eternal King for Help

A prayer of one afflicted, when faint and pleading before the Lord.

Hear my prayer, O Lord;

let my cry come to you.

Do not hide your face from me

in the day of my distress.

Incline your ear to me;

answer me speedily in the day when I call.

For my days pass away like smoke,

and my bones burn like a furnace.

My heart is stricken and withered like grass;

I am too wasted to eat my bread.

Because of my loud groaning

my bones cling to my skin.

I am like an owl of the wilderness,

like a little owl of the waste places.

I lie awake;

I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.

All day long my enemies taunt me;

those who deride me use my name for a curse.

For I eat ashes like bread,

and mingle tears with my drink,

because of your indignation and anger;

for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.

My days are like an evening shadow;

I wither away like grass.

But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever;

your name endures to all generations.

You will rise up and have compassion on Zion,

for it is time to favor it;

the appointed time has come.

For your servants hold its stones dear,

and have pity on its dust.

The nations will fear the name of the Lord,

and all the kings of the earth your glory.

For the Lord will build up Zion;

he will appear in his glory.

He will regard the prayer of the destitute,

and will not despise their prayer.

The first prayer we pray is for help. Whether we are grown adults seeking God for the first time honestly or newborn infants experiencing a terrifying life for the first time. In either case, we do not fully know the God we seek help from. There is really only two things we are sure of: We have a need and God is more powerful than us. This knowledge or acknowledgement reflects the first two steps of the AA 12 Steps to Recovery. The third step is the prayer itself.

I don’t think it is fair to compare infants and addicts in our weaknesses, but we can certainly compare the hope each day brings for new life, along with those challenges. That hope, whatever hope we have, begins with God and our willingness to ask Him for help.

What do you need God’s help in today?

Will you begin the day asking for help or will you wait until you’ve exhausted all your other options first?



Can we wish ourselves into a better place?

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Throughout the history of humankind, there has always been a kind of mystery around the concept of wishing that has often blurred over into a concept of prayer. In my own opinion, there are few things in the world which so encourage us to cross the line into uncritical, “wishful” thinking, and authority of teaching based upon name recognition and occasionally desired outcomes regarding specific requests. In other words, famous people teach about prayer, and occasionally those who have performed miraculous healings – although they become famous pretty quickly and stay famous so long as they keep their people getting what they are praying for.

Jesus and His disciples dealt with the same kind of followers. They loved Him as long as they were getting what they wanted and then deserted Him when He challenged them to follow Him into challenge. When the teacher sees the people becoming disgruntled, they often change up their prayer teaching from a concept of praying with faith and fervor for the desired outcome, to an idea of praying for God’s will to be done instead of our own. Jesus started at this point (as most faithful teachers do) and the crowds may simply have not listened very closely in the excitement of the miraculous healings they witnessed.

So what are we to make of the effectiveness of our prayers? Rather than go through a topical study of prayer in scripture, let’s first take a critical approach and ask the question, “What do we really have control over in life?” I think this is an important question, because the question about prayer comes down to an question of control at a foundational level. If I can make God do what I want by praying a certain way, then it is actually I, not God, who is in control. I’m just using God for my own ends. However, if it is God who is in control, than it may not matter how or perhaps even if I pray… God will do what He wishes. We can only change that which we have control over.

That list of things we have control over is probably soberingly short. On my best days I have control over myself. Beyond that I am surrounded by circumstances that I just have to deal with. I think most of our practical life experiences back this up every day. Science has done so as well. Robert Moll recounted a study on multi-faith prayer among hospital patients with some surprising results. In one Harvard study:

The results showed that those who received prayer actually did worse than those who did not, and the patients who knew they were being prayed for did the worst. The study found “complications occurred in 52% (315/ 604) of patients who received intercessory prayer versus 51% (304/ 597) of those who did not.” Both groups were told that they might or might not receive prayer. However, patients who were told that someone would certainly be praying for them did the worst. Compared to just over half of the other groups, 59 percent of patients who knew they were being prayed for had complications. According to the study, “certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.”

However, that same study showed that people who received prayer paid around $4,000 less in hospital bills. What does that tell me? It’s out of my hands. I either trust that God will care for me or I don’t.

Does that mean we should stop praying? No. It simply means that we need to be willing to seek God’s will instead of our own. This is probably best exemplified by Jesus Himself in the garden of Gethsemane when He prayed:

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

We will continue to struggle with our desire to control our lives and the world around us. I don’t expect I can find a solution that thousands of years of science, religion, and philosophy could not. But we can know that God joined us in the midst of this struggle, gave up that power, to show us that He is worthy of our trust and worthy to be invited into our struggle. Ultimately, some desires will be fulfilled and others will not, but at the end of the day, we will be changed for our efforts to make the world a better place. Will you allow God to change you through this process today?