Sermon preached at Christ the Servant, Stockwood, Bristol, 23 May 1976
Anything which you ask in my name, the Father will grant to you.
Now surely there must by now be an enormous queue of people forming, every person in that line with an objection, an example, an instance, saying,
“Now, look here, I asked for this.”
“I prayed to God for…”
“I petitioned God most humbly, concerning…”
“I fasted for three days before going on my knees.”
And every person in that queue would agree that they had most faithfully and reverently finished their prayers (indeed, doesn’t every prayer finish), “through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
We are asking things in his name; and they don’t happen.
And perhaps with one voice they would say, protest: “why does Jesus in the Bible say one thing, and God in our lives seem to say another?”
No. Don’t dismiss my imaginary queue of protesters. They are honest but puzzled enquirers into their faith. Are not their questions genuine? Haven’t they been on many a Christian’s lips at some time? And to say by way of an answer, “well, you’ve got to have faith” will not do. It’s frustratingly not enough.
If you will, first, accept me as a member of my own imaginary queue, and not as the smug quizmaster of the TV contest who’s peeped at the answers already, I’ll offer to you some of the ways which I have found helpful in trying to come to terms with this asking and answering of prayers.
“I don’t see why I should have to pray at all. God knows what we want before we ask it; so why waste so much time?”
Yes, God does know. He knows what you need. Now, this may not be the same as what you want. In effect it’s as if God says, “yes, I know what you need, but do you? Are you really sure? Better ask, and find out.”
You may have a heart as big as the world for which you pray, but you are only a small part of it. God’s eyes, and wisdom and plans are greater than your best efforts. Resist trying to tell God what to do. You don’t know the whole plan, and left in your inadequate hands the whole thing may get messed up. But the Father will place into your hands that part of his will that you are capable of fulfilling.
“Does it mean, then, that God will not do anything for us unless we ask? Isn’t it a case of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours?”
If God were a rich but unpredictable old uncle whom you had to make sure got served first at dinner, and that his slippers were warming by the fire before he could be approached for your pocket money, or a tyrant king who will only listen to those with the biggest barrow-load of woes or the longest list of requests… yes.
But doesn’t he make his rain to fall and his sun to shine on the evil and the good, the unjust and the just? How constant is his care, when we are inconstant in prayer! If it were not so, then mind the attention, the concentration dare not falter for a minute, or disaster!
But it is true to say that God does not always do what we call “good turns”. It is true to say that there are some things which come to you only after a deliberate asking. Such gifts as stronger faith, deeper peace, greater patience. Before such can be received, you first have to realise a need for them, to hunger and thirst after them, to ask, seek and knock persistently for these gifts of the Spirit. Not that this is meant to rouse a sleeping God, but to receive such gifts the receptacle must be purged by trial, discipline and faith.
“I keep praying, but I find it hard to believe that anybody is really listening. Am I really talking to God, or merely to myself?”
Keep on praying. The surest way of not finding an answer is to stop. Prayer is an act of faith. If you believe in God, carry on. Faith does not depend on feelings, for feelings come and go but God is constant.
Yes, there will be times when prayer seems addressed to an iron wall and an ever-deaf ear. Why should this be? There are rises and falls in emotional life; moments of uplift followed by those of dullness. You can’t live on the mountains all the time.
You are meant to grow up, and cannot be carried, nestled like a baby, all the time. It is important to stand on your own two feet, and to trust God even when you can neither feel nor experience him.
If the divine spark, the spirit of God, is within you as you pray then to the question, “am I talking to myself or to God?” the answer comes: “Both are true.”
[The manuscript ends here. – SJC]