I have been thinking lately …
… about prayer.
Too often we act as if prayer is a magic act. We say the right words, and – poof! – we get what we want. Hocus pocus — we are healed! Abracadabra — we find a job!
Or we act like it is a grocery list that we present to God and have God check off the items gotten for us.
But when we treat prayer as some sort of transactional process, problems arise. Why are some people healed and others are not? Why do some people find a job right away and others do not?
If you respond that it is a matter of how much faith you have, then how do you determine the appropriate dose of faith needed? Did not Jesus say something about having faith the size of a mustard seed?
If you respond that it is a matter of “God’s will,” then why would we pray in the first place if God is going to indiscriminately determine who is going to get their request and who is not?
What these questions reveal is that we have confused the meaning of prayer.
Prayer is not about our requests to God.
Prayer is about our relationship with God.
Prayer is about placing ourselves and others into the presence of God. Prayer is about opening ourselves up to the faith and grace and love and peace that God surrounds us with.
And sometimes when we open ourselves up to the flow of God, things happen. So much that happens in our lives – whether it be illness or bad relationships or a bad work environment – happens because of negativity. When we open ourselves up to the grace and love of God, we dispel those unhealthy forces. Healing happens. Wholeness happens. Transformation happens.
But sometimes, sickness is just sickness; job loss is just job loss; failed relationships are just failed relationships; death is just death. That does not mean that we discount prayer. If anything, we rely even more on that relationship which is prayer. We rely even more on the God who goes with us and sustains us through illness, through being fired, through divorce, through death.
As an example of this, I love the story of Jacob’s struggle with the angel or man of God or God in Genesis 32.
Jacob was in a period of acute crisis. He was preparing the next morning to face his brother Esau for the first time in more than 20 years, a brother who had vowed to kill Jacob because Jacob had stolen his birthright and blessing. Jacob did not know what would happen. Would Esau welcome him? Or would Esau kill him?
So, in the middle of the night, Jacob struggles with an unknown man, perhaps representing a wrestling with his fears or his guilt or his past. As he does so, Jacob does not let the man go, saying to him, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” (Genesis 32:26). The man leaves Jacob with a limp but also renames him in the process.
The power in this story is the promise that as we struggle with ourselves – especially as we struggle openly before God – blessing can and will come.
I often picture myself as Jacob, struggling to find blessing in many different circumstances. When I struggle with life’s meaning – especially in light of illness, death, or despair – this story represents my prayerful struggle before God: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
When I struggle with my own past, my own fears, my own guilt, this story represents my wrestling with God and with myself: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
For if we are struggling and wrestling with God, at least we are still in a relationship with God. When God renames Jacob as a consequence — calling him Israel, “The one who contends” — God affirms that the presence of God and our own meaning is found in the struggle.
And that is what prayer is all about: being in relationship with God, contending and struggling with God, all to remind ourselves that the grace and love and peace of God are for us.
A seminary professor would say to all of us when leaving, “Strength for the struggle.”
As the true meaning for prayer, we claim that for ourselves:
Strength for the struggle.