There’s a moment in Acts when the early church are caught on the hop by God’s ability to answer prayer. There are the believers, earnestly praying for Peter’s release from prison whilst Peter is knocking on the door because the prayer has been answered.
Some of us, particularly from more western and conservative backgrounds can fall into the trap of praying without faith. We pray because we believe it’s the right thing to do and to offer comfort to the person asking. Sometimes we don’t even get that far, we promise to pray and then forget. We don’t really expect an answer. We are surprised when God does the very thing we have been longing and asking for.
We would do well to pay attention to the words of Jesus:
When you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.
7 “When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. 8 Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!”
At the same time, it is possible to lean in to the other extreme. I sometimes hear, or read prayers, or expressions of support which declare with definiteness that the prayer will be answered positively, that the sick person will be made well, the job interview successful, the exams passed or the asylum granted.
Whilst there may be a helpful corrective to lack of trust, especially when confidence is expressed in God’s character, I believe that the danger here is that too much emphasis is being placed on the person praying the prayer. This is when it becomes superstitious. The implied message is that if we have enough faith and use the right form of words, then it will be so. The converse is that if we don’t use the right words then that indicates a lack of faith on our part and the prayer will fail. This means that rather than trust in the living God we are relying on positive thinking.
At its worst, this can involve a denial of reality as those asserting health and success ignore the visible signs around them of frailty and failure. Furthermore, I would suggest that it also shows a lack of trust in God. If some of us risk failing to trust God to deliver us from certain things, others may lack trust in God’s ability to preserve us through them.
The promise of Psalm 23 is not that we will escape the valley of death’s shadow. At some point, we must walk through it. The promise is that the Lord will lead, guide and protect us through that valley, safe to the other side.
Our prayers then should express trust in God. It is right to being our wants and needs to him. However, we also express our faith in him, knowing that he will do what is right and good, even if that turns out differently to what we would have wanted.