In Christian devotional writings it is common to come across the phrase, "the problem of prayer." The fact that prayer has problems is widely acknowledged, and the one that gets the most attention is the problem of unanswered prayers.
For example, last Sunday morning, more than twenty-five local churches converged at our county fairgrounds for a combined service of prayer. It was quite an undertaking. The logistics were complicated, but there was a genuine sense of anticipation. People had been praying for months in advance of the service, and one of the prayer requests was for good weather.
Gratefully, the heavy storms that passed through the area missed us, but we were praying for more than that - we had asked for comfortable temperatures and a light breeze. Instead, it rained cats and dogs.
Why did God not answer our prayers in the way we asked? For that matter, why does God not answer all our well-intentioned prayers in the way we ask? "Heal Mary of the cancer, Lord." "Help my daughter's husband come to his senses and halt the divorce." "Don't let my child get mixed up with the wrong friends." We pray, but sometimes things go from bad to worse.
Devotional writers have offered helpful insights into this most obvious of problems. It is not insoluble, nor is it, at least from my perspective, the most serious problem related to prayer. The way God answers is less a problem than the way we ask. We must learn that prayer is more than the words we say or think in God's direction. Our entire life is a prayer, and sometimes its requests are very different from (and even contradictory to) the prayers we speak.
We may say, "Hallowed be thy name," while our life's prayer is, "My name be respected." We can say, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done," even as our life shouts, "My authority be established, my desires be gratified." We might recite, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," while our life demands, "I want those who wronged me to pay." We can pray, "Lead us not into temptation" at the very moment our life is saying, "Lead me into temptation as quickly as possible."
A person's life is a prayer, a request - and maybe even a curse. A life repeats its particular message over and over, parrot-like, to the heavens, though most of us are unaware of what our life is really communicating. But God understands the language of our lives. He hears our real voice.
What does God hear people say in their real voice? Some say, "Just leave me alone. Leave me alone." Others repeat idiotically, over and over, "It's not fair. It's not fair. It's not fair." Still others say, again and again, like a broken record, "My will be done," to all eternity. On the Day of Judgment the real message of our lives will be drawn out of us, and we will hear, beyond any shadow of a doubt, our true voice. We will know then the prayer our lives have been repeating, and whether or not it matched our words.
St. James describes the person whose lips say, "Thy will be done," but whose life cries, "My will be done" as "double-minded" or (more literally) "double-souled." He says that person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. And that makes sense. Which request should God listen to - the one that rises from a person's lips or the one that rises from a person's life?
We'd like to think we would be happy and good if God would just answer our prayers, but I suspect we would be neither. God's answers will not contribute to our goodness and happiness as long as our words and lives are requesting contradictory things. Bringing our words and lives into alignment might just be the most important thing prayer can accomplish.