In a prior Fish Hooks we raised the question of just what it is that prayer changes, and concluded that one of the most important ‘things’ is our own heart and attitude. We talked about putting ourselves in a right relationship with God in our prayers by means of two ‘prayer partners’ of which the first is the willingness to listen to God’s voice.
And that brings us to the second prayer partner: the willingness to act.
We’ve become accustomed to public officials appearing on TV in the wake of disasters and solemnly intoning something like: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” Now we hope that’s sincere and that they are indeed privately asking God to comfort those who have been afflicted. But perhaps we can be pardoned if we also think: “Yes, that’s very nice – but wouldn’t it be even better if you would ask God for wisdom and courage to do your part to prevent such things?” Now public figures are easy targets for criticism, so let’s take a hard look at ourselves – don’t our own prayers also sometimes sound like this: “Dear Lord, please fix this situation so that I don’t have to do anything!”
When we pray sincerely to God about our problems, we do so anticipating that something will change – but those changes often involve something we need to do, and those actions might be very challenging. Sometimes Christians seeking guidance find themselves called to extraordinary measures and sacrifices, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran Pastor in Nazi Germany who came to understand that he was being called to fight against the evil of the holocaust by participating in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler – a very costly decision which resulted in his hanging. But mostly, our calls to action are much less dramatic, though potentially still quite difficult. For example, when we pray for resolution of an interpersonal conflict, God’s Spirit may nudge us to make a painful apology; when we pray for health we may be led to acknowledge the need for a difficult change in our lifestyle; when we pray for financial relief, we may be prompted to reconsider our priorities.
We’ve all heard the saying: “God helps those who help themselves.” That isn’t from the Bible, but it does embody considerable truth: though God answers some prayers by a pure exercise of His divine will (what we may call a ‘miracle’) many prayers find fulfillment when God blesses our own efforts. In fact, Biblical miracles are frequently coupled to acts of faith. When God delivered His people from the Philistine threat it didn’t happen by a divine bolt of lightning, but only when the boy David confidently confronted Goliath with a rock and a sling (1 Samuel 17). Naaman’s cure of his leprosy came about only when he overcame his reluctance to follow the prophet’s instructions (2 Kings 5:1-14).
Yet, as the Biblical accounts also make abundantly clear, though we may be required to perform a role in answering our prayers, it is God’s power alone that accomplishes the deed (e.g., Joshua 6). As the creator and sovereign of the universe, God exercises complete authority over everything that transpires, so isn’t it remarkable that He desires our feeble participation? Perhaps His motivation is similar to that of the doting father who ‘needs’ his toddler to help him wash the car – the building of character as well as the simple joy of working together with someone so deeply loved.
Sometimes the most difficult thing a Christian is called upon to do is to refrain from taking action. In our zeal, we can sometimes become impatient to ‘make things happen’ on our own. But an important aspect of a mature faith is subordinating our own will to that of our Lord, and following His lead. Thus we might pray for discernment using the words of the familiar Serenity Prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971):
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.