Right now, all across the globe, there is a pervading sense that the world is out of control. Many countries are in lockdown, trying to contain and eradicate this fast-moving virus from their communities, while the rest are watching on nervously.
Turning to prayer is a natural response—our natural response—when a situation feels too big for us to handle on our own. In this case, we may be asking God to:
- stop the virus from spreading
- keep safe those who are most at risk
- heal the patients fighting for their health
- protect medical workers and other essential service staff
- provide work for those who have lost their jobs.
However, as with any ongoing world crisis, a common question arises: If God loves us, if he is listening to our prayers and if his power is limitless, then why does the need remain? What—if anything—is happening when we pray?
Author and Pastor Mark Karris suggests that these concerns stem from a common way that many of us approach petitionary prayer (when we ask God to do something, such as any of the examples listed above). We ask him to intervene, to save, to heal, to cause disruption in an issue where major change is needed.
However, Karris believes that there is a problem when we see a need and simply send a quick prayer up to God; for example, ‘God, please keep my neighbour Katy safe’—because we sometimes then paradoxically ignore our own responsibility to step in and help. We leave the onus on God to act, rather than actually checking on Katy to make sure she is being looked after and has enough food. This approach to petitionary prayer can also, he argues, cause us to doubt God’s character and (sometimes unknowingly) blame him if things don’t improve.
Karris’s point is not that these types of prayers are futile; rather, he suggests that wording our prayers like this is not necessarily the most effective way to harness their potential to change both the world around us and ourselves.
God Loves Us Fully … In Every Circumstance
Right now, we trust that our nurses and doctors are doing everything humanly possible to help each patient in their care. We don’t have to tell them to do this; why, then, would we need to tell God to love us when it is fundamental to who he is?
Moreover, when we pray and ask God to do something, do we think he hasn’t seen the need long before we have? Or worse, do we think he can see the need but isn’t acting? Do we think his hand is hovering over a green button, waiting for enough people to pray so that a certain quota is reached? That doesn’t line up with who we believe God to be. God is love, and he is protecting, rescuing and loving us all to the fullest extent in every situation.
‘Sometimes, earnest and hopeful prayers can paint a rather unflattering picture of God, who picks and chooses when to act and when to care,’ says Pastor Liam Miller on his podcast Love, Rinse, Repeat. Miller compares the concept of asking God not to love us with asking a mermaid to run—impossible.
But in addition to love, God gives us freedom. He is non-coercive and non-controlling. In the Book of Genesis, we read straight away that allowing humans their own free will means that God does not always get what he wants. Still, many people—both Christians and non-Christians—have an image of a God who is picking and choosing when to intervene in the world’s troubles.
From 2 Peter 3:9, we know that God wants to be in relationship with us all, and he doesn’t want any of us to perish. If we truly believe that God is love, then we know that he is good and he never withholds blessing where he can give it to us.
Plotting With God
When it feels like our prayers are hitting the ceiling, Pastor Dale Green agrees with Karris that we need to change our vision. Whether it’s a friend who we want to know Jesus, a career obstacle or a pandemic like Covid-19, we need to remember that the problem isn’t God. The problem is the circumstances we are praying into, and the people we are praying for. ‘We’re not dealing with an unwilling God,’ he says, ‘we’re dealing with hard-hearted people—including ourselves.’
So how can we re-orientate our prayer focus? Karris suggests a method called, ‘Conspiring Prayer’, which changes the focus of prayer to ‘breathing together’ with the creator; speaking with God, rather than to God.
As an example, rather than saying, ‘God, please bless our health-care workers’, the prayer is developed into, ‘God, how can we work together to bring blessing to our health-care workers and their situations?’ As we do this, we involve ourselves in the process. We meditate on God’s word, listen intently for him and consider how we too might be able to act.
As Green points out, sometimes the idea of an autocratic God gives us some comfort when world suffering and great tragedy occur, because we believe that as long as we pray, he will step in and handle it. But conspiring prayer makes us co-workers with God. It gives us the power to fight with him, to bless others with him, to unite with his vision and actions.
At a time when we are separated physically from those we love, prayer becomes an even more crucial response. Rather than manipulating, convincing or begging God, we are partnering with him.
Instead of believing that our words have the power to influence him, we look at them with renewed focus.
Let’s trust that God is loving all the time, not moment-to-moment, and see prayer as a practice that changes us as it changes the world.
Sources: ‘Ep14. Conspiring Prayer with the Uncontrolling Love of God, Mark Karris’—Liam Miller [podcast]; ‘Bad Prayers’—Dale Green [video].