Two Ways Not to Pray, and One Way to Pray

“So let’s ask God to use this time in their lives in a special way.”  Every Sunday, someone from the stage leads us in prayer as the elementary age kids gleefully thunder out of the sanctuary for their classes.

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Having brought two children through the teen-age years, watched many of our friends’ experiences, and read the dismal statistics surrounding Christian young people, I sometimes wondered which of these smiling faces would get caught up in drugs, teen pregnancy or total rejection of the faith in college. 

During one of my cynical moments, the Holy Spirit suddenly spoke to me.  Certainly, the statistics are accurate, and many young people do end up in unfortunate places.  But our kids are not statistically and fatalistically condemned to that future.  God has acted in miraculous ways over the millennia to do incredible and totally unexpected things. 

I remember learning in a church history class about a problem some coal mining companies encountered during the Welsh revival of 1904-1905.  So many men came to faith in Christ that work production nearly stopped because the mules no longer understood the men’s commands without the profanity.  Also, some of the coal mines posted signs asking the workers to stop returning the tools they had stolen because they had run out of places to store them.

If God could so change the hearts of crusty, hardened coal miners, could he not preserve the purity and faith of these particular nine-year-olds?  Of course he could, and I should lovingly ask him to do so.

I think my cynicism was driven in part by what I consider presumptuous prayer.  I’m all for claiming God’s promises, but I think we sometimes drift into demanding that he answer them in precisely the way we want him to.  It’s almost like we treat prayer as a magic spell where, if I say just the right words, sweat just the right amount, and throw enough Bible verses at God, he is compelled to do exactly what I think he should when I think he should do it.  I become the magician, forcing God’s hand to accomplish my version of what the future should look like.  Even Jesus himself prayed, “Nevertheless, not my will . . . .”

If we shouldn’t pray statistically or “magically,” how should we pray?  The best answer I know of is in Matthew 7:9-11 (The Message):

If your child asks for bread, do you trick him with sawdust?  If he asks for fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate?  As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing. . . . So don’t you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better?

So, we should pray expectantly to our loving, heavenly father, leaving both our cynicism and our demands behind and trusting that he will graciously hear and answer our prayers to maximize his glory and our greatest good.