Praying is the most natural and fundamental activity of human life. By praying, I mean the most basic definition of prayer: asking. The word pray originally meant simply to ask.
When I was in seminary, we did a ministry in the local jail. You have never seen a more religious group of people than those who have made very bad decisions and ended up in jail. They each have a well-worn bible, full of notes and underlining. They had all day to read them. Many of these people would have laughed at you before they went to jail for talking about God and prayer. But here they are, gathering in the chapel for a bible study with a bunch of Orthodox seminarians in black cassocks.
Or there is another example of how people just default to prayer: a very close friend of mine who used to be a Christian, but who does not identify as a Christian anymore, still calls me up sometimes when there is a crisis and asks me to pray. She can’t ask God but she can ask me to ask God. Something at least.
Many of the people in jail who are asking God to get them off the hook, or asking God for a lighter sentence, will not get what they are asking for. Many of the relatives of patients in the hospital who pray for their relatives to recover will in fact see their relatives die.
Some people will be healed. Some people will keep their job. Some people will keep their house. It may appear to be a kind of lottery; the “God jackpot.” We might ask, “Are you going to pick the right number or say the right prayer?”
People make all kinds of promises to God when they are in dire straits. They make a deal with God. This is where we get the saying “I swear to God.” That is a kind of verbal exclamation point that means, “I really mean it! I swear.” We promise or swear to God that we will stop drinking if God just lets us out of jail. Or we will start going to church if only God heals our friend or if only I find a new job.
I am not saying that this is a ridiculous thing to do. I know of people who have made that kind of oath, and they did receive what they asked for. Subsequently, they also did turn their life around like they promised. But God did not help them because they promised God something. God helped them find determination by allowing them to face adversity. God gave them the circumstances that led them to repent, and then God paved the way for them to serve him with this new-found determination. It wasn’t actually a “deal,” but sometimes it does work out in a way that makes it look like we convinced God. Actually God convinces us.
Most of the time, however, when we swear such oaths, we are trying to give ourselves hope. What we are really saying is, “I cannot hope that God will help me and I do not really see how it will work out – it probably won’t work out … but maybe if I promise God something then I can hope in the deal that I can make with God. Even if I do not have faith in God, I have faith in my ability to convince God.” What kind of faith is that, really?
Calling out to God is a good and natural thing to do. Whatever you want to ask of God, ask! Do not feel guilty for asking. Keep asking. Miracles do happen (actually you don’t even need to ask for miracles because they happen all the time without you knowing it, but it doesn’t hurt to ask for them).
But prayer is not a lottery. Saying that you should ask God is not the same as saying, “You might win the jackpot, so buy a ticket. You never know, you might win.” That is not why the Church tells us to keep praying and asking. The Church gives us words to pray so that we learn how to pray, not so that we can maximize the chances of God doing what we want.
The fathers tell us that God has revealed himself to us even before Jesus came and healed the sick, even before God parted the Red Sea. Nature itself teaches us enough about God that we should know about God with certainty. This is called natural revelation. If we do not know that God exists, that is because we are not willing to look.
And the fathers tell us moreover that the way events come together in life is itself a revelation of God. We just “happen” to meet a person who helps us, or we just “happen” to find something out at the right time. God is there, in those events. The Christian faith gives us the glasses to see those providential events as providential. But what is more, the Christian faith gives us the glasses to see our disappointments as opportunities to pray the prayer that will always be answered, “God, give me the serenity and the peace to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
We can see (especially after the fact) that God has put a person in our life, or an event, and this was an intervention for our sake. We also see how a challenge that God did not just clear out of our path, or a loss, or a crisis was something that caused us to mature. It was something that equipped us to have more empathy with other people who have gone through similar things. God gives us the opportunity to trust that He will always be with us. And he shows us afterwards that he always was with us. Having gone through a crisis gives you boldness to trust God on behalf of others as well. It also gives us the boldness to trust God when we are choosing between doing what is right and wrong. Perhaps we need boldness to endure the cost of doing right: our experiences of adversity in the past help us to trust God in those moments.
God is there in times when it seems obvious that our prayers were answered. And God is there in the times when it does not look like our prayers were answered. How do we know that God is there even when we do not get what we hoped for? What is it that we get instead? Let’s read these passages from the Bible to see. The first passage is from the Epistle of St. James:
“Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!
Why is St. James talking about grumbling against each other? Because if you think that bad things happen only when people are trying to hurt you, you start to have many enemies. First you see God as your enemy (or at least an unsympathetic father), and then you even start to distrust people as well. St. James continues:
Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.
Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.
That means that when you pray, just ask. It is better not to make promises. Just say “yes, I would like this to happen.” Or “no, I would not like that to happen.”
Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”James 5:7-16
St. James knew that people died of sicknesses. He does not mean that you are guaranteed to get a miracle as long as you have enough faith, or as long as you use the right holy oil (but we still anoint people with oil). He says, “ask for healing …” and then St. James goes on to talk about
confession of sins, repentance from sins, and being a righteous person who prays.
In ancient times, the service of anointing with oil was the equivalent, or the ancestor of our current-day rite of confession and absolution. When I pray for someone who is sick in the hospital, I ask for forgiveness of their sins. And when someone has confessed, I pray for them to be healed. They are intimately connected.
The most important prayer is, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Pray with Jesus as Jesus prayers, “not my will but your will.” Pray with Jesus, and you will become like Jesus. That is the most important miracle you can have.
Let’s read another passage:
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of our spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”Romans 8:20-28
We do not know what we should pray for. We ask God to help us to pray for His will to be done. We ask God to help us to trust him. Help us to do right. We ask for the strength to keep trusting Him and to keep loving the people around us. We ask God for inner peace in all circumstances.
In another passage, St. Paul writes:
“Brothers, in your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing and emptied himself by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”Philippians 2:5-11
God giving Jesus the “name that is above all names” is not a reward in exchange for Jesus’ death. It means that God has shown us that the greatest glory that a person can have, the best person we can be, is when we give everything we have for the love and service of other people. We empty ourselves like Jesus. We humble ourselves like Jesus. We obey God like Jesus.
For example, when we start a family, we give all of our effort to nurturing our family faithfully. We are dedicated to being the best husband or wife we can be, with God’s help. We are faithful to being the best father or mother we can be. We work hard in order to provide not only for our families, but for our whole communities.
Maybe we find a job where we make an obvious impact on the lives of people. But even if it is not obvious that our work impacts people, we still make many sacrifices. We prioritize our church services, our prayers. We sacrifice time by working for the church or welcoming people into our home. When we prioritize these things, that means we will have less time for other things. But this is how we are our truest selves: by dedicating ourselves to what is the most important, which is to show the love of God to everyone we can.
You do not know when the moment will come that you will be able to make a huge difference in someone else’s life. The people who have made the biggest difference in my life probably had no idea at the time. Small kindness at God’s appointed hour will save the world. But when you have fostered character, virtue, the fruits of the Spirit, when you have been willing to give, or because you were honest when other people would not have been, because you have shown yourself to be trustworthy: moments will come when your small service and your small faithfulness will make a world of difference. Ask God to make you that person who comes along at the right time for someone else, that is one of the greatest joys in the world. But you don’t know when it will be. So prepare yourself with prayer, and make yourself a servant now.
When we say that God gave His Son the name that is above all names, that means that you are your truest self when your life is directed towards serving others, praying for others, helping others. That is the greatest hope you can have. That is the answer to all our prayers: God’s calling to us. If you are trying to “find yourself” or trying to figure out what God wants you to do in your life, this is the answer. Pray. Work. Love. Rejoice.