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FIRST-PERSON: Does prayer ‘work’?

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Remember the old joke about the guy who angrily brought his new chain saw back to the hardware store for a replacement? He stormed through the door and flung his purchase onto the front counter. It lay there, bent and beat up, much of the paint chipped off and the teeth at all angles.

“I’ve been using this thing all day,” he sputtered to the first face within shouting range, “and I haven’t even cut a handful of firewood!”

The sales clerk, trying hard to remain cooperative, assured the man he’d be glad to take a look at it and do what he could. The saw was a mangled mess, all right. And trying to see if it might start in this condition seemed a foolish waste of time. But not knowing where else to begin, he took a chance and yanked hard one time on the ripcord. Sure enough, after several uncertain seconds of tired gasps and coughs, the motor somehow rattled its way to full throttle.

The red-faced customer suddenly went white, backing up two full steps from the counter in stunned confusion. “So that’s what that string was for!”

From a prayer perspective, here’s the point: Before concluding that it doesn’t “work,” you need to ask yourself how you’ve been trying to use it. I have frequently heard people despair that their prayer wasn’t answered. Perhaps someone they loved was sick, and they prayed asking God for healing. But instead of getting better, the person died. They had asked for one thing, but they had gotten another. Therefore, their prayer didn’t “work.”

Don’t misunderstand. God does answer prayer. I know it from experience. Besides that, Scripture is full of instances where God’s people prayed and he responded exactly as they had asked.

However, having our requests granted is not the primary goal of prayer. Prayer is not simply the process of giving God our wish list. Many times we ask for things that seem to be what we need, but later recognize that had we gotten them, they would have been far from our best interests.

Neither is prayer a way to alert God to our needs. God knows our needs even better than we do and he needs no formal reminders about where we are and what we’re up against. Prayer is in no way a squeaky wheel designed to manipulate God into remembering us.

One of the most primary purposes of prayer is to spend time in conversation with our Father. And when this is our goal, we can pray at all times guaranteed that it will be rewarded.

Before I accepted the presidency of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, I spent a great deal of time flying across America to lead church growth conferences. Like many frequent travelers, I got into the habit of always bringing home a small gift for my two girls who were still at home at the time.

It happened almost without fail. As soon as my car would enter the driveway, they would run from the house and greet me with tender address. “Hi, Daddy. What did you bring us?”

After one particularly long and exhausting trip, I arrived home to be greeted by the same predictable welcome: “What did you bring us, Daddy? What did you bring us?”

But for some reason this time, I just wasn’t in the mood for giving presents. Instead, I gave my girls a short but strong lecture. I explained how hard it was to be apart from them and how tired I was every time I came home. I tried to help them imagine what it would feel like for them to be away from home for days at a time. Just once, I expounded, it would mean so much to me if I knew they were simply glad to have Daddy home — not just to have a gift. I gave them a guilt trip.

The following weekend I returned home after being out of town again, having forgotten my lecture from the past weekend. As usual, my girls ran to meet me in the driveway — only this time, my youngest daughter leaped into my arms, gave me a big hug, and said in the sweetest voice, “I love you, Daddy. I’m so glad you’re home.”

My heart melted within me. With her next breath, of course, she asked, “Now … what did you bring me?” Well, it was a start, but my daughter’s behavior made me realize that my own prayers to my heavenly Father often began like that — with little more than requests, requests, requests. I’m sure that my words often sounded just like my girls’ childish refrain: “What did you bring me, Daddy?”

When I finally comprehended the fact that prayer permits me to come into the presence of my Father, to express my love for him, to thank him for his constant provision and give him the honor he is due, I discovered a new passion for prayer.

Communicating with him is reward enough. And if that is the purpose, there is no such thing as unanswered prayer.
Adapted from “The Prayer of Jesus” by Ken Hemphill. Copyright 2001. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman Publishers.

    About the Author

  • Ken Hemphill