Wishful thinking is at the heart of why we make a wish and blow out the candles on a birthday cake. We wish as some might wish on a star or when an eyelash comes loose. There is no foundation to any of these rituals that give us any believable hope in the wish actually coming true. We take part in these traditions because they are amusing. We do them with a smile and a laugh but with no actual hope invested in them. These traditions are carefree and trivial. With no genuine expectation of fulfillment, we are left rather indifferent to the success or failure of any of these wishes. We expect them not to come true, but would love to be surprised by the random chance that they did. But since we didn’t REALLY believe, we protect ourselves from being REALLY disappointed when nothing happens as a result.
The difference, however, between birthday cakes and God is that the Bible promises that these prayers are not only heard but can be answered. However, when prayers are unanswered, we experience the bitterness we discussed earlier in this series, the bitterness of prayers we assume to be unheard. The absence of answers can be difficult to understand and harder to find any peace with, but as we learn more about how Jesus talked about prayer, we find that unanswered prayers do not necessarily mean prayers not heard, or the absence of care or love.
Belief in prayer is a two-fold understanding. Belief in prayer does not simply mean that one believes that the prayers can be answered. Believing in prayer means that there is a clear understanding that God hears our prayers, and plans to carry out his response with our best interests in mind. A believer’s prayer comes with faith that the prayer at hand can be answered. However, this faith does not come out of a record of consistently answered prayers.
On the contrary, most people who pray throughout their lifetime will be left with a longer list of prayers left unanswered as opposed to the ones that were. Faith in prayer comes from an understanding of the one to whom we pray and his character: the character of God himself. Understanding the one we send our prayers to is absolutely necessary for any faith in the prayer process to emerge and grow. We people are limited creatures and cannot achieve everything. But if we approach God in the same manner, ascribing a limited nature to Him, we will naturally doubt the prayers being made to begin with. If there is no belief that God is exactly who he says he is then there is absolutely no hope whatsoever that anything close to impossible could become reality. If the God of the Bible is a myth and a legend there is absolutely no difference praying at the bedside with hands clasped together than praying over a birthday cake while dawning a birthday hat. The God of the Bible, who hears and desires to answer prayer, can only be revealed by the Spirit who testifies to the truth. It is therefore open for everyone to experience, but not everyone is open in turn to the experience.
Upon finding confidence in the ability of God, one must understand how he desires to use his ability. Many who have found faith in the God of the miraculous have ultimately been disappointed by God, due to a fundamental misunderstanding of his nature and approach to our prayers. Many take a black-or-white approach to prayer. For example, if I am suffering and I pray for the suffering to stop, I might suppose that if God is powerful enough to stop it he will, and if he cares for me enough, he will. We found our understanding of prayer on a tight rope, allowing God just enough room to walk without losing his balance and falling. From this perspective, suffering is merely “bad” and, therefore, the presence of a “good” and “loving” God who allows suffering to persist implies the complete absence of goodness and thus the absence of God. While the why and when of suffering will often be a mystery, the conclusion that God does not care is unjustifiable from the perspective of scripture.
Throughout the entire Bible, and specifically in the life and teachings of Jesus, God reaches out to people and cares for them in ways that define rationality. There are many instances where Jesus heals an individual before they even ask for it or even imply belief in him, such as Luke 7:11-17, when Jesus raises the son of a widow from death to life. As the stories of Jesus’ healing are so numerous, this particular story is easily overlooked,especially due to the popularity of the resurrection of Lazarus. This smaller, but no less significant, display of Jesus’ power over death is passed over rather easily.
The miracle of Jesus overpowering even death is worthy of praise all on its own. However, the more amazing aspect of this story is the lack of dialogue between the mother and Jesus. We find no evidence that the mother spoke with Jesus, let alone placed faith in him at all. What we do see is that Jesus felt compassion for the widow, and his heart “went out to her.” It was out of this compassion that Jesus not only restored her son to life but simultaneously restored the life of this poor woman. Upon reading this passage, we cannot conclude that Jesus came into the world simply to display power. The only remaining conclusion is that Jesus came into our world, with healing power, simply because he cared.