Some of my fondest childhood memories are of birthday parties. Birthday parties were always exciting and joyful. A birthday party was an isolated moment in time where, especially for the person whose birthday it was. Everything seemed to go just right. On that one day you could eat all of the foods you ever dreamed of eating, you could play the games you wanted to play, and people would literally personally deliver you gifts. For most of us this is the closest we would ever get to living like royalty. In the middle of all of this impossible-becoming-possible birthday magic, we find one of the most central birthday traditions. At the right moment, all activity built to a suspenseful crescendo, the all-important cake was finally presented to all of the awaiting guests and partygoers.
The ideal birthday cake would incorporate the passions, hobbies and personality of the recipient, carefully represented and etched out in the cake’s decoration. The cake would be a dream come true. It’s no surprise that the core of the birthday cake tradition was intricately connected to dreams coming true.
Before the cutting and after the candle-lighting, the important moment arrived: the moment to make a wish and blow out the magic candles. This was the final step, before the entire party could proceed. There seemed to be a holy, almost spiritual, reverence for this moment. Time stood still and breathing ceased, if only for a brief moment. There was a sense that all those present put some small hope in the chance that a dream might actually come true. It’s easy, given the atmosphere of a birthday party, to almost give into the idea that if so many impossible things could be made possible already, why would it be unreasonable to think that one more thing would press the limits of this magical day?
As children, there is a true hope that blowing out birthday candles will lead to a miracle. As a child this was not joke, fantasy or ritual. As children, up until a certain point, we believed.
As we got older and the “magic” of birthdays and birthday parties was replaced by the somber realization that a birthday merely symbolized aging, the belief in the candles disappeared completely. We began to see that we do not live in a world where dreams are fulfilled, that miracles are not commonplace. Like children losing faith in birthday wishes, as we grow up, our faith in promises beyond reason is likewise dampened.
It is from a similar place that people today, Christian and non-Christian, view prayer. For many, praying is nothing more than making birthday wishes via candles, nothing more than a silly superstition.
In this reflection series we will take a closer look at why many people have equated prayer with birthday wishes. We’ll approach this discussion in two parts: three statements on the nature of doubt regarding prayer and three contrasting statements on the Biblical approach to prayer of trust and belief.
Three reasons why people associate praying to God in the same light as wishing on candles are:
Prayers spoken but not heard
Prayers spoken but not believed
Prayers spoken but not answered.
On the opposing side, three reasons why people believe in the power of praying to God are:
Prayers heard before spoken
Prayers that believe in what is spoken
Prayer answered in ways unspoken.
Spoken but not heard
When wishing on birthday candles it is clear to all, although perhaps not to the innocent child doing the wishing, that the wishes are falling on deaf ears. Adults understand that although wishes are being made, no one is listening in, to set the wish granting process in motion. Wishes are being made to candles atop a cake. The story ends there, without debate. One of the reasons why some people relegate their prayer life to the same fate as those old birthday wishes is that the number of wishes made compared to the number of wishes fulfilled is lopsided at best in favor of silence. Many feel that this wishing with our eyes shut over newly lit birthday candles, or kneeling at the bedside, is nothing more than wishful superstition that has no place in the “real world.” As we outgrew the birthday candle tradition, we soon realized that we possessed much more power to affect real change in our lives by our own effort. No need to place any hopes whatsoever in silly “childish superstition.” These hopes were grounded in fantasy and to actually count on them was to set oneself up for certain disappointment. We came to the realization that no one was listening; therefore, there was no need to do any more talking.
Many people have put such hopes in God, only to see their wishes left at the stage of simply a wish or a dream. There are countless cases where people have prayed for a miracle, only to find that the answer was never revealed. One such example was Jesus himself who, while desperately praying for deliverance from his suffering, heard nothing in return, leaving him feeling entirely “forsaken.”
When our trust in God is merely at the level of the “Genie in the Lamp,” or the magic of a candle wish, we find that such a “God-Genie” is ineffective. This idea of God even sneaks in with those who truly feel as though they understand and believe in the “will of God,” and they can be likewise disappointed by the “failure” of God to respond. This level of disappointment and lack of response brings many to the state of wishing to candles when they bring their hands together, kneel, and close their eyes.
Spoken but not believed
In most instances, when we made birthday wishes, there was always a flavor of impossibility to the wishes being made. This was a moment to seize something that on any other day of the year would be truly out of reach. This was the moment to wish for the most outrageous and most impossible dream. No one ever wished for the cheapest pair of shoes. No, the correct wish was for the most expensive pair. Don’t forget, these are birthday candles we’re talking about!
Making birthday wishes was the moment to request the unthinkable and most radical request imaginable. However, over time we discovered that the reason that these wishes and dreams were out of reach in our minds, and why we chose to wish for them, was that they were out of reach in reality. Although within us was the hope that something we wished for would come true, there eventually grew an acceptance that this dream would most likely never amount to more than a dream.
The Bible presents many instances where the impossible became possible through the power and will of God. We read stories where people survived being thrown into fire or a lion’s den, and where entire bodies of water became separated upon the command of God. While these stories present great moments for awe and entertainment, the utter impossibility of these stories resign them, in our minds, to legends that could never and will never be seen in today’s world. They are so unlikely that to hope in them is one thing, but to believe in them is something altogether different and altogether foolish. Therefore, we continue to voice our desires and make our wishful prayers to a God up there, somewhere, while accepting that most desires and wishes will be out of the reach of even a God who claims to be able to do anything. So we find people mouthing prayers with no faith or belief in their fulfillment, or in the God whom they claim to address.
Spoken but not answered
As we talked about a few weeks ago, the reason many people have so little faith in prayer is the absence of results. We may read in the scriptures that God hears our prayers and is fully aware of our needs, however, with every need that we see go unaddressed or unanswered we lose hope in the process, simply because we have yet to see results. While our first post concerned the doubt that anyone was at the receiving end of our prayers, this final point of doubt emanates from the perception that the figure at the receiving end exists, but doesn’t care or love.
As answers to our requests fail to appear, resentment toward this “God of Love” grows. When we don’t get answers we feel un-Loved, even foolish. As we see or hear of others receiving answers to their prayers, externally no different than the ones we offered, we may develop a suspicion of “favoritism” in regards to God and his “answers.” The, “why not me?” question brings everything we once believed about God into question.
This is where we start to see the world in terms of “favorite children,” whose wishes are granted, versus “the other children,” who get nothing back. We begin to judge God, and eventually to absent ourselves from the dialogue of prayer altogether. Due to the absence of results and the absence of “answers,” we can feel completely suspicious and bitter toward the act of prayer in general. In the place of peace and clarity that prayer is supposed to provide are doubt, suspicion and anger. Prayers made from this perspective become nothing more than birthday wishes, without the appeal of delicious cake to follow.
Heard before spoken
The act of prayer is always attached to the need for something. Praying to God firmly establishes the foundation that we are in need or in want of something that we cannot attain on our own. This means that prayer is often “option B,” where we toss our desires into the hands of someone who might, possibly, achieve the impossible. When we pray we are praying for miracles that are clearly beyond our reach.
When we think of miracles as beyond our experience, our faith in the impossible becoming possible is limited. Likewise, our understanding of our prayer life is limited.
We see it around us every day: in the world, impossibility is limitless. We expect the expected and doubt the unexpected. When we take inventory of the problems we decide to pray about, we see numerous problems with very few answers. We see limitless obstacles with limited solutions. With this outlook, when we do pray, we find only enough faith or hope to pray for one or two things at one given moment. Although God claims to be the healer of the broken and the achiever of the impossible, we buy into the idea that only a few impossible things are possible even for him. Thus, our prayers, and what we feel the need to pray for, are limited along with everything else. We might be completely aware of something that needs healing, however, our limited view of possible solutions limits our petitions and we withhold our request.
The Gospels display certain characteristics of the healing nature of Jesus. While grace and love are constant, we must also consider the foreknowledge he always possessed of the problems he faced. Jesus always desired more healing than any one person expected, and always thought ahead of the person requesting help. Even before meeting a particular person face to face, Jesus had already set in motion a chain of healing events that would line up perfectly with one particular person. Jesus always desired more. When he healed he always achieved more than people expected. Even more than the person asking for help, Jesus always saw where the healing was most needed and how to maximize that healing in the person’s life, and in the lives of those around them, in ways they would have never expected themselves. It is then no surprise that this desire of Jesus is a constant trait in the character of God from the beginning. Being the creator God that he claims to be, he has more knowledge and understanding of our situations than we could ever attain. This larger effect of healing is similar to the way medication works its way through the body. As the medication enters the bloodstream and rapidly flows throughout the body there emerges a widespread sense of “healing,” not only restricted to the particular area of pain, but throughout the entire body.
God wants to work in a similar fashion. We might have one prayer that we most desperately wish to be answered, but God has twenty more that he desires to answer, if only we would have faith and simply trust that he in fact does desire for us to be completely and thoroughly healed.
Our culture makes it easy to take on a limited view of prayer. While this attitude is understandable, it is not scriptural. The scriptures do not portray a world of limitless problems and limited solutions. On the contrary, the scriptures describe a God that came into our world to eradicate the “problems” we face, bringing us into a life of limitless healing.
Believing what is spoken
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.
The Unspoken Answer
We previously discussed the idea that people lose faith in prayer due to the absence of answers to their prayers. For some people the lack of change in a given situation is proof that the entire process is unreliable. However, this approach to prayer limits and confines God and the way he responds, only leaving room for answers that satisfy us personally. To approach a limitless God with limitation is to ascribe to God characteristics more like our own than like his. And if God is more like us and less like who he claims to be, belief is altogether hopeless. If he is like us, he is incapable of achieving the impossible, and offers us nothing at all. The mere act of prayer is built upon the assumption that God is, in fact, not like us, but is something more.
For many, the absence of change after fervent and committed prayer seems to make the case that God has not responded at all and will not in the future. The problem with this approach is that by limiting the time in which and the method by which God can produce a result likewise limits the growth which, perhaps, God has intended for us to experience during this painful waiting period.
When we find ourselves facing a seemingly impossible situation, that appears to be without solution or cure, we have two options. The first is to quit and close down. By following this option one might become bitter, resentful and angry. The result of a shutdown is isolation from people who care, and from the things in which they once found joy and hope. The second option is to keep going and to open outward. Pressing onward in the face of a challenge is always the tougher option. It requires intense endurance, strength and patience. While it is harder, those who persevere and endure through difficulty do not often regret that choice.
We learn the most about ourselves and about life when we proceed through setbacks and find greater lessons and development beyond. The absence of immediate rescue does not imply a God who does not answer. Intense sufferings is loud and disruptive, but when we are waiting on an answer to prayer we often expect the answer to be just as loud. As we wait in silence, God speaks with a “still, small voice.” There are times when God allows the silence so that we are able to hear His voice.
There are several instances in the Gospels where Jesus explains to his disciples that if they believe in him completely, anything they ask for will be given to them. This is an amazing promise, but it creates a dangerous trap for some Christians if they leave their understanding of Jesus’ teaching at this incomplete stage. Jesus’ desire to provide for his disciples is taught repeatedly during his ministry. But to assume that anything we ask for, no matter what, will be given to us, is to leave this promise incomplete, to relegate Jesus to the level of the “Genie in the Lamp.” Jesus did make this promise to answer prayers. However, he also said that he would not give to us as the world gives.
In other words, the solution we see to our troubles might not be the solution that God sees. For example, a person might think that getting a sought-after job will bring them joy and confidence. So, they proceed to pray to God to get the job. Perhaps God knows that this job will ultimately create more stress, and leave the thirst for true joy and confidence unsatisfied. If this person believes that God promised to give them everything he or she asked for, they may well resent God when they fail to get the job. Such a person fundamentally misunderstands God’s will and desire. The promises of God are not to give us the things we most desire or the relationship we most long for. While those things might bring us temporary joy and happiness, the desire of God is to heal us at our deepest level, to fulfill our longing for joy and happiness in Him.
As children, we wanted everything we saw in the toy store, but most likely did not get everything we asked for. While this created tension between our parents and us at the time, not getting everything we asked for taught us more than we could have foreseen at the time, and nurtured a more complete growth in us as healthy individuals who would have become very different people had we been given everything.
Prayer is a vital and permanent part of the life of a Christian. It is found throughout the entire Bible, and attempting to avoid it while trying to follow the Bible is impossible. To be a Christian is to inherently be associated with prayer at all times, as Jesus demonstrated. Jesus made a clear priority of prayer in his daily life, spoke often about prayer and insisted that his followers share his need for prayer in their lives as well. But praying is not simply to be done out of reflexive obedience. Prayer is a dialogue that is both powerfully real and powerfully effective. Prayer is not simply hoping for the best or wishing for the miraculous. Prayer is a conversation. It is the expression of a heart’s desire to someone who, though already possessing perfect knowledge, cares to listen and desires to help. It is not confined to a schedule, or limited by superstition, like a birthday party, a shooting star, or a bedside. Prayer is ongoing. Prayer is ever-present. Jesus was constantly in prayer and he called his disciples to be as well.
A good conversation is not easily had but always cherished. It escapes the bonds of time and creates communication that could go on forever. Many people never experience the beauty of prayer as a conversation between God and us due to the silence at the other end of the line.
While the silence is unavoidable and we will never literally hear the voice of God, it is from within the stillness of the soul and the silence of the heart that God promises to speak. He promised not to give to us as the world does, and this relates to the way we are meant to hear his voice. A friend telling us to “take it easy” will sound comforting in the moment, but as we part ways and the conversation comes to a close, our soul remains restless and our mind uneasy. Perhaps, while God’s words remain unheard in prayer, the true answer of peace is in what we feel that validates his response and not what we hear with our physical ears. A prayer left without audible or visible response does not necessarily mean a conversation left unheard. God promises to listen and promises healing for our pain.
The question we must ask is, “Do we really believe?” Or, when we sit down to pray, is the façade simply the physical act of praying? In which things do we place more confidence, birthday candles or God? Perhaps the analogy seems silly or childish, but just as our entire approach to God and the Gospels of Jesus is grounded in faith, we must ask ourselves honestly if there is faith in our prayers, or mere fantasy, ritual and superstition.