Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

 

“CARLY’S PRAYER”

   Luke 18:1-8

  1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

     A girl by the name of Carly decided, at the age of eight, that what she needed more than any-

thing else in the world was her very own lap top computer.  Now she wasn’t interested in some

entry level, modestly-priced computer from Wal-Mart.  Like her friend Nicole, she wanted a super

nice, top-of-the-line laptop; the kind they bring on a truck.  Well, Carly’s single mother couldn’t

afford a laptop right then. Moreover, she thought that at eight, Carly was still a little young to

have her own computer anyway.  Plus, she had a set of files with games and the like on her mom’s

computer.  But Carly was a very persistent and determined little girl.  She decided that in addition

to nagging her mother, she needed to call in some reinforcement.  She would also nag God.

      Carly had concluded from something she’d heard in Sunday School that God will give us any-

thing we want, provided we ask for it in the right way.  We have to convince God that we’re really

serious, and that we won’t give in and go away until our prayers are answered. But we have to

demonstrate to God that we really need what we’re asking for.  In other words, as with our

parents, if we nag God long enough and hard enough, we’ll wear God down, and God will give in

to us just so we stop bugging Her.

      Carly’s is a very tempting, and a very common, way to view God, and to view prayer.  And not

just for little folks, but for us big folks as well.  This understanding of prayer is attractive and per-

vasive for a number of reasons; not the least of which is that it seems to put us in the driver’s seat. 

After all, to some degree, everyone wants to be in charge; to be masters of our own destiny. 

English pop rock band Tears for Fears sang back in 1985: “Everybody wants to rule the world.”

From Carly’s point of view, whether our prayers are satisfactorily answered really depends more

on us, and our dogged determination and persistence than it does on God’s will and providence.

If we only pray long enough, passionately enough, convincingly enough, we can get whatever we

want.

     The flip side of this understanding of prayer is that if we don’t get what we want, if our prayers

go seemingly unanswered, the blame somehow lies with us.  Perhaps we didn’t pray long enough,

or passionately enough, or convincingly enough for God to finally cave and grant our wish, not

unlike a celestial genie whose bottle was not rubbed in just the right way.

      It’s unfortunate that the teaching of the modern church – often in evangelical circles – per-

petuates this view of how God works, and how prayer to God works.  Much of television

evangelism in fact, which has become church for many of the present era – and even moreso in

this COVID season -- sells this version of the gospel sometimes called “Name it, claim it.” Accor-

ding to this view, we need only speak the word in the name of Jesus, and God is obliged and

bound by God’s own word to make it come to pass.  This narrow and simplistic interpretation of

Matthew chapter 7, wherein it is written “Ask, and it will be given you,” has garnered great popu-

lar appeal among an entitlement-driven generation of Christians, who are tempted to claim it all;

want it all; deserve it all.

      I’m sure we’ve all heard someone way, or have said to ourselves:  “If only I’d had more faith,

things would have turned out differently.  If I’d only prayed harder, then maybe God would have

changed the course of events in my favor.  Had I only known the right words to say, perhaps I

could have convinced God to heal my husband, my mother, my child.”  I remember like it was yes-

terday, when my father passed away over twenty years ago, my nephew Rob who was eleven at

the time telling me in the family limousine on the way to the committal service something to the

 

effect that he must not have prayed right for his pap pap; otherwise, pap pap wouldn’t have died. 

At that time, he was inconsolable, and could not be convinced otherwise.

     At times, it seems our perception of God is more akin to that of an unrighteous judge, who has

to be coaxed, or badgered, or bought off rather than of a perfect Parent who longs to respond in

perfect love to our deepest needs.  Consider the judge in the parable Jesus told.  This local magis-

trate cared nothing for the widow or her desperate circumstances.  His care revolved around him-

self and his bench as he “neither feared God nor had respect for people.”  This self-centered

judge didn’t ultimately answer the widow’s request because he was moved by mercy or compass-

sion, or had any real interest in serving justice.  He granted her request for one reason:  he simply

wanted to get rid of her.  She was jamming his docket and making his life miserable.  Tired of her

constant nagging, worn out by her incessant begging, he gave her what she wanted to get her off

his back.  In some respects, that’s the theory of prayer as illustrated in Carly’s story.  That’s often

how we view God; as if God is someone we have to coax, or badger, or buy off so that things will

be adjudicated in our favor.  If we only pray long enough, passionately enough, convincingly

enough, our prayers will be answered as ordered. 

      But Jesus says “No.”  Through a brilliant use of contrast within the body of the parable, intro-

duced by the words “Listen to what the unjust judge says.  And will not God…..,” Jesus makes it

clear that the judge’s way is not God’s way, nor is this how God or prayer to God works.  God is

not like a cold, unfeeling magistrate who will give in to our prayers just to be rid of us and our

constant pestering.  In stark contrast to the judge, God loves us and hears our prayers with

sensitivity and compassion. The Lord, unlike the judge, will not delay long over them; withholding

an answer out of sheer stubbornness, waiting for us to come up with a magic formula, or some

rightly-ordered incantation.  God doesn’t hold back until our faith is up to par, or our righteous-

ness righteous enough.  God hears us, and our answers come readily.

      Now we might argue, “How can that be?”  We all know of, and have ourselves this very day,

prayers that we think have gone unheard, unattended, unanswered.  How can it be that God has

in fact heard, and is answering.  I believe that at times – perhaps most times -- answers to our

prayers are not obvious or evident to us.  I knew a woman in a previous parish I served who had

gone through an extremely troubled time in her young adult life.  She had been the victim of harsh

abuse as a child, and was convinced she was totally unlovable by her uber religious family; that

she was somehow a vile and evil person who deserved judgment, not even worthy to live.  But one

thing which remained surprisingly constant through her darkest nights – from childhood into

adulthood – is that she prayed.  She prayed for God to show her some sign of love.  She prayed for

God to heal her troubled soul.  She prayed for God to show her a way that she could manage to

live on.  She prayed for God to take away her pain. But day after day, she would wake up and the

pain would still be there; untended and unabated.  Yet against it all, day after day, she continued

to pray.  She danced with alcohol and drugs.  She went through an agonizing process of counseling

and therapy, dredging up and facing her most painful memories.  A number of relationships came

and went before she met a kind and gentle man, who himself had endured abuse, and who even-

tually became her husband.  At the time I knew her, she was able to look back and see how God

had been dealing with her all along – hearing and attending her prayers – protecting her from

others and themselves, just giving her the strength to put one foot in front of the other.  She 

recognized in hindsight that God had been at work; not obvious at the time, nor in ways she

wanted or had imagined, but in a loving, caring, certainly more perfect way.

19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard once said that “Life can only

be understood backwards, but must be lived forward.”  The same could be said of prayer.  Some-

times – maybe even more often than not – answers to our prayers only become clear as we look

in the rear view.  In the here and now, we tend to not recognize or discern God’s response.  The

windshield is coated with road dirt and grime, bugs and droppings.  And yes, many of us are still

waiting for the answer to be revealed; for the wipers to do their job.  But Jesus says, rest assured,

God is at work.  God’s not holding back, waiting for us to get it right, or hesitating until we finally

wear God down. 

      Carly, by the way, is now twelve years old.  And she still doesn’t have that super nice laptop. 

Yet she’s still praying.  But on a more serious note, many people don’t get the particular healing

they pray for so fervently for themselves or for loved ones.  Rob’s ardent prayers for his pap pap

didn’t bring the healing we’d all hoped for.  Nor did my and our family’s passionate prayers for

my mother years later bring her back after her heart arrested and she had to be intubated. Still,

we are taught to be persistent in our prayers and not become discouraged.  Why?  I don’t believe

the answer lies in the fact that if we remain persistent, we can somehow force God’s hand, and

make God give in and grant our wishes.  Instead, I believe that at least part of the reason we

should “pray without ceasing,” as Paul directed the church in Thessalonica, lies in the practice and

discipline of prayer itself, and what it is that prayer does.  Prayer places us in the very presence

and intimacy of God; in vital relationship with that Divine Force; in the healing, loving company of

our Creator.  Prayer can serve to shift our attention away from ourselves, and can refocus us on

the One to whom we pray; away from the temporal and fleeting, and on the eternal and abiding. 

This is, in itself, a beginning of deep healing and wholeness.

      Please understand that we don’t pray because our sovereign God needs or depends on our

prayers to move or bug God into action; although – unlike some unjust judge -- God is most

pleased when we come to Him in prayer. We should pray persistently for the sake of our relation-

ship with the Almighty; as a way to exercise our faith and to build ourselves up spiritually.  And

the more we devote ourselves to nurturing our relationship with the Lord, the more our eyes,

minds and hearts will be able to discern God’s answers.  As we pray, we find ourselves not in the

presence of an uncaring judge, but in kinship with the One who loves and cares for us more than

we can begin to comprehend or imagine.  And you know, this may be in and of itself the main

answer we need.  God is at work, even when we can’t see it.  And God will not delay long in

helping us.

Holy God, righteous Judge and merciful Redeemer, help us in our prayer lives that we may be

confident of Your hearing.  While so much is not evident in this moment, may our faith provide

a bridge, on the other side of which we’ll see clearly how You’ve been at work all along, and

for one reason alone:  that You love us.  Thank You!  Amen.