In tomorrow’s sermon, I’m going to preach on Jesus’ seemingly difficult words in Matthew 7:7-11, in which Jesus speaks confidently about the efficacy of prayer. We’re going to explore the tension that exists between Jesus’ words and our own experience of prayer. But here’s an additional thought on the subject of prayer, specifically intercessory prayer, which I won’t be covering tomorrow.
In my line of work, I am inundated with prayer lists. Do you know what I’m talking about? Every staff meeting, every district clergy meeting, and every meeting with my fellow “provisional elders” begins with a time of sharing prayer requests. Moreover, I get a half-dozen emails every week from the North Georgia Conference asking me to pray for people, most of whom I do not know, who are sick or dying or whose loved ones are sick or dying. I’m often not sure what to do with these prayer lists. Of course intercessory prayer—literally interceding with God on someone else’s behalf—is good, important, and biblical. I do believe that God can love and bless others through our prayers. And yet…
The way we often do intercessory prayer in church raises questions in my mind: Is God more likely to intervene if more people are praying for that person? If God won’t intervene when only five people are praying, will God intervene when 50 or 500 people are praying? Is there any accountability here? Who’s keeping track of whether or not the people for whom we pray are getting the help we’re praying for? Are we afraid to keep track because—deep down—we don’t think this prayer makes much difference?
As you can tell, I struggle with this issue. And most of us have struggled with the challenge of unanswered prayer at some time in our lives. But consider this: for every unanswered prayer, there are thousands of prayers that God answers—or at least God would, if we bothered to pray them at all. In the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that Jesus gave us as a model to follow, there is this petition: “Give us this day our daily bread.” I am 39 years old. In the 14,479 days I have lived, I have never failed to receive my daily bread. I mostly don’t even think about where my bread will come from. Yet Jesus tells us that this bread, as humble and modest a gift as it may be, is a gift from a faithful and loving Father. This challenges me to consider all the other good gifts that God gives me every day, every hour, and every moment, which I also take for granted.
We may question why God doesn’t intervene for us in a particular case (the Psalms are filled with faithful people who question God in this way). As we do, however, let’s also appreciate that God is constantly intervening to meet our deepest needs at every moment.