I saw a friend ask this question on my Facebook feed recently. Given that God has seen fit to grant me a minuscule glimpse of an understanding of prayer during my few adult years, I immediately thought of a crucial Scripture that addresses the question.
We all struggle for things in this life. Victory, deliverance, breakthrough, blessing, healing, bounty, hearts’ desires. It’s a tricky high-wire to walk, for no matter what some people tell you, the Christian life is not all about these things. George Herbert wrote,
To be in both worlds full
Is more than God was, who was hungry here.
Are we to believe a servant is greater than his master? The Bible doesn’t stutter: not every prayer will be granted in this life, not every hardship averted. And that is both curse and privilege. We simply must start there. If you can’t accept that word, your life will be a shattering staccato of foiled expectations. If you can, you’ll have room to turn to Jesus, finding him to be the ultimate prize that can never be stolen.
I’ve also learned not to put limits on God’s generosity. He is scandalously generous. Sometimes the church, in its frustration with the masses grasping for “prosperity” and deaf to all else, will race to the other extreme and quietly throw cold water on blessing of any kind. (This really is a thing. Just observe your reaction if I write the phrase “bold prayer”. You instantly pull up and worry: Is this right? Respectful? Scriptural?) But it buries a great truth: God does answer prayer. The Bible speaks of many such times, and seems to hold them out to us rather excitedly. God can teach us about himself through a “yes”, grow closer to us through a “yes”, as well as a “no”.
But this merely yields another problem: our cynicism. Where is this generosity? Our experiences don’t match up to the awesome power God wields in the Bible – yet. “This is reality,” we want to say. “God doesn’t do that stuff anymore.”
I certainly want to believe. What is reality, really, if God is your God?
But regardless of how many stories we hear about provisions and breakthroughs that are tough to pass off as science or coincidence, something in our hearts has a hard time with faith. Some of us have been left feeling fed up with hope; some of us are just down-to-earth by nature. We feel stuck between reality and faith, between hope and surrender. “If I’m going to undertake any long season of hope and prayer about something,” we say, “then I want to know I’m grounded in reality. I want to know I’m not losing my mind.”
You could have been friends with Abraham. God gave him a crucial key to faith in the midst of realism (or is it the other way around?)
Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. (Romans 4:18-21)
This is great stuff. Abraham is facing the facts. He’s not naive. He makes no bones about the fact that he will soon be nothing but, as will Sarah. The promise of a son looks bleak at this point, if they’re playing by the world’s rules. Most nonagenarians aren’t walking around buying maternity clothes. But we know they were playing by God’s rules, and the promise was fulfilled.
So what separates that situation from ours? From the misled expectations and disappointments we know, in which the rules of the world carry the day?
God is real. His power is real. What’s not real are our expectations, and that’s why we end up disappointed. It’s safe to say that securing an explicit promise from God on something would make faith easier. If God has promised to do something in your life, he will do it. It’s that simple.
Of course, the problem there is that we don’t know which promises to take to the bank. Otherwise, we’d probably have an easier time praying. It’s like asking someone for help in looking for your lost shoe, and the person goes, “Where did you see it last?” WELL, IF I KNEW THAT…
We also assume God isn’t telling us what promises to expect. We assume he’s leaving us to walk the world blind, without any idea how to pray. We shrug and say, “I guess this is walking by faith, not by sight”. Maybe. I myself have quoted Oswald Chambers: “Have you been asking God what He is going to do? He will never tell you. God does not tell you what He is going to do— He reveals to you who He is.” He does this to sanctify us. If we have the plan, we have no need for faith. If we have no plan, we have to trust – and first learn – his character. A high goal, one he’s absolutely committed to.
But – as much as I love that quote – I’m not sure, Biblically speaking, that Chambers is always right about God withholding the plan.
God flat-out told Abraham what he was going to do. He told a lot of people. He told some of his apostles how they were going to die, for goodness’ sake. Read through the Bible sometime and observe how many times God gave his plan away, or at least the end goal. Sometimes it took centuries; sometimes empires rose and fell before the fulfillment; some promises are still on their way. But they are all trustworthy. For all our assumptions about how close God holds his cards, there are times it suits his glory to lay them all out.
I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15)
Jesus gave his disciples some incredible kingdom promises in that chapter, including some that would be fulfilled within that very year, such as Pentecost. It was enough of an “info dump” to really shake up our beliefs about God’s generosity. WikiLeaks has nothing on Jesus.
Have you asked him what to expect in your situation?
I mean, why would we put months and years of wrenching prayer into something without knowing what God’s goal is? It doesn’t make sense, when you think about it. (John Eldredge changed my thinking on this permanently in his book Moving Mountains.) We do it mainly because of our assumptions – that God isn’t really speaking to us, that he isn’t offering much, that our prayers don’t factor in anyway, all that un-Biblical stuff – and thus, well, we suppose we have to pray blind. And then, after a few letdowns, we get discouraged and start thinking “Ugh, hope sucks. Just accept reality.”
Maybe God isn’t the problem. (He never is.) Maybe our expectations are.
Have you inquired of God lately, as David did?
I make no guarantees on what cards God will show you. Just this month I was pestering God for some more details about his plan in certain areas, and he chose to reply by gobsmacking me, from multiple angles, with this very Abraham story. You don’t need the plan, Brandon. You need to wait and trust me. It was frustrating, and that’s how I know it was God. He’s chipping away at my idols, and yes, needing every detail of the plan can be an idol. But there have been other times where he did tell me where he was going, and how to pray. What a relief to be getting down on my knees actually knowing what God wants!
This how to be realistic in prayer: know what God wants. Ask him. We know we don’t get everything. But we have a generous God deciding what we do get. We have the knowledge that whatever path he chooses is the optimal path. And any promises that we hear, that pass the Scripture tests, and that ideally get confirmation from other believers, are promises we can trust.