“I gave up praying when my goldfish died”
Those words of a girl in our youth group are probably the most honest thing I have ever heard anybody say about prayer. My friend’s pet fish was ailing and she prayed that it would recover. The goldfish died so she lost her confidence in prayer and abandoned her faith in God for a time. What I am pleading for is reality and honesty in our praying.
There is a world of difference between “saying our prayers” and true Christian prayer. Our “praying” is meaningless if we only say to God the kinds of things we think He wants to hear: good religious requests for suitably worthy causes. Sometimes we can find ourselves asking God for all kinds of things we don’t actually care about at all. We can pray for blessings for people we don’t know, just because these seem like good pious topics for prayer. There are no examples of that kind of prayer in the Bible at all. Prayers in the Bible, not least the Prayers of Lament we find in the Psalms, are completely honest.
Jesus makes this amazing promise. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. (John 15:7) God will give to disciples of Jesus, “whatever you wish for”: whatever you really want. But these have to be things we actually care about. Not just passing whims but things we long for with a passion.
Suppose one of my children came to me one day saying, “We saw a programme about children in Africa, there was this little girl who looked so hungry – I don’t know what her name was – she was only on for 10 seconds – but can we make sure she gets enough to eat and is never hungry again?” On the other hand, suppose instead she came day after day saying, “There’s this little girl in my class and I’m so sad because she always seems hungry and never has new clothes and says she doesn’t have any toys – can we help her please Daddy, please?” You know very well which request I would answer.
We can make the mistake of believing that it would be selfish to ask for things for ourselves, or for our family, or for our friends, or for our neighbours, or for our church. Some Christians seem to think that it is more spiritual to ask God for things on behalf of people who are half a world away, than it is to pray for ourselves and our nearest and dearest. That misunderstands prayer. Unless we really care about helping strangers in remote lands, unless we are passionate enough to send off a cheque, or unless we have friends working in those troubled areas, it is not deeply spiritual to say prayers about such people and places. Unless we really care about the requests we make, we aren’t really praying at all.
When you are asking God for something, try this test. You could even call it ‘the Goldfish Test’. Suppose God does not grant your request. Would you feel really sad, really disappointed, maybe a bit angry? Would you feel let down if God did not answer your prayers? If you would not, if life would go on just as before, if your relationship with God wasn’t affected in the slightest if God didn’t answer this particular prayer, then you aren’t really praying at all – you’re just saying prayers. As Thomas Brooks once said, “Cold prayers always freeze before they reach heaven”.
These lines from a hymn by S.S.Wesley make the point. “Let prayer be prayer, and praise be heartfelt praise; From unreality, O set us free”. We need to be completely honest with God about what we really want. True prayer is making requests where it will be very clear to everybody what answers God has given. Not beating about the bush. Not covering our bets. But specific requests for things we care about. We need to get real with God!