It might seem rather flippant to ponder what happens when, for example, the football teams of Argentina and Uruguay meet, and large portions of the population of each country pray for their team to win. What does God do? When one team wins, does it say anything about the prayer life of that country, or of the losing one?
Well, it might be fanciful, but it actually says a lot about how we approach prayer. Don’t we often treat prayer as a shopping list, or to-do list, for God? Is it a way to try to change the mind of God (there are biblical precedents)? Is it a reaction to what happens, or a negotiation with God (there are biblical precedents for that, too)? Is it a knock on a door that opens to the things we want, or to the things that we don’t even know we need? Does prayer makes things happen, or does it change our perception of the way things are? What about prayers that seem to go unanswered?
The subject of prayer presents many questions. It’s easy to resort to a sort of score-keeping – prayers for healing that did not happen, peace that was shattered by violence, and so on. Even worse, we presume to judge other people based upon our perception of their answered prayers.
And what about answered prayers? Do we remember to be thankful? How often do we keep track of them? Jesus is reported to have cured ten lepers – and only one came back to thank him. It’s probably about the average gratitude rate for humans today.
A lady once told me that she had been taught that she should only pray for something once. I had to disillusion her: Jesus invited and even instructed his followers to ask persistently. Persistent prayer invites us into a transformational relationship with God.
The earthy examples that Jesus used to illustrate his point are funny but have a serious point: prayer is meant to be something basic, part of day-to-day living, part of the regular relationship that God wants of us, something that becomes a continuing conversation.
So we come to the Lord’s prayer. “Teach us to pray,” said his disciples. So instead of hours or weeks of prayer workshops, Jesus, in a few well-chosen and very demanding words, gives his disciples a complete lesson on prayer.
Like the whole ministry of Jesus, the prayer is, in essence, a prayer for the well-being of the neighbour, especially given the use of the present tense for the coming of God’s kingdom and the doing of God’s will. To pray with confidence that the reign of God will be “now” changes a disciple’s priorities. What are we doing to do God’s will, to help God’s reign to come?
The question of seemingly unanswered prayers remains; but perhaps there are answers to our prayers that we don’t want to hear, along the lines of: what should we be doing, or not doing, that might contribute to, or impede God’s response to prayer? Perhaps we do not want to hear such answers as, “Why don’t you recognise that your lifestyle puts your health at risk?” or, “Why don’t you do something about seeking God’s desire for justice and peace, and peace through justice?” or, “Why do you tolerate injustice?” or, “Why won’t you accept that there is such a thing as climate change, and that you’re affecting, changing, damaging your planet, and its occupants in the process?” or, especially, “Don’t you know that football is only a game?!”
Don’t be afraid to pester God. God can take it. After all, persistent prayer comes with the promise of the presence of the Holy Spirit – a guide for open hearts and minds to be directed, ultimately, towards God’s will.