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Saturday, 7 September 2013

How do you answer prayers?

The word "pray" is usually used today in a religious context, as in to make a petition to God. However, the broader meaning of the word is an earnest request or entreaty, regardless of who is 'praying' and who is being 'prayed' to. Although uncommon in contemporary English, it can be used in strictly human-to-human requests, as in the expression "Pray tell."

Any earnest request made of us by another person could be called a "prayer", then, in the broad, non-religious sense of the word. As such, all of us are recipients of "prayers". Examples could include: 
  • Requests for material or financial assistance from beggars
  • Requests from coworkers or fellow students on a project or assignment
  • Requests from our kids to buy them something, take them somewhere, etc.
  • Requests for advice or moral support from a friend who is going through a difficult time  
  • Requests for forgiveness from a person who has wronged us
  • Cries for help from a person in danger
Many other examples could be added.

Now, Jesus in his teaching laid down an important principle concerning the relationship between how we treat others and how God treats us. In the context of judgment, the principle is stated thus: "For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you." (Matt. 7:2). In the context of forgiveness, the principle was illustrated by Jesus in the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matt. 18:23-35, and in the Lord's prayer in Matt. 6:12. In the context of deeds of kindness, the principle is illustrated in the picture of the Final Judgment given in Matt. 25:31-46.

I wonder whether we could not apply this principle in the context of prayer, here and now. We believe that God hears prayer (Ps. 65:2). We believe that God answers prayer; but not always. Why does he not always answer prayer? Partly because our prayers are sometimes bad (e.g. Luke 18:9-14; James 4:3) or not asked in faith (James 1:6-7). Partly because God knows better than us what our best interests are. In short, when we pray to God, he weighs our requests and makes a decision - a judgment - on whether to grant them.

Do we not do the same thing when we receive requests from our fellow human beings? Whether your child is asking you for a toy, a beggar is asking you for spare change or a friend is asking for advice, do you not weigh the request, and make a judgment call on whether, and how, to grant it?

And if God deals with us according to how we deal with others, may he not take into account how we answer the "prayers" of other people when considering how to answer our prayers?

When someone makes an earnest request of me, do I unselfishly respond in a way that seeks the best interests of the requester and all others involved? Or am I cynical and dismissive? The Scriptures make it clear that we cannot enjoy true fellowship with God while remaining insensitive to the needs of our neighbour (Matt. 22:37-39; James 3:9; 1 John 4:20-21).

Just as we trust that the eyes and ears of our Lord are open to our prayers (Ps. 34:15), so we ought to keep our eyes and ears open to the requests of those who call on us for help, doing all to the glory of the Lord.

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