My old mother used to say, ‘Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.’
But it was a lesson learned the hard way by the ancient Israeli people not long after they were freed from their over four hundred years captivity in Egypt.
You can read the story in the Old Testament book of Numbers. The nation had come right up to the boundary of the Promised Land but they were afraid to trust God and so they cried out, ‘If only we had died in Egypt or in this wilderness,’ and what do you know, God gave them their request.
As a child, I was taught that prayer is asking God for what we want, what we think we need, or what we think is best for us, but while it is right and good that we should pray, we should follow the example Jesus gave us as he prayed in Gethsemane. His life was in danger, wicked men were atthe very gate, about to arrest him to have him crucified, and yet he could add to the deep cry of his heart, ‘Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.’ That can only ever be said by a trusting heart.
I often think of a motorcycle accident that happened just outside my home a couple of decades ago. The low winter sun had dazzled a young motor cyclist and he didn’t see the lorry parked at my door. The boy didn’t stand a chance and as I cradled his head in my arms, he breathed his last just moments before his distraught parents arrived. It was a scene that I shall never forget. The twenty-one year old lad had pleaded for months for a motor bike for his birthday, and his parents reluctantly acceded to his persistent requests. He knew best, he could recite a dozen reasons why he should have a motor bike, but now his parents wept bitter ‘if only’ tears.
Isn’t it arrogant in the extreme for us to present God with our wish lists when he has said, “Don’t worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For Pagans run after all these things, and your Heavenly Father knows you need them.”
So what then is prayer? I think it can be summed it up in a single word; relationship. There’s a wonderful story in Genesis 18 in which you can trace Abraham’s trajectory from, ‘God, I know what’s best here. You have to do it this way!’ to the place where if you listen carefully you can hear his unspoken whisper, ‘Nevertheless, not my will...’
God had decided to flatten Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham began to try to manipulate the situation; ‘Far be it for you to do such a thing - to the treat the righteous and the wicked alike. Will not the judge of all the earth do right?’
And over the following period of time - we’re not told how long - a bartering attempt took place that began with Abraham saying, ‘What if there are fifty righteous people there...’ and ended with God agreeing, ‘Ok, if I find just ten people there I will not destroy it.’ But don’t you detect a touch of predictability as the story ends with the words, ‘When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.’
The fact that God did what he said he would do does not mean that the prayer of Abraham was futile, no, for it brought him to the place where he saw the situation from God’s perspective. It might take half a lifetime for you and me to develop that depth of relationship of trust, but wouldn’t it be wonderful?