People are brought to prayer out of need. When we’re knocked to our knees, prayer seems like the thing to do no matter how devout you are. Even agnostics are willing to roll the dice. We go to God in need. In the Large Catechism, Luther says it is this earnestness that makes true prayer.
Still, when we pray focusing chiefly on what we want, prayer takes some dark turns. The more I need something, the less picky I am about where it comes from. Those really serious prayers? Cure him. Fix this. Make them love each other again. I’ll take answers to those from some awful ungodly places. It’s not just the idolatry of it all, but it’s who I’m willing to see hurt in order to see mine taken care of. That’s the thing about super villains. It usually isn’t that they want to see others hurt. It’s just that they want something else even more. So they mutter something about making omelets while they destroy the world to get what they want. Would I steal to feed my starving family? Yep, but that doesn’t make stealing good. My daily bread is supposed to come from God, not at the expense of someone else starving.
But even when we look only to God for help, when the answer to our prayer is all we have in mind, it still leaves God looking like the bad guy. Prayer becomes oppositional. God has it. I need it. How do I get it? All the while I’ll wonder about why He hasn’t already given it to me. Is there a plan? Because He’s not telling me what it is, and I’m scared. Is He not paying attention, lazy, or just not a good God? I better pray a lot, and really mean it this time to convince Him to actually help me. If that doesn’t work, I better get lots of other people to pray for me too. I’ll ask strangers on Facebook for prayers with the assumption they love me more than God does, because they’re willing to take 2 seconds to throw up a prayer, but the God who could fix this with just a word doesn’t seem willing. Let’s pester Him or wrestle Him or outnumber Him into actually being a good God. Really? You can trust in the power of prayer all you want to, but if you trust prayer more than you trust God to love you in the first place, it says more about you than the God you’re afraid isn’t answering.
We go to God in need, and sometimes that need becomes our idol. Our everything. The thing we fear, love, and trust in above all things. So much so that we forget who our God is in the first place. So we aren’t taught to pray based on what we need, but based on who God is. When Jesus teaches us to pray, He doesn’t say start with what you need, but start like this: Our Father who art in heaven. With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.
Pray based on the character of God. Pray based on the apostle’s creed. Pray based on the God who would not just create us, but come into our world broken by our sin and suffer our wants and our ills and our death upon a cross, only to conquer sin, death, and the power of the devil and rise again. Pray based on the God who is present in the Holy Christian church, who doesn’t just sit in heaven and drop prizes down to the kids who get enough shares on some facebook prayer chain, but bears with us in this world and carries us to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Pray based on the God who is present in His word and sacraments to help and save, to tie us to something bigger than ourselves and our current want. Because prayer isn’t about changing God’s mind. It isn’t about getting stuff from God. Prayer is about comfort. Comfort that God is not far away. He does care. And He has already answered.
You pray to the God who would not abandon you, but would die for you and conquer what we thought was undefeatable. Death is destroyed. In the resurrection, cancer has claimed 0 victims. Wade through broken relationships all you want, the cross speaks forgiveness louder. You have a Father in heaven who actually loves you.
Prayer is a reminder of who Your God is. It is a recounting of all the ways He has helped, is now helping, and will continue to do so. Prayer tunes us into the idea that God actually loves us, so we have something to hang on to in the face of losing so much else. The Small Catechism shows the Lord’s Prayer to be a retelling of God’s own promises, and a remembrance of where the answers are given. It shows prayer isn’t a burden, but a gift. We pray to the God who actually loves us.
Sometimes He says yes. Sometimes He doesn’t. But He is our Father, and we are His children, and God takes care of His kids. Maybe when I tell my own children “no” it isn’t out of malice, laziness, or incompetence, but something else. Maybe when I say it, it breaks my heart too, but I love them too much to subject them to what they’re asking for, or what having it all the time would turn them into. Maybe if I can manage that, the God who’s much smarter and much less evil can do way better. And maybe God doesn’t need all the things we think He does to get us through this life.
I won’t pretend to know why He hasn’t healed the people closest to you. But I do know that He’s already conquered death and given us that life in the very baptism that made us His children in the first place. God’s will is life, and if He has to work it in the face of death, He will. God’s will is to care for you, and He’ll get you through with or without the stuff we think we need. God’s will is done even without our prayer, the comfort is that God’s will is actually good, and God’s will is even now done among us also. Not just that it will be done someday in heaven after we don’t need help anymore, but that He works even here and now among us also. We pray based on the character of God so that we would have this comfort in the face of need. Because as great as my need is, my God is greater. We have a Father in heaven who loves us.