1. God always answers my prayers…
…that’s what Pastor Price said. We’d been attending his church, Crenshaw Christian Center, a nondenominational, charismatic, word of faith, church in Los Angeles, for a few years. We’d recently moved to the old Pepperdine University Campus at 79th and Vermont, in south central Los Angeles, to accommodate the church’s growth. The Church had plans for a large auditorium but at that time we were meeting in an old theater style building on the campus, and having 3 services on Sunday mornings. We, Becky and I, were sitting a little towards the back of the middle, on the left hand side, when Pastor Price said, “God always answers my prayers.”
Pastor Price didn’t mean it in that trite, sanctimonious, ‘Sometimes he says yes, sometimes he says no, sometimes he says wait a while,’ way. He meant God always said “Yes,” to his prayers, God always gave him what he asked for when he prayed. When I heard it I thought, ‘I wish God always answered my prayers.’
So Admiral Stockdale was a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton from 1965 to 1973. During that time he was tortured over twenty times. As the senior officer he established systems to help the other prisoners survive their captivity, including a system for dealing with torture and for communicating through coded taps. When Collins, the author of Good To Great, asked the Admiral how he survived such horrible conditions with no certainty of ever being released, with no certainty as to “the end of the story.” Stockdale replied,
“ I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which , in retrospect, I would not trade.”
Stockdale survived because he had faith that he would eventually get out. But the next question Collins asked is the one that gave rise to this post.
“ ‘Who didn’t make it out?’ ‘ Oh, that’s easy,’ he said, ‘The optimists.’ ”
This answer confused Collins and it confused me too. On the one hand he says it was his faith in the certainty of his survival which resulted in his survival, on the other he says the ones who didn’t survive were the optimists. At first the statements seemed contradictory. Stockdale explained,
“ ‘ The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ and Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.’ … ‘This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose– with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.’”
Faith, real faith, is not moved by the circumstances good or bad. Faith rests on something greater than the circumstances, God's will. If we allow ourselves to be moved by even good news rather than staying fixed on the promise of God we could well end up like the optimistic prisoners of war who died of a broken heart.
Romans 4:19-21 “19 And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb: 20 He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; 21 And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.”
Here's a nice testimony of answered prayer, from Ms. Martha, recorded in real time. Here's how it started last Monday morning:
I immediately texted back so that she'd know I received her text.
But I was a worried. She needed that car. Was she going to be able to get to work, take the kids to school? She lives about 20 miles from Mexicali so the first imagination that came to my mind was the thief driving the car into Mexico. Nobody at the border would know it was stolen.
I began to pray in the spirit. Paul says in Romans 8:26-28 that the spirit will help us to pray, when we don't know how to pray, with "sighs to deep for words,". So I prayed in tongues, in the spirit. Paul continues, that if we search our heart we'll know what the spirit is praying so that we can "intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."
I'm praying in the spirit and searching my heart so I can know what God wants me to pray, more precisely, what God wants me to say. By prayer here I don't mean asking God for something, I mean speaking to the mountain in faith, I mean decreeing God's will in the world.
As I'm praying I get something in my heart... but I'm hesitant because by sight it doesn't seem possible, so at 6:34 I text this instead:
But I always ask Becky to agree in prayer with me according to:
Matthew 18:19 (NIV) Again, truly I tell you, that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my father in heaven.
I like to put that verse this way, If two of you shall be in agreement with respect to anything you decree on the earth, it will be done for you of my father in heaven.
Becky knows I expect her to say, or decree, the same thing I'm saying. We're speaking to the mountain, we're decreeing God's will in the earth, we're exercising the authority of Jesus. So I tell Becky, "Her car's going to turn up," and Becky says, "Her car's going to turn up."
I continue to pray about it for the rest of the day. When Chrisy gets home from school I ask her to with agree me. I tell her, "Say, Ms. Martha's car is going to turn up in, Jesus name," and Chrisy says, "Ms. Martha's car is going to turn up, in Jesus name."
So by that point in the day I'm pretty certain what my spirit is saying, what my heart is saying, what God, speaking to me in my spirit, is saying, about the situation, so I text Martha again:
The next morning I get this text:
Praise God. God is good. God wants to answer your prayers.
6. We have a part to play.
I missed what Jesus meant, when he said Ask and it shall be given you, because I had a wrong picture of how prayer works. I imagined prayer as a one sided transaction, kind of like, asking your boss for a raise, or a promotion. You make your request and then wait to find out what the boss’s decision is. That’s how most of us picture prayer, we make our request and then it’s completely in God’s hands, we sit back and wait for God to do His God stuff. Since we imagine that God’s “Yes,” is the only obstacle to our prayer being answered, our entire prayer effort is focused on getting God’s Yes. We dream up all manner of schemes for getting God to Yes. We try begging, or crying, or bargaining, or asking a million people to pray with us. We try asking over and over and over and over and over again, in hopes of getting God to Yes.
But it turns out that’s not how it works. Jesus has let us know what God’s answer will be, he’s already told us that when we ask it will be given to us, so prayer is not all about getting God to, Yes, God’s already on Yes, God wants to answer our prayers.
God’s not the hang up.
You can see the point a little more clearly in the Epistle of James
Sometime after I saw that Jesus really meant what he was saying in Matthew 7:7-8, I was again meditating on it, trying to figure it out, trying to understand it, trying to understand how it worked:
“Ask and it will be given to you… For everyone who asks receives…”
Just going over it again, and again, repeating it to myself, thinking about it. As I was doing this, I think I might have been upset by an unanswered prayer, I thought, ‘But this, obviously, isn’t true.’ I talked to Jesus about it, “Jesus what you’re saying here is obviously not true. Lots of people ask and as far as they can tell it’s not given to them. Most people ask and don’t receive. What you’re saying here is obviously not true. I don’t understand.”
It was pretty unsettling. It seemed to me to be some sort of Bible failure, something that proved that these weren’t the words of Jesus, or something that demonstrated that the Bible wasn’t true. I’m not saying I couldn’t dream up rationalizations which explained it all away, I could, I’m a lawyer, I’m professionally trained to dream up rationalizations, but if I was honest with myself I realized that what Jesus was saying was obviously not true.
So I just set it aside, letting it percolate in the back of my mind.
3. I Saw It
So I was meditating on what Jesus said about prayer in Matthew 7:7-8 repeating to myself,
“ask and it shall be given you,”
over and over, thinking about it, sometimes the second part,
“for everyone that asked receiveth,”
sometimes both together,
“Ask and it shall be given you…for every one that asketh receiveth….”
After a while of focusing on this part, and I mean days and weeks, not minutes, I decided to make it personal, so I could think about what it would mean if this applied to me, personally. So I began to meditate on it this way:
When I ask it is given to me,
when I ask it is given to me,
when I ask it is given to me…
for everyone that asketh receiveth and I’m an everyone.
It was while meditating this way that I saw what Jesus was saying.
Jesus was saying that God would give me what I asked for when I prayed, that God would do that for everyone, God would give everyone, what they asked for when they prayed. I realized then, I remember chuckling about it because it seemed so obvious, that, that’s what Pastor Price had been saying, those many years before, when he said, “God always answers my prayers.”
Few things are as scary to religious folks as taking God at his word. Religious people would get so upset when Pastor Price said, “God always answers my prayers.” You should see the comments I get on YouTube when I tell people that Jesus said, when they ask it will be given to them. And the thing is, It’s easy to see why Pastor Price, or anyone who actually read the Bible, would say God always answers my prayers, because it’s not just this one verse, that’s how the Bible always talks about prayer.
2. Ask and it shall be given you…
It was maybe 14-15 years after hearing Pastor Price say that God always answered his prayers, that I was meditating on this scripture:
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:8 For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened (Matthew 7:7-8 KJV)
I was repeating it out loud to myself, reading it, thinking about it, saying it, chewing on it you could say, over a period of days and weeks. At one point I began to focus on the first part of each verse, so that I was just repeating to myself:
Ask, and it shall be given you… For every one that asketh receiveth…
1. God always answers my prayers.
That’s what Pastor Price said. We’d been attending his church, Crenshaw Christian Center, a nondenominational, charismatic, word of faith, church in Los Angeles, for a few years. We’d recently moved to the old Pepperdine University Campus at 79th and Vermont, in south central Los Angeles, to accommodate the church’s growth. The Church had plans for a large auditorium but at that time we were meeting in an old theater style building on the campus, and having 3 services on Sunday mornings. We, Becky and I, were sitting a little towards the back of the middle, on the left hand side, when Pastor Price said, “God always answers my prayers.”
Pastor Price didn’t mean it in that trite, sanctimonious, ‘God always answers my prayers, sometimes he says yes, sometimes he says no, sometimes he says wait a while,’ way. He meant God always gave him what he asked for.
Another example, where righteousness doesn't mean righteousness.
Here's another example, in my continuing quest to demonstrate that righteousness in the Christian Scriptures does not mean righteousness. Here, you can see from the context that what is meant by righteousness is the Hebrew word tzedekah and it's meaning in the days of Jesus, alms or charity, or giving to the poor.
(This is the second chapter of a book I'm working on, God Wants To Answer Your Prayers, to encourage faith in prayer. Here's the first chapter.)
God wants to answer our prayers.
I didn’t know what to make of Jesus’s statement. I didn’t know how to reconcile, “for everyone who asks receives,” with reality. It seemed obvious that it wasn’t true. Was Jesus lying, was he mistaken, were these not really his words, was the Bible not really God’s Word, did these words not mean what they appeared to mean? So I put it on the shelf. From time to time I’d come back to it and try and understand.
Then one day I saw it.