As I write this, my mom is dying. We don’t know how much longer she has, but we’ve asked for prayers as she takes this journey toward death and resurrection. These are sometimes difficult prayers to make. We don’t like to see Mom suffering, but we don’t like the thought of separation through death, either. Our initial prayer would be for complete healing. But that’s not realistic, given that Mom has heart failure and is almost 90 years old. That doesn’t mean that God cannot or would not grant total healing. But we aren’t expecting that kind of miracle when we pray today.
For some people, our prayers seem meaningless. One of my classmates from school reacted to my request for prayer by saying, “I just wish that prayer DID something…” I take this to mean that if we don’t get a miraculous outcome, she believes our prayers are wasted. I hope I’m misinterpreting here, but I know that this is a common criticism of prayer in tough times. It seems that every time there is a natural disaster, or a mass shooting, people who offer “thoughts and prayers” are roundly criticized for praying “instead” of “doing.” As though the two are mutually exclusive. As though prayer is an empty gesture in the face of disaster and distress. As though there is no hope, no comfort, and no help in praying.
There are others who will assert with complete confidence their belief that God will answer any prayer for a miracle, simply because they ask it “in Jesus’ Name” or because many people are praying for the same outcome. I call these kinds of prayers, and attitudes about prayer, “Vending Machine Prayers.” It is the belief that prayer must produce an immediate and positive outcome, or it is “broken” or invalid. If you don’t get what you were expecting, you must have prayed “wrong,” or didn’t have “enough” faith. Or your prayer just didn’t “work.” When someone puts money into a vending machine, and presses a button or punches in a code or pulls a knob, and they don’t get the expected item, some of them will kick the machine, or curse. Or they will try again, carefully trying to get the “right” result. Vending machines are inanimate objects designed to give a satisfactory consumer experience. If the coins or bills “jam,” if the knobs or buttons malfunction, if the product gets “stuck,” or isn’t available, the consumer feels cheated. Sometimes, they can get their money returned, but most often, they go away angry and unfulfilled.
God is not a vending machine. He is not “designed” to serve us or give us satisfaction. There is nothing we can “insert” in our relationship with God –even sincere prayer–that obligates Him to give us what we desire. God chooses to answer prayers in whatever way He knows is best for our eternal and overall well-being. God still gives miracles. I’ve seen it and experienced it. In fact, we could have lost Mom several years ago, when her heart failure put her in a similar state. God provided a miracle in the form of heart valve replacement surgery–and a cancellation that moved her surgery schedule forward before her condition was too far gone. I’ve seen people healed of cancer– and people whose prayers for healing ended in their rapid decline and death. But none of those prayers were wasted. Not one. God was working– sometimes on the sidelines, strengthening family members to deal with grief; sometimes providing testimonies to those with doubts and questions; sometimes planting seeds that would bear fruit years later in the lives of those left behind–sometimes God was working “sideways,” as He did with Mom years ago to give her several more years of life, even though she wasn’t completely healed, to grow and prepare for this next step and testify to God’s sustaining power.
God is not apathetic, and He certainly isn’t “happy” about Mom’s decline and her impending death. He shares our sufferings and our sorrows. But God knows and sees the “rest of the story!” Jesus wept over the death of His friend Lazarus, even though He knew that Lazarus would be raised back to life. Jesus was sharing the deep grief over the loss and sorrow felt by all of His friends, just as He rejoiced with them as Lazarus walked home from the tomb! (See John 11 for the whole story.) God doesn’t delight in death. He is the author of LIFE. But He is very present through every stage of life– even that last bitter taste of death we all must experience. And just as we pray for God’s miraculous presence, we pray for His guiding, comforting, and hopeful presence in ALL situations.
Prayer DOES something! Even if we don’t see immediate changes in situations; prayer changes US. It changes OTHERS. It changes our priorities and perspectives. It draws us close– to each other and to the One whose Love is Eternal and unchanging.
116 I love the Lord, because he hath heard my voice and my supplications.
2 Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live.
3 The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow.
4 Then called I upon the name of the Lord; O Lord, I beseech thee, deliver my soul.
5 Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; yea, our God is merciful.
6 The Lord preserveth the simple: I was brought low, and he helped me.
7 Return unto thy rest, O my soul; for the Lord hath dealt bountifully with thee.
8 For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling.
9 I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.
10 I believed, therefore have I spoken: I was greatly afflicted:
11 I said in my haste, All men are liars.
12 What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me?
13 I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.
14 I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of all his people.
15 Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.
16 O Lord, truly I am thy servant; I am thy servant, and the son of thine handmaid: thou hast loosed my bonds.
17 I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the Lord.
18 I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of all his people.
19 In the courts of the Lord’s house, in the midst of thee, O Jerusalem. Praise ye the Lord.Psalm 116 KJV (emphasis added)
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of people praying for my Mom (and all of us who love her so very much). And probably, there are some “vending machine” prayers among them. That’s ok. God hears them all. And I am so very blessed by them all. Because prayers DO SOMETHING AMAZING. They rise to a God who sees, who hears, and who LOVES unconditionally, eternally, and perfectly! We’re actively trying to do what we can do to make Mom comfortable and seeking treatment that will ease her last days, but we depend on God’s touch, His healing, His timing, and His good will to see us all through and keep us in perfect peace.