Many of us pray to God to change our circumstances. We pray for things that we want, sometimes things that really need. We pray according to our perspective, telling God what we want and need.
He knows, of course, what we want and what we need. He knows before we ask. He knows as the words are forming on our tongues and formulating in our minds.
Jesus told us to pray and ask God for our daily bread. Jesus told us to ask, seek, knock….
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7-11)
He even illustrated with a parable:
“And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:5-13)
We are expected to ask, supposed to ask, and ask persistently. And many, many people do ask God for things, but God doesn’t seem to answer. He doesn’t give us what we want, and sometimes He doesn’t even give us the things we desperately feel we need. Sometimes it seems He doesn’t answer at all.
It’s common to human experience to ask God to change our circumstances. When the circumstances don’t change, we are discouraged, depressed, frustrated and sometimes even angry. Many walk away from God as a result.
Atheists challenge me, “Prove to me that God answers prayers, and I will believe.” As if God was a kind of vending machine in the sky, or a barterer or maybe just a slot machine. Sometimes you win with God, and sometimes you don’t. Just keep trying.
But that’s not the right way to approach God. Jesus called Him Our Father. He is also the same God who formed the universe out of nothing. If you spend any time contemplating all that science informs us about the vastness, complexity and elegant, austere beauty of the creation, you begin to understand how great God must be… mind-boggling. He isn’t a “tame lion” as CS Lewis says.
Such a God who established all the constants of physics and balanced the universe on a razor’s edge for the purpose of fostering delicate life on (at least) one planet with a very brief opportunity to blossom like a flower into “advanced” civilized existence has a purpose for which He created. And we are told that purpose includes us, humans made in the image of God.
And He invites us to approach him – to ask, seek and knock. But for what purpose? Our own very myopic purposes that revolve around us? Doesn’t it make sense that God invites us to approach so that we will get to “know” Him and begin to understanding His purposes?
I don’t see a lot of evidence in the Scripture that God promises to change our immediate circumstances. He does promise good things to be sure. But our idea of what is good, and the goodness God intends are likely to be as different as our perspective is different from God’s perspective, knowledge and understanding.
One thing I do see consistently in Scripture is that God intends and promises to change us. He invites is to follow Jesus, who was God in the flesh, the exact likeness of God in human form. And Jesus described that following with the picture of a cross that we must pick up.
And Jesus added some very counter-intuitive descriptions of what He intends: unless a seed of grain falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a seed. The purpose of the seed is for something far greater than itself, but it must die to reach its full potential.
In that context, it becomes apparent to me that God uses the circumstances of our lives to change us and accomplish His purpose in us. In learning to pick up the cross, rather than escape it, we submit to the process and allow God to do His work in us.
His ultimate purpose is bigger than our lives on this earth, bigger than human history and bigger than even the universe. When we lift up our eyes to contemplate the greatness of the universe and our seemingly inconsequential place in the vast eons of time and ever-expanding expanse of space, we have to realize that there is something in store so much greater than we tend to realize.
In that context, we might read Romans 8:28-29 and begin to understand that there is something infinitely far more important than our present wants and needs.
“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”
This verse doesn’t say that God works everything to accomplish the good we want. We don’t define the good. It doesn’t say that God works even for our good. He promises to work everything together (everything) for “the good”.
He does this for those He called, for those He “knew in advance”, for those He chose, and He did it for a particular purpose – that we would become like His Son. He gave us Jesus to show us what He wants of us. To show us the way (and the truth and the life).
So He does invite us to ask, seek and knock… persistently! He invites us to approach Him, and we should. We should not stop approaching Him. Persistently, we should go back to God, continually petitioning Him, but along the way we need to come to the realization that He is inviting us into something so much bigger and so much greater than our own personal needs and wants.
“[P]ray continually, give thanks in all circumstances….” (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18) Not necessarily that God will change those circumstances, but He is with you! (1 Thess. 5:19)
“The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:5-7)
Let your requests be made known, and (whether your circumstances change or not), and your will know the peace of God. God doesn’t promise a change to your circumstances, but He promises to be with you and to give you His peace.
Meanwhile, God is working everything together for the good for all who are called and chosen. One thing we can have confidence in is this: God’s plans are vastly greater than you know or imagine, but we can trust Him.