‘On the day I called, you answered me, O Lord. You stretch out your hand and save me, your hand will do all things for me.” The psalmist rejoiced that his prayer had been heard, but do we share his confidence?
Does God always hear our prayers, and, if he does, how are we to interpret his answer?
The Genesis account of Abraham’s pleading for the condemned cities of Sodom and Gomorrah provides an intriguing backdrop to this question. Abraham’s kinsman Lot, together with his wife and family, had recently migrated from Abraham’s southern encampment to the neighbouring cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham was therefore alarmed to learn from his visitors that God intended to
chastise these cities for their grievous sin. He feared that his kinsman Lot might be lost in the conflagration.
The dialogue that followed seems more like the bargaining of the marketplace than a prayerful encounter with God. In a protracted haggle Abraham tested the price of God’s forgiveness. Would a God of mercy relent for the sake 50 just men, and, subsequently, for the sake of 45, 40, 30 or even 20 just men? The deal was finally sealed at 10 just men. “I will not destroy it for the sake of the 10.”
The narrative does, of course, reflect the playful banter of any Middle Eastern marketplace. More importantly, it emphasises the extent of God’s mercy. While we are so ready to condemn, the God of Israel was willing to be convinced of any redeeming feature to be found in the condemned cities. In the wider context, God was willing to spare sinful humanity for the sake of one just man, his Son Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
Any consideration of Abraham’s pleading for Sodom and Gomorrah must be understood against the faith that had characterised his whole life. Already Abraham had entrusted himself to God. For the sake of God’s promise he had abandoned the security of his father’s house and the land of his birth. On the deepest level Abraham understood that we do not bargain with God. We surrender ourselves in faith, and it was from such faith that Abraham prayed.
Throughout the Gospels Jesus is presented as a model for prayer. The disciples, sensing Christ’s communion with the Father, longed to share this communion. His words and deeds had convinced them of God’s presence in the world. They began to understand that such words and deeds were rooted in prayer. Thus their question: “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
St Luke’s leaner account of the Lord’s Prayer sets before us the essentials of any prayer. “Father, may your name be held holy, your kingdom come.”
Prayer begins not with ourselves, but with a confession of God’s holiness and an acknowledgment that our lives are to be lived according the values of his kingdom. “Give us each day our daily bread.”
Prayer is not a demand, but a trust that each and every day a loving Father will provide whatever is necessary for the demands of that day. “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive each one who is in debt to us.”
The nearer we come to the holiness of God, the more we become aware of our need for forgiveness. Touched with the graciousness of the Father’s forgiveness, we pledge our lives to the mercy that we have received.