My three-year-old stood on the desk, teetering over the printer, his stocky fingers jabbing at the buttons as he yelled at it: “I want a picture to come OUT!” Ever the problem-solver, he had rigged an elaborate series of step stools and chairs to fashion a ladder for himself, and was now trying to strong arm the black machine into producing one of those printable coloring pages. A dinosaur, in particular, was what he was after.
His little face scrunched with frustration, he kept pushing the green button, just as he had seen me do.
“Why won’t it come out?” he asked me. “I pushed the button!”
Taking his hand, I guided him down the stairs and pulled him into my lap in front of my screen. “The printer doesn’t print by itself, sweetheart,” I explained. “Mommy has to send a message from her computer to the printer to tell it to make the picture. See? You like this one? Here we go …” We watched as the printer hummed to life and a bouncy brachiosaurus appeared on the sheet.
This is my problem with prayer, I thought. Too often I treat prayer like a printer, thinking if I just push the buttons in the right order, the desired result will be magically delivered onto my receiving tray. But what my preschooler—and I—are quick to forget is that it takes a person to make these things happen. It takes agency to effect a command and supply the resources for fulfillment.
Things don’t just happen. They are made to happen.
“Ask and it will be given to you,” said Jesus (Matthew 7:7). But who we ask makes all the difference: my children asking one another whether it’s okay for them eat jelly beans before dinner being just one example of misdirected asking. For not even the tallest of my kids—even with the help of precarious self-constructed ladders—is able to reach the jar of jelly beans on the very top shelf.
So, too, Jesus reminds us that when we ask, we are speaking to a good and powerful Father, who knows how to give good gifts to his children and who delights to do so. If we forget the One to whom we pray, prayer quickly morphs into a spiritualized version of the Power-of-Positive-Thinking. We become like three-year-olds standing at a printer jamming our fingers at buttons, and wondering why it isn’t working?
I was reminded of hearing Oprah Winfrey talk about prayer some years back. As much I admire and appreciate Oprah, her words on prayer fell short. “I believe in the power of prayer,” she said. And at first, I thought, “Me too.” After all, doesn’t James 5:16 tell us that the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective?
But, thinking about it later, I realized that I really don’t believe in the power of prayer.
Prayer doesn’t heal people. The living God, who loves and cares for us and provides each breath we take, is the one who heals.
Prayer doesn’t take away our sadness. It is God who wipes away tears and who ultimately, through Jesus, will conquer all the sad-making things in the world.
Prayer doesn’t provide for our needs. It is our heavenly Father who gives us what we need: “… as the eyes of the servant look to her mistress’ hand, so our eyes look to the LORD our God.” (Psalm 123:2)
Prayer doesn’t bring comfort. God is the one who sees us in our distress and draws near when we feel desolate. He is the comforter. He is our “shield and our very great reward.”
Prayer doesn’t deal with our guilt and our sin. Confession alone does nothing to remove the blots on our souls unless we are confessing to the One who was willing to exchange our guilt for his goodness. It is God alone who has the power to declare the guilty “clean,” and welcome the exile as “my child.”
Watching my three-year-old grapple with that printer, I saw it clearly: me wrestling with prayer as if it were powerful and effective in itself. But it isn’t. Just like the world’s best printer cannot deliver without a prompt, so too the world’s most beautifully crafted prayer is but a breath unless it is asked of the One Who Can.
So, no: I don’t believe in the power of prayer.
I believe in the power of God.
And this is why I pray.