• Jach Hughes Robinson, Ph.D.

What Prayer Can and Cannot Do


Mark 14:32-42

32 They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter, James, and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. He said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” Going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, he went away and prayed, saying the same words. Once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up. Let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

THE WORD OF THE LORD.

When in seminary I and other Presbyterians students took a course in Hebrew so we could read the Old Testament in the original language. The course was crammed into the January term; thus, we had to learn the language in four weeks. Anyone who takes Hebrew knows the need for prayer. One look at the language and you think: “I’m not going to make it through this class by myself.” So students asked, “Is it appropriate to ask God that you pass the course?” Some students said no. I said it was okay to ask; but it was only okay to ask God to “help” you pass, not to miraculously have you pass without studying.

I am not sure what other students did; but I prayed, I studied, and I passed the course. Did I pass because I prayed, or did I pass because I studied?

A minister friend said, “God always answers prayers in one of three ways: God answers either with a “Yes,” a “No,” or a “You’ve got to be kidding.”

This leads us to the topic I want us to address today: Can prayer change the outward circumstances of a person’s life?

This question’s importance lies in the fact that many people’s doubts about God begin with prayers gone unanswered. Let us face the truth. Farmers have prayed for good weather; and it has rained in torrents. Sick people have prayed for health; and their sickness has become chronic. People have prayed for deliverance; and found themselves imprisoned. People have prayed to live, and they have died. People have prayed for a loved one to be spared, and the loved one has perished.

How do we respond to these people’s experiences? To answer this question, let us first look at Jesus’ experience of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Then, let us see what his experience teaches us about what prayer can and cannot do.

I

Jesus is in Jerusalem. He has taught in the Temple area, has overturned the moneychangers’ tables, has raised the ire of those who oppose him, and he has eaten the Passover meal with his disciples. He knows his life is in danger and that one of his own will betray him. Knowing of his imminent arrest and probable execution, Jesus turns to God in prayer, and he retreats to a favorite place to pray – the Garden of Gethsemane – just outside the walls of Jerusalem.

In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus was anxious and agitated, so Jesus turned to God in prayer for help and deliverance. He expressed his wish that his life would be spared. He said, “Father, remove this cup from me.... Then, thinking that God’s will might be different from his wish, Jesus added, Yet, “not what I want, but what you want.” Jesus then went to his disciples, but still being anxious, Jesus returned a second time to prayer. Again, he prayed the same prayer. A second time he returned to his disciples, but still being filled with anxiety, he prayed a third time the same prayer. By the third time, however, the power of prayer had worked itself in him. Though his circumstances did not change, he had changed. He had freely reconciled himself to the inevitable, and he went out with new strength to meet his betrayer.

II

What can we learn about prayer from this powerful experience of Jesus?

First, what prayer cannot do. From Jesus we discover this hard lesson that prayer does not change the outward circumstances of a person’s life. Jesus prayed; but Jesus did not get what he wanted. He was not delivered from the people who wanted to kill him.

Why? Jesus did not get what he wanted because God does not intervene supernaturally into the natural course of events.

If someone decides to hurt or crucify someone else, God does not intervene in that person’s choice.

Because Jesus was made of flesh and blood like the rest of us, and mortal as well, then God cannot change him when nails are pierced through his body. This does not mean that this is what God ultimately desires, but God has created the world and life so God does not interrupt regular course of creation.

For instance, God has created gravity as a benefit for us, so we can live and move around on this planet. Yet, if someone falls from a third story building, God does not suspend gravity because that person prays to be saved.

What about miracles, you may ask, when God seems to act to change the normal course of events to save us or someone else? The problem with some people’s view of miracles is that they think God intervenes only when asked. Thus, this view implies that God’s gift of life is not a miracle in and of itself; and it implies that God is not involved in life day by day, in each person’s life, and that the world has slipped out of God’s control. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth.

It is helpful for us if we rid ourselves of the idea that God is involved only occasionally in the world – only when we ask. Instead, we need to see that God is involved every moment in our lives by God’s presence and through the law-governed course of Creation. God is involved in all activity not just a few occasions when we think God is intervening.

III

Second, if prayer does not change our outward circumstances, then what can prayer do?

Prayer changes the person who prays. I repeat. Prayer changes the person who prays, if the person is willing.

When Jesus prayed, he was changed; but he was willing to change. He prayed because he was anxious. Yet, as he prayed, he recognized that what he wanted, and what God could do to change the course of events Jesus faced, were two different things.

Through repeated prayer – and I emphasize repeated prayer - Jesus trusted and accepted the way God created the world, and the limits involved, until he was able to finally say in acceptance, “yet, not what I want, but what you want.” In other words, “Your will be done.” His acceptance took him three times of anguished prayer.

Prayer helps us to moderate our wish with the realities of God’s world, and the laws of the universe by replacing anger with acceptance, anxious expectation with calmness of spirit. This takes time and repeated prayer. Sometimes it takes weeks, months, or years before we can accept what has befallen us.

I confess that I have struggled over this notion of prayer. This struggles has taken place over years of my life, especially with the loss of many of my family members who I prayer over. Then there are the many times I have prayed with families of my churches in Intensive Care Units, emergency rooms, homes, for whom we prayed for their loved ones. Then there are the prayers by the graveside of infants, youth, adults, and the elderly. The families of these loved one had a mountain of grief to endure. It took months and years of prayer for these families to move beyond their grief to accept what could not be changed, just as Jesus moved from anxiety to acceptance. Through such prayer we are changed by God from the inside.

A soldier came home after he had lost a leg during the Iraqi War. Each morning he went to his Catholic church for prayer. Someone asked him if he prayed that God would give him his leg back. “No,” he replied, “I pray God will help me live without it.”

IV

I understand, in conclusion, that this understanding of prayer as changing us not our circumstances can be difficult to accept. We want to believe in a God who comes in from beyond to rescue us. Jesus in his time of anquish had this wish. Yet, this is something prayer cannot do.

What prayer can do, if we choose, is to change us. The miracle of prayer is that if we ask God, we are changed. Rather than a change in outward circumstances, we see a change in ourselves. Then, after repeated prayers, we are strong enough to face our adversity so if what we dread befalls us, we can, like Jesus, accept the unacceptable, and with renewed strength of spirit set our face towards our adversity, and like Jesus, say, “Let us rise and go to meet it.” Amen!

(Copyright by Jack Hughes Robinson. 2018. Use by permission only.)

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