The spring of 2019 showed up bleak and gray, but we barely noticed. The weight of waiting occupied every minute, with question marks bristling where daffodils had been delayed. An army of friends prayed for our family when we could not, waging war on our behalf, inquiring with kindness about obstacles that made no sense and resolution that did not come.
But then one day answers began to bloom. Seismic yeses from God felt like tectonic plates shifting beneath our feet, and the way before us was mercifully clear and certain.
The memory that lingers from that season unsettles me still, for in all the restless energy of waiting I realized that I had begun to feel like a failure—a failure at prayer! Then, when the long-sought answer arrived, I wondered: Is this arrival of clarity a sign of success?
In our performance-driven culture it’s not far-fetched to view even our prayer life through the lens of pass/fail. But is there a way to get it right? Is there a way to be successful in this business of praying?
Instructions for a Successful Prayer Life
In North America, we are preoccupied with success on every front. Fear of missing the mark drives us to seek out “recipes”—quick fixes and methods that guarantee a good outcome. Ironically, though, while prayer is happening all over the place in Scripture, there is very little instruction on the generalities beyond “pray like this” and “go into your room and shut the door.”
Instead, Jesus and the psalmists and the prophets were all busy doing the work of prayer, pouring out their hearts like water in supplication, celebration, or anticipation of what God would do next. Prayer was their first instinct in every situation. When circumstances were not conforming to their preferences, they were on their faces before God asking uncomfortable questions. When it was clear that “the lines had fallen for [them] in pleasant places,” praise was their first response for their “beautiful inheritance” (Psalm 16:6 ESV).
However, Jesus’s parable about the persistent widow in Luke 18 reveals the complexity of defining successful prayer. It seems, initially, to cast God in an unfavorable light as the judge who practiced equal opportunity indifference to the pleas of his citizens. Undaunted, the widow kept showing up at the judge’s door at all hours of the day and night. She would be heard, and Jesus commended her methods to his followers that day:
“And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1 ESV).
Successful Prayer Requires Perseverance
Pastor and author Eugene Peterson added his own exhortation, for “the reality is that those who stick it out in this following-Jesus-faith-life, praying what we live and living what we pray, have learned how to handle what our uninstructed feelings would interpret as God’s non-response, God’s silence” (Eat This Book, p. 108).
This insight suggests a rubric for successful prayer that has absolutely nothing to do with answers but rather with praying and waiting and keeping on praying despite the silence. A “successful” prayer life perseveres in hope, knowing that the evil judge in Jesus’s parable is the exact opposite of the God of the universe who takes a long view of my spiritual formation.
With that in mind, I’m challenged to ask myself if, perhaps, the real answer to my own prayers in that gray spring of uncertainty was the work of waiting, a work that was accomplished in my heart during our stressful days of wrestling and scanning the horizon for a sign.
No Formula for Successful Prayers
In The Praying Life, Paul Miller laments, “American culture is probably the hardest place in the world to learn to pray” (p. 3). With characteristic red, white, and blue gusto, we have linked success with independence when prayer is the epitome of dependence. God is too huge and incomprehensible to be reduced to an algorithm for achievement, and communication with God is not something to be “accomplished.”
When it comes to prayer, we are always beginners. In our understanding of the ways of God, every single encounter is brand new, and he will not be harnessed by a track record or a formulaic method or by a prayer-as-referendum mentality in which I can force his hand with the right number of prayer partners storming heaven on my behalf.
At least seventeen times in the psalms the words “how long?” bubble to the surface of prayers that float upward into the silence of God. Was it because the psalmist was a failure at prayer?
Or was something invisible happening in a heart that needed kingdom schooling in the beauty of these four words: “Thy will be done”? Before asking myself whether prayer works, let me first define my terms. Is prayer a lever for moving the universe according to my whims, or is it a tool for molding my will to God’s?
Jesus ends his story of the widow with a wistful question that wears on me like a pebble in the shoe: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8) Will he find men and women who pray in faith, certain that God is never detached and never idle? Will he find families who persevere in prayer when answers don’t come?
Lord, teach us to pray—not so we can become “successful” in the practice of prayer; not so we can push and strive for the yes we seek. Teach us to pray so we can hear your voice singing over us as we are pulled further and deeper into an understanding of your kingdom, your power, and your glory.
How about you?
Are successful prayers on your list of goals?
Does a sense of failure kick in when you feel your prayers aren’t answered?
By what rubric do you measure the “success” or “failure” of your prayer life?