Tag Archives: prayer

Does God answer only trivial prayers?

Recently wildfires raged in the relatively Adventist communities of Angwin, Deer Park and St. Helena, California. These communities include Pacific Union College, St. Helena Adventist Hospital, Deer Park Elementary School, and Elmshaven, the last home of Ellen G. White, Adventist visionary and one of the church’s founders. General Conference president, Ted Wilson, tweeted his concern and particularly requested prayer that Elmshaven would be spared from the flames on account of its historical and spiritual value. With the exception of a couple of secondary buildings at the elementary school and the hospital area church, the above institutions were spared. The Ellen G. White Estate in Silver Spring, Maryland tweeted its gratitude for the “miracle” that flames burned all around Elmshaven, but did not harm the property itself.

We, of course, do not know for sure whether the survival of Elmshaven was due to direct divine intervention, but it is certainly a possibility. But many Adventists expressed outrage at this claim in the face of so many Adventists losing their homes in the area. At the time of writing, no member has lost their life, but the loss of property is reported to be significant. The claim that God has acted to spare a historical building while not acting in response to many heartfelt prayers elsewhere was painful to many. What do we make of this reality? Did God answer only a relatively trivial prayer? Was Elmshaven spared primarily because of the courageous work of many firefighters? Or was this a coincidence that should simply have been accepted as such? It is hard to know. But it is likely that many members in the area, praying out of genuine need, were questioning why their prayers were not answered.

A young pastor in his first month of ministry re-connected with a newly baptized member of his church at camp meeting. She had walked in the door of the church without warning a few months before. Being raised in a broken, alcoholic Adventist home, she was not a novice to the Adventist Church, but had had no connection with it for a number of years. As her life apart from God spiraled into chaos she remembered church as a child being a relatively safe and happy place. So one day, in a place far from home, she had made the decision to return.

A couple of weeks before camp meeting, the young pastor was assigned to the church as an intern pastor and got to witness Susan’s baptism. So when she approached him at camp meeting with a request to talk, it was not a surprise. They walked down to the boat dock at the camp and sat down to talk. After some generalities, she suddenly turned the subject to her baptism.

“I need to be baptized again,” Susan said.

“Why would you say that?” the young pastor replied.

“Because there are things in my past I didn’t tell the senior pastor,” she responded.

Realizing that this was not a conversation to have in a public place, the young pastor suggested that they walk down a nearby trail along the wooded shores of the lake to a large rock where they could be away from prying ears. In years past he had actually built that trail as a teen-age summer camp worker. When they arrived at the rock she began a tale of woe; there were many things that she had done and that had been done to her. Whether or not she need to be baptized again, it was clear that she had rejoined the church, but had no idea about personal salvation or a living relationship with God.

While he had had college training in theology, the young pastor had never led anyone to Christ. In his mind he turned over the various strategies that he had learned in class and in church seminars. Doing the best he could to lay out a biblical approach to connecting with God he led her into the “sinner’s prayer.”

When they were done, Susan said, “That’s it?”

“That’s it, God loves us and is very merciful. He accepts every sincere soul that reaches out to him. He has cleaned the slate and this is the first day of the rest of your life, a life of walking with God,” he assured her.

Susan did not seem sure whether to believe him or not. Just then, they were startled by a sudden clap of thunder. This was unexpected. It had been a sunny and pleasant day up to that point. A moment later a total downpour ensued. Susan and the young pastor retreated under the largest available tree, but it was to no avail. In a couple of minutes they were totally soaked. But instead of being miserable, Susan’s face was shining with joy.

She looked at the young pastor and said, with delight, “I’m being baptized again!” Any doubts she may have had a moment before were gone. The arrival of the rain shower was just the sign she need to truly believe.

What do you make of a story like that? I know that it is true, because I was that young pastor and that was my first “lead someone to Christ moment”. Did God actually bring about that rain shower or was it just a coincidence? When I think about all He would have had to do in order to make that happen, one wonders why He would do it for a relatively trivial result. And what about all the people who might have been inconvenienced by rain shower? Which brings me to the question that is also the title of this blog: “Does God Answer Only Trivial Prayers?”

The Bible tells us that our God is a God of love (John 3:16; 1 John 4:8, etc.). He is more willing to give good gifts to His “children” than even the most loving earthly father is (Matt 7:7-11). To put it in other words, God enjoys showering His beloved ones with little gifts. Just to say “I love you.” And I believe He loves to do this in some of the most personal and practical ways imaginable. Perhaps you’ve just lost hope of finding a parking spot in time to meet a critical appointment. You send up a desperate prayer and suddenly a space appears. A worried mother wonders where her boy is and sends up a quick prayer. Just then the phone rings and she discovers all is well. Or you survive a harrowing experience and discover later that several friends felt impressed to pray for you at exactly that time. Millions of believers around the world have experiences just like this every day. It is reasonable to suggest from this that God is real and that He loves to make His presence known to those who are open to it.

But just now the skeptic in you is saying, Wait a minute! Are you trying to tell me that God manages the comings and goings in every parking lot around the world just in case one of His followers needs a spot at the last minute? If prayer is sometimes timed to remarkable events, what about all the times when people pray and “nothing” happens? What about all the real heartaches in this world that are met with silence? What about women who are raped and their cries for help go unheeded? What about men who contract terminal cancer in the prime of their life and feel as if their prayers go no higher than the ceiling? What about parents who pray for wayward children and go to their graves without a clear response from God?

These objections have serious weight. Believers often fail to realize how trivial their experience of God’s presence may seem to others who have suffered deeply in this life. Our glib expressions of how God is working in our everyday lives can be like a knife in the heart to someone experiencing the absence of God. We must never forget that the absence of God in everyday experience can seem the norm to most people. It is even something Jesus experienced when He was on the cross (see Matt 27:46 and parallels). In spite of the deep intimacy with God that characterized every day of Jesus’ ministry, in the 24 hours before His death Jesus experienced increasing darkness to the point where He could no longer see the Father’s reconciling face. The withdrawal of a sense of God’s approving presence caused Jesus the deepest anguish (see Desire of Ages, page 753). To experience the silence of God, then, is no indication that a person is actually forsaken by God or is an incorrigible sinner. But at times like that it can feel as if God answers only trivial prayers.

The story of Job may also be instructive here. Job’s experience makes it clear that there is no answer to most of the specific objections raised above, at least in this life. The tragedies in Job’s life were certainly unexplainable in earthly terms. They came from “nowhere” and made no sense to him. They had to do with complexities in the larger universe that Job never came to understand. The fascinating thing is that even when God came down in person to talk with Job about these issues (Job 38:1 – 41:34), He never mentions the real reason for Job’s suffering, a reason the reader of the story is allowed into (1:6-12; 2:1-7).

From the book of Job we discern that there is a cosmic conflict in the universe that affects all that we do and all that we experience. God’s actions are sometimes limited by larger considerations in that conflict, things we may never understand until eternity. Perhaps God’s intervention in Job’s situation would have upset the whole space-time continuum of the universe in a way even quantum physicists could not understand. In other words, God cannot explain what we cannot understand. What we do understand is that larger divine interventions can change things in a way that causes collateral damage at unspecified times in the future. Major actions of God have ripple effects in the lives of many people and their descendants over decades and even centuries. As those ripples play out in the course of history, they can have consequences that we cannot foresee but God in His infinite wisdom can. He may understand that the good we hope God will do in the present could cause even greater harm than His silence in answer to our prayers.

There is an interesting biblical illustration of this. It is the story of Hezekiah as told in Isaiah 36-39. Hezekiah was one of the most faithful kings in the history of Judah (2 Kings 18:5-6; 2 Chr 31:20-21). He was faithful to God in his personal life and devotions. He expanded the borders of the country. He restored the temple that had fallen into ruins. He restored the priests and Levites to their regular services. He restored the feast days. He removed the rival altars around Jerusalem. He ordered the “high places” of rival worship all around the country to be destroyed. He destroyed the idols and images that the people had come to rely on. His prayers protected Jerusalem when it was surrounding by overwhelming Assyrian forces. It would be understandable, therefore, for people to think that Hezekiah’s premature death would be a tragic thing for the nation and a mistake for God to allow. I can almost see the ancient bloggers and pundits questioning God’s character in relation to this development. But it was not to be.

When the time came for Hezekiah to die, he pleaded bitterly with God on the grounds of his lifelong faithfulness (Isa 38:1-3). If anyone ever were deserving of a positive answer to prayer, it would be Hezekiah. And God came through for him in stunning fashion. God not only granted him an extension of fifteen years of life (38:5), he provided assurance that this would happen through a major astronomical token (38:7-8– how Hezekiah came to have this experience is not explained). Everyone seemed to have gotten what they wanted from God. Yet during those extra years two things happened that undid all the good that Hezekiah had done during his lifetime; the visit of the Babylonian envoys (39:1-8) and the birth of his son, who became the evil king Manasseh (2 Kings 21:1-9). In the context of the cosmic conflict between God and Satan major interventions in people’s lives are very complicated. The ramifications are usually way beyond our understanding.

Having said this, I still want to argue that a believer’s experience in a parking lot is not necessarily imaginary. I cannot explain the timing and the effort involved in God’s actions. But I do believe that God would answer every prayer in a positive manner if pleasing us were the only consideration. If finding someone a parking space or timing a phone call will not upset the space-time continuum of the universe, why wouldn’t a loving God intervene? If a woman makes a full commitment to Jesus just as a rain shower happens to be passing, why wouldn’t God arrange that if the stakes were low enough? I guess what I am saying is that the lower the ultimate stakes, the lower the potential consequences of any particular divine intervention, the more likely that a loving God can use the circumstances of life as a token of his love. We serve a God who delights to please His children whenever so doing would not cause harm to anyone.

Having said that, those of us who have experienced this kind of intimacy from God need to be careful when and how we share such experiences with others. Our well-intentioned testimony can do harm even when God’s gift did not. While we should rightly acknowledge the small tokens of God’s favor in our lives and rejoice over them in the right circumstances, we need to also be aware of how often our testimonies cause pain.

Questions and Answers (15:10)

Lou: I have heard a fairly well-known minister talk about how God speaks to him. Now what about that? How do you judge that kind of thing? When you speak about prayer as conversation with a friend, is that ever a two-way conversation? What about God speaking back to us? Can we talk more about that?

Graham: When someone comes and says, “God spoke to me last night,” I mustn’t be rude enough to say, “I think that’s a lie.” But I must remember verses we considered in earlier chapters. One of these is about the prophet who said, “The angel of the Lord has told me thus and so, but he lied to him” (based on 1 Kings 13:18). So if this person says, “God spoke to me last night and I bring you this message,” I must take that message to the Scriptures and see if it measures up. For no matter who it is that comes to me with a message from the Lord, though he may say, “The Lord spoke to me last night,” I still must take that message to the Scriptures. But if I’m taking that message to the Scriptures, then what is the highest authority? Isn’t it the Scriptures? Then why not go straight there? I believe God speaks to us primarily through the Scriptures.
God has certainly spoken to individuals from time to time. And we’ve taken some of those messages to the Bible, and they’ve measured up. There is one such person you and I know especially well; what she wrote measures up magnificently. That’s where the authority lies. I test what she wrote by the Scriptures.

Lou: A couple more questions. Should we pray to the Father, the Son and/or the Holy Spirit? Should we pray to all three?

Graham: I would say all three, as in the Doxology. There we praise the Father, we praise the Son, and we praise the Holy Spirit.

Lou: What about praying in the name of Jesus? What is the significance of that?

Graham: I think it is significant that Jesus said, “Pray to the Father in My name, and the Spirit will help you do it” (based on John 14:13-14, 26; 15:26). I think that’s for historical reasons. You see, the Son is the One who came to reveal the truth about the Father. The Spirit gives us the record and brings the confirmation. And so to be in tune with the whole history of the revelation, He says, “Pray to the Father, but in My name.” “In My name” is not a magic formula, it’s simply saying, “I recognize that if Jesus had not come, I would not know You, I wouldn’t have the courage to come. I wouldn’t know how to pray.” So, “in His name” is a statement of gratitude and worship.

Lou: Can you say just a word about prayers that God says He won’t hear? For example: “You spread forth your hands. I will hide My eyes from you. Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen” (Isa 1:15). What kind of prayers does God refuse to hear?

Graham: In the letters of John it says a similar thing (1 John 4:6). God doesn’t listen to the prayer of hypocrisy, the prayer that really isn’t asking for any help, the prayer that is cheating with God. Now He loves the cheater and He loves the hypocrite. He simply cannot help them, and so He says, “I will have to give you up.” Prayer must be honest. We must walk humbly with our God and tell the truth. It’s the same way with a physician—a physician cannot help a cheating patient who won’t tell the truth.

Lou: The next chapter will be number sixteen in our series. What’s our topic?

Graham: “God’s Last Pleading with His Children.” As some might guess, we will be reviewing the Three Angels’ Messages in the setting of the Great Controversy.

Questions and Answers (15:9)

Lou: What about intercessory prayer, praying for others, does that really do any good?

Graham: That’s a very good way to put the question. One reason we pray is because we don’t want to miss out on any good thing that God might have for us. We want to get our money’s worth, so to speak. But that doesn’t sound to me like conversation with God as with a friend. Let’s take an example, a mother with a son who has chosen to go his own way. She loves her son, so every night she talks to God about her son. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be normal. She talks with God about the things that are on her mind. She doesn’t say, “God, force my boy back.” She knows that if God would pour out His Holy Spirit with one hundred-fold greater intensity on her son, that alone would not make him a Christian. He could still say, “No.” So she prays, “God, You choose the time. You choose the way. Help me to be patient. Help me to do what I can do, and maybe bring every influence possible to bear, but I know my son can still say ‘No,’ just as Lucifer said ‘No’ to Your very face.” I’m not going to say it does no good for her to talk to God. She’s going to talk to Him anyway. This is her son. She’s going to talk to Him about her son.

Lou: But what if there is a particular need? I remember years ago there was a situation in one of the countries of Europe where people were suffering persecution and doors were being closed to churches. And we had a day of fasting and prayer. Did all of us joining together in a special movement of prayer bring about a decision by God to intervene? Did it bring extra power into the situation?

Graham: If more of us twist God’s arm, are we more likely to get what we want? Actually, I remember when that event occurred back in the 1950s. A whole group of theology majors at Pacific Union College, where I was at the time, said, “Let’s meet for lunch every Monday noon and discuss intercessory prayer until we understand this process.” And we finally agreed that, in the context of an enemy accusing God of manipulating things, our united requests set God free to do things He had been longing to do. When we all together said, “Please, will You open the churches in Romania,” or wherever it was, God could say to the adversary, “Step aside. I’m on My way.” And He could say to the angels, “Is this interference? Is this manipulation? Do you hear them all asking Me?” I think the Great Controversy is very much involved here. I believe our prayers set Him free to act, to say to the adversary, “Step aside, I’m being asked to do this.” Our prayers really do make a difference. But even if they didn’t, we should still pray, because prayer is how we talk to God as to a friend.

Lou: What if we did the same thing for that lady’s son? If we all prayed for the conversion of an individual, would God have to convert him?

Graham: If that happened, what would it say about God? If God by force can keep His family together, how did He lose one-third of the angels? I don’t believe God would ever overthrow the freedom of that woman’s son.

Lou: It really gets at the whole issue, doesn’t it?

Graham: Absolutely. God will not bring such pressure on her son.

Lou: In Romans 8 it says something about how the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words, or as the New International Version puts it: “With groans that words cannot express” (Rom 8:26). What’s happening there? What is the Spirit doing with God on our behalf?

Graham: Well, we need to consider that in line with John 16:26. If there is no need for the Son to intercede with the Father for us, there’s no need for the Holy Spirit to intercede with the Father for us either. All three of them are on our side. So this means that the Holy Spirit of truth comes and helps us to pray by bringing us the truth about God, that we might be encouraged to pray. He also brings us the truth about ourselves, so we can be honest with God and tell the truth about ourselves as well. That’s prayer that makes a difference. So the Holy Spirit, when we are struggling to find words, guides us into true conversation with God as with a friend.

Questions and Answers (15:8)

Lou: We must move on. Let’s talk about the phrase, “Thy will be done.” If we really want God’s will to be done, why ask for anything? Wouldn’t it be more trusting to just say, “God, do what You’re going to do?”

Graham: Jesus is our example in almost every important area. He would say to His Father, “Let this cup pass from me, nevertheless. . . .” Matt 26:39. If prayer is conversation with God, we will be honest with Him. “I do not relish what’s coming. I want You to do things Your way. I want to defer to Your wisdom. Nevertheless, may I talk to You about this? May I tell You honestly that I want this, or I want that, I shrink from this, or I shrink from that?” That’s real, honest conversation. But behind it all, we are deferring to God’s wisdom. It’s genuine, honest conversation.

Lou: But aren’t there people who feel it expresses a lack of faith to say, “Thy will be done,” when you’re praying for a loved one that you very much want to be healed? Wouldn’t it be more trusting to just say, “Lord, heal. I believe You are going to?”

Graham: We do it that way because we want to tell Him what to do. It shows much more trust to say, “God, You know best. Please do what is best for this person.”

Lou: You’re saying that it’s perfectly all right to express my will very forcibly, to tell God exactly what I want?

Graham: If I don’t, I’m not telling the truth. I want this person to be well. But “Thy will be done” expresses even more trust. I love it when the person you are praying for says, “Look, you don’t have to dictate to God. He doesn’t have to heal me for me to trust Him. I’m willing for Him to do whatever is best, and you may pray that way.” Isn’t it easy to pray around the bedside when the patient trusts God like that?

Lou: That’s true. But now let’s get down to even more practical matters. Does it do any good to pray for a safe trip? If you pray, “Thy will be done,” and then you have an accident, should you assume that was what God had in mind for that trip?

Graham: I suppose it is good to pray for a safe trip as long as it isn’t a presumptuous prayer. “Now that we’ve prayed, I can up the speed ten miles an hour. You see, I’m guaranteed a safe trip, I prayed.” A good trip prayer would be committing ourselves into God’s hands and also praying, “God, help me to drive more carefully. Help me to be more alert. And Lord, whatever comes out of this, I have confidence that all will be well.” Some people die on the way to camp meeting or church. Will they awaken in the resurrection, see all the good things of eternity and say, “Wait a minute, Lord. Am I in the Kingdom? This isn’t what I wanted.” The Lord would say, “Aren’t you really happy to be here?” God guarantees to take care of us in the larger perspective, but He doesn’t say, “No trouble, no sickness, no accidents on this planet.” That kind of thinking is spiritually dangerous.

Lou: You’re not saying, then, that if an accident happens it is because God planned it out that way?

Graham: He could step in at any time to prevent accidents, but He doesn’t. He’s trying to say something about the results of disorder in the universe, how there’s an enemy abroad, and how He hopes we will bear with Him and wait. And when we look back over all this, I believe we will not wish to have been led in any other way than the one He has chosen. And He hopes we will trust Him enough to wait for that.

Questions and Answers (15:7)

Lou: We’ve explored talking to God as with a friend. Yet I can still remember the shock I felt when in a public prayer, a seminary student spoke to God with a familiar “You.” I wondered at the time if this young man had lost his way. But really, when we come to church, we usually put on special clothes, something that’s just a little different than other times, out of respect. Isn’t there an analogy here perhaps as to the kind of language that we ought to use when we talk to God? He is our Friend, but we still want to show respect for His majesty. What about that?

Graham: It’s true that many of us dress in a special way when we come to church. But I don’t see us wearing antique clothing. And so, when we come into the presence of God, I believe we should use the best words we know to express ourselves. We should be reverent and respectful, to be clear, but it doesn’t mean we use old-fashioned words.

Lou: But isn’t reverence and respect the purpose of the “Thees” and “Thous?”

Graham: I believe that has come to be true for many, but I think people need to realize why they are doing it. The Thees and the Thous and the wists and the wots are the way English was spoken in those days. Folks can look at the Preface to the King James Version and notice that the language there is the same. Actually, if the garbage collector came in those days, you might say, “We salute thee, thou gatherer of refuse, and we prithee that thou wouldst place yonder vessel ere.” That’s how you would speak to the garbage man. That’s the way you talked to everybody back then. But today people say about our common speech, “Well, that’s no way to talk to God.” But King James English was simply the common language of the day. It’s beautiful language, but it was not special at that time. Forty years ago I was explaining that there’s no basis in the original language for using Thee and Thou and wist and wot. Yet I still find myself saying Thee and Thou when praying in public. These words have become a symbol of something, so I’m still doing it.

Lou: What words do you use in your personal prayer?

Graham: I often say “You,” and I’m comfortable with that. But I must say, I like the way you pray. You say “You” to God, but you say it very reverently; it’s in the tone of your voice. It’s in your choice of words. So I feel it’s very reverent. I’m accustomed to Thee and Thou in public prayer, and there are a number of people I feel might be a little distressed if I switched. I don’t want words to be a barrier. But maybe I’m just getting too old to shift.

Lou: Well, I’ve gone through my own struggle with that, and it strikes me that I really made the change after I came here to Loma Linda. Even here I wondered how the congregation would feel.

Graham: I think the important thing is: “Rend your heart and not your garments” (Joel 2:13). If the reverence is in your heart, the language is not the important thing. I want words to be my servant, and I want to use them with care. I’m ready to change as need be.

Lou: The crucial thing is that prayer is talking to God as to a friend.

Graham: Language mustn’t stand between us and our God.

Questions and Answers (15:6)

Lou: It seems to me that this topic comes under the heading of what we could call “Practical Godliness.” You have been talking about our daily walk with God and practical Christianity. And people have a lot of questions about such things. These questions are not theoretical. They really address how we go about living our lives. The first question has to do with the wording of the Lord’s Prayer, the version you quoted didn’t sound familiar. “If we’re going to pray the Lord’s Prayer, shouldn’t we use the words that Jesus gave us instead of some new translation like this?”

Graham: Well, if we were to use the words that Jesus used, we would have to speak in Aramaic.

Lou: But King James English is so familiar to us, Graham. It’s so ingrained in our lives and in the worship of all Christian churches.

Graham: I think there’s a very important lesson in this. For the Sermon on the Mount, we are most familiar with the version of the Lord’s Prayer recorded in Matthew (6:9-13). But the version recorded in Luke (11:2-4) is the version He gave to His disciples when they came and said, “Teach us to pray.” The two are similar, but they have interesting differences, and that’s the point. As the Preface to the King James Version says, “The Kingdom of God is not words and syllables; it’s the great ideas.” You can translate those into any language. So it’s the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer that counts and not the precise words.

Lou: So this isn’t a prayer to be repeated over and over?

Graham: I don’t think we can pray it too often if it’s a meaningful experience. But the danger is, we can go from “Our Father” to “Amen” and not even remember what we have said in between, because we’ve done it so often.

Lou: That leads to another question: Why is this called the Lord’s Prayer?

Graham: It’s called the Pater Noster in the Latin. “Pater” in Latin means “father,” and “noster” means “our.” Our Father. Actually, Jesus prayed other prayers that could be called the Lord’s Prayer. For example, that magnificent chapter 17 in John, when in the hearing of His disciples He prayed to the Father. Now that’s really the Lord’s Prayer. The title is just tradition, that’s all.

Lou: It might be better to say this is “our” prayer, the one He gave to us.

Graham: Yes. That’s right.

Lou: In many translations, the prayer seems to end abruptly. Those great words, “For Thine is the Kingdom, and the power and the glory” (Matt 6:13, KJV) are left out (compare the ESV, RSV and NIV with the KJV).

Graham: That’s because in the early manuscripts of Matthew it’s not there. And it isn’t in any manuscripts of Luke. So apparently when the Lord actually gave the “Lord’s Prayer,” it ended with, “Deliver us from evil or the evil one.” But does that mean we should stop repeating the doxology (a statement of praise) at the end? There’s a doxology in 1 Chronicles 29 that is four times as long as this one (1 Chr 29:10-13). David prayed it himself. It’s simply magnificent. So if one wants to be a purist when doing this, you could switch to 1 Chronicles 29 when you come to the end of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s very biblical and it’s also very beautiful. Personally, I like ending the prayer with a doxology. Jesus on other occasions may well have done the same. So it’s a beautiful custom to say the whole traditional prayer, as long as it’s meaningful and we’re thinking about it.

Lou: There’s something in the Lord’s Prayer as we traditionally use it that has puzzled me. In other churches they say, “Forgive us our trespasses,” while some of us were brought up saying, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Which is right?

Graham: Actually, this was a problem in our home. Growing up in England, it was always “trespasses.” When we moved to this country, we learned “debts,” and the younger members of the family all changed, but my father never did. So even when I took my children home, they always knew, when praying with Grandpa, it was, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” But in my own home it was, “Forgive us our debts,” and I don’t recall my children ever making a mistake, although I’ve heard people in church sometimes fumble over this.

Lou: Where did the word “trespasses” come from? Is that a particular translation?

Graham: The English Book of Common Prayer was quite an influence on the way some of these things are phrased. I think of Handel’s Messiah. “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” You look in vain for that in the King James Version. It comes out of The Book of Common Prayer, I believe.

Lou: So maybe the word “trespasses” was used to avoid the idea that debts had to do with a money problem, rather than sin.

Graham: I like the translation that adds “if we’ve wronged anyone.” The meaning is clear. And the variety of words helps us concentrate on the meaning. That’s the all-important thing.

Lou: Now in the New English Bible it says, “Save us from the evil one” (Matt 6:13). The familiar version of that phrase is “deliver us from evil.” What’s the difference between evil and the evil one?

Graham: The Greek is exactly the same. To be delivered from the evil one is indeed to be delivered from evil; so it makes no difference. Many versions prefer “the evil one.” It brings the Great Controversy to mind rather vividly. But either way, the point is clear.

Lou: When we pray “lead us not into temptation,” what are we really praying? Does that imply, “God, be careful; please don’t get me into temptation?” Would God really want to do that?

Graham: It helps to know that the word “temptation” here actually means trial or testing. Some versions have, “Lead us not into hard testing.” The idea that God would tempt is unthinkable; James deals with this (James 1:13-15). He tells us that when we’re tempted, we shouldn’t even blame the Devil. “You are led away by your own lusts and enticements” (based on James 1:14). Certainly don’t blame God. He wouldn’t do any such thing. So “lead us not into temptation” cannot mean, “Please, don’t You tempt us,” but, “Lead us not into difficult trials.” Jesus prayed something similar in Gethsemane. He said there: “Remove this cup from Me, if possible” (based on Matthew 26:39). I don’t think we should pray, “Lord, I’m ready for it. Bring on the trials; I feel very strong today.” I believe we should say, “Lord, in all humility, don’t bring me into trial; nevertheless, Your will be done.”
“Lead us not into testing” must be coupled with, “Nevertheless, Your will be done.” Jesus did it in Gethsemane (Matt 26:39, 42; Mark 14:36), and we do it in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:10). The Lord’s Prayer and the prayer in Gethsemane are very similar in a number of respects. So I think the prayer in Gethsemane helps us to understand the Lord’s Prayer.

Being Honest with God (15:5)

When we have such a relationship, prayer simply cannot be a trite formality, it is honest conversation about the things that matter the most to us. Above all, the conversation must be honest, or it isn’t real friendship after all. Suppose there’s a Brother Jones working near you who is irritating you to death and that night you kneel and say, “Oh Lord, do bless Brother Jones. Thou knowest how I love him.” If you listen closely you might hear God say, “That’s very sweet. But, why don’t you tell me the truth? You hate the ground he walks on. And if you would only just admit it, maybe I could begin to help you. But so long as you pretend, there is not much I can do.”

When King David was depressed, he said so:

Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love for ever [sic] ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? . . . And I say, “It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed” (Psa 77:7-10, RSV).

David said that to God in prayer. Of course, that is only the first half of the psalm. You will find at the end of the seventy-seventh Psalm how David resolved his depression (Psa 77:11-20). But if David wanted vengeance, he wouldn’t say, “Lord, thou knowest how I love Brother Isaac and I hope his crops will flourish this year,” when really David wished that the blood of Brother Isaac would flow down the street and would water the furrows of his field and the locusts would consume his crops! So David would kneel and say something like, “Lord, thou knowest my thoughts anyway, so why should I pretend?” Based on Psalm 139:1-12. Then he would continue:

O that thou wouldst slay the wicked, O God. . . . Do I not hate them that hate thee, O Lord? And do I not loathe them that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies. Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:19, 21-24, RSV).

In this passage David invited healing. He knew he needed a new heart and a right spirit, truth in the inner man. So first he presented himself honestly to God. He said, “You know all my thoughts anyway. So, why should I hide? You know how I feel. So search me and may my thoughts and the meditations and the words of my mouth be acceptable to you.”

If you should watch a loved one die, and you should cry, “Why God? Why?” would God be offended? Or would the God you know reach down and put an arm around your shoulder and say, “I understand how you feel. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel that way. Someday I’ll make it plain to you. I wish I could right now. But please trust Me, and trust Me enough to be willing to wait.” But, you see, we have to know God well before those emergencies arise, so that we can trust Him and pray to Him like this.

Paul assures us that the Holy Spirit will help us pray: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought. . . .” Rom 8:26, RSV. And so the Holy Spirit brings the truth about God to us. He helps us to see that truth and to be convinced about it. He helps us see the truth about ourselves, and learn how to tell that truth to our gracious heavenly Father. And then God can do good things for us. Paul even said we should pray without ceasing: “Never stop praying.” 1 Thess 5:17, Norlie. Or as Goodspeed translates it: “Never give up praying.” But if we should spend all our time on our knees, we would never get anything else done. So how can one pray without ceasing and still be effective in this life? To put it simply, prayer in its very essence is thinking toward God. It means that God is at the very center of our thoughts. Eventually it becomes a habit that God should be at the very center of all our plans, always.

When we see God face to face one day, will that be the end of prayer? Could prayer be yet another of the emergency measures that keep the channels of communication open between God and His children, until the time comes when there will be no need for emergency measures anymore? What do we mean when we sing, “Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer?” Do we mean “Farewell, farewell, I will never talk to you again, God?” No, if prayer is conversation with a friend, then when we meet God face to face, the hour of prayer will have just begun.

Confrontation Is Part of Friendship (15:4)

Is it all right to ask questions of our God? Job certainly did. He boldly, reverently, agonized with God—to the consternation of his friends. They worried that God would smite Job down for daring to talk to the Father like this. In a way, the whole book of Job is on this subject. Note what Job says in the following excerpts:

If only my life could once again be as it was when God watched over me. God was always with me then. . . . And the friendship of God protected my home. . . . I call to you, O God, but you never answer; and when I pray, you pay no attention (Job 29:2-4; 30:20, GNB).

How that worried Job’s friends! But was God offended? No, to the contrary. God later said to the three friends, “You did not speak the truth about me, the way my servant Job did” (Job 42:7, GNB). You see, Job knew God and he honored God with those cries. But God was not talking to him just then. And Job was deeply upset, because their friendship seemed to be at an end. So what upset Job’s friends actually complimented God, and spoke well of their relationship.

Surely there are serious questions we also could ask about God. Think of the accidents that happen, sometimes to the best people among us. Did that person’s guardian angels relax their protection? Serious questions about God often arise when people are dying or seriously ill. Why is it that God sometimes does not heal his trusting friends, even though we ask Him to? I believe that God, as we know Him, might well say to us, “Trust Me. I can’t explain it to you just now. I hope that you will trust Me enough to wait for the day when I can make it plain to you. I hope you have found enough evidence and enough reason for trusting Me that much. Besides, you know I would never allow you to be tried and tested more than you are able to bear.” Paul expressed this clearly later on: “God can be depended on not to let you be tried beyond your strength” (1 Cor 10:13, Goodspeed). Or as he said in Romans: “We know that in all things God works for good with those who love him. . . .” Rom 8:28, GNB.

If we trusted God enough to really listen, then, we might hear God provoke the questions Himself. Think about how God provoked His friend Abraham as He was on His way down to Sodom and Gomorrah to consume those cities. He said, “I wouldn’t do this without first telling My friend, Abraham.” In response Abraham dared to reason with his God: “Then Abraham drew near, and said, ‘Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? . . . Far be that from thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’” Gen 18:23, 25, RSV. Have you ever dared to say something like that to God? Was God offended by what Abraham said? No, “Abraham was called God’s friend” (Jam 2:23, GNB).

And that’s just one of the places in the Bible where God is addressed in such a way. You may remember how God spoke to Moses, another of His friends. He essentially said, “I am sick and tired of these people [the Israelites]. Step aside and let me destroy them” (based on Exod 32:9-10). But look at how Moses responds to God:

Then the Egyptians will hear of it. . . . The nations who have heard thy fame will say, “Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land which he swore to give to them, therefore he has slain them in the wilderness” (Num 14:13, 15-16, RSV).

In this passage Moses showed his jealousy for God’s reputation. Was God offended by this? No, “The Lord would speak with Moses face-to-face, just as a man speaks with a friend” (Exod 33:11, GNB). Now, one would need to know God very well to talk to God like this. And surely Moses and Abraham knew God well. You recall how even Peter once dared to say “No” to God. In fact, he did it three times in his vision of the unclean animals (Acts 10:5-16). “There came a voice to him, `Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, `No, Lord’” (Acts 10:13-14, RSV). Did God rebuke Peter for doing that? No, this is the kind of relationship that God desires to have with us, His children.

How to Converse with God (15:3)

Conversation means at least two people speaking. But how do we converse with God when we can’t see Him because of the present emergency? In this emergency situation, He does not reveal Himself visibly to us, for our sakes. This is why the Bible is called the Word of God—it is God speaking to us. If we wish to hear God speak, except in extraordinary circumstances, He speaks to us through the Bible. We speak to Him in prayer. Truly, as someone has said, “We commune with God through the study of the Scriptures.”

I certainly find prayer much more meaningful while reading the Bible. Have you ever had the experience of talking to God while reading certain parts of the Scriptures? I often find myself saying out loud, “That’s magnificent!” Who am I talking to at that moment? That’s real conversation. We read and we listen in that way. And then we talk back to God.

Going back to the imaginary fellowship room, our heavenly Father waits and we begin to speak. What language should we use? Should we look at our heavenly Father respectfully and say, “We prithee Lord that Thou wouldst bestow unctions upon us from on high?” I think He would smile sweetly and say, “Please relax, you can talk a little more plainly if you wish.” Unless of course, you are used to talking that way all the time. But did the disciples talk to God that way? Did Moses? Did Abraham? No, they all used up to date, everyday speech. They wanted to be clear. It was the language of their times.

I believe if we began to speak to God in that fellowship room, we would surely be reverent, yet we would be conversing with a friend and should use the kind of language we would use with our closest friends. Just what that should be is a personal preference. But surely we would use the best possible language to clarify our convictions, our feelings, our desires, our admirations, and our worship. The important thing is to converse with our heavenly Father as with a friend.

So what language would you use? Jesus addressed His Father as “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36). Abba is the Aramaic word for “father.” So it is almost like saying, “Father, Father,” although it is a term of endearment. Some versions translate “Abba, Father” as “Dear Father,” the way some of us like to start our prayers. Paul urges us to do the same in Romans (8:15) and Galatians (4:6). He says that when the Spirit of Truth dwells within us, we will address the Father as “Dear Father.”

But most importantly, what would you talk about? Would you take time on such a precious occasion to say, “Thank you, God, for today’s groceries and here is my list for tomorrow, amen,” and then go on about your business? Or would you say, “Bless the missionaries as they carry the truth to the far-flung corners of the earth”? The Lord might say, “How sweet. How is it that you only think of these things when you are praying?” Of course, if you are the mother of a missionary, it would be appropriate for you to talk to God about your loved ones. But if we only think about missionaries when we talk to God, why do we talk about them and not the things we have really been thinking about all day?

You see, those well-worn phrases we think we ought to use when we pray, might seem rather empty when we are talking face to face with God. Suppose one of us left the meeting and walked with God through a garden nearby, wouldn’t it be natural to comment to God about the beauty and fragrance of a rose, and the beautiful sounds of the mockingbird? Or the lovely, lonely sound of the mourning dove? Couldn’t we tell Him how beautiful it was of Him to create things that way? Or would we simply say, “We thank thee, Lord, for the beauties of nature that surround us?” We do have such well-worn phrases to cover these things. It seems to me that if God really were our Friend, we would take time to talk about these everyday things, and to be as specific about them as we would be with other members of the family. We might even venture to ask Him about the thorns on a rose. “Did you put them there? If so, why?”

Talking with God Face to Face (15:2)

Imagine the Father appearing visibly at the front of your church, or even better, in a cozy fellowship room. A group would gather around Him there, just as the crowds did around Jesus. Suppose we could talk there freely with God the Father for a whole hour. Would it be appropriate at the end for someone among us to rise and say, “This has been such a special occasion, don’t you think we ought to close this meeting with a word of prayer?” Or would it be correct to understand that, having just been in conversation with our God as with a friend, we have been praying the whole hour long?

Or could such a conversation only be possible with Jesus the Son? Is it even thinkable that we could converse with the Father, the awesome One, as with a friend? The disciples wondered about this. They were comfortable with Jesus, and appreciated how He wanted them to regard themselves as His friends. He said this more than once. One of those places is John 15:15, RSV: “I have called you friends. . . .” Their friendship with Jesus prompted Phillip to say, “Could the Father be like you?” John 14:8. You may remember Jesus’ answer: “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. . . . Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:7, 9, NIV).

Marvelous as that is, I think much of our theology and worship fails to recognize that magnificent truth, to know the Son is to know the Father. That is why Jesus went on to say those stunning words, hardly ever incorporated into Christian theology: “There is no need for me to pray to the Father for you, for the Father loves you Himself” (based on John 16:26-27). Notice Goodspeed’s translation of the same text: “I do not promise to intercede with the Father for you, for the Father loves you himself.”

How hard it has been for God to convince us that He really is our Friend. Centuries ago, when He came to speak to the people on Mount Sinai, they were so terrified (Exod 19:16) that they said to Moses, “Don’t let God speak to us, lest we die” (Exod 20:19). But Moses stood there in the midst of all the thunder and lightning and said to the people, “There is no need to be afraid” (Exod 20:20). You see, all those centuries before Christ, Moses already understood the truth that John wrote about: “There is no fear in love; perfect love drives out all fear. So then, love has not been made perfect in anyone who is afraid, because fear has to do with punishment” (1 John 4:18, GNB).

If you were ushered right now into the presence of God, would you be afraid He might hurt you? That He might hit you? Do you trust Him with His almighty power? On the day that every one of us approaches God, the way we approach Him will reveal the kind of person we are persuaded He really is. With this series of conversations in mind, then, let’s go back with renewed courage to the imaginary fellowship room where God is waiting. Whether the One there is Father, Son, or Holy Spirit should make no difference to us. For Paul said in Romans 8 that all three are on our side, all three are our Friends.

Now as we walk into the room, we know that God is the all powerful Creator of the whole vast universe. We know that the mighty angels, sinless as they are, stand overwhelmed with awe and wonder at the majesty and glory of God. Nevertheless, if we are afraid to go in, God has failed to convince us of the truth about Himself. And Jesus has also failed to convince us, not just with His words, but with what He has demonstrated to be true when He was here: That God is infinitely powerful, but equally gracious, and there is no need to be afraid. And so, overwhelmed with awe, we venture to go inside anyway.

God is seated there and we gather around Him. What should we say? Should one of us be the first to speak? Once we have started speaking, would we talk all the time? Or would we let God speak now and then? Normally, when we pray we do all the talking, don’t we? And when we’re done, we say “Amen” and go about our business, or go to sleep. That kind of prayer would be like meeting in a room with our heavenly Father, talking to Him incessantly for several minutes, and then saying, “Amen, thank you very much,” and then leaving. It wouldn’t make sense if He were there, would it? It certainly wouldn’t be the kind of conversation one has with a friend.