One of my favorite childhood possessions is an autographed card of the great receiver, Cris Carter, who used to play for my favorite team, the Minnesota Vikings. This card, like many gifts in life, came to me because I asked for it. In fourth grade one of our assignments was to write a letter to a famous person and ask for their autograph. I chose Cris Carter, and I really did not expect anything in return, but a few weeks after I sent off the letter to him I received a signed card in an envelope in my mailbox. I was so shocked I almost dropped the card, almost as if it was so precious that my hands would defile it.
I have to remind myself again and again that throughout scripture this is how prayer is explained; that we often will not get something unless we ask for it. It is hard to imagine that I would have ever received an autographed card unless I asked for it.
In the New Testament letter written by James, he says very plainly, “You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” We quarrel and fight with our spouse because we want them to love us beyond what is humanly possible. We fight with co-workers because we want them to let us know that we matter and that our ideas matter.
We cannot get our deeper desires met unless we ask for them. “There is something in me that recoils a little at speaking so directly and childishly,” writes Frederick Buechner about this very reality, “but I speak this way anyway because it is the most important thing I have in me to say. Ask, and you will receive. And there is the other side too: if you have never known the power of God’s love, then maybe it is because you have never asked to know it - I mean really asked, expecting an answer.”
A large challenge in all of this is that some of us have spent time praying for something good and greater than our own pleasure, and God has not answered that prayer. Some of us have prayed for loved ones to live and not die, or to be able to have a child, or to find someone to share your life with, and God answered with nothing. The message from Buechner and James is that God is wanting to answer the desire of your heart that is deeper than any one physical need. God longs to answer the desire behind whatever situation you long to happen or unhappen.
We are going through the Psalms this summer in part because we need to experience their honesty and their soul-searching prayers. I hope that the Psalms have shaped some of you as they have shaped me. They have made me very aware of how little I ask of God, and that I should not be surprised that I have seen little of him.
Sometimes we overthink prayer, unsure what to say or what to ask for. Again I think the Psalms can help us as we see that they just let flow out of them whatever is in them. If you want some more guidance I recommend a recent book written by Anne Lammot that is astutely titled, “Help, Thanks, Wow.” She walks through these three words as the basis for the essentials of the three prayers that we offer to God. It’s hard to think of any other words that would be necessary to add.
My prayer for all of us is to seek God to show up in our lives in meaningful ways. That we would experience the power of his love in our life, that we would know his peace, and experience his joy. Even for those of you who are skeptical of Christianity, this is a great practice for you too. If God answers your prayers maybe that is a sign that it all could be true? That God does love us and he showed us the greatness of his love in Jesus. The one who loves us enough to hang on a cross in our behalf, and who always pursues us with open arms.
I hope too that we would also ask God to use us to be his people who continue to do his work in this world. The other side of this prayer is that God often shapes us to be this kind of people and that process is not always pleasant, but it is always worth it in the end. In the end when all will be well and all of are unanswered prayers will make sense.