While I usually don’t like to reduce the awesome, wondrous, mysterious ways that God works into a sound byte, there is one piece of such “bumper sticker theology” that is a good reminder of truth for us: “God is not an ATM machine.”
So often we treat God solely as the Great Giver in the Sky, who we submit our requests to and hope he gives them the green light so we get what we want. With that mindset, we treat prayer simply as a delivery system for our requests, like it is just the paperwork we’re required to fill out if we want to get everything on our spiritual Amazon wish list.
But God’s not like that, and prayer shouldn’t be like that.
Yes it’s true that Jesus said, “Ask and it shall be given to you” (Luke 11:9-13), but that doesn’t mean our prayers are like magic words–the spiritual equivalent of “Abra Cadabra”–that we say in order to make the divine magic happen. So what might Jesus have had in mind?
In the verses before “Ask and it shall be given,” Jesus tells his disciples the Lord’s Prayer: “When you pray, say…” (Luke (11:1–4).
The Lord’s Prayer should frame our understandings of the purpose and function of prayer. In thinking about the Lord’s Prayer, this article says the following good things:
This is a prayer that teaches us how to be in relationship with God, how to be God’s friends and partners in doing God’s will. When we pray this prayer we are learning how to work with God for the common good. We are learning how to participate in the realization of God’s rule of peace — justice for the poor, liberation for the oppressed, and the redemption of all creation. We are learning how to trust God’s provision to sustain us on our spiritual journey and empower us in our struggle against the powers that be. We are learning how to give and receive forgiveness and work for the reconciliation of all that is estranged and at odds. We are learning how to bring healing and hope to others and to enhance life on this planet in whatever ways we can.
Ahhhh. Now that’s some real transformation right there, with big effects. If prayer was just “God give me this” and we got it, how much would we change? (Answer: none.)
The point of prayer is to help strengthen our relationship with God so that our will gets ever-closer to God’s will. Eventually, the things we “want”–the things we ask for–will be exactly what God wants too. (Maybe that’s what it really means to ask for something “in God’s name.” See John 14:15.)
Prayer is our opportunity to connect with the Creator of the universe, so we shouldn’t waste it by treating God like an ATM or like Santa, and just waste the time listing what we want. That won’t change us or the world. But if we take prayer seriously and use it to tune our hearts to match God’s will, then we will discover incredible results.
How have you been changed by prayer?