Friday, 22 November 2013

"Lord, give me a parking space...!"

“Lord, give me a parking space...!”

Have you ever prayed a prayer like that? A trivial prayer. Possibly a selfish prayer. Perhaps even an irresponsible prayer (especially if it’s your own stupid fault that you’re running late in the first place). I heard somebody once testify in a meeting to how wonderful and kind God was on the basis of that very prayer being answered. And it made me feel uncomfortable.

In a world awash with pain and sorrows and terrors, is a Christian ever justified in asking such a prayer? (Let’s drop that rather loaded word trivial and just call them “little” prayers.) My answer is simple: Yes, but...

First, the Yes.

God is our Father, a loving heavenly Father. And surely for any loving father nothing is too small to care about when it comes to his children. If it matters to your child then it matters also to you, as a father or mother. So why shouldn’t we assume that anything that matters to us matters also to God? And why then shouldn’t we bring it to him in prayer? That reasoning seems fine to me.

But there is also the But. In fact my But is threefold.

First, the Bible offers us very few, if any, such prayers. Can you think of one? It's hard to think of a Jeremiah or a Job, an Elijah or a Peter or a Paul - not to mention Jesus himself - praying in this way. You could say that “Give us today our daily bread” is rather selfish, even though Jesus tells us to pray it. But praying for the basic necessities of life is hardly little or trivial, especially if you are one of the millions in our world who is starving. 

Still, even if, for want of any better example, I would tend to be hesitant about praying little prayers, I certainly don’t rule it out. There have been many occasions when I have done so myself, and felt great comfort as a result. 

Second, if you do feel you want to pray a prayer like this, fine, go right ahead, but don’t build too much on it. God is very gracious, and may sometimes even be willing to bail us out of our own folly. But if he does, let’s not take it for granted. The next time he may not be so co-operative. Perhaps he will want to help us grow up a little. Perhaps he will want to teach us an unwelcome lesson. Such an answer really doesn’t prove anything, beyond the fact that God is gracious – and we knew that already, didn’t we?

The third But is the big one. If you want to pray such a prayer, fine – but please keep it to yourself! I think that this really is what made me feel uncomfortable about that person in the meeting. I don’t doubt her sincerity in how she prayed. And I don’t doubt that the answer, while of course it could have just been coincidence, may well have been truly from God. But why make it public? Wouldn’t it have been better kept as just a little private love token between her and her God?

My difficulty is this. Suppose there is someone in that meeting who is not a Christian, or is perhaps a Christian passing through a tough and stressful time? Mightn’t such a story make them feel even more hurt than they already were, perhaps even bitter? “So this God these people worship is happy to find someone a parking space when they need one – but he didn’t heal my little boy of leukaemia when I cried out to him with all my heart!”... “This God gave that person a nice sunny day when they planned a walk in the park – great! But he didn’t save my marriage when my heart was breaking.”... “If God really is so caring, why didn’t he divert just a bit of that care to those poor people swept away in the typhoon?” 

In a word, going public about such answers to prayer could have the effect of putting up a barrier to someone searching for God, of bruising an already tender faith, of stirring up cynicism. And quite apart from that, it raises all sorts of genuine questions which we need to be prepared to face up to.

I say again – There is nothing wrong with little prayers; God is indeed our gracious Father, and he cares. But when he chooses to answer such a prayer, let’s treat it not only with gratitude and gladness, but also with maturity and sensitivity.