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"Ask and it shall be given."

So lots of people asked that 33 miners trapped a half mile beneath the earth be rescued. And they were.

It's the sort of thing that makes prayer that much harder, don't you think?

Some people make it sound easy. "God has spoken to me clearly and guided my hand each step of the rescue," Carlos Parra Diaz, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor at the San Jose mine, told The Guardian. "He wanted the miners to be rescued and I am His instrument."

When extraordinary things like this happen, it brings out the megalomania in some people. But I think a local Catholic priest had it right: "God has heard our prayers." Lots of prayers from lots of people.

And it was given.

When this sort of thing happens, I feel like I'm being set up. If prayer never "worked," I could deal with it sensibly. I could just give it up. Or give up one type of prayer—intercession. Just stop praying that God would do this or that, change this or that. Prayer could just be communing with God. But when God answers prayer like this, it sets up this god-awful expectation that God gives to those who ask.

"Ask and it shall be given" is a nice, warm saying, but it should really be, "Ask and sometimes it will be given." Or more realistically, at least in my prayer experience, "Ask and once in a blue moon it will be given."

Answers to my prayers happen so rarely that I am SHOCKED, SHOCKED, when they happen. I'm not talking about everyday prayers—for safe travels or healing from a cold. God seems to take care of travelers and colds whether I pray for them or not. I'm talking about prayers for things I really care about, people I'm really worried about—that a friend might come to know Jesus, that a loved one will be healed of cancer, that a relative will give up drugs. There seems to be an inverse prayer corollary in my life: the more important the prayer, the less likely it will be answered. But indeed, once in a while a big prayer is answered—like the college friend who became a Christian, or a church member who was healed of cancer—and my jaw drops and my eyes fill with tears. I'm astounded, again, that God would answer prayer.

This after living the Christian life for over four decades.

* * *

When it comes to the REALLY BIG prayers, well, I'm a hearty believer. I regularly pray for peace on earth, but it hasn't done any good. Still, Jesus said it would happen, and so as far as I'm concerned, this prayer will be answered.

Some day, far in the future. That's the rub with REALLY BIG prayer. It's so far in the future that it feels pointless to pray it. It's so assured of happening—whether I pray or not—that you think, What's the use?

And yet Jesus tells me to pray such prayers: "Our Father … thy kingdom come." Pray for the thing that's going to happen whether you pray or not. Pray for the thing that is so far in the future and so unimaginable that you feel silly praying for it.

He's also the one who said, "Ask and it shall be given." I'm pretty sure he meant this for big and small prayers, and everything in between.

Ask for things that are likely to happen whether you pray or not.

Ask for things that are unlikely to happen.

Ask for things that get answered sometimes but not others.

Ask when you feel like asking is selfish. Ask when your asking feels foolish. Ask when you feel hopeless.

And it will be given.

* * *

It's that last state—feeling hopeless—that characterizes my prayer life most days. I have so few important-to-me prayers answered that I'm afraid to pray for such things anymore. Who wants to be disappointed with God again?

In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is Editor of Christianity Today in Carol Stream, Illinois.
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