Why Pray by Philip Yancey
All the quotations below are from Philip Yancey’s book, “Prayer: Does It make Any Difference?” published in 2006.
Prayers like gravel Flung at the sky’s window, hoping to attract the loved one’s attention . . . R.S. Thomas
Does God really care about the details of our lives, such as getting a house sold or finding a lost cat? And if the answer is yes, then what about a hurricane that flattens a city or a tsunami that washes away a quarter of a million people? Why does God seem so capricious in deciding if and when to intervene on this chaotic planet?
Prayers of request tend to fall into one of two categories: trouble or trivia. As if by instinct we cry out to God when trouble strikes. A parent hovering over a sick child, a frightened plane passenger, a sailor caught in a lightning storm—we call upon God when in danger, sometimes with an appeal no more articulate than `Oh, God!’ At that moment, forget any lofty notion of keeping company with God. I want help from some Power greater than I. `There are no atheists in foxholes,’ Army chaplains like to say.
We also pray for trivial things. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace a hunter prays earnestly that the hunted wolf might come in his direction. `Why not grant me this?’ he asks God. `I know Thou art great and that it’s wrong to pray about this; but for God’s sake make the old wolf come my way and let Karay [a dog] spring at it—in front of “Uncle” who is watching from over there—and fix his teeth in its throat and finish it off!’
In part to put behind him the bitter taste of divorce, a friend of mine travelled to South America and visited a national park. He prayed diligently, with all the right motives he assured me, to see some rare mammals and snakes. To increase the odds he stayed awake during the night and even spent twenty hours on a mosquito-ridden treetop platform. Others in the eco-tour group happened across rare mammals by chance, while time and again my friend just missed seeing them. He returned from the trip wondering if God ever intervenes: neither his urgent prayers against the divorce nor his worshipful prayers to appreciate the wonders of nature met an answer.
Of course, if our trivial prayers do get answered—if Tolstoy’s wolf had walked toward Rostov and a menagerie of indigenous mammals had paraded before my friend’s spotting tower—that raises other, serious problems. As one philosophy professor put it, `If God can influence the course of events, then a God who is willing to cure colds and provide parking spaces but is not willing to prevent Auschwitz and Hiroshima is morally repugnant. Since Hiroshima and Auschwitz did occur, one must infer that God cannot (or has a policy never to) influence the course of worldly events.’
Even for one who rejects the professor’s extreme conclusion, the haunting questions linger.
What is the Point?
Not wanting to treat prayer as an abstraction, I opened a filing cabinet and read through letters I have received from readers of my books. They pose questions about prayer not in the abstract, but personally, often poignantly.
A prisoner wrote from Indiana, `God’s overall supervision of creation is scripturally clear, but does He concern himself at all, to the point of intervention, in our daily trivial lives? Or are His promises of help aimed only at our spiritual self, to help how we respond to events, not to affect events themselves?’ He mentioned his own troubling circumstances—his incarceration, a sister in divorce proceedings, a girlfriend jilting him—and then told of an inner-city family he stays close to.
The teen son has endured chronic asthma, a touch of cerebral palsy, physical abuse by his father, shame for his various disabilities and, finally, the murder of his mother. Something’s wrong when all that can happen to innocents like them, especially when Jesus spoke so poignantly about His protection for the meek and doing good to `the least of these’. I keep going back to the scene where I drove that teen out to find his mother’s grave site only to discover that his relatives hadn’t been rich enough to buy a headstone. Begging God’s intervention in any part of those sad people’s lives would not be considered a request for frivolous magic but the merest mercy.
The prisoner had read about filmmaker Francis Ford Coppolla, who directed one of his movies entirely from a remote trailer, watching the proceedings on a bank of monitors and communicating with the actors and staff through a microphone and headsets. Does God run the world like that? he asked.
Another reader, from Idaho, described his struggles with prayer as middleclass whining about such things as college debts, poor money management, marriage struggles, a failing business, an aging father. The tone of the letter quickened, though, when he mentioned his son, who because of a stroke at birth had grown up with a severely deformed foot and a useless hand. ‘We pray daily for his body to be healed,’ wrote the father. Does God care about such matters? Most of us have secret desires—if not for healing; then for success, happiness, security, peace. `Do we dare ask God for some of these things? … I’m looking for a road that I can walk on, and teach my son.’
A woman, aged forty-one, wrote first about her conversion as a Jewish believer in Jesus, and then of a daunting trial, breast cancer that had spread to lungs and liver. Sometimes she would pull away from God completely, but then `after sulking in silence for a period of days or weeks, I would come back to God slowly and reluctantly, a pout still on my face, but recognising that I didn’t know how to live apart from God.’ Throughout the long ordeal, she agonised over how to pray.
What is the point of praying for something to happen? I can understand the point of praying as a means of simply trying to establish communion with God. But why should I pray for someone to be healed or for my husband to get a job or for my parents to come to salvation? I pray for others because I often feel helpless to do anything else, and I cling to hope that maybe, just maybe this time it will matter.
My spiritual leaders are always admonishing our congregation to spend hours in prayer, interceding for those in need. Why, if God has plans and knows what we want and need and what’s best for us, should I spend hours asking him to change his mind? And how do I pray with faith when it seems that the kind of prayer I am lifting up rarely gets answered?
She told of the hundreds of people who were praying for her healing from cancer, and wondered whether their prayers mattered. `Am I more likely to get healed than my friend who also has cancer but has only a handful of people regularly praying for her? I sometimes joke that God has got to heal me or he will have to answer to every one of those people who is praying for me.’ She teaches an elementary class in a Christian school and one day gave this assignment: If you met Jesus walking down the street, what would you ask him? Most of the students wrote questions of curiosity: `What is heaven like?’ and `How was it when you were a kid?’ One student wrote, `Why won’t you heal my mum?’ and `Why doesn’t my dad find a job?’ With a pang, she recognised the student’s handwriting—her own son’s.
The most disturbing letter spoke of the fresh wound of an unanswered prayer. For years two parents had prayed for protection for their emotionally troubled son. One day they got a call from their daughter, who had just found the young man, age twenty-two, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. The letter recorded their simple response to God: `Lord, we prayed regularly for all three of our children—didn’t You hear our prayers?’ Then the mother wrote out some of her favourite verses from the Bible: `Ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you … I will never leave you, I will never forsake you … My grace is sufficient … In all things God works for the good of those who love Him.’ How could she reconcile those verses with her son’s suicide?
Jesus at Prayer
Although I replied to each of these letters, doing so left me with more questions than answers. All that follows—indeed the very existence of this book—flows out of my search for answers, and I will approach these questions from different angles as I circle the mystery of prayer. What can I discover about prayer that might somehow offer consolation?
As a starting point I take the real-life stories of a prisoner, a middle-class man from Idaho, a 41-year-old breast cancer survivor, and a family devastated by suicide and look for insights from the first-century rabbi who changed the world. Surely Jesus must have known the potential as well as the limitations of prayer. I have said that the simplest answer to the question `Why pray?’ is `Because Jesus did.’ What relevance might Jesus’ prayers have for the people who wrote me letters?
The Gospels record just over a dozen specific prayers by Jesus, along with several parables and teachings on the subject. He followed the normal Jewish practice of visiting the synagogue, the `house of prayer’, and of praying at least three times a day. We can safely assume that Jesus also prayed in private, for when his disciples asked for instruction on prayer Jesus said they should seclude themselves. Such prayers in solitude made an impression on his followers: five times the Gospels mention Jesus’ practice of praying alone.
Like most of us, Jesus turned to prayer in times of trouble. No doubt he prayed intensely as he fasted and meditated on the Bible during his time of wilderness tempting. He prayed aloud as the rendezvous with death approached, the words expressing his inner turmoil: `Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.’ His prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane pushed him to the edge of endurance, and three times he fell to the ground, overcome. Jesus’ prayers held back nothing.
Two of the prayers in troubled times (the Abba in Gethsemane and Eloi from the cross) were so moving that words from the original Semitic language stuck in the minds of hearers. Of the seven cries from the cross, at least three were prayers. Hebrews reports that `he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death’—but of course he was not saved from death. Like the people who wrote me letters, like all of us at times, Jesus knew the sensation of getting no answer to his pleas.
The other typical form of request, prayer for trivial things, apparently had little place in Jesus’ practice. Common, everyday things, yes: the Lord’s Prayer mentions daily bread, temptations and broken relationships, but these requests are hardly trivial. Jesus’ prayers, in fact, show a remarkable lack of concern about his own needs. `Take this cup from me’ may represent the only time Jesus asked something for himself.
If he made few requests on his own behalf, Jesus often lifted up prayers for others. He prayed for children brought to him by their mothers, and for `the people standing here’ at Lazarus’s grave side, and for Simon Peter who faced a time of testing. In his final intercessory prayer, one last gasp of grace, he asked on behalf of his persecutors, `Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’
When alone, Jesus relied on prayer as a kind of spiritual recharging. After an exhausting day of ministry—recruiting disciples, preaching to crowds, healing the sick—he would withdraw to an isolated place to pray. The tempter had used the lure of popularity and acclaim to test him in the wilderness, and perhaps Jesus needed to escape the clamour in order to firm up his resistance and renew his sense of mission. `I have food to eat that you know nothing about,’ he reassured his disciples, who worried over his lack of nourishment at such times.
Jesus’ prayers intensified around key events—his baptism, an all-night session before choosing his twelve disciples, on the Mount of Transfiguration—and especially as he prepared for his departure. Once, he burst into an exuberant prayer when a large group of his followers on a short-term mission returned with tales of spiritual triumph. He prayed for his disciples that the Holy Spirit would come as a `Counsellor to be with you forever’. In one long, magnificent prayer recorded in John 17, he prayed not only for the immediate disciples but for all of us throughout history who would believe in him because of their message.
Does Prayer Matter?
After surveying Jesus’ practice of prayer, I realise that his example does answer one important question about prayer: Does it matter? When doubts creep in and I wonder whether prayer is a sanctified form of talking to myself, I remind myself that the Son of God, who had spoken worlds into being and sustains all that exists, felt a compelling need to pray. He prayed as if it made a difference, as if the time he devoted to prayer mattered every bit as much as the time he devoted to caring for people.
A physician friend of mine who learned I was investigating prayer told me I would have to start with three rather large assumptions: (1) God exists; (2) God is capable of hearing our prayers; and (3) God cares about our prayers. `None of these three can be proved or disproved,’ he said. `They must either be believed or disbelieved.’ He is right, of course, although for me the example of Jesus offers strong evidence in favour of that belief. To discount prayer, to conclude that it does not matter, means to view Jesus as deluded.
In keeping with his race, Jesus truly believed that prayer could change things. Romans of the time prayed to their gods as one would finger a good luck charm, not really expecting much. The sceptical Greeks derided prayer, their playwrights weaving foolish, ridiculous and even obscene prayers into their plays to provoke the audience to uproarious laughter. Only the stubborn Jews, despite their tragic history of unanswered prayers, contended that a supreme and loving God ruled the earth, listened to their prayers and would someday respond.
Jesus claimed to be part of that response, the fulfilment of the Jewish longing for Messiah. `Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,’ he once said, and went about exhibiting the will of the Father: by feeding the hungry, healing the sick and liberating the captives. When I get letters from people with intractable problems, I tell them I cannot answer the `Why?’ questions. I can, though, answer another question, and that is how God feels about their plight. We know how God feels, because Jesus gave us a face, one sometimes streaked with tears. We can follow Jesus through the Gospels and see how he responds to a widow who has lost her son, to an outcast woman whose bleeding won’t stop, even to a Roman officer whose servant has fallen ill. In his tender mercy, Jesus gave us a visible sign of how the Father must hear our prayers even now.
`Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,’ Jesus taught us to pray, and he of all people knew the contrast between the two places. On earth Jesus daily confronted tokens of opposition to that will. Mothers thrust sick babies toward him, beggars called out, widows grieved, demons mocked him, enemies stalked him. In such an alien environment, he turned to prayer both as a refuge from mewling crowds and as a reminder of his true home, a place that had no room for evil, pain and death.
Jesus clung to prayer as to a lifeline, for it gave him both the guidance and the energy to know and do the Father’s will. To maintain belief in the `real’ world from which he came, to nourish memory of eternal light, he had to work at it all night on occasion, or rise before daybreak. Even then he sometimes grew exasperated with his earthly surroundings (‘0 unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you?’), sometimes fought temptation (‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’), and sometimes doubted (‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’)
Sceptics raise questions about prayer’s usefulness. If God knows best,what’s the point? As one pastor asked me, `Should I just stop bothering him with my petty requests for myself and others, and let God get on with the business of running the universe while I do my best to take care of things down here?’ To such questions, I have no better answer than the example of Jesus, who knew above any of us the wisdom of the Father and yet who felt a strong need to flood the heavens with requests.
Although Jesus offered no metaphysical proofs of the effectiveness of prayer, the very fact that he did it establishes its worth. `Ask and you will receive,’ he said frankly, a rebuke to anyone who considers petition a primitive form of prayer. When his disciples failed to heal an afflicted boy, Jesus had a simple explanation: lack of prayer.
And yet, it appears, prayer was no simple matter even for Jesus. I once wrote an article titled `Jesus’ Unanswered Prayers’, and it gave me wistful comfort to review the record of Jesus’ prayers and find that in respect to prayer, too, he fully shared the human condition. Like the people who write me letters, Jesus knows the heartbreak of unanswered prayers. His longest prayer, after all, centres in a request for unity, `that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.’ The slightest acquaintance with church history (at recent count 34,000 distinct denominations and sects) shows how far that prayer remains from being answered.
I included in my list of problematic prayers the night when Jesus sought guidance for choosing the twelve disciples whom he would entrust with his mission. `Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God,’ Luke records. `When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles.’ Yet as I read the Gospels, I marvel that this dodgy dozen could constitute the answer to any prayer. They included, Luke pointedly notes, `Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor’, not to mention the ambitious Sons of Thunder and the hothead Simon, whom Jesus would once address as `Satan’. When Jesus later sighed in exasperation over these twelve, `How long shall I put up with you?’ I wonder if he momentarily questioned the Father’s guidance back on the mountainside.
In his provocative book The Gospel According to Judas, theologian Ray Anderson ponders Jesus’ selection of Judas as one of the twelve. Did Jesus foresee Judas’s destiny the night he prayed? Did he remind the Father of that prayer as Judas left the Last Supper table to betray him? Anderson draws from the experience of Judas a key principle about prayer: `Prayer is not a means of removing the unknown and unpredictable elements in life, but rather a way of including the unknown and unpredictable in the outworking of the grace of God in our lives.’
Jesus’ own prayers for his disciples surely did not remove the `unknown and unpredictable elements’. The twelve periodically surprised and disappointed Jesus with their petty concerns and their inadequate faith. In the end, all twelve failed him at the hour of his deepest need. Eventually, however, eleven of the twelve underwent a slow but steady transformation, providing a kind of long-term answer to Jesus’ original prayer. John, a Son of Thunder, softened into `the apostle of Love’. Simon Peter, who earned Jesus’ rebuke by recoiling from the idea of Messiah suffering, later showed how to `follow in his steps’ by suffering as Christ did. The one exception, Judas, betrayed Jesus and yet that very act led to the cross and the salvation of the world. In strange and mysterious ways, prayer incorporates the unknown and unpredictable in the outworking of God’s grace.
Although Jesus’ prayers do not offer a foolproof formula, they do give clues as to how God works—and does not work—on this planet. Especially when trouble strikes, we want God to intervene more decisively, but Jesus’ prayers underscore God’s style of restraint out of respect for human freedom. Often God rules by overruling.
One scene in particular shows the built-in limitations of prayer. ‘Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat,’ Jesus informed Peter, pointedly using his old name. `But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.’ With characteristic bluster Peter insisted he would follow Jesus to prison and to death, and it was then Jesus revealed the ugly truth that actually Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed that same day. I cannot help wondering why Jesus didn’t flat-out deny Satan’s request to test Simon: `No, he’s off limits. You can’t touch him!’ Or why didn’t Jesus miraculously embolden Peter so that he could withstand the sifting? Instead he chose the more subtle tack of praying that Peter’s faith not fail.
Of course, Peter’s faith did fail, three times. Does this request belong in the list of Jesus’ unanswered prayers? Or does it, rather, hint at the underlying pattern of how God operates on earth? The scene with Peter has fascinating parallels with the account of Judas. There too, a trusted disciple failed a test of faith, with consequences that seemed catastrophic. Luke, staggered by such a treachery, reports simply, `Then Satan entered Judas.’ How else to explain such a deed?
Judas and Peter both got caught up in a drama of spiritual warfare that they could neither recognise nor fathom. Satan directly pursued both disciples, yet each bore a measure of personal responsibility, for Satan conquers no one without co-operation. Both men miserably failed their test of faith, betraying a master they had followed for three years. Nonetheless, even after their failure both faced the possibility of redemption. One realised his error and hung himself. The other realised his error, repented and became a pillar of the Church. Is it possible that Jesus’ prayer for Peter kept him from becoming another Judas? And what might Jesus have prayed for Judas—he who taught us to pray for our persecutors and himself did so from the cross? Their last scene together has Jesus saying to Judas, `Friend, do what you came for.’
Peter’s testing faintly echoes the plot of Job: Satan asks permission to work mischief, God grants it and then, showing puzzling restraint, waits to see how the tested human will respond. Peter, like Job, like everyone, had the freedom to pass or fail the test. Jesus adds one more factor: his own fervent prayer on Peter’s behalf. The working out of this plot, in people like Job, Judas and Peter, throws light on the great puzzle of human history. Why does God `sit on his hands’ while Satan works mischief, while evil tyrants oppress good people, while a traitor delivers God’s own Son to the enemy?
The Bible draws a strong contrast between the freedom-crushing style of evil and the freedom-respecting style of good. In a vivid scene of possession by an evil spirit, Mark 9 shows a young boy foaming at the mouth, gnashing his teeth and throwing himself into fire or water. In every way evil possession transforms the boy into a caricature of a human being, forcibly overwhelming human freedom. Contrast that scene with possession by the Holy Spirit. Paul warns, `Quench not the Spirit’ and `grieve not the Holy Spirit of God.’ The Lord of the universe becomes so small, so freedom-respecting as to put himself somehow at our mercy.
Words fail to capture the enormity of descent when a sovereign God takes up residence in a person and says, in effect, `Don’t hurt me. Don’t push me away.’ The poet John Donne prayed, `Batter my heart, three-person’d God.’ But God rarely does. God woos, and waits.
Jesus’ prayers for Peter—and perhaps for Judas as well—express God’s unfathomable respect for human freedom. Even when he senses his close friend will betray him, Jesus does not intervene with a freedom-crushing miracle. He allows history to take its course, at enormous personal cost, praying all the while that even betrayal and death may be redeemed as part of the outworking of the grace of God. For Peter’s sake, for Judas’s, and for the world’s, that prayer found an answer.
I learn as much from the prayers Jesus did not pray as from those he did. These, too, underscore God’s mysterious style of working on this planet. When his cousin John faced imprisonment and certain execution, Jesus did not pray for his release and miraculous delivery—just as he did not pray that Satan keep hands off Peter, nor that Judas change his mind.
And, in a tantalising aside, Jesus reprimanded Peter for his violent resistance in Gethsemane: `Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?’ A Roman legion comprised 6,000 soldiers, which means Jesus chose not to pray for 72,000 celestial reinforcements at the moment of his arrest! Judas and Peter both heard the bold claim, but evidently neither believed it, Judas proceeding with his treachery and Peter fleeing into the darkness.
As a result of Jesus’ un-prayed prayer, instead of movies depicting a sky full of warrior-angels and ferocious cosmic combat, we get Mel Gibson’s movie of a solitary figure whose body is lashed into shreds of skin. What if Jesus had prayed that prayer? How would history have changed? Jesus could have put an end to evil—and to all human history, for that matter—by praying for heavenly rescue forces, but he elected not to. Instead of a triumphant victory by force, he opted for a much more arduous (for him and for the rest of us) path to redemption.
All who struggle with God can look back to that dark night when the Son of God himself struggled with the Father.
‘Abba, Father,’ he said, `everything is possible for you.’ Ah, there is a way out. I need not endure the pain and humiliation after all. Everything is indeed possible. Legions of angels await my command.
`Take this cup from me.’ There, I’ve said it. The un-prayed prayer has passed my lips. I give in, give up. I cannot bear the future, cannot bear the present. There must be some other way. I beg you, Father, if there is any other way…
`Yet not what I will, but what you will.’ More than anything, I will rescue and deliverance from the enemy. That is what you will also—only not just for me but for the world. We cannot have one without surrendering the other and that, of course, is why I came. Therefore I yield. Your greater, more costly will, Father, becomes mine.
In that struggle, by all accounts an authentic one of sweat and blood and ardent appeals to heaven, Jesus’ fate was sealed—by his own choice. Astonishingly, a spirit of tranquillity carried him through everything that followed: the trials before the Sanhedrin, Herod and Pilate, the beatings, the torture, the crucifixion itself. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ does not always depict it that way, but in the Gospels’ accounts Jesus is the least intimidated, most composed character on the scene. When he volunteers himself to the arresting guards, they draw back and fall to the ground. Jesus is calling the shots, as he reminds Pilate: `You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.’
For most of us prayer serves as a resource to help in a time of testing or conflict. For Jesus, it was the battle itself. Once the Gethsemane prayers had aligned him with the Father’s will, what happened next was merely the means to fulfil it. Prayer mattered that much. In the words of Haddon Robinson,
Where was it that Jesus sweat great drops of blood? Not in Pilate’s Hall, nor on his way to Golgotha. It was in the Garden of Gethsemane. There he `offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the One who could save him from death’ (Hebrews 5:7). Had I been there and witnessed that struggle, I would have worried about the future. `If he is so broken up when all he is doing is praying,’ I might have said, `what will he do when he faces a real crisis? Why can’t he approach this ordeal with the calm confidence of his three sleeping friends?’ Yet, when the test came, Jesus walked to the cross with courage, and his three friends fell apart and fell away.
In the end, what can I learn from Jesus’ example about how prayer works? More to the point, what can I tell the people whose letters I quoted early in this chapter? I wish I could tell them that the Lord’s Prayer would find a speedier answer—that God’s will shall soon be done on this earth as it is in heaven. I believe in miracles, but I also believe they are miracles, meaning rare exceptions to the normal laws that govern the planet. I cannot, nor can anyone, promise that prayer will solve all problems and eliminate all suffering. At the same time, I also know that Jesus commanded his followers to pray, certain that it makes a difference in a world full of opposition to God’s will.
For whatever reason, God now tolerates a world in which fathers abuse their physically disabled sons, children live with congenital birth defects, breast cancers metastasise and distressed young people commit suicide. Why does God so rarely step in and bring miraculous intervention to our prayer requests? Why is suffering distributed so randomly and unfairly? No one knows the complete answer to those questions. For a time, God has chosen to operate on this broken planet mostly from the bottom up rather than from the top down—a pattern that God’s own Son subjected himself to on earth. Partly out of respect for human freedom, God often allows things to play out `naturally’.
Even so, God surely feels the same compassion for human suffering that Jesus demonstrated as he walked among us. When Jesus looked out over the city of Jerusalem, knowing what its leaders had in store for him, he cried out, `O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.’ Though not a parent, he knew well the helpless state of loving parents who watch their children make self-destructive choices. As I pray, I keep before me the compassionate face of Jesus.
Jesus knew, too, the cost of divine restraint, the deeply personal cost of letting the world have its way with him. He understood that redemption comes from passing through the pain, not avoiding it: `for the joy set before him [he] endured the cross.’ Somehow redeemed suffering is better than no suffering at all, Easter better than skipping Good Friday altogether. Although Jesus knew the redemptive pattern in advance—he had revealed it to his disciples—how remote it must have seemed to him in the Garden and on the via dolorosa. How remote it seems to all of us in the midst of our trials.
Jesus’ prayer for Peter shows the same pattern in sharp relief. Satan partially got his way with Peter, sifting him like wheat. But in answer to Jesus’ prayer, the sifting rid Peter of his least attractive qualities: blustery self-confidence, a chip on his shoulder, a propensity to violence. The Gospels show Peter urging Jesus to avoid the cross, cowering in the darkness the night of Jesus’ trial, and denying with an oath that he knows him. In the book of 1 Peter a transformed apostle uses words like `humble’ and `submit’, and welcomes suffering as a badge of honour.
God has not leashed the forces of evil, not yet anyway,* but has provided resources beyond our awareness, including the personal concern of the Son, to counter and even transform evil. We know that prayer matters because after leaving earth Jesus made it one of his primary tasks: `Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.’ As Jesus once prayed for Peter, now he prays for us, including all those whose letters I quoted. In fact, the New Testament’s only glimpse of what Jesus is doing right now depicts him at the right hand of God `interceding for us’. In three years of active ministry, Jesus changed the moral landscape of the planet. For nearly two thousand years since he has been using another tactic: prayer.
When I betray the love and grace God has shown me, I fall back on the promise that Jesus prays for me, as he did for Peter: not that I would never face testing, nor ever fail, but that in the end I will allow God to use the testing and failure to mould me into someone more useful to the kingdom, someone more like Jesus.[63-78]
*The Bible promises that this style of working is temporary. Contrast Jesus’ prayer for Peter with this prediction of how Jesus will handle evil in the future: `And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendour of his coming.’