On Hebrews 5:1-10 and Prayer

I’m going to do something I almost never do on any of my blogs—re-post. But first a few comments.

Hebrews 5:1-10 is the epistle lesson from this week’s lectionary. Hebrews has always held a special place in my heart (my study guide on it), because it is such beautiful prose bringing a very deep message. In addition, passages such as Hebrews 1:1-4 and 4:12-14 helped shape my views of scripture and my christology at the same time, and Hebrews 6 became a key passage at a pivotal point in my own experience. (This isn’t “book advertising” week, but I discuss that experience in my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic.)

But one of the most critical passages for me has been this one, which has helped in developing my understanding of prayer and its value and purpose in the life of a Christian disciple.

Since our son James died, Jody and I have found that the one thing most people want to hear about when we speak or teach is just how one lives through such a thing. How do you deal with the grief? How do you deal with the questions? Why would God let your child die while you were busy teaching about prayer?

On this especially I must let Jody answer for herself. Each person’s walk with God in such a situation is individual. In many ways my answer is much like that in another of this week’s lectionary passages, Job 38. I don’t know why, but I know God. But then I also realize that I don’t even know God all that well, but I can still strive to know what surpasses knowledge and in that active relationship, I can withstand even the whirlwind.

So herewith the re-posted post from May 3, 2007:

7Who, in the days of his flesh, offered entreaties and petitions to the one who was able to save him from death with loud cries and tears, and he was heard because of his piety. 8Even though he was a son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered, 9and being made whole he became a means of eternal salvation to all those who obey him, 10since he was designated by God as a priest according to the priestly order of Melchizedek. — Hebrews 5:7-10

I’m writing this on the national day of prayer. A “national” day of prayer makes me wonder just what we’re praying for and how. But it reminded me of a question I hear frequently: “Why should anyone pray if they’re not going to get what they pray for?” That question starts with a false premise. It assumes that you won’t. But since I believe that quite often you will not get what you pray for, I should give it consideration.

In Hebrews 5:7-10, we have the statement that Jesus prayed. He prayed to “the one who was able to save him from death.” I presume such a prayer might have, and did, occur many times during his ministry, but likely this reference is primarily to his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” He also placed that prayer under subjection to God’s will. Now if the text stopped in the middle of verse seven, we might imagine that the prayer of Jesus was not heard because he didn’t get what he was asking for.

But the text explicitly says that Jesus was heard. And there is what’s hard for us to get hold of. Praying is not about getting stuff. Praying is about our communion with God. That’s why all these scientific tests about prayer and healing largely miss the mark. They’re interesting, but the can’t test prayer because prayer is not a means of getting things.

What if the prayer of Jesus was counted in a scientific test? It would certainly go into the “failed” column. He didn’t get what he asked for. And yet he was heard, and what actually happened was better–in the end–than what he had requested. It happens that way because there’s a lot more knowledge on God’s end of the prayer than on mine.

So a national day of prayer invites me to commune with God, and that is the only purpose I have to have. If I have communed with God, my prayer worked. The amazing thing is that I often would rather have God do it my way. I’m in touch with infinite power and infinite knowledge, but what I ask is that God use his infinite power to make things work the way I–oh so incredibly finite–want them to.

One of the most blessed characteristics of this universe is that God doesn’t always answer our prayers in the way that we would prefer.

Jesus was the great example of this. One thing was refused him–escape from the cross. Through that one refusal, a refusal he invited by saying “not my will but yours,” our salvation was secured.

Aren’t you thankful that God doesn’t do things your way?

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