“Lord, I believe. Help, thou, my unbelief.”
The Very Rev. Canon Robert S. Munday, Ph.D.
Rock and Roll fans of my generation will remember a song by The Doors, which begins with lead singer Jim Morrison speaking the words:
When I was back there in seminary school
Then with a sneer rising in his voice, Morrison repeats the words: “Petition the lord with prayer… Petition the lord with prayer…” Finally, angrily, defiantly, Morrison screams:
“You cannot petition the lord with prayer!”
The words from that old song came vividly to mind the other day as I read an account of Bishop John Shelby Spong speaking earlier this year in a Lenten series in a church. During the Q and A session, it is reported that Spong was asked if he believed in prayer. “No,” he responded. He went on to speak about his first wife, who died after a long illness, and of people who told him they prayed for her. Spong reportedly questioned why prayers for a bishop’s wife should be more efficacious than for someone else, and why someone should live or die simply because others prayed for them. No, he didn't believe in prayer.
Spong says this more definitely in his article entitled “A Call for a New Reformation,” where, in what have become known as Spong’s “12 Theses,” he says in Thesis No. 10: “Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.”
By coincidence, at the same time as reading these words of Bp. Spong, I happened to be reading a biography of that great Christian, Oswald Chambers, perhaps best known for his remarkable devotional guide, My Utmost for His Highest. Biographer Wesley Duewel recounts how the chief characteristic of Chambers’ life was that he prayed to God simply, as to a loving Father, and he trusted God for everything. “When [as a child] he went upstairs to bed each evening, he would pray. His family members often would stand on the stairs to listen to him pray. Whether he asked for guinea pigs in his childhood, or for a specific book he needed in his library as a young man, or for railway fare or passage money to Japan as an adult, Oswald simply asked God to answer and expected the result.” Later on a friend of Chambers’ wrote, “To hear Oswald pray was to be in the presence of God…. He seemed to live in uninterrupted communion with God.”
Another great example of prayer is seen in the life of George Muller. Muller made a promise never to solicit funds for the ministry in which he was engaged, but only to go to God in prayer about his needs. In response to prayer, God supplied Muller’s needs, often in miraculous ways, with the resources to build orphanages in Bristol, England, housing, at their peak, more than 3,000 children.
Against those who say, “You cannot petition the Lord with prayer,” we must put Oswald Chambers, George Muller, Gladys Aylward, Padre Pio, Mother Teresa, every saint in the Church’s calendar, and millions of Christians, in the past and in the present, who know the power of prayer. Conversation with our Heavenly Father who acts in us and in our world is the essence of the Christian life.
In Matthew, chapter 13, Jesus returns to his hometown, and the text tells us, “And He did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:58). In Mark, chapter 9, Jesus speaks with the father of a boy with an evil spirit, and says to him, “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24).
Doubt is not the same as unbelief. Doubts are obstacles to faith; unbelief is resistance to faith. God can deal with the honest doubts of an inquiring mind. Unbelief chokes off the possibility that God can act and fails to recognize it when God does. Unbelief often springs from the recognition that if I accept a certain truth about God, I will have to live in accordance with that truth.
Jesus’ disciples ask Jesus why they could not cast out the demon; and Jesus responds: “This kind comes out only by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29). The clear thrust of all Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels is that prayer can and does change things.
Prayer is intimately related to belief because both are aspects of the relationship God wants to have with us and for which he created us. Both our life of prayer and relationship with God can be disrupted (or fail to grow in the first place) because of unbelief and unconfessed sin (Psalm 66:18). The life of prayer and relationship with God is nourished and grows by remaining in unbroken fellowship with him and letting his words dwell in us (John 15:7). That means that, in addition to speaking to God, we must listen as God speaks to us in Scripture and be willing to let our lives be shaped according to his Word.
People who allow unbelief and prayerlessness to rob them of intimacy with God do not know what they are missing. The precious truth of the Gospel is that God loves us, that he created us for fellowship with him, and when we had fallen into sin, God sent Jesus Christ to redeem us, not only so that we can enjoy heaven later, but so that we can experience the joy of daily, constant fellowship with God now. The unbelief of the skeptics will never destroy what the saints know to be true: You can petition the Lord with prayer!
The Very Rev. Canon Robert S. Munday, Ph.D., is Dean and President of Nashotah House Theological Seminary and Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Quincy.
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