It was late afternoon on the Lower Mountain Fork River in Oklahoma. The three friends had driven up from Dallas to escape the city's stresses, refresh their souls in the mountains, and fish for trout. Like water itself, fishing is very reflective—philosophical. When you cast your line into the water, you never know. Casting a line is like asking a question, and Drew’s heart was full of those.
He grew up Baptist, got saved at summer camp, and never lost his faith, but he never thought about it much either. Now he was thirty-eight and had suffered some blows in life. His grandparents were all dead. His dad was slowly recovering from a stroke. The economy had never been shakier or the future more uncertain. And his two kids were old enough to be asking serious questions about God. Drew didn’t have the answers, so he started to wonder about things, too. He started reading the Bible and paying attention to what the pastor said and found he did not always agree with what he heard. It was like waking up from a nap and wondering where he was.
“Why are we praying?” Drew asked. “You ever wonder about that?”
“Do I ever wonder about the point of prayer?” Will said. “Sure I do.” He was a little older than Drew, had come to faith in college after a long struggle, and never took his faith for granted.
“Yeah, what’s the point of it? I mean, think about Phil,” he said. Their friend Phil had walked about a quarter mile downstream, looking for deeper waters. “We’re praying that his business picks up and he can sell his house, right?”
“And we’ve been praying that for months and months and months, and still no answers.”
“And meanwhile, Phil and Kris are stressed out. If God doesn’t answer soon, they’ll be out on the streets. But here's what I wonder—doesn’t God already know what Phil needs?”
“Yes, He does.”
“And God knows what he needs better than we do. I don’t know what to pray for most of the time. I have an idea, but I don’t know. I’m sure we all pray for the wrong things all the time.”
“We probably do!”
“But if we don't know what to pray for, and we’re often praying for the wrong things, and God already knows what we actually need, what are we praying for? What's the point?”
“I don’t follow.”
“Well, God is perfectly good and loving, right?”
“I think so.”
“Then won’t He do what’s best for us whether we pray or not? My kids ask me for stupid stuff all the time, and I don’t give it to them. But I also take care of what they need whether they’ve asked me for it or not because I love them.”
“I see what you’re saying," Will said. “Why pray to God if He should be taking care of us anyway?”
“Exactly. It doesn’t seem to have a point.”
“That’s a great question,” Will said. “I’ve thought about prayer a little bit. On the one hand, it's is so natural. We pray for everything. It’s one of the first things you learn to do as a Christian. It's like a baby breathing. But the more you think about what prayer is, the more mysterious it seems.”
“So why do it? I’ve heard people distinguish between two sorts of prayers—lower and higher.”
“Ok, what’s the difference?”
“The lower sorts of prayers are for stuff. Things like food, healing, a new job. That sort of thing. You're saying that you don’t see the point of praying for those things because an all-knowing God already knows what we need, and an all-loving Father would provide them.”
“That’s right. It seems pointless.”
“Even if that's right, there’s the higher sort of prayer. That’s when you praise God for who He is and what He’s done. You’re not asking for things so much as worshiping God. Or talking to your Father. And there’s joy and blessing that comes from doing that. Like any relationship, if you don’t talk to Him, you won’t know Him as well as you could and won’t enjoy that closer communion with God.”
“Hmm. So, there’s still a point in praying that higher prayer, but not the lower kind. So, even if we dropped praying for things, we would still want to praise God?”
“Theoretically, yes. You'd still have good reason to pray. It changes you. You'd grow closer to God. Except…”
“Except, I’m not convinced that approach is the best answer to your question.”
“So what is?”
“What if your question is wrong?”
“In what way?”
“Think of it. If what you say is true, why do anything at all?”
“Do you brush your teeth every day?”
“Is brushing your teeth good for you?”
“My wife thinks so!”
“But if it’s good for you, and God is all loving, won’t He brush them for you?”
“Since God is all-knowing and all-good, I guess you can stop brushing your teeth and let Him take care of it…or not. Maybe it's not His will for your teeth to be brushed.”
“That’s not right,” Drew said.
“No, that’s not how things work, is it?” Phil pressed.
“No,” Drew admitted.
“I think there must be something wrong with your argument.”
“So, what’s the answer?”
“I prefer to go back to what Jesus said. He told us to pray for our daily bread. Even though God is all-knowing and all-good, Jesus still tells us to pray for the basic things we need. I think you see that across Scripture: women praying to get pregnant, kings praying for victory, sick people praying for healing, and so on. Praying for things. If Jesus says to do it, in simple faith that's what we should do.”
“Yes, but why? How does that make sense?”
“Here’s a possibility. You and I can’t influence the whole universe, right?”
“No, but we can make some difference to it.”
“We can make some difference, yes. Put every human being together, and our influence on anything is minimal. It’s like fishing this river. When I cast a line, it changes the river slightly. The water swirls around the line a bit, but not much. Maybe it creates some bubbles, but not much. It certainly isn’t enough to stop the river from flowing.”
“No, it isn't. But there’s still some influence.”
“Yes. Our actions produce some results. And if we don’t act, then things won’t happen. If you don’t cast a line into the water, you’ll never catch a fish, right?”
“We’re capable of making some changes to the world around us. What might that mean? Let me change the illustration. What if God is like a novelist? Or better, what if He’s more like a screenwriter, or a director, or maybe both together? In other words, He’s written the play, divided it into acts, and established the conflict, the setting, the climax, and the lines of dialogue. But what if He’s the kind of director that leaves room for the actors to improvise? They won’t change the overall story, but what they do makes a real difference to the scene.”
“And prayer is improvisation?”
“Yes. God has allowed prayer to influence the scene around us. He could have done everything for us—playing all the parts Himself, writing the dialogue down to the last letter, and leaving no room for input from the actors. But instead, he gave us room to improvise and to make a difference.”
“So if I don’t brush my teeth, they won’t get brushed.”
“And if we don’t pray for Phil’s business to pick up, it might not. Yes, Jesus said the Father already knows what we need, but He also told us to pray for our daily bread. And James said, ‘You do not have because you do not ask.’”[i]
The sun was nearly at the tree line. It was getting cooler and they could see Phil walking back up the river. Drew nudged his empty fishing cooler with his boot.
“In that case…Jesus, give us some fish!” he said and cast a line.
[i] Matthew 6:8; James 4:2
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