Check out this report from an Amsterdam newspaper:
A Dutch police station trying to help Muslim detainees face Mecca for their prayers painted arrows in cells pointing in the wrong direction. The Segbroek police station in The Hague borrowed the idea of putting compass marks on ceilings from an Amsterdam hotel, the Dutch daily De Telegraaf reported on Friday. Muslims pray five times a day, facing east in the direction of Mecca. But the arrows in Segbroek pointed west. ‘This is a really gigantic, stupid blunder,’ a police spokesman told the De Telegraaf.
As followers of Jesus, of course, we are not particularly concerned with the geographical particulars of our prayer posture. Nevertheless, this news report inspired me to wonder about how many times I have found myself “praying in the wrong direction,” metaphorically speaking.
How many times, for example, have I treated prayer as an extension of my own egocentric wish-list, as though prayer were nothing more than a means by which to manifest my personal agenda?
How often have I prayed with a spirit of unadulterated arrogance, looking upon my prayer as an opportunity to instruct a perfectly sovereign God in matters of world affairs and human relationship?
How many times have I attempted to impress God with the frequency, the earnestness, or the vocabulary of my prayers?
On how many occasions have I evaluated the effectiveness of my prayer by the number of words or petitions that I have offered, or by whether or not God has responded to my prayers with precisely the response that I have sought?
How frequently during my prayers have I been facing in the direction of my own will instead of subordinating myself to the Lordship of Jesus and listening humbly for his voice–a voice that often resonates within our soul when we will dare to quiet ourselves in prayer?
How often, in other words, have I prayed in the wrong direction, not geographically, but spiritually?
The most important lesson in prayer that I ever learned came through the experience of a dear friend of mine whose son had to be life-flighted to Children’s Hospital with a severe head injury. For a 24-hour period, no one knew whether the boy would live or die.
He lived. Beyond that, he made a complete recovery and is now enjoying his high school experience.
A couple of weeks after the experience, I had lunch with my friend, the boy’s father. “You know,” he said to me that day, “throughout the whole time of crisis, my family felt completely sustained by the prayers of God’s people.”
Without thinking, I responded with a vapid inquiry. “You really believe that, don’t you?”
“Absolutely,” he responded. “There were 14 different churches praying for us. Catholic Churches. Baptist Churches. Methodist Churches. Non-denominational churches. We were being held up in prayer by all kinds of different believers. And I knew in my heart that those prayers were going to accomplish one of two things for us.”
“One of two things, Nathan?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I knew that those prayers were either going to save my little boy, or they were going to save the rest of us if my little boy died.”
I knew that I had just encountered the theology of prayer that I want to have when I grow up–a theology of prayer that believes that the prayer of righteous people is powerful and effective, no matter whether or not prayer produces our intended results. It is a theology of prayer that recognizes that, when our prayers are not answered in precisely the way we want them to be answered, it does not mean that God is not listening or that God does not care. It simply means that God is responding to our prayer in a way that we do not yet understand. It may even mean that God is utilizing our prayers to bring about a result that is far more redemptive in the long run than the immediate result for which we had prayed.
The theology of prayer that I encountered that day, in other words, demands prayer that is prayed in the right direction. It demands the kind of prayer that is more about relationship than it is about immediate results; the kind of prayer that is more about leaning into God than it is about manipulating God; the kind of prayer that is more about a receptive heart than it is about an established agenda.
I ask you to pray for me. Be assured, I am praying for you.