Late one night, Linus, the Peanuts cartoon character, is preparing himself for bed. He appears to be deep in thought as he moves his hands in differing positions. Lucy, his sister, enters the room only to find Linus on his knees, praying.
“I think I’ve made a new theological discovery,” declares Linus.
“What is it?” asks Lucy.
“If you hold your hands upside down, you get the opposite of what you pray for!”
Before we too quickly laugh at Linus for his theological naiveté, perhaps we should examine our own approach to prayer. How often do we come to the throne of grace thinking that God can be “tricked” or manipulated into giving us what we want? Far too many Christians conceive of God as reluctant and stingy when it comes to answering the prayers of his people. So we try to figure out clever ways of offering him subtle bribes or saying specific words as if they had magical power to induce God to give us what we want.
All prayer must begin with this fundamental premise: God’s greatest joy doesn’t come from making demands but in meeting needs (John Piper). God doesn’t need to be cajoled or coerced into blessing his people. His heart is filled with joy and delight in his children and he loves nothing more than to shower them with things that far exceed their capacity to envision or articulate (see Eph. 3:20; 1 Cor. 2:9). If you don’t believe this about your heavenly Father I doubt that you will come boldly to the throne of grace (Heb. 4:16), if you come at all.
One of the greatest blessings of my life was the gift of a good and wise and generous father. I never once doubted his motives in his treatment of me. I never questioned that he had anything other than my best interests at heart. Unfortunately, not everyone can say this about their earthly dad. I had one friend growing up whose dad would literally give him anything he wanted, not because he was generous but simply to get the kid off his back and out of his way. Knowing this, my friend would ask for and receive things that were potentially quite harmful. I’ve known others whose fathers were just plain mean and abusive. It was only with great reluctance and as a last resort that they would ask for something. There’s no getting around the fact that our confidence and joy in prayer is directly related to how we think of the character of God.
Jesus capitalized on this truth and made a point of it to encourage his disciples to pray with confidence. “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent, or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (Luke 11:11-12; ESV). Not even the worst or abusive of fathers would so horribly mistreat and mock their children. Even though we are evil, says Jesus, we will certainly come to the aid of our children when they are in need. “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit [Matthew says “good things”; Mt. 7:11] to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).
The contrasts are striking and inescapable. Your heavenly Father isn’t evil, but infinitely good. Your heavenly Father thinks only of how you might be blessed. Your heavenly Father isn’t limited in what he can do or short on resources to meet your needs. By just so much as the goodness of one’s heavenly Father exceeds that of his earthly father, so does his willingness to give in response to our prayers. Knowing this of God, ought not our prayers be bold and persistent and confident and expectant?
God is not a reluctant stranger who must be bullied into responding to the cries and requests of his children. He is not a self-serving tyrant who demands more works and greater deeds before he relents to grant our petitions. Nor is he an indulgent grandfather who can be tricked or flattered or fooled into giving us what we know we shouldn’t have asked for in the first place. He is, instead, an infinitely wise God who knows what we need, an infinitely resourceful God who is never in short supply, an infinitely passionate God who rejoices in doing good for those he has redeemed, and an infinitely gracious God who abounds in kindness, mercy, and power.
Don’t make the mistake Linus did in thinking that your posture or the position of your hands or the grammatical precision of your words has any effect on the heart of God. He is a God who “waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you” (Isaiah 30:18). What is he waiting on? “He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry. As soon as he hears it, he answers you” (Isaiah 30:19).