Pessimistic Prayer

Recently a comical video surfaced on social media where a group of coworkers were encouraging one of their fellow employees to do a “trust fall.” If you aren’t familiar with this practice, it’s an exercise where one individual stands (sometimes on a box/table) and crosses their arms over their chest. With several people behind them (or sometimes just one) they fall backwards “trusting” their companion to catch them. Unfortunately for the man in the video, he was unaware of the fact that he was supposed to fall backwards and proceeded to fall forwards—to the horror (and shrieking laughter) of his fellow employees. I couldn’t help but think of how often my walk of faith is similar: I want to trust in God, but I end up falling flat on my face.

In James 1:5-8 we discover one of the greatest “trust falls” we can attempt: faithful prayer. Notice what the Spirit says:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

If I’m being completely honest, this verse really challenges me. I petition God in prayer over important things, for people who really matter to me, and I am not always absolutely confident in my request. There are times where I vacillate between confidence and cowering, crippling fear: “What if God doesn’t answer? What will happen to me then?” Sometimes I come to prayer as a pessimist: “God probably won’t say ‘Yes’ to this one.” I prepare myself for failure in order to guard against disappointment.

Maybe you don’t struggle with these doubts. Maybe your prayer life—like the Boston Whaler—is the “unsinkable legend,” confidently cutting through the waves that life brings your way. I hope so. Yet, for the rest of us, James 1:5-8 constantly challenges us (as it should). My prayer (confidently I might say) is that we don’t allow the incline of this challenge to prevent us from taking the climb. Rather, with humble hearts, we should seek God’s will as we ascend to greater and higher peaks in our prayer life.

What then does James teach us about our doubtful prayers?

Doubt isn’t Our Destination. At times I hear fellow ministers say things like, “It’s ok to doubt. Doubt is healthy; it means you are seeking and aren’t quite there yet.” I understand why they say this. Often, when faced doubts as Christians, we wonder “What is wrong with me?” It may be that certain preachers/sermons left you feeling like a failure in your faith. If so, I’m sorry you dealt with such (maybe I was the culprit). We certainly don’t want to encourage anyone to accept a truth they haven’t fully investigated or to confess they believe something when in reality they don’t. This isn’t the “sincere faith” we are looking for (1 Tim. 1:5)

At the same time, we must recognize that doubt isn’t our destination. One of Jesus most frequent rebukes for his disciples was, “Why do you doubt, o you of little faith?” (Matt. 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8; 17:20). Doubt should be occasional and infrequent, not constant and unrelenting. We want to hold our “confidence steadfast to the end” (Heb. 3:14). Therefore, the challenge James presents is genuinely expected of a disciple: to pray consistently with great confidence. In contrast to this, the doubtful person is referred to as a “wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.” That is, they are victims of circumstance, constantly driven from ecstasy to despair with the rising and regressing tide of daily difficulties and triumphs. Sadly, this isn’t a mindset limited to their prayer; rather, it is their way of life. They are “double minded, unstable in all their ways”; never knowing whether they should trust the passing moment or the eternal God. Doubtful prayers are simply a manifestation of a doubt filled life.

Triumph by Trust. The obvious question is, “How can I overcome my doubts in prayer?” The answer is simple but not—as some may be so bold to say—simplistic: faith. Notice James commands, “Let him ask in faith.” Faith in what/who? How we answer that question will result either doubtful or confident prayers.

Often our prayers are limited because of self-doubt and sin. Perpetual sin is crippling to the prayers of a saint. It is the prayer of the “righteous man” that  “has great power as it is working” (James 5:16). If you are living in perpetual, grievous sin then certainly you must repent before God heeds your request. At the same time, it is important to remember that the gospel’s definition of “righteous” is often different than our own: not moral perfection, but grace covered obedience (Eph. 2:8-9; Heb. 5:9). Therefore, how we overcome doubt in prayer isn’t through a greater belief in our own moral perfection, but a greater confidence in God’s grace and a greater comprehension in his power and person.

A simple discipline which helps in this is the practice of reading and meditating on scripture before we pray. Often, we begin the day in prayer before studying God’s word (and there is certainly nothing wrong with this). Yet, we may discover new strength in our prayer life when we first bolster our faith in the Lord by meditating on His great acts and character. Just as we wouldn’t trust our child with a complete stranger, we also won’t trust our deepest desires with a God we don’t know. Of course, the wonderful truth (declared by James no less) is that we are not the only one invested in this pursuit: as we draw closer to God, He draws closer to us (James 4:8).

Expectation and Reception. While James says that the pessimistic prayer shouldn’t expect to receive anything from the Lord, the opposite is implied: the confident prayer should gladly wait on God’s blessing. This doesn’t mean that everything we pray for will be given. Rather, the trusting disciple has learned, in growing closer to God, that the Lord’s will is far greater and more desirous than his own. In this he prays, trusting that the best possible outcome will occur, for his good and God’s glory, in accordance with the will of the Lord (Rom. 8:28; 1 John 5:14-15). In this, the Christian always receives a blessing in prayer for we more fully receive our greatest request and desire: God Himself.

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