This is a melange of thoughts on prayer, with a specific focus on corporate prayer, expectation in prayer and unanswered prayer. I’ve been reading through Talking To God: What the Bible Teaches About Prayer, by Thomas Constable. It is a solid work on a biblical theology of prayer. He notes some common misconceptions regarding prayer, one of which is the often misinterpreted passage in Matthew 18:19-20 and the idea that there is something ‘magical’ about corporate praying. He writes
This passage promises God’s presence when his people assemble, particularly in situations regarding church discipline. It does not promise God’s presence only when we assemble. God is always with his children (cf. Matthew 28:20). The dynamics of a group situation may generate new ideas and enthusiasm as people pray together. Moreover, the fact that many people have united to pray about a situation also shows God that many, rather than just a few, feel the need for what they request. Prayer meetings are a good idea, but we should not overestimate their power. (pg 159)
I agree with this assessment that gathering together does not conjure up the presence of God more so than individual prayer. But I think he might be downplaying the significance of corporate prayer. Even though he does acknowledge “It is a normal, divinely approved activity for people of like mind to pray together (Daniel 2:17-18; Acts 4:23-24; 12:12)”, there is something special about corporate prayer. It represents a uniting of the community of faith that is not present with individual prayer. I believe it demonstrates to God that the people gathered take being the body of Christ, in which members join together, serious. Corporate prayer honors God.
Regarding expectation, I came across this wonderful blog post entitled That’s What Prayers Are For. The author addresses a commonly recited sentiment embodied in this quote “the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” He says it is a cop out and I agree. What is the purpose of prayer without an expectation that God will intervene into lives and situations for the sake of his kingdom? He notes
…Every single time in the entire Bible that we read about prayer, or see someone praying, the whole point is to invoke God to break into a world that seems to be running amok and to redirect it for God’s glory and the good of God’s people (which, incidentally, are inseparable)…The idea that we pray only to be transformed ourselves is the profession of a defeated people. It’s the theological excuse of a people whose prayers are weak, or go unanswered. And rather than wrestle with God or continue to confess the truth about prayer as it should be, we create a theological legitimation of our own lack, of God’s own absence.
That might sound a bit harsh, but I think it is true. That is not to say that prayer does not help transform thinking and foster conformity to the will of God. But there also ought to be expectation when praying specifically for God to intervene. The hard part of that is unanswered prayers. Any one who has experienced unanswered prayers knows the tension that exists between hope and despair, mingled with frustration and yes, maybe even defeat. This is especially true if you’ve prayed for a certain outcome and it didn’t happen the way you prayed, e.g. that loved one does not get better but dies. It can be the severest test of faith to still trust that God hears and answers that next prayer, especially when that nagging doubt nips in your ears.
But I also believe that unanswered prayer forces an internal examination that would probably not exist if answers came readily or circumstances always worked out in our favor. It forces a purging and a pruning. In short, it can be very disciplinary and downright discouraging. Admittedly, I’ve gone through an extended period of unanswered prayers, such as I have not experienced before and it’s been in the context of some pretty hefty and painful challenges. I have battled and endured a boatload of discouragement. Yet, I am forced to determine where my allegiance lies and in whom will I trust in the light of apparent contradictions. It has been rough but I still hope, still pray, still expect, even if at times by a thread.
In all this, I do believe prayer is a not only a privilege for the Christian but a necessity. Without communion with Him who called us out of darkness and into the kingdom of His dear Son, we would quickly succumb to being a defeated and hopeless people. I can only commend to pray and not lose heart and to be like the persistent widow who kept knocking (Luke 18:1-7).