The shattering news of little Emily’s inoperable brain tumour has dominated my thinking as nothing else could. One issue that arises is obviously ‘What can we pray for?’ Jesus’ disciples once begged Him: ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples’ (Luke 11:1). Twice our Lord told parables to encourage His people to persevere in prayer (Luke 11:5-13; 18:1-8). The great apostle Paul himself confessed: ‘we do not know what to pray for as we ought’ (Rom.8:26). Calvin spoke the same language in his sermon on 1 Timothy 1:1-2, acknowledging that ‘our prayers are always back to front’. He added: ‘That is why we should follow this rule, that when we address God in prayer we should ask above all that he may be gracious to us, and that in pardoning our sins he may gather us to himself.’

            So it is spiritual things first, but Christ told us to pray for our daily bread (Matt.6:11), and there are healings in both Testaments. B. B. Warfield thought healings were restricted to the ages of prophets and apostles, as they confirmed their divine authority. Surely, this is wrong; that is a key reason, but not the only reason, for them. Warfield might almost be understood as saying that one can only pray for what might be regarded as unremarkable

Indeed, there is a pattern to answered prayer, but not always a straightforward one. The apostle Paul prayed three times that a thorn in the flesh would be removed from him (2 Cor.12:7-10). The request, though lawful, was declined. This was to keep him humble and to teach him that Christ’s grace was sufficient in Paul’s weakness. This might discourage us as it looks like the Lord knocked back repeated prayers even from an apostle. 

            Yet when James encourages us to pray, he points to the example of the prophet Elijah, which does not fit Warfield’s thesis too well. It means that Elijah is like us in prayer – or rather we are to be like him (James 5:16-18). Admittedly, one could hardly imagine Christians praying for a drought of three and a half years, but the context is obviously in favour of praying for something supernatural. James says that sometimes ‘you do not have because you do not ask’ (James 4:2). There is even the extraordinary promise of Christ that ‘Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do’ (see John 14:12-13). 

            Asking is not demanding, but there is to be an asking in faith; it is done in submission to the will of God, but not in any fatalistic way. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were all preserved from the fiery furnace under Nebuchadnezzar. Yet as they were threatened with death, they trusted God without knowing the outcome (Dan.3:16-18). It is not a case of ‘name it and claim it’, but it is knowing that God is at work.

            We pray poorly, but acknowledge our poverty; we pray without knowing the future, but know the God who knows the future; we pray as in a glass darkly, but we pray to the Father of lights. Isaac Watts has a hymn, which is also an ardent prayer:

            Come, fill us all with inward strength, 

Enlarge our souls till they possess 

And learn the height and breadth and length 

Of Your immeasurable grace.

This is based on Ephesians 3 which ends with Paul’s doxology: ‘Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen’ (Eph.3:20-21). The wonder of prayer is that we can pray for all good things spiritual and physical. We can plead before the God of the covenant: ‘God, who made the earth, the air, the sky, the sea, who gave the light its birth, He cares for me’ (Sarah Betts Rhodes). I wish I knew more, but Christ intercedes for us (Rom.8:34) and the Father always hears Him (John 11:42). The desperate pray in His name – and all sinners are desperate.