Getting What You Want

June 6, 2021

Series: June 2021

Category: So-called Christian Values

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Today's Scripture: James 5:13-18 

Today's Sermon


"Getting What You Want"


James 5:13-18 

         13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. (James 5:13-18).  

John 14:13-14

            13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 

“Getting What You Want”
So-called Christian Values Series

            My theology professor, someone whose field was literally systematic expressions of words about God, use to say, “If you really want to know what someone believes, don’t ask them.”  They may say what they think they’re supposed to.  “If you want to know what someone really believes, listen to them pray.”

            We have been talking for some weeks now about so-called Christian values, wrestling with what we’ve been taught about what is central to the faith.  Prayer is central to what people identify as being Christian, even with its diverse forms.  Prayer is deeply personal.  People have profound experiences in and through prayer. 

            Prayer can also raise big questions.  What is it? How does it work?  Do you really get what you want if you pray with faith? That’s what today’s readings seem to assure.  Yet, surely we know those of good faith who have asked for good things and who have not received the answer they wished.  Did they not believe strongly enough?  Are we really prepared to say that about the faithful we know who have suffered tragedy, illness, or injustice, casualties of violence?  Think how many slaves were Christian.  Are we to believe none of them ever prayed for freedom?  And, the victims of the Holocaust, are we really to blame those faithful because they didn’t pray in Jesus’ name?  It takes a lot of spiritual hubris to claim fault in another’s unfulfilled prayer.  I find fault in any spirituality that amounts to victim-blaming. 

            There was a famous double-blind study on prayer that yielded troubling findings.  In this study on cardiac patients, not only did the sick who were prayed for not fare better than the control group, the group that knew they were being prayed for fared worse.  The medical explanation was that the people who knew they were being prayed for felt anxiety to get better so as not to let down those who prayed for them.  This stress caused them to get sicker.[1]  Now, people are quick to defend, citing the command not to put God to the test, as Jesus himself says, to the devil no less (Lk. 4:12).  Others will point out, there’s no way to truly have a control group, for there are people who pray for the sick every day, even those they don’t know. You can see how this can go round and round, with not conclusion that will satisfy everyone.  Still, it is enough to at least trouble the notion that prayer is all about getting what you want.  Even those who Jesus healed in faith eventually died, suggesting there may have been more at work.     

            What more could be going on?  Maybe there’s a larger plan at work.  Maybe prayer is about aligning our desires with God’s, so that by the time we’re praying in Christ’s name our prayers will have changed.  Maybe Jesus and his followers were being hyperbolic, or these passages in Scripture were meant to be particular rather than universal. Maybe our thinking on prayer has evolved as it has on so many things.  Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest religious minds the faith has ever produced, believed that thunder and lightning were signs of God’s anger, probably stemming from the fact his younger sister was killed by it.[2]I think many of us would say our beliefs about thunderstorms have changed without threat to our faith.  Why not with prayer? 

            This is not entirely a new issue.  Jesus himself clearly had an awareness that prayer does not always mean you get what you want.  On the night of the last supper, when the specter of crucifixion loomed, he prayed that the cup of his fate be removed from his lips, adding, “but not my will, yours” (Mk. 14:36) because he knew his desire was not always what ruled the day. Jesus knew that prayer isn’t only about bending God’s will to ours.  Mirabai Starr who writes about women mystics across traditions critiques movements that promise you can have what you want if you just ask for it.  She refers to what’s known as the “Law of Attraction,” the notion that you can attract to yourself whatever you want, made popular by The Secret, if you’ve heard of that, as utter bull…well she doesn’t buy it.[3]  Frankly, neither do I.  I don’t doubt being a certain way in the world spirituality helps create reality, but that’s quite a position of privilege to say you have manifested all the good things in your life, which is also to say everyone who has challenge or hardship has manifested it as well.  No, says Starr, the spiritual life is not about getting the universe to grant our every wish, says Starr.  Prayer, if you ask me, is about grounding yourself in the universe, not placing yourself at its center.  Think of a great such as St. Francis, who does not ask for much, only to become much, “Lord make me an instrument…”

            For me, like St. Francis, prayer is ultimately about becoming more Christ-like. That said, I have tried hard to do something hard—not make up my mind.  As my faith matures—I hope, at least—I feel less of a need to be certain. The older I get, the less I rule out, more content to render things as mystery.  Generally, in my own prayer life, I say less and listen more, but I am not entirely quiet.  I do speak, and not just to say thank you.  I do ask.  If someone asks to me to pray for something, I will.  And, I have seen things I cannot explain. 

            There are unexplainable things.  Mike McHargue, who is known as Science Mike on the internet, has a well-told story—I’ve told some of it here—about growing up as a conservative evangelical whose concept of God and faith itself was shaken to pieces by and through his love and aptitude for science and scientific inquiry.  The God he’d been handed as a child he could not continue to hold as an adult.  For a while, he thought of himself as an atheist before eventually claiming the faith again but a very different faith.  God took on a different form, as did his practice. 

            While in the midst of what he, and others, call deconstruction, where an old system of faith is disassembled, McHargue took on a rather funny challenge proposed by the famous skeptic Richard Dawkins.  For three weeks, he prayed for something he wanted…to a milk jug.  Blasphemy in the tradition of his rearing, but a logical experiment for a scientific mind.  McHargue prayed for a promotion at work.  The thing was… he got the promotion.  Now, what do we do with that!?  Was this the supposedly bull___ law of attraction proven true?  Was it God with a sense of humor?  Can God work through a milk jug?  Was this mere coincidence?

            McHargue now takes an entirely pragmatic approach to prayer.  He doesn’t claim to know how God does or doesn’t answer. He recommends prayer because…it’s good for you.  His research of neuroscience has revealed the undeniable benefits of prayer and meditation. He talks about how these activities activate different areas of the brain responsible for “focus, concentration, empathy, and compassion.  Prayer,” he says,” is a remarkable way to escape the kind of negative thoughts that consume us and drag us down.”  It literally changes the brain.  As a model, of all things, he lifts up the Lord’s prayer for the ways in which it frames our life within a benevolent reality, fosters gratitude, recommends forgiveness, and refocuses us on better living.[4]  That has worked for him.  I’ve told you a little of what works for me.

            I wonder what might work for you?  What helps you be more loving?  Don’t tell me.  You’re liable to say what you think I want to hear.  No, you just do what works.  If you’re looking for a model, find a way to bring what you’re grateful for, what you yearn for, what you need release from and help with.  Then see for yourself what happens.    



[2]Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Audiobook.; 
[3]Mirabai Starr, Wild Mercy:  Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics(Boulder:  Sounds True, 2019), 50.