Vending Machine Prayers

coke_machine_smallerI’ve been overwhelmed by the response to Sunday’s sermon from Mark 5:21-43, the passage where Jesus heals the woman with the hemorrhage and raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead.  It seems that everyone has prayed for someone who was sick or dying, and while some of them tell stories of miraculous healings—like the ones in Sunday’s Gospel reading—most of them do not.

And there’s the problem.

They want to know what it takes to get results from their prayers, the right kind of results.  How can they pray in a way that guarantees healing?  When their prayers don’t work  they tend to assume:

a. They didn’t have enough faith.
b. They didn’t pray the right prayer.
c. They didn’t say enough prayers.
d. They didn’t have the right people praying.

There is biblical support for each of those assumptions, but behind them all is the idea that if we could just learn how to do it correctly our prayers for healing would be answered. 

It reminds me of that commercial I saw years ago where a man is trying to get a vending machine to accept his wrinkled dollar bill.  He puts it in and the machine spits it out.  He puts it in again and it spits it out again, over and over, until right at the end of the commercial when the machine finally accepts the bill and he says, “YES!” and pumps his fists in the air.  And then, if I’m remembering correctly, he pushes a button only to find that his brand of soda is sold out.

That’s the way it is with some of us, isn’t it?  We bow our heads and clasp our hands and offer up prayers like wrinkled dollar bills, hoping that one of these days God will accept them, but worrying at the same time that if and when he does the answer we are looking for may be sold out. 

Is that really how it is?  Is that really how God works?  Like a vending machine in the sky from which we can get the answers to all our prayers if we can only figure out the secret? 

I’d like to think God is more than that, and prayer more than a way to get what we want.  I concluded Sunday’s sermon by saying that these healing stories in the Gospels are reminders that God loves the world, and that he loved it so much he sent his only son, who ladled out God’ s healing power on any who had need.  If God really does love us like that then we don’t have to “trick” him into hearing and answering our prayers.  And if God really is God then there is no way we can force him to do what we want.  Instead we can talk to him like a child might talk to loving parent, telling him exactly what we need or want and trusting him with the answer. 

For example, when I used to ask my dad to buy me a Coke he usually said no.  If I asked him why he might say that he didn’t have the money or it wasn’t good for me, or he might just repeat his answer: “No!”  But once a year, when we went on vacation, he would stop for gas and reach down into his pocket to bring out a fistful of quarters.  He would give one to each of his sons, and we would go over to the Coke machine, drop a quarter into the slot, pull out a frosty bottle and pop open the top.  Ahhhh.  Did my father love me?  Of course he did.  He showed it any number of ways.  And I came to trust his love so completely that even when he said no I could accept his answer.

Last Sunday night, after preaching that sermon, I had occasion to pray for someone who was very sick.  Sitting there beside his hospital bed I found myself saying, “Dear Heavenly Father, I know you love this child of yours.  I know you have loved him all his life.   I ask you to do for him whatever is most loving, and I trust you with the answer to this prayer.”

It’s not easy, leaving things in God’s hands, but there are no better, stronger, or surer hands than those.

9 thoughts on “Vending Machine Prayers

  1. We just had this discussion at dinner tonight because of a long-time friend who died this week. God’s healing comes in many forms–sometimes His deliverance is not what we expect, but we must receive it as His will. My favorite non-Baptist pastor, Father Tim of Mitford (Jan Karron’s creation) prayed the prayer that never fails: “Thy will be done.” And I usually add, “Please help the individual/family receive Your will.”

  2. Harold Kushner wrote in his book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” that when we pray for our loved ones to be healed, we have to remember that our definition of healing may not be the healing that God has intended. Kushner says that if someone we love dies, despite our plea to God, we shouldn’t look at it as God not answering our prayers. He says we need to consider if this death was the “healing” that God thought was best under the circumstances.

    When my uncle died after a 5 year battle with cancer, I did the funeral and had a similar conversation with my aunt. She begged for the healing so he would get better and was upset that God would take him away like this. (for a while, she thought God gave him the cancer as well) She seemed to really take to the notion that the “healing” which actually occurred was the only viable option for him to get better.

    Something to think about.

  3. When I have someone for whom I am praying or have prayed for over and over I end my prayer: Lord, help all involved to accept your will and timing, and give us the grace to get through this. If He answered all of my prayers the way I would like Him to they would be “Vending Machine Prayers.” There are many times we do not see the way He has answered our prayers until a lot later, if ever.

  4. Another good reminder that prayer is so much about relationship and communication (and the parties of the relationship), not about a formula designed to control an outcome. Our lives begin, they are lived, and they will end. We will experience highs and lows, joys and tragedy. And God is with us in every aspect of it, caring, laughing with us, hurting with us. Sometimes hard/bad/painful things seem to be prevented (by God) and not prevented at other times. I think God isn’t really in that business, though. And I think the more we focus on a formula and/or the “right” outcome, the more we frustrate ourselves. Amen to Jan Karon’s Father Tim and the prayer that never fails.

  5. Perhaps one of the more difficult lessons I’ve had to learn about God is that His plans are not necessarily the plans/wants I have. I believe healing comes under this. Yes, some times I get the answer I’ve prayed for. Other times I don’t. God may not have that particular event as a part of his plan. However, being open to His will and asking for His comfort and support has brought me to a deeper relationship with Him. So I’m convinced even if “touching His robe” doesn’t bring me the healing or whatever I’d hoped for, the process brings me closer to Him and His loving grace. And in the end, what more can we desire than to be closer to God.

  6. I have really thought about the sermon all week and have finally had a minute to read your blog, and it has brought to mind all over again the question that I have about all of the recorded healings in the New Testament. It seems to me that either Jesus healed a lot more folks than the New Testament records, or for some reason he chooses some and not others – wonder which it is? I certainly don’t think we’ll know the answer, but I sure hope it’s the first reason! It’s not that I wonder if some folks followed a set of rules or certain patterns (like the crumbled bill commercial !) but that He selected some to heal for a unique reason.

  7. Over the last year I have prayed for the healing of others – in particular, two friends with serious health issues, and both are on the road to recovery, and I thank God for that. I also have a list of my own health issues and I have prayed on more than one occasion, for my own healing. I have not been healed and I do not hold it against God. I believe that there are consequences for my own sinfulness and maybe these physical conditions are just that, which I accept. But, I have been healed spiritually, and I prefer spiritual healing over the physical. I wrote a poem titled “Dear God” and will share the last two stanzas:

    Through all the years I took things for granted
    And now time has taken its toll on me
    They physical part of my being is waning
    My senses are not what they used to be

    But I would not trade what I now possess
    For youth or wealth, or any earthly thing
    My spirit has emerged with strength, never imagined
    Because I found Your way, and abundance that You bring

  8. I cannot bring myself to ask for God’s special attention but can only ask that his grace sustain me. And that, whoever I am praying for, may feel the grace of God along with obtaining his strength and love to endure whatever the days ahead may offer. I truly believe that all prayers are answered in this way. In my life there have been some incredibly difficult situations and I know with absolute certainty that the only way I came out on the other end of it was because God blessed me with courage, strength and grace to get through them. Was the outcome of these occasions what I would have prayed for? Absolutely not and yet God did answer my prayers. My prayer is built on what “Father Timothy” says, “Thy will be done and please bless me (or whoever I am praying for) with grace, strength and your loving arms to get through this. Also bless them with the love and presence of family and friends to help carry the burden.” In this prayer I can always know that it is answered.

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