Unpacking (But Not Solving) the Mystery of Prayer | Ep. 41
Jesus invites us to come to Him in faith with all of our requests. So what do we do with the times He doesn’t seem to answer prayer for legitimate needs? Dr. Larry Crabb explores the mystery of relationship with a God Whose character can be trusted even when life doesn’t make sense to us.
Bio: Through his storied 40-year career as a Bible teacher, psychologist, and author, Dr. Larry Crabb shared the movement of God in his own soul and through his story. In every book, article, sermon, or seminar, Larry reminds us to see the hand of God and hear His voice in any circumstance and condition of our soul.
Show Note Links:
Kep Crabb: Welcome to Relational Spirituality, a Larger Story podcast, where you can belong, you can become, and you can be known in the story that’s going on right now, I’m Kep Crabb. Today we’re going to be hearing from the author of the book that we’ve been looking at, Dr. Larry Crabb. He’s going to unpack his book, The PAPA Prayer. Larry wrote this book out of some confusion and sometimes frustration with his own prayer life. So as you wrestle today with your prayer life, consider presenting, attending, purging, and approaching God as your deepest desire and His spirit might open unexpected doors in your prayer lives.
And now, Dr. Larry Crabb, talking about The PAPA Prayer.
Larry Crabb: It is Mother’s Day and I was thinking as I was sitting there that I was lying in my mother’s nursing home, she on one bed, I on another as she was passing into eternity several years ago and I listened as she took her last breath. The last seven years of her life, she struggled with Alzheimer’s. The long goodbye. I recall one time I was kneeling in front of my mother, visiting her, when her mind was completely gone. Except for a moment. I was saying to her, Mom, have you bought your party dress yet? She had no response. Do you have that gorgeous gown? That’s going to reveal the beauty of your soul. I went on like that, talking like that, with tears coming down my face for several moments. And then Mother, in her last moment of lucidity, looked at me, regained complete consciousness, and said, Are you talking about heaven? I said, Yeah! And then she went back into her mindless state. But now her mind is fully restored.
I prayed for my mother. I prayed that my mother would reverse the Alzheimer’s. She didn’t. My question this morning is, what on earth is prayer all about? I want to spend some time speaking about the title I’ve given to this talk, Unpacking but Never Solving The Mystery of Prayer.
I do want to mention just as I start though that this past week being at Regent was an incredible privilege for me, and meeting Darrell for the first time was really one of the highlights of the week for me. During that week, I had several people come to me, maybe a dozen, and just kindly ask Larry, are you flying back to Denver, or flying back to your next place as soon as the conference is over on Friday?
Every time, I said to these dozen or so people, No, I’ve been invited to speak at Tenth. Every time, when I said that, people went, Oh! And I’m like, what on earth am I getting myself into? And all dozen people said some version of, Oh, that’s a place where good things are happening. You’ll enjoy your time there. My prayer is that I will not get in the way of the good things that are happening here at Tenth today, but will perhaps be able to catch the flow of God’s Spirit here and see if maybe some more good things can happen. I want to begin with a question. And after I ask one question, I want to give you one verse and then start talking about the mystery of prayer.
The question is this, and just think about it for a moment and answer it honestly. How many of you would say, as you perhaps have been following Jesus for a number of years, how many of you would say that there has been at least one time, maybe hundreds, but at least one time, when you’ve asked for something, believing God could give it? Knowing it wasn’t a selfish prayer to consume on your own illegitimate self centered desires, how many of you would say that at least one time, perhaps many times, you’ve asked for something, believing God could give it, and He didn’t? How many of you know what the word unanswered prayer means? Would you raise your hands? That’s almost everybody.
Before the younger folks were dismissed, I saw a young girl up here wearing a Superman shirt. When I was 10 years old, I was exposed to the verse that I want you to look at with me in just a moment. In Matthew 21, verse 22, Jesus said, If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer. First time I heard that verse, I was 10 years old. I thought of this as I was looking at the young girl sitting up in the balcony with her big “S” on her shirt. I went home from Sunday school that morning after my Sunday school teacher had taught about that verse. I thought, that’s a pretty good deal. Let me see if I can exploit it. I didn’t know the word exploit then, but that was my mood. Let me see if I can take advantage. Let me see if I can come to this wonderful God who says, whatever, no qualifications, whatever, it’s yours, just believe, He can do it. That’s how I read the verse as a ten year old kid. So I went outside and I thought, What do I really want? It happened just this way. I want to fly like Superman. Jesus doesn’t tell lies. A child’s faith carried me outside after Sunday dinner to the driveway in front of our home, and quite literally, I prayed my prayer claiming Matthew 21:22, whatever you ask for, if you believe it’s yours, Lord, I wanna fly like Superman. Here’s the plan God. I’m gonna jump, and I don’t want to come down. I want to keep going. So I jumped and came down just like that. Four times. And that began my journey of confusion about prayer.
God, what are you talking about? You don’t tell lies. I know you don’t. I don’t understand this mystery of prayer. You tell me in your word, Jesus, that whatever I ask for, it’ll be mine if I believe. Have you all been confused about prayer to some degree? Because if you’re not, I’m going to feel very lonely up here. I have felt very confused about prayer. Forgive my candor, but prayer sometimes has seemed more like a roll of the dice than a child talking to his loving father.
Some years ago, five or six years ago, our younger son went through the hardest time of his life. He said to me and to his mother one day, Mom and Dad, I’ve been able to save up enough money to go away for 10 days, literally halfway across the world, from Cleveland, Ohio, where he was living then and is living now. I’m going to go halfway across the world for 10 days. I’m going to get away. I’ve got to get away from the horrors of my situation. I want you to know, I’m going to go because I want to find God in a way I don’t know Him now. Because if I don’t find Him in a way I don’t know Him now, I’m not sure if I’m going to make it. What’s a father’s heart do? What’s a mother’s heart do? Dear Lord.
We begin praying. I promised to my son, I said, the whole 10 days you’re gone, I’m going to pray for you, every day, minimum, 15 minutes. My commitment to you is that you will be prayed for. I will lift you before the throne of grace. Good old fashioned religious language. I’ll lift you before the Holy Trinity. Once a day, minimum, for at least 15 minutes. I honored that commitment, and as my son was gone for 10 days, I prayed every day. It was about the seventh day that he was gone. I was driving someplace. I had an hour and a half in the car and I thought, I’ll spend my time praying for Ken. I tell this story of course with his permission. I began praying for Ken in the car. When you’ve been praying for something that matters to you deeply, have you ever gotten bored? What’s the point? Does prayer work? I jumped to fly like Superman, and I came down. Will this be any different now that the stakes are almost infinitely higher for my son’s well being in the middle of a spiritual crisis? I found myself, with that lack of confidence within my soul, I found myself sing-songing a prayer.
As I’m driving along in the car, it happened just like this. Dear Lord, uh, really bless Kenny and uh, just make sure that he’s… Let me change the station there. Dear Lord um, where was I now? Yeah. Bless Kenny and make sure that um, you know, that he finds you in some um, deep ways.
I caught myself being bored with prayer and I thought, this isn’t good. So I turned the radio off. I began to ask, what is most alive in me right now as I am praying for my son in the middle of his great distress? I found myself saying what I want for him is what I want so much for myself. I want to know God in a way that I have yet to know Him and I found myself beginning to sing my prayers and I began to sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” the old wonderful hymn. I was raised in a Christian home, I know all 12 verses. I sang through all the verses of “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, and my tears were coming down my face so strongly, I had to pull the car over to the side of the road, I couldn’t drive, I was crying so hard.
Then I sang this simple little chorus, “I love you Lord, and I lift my heart, I lift my voice.” Lord, I love you. May my son be able to sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” May he be able to sing I love you in the middle of his life falling apart in ways that were incredibly painful, walking a path of pain I had never walked. And the last song I prayed was, “It Is Well With My Soul.” Lord, that’s the prayer that I’m praying for myself. I want to know that it’s well with my soul, whether things are good or bad in my life, in my world. I want my son to be able to sing that. I sang that hymn, again, singing all the verses. I probably prayed for about 45 minutes of singing by the side of the road before I continued my journey.
Two weeks later, Rachel and I visited Cleveland. My son was back from his trip. We had lunch on an outdoor patio in Chagrin Falls, a cute little part of town, outside of Cleveland. I said to him, Ken, I gotta tell you about a day that I prayed for you. It was a Saturday, seven days into your trip, it was Saturday noon and I was driving someplace. And here’s what happened, and I told him the story I’ve just told you. When I told him that, Ken sat up, and he said, Exactly when did you pray that? I said, it was noon on Saturday and he did his time calculations, time zones and all that. And he sat back and he said, “Dad, Mom, that’s the first day I had the courage to face the pain in my soul. I walked for three hours on the beach in the area where I was staying for those ten days. For the first time I got away from doing fun things and reading fun novels and I went out just to be with God for three hours walking the beach and for three straight hours beginning the same time you prayed for me, for three hours literally I could do nothing but sing, ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness,’ ‘I love you Lord,’ and ‘It Is Well With My Soul.’”
Maybe there is a Holy Spirit.
Why, then, when I pray for my son to be touched by the presence of God, is that prayer answered? And then 14 years ago, when I prayed the typical casual prayer, if you will, for my brother’s safety on a plane trip, why did his plane crash and he was killed? Why does prayer sometimes seem to me like a roll of the dice?
I found the courage, at least some little portion of it, to look at the mystery of prayer three or four years ago, acknowledging that prayer was the weakest part of my spiritual journey. I found the courage to look at my journey of confusion when I read an article by C. S. Lewis on his confusion with prayer, and I figured if C. S. Lewis can admit his confusion with prayer, certainly I can admit mine. He talked in this little article – that I read several years ago actually – about it for the first time. Several years ago, he identified two patterns of prayer in the gospel records. One pattern taught by Jesus, and he referred to the passage in Matthew 21:22. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer, and Lewis said, that seems to be an unconditional promise that doesn’t work. But the other pattern of prayer, Pattern B he called it, the pattern of Gethsemane, where Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane said, Take away this cup, but nevertheless not my will but yours.
Lewis said, and I wholeheartedly agreed when I first read it, That kind of prayer makes some sense to me. I can pray for the things that I want, but I don’t know what’s best. Am I willing to yield to God’s superior wisdom? Am I willing to yield to what He knows is best? And when He says no, can I trust His good heart is still good toward me? That makes sense to me. But what didn’t make sense to me, and is still a mystery to me, is what the Lord said in Matthew 21. Will you take your Bibles, if you have them with you, and turn to that passage? I want to read the context of that verse and see if we can make a little bit of sense out of this confusing mystery.
We all would agree, that when we ask, Lord, reverse my mother’s Alzheimer’s. Lord, heal the infection quickly. Lord, give me a new job. Lord, may my husband stop drinking. Lord, may my children come back to you in a powerful way. We pray all these prayers that, any other loving person would agree, are legitimate prayers. If I had the power to grant your requests when you pray like that, I would likely do that. Am I better than God, who doesn’t do it sometimes? Clearly, His response is to say, I know what’s best. Trust me, my child. And when it’s my will, it will be done. When it’s not my will, it will not be done.
Take this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done. That’s pattern B. But what do you do with pattern A? Is it different? If you believe, you’ll receive whatever you ask for. There’s no conditionality implied in that verse except the if you believe. Let me read you the passage and see if we can get an insight or two into this passage.
Matthew 21 and verse 18. Here’s the context for what He said. Early in the morning, as Jesus was on His way back to the city, back to Jerusalem, coming close to His crucifixion, He was hungry. And, like any other human being, early in the morning, taking a couple of mile walking trip, wanting to have some kind of breakfast, He saw a fig tree by the road and He went up to it. The parallel passage in Mark tells us that there were leaves that He saw on the fig tree. And the early leaves on the tree made Him wonder if perhaps there’s figs that are growing on this tree before they’re due to grow. It was not yet time for the fig tree to bear figs, but there were leaves on it. Jesus saw the leaves and wondered, did the leaves signify fruit? And so He walked up to the tree, and He found nothing on it except leaves. Does Jesus ever confuse you? Then He said to the tree – Now, imagine you’re a disciple watching this whole episode. – May you never bear fruit again! Immediately, the tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. And they asked a question. How did the fig tree wither so quickly? My guess is, under their breath, they were asking another question. What’s going on with you? We don’t get your angry outbursts because you didn’t get a fig. You make no sense to us, Jesus. Was Jesus being petulant?
If you know me well, if you’ve had the rather questionable opportunity of dining with me, you’d know that I like my coffee hot. Really hot. I tell the waiter or the waitress, your tip depends on blisters forming on my tongue when I drink my coffee. And people know me well, when the coffee comes, the whole table gets quiet, and I take a sip, and either I, ooh, or, oh. Now suppose you were with me and I ordered coffee and the coffee came and I took a sip and it was lukewarm. And my response was to throw it on the waiter, say, this coffee’s not hot enough. I’m never going to drink coffee in this restaurant again. Is that clear? How would you look at me? Just like Jesus.
That wouldn’t be just like Jesus. So what’s going on with Jesus? The disciples say, how did the fig tree wither so quickly? And Jesus replies – and does this answer the question? – I tell you the truth. If you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, and I’m there saying, is that what I had in mind? Do I want to go around and wither leaves on a fig tree? I don’t quite get the point of the power available to me. But also, you can say to this mountain, look over there, see that big mountain over there? You can say to this mountain, go, throw yourself into the sea, and it will be done. I wonder if any disciple kind of turned a little bashfully and went, Leave. And the mountain stayed there. Jump. Fly like Superman. And the little boy came down in the driveway. If you believe, you’ll receive whatever you ask for in prayer. What’s he talking about? I don’t know. Let’s close in prayer.
And I don’t know. But I want to suggest a few thoughts. I want to unpack, but not solve, the mystery of prayer. As I read this passage and ponder it, and have pondered it now for some time, and wonder exactly, what is my Lord doing? Why the outburst against the fig tree? Why the leaves withering so quickly? Why, when the disciples had no idea what was happening, did He say three things to them? You can wither leaves too. You can move mountains. Whatever you ask for is yours if you believe. What is Jesus saying? Why did Jesus come? Why was He incarnate? Why did the eternal Son of God come into Bethlehem’s manger and become a little tiny baby, conceived in Mary’s womb, lived 33 years on this earth, go to the cross, rise from the dead, back in heaven as our great high priest? The gospel story is familiar to most of us. Why did it all happen? What’s the point of it? To save me from sin, yes. To secure my salvation, yes, of course. That I can spend eternity knowing the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and dancing with their community forever and ever. Yes, all that’s true. But I wonder if maybe at least one element of the center of why Jesus came had to do with what the Father felt when Adam and Eve, a long time ago, said. We don’t want you.
I wonder how many mothers here have children who’ve said, we don’t want you. Mother’s Day is a hard day for some moms. Father’s Day is a hard day for some dads. It’s a hard day for God, I would suggest. Walking in the cool of the evening, providing everything that was wonderful and perfect for them, one commandment, don’t eat of this particular tree. And Adam and Eve chose to eat of that particular tree, as if to say, like the prodigal son, we’re not terribly interested in knowing you, we want the best deal for us, and we’ll take from you whatever we can get, and whatever you don’t give us, we’ll grab it anyhow, because we don’t really trust your heart.
You know what the Father felt? And when Adam and Eve sinned, when they ate of the fruit, what did they cover themselves with? Fig leaves. As if to say what? We’re going to hide. We’re going to pretend that things within us are not as bad as they seem. We’re going to cover ourselves with that which makes us look clothed and hides our shame, hides our lostness. We’re not going to acknowledge how lost we are without you. We’re going to find some way to make it without ever having to acknowledge what is happening within us. And how does the Father feel as you and I are running around through our lives wearing fig leaves? Fig leaves are a pretense.
Why so often in Christian community, do we meet each other at the level of leaves? As opposed to at the level of fruit? Why so often, in our Christian communities, when you walk up to me and say, “How you doing?” And my response, “Hey, great!” I’m not doing great. I’m broken. Hurting. Struggling. Happy about some things, burdened about some other things, rejoicing in many things. I wish I could say all things, not that mature, but struggling with some things that are hard. I want to keep the leaves in place because I don’t want you to really know me. And Jesus looks at a fig tree that has leaves all over it and no fruit beneath it and says, that’s not the plan. The plan is for the children of God to not hide behind leaves, but to acknowledge their emptiness without God so that real fruit can be born. That’s the real plan. In chapter 9 of Hosea, in verse 10, the Father is reminiscing about Israel when they were young. How many of you moms have been reminiscing a little bit today when your kids were little? What memories do you have? Some of the pleasant memories when they just snuggled with you. Wanted to be with you. I think back to the memories of our two boys that are now almost 38 and 35 and thinking about what it was like when they were just real little. And the time at a church service when our four year old son, our older son, got up in front of 500 people before Christmas and impromptu sang “Silent Night” in a beautiful little boy’s voice and the whole place was in tears.
When I think of that memory it was painful to me when years later our son rebelled badly and walked far away from God. As I saw him moving in very bad directions, and I remembered the early days when our son was young, and singing “Silent Night” in a church service, and obedient to his mom and dad, and going to bed on time, and all the things that you wanted, and looking at mom and dad and saying, “I love you Mom, I love you Dad.” And then 15, 16, 17 years later, rebelling badly. The father was reminiscing about the son, about His children Israel. And Hosea 9 verse 10. And what He says in that passage is, I remember seeing you, Israel, was like seeing early figs on the tree. I wonder if Jesus was thinking of that passage. I don’t know.
But what if Jesus is seeing the fig leaves, and rather than just being petulant about not having a breakfast, the purpose for which I came was to restore people who are hiding into openness, so when they’re open and take off their fig leaves, and realize that there is no fruit within them, they can come before a merciful God who still wants them back, and is going to forgive them, and invade their lives, and produce fruit within them out of hearts that the Spirit will give them, so that they will want their Father again.
Is the son thinking all of that? I don’t know. But it makes sense to me. Because when the disciples said, we don’t get it. How do the fig leaves wither so quickly? What did Jesus say? If you want it, if you want the same power, you can look in the mirror and say, fig leaves wither. You can look in the mirror and say, stop pretending. Be who you are, be the broken people that you are before God, and what you’ll discover when the fig leaves wither. As our sister discovered this morning, as she testified in her baptism, when the fig leaves of, I can make it without God, collapsed and withered, what did she discover? I really want Him. I was designed for Him. I really want to know Him. That’s what I really want. More than anything else, I want to know God. Yes, I want good health. Yes, I want a good job. Yes, I want a good family. Yes, I want good kids. Yes, I want many things, but in the core of my being, what I want more than anything else, once the fig leaves come off, is I really want God.
If you want to wither the fig leaves, you can do it. Jesus is saying to me, and then He says, see that mountain over there? I’ll get rid of it. I wonder if His mind went back to Isaiah 40. Every mountain, every hill will be lowered, brought low. In other words, every obstacle to your coming to God and enjoying the friendship. Every obstacle to your being a child in whom God can say, that’s my kid, look at the fruit. He loves me. She loves me. Look at her heart. Look at his life. That’s my kind of child. That’s what Jesus did. And the Spirit came into them and indwelt them. And look at that. There’s a child with fruit who’s coming to my Father. Every obstacle, every mountain to the highway of holiness to the desert into the presence of God, every mountain will be removed. When I pray to fly like Superman, I have no guarantee. But when I pray to know God, I have a guarantee. The pretense will go. The obstacles will be removed. And then Jesus summarizes it all by saying, if you believe what? The context would suggest to me that what Jesus is saying is, If you believe in my mission, if you believe in what I came to do, if you believe that your greatest good is not sleeping well, but your greatest good is knowing me whether you sleep well or not. If you believe that your greatest good is not having your kids love Jesus, but you pray like mad for that, of course. But your greatest good is when your child is breaking your heart that you can know Jesus and stop pretending that you’re not hurting. That you’re broken. That you’re struggling. If you believe, then whatever you ask for, that’s consistent with your deepest desire as a deer panting after the water books.
If you believe that your greatest desire is satisfied in knowing God. If you believe that, I’ll see to it happens. That’s Jesus talking. He doesn’t lie.
One of my favorite quotes by Lewis. Put first things first, and second things are thrown in. Put second things first, and you lose both first and second things. What’s the first thing? God. Knowing Him. Being related to Him. Being identified with Him. Being indwelt by His Spirit. Becoming like Him. Advancing His purposes in this world. Being missional in your orientation toward life. That’s the first thing. It’s all wrapped up in the glory of God. Everything else… Your health, your job, your family, your ministry. Everything else is a second thing. And when you pray a petitionary prayer, which God wants us to do as little children, to come before the Father and say, Father, here’s what I really would like. I would love for the money to come in to support this very worthwhile building project. Is it guaranteed 100 percent? I would question that. Should it be prayed for? Absolutely. Is it God’s will? You’ll find out. But in the middle of your prayers for that, in the middle of wanting to see the kingdom advanced through the work of Tenth by this building project being well funded, in the middle of your prayers for that, whatever happens, you can draw closer to God.
That’s not what I want. What I really want is… You’ve got second things first. And when you put second things first, you lose both first, knowing God intimately, and second things, God isn’t going to bless the way He wants to. But put first things first, and things are different. That led me, as I pondered this passage, that led me to the very simple thought that had escaped me for all of these years.
I’ve been a Christian since I was eight years old. First trusted Jesus when I was eight, at boys camp. Story of some others who are my age bracket, back in the old days. Sixty boys gathered around a campfire one night. Counselor gets up and says, Boys, look at the flames in that fire going twenty feet into the air. I’m an eight year old kid. Wow, that’s hot, boys, you have a choice to make. Oh, that’s a choice. Boys, you can trust Jesus, or burn in the fires of hell forever. And I remember thinking to myself, that’s a no brainer. So I trusted Jesus.
And all my life since then, as a follower of Jesus now, for these last 53 years, as a follower of Jesus for all these years, prayer has confused me, because I don’t think I had any significance attached to the phrase that I now have come to love. The phrase, the two word phrase, relational prayer as opposed to petitionary prayer.
Which comes first in your life, relating to God in prayer or asking for things from God in prayer? Both are legitimate, but which has a center place in your heart? Am I praying centrally to get more from God or am I praying centrally to get more of God? Relational prayer. What is that? A couple of years ago, pondering this passage, I thought, I think I have some idea how to relate to my wife. I have some idea how to relate to my kids, my friends, and my grandchildren. And I love relating to these people that I love. What does it mean to relate to God in prayer, as opposed to praying the way I’ve been praying for 50 some years, and my prayers perhaps are the way you’ve prayed for many years.
Dear Lord, I ask. And then we fill in the blank. I ask that. Is that a good prayer? Of course it is. But is there a deeper prayer? Dear Lord, I want to know you. And let me now have a conversation with my very best friend and my Heavenly Father. And so I came up with a little acronym that I call The PAPA Prayer.
P A P A. My Heavenly Father, The PAPA Prayer, putting relational prayer in the center of our lives. P A P A. First P. Just present yourself. Pray that the fig leaves are withered. Stand before God with no pretense, with no covering, with no hiding, no covering except the blood. Stand before God saying, God, here’s who I am. I’m in a bad mood. I’m really feeling cranky today. I’m so tired I could just want to sleep for ten hours and forget about ministry. If that’s who you are, why pretend you’re better than that? He knows. No pretense. Presenting yourself to God is the beginning of relational prayer. Folks, as I begin to learn my own understanding of the popular prayer this last year or two, I have often times spent up to an hour presenting myself to God, here’s what’s happening. Here’s who I am,
The next letter A. Attending. Who do I think I’m talking to? Who is this God? I’m talking to God, who are you? Are you a magic genie if I rub the lamp properly three times and get what I want? Or are you the sovereign God of the universe who has proven your love for me over and over again centrally in the cross? Can I come before you and say that what you want more than anything else is to draw me into your presence because you have this idea that my greatest blessing is to know you and I’ve differed with you about that. But I’m wrong. And you’re a God whose delight is to dwell with me. Who am I talking to? Attend to the God of the Bible, not the God of, I’ve come to understand through my history.
Thirdly, P, purge myself. P A P. Present, attend, purge. God, what right now claims my affection more than you? What second thing has become first in my life? What have I loved more than I love you? Oh God, I’ve been hiding that. Get rid of these fig leaves so I can face my own brokenness and woundedness in your presence because then when I’m naked, when the fig leaves come off, then I experience your mercy.
And then the last A, approach. God, what does it mean in Hebrews 4 that I can come boldly to the throne of grace? I can walk boldly right up into your presence to get what you’re most eager to give, which may be certain second thing blessings and I thank you when you give them to me and I’ll ask for them till I die but essentially what you want to give me is yourself.
The PAPA Prayer, learning to relate to God.
When The PAPA Prayer, when Relational Prayer – whatever form it takes, the PAPA is just one simple thought about it – when Relational Prayer takes center place in my life, then Petitionary Prayer falls in line with His will more often.
Let me close my thoughts by telling you two stories. See, I believe that, in the heart of every human being, because we bear the image of God, and because the Bible says that God has set eternity in our hearts, that you and I want more than this world can ever provide. The deepest desires of my heart go beyond the blessings I can articulate and enumerate. The deepest longing of my image bearing heart is to know God and to be in fellowship with the Trinity. But I don’t get in touch with that desire a lot. And because I’m not in touch with that desire, I go after lesser things with zeal, and call it petitionary prayer. Two stories to make my point. One happened fifty eight years ago.
I was three years old, raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, living until our home was built with my grandparents, my mom’s mother and dad. I’m a three year old boy and just forgive the juvenile-ity. Is that a word? Juvenile-ness of the story. I’m a three year old boy. Saturday afternoon. The memory is clear in my mind and I remember I needed to use the washroom, needed to go to the bathroom, and I was three years old. I remember thinking to myself, up until now, I’ve said, mommy. I need to go to the bathroom. But I thought, I’m a big boy. I’m gonna go into that room all by myself.
So I went in, closed the door, and I noticed what grown ups do, they locked it. So I turned a little half moon shaped silver lever and turned it so the bolt went into the door jamb and the door was locked. A few minutes later, I was ready to leave. I went to unlock the door, and it stuck. My little three year old arms couldn’t turn it, and I put both arms to work and couldn’t get it. What would happen to a three year old boy when he wants to get out of the bathroom and the door doesn’t yield to his efforts to open? I panicked. The thought that went through my mind was, I’m going to spend the rest of my life in this bathroom. In my panic and in my fear, I screamed. That’s what little boys do. Mommy! Daddy! Get me out of the bathroom! Mom and Dad heard me and they both ran up the stairs and I heard Mother say, Did you fall? Did you hurt your head? No, I can’t get out of the bathroom! The door’s locked! And Dad sized the situation up immediately and unbeknownst to me, ran outside of the garage, got the old wooden ladder and put it up against the brick, ivy covered walls of my grandparents home, the outside wall.
I’m watching the door, waiting for the door to open. The superhuman power of my deliverer. And I hear a noise behind me, and I look back at the window on the second floor. There’s my dad’s face. And with superhuman strength, he pulled open the window. And he climbed in. All is well. Dad’s here. And he came over and patted me on the head and smiled. And he went over, and with Superman type strength, he unlocked the door. And I said, Thanks, Dad! We Christians call it worship. I ran outside to play. We Christians call it the abundant life. Get me out of this bathroom! We Christians call it prayer. Petitionary prayer. What’s relational prayer look like? Rather than, these second things are going bad, change it! If you love me, I know you can. Matthew 21:22, whatever I believe. Do it!
The other story, and with this I’ll close, happened five or six years ago as my father was dying. He and mother were staying at an assisted living facility not too far from our home. Mother in an Alzheimer’s unit, locked behind doors so she wouldn’t wander out in the street and be killed. Dad’s mind was still good, his health was failing. And one night about midnight, I didn’t know Dad was within three or four weeks of death. I knew that death was coming. I had no idea it was this soon coming. The phone rang at midnight, and you know what it’s like to get a midnight phone call. It’s not what you want.
Phone rang, I picked it up. Hello? Larry, this is Dad! You gotta get over here right away! Things are not good! Please get over here right away! Dad, what’s happening? It’s just bad! Just get over here! Dad, is somebody there with you? Yeah, there’s an attendant here, but he’s of no use. And this was so uncharacteristic of my very gentle, godly, trusting father. His mind was sliding, and he was moving toward a terrible time in his life, when he was going to be miserable the last three weeks, and then go home. I didn’t know that at the time, of course, and I got the attendant on the phone. The attendant said this is Larry Junior? Yeah. Your dad really is doing fine. There’s nothing wrong. He just has gotten very upset. We’re not sure what. Everything’s fine. There’s no health problems. That’s causing pain. I’ve given him a sedative and he’ll be asleep within about five or ten minutes. If you want to stop by in the morning, that’ll be fine. Okay, thank you, sir. Put Dad back on the phone.
Dad, I’ll be there in the morning. The attendant says, You’re fine and you’ll be asleep in a few minutes. You’re no help! And he hung up the phone on me. I was heartbroken. Am I failing my father? What do I do? I went downstairs. Do I drive over there now? It’s a 20 minute drive. No problem. I was very willing to. He’d be asleep by the time I got there. The attendant, who I knew was a very good person, assured me Dad was fine. Should I just wait to go over in the morning? When I go over in the morning, how will I talk to my dad? How will I solve this relational rupture between my father and me as he nears death?
I was beside myself. I went downstairs, and I wept for probably 30 minutes. My prayers during those weeping moments were, God, what do I do to restore the relationship with my dad? Nothing matters more. I’m locked in this room, if you will, and I don’t know how to get out of this room. I don’t know how to unlock the door that will get me into the fullness of my relationship with my dad. Things are bad now. What should I do to be a good son? I love my dad. I want to be there for him. Unlock the door, God. Tell me what to do. Show me what I should do to get what I want the most. I really had what came close to a vision. As I was weeping and praying that rather demanding prayer because when you put petitionary prayer ahead of relational prayer, you demand rather than petition.
As I was demanding, calling it petitionary prayer, I had this semi-vision of my heavenly father showing His face at the bathroom window and coming into the dark room that I couldn’t get out of. But rather than doing what my earthly father had done 50 years previously, patting me on the head, opening the door, letting me go out, giving me clear instructions on how to reconcile with my father, my heavenly Father enabled me to put first things first.
In my little semi-vision, my heavenly Father came into the room, and rather than walking over to unlock the door, He sat on the floor and he said, Let’s chat. Let’s spend time together. Talk to me. I want to be close to you. My question this morning, I guess, is, which do you want more, to get out of the room or to sit with your Father?
What characterizes your prayer life the most? God, here are the second things that matter. Do them. If it’s your will, but it should be. Versus, God, I really do pray for all those things, and I will till the day I die because I really want them, and you’ve encouraged your children to come to you as a loving father and make known your request, and I’m going to do it with prayer and thanksgiving, but I still want to petition you in lots and lots of ways, but there’s something more central to my prayer life and central to my heart. God, I’d like to know you. God, here’s who I am in your presence right now. I’ve been pretending things are okay and they’re not. I’ve been hurting really badly and I’d like to share that with you and let you know who your child is. You already know. But as Lewis puts it, that prayer is taking part in the process of being known.
As I present myself before my father, as I attend, Who are you, Father? You’re a Father who lets my brother die in a plane crash. You’re a Father who gives me a moment of lucidity with my mother before her death. You’re a Father who answers my prayer for my son when he’s halfway across the world, and he comes to know you better in the middle of his crisis. God, I don’t quite get you when you say yes and when you say no, but I know you love me. Calvary forever settles that question. God, I’m talking to a Father, the best Father any son or daughter could ever imagine. Amen. God bless you. I’ve not wanted you, number one. I’ve wanted some other things, number one. That’s awful. Purging. But God, I’d like to sit with you wherever I am. If it’s a locked room of darkness, let me know you. If it’s a bright, sun-shiny day in the meadows and life is going well, let me know you. Relational prayer must precede petitionary prayer because it reflects God’s purpose. The desire of my heart and the desire of your heart to know God more than I want any second thing.
Kep Crabb: That was Larry Crabb talking about his book, The PAPA Prayer. If you don’t have a copy of The PAPA Prayer, go to largerstory.com and get your copy of The PAPA Prayer today. Please subscribe to this channel if you like what you’ve heard. Join us each Tuesday for the rest of this year on Relational Spirituality, a Larger Story podcast. Thanks for being with us.