Perhaps you have heard the story of the church that was incensed because a local bar opened across the street. Knowing nothing else to do, the church members mounted a prayer campaign to rid themselves of this blight on the neighborhood. They prayed that God would intervene to remove the bar.
A thunderous storm soon swept across the town and a streak of lighting lit up the sky, striking the bar. The building burst into flame and burned to the ground. The owner of the bar sued the church for the destruction of his property as a result of their prayers. The church defended itself claiming that the lightning strike was an accidental act of nature. The judge sat perplexed in front of the plaintiff and defendant. “It appears,” he said, “that I have a bar owner who believes in prayer and a church that doesn’t.”
During the Civil War Abraham Lincoln pondered the issue of prayer. Both the north and the south were religious. Both believed they were right and both prayed for victory. After his death, the following note was found in his papers: “The will of God prevails — In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is somewhat different from the purpose of either party.”
It is widely reported that during the civil war Lincoln met with a group of ministers at a prayer breakfast who tried to encourage him. They told the president that they had prayed that “God would be on our side.” Linclon corrected them saying, “No, gentlemen, let us pray that we are on God’s side.”
How do we pray and what do we pray for? The Bible is clear that we should let our needs be known to God, that nothing is too great or too small for prayer. We must be careful, however that our prayers are not merely extensions of our own self interest and desires. And we must not allow prayer to degenerate into a tug of war to get God to line up on our side against the interests and desires of others.
When Jesus gave us the model prayer he taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Everything else in the prayer flows from this and is secondary to this. But Jesus went a step further. He not only gave us a model prayer to guide our words, he demonstrated how to pray when he faced death on the cross and prayed, “Father, not my will but thine be done.”
Prayer works best when it brings us into alignment with God and his purposes on the earth, purposes that often are at odds with our own. When we pray this way we will love our enemies, do good for those who abuse us and give ouselves generously for others.