Do you ever pray with reservations? It goes like this: you ask God for something, but you’re not sure if He’ll give it; so you still pray but you’re not holding your breath, because you don’t want to get your hopes up.
Some of us probably feel this way when we pray for the pandemic to be over and for our old lives back. Or for things like getting into a top university, landing a dream job, meeting our life partner, etc. As a friend once told me: “I want to be married, and I do pray for it, but I also think to myself, ‘God doesn’t promise life partners for everyone. Maybe He will give me one, but maybe He won’t’. What if I’m just setting myself up for disappointment?”
Then there are the troubles that plague us—finances, health, relationships—and of course with these deeper pains, more fervent prayers.
For long-time believers, we know that God is more than able to give us what we ask for, but that He may not do that because He knows better than we do what is best for us (Isaiah 55:9). We also know that we should expect trials to come our way, because they’re meant to shape and purify us (Romans 5; 1 Peter 4). So we can’t (or shouldn’t) expect our lives to be smooth sailing all the time.
Knowing all these, how can we still come to God expectantly in prayer? How can we still pray and ask and sincerely believe?
I wish I could say that I’ve figured it all out, that every time I pray, it’s always in a joyful and confident manner. The truth is, I still struggle from time to time, especially in this season of extreme uncertainty. But when I think about my prayer journey, I remember that the times I did not hold back were the times I found myself at the end of the rope; when I could no longer ignore or minimize what my heart wanted; when the pain ran deep and I felt helpless and alone—the times when the only thing that kept me on my knees was this thought: “Lord, to whom shall [I] go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68).
One of the times I prayed the hardest was for my relationship with my then boyfriend. He was not a believer when I first met him, and although I knew I shouldn’t pursue a relationship with him, I failed to hold back. At that point, I could only pray to God that He would have mercy despite my mistake, that He would save him. I genuinely felt that there was nothing wrong in praying for his salvation; but even as I prayed, a part of me was afraid to hear what He would say, because deep down I knew I could not surrender the relationship to God. There were tears, anger, followed by feelings of resignation and defeat.
Finally, one day, God spoke to me in the most loving voice—gently, but firmly, He impressed on me this line: “Do you love me more than these? Do you trust that I love you more than anyone could?” To which I could only say, “Yes, Lord. You know that I love You. And I know You love me more than anyone ever could.”
Who is this God we pray to?
The way we approach someone depends on who we are to the person (relationship), and what the person is like (character). When we approach people close to us, we don’t worry as much about what we should say. The closer we are to the person, the less we hold back.Jesus taught us to begin every prayer with “our Father in heaven”—this is the starting point and the point to which we return, every time. He is our Father.
Perhaps picturing the father figure might give some of us pause, especially if we’ve experienced struggle and hurt in our relationship with our fathers. But with the Holy Spirit’s help (Romans 8:15), we can set aside our imperfect earthly relationships and come to know our perfect Father—the Father who loves His children so deeply that He wants us to come and tell Him everything, the Father who is pleased to hear from us and to give generously to us.
I will readily admit that I don’t always see God as this perfect, loving Father. There are times when I tend to see God more as the all-powerful, sovereign God whose will and ways I can’t fathom. And while this is also true, I know that I am seeing Him this way not so much because of what I’ve read from His Word, but more because I am not seeing things happen in accordance with what I’ve prayed for. And whenever I become hyper-focused on this attribute of God (and not in the context of the Bible), the more I see Him as distant and detached, and the less I’m inclined to pray.
In an interview on gaining confidence in prayer, John Piper says:
If you base your confidence in prayer on answers to prayer, and you have a heart that is always wondering, you’ll never have confidence.
The main way that God deepens, strengthens and awakens confidence in prayer is not through answered prayer. It’s by the word of the living God.
If our earthly experiences have made it difficult for us to understand what a father is like, we can turn to Scripture:
What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13, ESV)
Luke 11:11-13 shows us that a good father is someone who cares for his child, and will make decisions and plans that are best for him or her. More importantly, we know that the father’s goodness, his trustworthiness, is not measured by how he gives in to his child’s demands. Rather, we accept that the father knows better than the child what is good and worthwhile, and he will commit himself fully to give these things, even if the child doesn’t understand.
And in the process, the child learns the father’s love not from the quantity of his gifts, but from his deeper expressions of acceptance, affection, and assurance, and from knowing who He is.
One thing I’ve prayed about the most is to be cured absolutely of my anxiety. For many years, I begged God to take it from me, to heal me completely. As I prayed, I did everything I could to get professional help; and of course, the verses “Do not worry” and “Do not be anxious” come up so often, to the point that I would feel weary whenever I hear them; I felt scolded and discouraged, as though I was anxious only because I chose to be.
One day, God brought to my mind this passage about Paul, when he prayed for relief from this thorn that tormented him: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9, ESV). In that moment, I realized that while God may not take this anxiety away completely, He assures me that He will not let me face it alone.
Can we really approach this Father?
A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing. (Psalm 68:5-6)
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17)
When I look at these verses and see these characteristics of God as Father, I am reminded that He is above and beyond the best earthly fathers we know. Even good earthly fathers cannot be father to all the children in need; even they get tired and weary and will not always have compassion; as good as the best of them may be, they cannot guarantee that they will never change. But this Father has given us His Word and His Spirit to assure us that He loves us, and that He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
We don’t have to process all of these on our own. As the beginning of the Lord’s prayer says, He is ‘Our Father’. We are part of this family of the strongest bond. Whenever it gets hard for me to approach God, I turn to my spiritual family and ask them to pray for me. I ask them to share how they’ve experienced the Father, so that I can share in their experiences as well. God is merciful to have given us each other; He knew right from the beginning that it is not good for us to be alone, and so we are not.
Whenever I am unsure of my relationship with God, I am often brought to read Romans 8. Reading these verses often brings me immense comfort:
“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31-32, 35, 37-39, ESV)
But what if our desires cloud our understanding of who God is? What should we do?
 Piper, John. “What Can I Do to Regain Confidence In Prayer?” Desiring God. November 17, 2008. https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/what-can-i-do-to-regain-confidence-in-prayer