In conversation after conversation with folks about prayer, it is clear that we have somehow detached prayer from the Kingdom of God in such way that when people think of good, they think more of the goods they desire than THE good of the Kingdom come to sinners desiring forgiveness and the dying desiring life.
Whenever we read in Scripture of that which is "good" it is too easy to separate this from THE good who is Jesus Christ and THE good that He has done by His righteous living, sacrificial dying, and life giving rising. In Scripture the good that we are to aim for in life, the good and right and true that we are to seek after is all tied to the cross and empty tomb. The greatest good is life in Christ, life made possible by the cross and empty tomb, life lived out in the shadow of that cross and life overflowing in the abundance of His gifts of grace that were won by that living, dying and rising again. But I don't hear this among our people.
When most of us pray for good we have in mind good things -- long and healthy lives, resolution of the conflicts and struggles of this life, enough money to supply our needs and a bit more, etc. I do not mean to suggest that these things are bad, but they are not THE good that is the source, focus, and goal of our lives as Christian people.
Take for example the question of why my prayer is not answered. Of course, we know on one level that God answers every prayer but that still leaves me with my illness, with my bills, with my tension at work, and with the struggles in my family. So what gives? The things I have prayed for are good things -- they are not sinful things or evil things so why is God not answering my prayer? Learned from Protestantism is that the problem lies with me and my faith. I am not praying earnestly enough, often enough, confidently enough, boldly enough, demanding enough, etc... If I improve my praying, I get what I want and ask for from God.
Then there are the words of Jesus "What ever you ask for in My name, you will receive..." Well, I have asked for a whole lot of things and I ended every prayer "in Jesus' name" and still I came up empty handed from God. What gives? The things I asked for were not evil or immoral or even trivial. Why do we say God answers all prayers and still I have come up empty handed? Jesus did not say my prayer will be answered but the answer will be "no" -- Jesus said whatever I ask for in His name I will get. Period. So where am I going wrong? Or, just maybe God is doing whatever those Northwest pilots were doing and is distracted from hearing my prayers???
What does it mean to pray in Jesus' name? Surely this means to pray from the vantage point of our lives planted in Christ by baptism, deeply rooted in Him by faith, nurtured and fed by His Word and Sacraments. What this means is that in Christ I am not who I was; I have become (not fully but begun) the new person that lives in Christ who lives in me. Before we even get to the righteous life I begin to live in Christ and the power of His righteousness, we begin with my own will and desires. To pray in Jesus' name means to pray for that which Christ desires, to adopt His own will and goal as my will and purpose.
The good that I pray for is not the good defined by me or judged from my perspective but the good that is Christ and the Kingdom He established by His death and resurrection. When we pray for this good, the answer from God is never "no" but always "yes." What we struggle with is that this yes may not come in the timely fashion the chronograph on our wrists measures but the kairos of God's fullness. But we rejoice in knowing that the answer is yes even though the when is not yet revealed to us.
The goods that I pray for are not what Jesus had in mind when He said "wherever two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven." In other words, if I want a BMW and can get several other faithful Christians to pray with me and for me in this goal, I can sit on my front porch and wait for that shiny new to arrive. This is the stuff that screams through the airwaves to our people. Prayer that makes things happen, prayers of agreement that demand answers from God, prayer that claims the promises of God and takes them to the bank (literally)... this is what people hear about and read about when it comes to prayer.
But... they do not read about or hear much about THE good that is Christ -- the source of our praying and the goal of our prayers -- to live in Him by faith, to live under Him in grace, and to live for Him for life...
I do not mean to diminish in any way the prayers of family members for their sick and suffering loved ones... or to demean the prayers of the poor for money and food and shelter and medical care enough for their family... or to imply that our material goods are not God's concern at all... what I do intend is to frame all of these within the context of that which is good and right and true in Christ, His Kingdom, His gracious rule and reign, His merciful acts, His desire that all come to faith, His cross planted for everyone and for all, and His life raised from death to raise all the dead... This is the good the drives the Christian. This is the good that becomes our own goal, purpose, plan, and will in Christ. From this good, flow the goods that we need and desire -- along with the faith to place the requests for these goods for Him to give what is needful and beneficial -- in order words, Thy will be done.
Somehow in prayer, our shallowness and weakness is exposed but so often we do not see it. We look upon it as a shopping list of things we want from God... as a forum to convince God we are worthy of or deserving of what we have asked Him to give... as a formula for making sure that God knows and will give to us what we want... as a place of last resort when we can no longer control things or make them work toward our desires... When our hearts are planted in Christ by baptism, rooted in Him by faith, fed and nourished by His means of grace (the Word, absolution, and the Meal), there is but one good before us -- the good of Christ and His kingdom... come to me and come to all. God grant it for Jesus' sake.
O God, from you come all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works. Give to us, your servants, that peace which the world cannot give, that our hearts may be set to obey your commandments; and also that we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may live in peace and quietness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.