Consider these scenarios You’re driving around a busy shopping centre car park on the weekend before Christmas and there is not an empty spot to be found. Or maybe you’re late for an important meeting and you don’t want to have to park miles away. “Come on! Please!!” you mutter with frustration as you search for that elusive space. But then you realise there is a much more spiritual solution. You recall your Creator and turn to him in prayer. “Dear God. Please find me a park!”
If you’re a Christian (or even if you’re not) you’ve probably been in this situation. Praying for a car park is a perfect example of seeking a spiritual solution for a pretty petty “first-world” problem. But is it really a wrong thing to do? Is it ethical? Is it an inappropriate use of prayer? Is it theologically correct? Is it spiritually edifying? Now even spending time thinking about such questions may seem to some people the bigger waste of brain activity, but I think that it raises some interesting issues and it has been the subject of some fun debate among some godly friends of mine, so I thought I’d throw in my thoughts on the topic.
What is Prayer?
Well, I could write a whole blog on this very important question, but I thought I’d explain just briefly that from a biblical perspective, prayer is not something magical. It does not have a power in and of itself. It is not a method of manipulating God or moving or evoking spiritual power for your own ends. It is not a form of New Age positive thinking based on the “law of attraction” where your thoughts tell the Universe what you want (as popularised by such books as “The Secret”).
Prayer is pure and simply, talking to God. It doesn’t need to be long and wordy. It doesn’t need to be in a specific form of words, or in a specific spiritual space, or prayed in a specific body position (hands together, eyes closed, on your knees, etc) It is simply talking to God. It can be a request, or a confession, a word of praise or thankfulness, a declaration of truth, or it can simply be a pouring out of the heart and a sharing of the soul. Jesus himself prayed often to God the Father and, although most of the time he prayed privately (Luke 5:16), we do have a record of some of his prayers (see for example John 17). He also taught us principles about prayer and gave us what is commonly known as “The Lord’s Prayer” as an example of a prayer that uses those principles. He taught us, “when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:7-8) So Jesus grapples with (or at least, doesn’t ignore) that question about, “if God knows everything, what’s the point of prayer?” Clearly, for Jesus, God does know everything and yet he still encourages us to pray.
One of the key reasons for this I think is that prayer is an exercise and and expression of what we believe about God. It is a display of our faith. It shows us (and others, if we pray with others present) who we are and who God is. Now, that may seem like a bit of an anti-climactic purpose for prayer, but remember, as people created in the image of God, that is what we are primarily created for – to know, enjoy and display to truth about God. Prayer, along with love of our neighbour, have got to be the two most potent ways in which we bear the image of God and express the truth about him in our life.
Now, if that was all a bit wordy for you, what I’m basically saying is… prayer reveals what we believe about God. The content, frequency and motivation of our prayer says many things. As Jesus points out in that passage above, those that “babble” when they prayer, show that “they think they will be heard because of their many words” and that they don’t really trust that God “knows what you need before you ask him”. Our view of God will inevitably effect how we pray and what we pray for, and so in the reverse, our prayers can be a great indicator of what we truly think about God.
Now, to get back to the topic, if that is true, what does it say for us to pray for a car park? What might it reveal about how we view or treat God?
1. Treating God like your Valet (serving your every convenience)
If you pray for a car park it may reveal that you treat God like your personal valet in the sky. Your prayers are mostly about making sure you don’t have to walk further than you would like, and doesn’t really take in to account the fact that God has the right to answer your prayers with a big fat “No”. Your expectation, is that because God loves you and he is kind and generous, then of course he would want to make sure you got the most convenient spot in the whole parking lot. In your mind,God is your heavenly servant and you expect nothing but health, wealth, blessing, prosperity and that perfect sweet car spot.
If that sounds a bit like you, I’d encourage you to remember that the Jesus that we worship called us to die to ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. And what are we following him into? Well, look at his life. Hardly, an example of a “convenient” life. He was rejected, mocked, tortured and murdered, and he did it all for the good of others. His way is not a path of perfect car spots and “your best life now”. He received persecution and hardship and he promised that anyone who would follow him with integrity would receive the same (See John 15:18-20, Matthew 24:9, 2 Timothy 3:12 & 2 Corinthians 4:7-18).
Be wary of forgetting who is the Creator and who is the created. God may have other plans that are slightly more important than saving you a few seconds walking time. In fact, one of those plans might be making you park further away so that you have to walk and get a bit more exercise! In God’s economy, character and Christ-likeness is much more of a priority than convenience. The harder, longer, more complex, more challenging, more painful, less “fulfilling” path may just be the path that God wants to take you on for his glory and your ultimate good. Are you willing to take it? Are you willing to even pray for it?
2. Treating God like your Superhero (solving your every problem)
Maybe you don’t pray all the time expecting God to give you every little convenience. Maybe, you rarely pray to God at all. Only on special occassions. When you’re reeeally in trouble. Like just before a big exam that you haven’t studied for, or when your looking at an increasingly cloudy sky and you’ve organised a BBQ at the park, or when you really, really need to find a car park because your late for your best mate’s wedding. Praying to God in these situations, and these situations alone, is like treating God like your personal Superhero. You ignore him pretty much all of the time, but when things are tough, or you’re in danger, or you really need some divine intervention, you send up the SOS prayer, and like the Bat signal shining up in the clouds, you expect God to swoop down and save the day.
Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with praying to God in times of distress or trouble. Jesus modelled this in praying to his Father in the garden of Gethsemene before he faced his arrest and crucifixion. Also, it is true that God is able to save us and has more power than the greatest of Superheroes. The problem is that, when we only pray to God in these situations we are still ultimately treating him like a servant. We chose when we want to engage with him, we relate to him on our terms, and when we are done using his very important services, like a plumber who has fixed the leak in the bathroom, we thank him and show him the door.
The idea that God wants your whole life, seems way too extreme. But that’s what Jesus says. When asked what the single most important thing God wants us to do, Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:36-38). Not simply call him to solve all your problems, but love him with all your life. As Kyle idleman, author of the challenging book, “Not a Fan” says, “In the Gospels, Jesus never seemed too interested in fans. Is that how you define your relationship with Him? An ‘enthusiastic admirer’? Close enough to Jesus to get the benefits but not so close to require sacrifice? He was looking for followers. Not just any follower though, but a completely committed follower.”
If you find that you treat God like a Superhero or a plumber – not just in praying for a car park, but in the rest of your life as well – I’d encourage you to get a bigger and deeper picture of God. I completely treated God like this for the first 16 years of my life, partly due to my own pride and apathy, but also partly because I never knew that I could enjoy an intimate, personal, real relationship with my creator. Like Batman, he was more “symbolic” than real. It was only after I discovered that Jesus came to make that real relationship possible, that I gave my whole life to him and turned from being simply a fan, to a follower. So, next time you cry out to the heavens for help – whether it be when you can’t find a car park or your house keys or the meaning to life – use that moment to think about how you’re treating your Creator.
3. Treating God like your Puppet Master (directing your every decision)
You may not treat God like your servant or your Superhero, only calling on him when you really, really need him. You may go in the total other direction and treat God like your Puppet Master. What I mean by this, is that because we know God loves us and knows all things, we can sometimes expect God to guide and direct every single aspect of our lives. You may have a really solid conviction about God’s sovereignty – that God is not limited in his power and ability and so he is ultimately responsible for every action. That is what the Bible teaches. God rules everything. He is sovereign. And so, it may seem perfectly natural for you to ask God to open up a car park for you. He can make drivers move where he wants. If he wanted to, he could even make cars disappear to give you that perfect car spot! He’s God! Why not ask? And on top of that, God wants us to bring everything to him in prayer. As I explained above, Jesus said to love God with EVERYTHING! That means he wants us to surrender ever part of our life to his purposes and his plan. So if all that’s true, doesn’t that also mean God wants us to ask him where we should park our car? Doesn’t God know the very best place for us to park, and if he knows, why would a loving God keep us from such information??
Well, the danger of such a conclusion is that it’s based on really good premises of God’s love and care and sovereignty. The problem is that it develops in Christians an unhealthy immaturity and dependancy on God’s direct and daily guidance. Now, I’m not saying God can’t or doesn’t guide Christians through the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:26-29 is a great example of God doing this), but there is no instruction in Scripture to ask God about every little detail of your life. The Bible has much more to say about developing godly wisdom and making intelligent responsible decisions, whilst holding on to your plans lightly, knowing that God may have other ideas. For example:
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2-3, emphasis mine)
“Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)
“You ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.'” (James 4:15)
Someone who gets this unhealthily wrong is John Eldredge, in his book “Walking with God”. Now, I have actually met John and enjoyed some aspects of his most famous book “Wild at Heart”, but in “Walking with God”, he suggests that Christians should be asking God for guidance about every aspect of our life. Things like, “Should I go to the ranch this weekend?” (pg. 30-32), “What passage should I read in my Bible today?” (pg. 44), “Which chapter in the gospel of John should I read?” (pg. 44), and, “Should I ride the horse today?” (pg. 80).
On that last example, he tells of the story of how he had asked God whether or not he should ride and felt God say “yes”, but along one path his horse got spooked by a pile of wood and bolted, ending in an accident which breaks his nose, one wrist and dislocates the other wrist requiring surgery. His conclusion to this tragedy is not that he heard God wrong, but that after getting a “yes” to going for a horse ride, he should have asked God exactly where he should ride. “That’s a really important part of listening to God, by the way. Ask the next question. So often we get an answer to the first part of a question but fail to ask the second half. . . Don’t just get a first impression and then blast ahead. It might have been good for us to ask, ‘Where should we ride?'” (pg. 81) (For a more in depth critique of “Walking with God”, click here)
This sort of relating does not inspire childlike humility and intimacy with God. Rather, in the end, it simply inspires immature dependancy and fear of maybe missing out on “God’s perfect plan for your life”. I used to be a lot more worried about that. I used to be afraid of stepping outside of God’s will and so missing out on what God might want for my life. I used to think God has a very specific plan for my life that I had to seek out and try to discern.
Then one day, Richard, a godly friend of mine, encouraged me by saying, “Simon! Don’t worry so much! God is your heavenly Father. You’re his child! He loves you no matter which decision you make. Even if he does have a plan and you make a wrong choice, he will use your mistakes. Just try to make the best choice you can and let God look after the rest.” It was sound and comforting advice.
The more I read the Bible, the more I see that God does not have a specific plan for every moment of our lives. He has a broad fence that he wants us to keep within, but within those guidelines he gives us a lot of freedom as to where we will live, who we will marry, what job we should do, what course we should study and even, what car spot we should park in! The question we should be asking isn’t “What is God’s plan for my life?” but, “What is God’s plan. And how can I use my life to be a part of it.” God does have a plan for this world – it’s to build his kingdom, bringing more people into it and growing those people to be more like Christ. Get that plan in your sights and then you may not stress about getting guidance from God about which car spot you should park in!
4. Treating God like your Heavenly Father (providing your every need)
Now, up until now, I may seem to be fairly down on the idea of praying for a car park. Well, I wanted to offer one more possibility of how praying for a car park may actually reflect that you have a godly and healthy relationship with God. It doesn’t need to reveal that you treat God like a Valet, or a Superhero, or a Puppet Master. It may show that you simply treat God as your Heavenly Father.
Some people think that we shouldn’t pray to God about small mundane things like a car park because God must have bigger things on his mind. This is the picture of the distant Father God who is reading the paper and couldn’t possibly have any time to spare or interest in your petty little problems. But that is not the picture the Bible gives.
Although as I pointed out earlier, God has big plans for the Universe, he is also intimately concerned about his children. Consider these wonderful passages:
“O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord… For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139:1-4, 13-16)
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:6-7)
“Do not be anxious about anything,but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)
“Jesus said to them, ‘When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’ Then he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.” Then the one inside answers, “Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.” I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs. So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!'” (Luke 11:2-13)
This last passage especially shows us that if you’re a Christian, then you can call God “Father” and he loves you and is concerned for you like a good father should be. Sure, like any father, he doesn’t want us to abuse the relationship we have with him or take him for granted, but when we are anxious or have a problem, he cares for us and so wants to hear our prayers. He may not take away the circumstances that are giving us anxiety, but as the passage from Philippians says, he will give us peace that will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Also, in the Luke passage, Jesus gives an example of a prayer in which he encourages us to ask God for “our daily bread”. Clearly God is not simply concerned about the big issues in the world with no time for our simple, daily needs.
God loves followers of Jesus as a father loves his children. He cares about what is causing them grief, even when it is petty or small on a cosmic scale. Think about when a child breaks their favourite toy. Does a kind father just say, “Get over it! Don’t you know there’s a war in Chechnya going on??” No, they care for them – maybe helping them see that it’s not the biggest problem in the world, but mainly comforting them and showing that daddy cares. Now, if the child is 45 and chucks a tantrum over breaking a toy, then maybe the father of that person tells them to “build a bridge”, but that’s because we rightly expect more from people as they supposedly grow in wisdom and maturity.
I think God also expects us to not be anxious about petty things and care more about important things as we grow in faith and maturity, but that’s another sign of God’s fatherly care for us – he disciplines us. As Hebrews 12:7-11 says:
“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
So feel free to pray for a car park if you are stressed and want to go to God with your problems. Know that he cares for you and that he has the ability to provide every need that you may have. But also know, he is in the best position to really know what your needs are.
Maybe you need a perfect car spot. More likely, maybe you don’t.
Maybe some elderly man needs it more than you. Or a single mum with three screaming kids.
Maybe, like me, what you really need is to park further away so that you can walk a little bit and get some exercise so you don’t die of a heart attack before you’re 50!
Maybe, God just wants you to use your wisdom and God-given intelligence, to get the best park you can with the circumstances you have and not grumble about how terrible your lot in life is.
So, next time you are driving around madly trying to find a park and you begin to pray, “God, please find me a…” you might remember this blog and pause, wondering how you are treating God.
Maybe that contemplation itself might be the best gift a good Father can give you.