A few years ago, in one of my seminary assignments, I railed against the idea of prayer working like a vending machine — as though we toss up the right words and phrases and out comes our spiritual Snickers in response. God’s not a vending machine. And I still stand by that statement. God isn’t a machine we manipulate and control.
Yet, as I’ve been thinking about prayer again for a class I’m teaching at my church, maybe the vending machine metaphor isn’t entirely bad for thinking about prayer.
We come to God hungry and thirsty, just as I did walking up to the vending machine during class breaks on the days where I forgot my lunch or was too busy to eat lunch. Or those days when I was desperate for caffeine in order to stay awake through night class. I realize this is a titch flippant, but hang in there with me anyway. Let’s also set aside the usual unhealthiness of the options in the vending machine for the sake of this metaphor.
We’re hungry and thirsty, and we offer up words like coins in a machine. Maybe we fret over that exchange like someone trying to straighten out his dollar in a frantic bid to get the machine to accept the money and spit out his Diet Coke. Now, for me, I don’t get why anyone would go for Diet Coke (I’m a RC girl myself), but folks, who like Diet Coke, LOVE them some Diet Coke.
And we put that bill in the slot on bated breath, hoping the machine doesn’t reject it. We wait for the response.
Things get more complicated here. Sometimes that Diet Coke comes tumbling out. I don’t know why it works, much like I don’t always understand why God says “yes,” “no” or gives us seeming silence in response to our prayer. The mechanics of vending machines are beyond me. I like to pretend elves or leprechauns dance around in the machine and push my soda or snack into the tray. Kind of like the jukebox musicians from old school Thomas the Train. It’s a bit more fun that way.
Anyway, sometimes what we’re seeking comes tumbling right out. No problem. God shows up in a predictable way: we feel Jesus’ presence, we receive healing, God provides, or grace washes over us.
But, sometimes the machine sends us something we didn’t ask for, maybe you get Mountain Dew instead of Diet Coke (gross!). I don’t know. Or maybe the machine eats your money and gives you nothing but silence in return. You bang your hands against the machine, tilt and rattle it, push buttons forcefully trying to get your money back. At least you do if you don’t have an audience. Maybe you resist that frustrated impulse when you’ve got an audience.
And this is the part where I get stuck talking about prayer. This is that awkward moment. The one where I wished I could give certainty about what God’s response would be. You put in the “right” words. You did the “right” things. And God doesn’t respond the way you or I think God should.
Prayer isn’t magic. Nor is God’s response earned by our actions or merits, even as carrying grudges seems to hinder prayers.
The vending machine mechanics are beyond my comprehension, and so are God’s decisions.
I know that there are better ways than others to pray. Kind of like how having exact coins at a vending machine is easier than straightening bills and hoping the machine won’t spit them back out at you. Praying things that line up with God’s heart and values, like justice and mercy, helps. Spending time actually listening to God helps, too — just like you read the vending machine options before maniacally pushing buttons. When we’re paying attention to God, keeping our wild (possibly unhealthy or unbiblical) expectations and our selfishness in check is easier. Prayer is a relational interaction rather than a transaction.
Ultimately, God isn’t under my control or your control. And no, this statement doesn’t make God’s response of “no” or seemingly endless silence any less frustrating or demoralizing.
And even though it’s frustrating (maybe even soul shattering) when God doesn’t do what we expect, I wouldn’t be any good at being God; I’m not built to be God, even though Jesus knows I still try to be some days (mistakes are made). Some days, when I’m frustrated with God, I have to white knuckle it with faith.
If you’re in the frustrated and disheartened camp, you’re in good company too. Check out Psalm 88. It’s not a happy read, or even really a hopeful read. Maybe that’s why we don’t talk about it much in Christian circles. There’s not a silver lining. Heman the Ezrahite (not to be confused with the 80’s cartoon character) is frustrated with God’s actions and seeming absence. And in the face of that despair, he questions God.
That’s a place where I’ve found myself. Not right now. But, I’ve been there. A few years ago at the darkest place in the infertility journey, my journals look a lot like Psalm 88. Where did you go? Why did you disappear? Why won’t you rescue me? Why have you forsaken us?
And there was the temptation to quit. To walk away. To be done with God. Some days the temptation won. I’m not going to sugarcoat that.
Ultimately, what continues to bring me back is this: even when God doesn’t respond the way I want Him to, even when God is silent, I know there isn’t real life for me apart from Him. I don’t like the person I become when I’m fleeing from God. The best me, the most alive me, only shows up when I’m in conversation with God.
And, like Psalm 88 shows, I can still dialogue with God even when I’m mad at him and even when God disappoints my expectations. Maybe that doesn’t look like happy, bubbly and submissive faith. But, I think happy and bubbly faith is overrated. God is big enough to handle our honesty and our questions. We don’t have to pretend to be something or someone we’re not.
Just be prepared that God’s response may take a form that you didn’t expect. At least that’s how it works for me.