The Stream, 5.2.17
By Alan W. Dowd

An Arizona lawmaker recently raised temperatures when she opened a statehouse session with a morning prayer that turned out not to be a prayer—calling not on God but on her fellow legislators “to improve the lives of the humans of this city…create a more just and positive world…[and] remember the humanity that resides within each and every person here.”  In response, one of her colleagues noted that “a prayer should be to a higher power.” By definition, that’s what prayer is—literally: Merriam-Webster defines prayer as “an address to God or a god in word or thought.” Words and thoughts directed somewhere else are something else. That’s not close-minded or sectarian; it’s the essence of language. Words have meanings; they have to, or else there’s no need for them.


Rather than raising a fuss about humanism, perhaps Christ followers should view this as an opportunity to ask ourselves some hard questions: Are our prayers really prayers—or just noise wrapped in the language of faith? And when we pray, do we get heaven’s attention?


“Lord, teach us to pray,” the disciples asked. It’s an almost-silly request. After all, at that very moment, they were talking with God; they were praying. And they constantly saw Jesus answer calls for help. In fact, they had front-row seats for a miracle within a miracle that tells us a lot about what it takes to get heaven’s attention.

In Matthew 9, a synagogue official asks Jesus to do the impossible. “My daughter has just died,” Jairus explains. “Come and put your hand on her, and she will live.”


Read that again. It’s a prayer, but it’s not a request. There’s no question mark. There’s no bargaining. It’s a helpless father reaching for the one thing that can save his lifeless child. Jesus immediately “got up and went with him.”


On His way to answer Jairus’ prayer, Jesus is “pressed” by throngs of people. Then He stops and asks, “Who touched me?” Jesus persists, “Someone touched me…power has gone out from me.”


“A woman who had been subject to bleeding for 12 years” finally reveals herself. Think about her loneliness. Bleeding in her culture meant uncleanliness, which meant 12 years without the touch of a friend, 12 years separated from worship, 12 years hidden away.


Like Jairus, she is at the end of herself. Like Jairus, she believes in Christ’s power. But unlike Jairus, her prayer is offered in her heart, silently.  “If I only touch His cloak,” she whispers, “I will be healed.”


Jesus answers with words that change her life: “Daughter, your faith has healed you…be freed from your suffering.”

Many asked for help, brushed up against Him, talked to Him and talked at Him. But only one got His attention. Only one truly touched Him.

There’s a metaphor here. In crisis times, we may run in God’s direction, talk to Him and brush up against Him. But do we truly touch Him by approaching Him with what Jairus and that woman had—a mix of total confidence in Him and utter abandonment of ourselves? To unpack that, let’s consider some of the truths revealed by these stories.



Such faith is mysterious
Somehow faith can unlock God’s power, and a lack of faith, like a heavy curtain holding back a brilliant sunrise, can block His power.

Jairus’ daughter was dead. But her father’s faith was never more alive than when he turned to Jesus for help. “Come and put your hand on her,” he pleaded, “and she will live.” When others tried to chisel away at Jairus’ faith, Jesus spoke aloud what the Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts: “Just believe.” Then, Jesus “took her by the hand,” and said, “Little girl, wake up!”  Death had no power over the Author of Life. “Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around.” 

A story from Mark 6 describes the other side of this mystery. It happened in Jesus’ hometown.

“When the Sabbath came, He began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard Him were amazed,” Mark explains. But then they started talking about His background and His family, focusing on things of this earth rather than things above. As a result, He could heal only “a few” because of the lack of faith in Nazareth.

To extend the curtain-sunlight metaphor, the sun is there whether or not the curtain is drawn. But the sun can provide warmth and light only if the curtain is open. 

Such faith thrills Jesus

A prayer offered in faith makes Jesus drop everything and focus on His faithful child. That’s what He did for Jairus and for the suffering woman. It’s as if Jesus is saying that this kind of prayer—and the faith that fuels it—need to be brought to the light. After all, the God of the universe knew who touched Him on the way to Jairus’ house, but the rest of the world did not. Jesus wanted to show the world what the woman’s faith accomplished.


He did the same thing when He was preaching at a house so full of people that, as Mark 2 explains, “there was no room left, not even outside the door.” But that didn’t deter four men from carrying their paralyzed friend into the presence of God. 

Jesus forgives the man and heals him. But incredibly, it isn’t because of the paralyzed man’s faith. “When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son your sins are forgiven.’” What a powerful example of how we can literally carry each other into the presence of Christ.

Finally, there’s the story of the Roman centurion. He asks Jesus to save his servant, who was “about to die.” And he trusts that if Jesus would only “say the word…my servant will be healed.” When Jesus hears this, He is “amazed” and turns to the crowd to applaud a pagan’s faith: “I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” I wonder if Jesus thinks the same about us, as we pray timid prayers—or worse, think that God doesn’t want to be bothered.


Such faith is transformative

The woman who suffered from bleeding was sick and then was whole. She came in torment, and she left “in peace.” So dramatic was her transformation that “she could not go unnoticed.” But her transformation was more than skin deep.


Luke 8 records the change. “The woman…came trembling and fell at His feet.” But then Jesus says to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you.”


We can’t put into words what a dramatic transformation this is. Before she came to the end of herself, she was just a woman, unloved and unwanted. But after she reaches out to Jesus, she learns that she is His daughter, His precious child.


Such faith takes time to blossom

The woman “had been subject to bleeding for 12 years,” had seen “many doctors” and “had spent all she had.”


Could it be that her helplessness nurtured in her the sort of faith needed to get heaven’s attention? It seems Jesus is interested in this transformation of heart far more than the healing of the body. Indeed, Jesus often healed the body as proof of an even more profound change of the heart.


“If I only touch His cloak,” she said in her heart, “I will be healed.” That’s the transformation that matters to heaven—the transformation that comes when we turn from self to the savior.

Those of us who can’t relate to that sort of faith—a fearless faith that springs up from helplessness—can find solace in two stories of faith with an asterisk.

Those of us who can’t relate to that sort of faith can take comfort in a story of faith with an asterisk.

Coming to Jesus on behalf of his son—deaf, mute and possessed by a violent spirit—a desperate father sighs, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”


Notice how different his words are than Jairus’. Jesus certainly does. “If you can?” Catching him in doubt, Jesus throws the man’s words back at him. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” The man responds with naked honesty: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” Wrapped inside his request is a recognition that even the strength needed to believe comes from God.


Thomas witnessed this twin transformation of the demon-possessed boy and the if-you-can father. In fact, Thomas witnessed countless miracles. Yet because of what happened after Christ’s resurrection, Thomas is the most famous doubter in all of history.

John tells us Thomas “was not with the disciples when Jesus came.” So, they report the amazing news. But Thomas doesn’t buy it. “Unless I see the nail marks in His hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe,” he huffs. 


The next time the risen Lord appears, He invites Thomas to “see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.” Jesus then challenges Thomas to “Stop doubting and believe.”With his hard-heartedness melted away, Thomas cries, “My Lord and my God!”Again, Jesus uses someone’s doubt to help others believe: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Only heaven knows how many believers have held on to that promise.

None of this is to suggest there’s some foolproof formula to prayer, physical healing is the only evidence of genuine faith or God’s silence means you’re not touching Him.


His silence and timing could be used for another purpose in His plan. Remember that Jesus’ arrival at Jairus’ home was delayed by His healing of the woman. And remember that Jesus knows what it’s like to hear silence. As He died, the words of Psalm 22 were on His lips. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The bystanders didn’t hear the other words from that piercing psalm—words repeated by all who suffer and struggle: “Why are you so far from saving me?...Help me.”


Sometimes heaven’s answer is “No.” That doesn’t mean God isn’t listening or doesn’t care—or that the seeker has failed. Again, there’s a mystery to this. Job’s wise friend tried to make sense of this by explaining that God woos us from the jaws of distress, pursues us, uses whatever He can to get our attention. And once He has our attention, He reveals something amazing: We have His.