It was 1986; the era of big hair bands and Bon Jovi just released what would become their most enduring signature song and first No. 1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart, Livin’ on a Prayer has been played for nearly three decades now to countless audiences, as a tribute in The Concert for New York after 9/11, was named the 46th greatest Rock song of all time and even got airplay with the Muppets.
With some great rifts Jon Bon Jovi blasts out the song of a down on their luck working class couple Gina crying at night and Tommy working on the docks, the only thing they can do is to hold on to what they’ve got and keep livin’ on a prayer.
Of the rock songs out there that have had an enduring legacy the message of rough circumstances and holding on, livin’ on a prayer has continued to resonate with people for over 30 years. The reason why is not surprisingly the reality of what we are really living on in this life. Writing this letter to you with an eye looking ahead in just a few weeks when the pages of the calendar will inexorably fly to 2016 it is a reminder of the reality that we as Christians are and will be livin’ on a prayer.
You and I don’t know what 2016 will bring. Geez, while I’m sitting here in the coffee shop I don’t know what the next second will bring! We make our plans, buy our planners look ahead: 1, 5, 10, 30 years into the future with retirement planning and event scheduling but the honest to goodness reality of it all is that I could not with 100% certainty tell you what will happen January 1st 2016 than I can tell you what will happen the rest of January 1st 2015. While I’m sitting in this booth, in truth, I couldn’t tell you with 100% certainty what will happen the next moment either.
Consider this passage from the book of James 4:13-16:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
That is the reality of our lives and we don’t like it. We fight against this reality, we plan against this reality, we put money away against this reality; we don’t talk about it and most of the time we don’t believe it. But then this reality simply happens, it happens to the young and the old, to those in their prime and those with grey in their hair, to foolish and wise alike and when it happens we rage against it, we ask why did this happen, how could this happen, this wasn’t part of the plan. But likely the plans we have do not account for us being mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes, do they?
They don’t but we are. We’re livin’ on a prayer.
That sounds great when Jon Bon Jovi is belting it out (the song is blasting through my mind while I’m writing!) but what does it actually mean to live on a prayer?
Well, here is one approach. When I pray I am presenting to God my preferred future, what I would like to happen and how I would like things to be. I want to somehow guarantee my desires through God’s intervention and have my future conform to my desires. The images of God in this understanding of prayer are like a cosmic chess player or the ultimate administrative assistant. Maybe it’s like Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek Next Generation when he tells the helmsman to “make it so” and whatever it was that Captain Picard says happens. We say to God in our prayers, “make it so…” and we expect it to be. When our future does conform to our desires we’re happy with God but when it doesn’t we’re not and we berate God.
The dangerous aspect of understanding prayer this way is that we expect God, to play God, with a point of the finger and zap it is done without taking into regard to reality of the freedom God has given to us in the mortal realm. We effect and are affected in billions and billions of countless ways by choices made throughout human history to the choices that we make this moment sitting and reading this letter and these choices make the tapestry of life that we live. Yes, not only does God have ultimate sway over all things as the creator and will at times intervene in the individual moments of a human life but what we understand as the normal work of God is taking the whole picture of His creation to the day when God will make all things new. What this means is that God doesn’t normally take away our freedom but allows us to live and experience our lives and the choices we make and the ones that have been made all around us. For mist that vanishes God has given us a lot of power.
So if prayer is typically not about having God conform my future to my desires then it is more appropriate to say that prayer is about me being conformed to God’s desires and in doing that conforming my future as well.
Let me break that down. God’s desire properly understood is that each human life come to a saving relationship with Him through our savior Jesus and that we live our life both now and eternally in loving relationship with Him. The prayer of faith which speaks in relationship with God changes who we are. It is no longer “I desire this,” but “God what do you desire and teach me to desire the same thing.” It is no longer “these are my words” but “God what are your words and teach me to say the same thing.” As prayer conforms us to the desires of God our future conforms as well because our choices become aligned to God. This future will still be unknowable and may bring earthly good and bad but it is a future that is certain that the will of God is at work and will bring us to the ultimate place of being with God now and eternally and in this way giving to us certainty no matter what 2016 or simply the next second brings.
No matter what life brings, as the great rocker sang, we’re livin’ on a prayer.