Recently I was at a meeting where the topic of prayer came up, or rather the topic of asking God for an answer. There were various topics of interest at this meeting but there was a common question: what is God’s will in this situation, what does God want us to do.
In the first instance the topic was new to us, and a situation was presented to us where a local church was being asked to support “toleration” of a certain group of people. Now this church doesn’t like the concept of toleration, they believe God has called them to do more than just “agree to get along” or “put up with” others of different opinion, they want to go the steps further which will enable them to be inclusive and invitational. Rather than “yes you can come in, but stand over there” they are a church that says “welcome to the table, long black or flat white? grab a chair next to me”. So they decided to ask God about how they can welcome and still be the sort of people that God calls to be light in the world, when they (and we) have deep concerns about some of the ethical values of this group of new people.
In the second instance the topic had already been introduced to us, and we had each gone away to “seek God”, and then come back with what God’s Spirit had lead us to, to share this intelligence with each other. What became apparent is that the answers that God had brought to us, through us, (which were internally consistent, they all lined up to form a complete picture even though no two responses were identical), were “a bit obvious”, and the conversation leader wondered out loud whether any prayer had been undertaken at all. “Did you actually pray, or did you just think about the question and bring along your own thoughts?” was the leader’s question: and to be honest he was very aggressive and rude in the way he presented that opinion.
In both of these situations the question is “did you pray”. In the first situation it might be asked of the one who brought the situation to the meeting, along the lines of what God had already said to him about it. In the second situation the question was asked (in a rather exasperated and aggressive tone) in the exact words “did you pray”. But I think there is a better question.
There is a better question because the question has a simple and rather abrupt answer: which was the cause of the offence in the second situation. We are Christians, of course we prayed. Of course we prayed, we pray all the time, we’re Christians and that’s what we do. To ask someone “did you pray, did you actually pray about this or did you just think about it” can be misconstrued as a doubt on the veracity of someone’s faith at all, and also in their capacity to pray. (Well if you prayed then you’re not very good at it are you.)
I wanted the conversation leader in that second situation to ask, “how did you pray, and how did you hear” rather than “did you pray”. An answer had come from God, which should have been enough evidence that prayer had taken place: but the fact that the answer was the obvious one, one that sociology if not plain common sense might have answered in the same way, came to overshadow the conversation. Better to ask “how did you pray, and how did God give the answer.”
Leadership, even discipleship, is not always about the answers but about the questions. And better leadership (and discipleship) demands a better question.