You Can’t Always Get What You Want


You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime you might find
You get what you need

-The Rolling Stones

If God really loved us he would give us what we ask for. That’s the assumption we bring to prayer. But what if God sometimes withholds something precisely because of his love?

Often we don’t know what’s best for us. We get the thing we asked for (we feel “lucky” or “blessed”), but in short order we start to regret it. Contrariwise, the thing we grab for eludes us and we have to “settle” for second-choice, which turns out to be for the best. Thank God, I’ve said to myself in a moment like that. What if I’d gotten what I wanted!

More than two thousand years ago the Chinese told this fable.

A farmer gets a horse, which soon runs away. A neighbor says, “That’s bad news.” The farmer replies, “Good news, bad news, who can say?”

The horse comes back and brings another horse with him. Good news, you might say.

The farmer gives the second horse to his son, who rides it, then is thrown and badly breaks his leg.

“So sorry for your bad news,” says the neighbor. “Good news, bad news, who can say?” the farmer replies.

In a week or so, the emperor’s men come and take every able-bodied young man to fight in a war. The farmer’s son is spared.

Be careful, we might say, what you pray for.

There are two imperatives for prayer. They seem contradictory, but in fact we must follow both. The first imperative is to pray fervently and passionately for what we believe we need, or what our loved ones need. In teaching his disciples to persevere in prayer, Jesus told a parable about a widow who was denied justice in court, and who pestered and badgered the judge until he changed his ruling! We have to pray and not give up.

The second prayer imperative, however, is to acknowledge our finite perspective and trust in the God who sees and knows the end from the beginning. After we have stormed heaven with our prayers we must then sit calmly in God’s presence and say with the Psalmist, “Teach me your ways, O Lord.” Let me see my life and the world as you see it. Help me to surrender my certainty about what is “good” or bad” so that I can welcome what is.

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