“Let My people go.” That’s the directive God gave to Pharaoh through Moses. All the people—tall, small, old, young, smart, talented, clumsy, and inept. All of them. All the animals too. “We shall go with our young and or old; with our sons and our daughters, with our flocks and our herds we shall go, for we must hold a feast to the LORD” (Exod. 10:9). Despite having Egypt’s water source turned to blood, as well as having his land invaded by hordes of frogs, gnats, flies, and locusts, Pharaoh wants to make Moses—and his God—compromise. “You can go but not very far away” (Ex. 8:28), he offers. And again, “You can go, but only the older folks. The youngsters must stay here.” (Ex. 10: 9-11). And, finally, “The people can go, but the animals have to stay” (Ex. 10:24). He didn’t quite understand. God does not negotiate. He didn’t with Pharaoh, and He won’t with you and me.
Before I discuss our tendency to negotiate in prayer, I want to be clear about a few things. First, we have a privilege that Pharaoh did not have. We are the children of God who can come boldly to our Father’s throne and implore Him to do great things (Jer. 33:3; Rom. 8:15; Heb. 4:14-16). Also, as His children we don’t have to hide our feelings from God. A cursory read through the Psalms will reveal that God allows His people to say some pretty audacious things. (Check Psalm 88, for instance.) Our Father is big enough, strong enough, and merciful enough to handle our darkest emotions and hardest questions. He won’t shoo us away because we’re honest with Him. He invites our honesty and shelters us under the shadow of His wings in our hurt, pain, and doubt. However, that being said, prayer is not a negotiation.
Negotiate is defined by the Cambridge online dictionary as a verb meaning “to have formal discussions with someone in order to reach an agreement with them.” This is a part of our everyday lives and conversations. A professional athlete might negotiate his contract with his team; a businessperson might negotiate with a client so that both sides get the deal they want. A two-year-old might negotiate (or try to) with her mother to get out of eating broccoli, picking up toys, or going to bed. The art of negotiation is not inherently a bad thing. We need to be able to compromise and reach agreements with other people. However, negotiations should take place between two equal parties. The athlete and the organization or two businesses, for instance. This is the reason that our government refuses to negotiate with terrorists, or that negotiating with a toddler is probably not a great idea. And, finally, this is the reason that prayer is not a negotiation.
The classic example of “prayerful negotiation” is the person in life-threatening situation who cries out to God (probably for the first time in decades), “God, if you let me [or this person I love] live, I will clean my life up. I’ll never take another drink or say another dirty word.” Yep, without a doubt, that is bald-faced negotiation and attempted manipulation of God. You shouldn’t do that. But I also doubt very much that you try it very often. However, that doesn’t mean that we never try to negotiate with God. In fact, we’re very good at it. Let me show you what I mean.
“You have to change my circumstances.”
The first instance in which we try to manipulate God through negotiation is when we demand that our circumstances be changed as a pre-requisite for our obedience. It might come in a prayer for contentment: “I could be happy if we just had a few more dollars in the bank, Lord.” Or maybe about anger. “Father, you know I wouldn’t be so angry if I weren’t in so much pain.” Or, perhaps, joy: “Heavenly Father, you know I hate my job. I would have so much more joy if You provided something else.” Or, perhaps you’ve found yourself muttering this prayer recently: “God, if you could just make this pandemic go away, I would be so much happier and life would be so much easier!” Now, I’m definitely not saying that it’s wrong to pray for financial provision, deliverance from physical pain, or a new job. And certainly, we must beseech God that He intervene in the world health crisis we’re in. I absolutely believe God wants us to cast all those cares upon Him (1 Pet. 5:7). However, He does not invite us to negotiate our obedience with Him.
Think about the subtle undertones in those requests. When I make my contentment contingent upon God’s provision, I’m essentially blaming Him for my disobedience: Because God hasn’t allowed me to leave my house in a month, I can’t be content. Or because He hasn’t healed me, I don’t have to stop being angry.
Let me give one more, personal example. God did not see fit for me to be married until I turned thirty-two (In fact, my husband proposed to me on my thirty-second birthday!). That meant that I was a single adult for ten years after college, when (it seemed to me) most “normal” girls were getting married. It also seemed that many talks I heard from well-meaning women who got married later in life seemed to carry the same message: “As soon as I was content in my singleness, God gave me a man.” I don’t doubt them, and I probably heard something that they didn’t mean to convey. But to a single girl who wanted a husband, it sounded a lot like a formula: Just tell God that you’re happy being single and then He’ll give you a husband. But, Friend, that’s not how it works. God will not be manipulated into giving me what I want. He wanted then—and He wants now—for me to be content in Him forever with a husband or without. I had to turn my prayer into one of contentment no matter what, even if that meant being single for the rest of my life. I didn’t know at the time whether it was God’s will that I get married, but I did know it was His will that I be content in my circumstances. And, to be honest, it was hard to pray just for contentment with no strings attached. What if He takes that “no matter what” a little too seriously? Did I really want contentment more than marriage? Some days yes, others not so much. But it was in this season that God taught me that prayer is not a negotiation.
Change of Someone Else
It’s also common that we try to negotiate with God when it comes to our relationships. We tell Him that we could get along with a certain person better if he or she were just a bit different. For instance, a wife might say, “Please, Lord, help him to be a man I can respect.” On the other hand, the husband might pray, “Father, make my wife a woman I can love and serve.” Perhaps it’s a difficult person at church who rubs you the wrong way. “Lord, I know I should love him,” you pray, “but he’s just so obnoxious! Help him to change, please—for Your glory.” These negotiations could take a million different forms, but the bottom line is that while God loves to hear intercessory prayers from His children, He will not be manipulated. My obedience in a given relationship is not predicated on whether God changes the other person. While it’s certainly possible (even probable) that the other person needs to change in the ways I’ve prayed about, when I pray to that end to let myself off the hook of obedience, I’m negotiating.
In His model prayer, Jesus instructs His followers to pray, “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). This request removes all room for negotiation. It’s a total submission of the will to the sovereign King. Whether it’s a change of circumstances or a change in relationships, bring your request to God, but don’t try to manipulate Him. We must pray that His will be done on earth—and in our hearts—as it is in heaven.