This is an experiment–in my own pursuit of a deeper, richer prayer life, I want to share some of the struggles and triumphs I have had in and through prayer. I would also like to share (and gather) suggestions to enrich how we can grow closer to God, closer to others, and closer to becoming more Christlike in our daily walk.
20 Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Job 1:20-21 ESV (via biblegateway.com)
The book of Job presents us with a startling picture. Job is a godly man; a righteous man; a man of faith and good works. And yet, God allows him to experience loss upon loss– Job loses everything, short of his life and his nagging, bitter wife. His first response is praise and worship! But as the losses sink in; as the pain and agony and grief continue, Job questions God’s justice and wisdom. Job, like us, wants answers that make sense. He is willing to suffer– even greatly–IF he can see the purpose of his suffering, and justify it to himself.
We are getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow in the U.S.– a day when we celebrate what God has given us. We normally celebrate family, health, good food, material blessings, etc. We celebrate abundance and comfort; peace and plenty; family and freedom. But his year, our celebration will be quite different. The Lord has taken away…
Some of us have lost jobs, or we’ve lost our good health to COVID or related factors, or we’ve lost loved ones, often without the chance to say our final “goodbyes”. Millions of us have lost the ability to move about freely and conduct “normal” errands and activities. Schools and businesses are closed or operating from a distance. Families and friends have been kept apart. Much that gave us comfort and happiness has been “taken away” this year. And God has allowed it all to unfold. He has not “taken away” this disease or its consequences. He has not “taken away” floods, or fires, or hurricanes. He has not given us answers or explanations.
Job’s initial praise turns to questioning. While he does not “curse God and die,” as his wife suggests, Job spends his time wondering, “Why me?” His friends try to find answers– “you must have done something to deserve this, Job.” Because God does not “punish” the righteous. It isn’t logical; it isn’t fair; it isn’t just.
Except that God laid on His own Son– on Himself– the guilt and punishment for all those who are unrighteous. What Job went through–unknown and unseen to him and his friends–was a glimpse into what God Himself would suffer. Christ lost everything–INCLUDING his life– in order to bring salvation to all those who are willing to believe and receive it. Christ was willing to give away His dignity, His power, His friends and family, and His life. And the Lord allowed it all to be taken.
Many people read the story of Job– his loss and all his questions and complaints–and conclude that God is not fair or just. They find Him to be capricious and unwilling to ease Job’s suffering or answer his questions. They conclude that God is wicked and unworthy of Job’s praise or trust.
Loss and grief still exist in this world; disease and suffering and hardship still plague us this year. But we have SO much to celebrate at Thanksgiving. When the Lord “takes away,” it is not because He is capricious, or jealous of our wealth or happiness. It is not because He is unkind or uncaring. At just the right time, and forever more, the Lord will Give without end– lavishly, extravagantly, abundantly. Nothing He takes away in this life– even a cherished love one–is beyond all hope of comfort, redemption, or restoration. Our losses cannot compare to the riches of His Grace and Love. This is a great mystery, but as Job discovered, God WILL DO IT!
Blessed be the name of the Lord! Let us Thank and Praise His Holy Name!
Sin isn’t a popular topic of conversation. Most of us would rather talk of victorious living; of accomplishments, righteous thoughts, life choices that “worked out” to our benefit. If we must talk of wrongs, we prefer to speak of “shortcomings,” or circumstances “forcing” us to make bad choices. We point fingers at those who could have/should have helped us, or warned us, or given us better guidance. We may even acknowledge shame or guilt for choices we’ve made, and speak of atonement, or lessons learned.
But God has provided for forgiveness–not a denial of our guilt; not a “free pass” for our actions–something beyond our capacity to give or “earn.” God alone is capable of perfect judgment. He never makes excuses; nor does he accept them. He knows every detail of every choice you’ve ever made–the motivations, the circumstances, the alternatives–and He has the power to pronounce eternal judgment AND eternal forgiveness.
We have a tendency to give partial forgiveness, because we do not have God’s perfect knowledge or judgment. We get trapped in a cycle of guilt and shame, or blame and bitterness, because we want to see a perfect justice that is often missing in our fallen world. We tend to forget the benefits of God, instead focusing on the deficiencies of ourselves and our neighbors.
God forgives ALL our sins–but we must seek that forgiveness and accept it! God heals all our diseases– some of them here and now; others in eternity. God redeems our lives from Hell–something we could never do on our own. God crowns us (read that again!) with love and compassion. He pours His love all over us– lavishly, unreservedly, undeservedly–and raises us up to eternal life.
Why do we fear to confess our sins to such a Loving God? It’s not as though He cannot see or know them. It’s not as though He is powerless or unwilling to forgive them. He wants to remove our sins “as far as the east is from the west” (v. 12) And only He can do this. When we deny or ignore our sins, they are not removed, only suppressed. When we wallow in our guilt and shame, our sin is constantly present in our mind. Only God’s perfect forgiveness can free us to make courageous and compassionate choices, confident in His love and power to heal and guide us in His ways.
Sin is ugly. And its power is too great for us to overcome on our own. Its consequences are deadly, and far-reaching– too great for us to make atonement in a lifetime. But its power is broken in the light of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The sentence is commuted. We are reconciled to the God of Holy, Righteous Perfection. The consequences now belong to Christ yoked with us, working in and through us. We cannot perfectly atone for our actions; but we can give the burden of atonement to the One who can– and the One who can give us His power to bring healing.
As I look outside, there are bare branches on the trees, and the grass is covered in fallen leaves. The beauty of early autumn has almost gone, and winter is coming. The air is brittle and chilly, but not as cold as it will be in another month.
Yet, this is My Father’s world. I trust that winter will come, and pass. Spring will follow, and the trees will once again be covered in leaves and filled with birdsong and new life.
As I listen to the news, I hear of COVID deaths and hospitals filled with the sick and suffering. I hear of political unrest, and people spewing hatred, anger, and fear for the future. There is chaos and uncertainty, injustice, and pain. There are hurricanes and fires, floods, and earthquakes.
Yet, this is My Father’s world. He sends rain on the just and the unjust; He brings healing and hope, even in the darkest hours. This world does not belong to any one nation, or political party, or natural disaster, or epidemic. Such circumstances have the power to cause destruction and fear, but they do not have power over the Creator of all things. Their reign is temporary and limited. And ” ‘tho the wrong seems oft so strong,” God is eternally sovereign– nothing that happens today can either take God by surprise, or cause Him to quake.
I meet with people who are discouraged, angry, bitter, and scared. And I cannot “fix” the world around me with good intentions, or hard work. I cannot give assurance based on my own efforts or my own wisdom. I don’t know the answers, and I don’t have the solutions. I will make mistakes. I will say things that cause confusion, or even offense.
But this is not my world; and it isn’t the world of those who try to discourage me, judge me, take advantage of me, or manipulate me. This is My Father’s world. And in this moment, I will choose to look for His hand and listen for His voice.
I love visiting old churches and cathedrals, with their vaulted ceilings and solid stone walls infused with centuries of incense and the echoed prayers. And I love being outdoors surrounded by the glorious beauty of creation. These spaces seem infused with a special sense of the sacred. It is easy to feel close to God is such spaces.
But God is omnipresent. A crowded bus is no farther from God’s presence than a majestic mesa. The hush of a hospital ward is just as close to His heart as the swelling choir in a cathedral. In fact, when Jesus lived among us on earth, He spent much of His time walking dusty roads, talking and working miracles among the noisy “rabble” of ordinary people. He did not seek out “sacred spaces;” instead, He took the “sacred” into the dark and dirty streets where it was often ignored or dismissed.
Sometimes, Jesus would go off by Himself into the wilderness or into the hills to pray, as well. It is important to make a time or space to do this. But there is nothing especially sacred about particular spaces– even ones designed to be places of worship. It may not be easy to find a physical space for prayer and worship, but we can make a mental “space”– close off distractions, move or turn away from others for a few precious minutes–focus on God’s presence. Remember, His presence is always with us; we just need to acknowledge it!
Prayer connects us to God– wherever and whenever we pray. That doesn’t mean that we should not seek out special times and places to be alone with God. But we needn’t wait for a certain moment or location or position in which to meet with God. He is eternally, immediately available to listen. Are we?
One of the things I find amazing about prayer is hearing about and seeing God work globally through the prayers of His people. God is Sovereign–He can choose to work however, whenever, and wherever He chooses. But He gives us the awesome privilege of participating in His work.
I use a prayer journal. In it, I keep names of people, ongoing and urgent prayer requests, and a list of places. Each day, I pray for those who are celebrating their birthdays or anniversaries (if I know them). I also pray for ongoing and urgent requests as I receive them. I pray for world leaders, local officials, and even those who wish me ill (if I know of them). Lastly, I pray for a particular place each day–as I write this, I am on the day reserved for Uganda. I don’t know anyone in Uganda; I’ve never visited, and I know very little about the nation. But God knows. God knows the people, He knows the weather, the land, the economy, and the spiritual needs of Uganda. I don’t have to know any of that. I just need to be faithful to call out to God on behalf of this land that is precious to Him. Some days, I pray for a nation; sometimes a city or a region; sometimes an ocean or desert.
My prayers rise to God like a mist, but God gathers prayers to form clouds and send a shower of blessing wherever He wills it. I may never see the answer to my prayer for Uganda today. But I trust that God will send blessings like rain– maybe today, maybe next week– to someone in Uganda. Someone I’ve never met. Someone I hope to meet and love in Eternity–my long-lost, never-before-met brother or sister! And as I pray for those with birthdays or urgent needs, I trust that others are doing the same. God may not choose to answer those prayers in the way we expect. But He WILL send out showers of blessing. The rain will fall on the just and the unjust https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew+5%3A44-45&version=NIV and it will fall where and when God decides.
God doesn’t need me to pray for Uganda or any particular person or place. His work will progress with or without me. And if I pray for Moldova or Tokyo or the Arctic Ocean tomorrow, it won’t change God’s plans. But it might change MY outlook. And I will know the joy and glory of joining in God’s work as I watch it unfold. Amazingly, I know that some of those showers will fall on me and my family as other believers– perhaps strangers I have never met– pray today. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+113%3A3&version=NIV
Sometimes, prayer seems like a vapor–something that rises without substance, only to evaporate. We say our prayers and wait for an answer. And the Bible describes prayer like incense. It rises to God as a sweet fragrance. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation+5%3A8&version=ESV But incense and vapor dissipate and evaporate without a visible trace. They have no form or solid substance. Is prayer equally fleeting and amorphous? Is prayer “real,” if we can’t see it working?
Vapors rise and mix with other vapors. They are carried on the wind. They form clouds, and the waters return to the earth as rain and snow. And incense diffuses and leaves its scent throughout a building long after it is burned. We know that incense has been burned. We know that water has evaporated. And we know that they are “present” even if we can’t see or touch them.
Prayers– especially prayers lifted in petition–rise away from us. They are meant to disappear from our view. Our focus should not stay on the visible troubles we lift up in our prayers, but on the invisible and all-powerful God who receives our cries. And as prayers rise, they are gathered and formed by God into clouds of blessing. The rain will fall where God wills it, to water thirsty souls, bring healing, and be lifted up in new prayers. The incense of our prayers will permeate the world with the fragrance of God’s love, even as they ascend to His throne.
This is part of the mystery of prayer. Just as God designs water to be lifted up and returned to the earth hundreds of miles away; just as He designs fragrance to spread without any visible evidence, so He has designed prayer to work in unseen and unpredictable ways. God delights in our participation in this mystery. He invites us to be part of the process of spreading His beauty and glory throughout the world!
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
John 10:7-10 NIV (via biblegateway.com)
Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States, once said, “Comparison is the thief of Joy.” Comparison, envy, judgment– they have a way of sapping our joy, our energy, and our purpose, leaving us angry, deflated, and anxious. He knew a lot about the subject. Coming to the office as the result of the assassination of William McKinley, Roosevelt was the youngest man ever to hold the office of president, and it was not expected that he would be capable of fulfilling his duties. He was a blunt, restless, often hot-tempered man– not a smooth and polished statesman. There were plenty of people comparing him to McKinley and others– and finding him on the short end of the comparison! Yet Roosevelt was a man known for his optimism and joy. Even with his bluster, he was rarely seen without a smile and a positive outlook. And that optimism won people over so that he won his reelection bid in 1904, and became one of our most esteemed presidents.
Comparison can creep into all sorts of areas of our lives– we compare finances, status, “likes” on social media, looks, job status, clothes, houses, cars, even shoes! And sometimes, it impacts our prayers. I know people who won’t pray in public because their prayers “aren’t good enough.” They fear that their prayers lack eloquence; that the people listening will be disappointed or bored or even amused or disdainful. And sometimes, I’m ashamed to say, they have reason for their fears! This should never be.
But it isn’t just public prayers that we compare.
I write about prayer; I’m very open about praying, and I receive a lot of prayer requests. I’m honored and glad to be able to share in praying for others. But every once in awhile, I hear from people that they want certain people to pray for them (as opposed to other people). They seek out “prayer warriors”– people who are viewed as being “better” at prayer than others. On the surface, this seems like a wonderful thing– some people are gifted with more time or more opportunity to pray–why not celebrate their gift or promote their ability?
But what about those who are not seen as “prayer warriors?” What about those whose prayers involve months and even years of crying out in groans and tears and unfulfilled hopes? What of those learning to pray?
We can easily fall into the bad habit of comparing our prayers– our style of praying, the amount of time we spend on our knees, the stories of answered prayer and miraculous outcomes, the number of people who come to us asking for prayer… And this can rob us of the joy of spending time with God! God loves each of us for who we are. And He wants to spend time with US– not our neighbor, or the sweet lady at church who prays so beautifully.
I love communal prayer– even though I know there are people who are terrified of praying in groups. I love to hear the individual voices and styles of those who come together to cry out to God. Some are short and sweet; some are convoluted and conversational; some are anguished and passionate– but all reflect God’s heart to communicate and interact with us, and to have us draw near to Him. He never pulls away from us when we stutter or stumble, or forget someone’s name or mix up a request. He patiently listens to our rambling; He reads the deeper heart of our short outbursts– He even hears our unintelligible moans and mumblings (see Romans 8:26)! And His heart is filled with compassion, love, and inexpressible, boundless joy as He hears the sound of one of His precious sheep.
Jesus described Himself as the “Good Shepherd.” He told the religious leaders of His day that the true sheep would recognize His voice over all others. And He spoke of the “thief” who comes only to kill and steal and destroy. This “thief”– Satan– uses certain tricks to steal our joy and take our focus away from God’s love and wisdom. One of his favorites is to whisper comparisons in our ear. And if we listen to his voice, we will begin to look around instead of up; to ourselves and our words, instead of God and the Word of God. But Satan does not use the voice of our Good Shepherd. His words do not bring safety and peace–they bring doubt and discontent.
God will not urge us to comparison– He will always urge us to Communion!
He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”
Matthew17:20 ESV (via biblehub.com)
Faith is a vital part of life, and especially a life in pursuit of prayer. If I don’t believe that God exists, and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrews 11:6) then my prayers are little more than wishes made on a star or empty dreams.
During Jesus’ ministry on earth, He lamented often that His disciples had so little faith. And yet, He said that if they had “faith like a grain of mustard seed,” nothing would be impossible. In fact, Jesus used seeds in a lot of His teaching. He talked of seeds scattered on different types of soil; mustard seeds growing into large plants; seeds in good soil yielding exponentially large harvests. There is something about seeds that can teach us about the nature of faith. And, according to Jesus Himself, we need to learn about and practice faith in greater measure!
So what are some of the seed lessons we still need to learn?
Seeds start out small. Jesus used a mustard seed, mentioning that it is one of the smallest of all seeds. So often, we want to start out “large” in our faith. We see our doubts as failure, rather than immaturity. We see our slow growth as weakness–and it is! It is that very weakness that God wants to use to show HIS strength. When Jesus “lamented” that the disciples had so little faith, He wasn’t condemning them– instead He was pointing out that faith is a process–that seeds GROW into larger plants.
Seeds do not produce plants unless they are planted! I see websites and Christian bookstores selling jewelry featuring a small glass case with a tiny mustard seed inside. It’s a nice reminder of Jesus’ teaching about faith, but carrying around a mustard seed is NOT the same thing as having faith like a mustard seed. Faith that is never planted and rooted in good soil will remain nothing more than a seed– useful as a piece of decoration, perhaps, but dormant and unproductive. If I have faith “like a mustard seed” in money, or power, or in my own wisdom and skills, it is no more effective than if I throw it on the sidewalk, wear it around my neck, or put it in my pocket.
Seeds need soil, light, and water. Faith doesn’t grow in isolation. I need to listen to others, share with others, and, most of all, live in the good soil of God’s word. I need to pray for others– and I need the prayers of others! I need to talk to God daily; but I also need to read His words to me daily!
Seeds are designed to produce a harvest– fruit, grain, trees, and new seeds! I get distracted, thinking of how faith impacts MY life and my Christian walk. God wants me to grow stronger in my own, yes. But He wants my faith to be multiplied by being visible. Even a root vegetable sends a shoot or a plant above-ground, so there is evidence of growth underground. In doing go, the original seed will disappear! There are days when I cannot see my “mustard seed.” But that is (I hope) because the seed is becoming a mustard plant– producing evidence of God’s sustaining power and love, and providing “seeds” for others to plant.
There are days when my faith may feel small and dead. But I need to remember that the power is not in the “seed” of faith– no matter how small; no matter how large its potential–it is in planting that seed and letting God’s power transform a seed into fruit that will last!
Have you ever seen a photo collage–a large picture made up of hundreds or thousands of tiny photos? If you stand back, you can see a large picture– a face, or a landscape, perhaps–but when you get closer, you can see the many smaller photos that make up the details.
Prayer is like that. Each of us is a tiny details in the grander scope of the world’s population. Millions of people are praying at any given time on any given day. And we don’t see all of the others– sometimes we don’t see or hear or think of anyone else as we pray. But God sees and hears them all–moreover, God weaves and blends our prayers into something amazingly more than meets our awareness. Prayers of thanksgiving add a dash of bright color; prayers of anguish sound a minor tone; prayers of confession rise like incense, and prayers of worship wrap around all the colors and sounds and scents.
Yesterday, I was feeling very depressed and small. It was difficult to pray. My perspective was off, and I could only see my own problems and emotions. Prayer helped change my perspective. As I spoke to God; as I thought about His power and omniscience, I began to see that I WAS small–but my God is enormous! And while He sees the entire picture– all places and times and peoples–He also looks on every tiny detail. He knows my name; He knows my every thought. He knows my needs and my desires; He knows my weaknesses and my unique gifts– gifts He has given! Even if no one else noticed, God would be able to pick out the smallest detail in His amazing creation, and bring it into perfect focus.
As I write this, votes are being counted in our Presidential/General Election. I don’t know what the final outcome will be, but it looks like the election will be close; it may even be contested for days or weeks to come.
There are consequences to this election– consequences for our legal rights and freedoms– consequences for churches and Christians businesses and services, and the individual free exercise of speech and religion. And the consequences reach beyond just my city or state or even the U.S. This election may impact how (or if) I can continue to write about prayer and Christian living. It may impact how my local church continues to operate. It will impact how mission organizations and religious services continue.
But there are several things that will not change as a result of any election: God is still sovereign; the Bible is still true; I will still be a follower of Christ– committed to living for Him and sharing His Gospel.
In that sense, “what’s next” is exactly the same today as it was yesterday or last year– I am to trust in God’s plan; God’s provision; God’s timing. And I am to obey His word. I am to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God” (see Micah 6:8); I am to “love the Lord my God with all my heart, mind, and soul, and my neighbor as myself” (see Matthew 22:37-39).
Yesterday, I did my civic duty; I voted my conscience. Today and going forward, I will do my civic duties– I will pay taxes, I will obey laws and guidelines that do not contradict God’s commands. And I will work to make a positive difference in my community and my country. I may have to make changes and adjustments in the way I serve and work and interact with other people. But “what’s next” in my Christian walk doesn’t depend on what happened yesterday, or what will happen tomorrow. My eyes have to be focused, not on any political race, or its immediate consequences, but on the race described by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians:
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus...17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
–Philippians 3:12-14; 17-21 (NIV via biblegateway.com)
Of course, I hope that outcome of this election will honor God and preserve the freedoms I hold dear. But God’s purposes and plans may involve hardship, persecution, and judgment on this nation. I must still run my race, and rejoice in my Heavenly citizenship– one that doesn’t change with election cycles or depend on politicians.