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.
We live in an angry world, filled with outrage, entitlement, bitterness, hurt, and arrogance. Everywhere we look, someone is giving someone else (sometimes everyone else) a “piece of their mind.” And those who do are often lauded and celebrated. Pundits, critics, “talking heads,” columnists, “expert” opinion-makers (recognized or self-appointed)– all make careers out of sharing their opinions, their theories, expertise, or knowledge. They may be clever, intelligent, even entertaining; they may be popular, intimidating, or impressive in their range of knowledge. I may agree with their opinions, and share their conclusions or beliefs. But I should be careful not to become “puffed up” with knowledge.
Knowledge puffs up but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God. 1 Corinthians 8:1-3
It is very tempting– VERY tempting– to join in this practice of verbal tongue-lashing. To show off our superior knowledge or our righteous opinions. To win arguments and create “mic-drop” moments.
Meeting anger with anger, sarcasm with sarcasm, and pride with pride is natural. But it is not God’s way. God calls for us to have peace of mind– to have a mind that can see and hear the reality of our fallen world, but respond in an unnaturally loving and gracious manner given to us by the Holy Spirit. We are to speak words of peace, to walk in humility, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Our words can be powerful– for good or evil. We can speak peace and goodwill, harmony, and love into a world that is drowning in hateful comparisons, disdain, selfishness, malicious gossip, idle chatter, and careless opinions. Words can uplift, encourage, heal, and strengthen. Words–even quiet words– can stem the tide of malice and bring light and hope.
And it is not just what we pass on to others with our words– we become what we speak! When we speak arrogance and self-righteousness, we become (and remain) self-righteous and arrogant. When we speak love and joy, peace and patience, trust and truth, we become more peaceful, joyful, patient and trustworthy.
Jesus– the Word of God– often used a quiet sentence to bring hope, reassurance, and blessing to people in need. Jesus felt anger– and He had every right to speak HIS opinion and HIS omniscience when He was tested and unfairly questioned. But He chose to be patient. His answers were not laced with malice and sarcasm, but they silenced His critics, and served as lessons for others who were listening. What a great example for us!
What might happen if we spent less time giving a “piece of our mind” and more time spreading “peace of mind” in our world?
My nation– and even my community–is divided right now. People argue, accuse, blame, and reject their neighbors because of political beliefs. And they defend the “rightness” and righteousness of their own beliefs–even when they must compromise on other beliefs and teachings of the Bible. Some people use the phrase “I’m on the right side of history..” or “History will prove us right.” And they cross their arms, jut out their chin, and stand smugly convinced that they have won the argument.
But history books are written by human beings– and usually those human beings who are in power. “History” is constantly in flux– some things that were deemed “virtuous” or “necessary” in the past are looked on with horror today. Times change; societies change; customs and morals change.
When we justify our politics, or our actions to others in this way, we are really saying, “whatever I am doing, saying, or supporting today will be judged “righteous” by future generations. And that may be so. Those who advocated for the abolition of slavery in America over a century ago should surely qualify as people who were on the “right side of history.” Yet, in the past year of rioting across my country, many of the statues that were toppled, and spray-painted, and chiseled, and marred were of abolitionists. Their moral prowess notwithstanding, they were seen as “old, white men” in old-fashioned clothing, whose lives and legacies were long forgotten, or confused with other “old, white men” who had supported slavery during the same time period. We delight in “debunking” cherished histories, toppling our heroes, and rewriting traditions. And we often compare our “struggles” to those of previous generations, even if the comparisons are skewed or largely non-existent. And in our fight to push forward a particular narrative or policy; in order to “take back” a certain position or tradition, we often lose our moral compass, believing the lie that “the end justifies the means” or that “might makes right.”
In order to be on the “right side of history” today, people tend to make certain compromises– regardless of what “side” they choose. Political parties tend to support diverse causes and groups. Whatever good policies they promote, chances are they also promote policies and beliefs that are in direct conflict with scripture. Words like “compassionate,” “wholesome.” “traditional,” “patriotic”, “liberal,”and “progressive” may sound noble, but they often mask actions and policies that are corrupt, wicked, and destructive.
As Christians, we must be careful not to make “comfortable compromises” and to avoid righteous-sounding justifications. Just as importantly, we must be careful when confronted with labels and accusations, not to over-react or respond with bitterness or arrogance. If someone accuses me of being “hateful” or “gullible” because of my political beliefs, it is tempting to puff up and respond in kind. No one likes being judged. In fact, we are told in scripture NOT to judge, lest we be judged in kind. (Matthew 7:1-6) Jesus was often misunderstood, hated, falsely accused. He went to the cross after being found innocent by Pilate– who compromised by offering the Jewish people a choice of the innocent Jesus or the condemned Barabbas, instead of commanding that Jesus be released. In spite of his compromise, Pilate is not considered to be on the “right side of history” for his political masterpiece.
In fact– we are ALL on the WRONG side of of history! No matter how righteous our beliefs, ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Our allegiances, our morality, our political affiliations– none of them will save us from the just judgment of God, or the wavering judgments of future generations. We need, more than ever, to hold fast to the truth, and to seek God’s wisdom. When the final “history” is written, I want to be on God’s side!
I’ve been reading through the books of Genesis lately, and I was struck anew by the story of the Flood. God caused it to rain for 40 days and 40 nights, and the floods raged for 150 days (See Genesis 7). But the description of the flood does not focus only on rain– instead, it talks about God opening the “springs of the great deep and the floodgates of Heaven” (v. 11).
There are some who argue that before this time, there had been no rain on the earth (see Genesis 2: 5-6). The Bible is not clear whether there was rain after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, but it appears that rain was unnecessary in the wonderful Garden itself. God had provided rivers and springs to provide water, and there were mists that rose and settled. If this was still so in Noah’s time, then the falling rain would have been terrifying in itself. Things that fall from the sky can inspire both fear and praise.
Rain is generally considered a blessing–we need rain in its season, in showers of good quantity, to water crops, provide nourishment for trees and soil, and to replenish springs, pools, lakes, etc. And rain is part of the water cycle…moisture evaporates and rises (like the mists of old) into clouds, where it is held in storage until it rains back down to the earth. Water is a resource, but it is meant to be replenished, renewed, and reused. “New” water is not created, so much as recovered from steam or taken from its current source.
Not so with God’s blessings and His mercies. They are “new every morning.” (Lamentations 3:22-23) He sends them down like rain or snow, letting them fall in refreshing showers, reminding us that even when we are separated from God, He still loves us, watches over us, and delights to lavish His gifts on us.
In return, we send up praise. The prayers go up, and the blessings come down. Which reminds me of a song we used to sing in Sunday School.
God sends rain–God sends blessings. Whether we feel blessed often depends on where WE are. Are we safe in the Ark? In a house built on the solid rock of faith and dependence? Or are we living in perilous ignorance of God’s power to save and sustain us?
Throughout the story of Creation, a certain phrase gets repeated– “And God saw that it was good..” God’s purpose and will are always to see the good. At the end of the creation process, God saw that it was “very good.” He placed mankind in a garden filled with goodness, peace, safety, plenty, and promise– a garden filled only with Good.
The one tree that was forbidden to mankind was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good AND Evil. Humans chose to know and see and experience evil in an effort to be “like God.” We still recognize Good; but now we are surrounded by evil– lies, greed, hatred, selfishness, bitterness, addictions, compulsions, disease, destruction, and death. We cannot go back to the beginning. We cannot just close our eyes and deny, ignore, or excuse evil in our midst. And we cannot control the consequences of our evil choices. We cannot stop death or reshape the past.
But we must make the choice to look for the Good– to look to the author and creator of all that is good, and true, and noble, and holy. It can be very difficult to do. The voices of this world will continuously call out all that is bad– all our past hurts and present difficulties; all our guilt and shame; everything that is ugly, diseased, unjust, lop-sided, dying, and ruined. And our knowledge of good AND evil will tempt us to justify evil means to “good” ends…
God, who sees the end from the beginning, has looked through time and space, and pronounced His creation “Very Good.” God who redeems and resurrects, renews and transforms, has promised to make all things new in His time. God not only has the knowledge of Good and Evil– He has the power over both. Our efforts to find Good on our own will end in heartache, failure, guilt, and shame. God knows we cannot redeem our own actions, let alone the legacy of evil we’ve inherited from the past. But the Good News is that He has done it for us! Just as He saw that everything was “Good” in the Garden of Eden, He sees the end result of His redemption– and it is “Very Good.” We don’t have to keep trying and failing to achieve what only God can do. We DO have to trust in God’s ability and His willingness to keep His promises!
Through prayer, we carry all that is wrong to the One who can make it all “right.” And, through prayer, we praise God for all the Good– the good that God has created in the past; the good that we choose to see in the present; and the good He has promised that we cannot yet see.
I’ve been reading about Joseph in Genesis. He was the favored son of Jacob (Israel), and he was a dreamer. His dreams were spectacularly unpopular with his older brothers, and got him into a world (or a well) of trouble. (See Genesis 37)
Joseph’s dreams were sent to him from God…they weren’t just wishes or imaginings. But they were grand. Joseph had a dream that all his brothers (represented by bales of wheat) bowed down to him. Later, he dreamed that his entire family would bow down to him. He was just 17, and full of the arrogance of youth. His jealous brothers were so outraged, they plotted to kill him. When an easier opportunity arose, they sold him into slavery, instead. (See Genesis 39-45)
Joseph’s dreams seemed to mock him when he arrived in Egypt as a slave. And after spending years building up a sterling reputation with his master, his dreams were dashed again. Falsely accused and unable to defend himself, Joseph ended up in prison. Who would ever bow down before a convict and a slave?
Joseph could have become bitter and angry. He could have given in to the frustration of serving those who were willing to let him do all the work and take on all the responsibility, while they got all the credit. But Joseph dared to dream– not the dreams of an arrogant 17-year-old, but the dreams of an honest and God-fearing man. He dreamed that his actions and attitudes mattered– even as a slave; even as a prisoner. He dreamed that God could and would rescue him and vindicate him. He dreamed that God had a purpose for his life– one that depended on Joseph being the best man he could be.
The Bible never records Joseph having visions and dreams in Egypt. But because Joseph had experienced grand dreams as a youth, he was sensitive to the dreams of others. He could have ignored the dreams of Pharaoh’s cup bearer and baker in prison. He could have sneered and laughed at their dreams. He could have told them all about his much grander dreams of old. Instead, he was ready to ask for God’s wisdom to help others interpret THEIR dreams. And in doing so, God gave Joseph the miracle of a dream fulfilled. Along the way, Joseph received life lessons in patience, humility, responsibility, management, integrity, and leadership. Joseph’s brothers–coming to seek grain!– bowed down to him, just as he had once dreamed they would. But they didn’t bow to him as a kid brother; they bowed before Pharaoh’s agent and the second-most powerful man in the entire known world. They bowed before a men who held the kind of power none of them had ever dreamed of. They bowed before a man they might have killed– except for God’s plan. Joseph was sent ahead, trained in the art of management, and perfectly placed to save thousands of lives.
Sometimes our lives seem like a waste– all our dreams have been shattered, either by circumstances or by our own bad choices. But God can take our most cherished dreams and redirect them into something amazing. He has a purpose for your life. It may not seem grand, like Joseph’s youthful dreams, but in God’s hands, it may have an enormous impact. Some days, it may seem like we’re living through a nightmare, but God writes the ending– and He’s already there!
I didn’t pray for my enemies. I didn’t pray for their health or safety. I didn’t pray for their spiritual well-being. I didn’t pray that God might show me ways to bless them, or encourage them.
I prayed that they would be stopped. That they would be exposed as frauds and liars. I prayed for “justice” to be done– to them. That they would be humiliated. That they would get all that they deserved.
And perhaps that is what they prayed for me, as well. That I would “see the light”, and change my mind. That I would be punished for my words and actions that didn’t agree with theirs.
I prayed “around” my enemies. I didn’t pray for them. I didn’t lift them up before the throne of grace. I didn’t pray that they would be shown mercy– I certainly didn’t pray to meet them with humility and grace…
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
God, forgive me for holding bitterness and anger in my heart. I will never meet a human “enemy” that you didn’t create in Your own image. You have commanded that I am to love my neighbor– even one who disagrees with me; even one who considers me an “enemy.” I cannot delight in evil, or rejoice at injustice; but I must reach out in Love and not Self-Righteousness.
Have you ever doubted? Wondered, “Where is God?” Maybe even wondered if He exists at all? And then someone came along and made you feel wicked and small for having such a thought…”How could you!?”
I know there are people who believe that faith is not really faith if you can have moments of doubt– that true faith never wavers, stumbles, or has tough questions. I don’t think this is Biblical, nor do I think this reflects God’s relationship with us. The Bible is full of “faithful” people who had moments of doubt.
Abraham, when told that he would become the father of many nations, believed, and it was counted as righteousness (Genesis 15:6, Hebrews 11:11, Romans 4:3, etc.) Abraham’s faith was so solid, that he was willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, the son of God’s Promise! Yet Abraham and Sarah acted outside of absolute faith when they brought in Hagar and tried to start a family on their own. God still blessed Hagar and Ishmael, but they were not part of the fulfillment of God’s plan. And over four thousand years of bad blood between the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael are a sad reminder that Abraham did not trust God absolutely and completely.
King David was a “man after God’s own heart.” Yet David wrote often about his feelings of being abandoned or forsaken by God. (See Psalm 10, Psalm 13, and Psalm 22 among others.) Elijah, within hours of a great victory over hundreds of angry priests of Baal, after a miraculous demonstration of God’s power and faithfulness, hid in despair and asked to die, sure that God had abandoned him to his enemies (1 Kings 19).
Most telling is the statement from Jesus Himself on the cross. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45-46; Mark 15:33-34) Although He was quoting one of King David’s psalms (22:1), the words still ask a very harsh question. Did Jesus Himself doubt God’s presence or His boundless love? (I don’t think so, but it is this kind of statement that often invites condemnation from those who cannot allow for any momentary doubt of any kind.)
I don’t believe any of these moments in the Bible are accidental. I believe God wants us to know that His presence and His faithfulness do not depend on the absolute strength of our faith. I believe it is one of the reasons that Jesus spoke of faith “as small as a mustard seed” (Matthew 17:20). It is not the size or the strength of our faith that determines what God can or will do. It is the size and strength of our faith that causes US to understand what God is doing and to participate more fully with Him. And taking our momentary doubts and questions to God shows a different kind of faith– one that is strong enough to BE tested and triumph. God rewards those who SEEK Him. If we never need to seek, or ask, or knock (See Matthew 7:7), could it be that we are not trusting in Him, but in our own wisdom?
Take heart! Have faith! But don’t be afraid to go through valleys of doubt, or wrestle with difficult questions. And if someone else is struggling–be willing to listen to their doubts and questions, rather than just dismissing them. God does…
*Warning– The following poem is a work of fiction. The first part of this post is meant to reflect emotions that may be associated with depression and suicide. The represent things I have heard, and some things I have said…
Do not ask me, “How are things going?” Things go on around me. Things happen at me. Things are not going– of if they are, I am not going with them…
Do not ask me, “Are you ok?” I will say, “Sure, everything’s fine.” Not because it is; not because I am, and Not because I care whether you believe me. It is what I will say because it gives you permission To feel good about asking, without actually having to Share the pain and fog and futility of my honest answer.
Do not ask me, “How are you doing?” I am not doing– not much of anything. I live surrounded by unfinished tasks– Stacks of unwashed dishes and piles of dirty laundry; Unpaid bills and unopened mail. I forget to eat or brush my teeth; I have trouble finding the energy to remember how to Smile, use polite words, look up, function…
Do not ask, “How are you?” For I am not…
How do I pray for someone like this? How do I pray AS someone like this?
Depression is devious and deadly. It impacts thousands of lives, and takes thousands of lives each day. It is easy enough for me to say, “Snap out of it!”, or to blame the person who chooses to think and act negatively. After all, attitude is a choice. We choose to look at the positive or negative in life, and no one else can choose for us what to think or how to feel.
What we can choose– all of us– is to turn our focus on God and away from the negative. I cannot rescue someone else from their own emotional demons; I cannot save myself with “positive” thoughts. I CAN cry out to the one who loves me more than I love myself– even on my best days–that HE would transform my thinking, and bring light into the darkness of those who cannot see past the fog and mire of their own gloom.
And I can stop asking the surface questions– “How are you?”– prying and digging without being prepared for the raw ooze and festering pus that comes with honesty. Those questions may be well-meant, but they often come without context or conviction. They can become a polite way of skirting the obvious– we EXPECT the reassurance that everything is fine; and when it isn’t, we feel obligated to come up with a quick cure for a problem we haven’t fully diagnosed.
Depression is scary– both for those who experience it and those who encounter it in someone else. Ignoring it, covering it up, or trying to force it into the background doesn’t help. Nor does it help to wallow in it, trying to micro-manage it or hyper-spiritualize it.
The same God who listened to Elijah begging to die just after his momentous victory over 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19: 1-14); the same God who listened to David in exile, Jonah from the belly of the whale, Moses in the midst of rebellion and exhaustion, and Job from the ash heap– He listens to us in our weariness, our grief, our confusion, and our depression. This is the same God who Himself experienced the agony of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42), and expressed a soul “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”
If you are struggling with depression, even if you question whether God is listening, you can still pray. God will never ask, “Are you ok?”– He already knows. Moreover, He already knows the best that He has for you.
If someone you know is struggling with depression, PRAY! But don’t stop there. When Elijah was depressed, God sent food and water. When Moses was struggling with the entire nation of Israel in the wilderness, God sent food and water– and wisdom from Moses’ father-in-law. Practical help, positive reminders, and consistent care DOES make a difference. I cannot begin to tell how many times a random smile or compliment has helped stem the tide for me. Someone I haven’t seen in awhile who doesn’t just jump in asking how I’m doing, or how I’m feeling, but instead comments that it is good to see me–someone who admits that they have struggled, and found grace and healing– someone whose primary goal is not to “check up on me,” or “fix me,” but rather to interact and connect and to be “present” with me.
Losing someone to suicide is horribly painful, and it is tempting to carry a load of guilt and unanswered/unanswerable questions. PRAY! And then PRAY some more! God won’t send easy answers; He won’t take away the pain of loss; though He will provide healing and grace. But God will do as He has promised– to BE with us, no matter what, and to give us a peace that passes all understanding. God never punished the people in the Bible for feeling depressed, or for crying out in despair. God didn’t tell them to “Snap out of it,” or to “Get over it.” But neither did He coddle it. He did not rescue those, like King Saul, who fell on their own swords rather than falling on their knees.
Please pray– but don’t ignore practical help. Even simple steps, like taking a shower, paying attention to sleeping, eating, and drinking habits, making sure you move/exercise/stretch throughout the day, can help. Ask for and accept help– true help–and beware of asking for “substitute” help that will enable you to continue with unhealthy thinking and behavior.
Because I want you to “do well.” I want you to “be ok.” I want you to be!
Today marks Epiphany– the day traditionally celebrating the arrival of the Magi to see the Baby Jesus. (Matthew 2:1-12) The Bible does not give us many details about the Wise Men. We don’t know if there were three or thirty. We don’t know if they all came from the same region, or if they came from many different nations and regions and met up along the journey. We only know that they had studied the skies; having seen a new and very bright star (or comet or conjunction of stars), they plotted its course across the sky and “followed” it to Israel– first to Jerusalem, and then to Bethlehem. They brought gifts fit for the king they expected to meet.
What a surprise it must have been for them to reach Jerusalem. After many days (weeks? months?) of travel, they arrived, only to be met with shock and confusion by the leaders and wise men of Israel. Hundreds of prophesies pointed to the birth of Messiah, yet the Jewish leaders were oblivious to His arrival, almost under their very noses! They were not ignorant of the prophesies– they “knew” that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Yet, they showed no interest in traveling with the other wise men to meet their own redeemer. Instead, they sent the foreigners to pay homage, while they plotted in Jerusalem to help Herod kill hundreds of innocent infants. These are the same priests, prophets, and wise men who had been studying, praying for, and waiting for the arrival of Messiah for hundreds of years. How could they have missed it?!
Epiphany is not just the name for this day of the Kings with their three gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh– it is a word that tells of a sudden realization or understanding of the essence of a truth. But how often do we chase an epiphany–pray for answers, or memorize scripture–only to miss the point? How often are we focused on the pages of history, or our computer screens, only to miss the wondrous star in the sky? Are we, like the Jewish leaders of their age, missing the Epiphany?
God is ready to show us the miracle of His Mercy, the sufficiency of His Grace, and the depths of His great Love– are we chasing an Epiphany that is right under our noses? Let’s be ready to look up, to follow the star, and to be amazed!
I keep a prayer journal. In it, I like to write the names of people I know and pray for– family, friends, neighbors, etc. For every day of the year, I have a list of people who are celebrating birthdays or anniversaries (if I know about them). And I also have a space where I list specific requests related to health or suffering, needs, grieving, and more.
But many times, I also get generic or “unspoken” requests–no names or specific details. And for every day of the year, I also have a place or region– a city, state, province, nation, continent, ocean, desert–for which I pray. Sometimes, this can be awkward. I don’t always know for whom I am praying, or for what outcome…should I pray for peace?..prosperity?..courage?..the weather?..the government?..
So what is the point? Why not stick to more “focused” prayer? Why not pray for those things with which I am most familiar? Most comfortable? Most able to make or see a difference?
Because God calls us to pray. And He calls us to pray both for those people and things we know well, and those we can only hope to trust to Him. I don’t have to know WHY I am praying for Albania (beyond the fact that it is on tomorrow’s page of my prayer journal). I don’t have to know who lives there, or what the needs are. I don’t have to know, because God knows, and I am trusting HIM to know the who and the why, the how and the when.
The other day, I was reading in Genesis– the story of Noah, and the Ark. The Bible introduces Noah by giving us a genealogy: a list of the descendants of Adam through to Noah. And there is a curious side story about Nephilim, and giants, and wickedness. But there is something noticeably missing. The women’s names. Even in the story of Noah that follows, Noah and his sons are named. But not the wives…we know they are there in the Ark. We know they were saved from the flood. We know they were crucial to the survival and future of mankind, but there are no names. At other times throughout the Bible narrative, there are seemingly endless lists of names of people we are likely to forget–names like Peninnah (1 Samuel 1:2), Unni (1 Chronicles 15:18), Shelumiel (Numbers 10:18), Palal (Nehemiah 3:25), Tryphena (Romans 16:12), or Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:16).
Names are important to the Lord. He knows each and every person’s name before they are even born. He knows the number of hairs on each person’s head (even the ones that used to be there!). But it is not necessary for US to know every name, every need, or every situation in order to lift it before our omniscient and loving Father.
So I will continue to pray for the nameless and the unknown. I will lift up unspoken and unformed requests to the God I DO know.
Another reason I continue to pray for the nameless is that it keeps my focus outward. One of the drawbacks of the modern and post-modern world is that the “smaller” our world becomes, the smaller our focus. I can connect, via internet, to people around the globe. I can look up statistics for any country or region; I can see news reports and video uploads in real time from nearly every corner of the world. But it can be frightfully easy to turn my focus on myself and those immediately around me, to the exclusion of those whose names don’t show up on my “friends” list, or those whose faces get lost among the thousands of videos, and Facebook Posts, and Instagram shots. It can be deceptively easy to depend on what I can “know” from a computer screen, and not to depend on what God knows to be true.
Let’s open our hearts and minds to pray for the nameless among us– near and far. They are not nameless to God, and they are precious in His sight. And somewhere, someone may be praying for “nameless” people in our nation, or city, or region– US!