Prayer is both simple and complex. Anyone can pray. There is no single correct “formula” for prayer. God is always listening and hears the prayers of those who sincerely seek Him. I can pray to God in formal words, songs, groans, and scattered thoughts.
But there are times when I don’t know how to pray. More precisely, I don’t know WHAT to pray. When someone is diagnosed with cancer, or a chronic illness, my first instinct is to pray for healing– immediate and total healing. When I hear of a mass shooting, or a blatant injustice, or a natural disaster, I want to pray for all the pain and loss and evil to disappear or be reversed. I want all those things that I know to be “good”– health, happiness, healing, hope, unity, righteousness, and wholeness.
Still, God’s ways are not my ways. God’s “goodness” is not measured in comfort and quick resolutions. I may not understand the goodness of struggle and pain in the short term. I think of disaster as total and irredeemable, and my prayers often come out of my own short-sighted thinking and my own discomfort at the realization of others’ (and my own) weakness and mortality.
There are a few Biblical principles that I find very helpful when I don’t know “how” to pray:
God knows –REALLY KNOWS– all my inner thoughts and feelings. Even more, He KNOWS what will happen, what should happen, and what is best in every situation. I can pour out my desire to see my friend restored to health, or a community re-united in hope, knowing that God is a God of healing and restoration; but also knowing that God’s timing and purposes may involve temporary suffering–even for those I love. Moreover, God knows why I am confused. He knows why I struggle to know how to pray. He doesn’t ask me to always know the “right” answer– He does ask that I trust Him to know and act in His sovereign strength and wisdom. No matter the circumstances, God is still on His throne. And I am not!
Jesus gave us simple but powerful examples of “how” to pray. In “The Lord’s Prayer,” He prayed for simple, personal things– daily bread, forgiveness, guidance–as well as big and overarching things–“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done..” His trust in the Father’s ability to accomplish all things was absolute, and His relationship was firmly established– “Father…Hallowed by Thy Name.” In the garden, Jesus was clearly suffering, and asked that the “cup” of suffering– the torture of the cross and the inconceivable horror of being rejected as He bore our sins and carried them through death and the grave– be removed. Yet, He submitted His desire, His fears, His anguish, to His Father– “Not My will, but Thine..”
There are other wonderful examples throughout the Psalms, the Gospels, the Epistles, and hundreds of years of Church leaders and saints: their prayers can teach us, encourage us, and embolden us.
Jesus promised that we would have an advocate–the Holy Spirit– who would intercede for us. When we don’t know how or what to pray, the Apostle Paul says that the Spirit makes intercession for us with “groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Romans 8:26 KJV). The Spirit also speaks to our own spirit to help us understand more clearly God’s ways and plans.
I may not always know how to pray, or what to pray. But I can be confident that God hears my prayers. I can come before Him with the assurance that my prayers– and all my thoughts and emotions–are precious to Him because I am His child, redeemed by His sacrifice. My heart may not know all things, but as He continues faithfully completing the work He began in me (Philippians 1:6), my prayers will come more fully into alignment with His will.
We are living in dark days– days of death counts, and dire predictions; of fear and grief and chaos. Masks, social distancing, angry outbursts, collapsing economies, job loss, political unrest, disease, plague–we are in the grip of a global pandemic. “Bring out your dead.” It’s a phrase from hundreds of years ago, and the horrors of other plagues and other disasters. Tombs, graveyards, skulls and visions of death abound. And yet, as Christians, we celebrate an empty tomb…
It’s been over a month since many Christians celebrated Easter (and almost a month for Orthodox Christians). How soon many of us forget the power of the resurrection. Our world is gripped with fear and anger. But we should be gripped with hope and healing. We celebrate an empty tomb– a testament to the victory of life over death, and hope over chaos!
Even when we use the symbol of the cross, it is not about Christ’s death, but his ultimate victory that we celebrate. Jesus himself even referred to the cross in these terms in John 3:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and religious teacher. He is referring to an historic incident in the wilderness, when the Israelites had rebelled (once again), and the Lord sent venomous snakes among them. Nicodemus would have known about this incident, but Jesus presented it as more than just history– it was a foreshadowing of God’s perfect plan of salvation! https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Numbers+21%3A4-9&version=NIV God had Moses make a bronze snake to be lifted up on a pole. When the people looked up and saw the bronze snake, they could live. In just such a way, when Jesus was “lifted up” on the cross, he didn’t just die. He battled death to bring life to anyone who “looks up” and believes.
That ancient symbol of a snake on a pole is used by physicians to represent healing. The ancient symbol of Christ on the cross is used to represent redemption and eternal life. Combined with the reality of an empty tomb, we can celebrate life in the midst of any circumstances.
These are difficult days–even with the hope of eternal life, we still have to face the sadness and grief of death, the confusion and hardship of economic chaos, and the uncertainty of what tomorrow will look like– socially, politically, economically, and physically. But we need only “look up” and beyond our circumstances to be reminded that this is not the whole story. There is an empty tomb– ours! There is victory–ours! Won for us by the perfect plan of God, and the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ.
139 O Lord, You have searched me and known me. 2 You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. 3 You [a]comprehend my path and my lying down, And are acquainted with all my ways. 4 For there is not a word on my tongue, But behold, O Lord, You know it altogether. 5 You have [b]hedged me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? 8 If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in [c]hell, behold, You are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall [d]fall on me,” Even the night shall be light about me; 12 Indeed, the darkness [e]shall not hide from You, But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
13 For You formed my inward parts; You [f]covered me in my mother’s womb. 14 I will praise You, for [g]I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, And that my soul knows very well. 15 My [h]frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. 16 Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, The days fashioned for me, When as yet there were none of them.
17 How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them! 18 If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand; When I awake, I am still with You.
19 Oh, that You would slay the wicked, O God! Depart from me, therefore, you [i]bloodthirsty men. 20 For they speak against You wickedly; [j]Your enemies take Your name in vain. 21 Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? 22 I hate them with [k]perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; 24 And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.
We can’t hide from God. We can ignore Him, deny His existence, even rage against Him. But we cannot escape His Spirit. We cannot hide who we are or what we think from Him. And we cannot flee from His goodness or mercy; we cannot run beyond His ability to restore us, heal us, or save us. He knows the worst about us, and He calls us to the very best we can be. Which begs the question– Why would we want to escape from God? Why do we try to hide from Him? What is it about God that would give us a reason to flee?
There are many terrifying things in this world–right now, we are faced with a global pandemic; a plague that brings sickness and death. Now THAT is something worth hiding from! Many of us are “sheltering in place,” trying to hide out until it is safer to interact with others. The disease seems to be everywhere–but it really isn’t– it cannot go where there are no hosts to carry the virus. It can be spread wherever we find other people who are infected, or where the virus lingers on surfaces. The disease does not seek us out or come searching for us if we stay put. Unfortunately, “sheltering in place” comes with its own dangers. We cannot survive long in a bubble. We are interdependent. We need food, medicine, fresh air, and interaction with family and friends to survive and thrive. Hiding away from a tiny virus is only effective in the short term. And there are other diseases from which we cannot hide– cancer and heart disease, and even other viruses that are active, but haven’t been traced or identified.
There are other terrors that we try to escape by fleeing– hurricanes, fires, floods, war, etc. And we may escape immediate danger from such terrors–if we have advance warning or if we have the means to escape. But there is no place of absolute safety: no place on earth where such dangers cannot exist. There is no Utopia– no earthly dwelling, community, or settlement where there is only goodness, harmony, peace, and plenty. There is no place to hide, and no place of escape.
It is understandable that we should want to hide from danger or flee bad things, even if such escape is impossible in life. But why should we wish to hide from a loving and merciful God? Is He as bad as COVID-19? Is He as threatening as a hurricane or an air raid?
Certainly, He is as powerful (and even more) than any of the dangers we fear. God has the power, and the authority, to judge, punish, and destroy all who live on the planet. He has the power to obliterate all of His creation, and none of us could stop Him or challenge His right to do as He pleases. And if we should challenge God’s authority, we would be wise to want to run away, hide, or escape the consequences of such foolishness.
Adam and Eve tried this long ago. After they sinned by eating the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they hid from God. And God’s response was not instant obliteration. He didn’t storm through Eden, destroying everything in His righteous anger before torturing Eve, making Adam watch in horror before He killed them both. Nor did God negate His Holiness by changing the consequences of sin. Death DID enter creation– along with disease, pain, guilt, envy, hatred, lying, greed, destruction– they all exist, persist, and continue to plague all of God’s creation to this day.
But God’s first act–His first words to Adam and Eve after their rebellion– was to seek their presence. God came to walk in the Garden; to meet with Adam and Eve. He called out to them, “Where are you?” He wasn’t asking because He didn’t know that they were hiding. He knew where they were, and why. And even in assigning their punishment, God did not throw extra guilt and recrimination at the fallen couple. He didn’t shout, “How could you do this to ME?!” “How dare you!” “I wish I’d never made you!” “You’re worthless. What a waste of time and energy. Get out of my garden! I never want to see you or hear from you again!”
God’s Spirit is always seeking reconciliation, communion, restoration, and love. God is Holy, and God is Merciful. Holiness desires Whole-ness. Mercy desires Peace. God pursues us, not because He wants to infect us or devour us or destroy us– God wants to hold us, heal us, and give us Life.
The danger is not in God’s presence, but in our ability to reject it. God is everywhere, but not everyone will see Him, accept His authority, or welcome His mercy. Some will spend a lifetime hiding and fleeing, only to discover that God will, reluctantly, give them what they want– an eternity without Him. Without Grace, without Love, without Peace, without Wholeness, without Hope.
That is a fate far worse than waking up to “shelter in place,” or even suffering through a virus that can separate us from loved ones for weeks, months, or even a short lifetime.
There are many things worth fleeing in life– But we can find joy, hope, and peace in the presence of a Loving and Omnipresent God.
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea-billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my Soul. (It Is Well with My Soul–Horatio Spafford)
…He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my Soul–Psalm 23:2b-3a)
Our Shepherd leads us where we need to go. He gives us everything we need. But He doesn’t give us only ease and pleasure and rest. Such a life leads to complacency, apathy, and spiritual atrophy. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters– He restores my soul. Even though these thoughts come in two separate verses, I think there is a close link between the phrases. We need rest; we need restoration. And we find it when we are drinking deeply from the “still waters”– cool and clear and life-giving waters–the “living water” that only Jesus provides. We are often attracted to swift water– white water rafting, ocean surfing, waterfalls, sailing, etc. Moving water is exciting and full of energy. But it can be overwhelming to fight against the current or the power of falling, churning, running, or raging water. Without being anchored to something stronger than the waves; without help to overcome the pull of the current or a way to get to shore safely– we would be lost.
Storms and tides will be a part of our life– there will be dangers, and toils, loss, and unexpected heartaches. Sometimes, they come from our own foolish choices; often, they come because we live in a broken and fallen world filled with diseases and disasters beyond our control. God doesn’t lead us into storms just to leave us there, flailing and treading water with no end in sight. His goal is to lead us to the still waters and to restore our souls. The same river that contains white water will reach a peaceful valley, where it will run deep and wide and slow– perfect for restoring our souls and reviving our hearts.
It is a comforting thought that God, our Shepherd, will lead us beside still waters. But that is not always our lot. God’s promise is not that we will always have quiet, calm waters in life. God’s promise is that He will lead us safely through even the raging storm– and that His presence will provide a peace that defies our temporary surroundings and our trying circumstances.
I’ve been following the story of Lot– a Biblical character in the book of Genesis, and the nephew of Abram/Abraham. I left off in Genesis 13, where Abram and Lot had to separate their flocks and herds. Abram offered Lot the opportunity to choose the best of the land– and Lot jumped at his opportunity. He chose the well-watered valley along the Jordan river, near the thriving cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and moved his tents just outside of Sodom.
But the author of Genesis (likely Moses, writing generations later) adds a single sentence that foreshadows events to come: “But the people of this area were extremely wicked and constantly sinned against the Lord.” (Genesis 13:13 NLT via http://www.biblegateway.com). It doesn’t take very long for this small detail to add up to a “lot” of trouble. The fertile Jordan valley may look like a paradise, but there are perils and pitfalls all around. In Genesis 14, we hear of a great war– five regional kings against four– with Sodom and Gomorrah caught in the middle. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+14%3A1-16&version=NLT) The armies and kings of Sodom and Gomorrah flee the battlefield, and straight into a series of tar pits. The opposing armies loot the cities, taking all the food and supplies. They also kidnap Lot and take all his possessions, because he was “living in Sodom.”
Notice two important details here– Lot is no longer pitching his tents outside the city; he has moved into Sodom. When we make the choice to live “on the outskirts” of evil, thinking we will remain separate and untouched, we are asking for trouble. Lot cannot live in paradise and avoid the evil and war all around him. And he isn’t prepared for the consequences. The war is happening all around him, yet he has made no plan to escape or to fortify his home or property.
Secondly, Lot wasn’t among the army or fighting with the kings– on either side! Lot stood for nothing; fought for nothing; defended nothing. Lot placed all of his hope and faith in blind chance– thinking somehow he would be spared the violence and war happening all around. He seems to have had no concern about his neighbors or their fate. He seems indifferent to their losses, and uncaring of their needs. One might argue that if the neighbors were so wicked, Lot had no obligation to help them, but his level of apathy and inactivity suggest that Lot was both self-centered and inept.
One of Lot’s men manages to escape and bring word of this disaster to Abram, who mobilizes his men, makes a daring night raid on the army of the five kings, rescues Lot and restores all of the stolen property and other kidnapped people. The king/priest of the city of Salem (meaning peace) blesses Abram. The rescued King of Sodom offers Abram all the captured loot in exchange for the people, but Abram refuses. Unlike his nephew, who is enticed by lands and goods and wealth, Abram seeks only peace and goodwill.
This might have been the end of Lot’s troubles; he might have learned a valuable lesson. But he didn’t.