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.
I’ve had a difficult time sleeping lately. Not just because these are stressful times (though they are), and not just because we’ve had a couple of stormy nights (which we have), and not even because I’ve lost track of time, and slept in late and stayed up too late doing things like writing my blog entries…
But the combination has meant that I’ve slept badly for several nights, and I’ve been paying the price– tired in the early evening, grumpy in the mornings… Sleep is essential for good health; not just physical health, but mental and emotional health, too. And it is just as necessary– in some ways more so– when we face trying times.
When I cannot sleep, I can still pray. Sometimes, I pray through tears, sometimes through exhaustion. And sometimes, I cannot sleep because I have not prayed– I have worried and wearied my mind, but have not given my worries and concerns over to the One who holds the universe in His hand. Often, once I resolve to spend time in prayer–I find I can sleep, after all! (Isn’t that just the way, sometimes?!) I pray for the storm to pass, or the worries to melt away, but they don’t. However, as soon as I begin to pray about things bigger than what is keeping me awake– unsaved loved ones, those who are suffering much worse than my headache or stuffy nose–suddenly I’m out like a light! ( BTW– I’m not recommending this as a course of action. I don’t believe God works that way. It’s just an observation. God grants us what He knows we need most–rest is important, but God will send it in His time, not because we say or do things in a particular, even contrary, manner.)
Jesus was fully human. He needed sleep, and the Bible records that he slept. But the recorded instance of him sleeping doesn’t center on peaceful circumstances and luxurious surroundings– no soft beds and tropical breezes gently whispering him to slumber. And we don’t see him falling asleep after an intense prayer session. Instead, we see Jesus sleeping through a raging storm in the middle of a lake . (Matthew 8:23-27; https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+4%3A35-41&version=NIV; Luke 8:22-25). With great waves churning the lake, and tossing the boat about, even seasoned fishermen were terrified; yet Jesus lay asleep in the stern of the boat. And it seems that his sleep was deep and restful, in spite of his surroundings and circumstances. When he was awakened, he didn’t worry or panic– he simply told the wind and waves to “be still.” The disciples were in awe of Jesus’ power, but they had failed to consider praying before they woke him up. Instead, they had exhausted themselves with worry and fear.
Lest we fall into thinking that Jesus was just supernaturally “chill” about danger, we need to look at his experience in Gethsemane. This time, it was the disciples who slept, even when Jesus asked them to keep watch as he prayed, even when he had explained to them that he was about to be betrayed. There are circumstances that drive us to our knees, that won’t let us sleep– trials and pains that draw us to our Father. But in His mercy, He will often grant us rest and renewal in the midst of the worst circumstances. Jesus did not find sleep in the Garden– he found the power he needed to face his trial and death on a cross. But his victory means that WE can have peace and hope– and rest– even in times of crisis.
There is a time to sleep, and a time to pray. Anxiety, trouble, and sickness may make sleep difficult, and even impossible for awhile, but God knows we need it in times like these. And He knows that in the sleepless hours, we can lift our deepest cares to Him. May God grant me the wisdom and the faith and the ability to find time for sleep and prayer. May God grant the same to you, and to all of us.
Last time, we looked at the story from Daniel Chapter 2 (see text here:https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+2&version=ESV ) Daniel, his friends, and the entire court of magicians, sorcerers, wise men, and counselors of Babylon are under threat of death if they cannot tell the mighty Nebudchadnezzar the meaning of his dreams– dreams he refuses to disclose to them! The power and wrath of the king of Babylon is imposing. The threat is real and very dire.
But today, I want to look at the larger picture, just as Daniel was able to do so long ago.
Nebuchadnezzar looms large across all his empire– he is the supreme ruler, a despot, and a madman. But he is not God. Even as he strikes fear in the hearts of his counselors, he causes Daniel and his friends to seek help from a higher power. Already, the other learned men, sorcerers and astrologers have come to Daniel for help. Even though he is young, and a foreign captive, there is something about his character that has earned the respect of others in authority. Daniel could easily have become arrogant and proud. Or he could have folded under the pressure, knowing that he had no answers to give the king.
Instead, he did two key things– first, he asked for help from his friends. He asked for their support in prayer. Never discount the power of prayer– especially the prayers of others on your behalf. So often, we worry and wallow in our problems, waiting for God to work, praying in isolation and silent anguish. God wants us to seek His face; He wants to hear our prayers. But He also wants us to seek help and prayer support from those who are close to us. Even Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, asked for support from His three closest friends. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=mark+14%3A32-42&version=ESV) He went off alone to pray and pour out His deepest anguish, but He took His closest friends to “keep watch”. Daniel would face Nebuchadnezzar one-on-one, but he would not be “alone.” Not only would he know that God was with him, he would know that his caring friends were “keeping watch,” and providing faithful support. We should do the same.
In weight training, there is a practice called “spotting”, in which another person stands ready to help a weight lifter as s/he attempts to lift a heavier weight than normal. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spotting_(weight_training)) Daniel is preparing to shoulder a big weight. He expects to face Nebuchadnezzar, and, while he doesn’t know (yet) the content of the king’s dreams, he knows that they are disturbing and mysterious. Whatever he says to the king, however tactfully he says it, his life (and the lives of many others) may be at stake. Spotters “keep watch”, and offer to step in and help if the weight is too great to bear. In this instance, Daniel’s friends were there, ready to help. They were not required to step up and face Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath. But their time will come soon enough! As Christians, we need to be prepared to be a Daniel– but we also need to be prepared to be a “spotter” for our brothers and sisters in the faith. We need to “keep watch,” ready to step in with prayer, action, and faithful support.
Secondly, Daniel waited with hope and expectation. The Bible does not tell us what Daniel prayed before God sent His answer, but it does record Daniel’s response to God’s vision. And his prayer is not one of selfish relief– “Thank you, God for giving me what I need to save me from the mighty Nebuchadnezzar…”–instead, Daniel rejoices in God Almighty; the one who causes kings to rise and fall, the one who gives wisdom and who knows the future. It is this God Daniel has trusted, and this God Daniel will honor when he goes in to meet with Nebuchadnezzar.
Today, may we follow the good example of Daniel. Let’s share our concerns with others, and gladly offer to pray for each other, pray with each other, and “keep watch” for each other. And let us expect great things from our great and faithful God– even if we are living –and praying–under pressure!
Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe,—
Sailed on a river of crystal light
Into a sea of dew.
“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”
The old moon asked the three.
“We have come to fish for the herring-fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we,"
The old moon laughed and sang a song,
As they rocked in the wooden shoe;
And the wind that sped them all night long
Ruffled the waves of dew;
The little stars were the herring-fish
That lived in the beautiful sea.
“Now cast your nets wherever you wish,—
Never afraid are we!”
So cried the stars to the fishermen three,
All night long their nets they threw
To the stars in the twinkling foam,—
Then down from the skies came the wooden shoe,
Bringing the fishermen home:
‘Twas all so pretty a sail, it seemed
As if it could not be;
And some folk thought ‘twas a dream they’d dreamed
Of sailing that beautiful sea;
But I shall name you the fishermen three:
Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
Is a wee one’s trundle-bed;
So shut your eyes while Mother sings
Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock in the misty sea
Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three:—
What does a child’s poem have to do with the Bible and prayer?
I’m not sure there is an exact answer to that..I was wistfully thinking of something to write about, and as I looked for a Bible verse for inspiration, I came upon an odd Proverb (which I’ll get to in a minute) about winking. This set me to thinking about the old child’s poem and song– one of my favorites. I wondered– if the Bible has something to say about winking, does it also address blinking and nodding? And, if so, can we draw a connection between the three and then from all three to prayer?
I think we can… bear with me. Since the poem has to do with sleeping as well, I want to start, (and come back in the end) with this passage from Mark, where Jesus is praying, and the disciples are nodding off.
Mark 14:32-42English Standard Version (ESV)
Jesus Prays in Gethsemane
32 And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.”33 And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled.34 And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.”35 And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.36 And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”37 And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour?38 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”39 And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words.40 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy, and they did not know what to answer him.41 And he came the third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.42 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”
How often have you prayed early in the morning or late in the evening, only to find yourself nodding off? I’ve certainly done it– more embarrassingly, I’ve seen (or rather heard) it happening in a group setting! It’s not a laughing matter at any time, but in this setting, Jesus is in anguish so powerful he was sweating out blood– he even describes it as being “sorrowful even to death”–yet his disciples failed to stay awake, keep watch, or help him pray.
Hold onto that image for a minute.
When I was first thinking about what to write, I didn’t start with nodding. I found a verse about winking in Proverbs 10:10: “He who winks maliciously causes grief, and a chattering fool comes to ruin.” (NIV) There are other verses throughout scripture that talk about the danger of winking.
Winking isn’t exactly the same as nodding or sleeping, but it involves closing ones eyes (or eye) to evil– giving it a momentary pass. Winking “maliciously” is not only turning a blind eye, but actually colluding with evil– giving it a figurative “nod” of approval. We don’t often think of winking as a sin. Winking is winsome, flirtatious perhaps, but it is passive. How can it hurt to wink? We don’t wink at war, or genocide, or injustice…do we? How often do we excuse what is clearly bad behavior because we don’t want to offend someone else, or come across as “judgmental”? How often do we fall into the false justification that “the ends justify the means”–that a small lie or bad habit can be ignored or overlooked in light of “the greater good” we expect will result from our overall actions?
God calls us to integrity– being honest with ourselves as well as with others. When we wink at so-called small sins, we begin to close our eyes (or at least one eye) to the truth. Sin disguises itself as winsome and flirtatious, but it is not passive– it eats away at truth, life, peace, and joy–it is corrosive, poisonous, and deadly.
1 Corinthians 15:52New English Translation (NET Bible)
52 in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
2 Peter 3:8New English Translation (NET Bible)
8 Now, dear friends, do not let this one thing escape your notice, that a single day is like a thousand years with the Lord and a thousand years are like a single day.
Winking at evil is especially dangerous if we lose sight of the urgency of these last days. There is a tension in the Christian view of the future–on the one hand, we expect the “soon” return of Christ. He will come in the “blink of an eye”; like a “thief in the night” with no warning, and with judgment. On the other hand, he is patient, not wanting any to perish. God is beyond and above Time– he is slow to anger, and slow to judgment–but he is also eternally aware and omnipresent.
We don’t choose to blink– and we do it often throughout the day. In fact, it is good and necessary that we do so. But, because blinking is an automatic function, we don’t think about it–even when we are tired and blinking turns into “nodding off.” If we continue to look about, or try to read, or worse, drive in this condition, we will miss important information, and we risk making mistakes and getting into accidents.
The same can be true as we walk through our days waiting for the return of Christ. Sometimes, instead of resting in Grace and looking to God for help, we get focused on all the distractions around us. In our restlessness we put much of our focus on what will happen in the “blink of an eye” and less focus on the single day or even the thousand years that God has given us to bring in a harvest.
And this leads me to the nodding…Jesus had something to say about this very tension of waiting and anticipating his return. He gave several parables, but I want to focus on just one– the parable of the virgins in Matthew 25.
Jesus pointed out that even if we are invited to have a role in the wedding feast, we need to be prepared. The virgins in the story were not punished for having fallen asleep (as all of them might have been), but the five foolish virgins had no oil when the bridegroom finally came. They didn’t just “nod off” waiting for the groom, they were winking at their own lack of preparation, blinking back their false expectation that what they had in their own lamps would be enough, and nodding off with no concern that they might be left out of the festivities.
In the same way, we can be guilty of winking at our own lack of obedience and commitment, blinking in the flashy distractions of the world around us, and nodding off unprepared for the very event we claim to hope for most. If we were with Jesus in the garden, would we be any more faithful or watchful than the disciples? Are we sending up vague and half-hearted prayers as we get sucked into the distractions around us? Are we so busy pointing fingers at others or excusing our own lack of diligence that we have nothing left to bring to God in earnest prayer? Have we given up on prayer in favor of social media or social action to “let our light shine”? Are we winkin’, blinkin’, and nodding off in our Christian walk?
Instead, Jesus asks us to “watch and pray” during these dark and dangerous times.