We have a tiny herb garden. It’s just a couple of plants each of a few different herbs– basil, rosemary, parsley, chives, etc., in small planters on our back stoop. Just enough to have fresh herbs for cooking. They smell really good when I go out to water them, or clip some to add to chicken stew or spaghetti sauce or noodles and butter.
They add flavor and color, too, but it is the smell that grabs the attention and brings immediate joy.
Our prayers are supposed to be like that, too. The Bible compares our prayers to incense with a pleasing aroma. God delights in the fragrance of our prayers.
That seems reasonable for prayers of praise, but what about prayers of pain? How can such prayers bring joy to God?
When I water my herbs, they give off a pleasing aroma. But when I chop and crush the herbs to use them, the scent is stronger, the flavor richer, as the plants give all they have to the dish. Left in their planters, they will grow tall, but they will not be useful. They will smell good, but they won’t fulfill their greater purpose.
God wants our praise– certainly. And He is worthy of it–completely. But God also wants our chopped, crushed, bruised, torn, and painful prayers of need and brokenness. He wants us to trust Him to make even our groans and cries for help into fragrant offerings.
Some fears are understandable. Some fears are even logical. Some are not. I wouldn’t say that I am “afraid” of most things. I don’t spend hours of my life being afraid of unlikely events, like being struck by lightning or choking to death on a cracker. I have a healthy fear of electricity and fire. I don’t tempt fate by walking along the edge of cliffs or hanging out of thirty-story windows (both of which are rare where I come from, anyway) . But I have two phobias– irrational fears–that plague me. The first is my fear of snakes. My fear of snakes has not ruined my life, but it has caused me to limit activities– mostly nature walks– where I might be exposed to seeing a snake. I avoid the reptile house at the zoo; I avoid visiting places where snakes are more common. I don’t like to see pictures of them; I don’t watch “snake” movies.
The second fear is more irrational and causes more problems in my daily life. I am afraid of phones. This doesn’t mean that I cannot make a phone call, or ever answer the phone. But if anyone asks about the best way to contact me, I always suggest e-mail, texts, or other forms of communication. I don’t like hearing the phone ring. I don’t like making calls. I don’t like answering calls. And it has little to do with who is on the other end. It has much more to do with the medium. I can’t see the other person’s face; I can’t predict whether or not the other person is busy or distracted; whether they want a quick answer or a lengthy talk; whether the conversation will end well or leave one (or both) of us at a loss. People call at their convenience–not at the convenience of the person at the other end. Are they in the middle of cooking dinner? Taking a shower? Having an important conversation with a spouse or child?
But if I determine never to make or receive a phone call, I will miss other important conversations– family members who live far away; business that cannot be conducted in person; appointments that need to be set up; news about births, deaths, hospitalizations, even prayers and prayer requests.
I say all this because I knew there are some people who have a phobia about prayer. They are afraid to pray– not just in public, but even privately. They fear that they will say the wrong thing, or that they will “bother” God with their petitions. Some fear that God will not hear their prayer or that they will not get an answer. Some are afraid that they will “get what they pray for”– that God will hear their prayer and answer it, but that the answer will involve change, hardship, or pain that they were hoping to avoid. Some fear that their prayers will not be “good enough;” that God will misunderstand their motives or be offended by their words or their lack of knowledge. Some people are afraid of God– that He will reject them and their prayers because of something they have done or the way they have lived in the past.
Prayer is not meant to be intimidating or difficult. It is healthy to have awe for God. Even “fear” of God– He holds the power of life and death; He cannot be fooled or mocked or bargained with; He knows everything about us, including our thoughts and our past–God is not to be trifled with, even in prayer. But God invites us to pray. He calls us to come to Him; He seeks our fellowship, no matter what we’ve done or what words we string together. There is no magical “prayer formula”– no phrases or special “religious” words or a certain ritual or routine– that we must use to be heard. God– who formed the universe and keeps it running– is never too busy or too distracted to listen to us. Even groans and whimpers are important to Him.
Don’t be “afraid to pray.” And don’t let a fear keep you from praying. Pray through the fear– draw near to God– and He has promised to draw near to you.
Many years ago, I prayed to God, that He would increase my patience. I had well-meaning people– even pastors and other Christians– who told me not to do it. They were afraid that God’s answer to such a prayer would bring difficulty– that God would answer my prayer by making me go through hard times to learn patience. And He did just that. I wanted to be married and have a family–and I spent nearly 30 years waiting and learning patience! But I would not go back and undo those years. God answered my prayer and He gave me a wonderful husband and family– in His time. Sometimes in those decades of wondering and hurting, I had pain. But I — also had many blessings in singleness–opportunities I had never planned on, changes in perspective, unforeseen experiences and relationships that, I think, prepared me to be a better person and a better wife than I would have been at age 18 or 20.
My prayer for patience was something I felt strongly about– and patience is a Godly thing; it is an aspect of the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). I wasn’t praying for money or fame or a life without struggles. In fact– I wasn’t praying that God would “make me” patient. People who believe that my years of waiting for a husband were the direct result of my prayer for increased patience assume that God changed the circumstances of my life to force me to learn a lesson. But what if God changed my desires to match my circumstances? What if, knowing that I would marry after age 45, God put that prayer in my young and impatient heart? If I hadn’t asked for patience, would I have taken matters into my own hands and tried to “make” a family in my way and my time? Would I have experienced more pain– and brought pain to others– if I hadn’t learned patience?
God knows what we need. He knows that there WILL be trouble and hardship in our lives. And He knows that we can survive, and even thrive, in times of trouble, because He will be there with us. Nothing about prayer should make us afraid. Nothing about God’s answers should cause us not to seek His face. He loves us extravagantly; He knows us intimately; He controls and safeguards our future with perfect power.
There are a lot of angry people out there. They have ample reason to be angry. The world is filled with darkness, injustice, pain, sickness, violence, oppression..the list goes on. Such things should make us angry. Such things are wrong. They are destructive. They are evil.
But anger, even justified, cannot heal. It begets more anger, and yet more evil in the name of vengeance. Anger alerts us to evil, but it cannot be allowed to fester and corrode all that is good.
God created us with emotions, like anger, but He desires us to bring them under His discipline to become instruments of good. All the way back in Genesis, God cautioned Cain in his anger https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+4%3A1-16&version=NIV God did not condemn Cain for his anger, but he warned him not to be mastered by it. Cain did not listen, and in his anger, he committed the first murder. God’s wrath against Cain was swift and terrible– God cursed the ground, so it would not produce for Cain; He drove Cain to wander in the barren wilderness. Even so, God put a mark of protection on Cain, and promised His own vengeance on anyone who would try to kill him. God’s mercy overwhelmed simple retribution. God had the power (and the right) to strike Cain dead. He chose to let Cain live with the dark consequences of his anger.
God understands that we will get angry– He gets angry, too! But God sees beyond anger, beyond the immediate pain and rage that we feel when confronted with evil. God’s ways are eternal and Holy and right.
If we turn to God in our anger– if we cry out to Him and wait for His wisdom, He can turn even our anger and bitterness into something far better– resolve. We can resolve to bring good out of tragedy; we can resolve to work, and sweat, and pray, and stand firm in the midst of the storm. If anger is like fire– swift and destructive, then resolve is like a mountain–enduring and offering shelter, protection, and a fixed reference. Fire can scorch the mountain. But it cannot move it or destroy it.
We are living in uncertain and evil times. Let us acknowledge it; even be angered by it. But then, let us bring our anger, our pain, our confusion– and our hope–to God. As God warned Cain, if we do not do what is right, sin will be crouching at our door, desiring to have us; to destroy us and drive us away from God’s presence. If we deny our anger, if we push it down and pretend that it has no power to touch us, we are playing with fire. But if we bring it to God, acknowledging the struggle, crying out in our pain, God can turn our anger into resolve– steadfast through fire and storm and wind and time. Solidly committed to what is good and right and truly just.
Anger, violence, vengeance–all promise easy justice and powerful change. But once the fire of emotion and action has passed, we are left with ashes and death. But on the mountain of resolve, even the ashes become mixed with the good soil underneath to produce new life and growth. The good endures. The good resolves to endure. Goodness is eternal. Let us seek the good, and seek that God would, beyond our anger, grant us resolve.
Today, my husband was finally able to get out and go to the grocery. He saw that they were unloading some herbs, already started and ready to plant. It got me thinking about various herbs and their symbolism. What we plant in our garden; what we use in our cooking; how we “season” our prayer life– it all makes a difference. So here are some tips for “seasoning” our prayers…Make sure to add:
Rosemary– for remembrance. Remember and worship God for who He is. Remember His past goodness. Remember His faithfulness. Remember His Great Love. Remember that He sees and hears you; He knows you intimately, and loves you eternally.
Sage– for wisdom. Ask for it. God longs to give you stores of wisdom and guidance. He longs for you to seek His wisdom every day.
Fennel– for praiseworthiness. God is worthy of all our praise and worship. Prayer is just one way of expressing His worthiness and glory!
Mustard seed– for faith. Faith grows exponentially larger and stronger when it is tended. One seed of faith can produce a large plant, which in turn produced hundreds of new seeds. Don’t let the weight of doubt crush that little seed–it really is enough! Not because of the size of your faith, but because of the size of the One in whom it rests.
Horseradish/radishes– for bitterness and contrition. A Holy God can only be approached by those whose sins have been forgiven. God offers mercy and grace in abundance– for those who acknowledge their sin and wish to be restored in Grace. Confession and repentance should be a regular part of our prayer life… and this leads to..
Hyssop– for cleansing. King David prayed: “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow…Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51: 7, 10) May we seek to have a pure heart and a steadfast spirit. And as we are cleansed, we will have…
Parsley– for gratitude and joy. Parsley brightens and garnishes; it brings a finishing touch and its bright green color suggests growth and abundance. Prayer should result in thankfulness and rejoicing as we enter into the very presence of the Giver of All Life.
Thyme–for, well, time. Take time every day to meet with God. Make both “quality time” and “quantity time” when you can, knowing that God wants to be part of your day, all day, every day.
Chives– for usefulness and peace. Chives add flavor and balance when used in cooking. Bring your daily tasks, your goals, even your everyday worries to God in prayer. Pray as you work, as you run, as you do useful things throughout the day. This will lead to peace and purpose.
Garlic– for strength and healing. Especially in times when people are experiencing sickness and confusion, prayer brings strength. As we pray for healing– physical, emotional, and spiritual– we cast our cares upon a Loving and Omnipotent God.
I have a friend who is very keen to study if prayer “works.” His theory is that if someone were to measure the number of prayers said in various regions of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, and compare those numbers to the rates of infection, numbers of deaths, etc, for the same regions, one could “prove” whether or not prayer is effective.
I don’t think my friend is being sarcastic or overly cynical– I believe he is sincere in wanting to study prayer. I accept his desire to study prayer–to quantify it, even to “prove” it, or legitimate it for those who are skeptical. Unfortunately, he wants to study it as an observer, and not a participant, and he wants to conduct a physical study of a metaphysical practice.
Scientists are conducting several studies during this time, to see what “works.” Does social distancing “work” better than building up “herd immunity?” Is there a treatment that works better, or faster than others? Can we develop an effective vaccine? What practices– social, hygienic, medical, political– might help mitigate the spread of future viruses? Even these studies will not be definitive. The results will depend a great deal on methodology, and the conclusions will be open to interpretation.
There are additional problems in studying whether or not prayer “works” or not, because prayer is metaphysical. Here are just a few of the “measurement” problems:
How do you measure prayer? By length of time? Number of words used? The number of prayers prayed by each person over a certain period of time?
Do you count ritual prayers? Mantras? Meditation? Unspoken “thought” prayers? Recitations? Prayers spoken “in tongues” or in ecstatic states?
Do you count corporate prayer as a single prayer or by the number of people in the group?
What about social media? Do you count all the people who say they will send “thoughts and prayers?” Do you count those who say they “will pray,” or only those who are “praying,” or “praying now.”
If you are testing by geographical region, how do you account for people who are praying for others around the world?
How do you measure the efficacy of prayer (as opposed to other factors)? If a region has a higher mortality rate, even though many people prayed, does that mean that prayer “doesn’t work?” Or does it mean that the mortality rate would have been even more devastating (given other factors) without prayer?
More than just measurement problems, there are problems with the very nature of prayer that make such a study impossible:
Even if you could come up with a standard definition of “prayer” in order to get a count, prayer is not a physical substance or action. Prayer is not a “cause and effect” exchange. It is communication. If ten people say the same thing at the same time to the same person, it is not necessarily “more effective” than a single person-to-person exchange. If a thousand people pray to the same “god” who is not a god–“Mother Nature” or “The Force,” for example, it cannot be compared to a single person praying to a Loving and All-Powerful God.
God’s ways are not our ways. If we are measuring for one thing, God may be working for a different, unseen outcome. If more people contract the virus during the “study period”, we see that as “failure.” But God may be preparing that region to build up a resistance or immunity for a future outbreak. God answered prayer in a mighty way that we won’t see immediately. I have known a great many people, and prayed for a great many people who have not received physical healing in this world. They have suffered. They have died. But that doesn’t mean that prayer “didn’t work.” Their sufferings and eventual deaths have often brought about unbelievable works of God– salvation, families restored, friends discovering renewed purpose, strengthened efforts to fight disease, injustice, poverty, etc., and communities coming together in unity and hope.
Prayer is not about measurable results. Prayer is a heart-cry to a caring Creator. It doesn’t just involve asking for healing or miracles or “wish fulfillment.” Prayer involves thanksgiving, worship and adoration, repentance and confession, sharing burdens, asking questions, and building an eternal relationship with God Almighty.
In the end, any study results will be interpreted differently by different people. Some people will be convinced by numerical comparisons to re-consider their view of prayer. Others will never be convinced, no matter how much “evidence” someone else presents.
Prayer isn’t like taking an aspirin, or holding a protest rally, or doing research for a cure. Prayer isn’t about “winning the battle.” It isn’t about “what works.” It isn’t about “what” at all. It’s about WHO.
God “works.” God is sovereign, loving, and wise beyond what we can imagine. His ways endure. And He has vanquished the power of death and disease. Yes, it can still touch us in the here and now, spreading havoc and pain and mourning. But it will never triumph over Hope, and Life, Truth, and Faith. And when we pray, we connect to the source of all that is Eternally victorious! Beyond ANY measure!
GOD–Almighty, Bountiful, Compassionate, Deliverer, Eternal, Faithful, Glorious, Holy, Incomprehensible, Just, Kind, Loving, Merciful, Noble, Omnipresent, Perfect, Quick to listen, Redeemer, Sovereign, Trustworthy, Unchanging, Victorious, Wise, EXcellent, Yahweh, Zealous. Father, let me fix my eyes, my mind, my soul, on YOU. Let me see you; let me stay close by you and be true to you. Let me reflect you and share your glory today.
LOVES–Adores, Blesses, Cares, Delights, Encourages, Favors, Gives, Holds, Intercedes, Justifies, Knows, Listens, Ministers, Nears, Ordains, Protects, Quiets, Reveals, Sanctifies, Treasures, Understands, Values, Watches, EXhorts, Yearns, Zeroes in… Jesus, your love for me is beyond anything I can imagine. I don’t understand it, I don’t deserve it, and I can’t be separated from it. It hems me in and holds me close– even when I don’t see it. I thank you and praise you for BEING love; for showing love; for sending your Son; for showering me with your mercy; for showing me how to share your love with others.
YOU. No long alphabet list– just let that sink in. God LOVES you. He adores and pursues YOU. He wants to spend an eternity with YOU– helping you become the YOU you were always created to be! Lord, let whoever may read this to know and experience the power of Your love, today. May they be wrapped in Your mercy and grace. May they be strengthened and encouraged in the warmth of Your invitation to COME to You.
On this Good Friday, it may seem redundant and unnecessary to point this out, but Jesus died. As the world around us faces a global pandemic, we are forced to face our own mortality. People are dying from COVID-19– people we know; people we know about; people we have never met. Their deaths are more than just statistics. They represent personal loss to all their friends, family, and people in their communities. Jesus’ death was more than just another execution– more than just another dead body to be disposed of before the start of the Sabbath.
Jesus. Died. Emmanuel– God with us– died. Ceased to live. Bled out and stopped breathing. His body was cold and lifeless, wrapped in burial cloths and laid in a tomb. This was not just like sleeping, or missing a heartbeat. He was gone. This is not normally cause for celebration– this was not a “Good” Friday.
Jesus was not the only religious leader to die at the hands of enemies or rivals. The fact that his followers would commemorate or memorialize his death is not unusual or incomprehensible. But Jesus wasn’t just assassinated. He was condemned to die as a criminal. His death wasn’t just shocking or violent– it was humiliating, vile, excruciatingly painful, and involved public ridicule and anguish. There is nothing glamorous or brave or victorious about a cross. Christians who wear cross necklaces or t-shirts with blood-covered spikes might just as well wear handcuffs or ankle bracelets, or a picture of Jesus in an electric chair to show their devotion to a man who died as a criminal. Even though Pilate declared that he could find nothing wrong, he still allowed the conviction and death sentence to stand. Jesus didn’t win against his enemies– he lost, and he lost everything.
In our rush to celebrate Easter, and the “rest of the story,” sometimes we lose sight of the cross. Jesus– creator of the universe, perfect in the eyes of the law, beloved by God the Father–died a cruel, humiliating, senseless death. Those who are dying today of COVID-19 are struggling for their next breath, exactly as Jesus did so long ago. Jesus did not just “give up,” he didn’t just go into a coma as a gesture, knowing he would wake up in three days anyway, so why struggle for that next breath, or push through that cramp in his arm or leg, or let the sweat and blood from his forehead run into his eyes, unable to wipe them away or keep the flies from landing around his nose or ears… Jesus died– He heaved and strove and agonized until his heart and lungs and muscles could do no more.
We talk about Jesus as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Earlier in Israel’s history, God rescued the entire nation of Israel from their slavery to the Egyptians. He caused the angel of death to visit all of Egypt and kill all the first-born throughout the land. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus+12&version=ESV)
All of Passover is a foreshadowing and visual representation of what was to happen at the crucifixion. Jesus became the sacrificial lamb, whose life would be given, and his blood be used, to save us from death and destruction, and allow us to be free. His body was broken, just like the bread of the Passover, to give us life.
Just as the lamb’s blood was placed on the sides of the door posts, Jesus’ blood stained the two ends of the cross where his hands were nailed. It stained the top and bottom of the cross where his head and feet bled, just as the lamb’s blood was placed on the top of the door frame and dripped to the ground beneath.
Jesus became a metaphysical “doorway”, painted with blood, through which we can enter into a place of safety, forgiveness, and promise. But only by going through the door– only by trusting fully in the work of Jesus’ death (and resurrection)– that we can be saved.
It wasn’t merely the act of painting the lamb’s blood on a door that saved anyone– it involved going into the house, and obeying the word of the Lord. It was wrapped up in preparing for a journey in which they would leave behind their slavery and old way of life, and walk through uncharted territory, led by God’s spirit, to a land of promise they had never seen. No Egyptian, by merely smearing blood on the doorposts or wrestling with the angel of death, or wearing a mask or staying behind locked doors, could defeat the plague. No Israelite could ignore God’s instructions, and roam the streets, trusting the the blood on the doorposts would cover him three blocks away. Death–and life– came on God’s terms. Wearing a cross necklace and “looking the part” won’t substitute for true faith that results in repentance, obedience, and discipleship.
Jesus died. And he rose again! But he didn’t do it so we could sail through life on our own terms. He came to show us that God can take our slavery, our sin, our failure, our sickness and sorrow, even our death– even senseless, humiliating, forsaken death– and give victory, life, and peace to those who follow Him.