I have to admit, this is not a reaction I enjoy. I want to meet with God in prayer, feeling loved, confident, and joyful. And I know that God is sovereign, awesome, and powerful…but I want to revel in the goodness of redemption and the hope of glory, not tremble in fear or awe.
Yet, we are told to do both throughout scripture. I can’t really have one without the other.
Today, I need to tremble– to see and acknowledge the awful wrath of God, fully and horrifically borne by Jesus on the cross. God did not send His Son to tidy up an uncomfortable or embarrassing “slip” on the part of one man. Jesus bore the weight of the Holocaust and the nightmares of genocide, abortion, plague, and famine throughout the ages. Jesus paid the price of slavery, and sex trafficking, and human sacrifice committed over centuries and millennia of hatred and abuse. Jesus faced the punishment justly deserved by billions of acts of rebellion and rejection by people He had lovingly created. And He did it so that you (and I) could be held guiltless and allowed to enter the courts of praise.
Someday, we will see Him face-to-face. Yes, it will be joyful, and glorious. But it will also be cause for trembling. To see perfection, righteousness, Holiness, and Love, and yet see the One who was “pierced for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities…”
There is little glory in momentary happiness or small victories. But when we stop and tremble at His Majesty, we arise with joy unspeakable, and true worship!
It’s the last word in the Bible. It’s normally the last word of our prayers. It is frequently used by the congregation during a particularly inspiring part of a sermon.
But what does it mean to say, “Amen!”? The original Hebrew word means, “so be it,” or “let it be so.” It is spoken to express confirmation, solemn ratification, or agreement. Saying, “Amen!” is saying that we agree with the words the pastor has spoken, or the words that someone else has just prayed. But, ultimately, it is confirmation that we agree with what God will choose to do, and how He will choose to answer the prayer or speak to us.
When we say, “Amen,” we are letting go of our will and trusting our prayers, our thoughts, our feelings, and our desires to God’s hands. God is sovereign. He can do anything He wants, regardless of our desires or plans; regardless of our feelings or our actions. He can thwart our plans, upset our circumstances, and set His face against us. But that’s not HIS desire. He wants our willing cooperation and approval. He doesn’t need it, but He desires it. He wants to hear us echo His heart, and respond to His loving care with a hearty “Amen!” Not because He needs it– but because WE need it. We need to rest in His sovereign power instead of trying to fight blindly against our circumstances. We need to wake up and act in accordance with His design, instead of wasting time in apathy and disdain.
But “Amen!,” like any other word, shouldn’t be used lightly. “Can I get an Amen?” “In Jesus’ name, Amen” These are solemn oaths. “Amen” isn’t just a word of cheer or enthusiasm. It is an acknowledgement of God’s right to rule our lives. Even when it brings testing; even when it involves struggle and pain. All the time, God is in charge, and His ways can be trusted. “AMEN!”
My husband and I run a shop. He sells new and used amateur radios and supplies; I sell antiques, collectibles, and resale items. The nature of our business means that we often get merchandise that is “incomplete.” We have used radios– occasionally, there is a knob missing, or a component that needs to be replaced or repaired. We have used games and jigsaw puzzles, packs of playing cards, sets of dominoes, old silverware and buttons and dishes–mismatched, incomplete, and sometimes damaged or chipped. I spend many of my days surrounded by items that some would consider “junk.”
But what some would consider junk, others consider treasure. Collectors come in looking for specific items– old tobacco tins, embroidery samplers, antique kitchen tools, wooden toys, fishing rods, or costume jewelry. Crafters come in looking for old buttons, clothespins, linens, or keys. Some people come in to browse, and end up finding an old book, or a doll that catches their eye. And most items create conversations, spark memories, or inspire curiosity.
Ours is not a busy shop. We don’t sell convenience foods or new shoes or cell phones. We don’t offer fancy coffees or tea “bombs,” or expensive hand lotion. We don’t sell sporting goods (other than really old skis or the occasional tennis racket). We sell a few new batteries and antennas, and we offer a few local packaged food items (honey and maple syrup, craft sodas, etc.). We don’t make a lot of money at our shop–but we’ve made some friendships, and we’ve had the joy of seeing our customers find unique and useful items. We’re part of something bigger than just making a sale: like so many others with small businesses, we’re making a difference.
God created each of us to interact– to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Each of us has a need to find “missing pieces”– friendships, experiences, conversations, ideas, even old chipped dishes– that help us discover where we “fit” into a larger picture. As we interact, we make a difference, for better or for worse. We smile or we scream, we create unity or division, we spread hope or we spread hatred, we destroy or we build up. And we search for meaning and fulfillment. Ultimately, we are searching for God, who has promised to make all things new and bring wholeness, completion, and life to our “used” world. There will be no “junk;” no missing pieces or chipped plates or broken antennas in God’s perfect plan. Each of us is treasured by our creator. Even if others see us as filthy, broken, rusted, or worn out, God can says we are priceless and worth redemption. He has a place for us.
10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!
The author of Ecclesiastes (presumed to be King Solomon) was a wise man. Yet he concluded that almost every aspect of life was meaningless– nothing more than “chasing after the wind.” Health, wealth, learning, entertainment, popularity, achievement– they can give pleasure and temporary satisfaction. But in the end, everyone dies, and their health is gone, their wealth goes to someone else, their learning is lost, their name and accomplishments are all forgotten and/ or destroyed.
In chapter 3, the author states that there is a time for “everything”– all the seemingly important activities of life–building, and tearing down, war and peace, living and dying…https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ecclesiastes+3&version=NIV And then he makes a curious statement in verse 11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Solomon describes this as a burden– mankind can sense eternity, but can live and see only a brief span of it.
So what are we to do?
First, we need to make an important distinction– Solomon explores the pursuits of life and finds them all meaningless. At no point does he say that life itself is without meaning. Nor does he say there is no difference between wisdom and foolishness, honest labor and laziness, or self-indulgence and connectedness. I know some people who, after a quick reading through Ecclesiastes, use it to justify a hedonistic lifestyle. “Nothing matters,” they say. But that’s not what this book actually promotes. It isn’t that “nothing” matters. Rather, it is that none of our personal pursuits produce meaning in and of themselves or beyond our own limitations.
Next, we should be wise in light of the eternity that God has placed in our hearts. Even if our pursuits seem trivial and temporary, they have consequences that ripple through time– long after we are gone. We may not be able to see the future, but we CAN see the effects of wisdom and foolishness in the lives of others, and we can heed the advice of those who have come before us. Most of all, we have the wisdom that comes from God. Solomon’s wisdom, though incredible among humans, was limited to his own experience and learning. His frustration and despair came from knowing how limited it was!
Finally, we must read Ecclesiastes in context. Solomon was wise, but he lacked the vision of his father, David, to fully anticipate the coming of Messiah. Solomon’s ambitions were for the span of his own earthly life. He did not have his hope firmly rooted in a resurrection and an eternal life shared with his Creator. For all his wisdom, he was found lacking in faith. After writing such wisdom (not just in Ecclesiastes, but throughout the Proverbs), Solomon ended his life in a foolish pursuit of relativism and compromise that ruined much of the strength and prosperity he had brought to his kingdom in earlier years.
One thing remains– to fear God and follow His commands. God is eternal–and all that is done for Him and by Him and through Him will never be wasted. Solomon’s life may have ended with failure, but his words and wisdom live on. Our lives may be short; we may have wasted precious time in meaningless pursuits–God has promised that “all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 CSB) and that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6 NIV)
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!