Sometimes, prayer seems like a vapor–something that rises without substance, only to evaporate. We say our prayers and wait for an answer. And the Bible describes prayer like incense. It rises to God as a sweet fragrance. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation+5%3A8&version=ESV But incense and vapor dissipate and evaporate without a visible trace. They have no form or solid substance. Is prayer equally fleeting and amorphous? Is prayer “real,” if we can’t see it working?
Vapors rise and mix with other vapors. They are carried on the wind. They form clouds, and the waters return to the earth as rain and snow. And incense diffuses and leaves its scent throughout a building long after it is burned. We know that incense has been burned. We know that water has evaporated. And we know that they are “present” even if we can’t see or touch them.
Prayers– especially prayers lifted in petition–rise away from us. They are meant to disappear from our view. Our focus should not stay on the visible troubles we lift up in our prayers, but on the invisible and all-powerful God who receives our cries. And as prayers rise, they are gathered and formed by God into clouds of blessing. The rain will fall where God wills it, to water thirsty souls, bring healing, and be lifted up in new prayers. The incense of our prayers will permeate the world with the fragrance of God’s love, even as they ascend to His throne.
This is part of the mystery of prayer. Just as God designs water to be lifted up and returned to the earth hundreds of miles away; just as He designs fragrance to spread without any visible evidence, so He has designed prayer to work in unseen and unpredictable ways. God delights in our participation in this mystery. He invites us to be part of the process of spreading His beauty and glory throughout the world!
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.
Sometimes, I am impulsive. I blurt out my thoughts and emotions; I end up buying a candy bar as I finish checking out my groceries; I decide to turn left at the intersection instead of going straight. Generally, impulsive actions are frowned upon. They can be foolish, wasteful, even dangerous. God does not call on us to be foolish or thoughtless, but there are times when He wants us to act on HIS impulse– to obey without stopping to weigh the pros and cons, without stopping to consider how we will appear to others or how obedience might “mess up” our carefully planned day.
Have you ever felt the “impulse” of God’s love moving you to an unexpected action? Maybe you had a sudden urge to speak to a stranger on a train, or get in touch with an old friend. Maybe you felt compelled to give a gift to someone or stop and offer to help carry a load for them. Maybe you saw a news story and it caused you to pray– and to remember someone’s need and pray some more!
Our own selfish impulses can get us into a lot of trouble. But God’s impulses can lead to blessing beyond our understanding. Just remember:
God’s impulses will never cause you to act contrary to His word. Buying things you know you can’t afford (especially for yourself!), or blurting out judgmental and hurtful comments– such impulses are NOT Godly. “Speaking the truth in Love” is not the same as spewing finger-pointing condemnation and self-righteous justification. Trusting that “God will provide” is not the same as assuming He wants you to have everything you desire.
Delayed obedience is the same as disobedience. God’s impulses are meant to be spontaneous moments of joyful service– not grudging acceptance of an imposition. That doesn’t mean that we can’t take a split second to discern God’s voice (see above) and respond appropriately. But God wants our “moments” as well as our “days”–He knows our plans. But He also knows His plans are better. If we are not willing for our plans to be redirected, then God is not really our Lord.
God’s impulses almost always involve others. God is LOVE. His impulses, therefore, are all about showing love–HIS LOVE–giving, serving, listening, helping, sharing, encouraging! God’s impulses will be directed outward, either toward others or toward God on the behalf of others. Amazingly, in God’s economy, we often reap a residual reward when we put aside our own plans. Sometimes the reward is not immediate or obvious–we may seem to meet with rejection, or even failure at first. Our actions may be misunderstood; our offers to help may fall flat; our prayers may seem to go unheard. But the love we show is not empty or worthless. We may never see the fruit of our actions or prayers, but we can still plant the seeds and water them!
God is a God of Grace and Mercy. Did you fail to act on a Godly impulse today? Stop. Take a moment to repent. Learn from today. Ask for wisdom to do better at the next opportunity!
I’m always amazed at the miraculous opportunities God has given me to bless others, and to learn more about His amazing Love. From unexpected encounters in faraway places, to reminders and prayer requests on Facebook or local news stories, to a sudden urge to do a random act of kindness– God’s impulses give us the opportunity to participate in His miracles!
Most days, I post about Pursuing Prayer from the “praying” end…how do I pray, what attitude do I have about praying, why do I pray, etc.
Today, I want to explore the “responding” end…how do I know when God is answering my prayer, or what he’s asking me to do in response to his will? While I don’t have a complete answer, I do want to share some wisdom– some from experience and some from Biblical principles and others’ testimony.
Isaiah 55:8-9English Standard Version (ESV)
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform. He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm. William Cowper
It often surprises people to learn that “God works in mysterious ways” is not actually in the Bible. God’s ways are NOT our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts, but his answers to prayer are not obscure and unknowable. God does not delight in vexing us and making us guess and second-guess his will. It would be easy if God always answered our prayers with a flashing neon sign that gave a simple, one-sentence directive– “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” “Click your heels together and say, ‘There’s no place like home.'” “Hakuna Matata.” But pithy platitudes and easy answers are not God’s way, either. God created each of us as a unique reflection of his divine image– his answers will be uniquely designed to fulfill his will and meet our deepest needs, not always in ways we expect or understand.
So how do we discern God’s will when there is no neon sign or simple answer to our prayers? Here are a few guiding principles:
God will NEVER answer your prayer by contradicting himself or compromising his holiness.
God will not answer your prayer for money by giving you an opportunity to cheat or steal. He will not answer your prayer for a husband by throwing you into the arms of someone else’s.
Just because God doesn’t send a lightning bolt or physically stop you from doing something doesn’t mean that he has given his OK. If he ALLOWS you to sin, that doesn’t mean that he APPROVES of your sin or that it is his answer to your prayer.
God will never ask you to do harm to yourself or others as an answer to your prayer. Vengeance, sacrifice, atonement, and retribution are the province of God alone. I believe that God asks us to be vigilant in defense, and allows us to take up arms in defense, but to initiate a feud, to seek personal vengeance, or to act out vigilante justice is to flout both God’s authority and the authority of the powers God has set in place over us.
God MAY use circumstances or people to answer your prayer. But the same principle above applies– circumstances that lead to sinful actions are NOT God’s answer to your prayer; people who advise you to do what you know is contrary to God’s holiness are not sent from God– no matter how appealing the prospect, no matter how powerful the person or persons. That being said, God may choose to use the most unlikely of persons or events to bring about a resolution to your need–LET HIM! Don’t judge a gift by the size, the shape, or the wrapping paper!
God may use time to answer your prayer. I prayed for a husband from the time I was a young girl– I married at age 46. Waiting doesn’t mean that God has forgotten about you; it doesn’t mean that you aren’t worthy of an answer or ready for an answer– sometimes your answer isn’t ready for you! There are two caveats I want to share from my own experience of waiting for an answer:
Don’t give up! God knows the desires of your heart– but keep praying anyway. Well-meaning people will say awful, hurtful things– that you aren’t praying enough, or praying the “right” way; that you must be hiding un-confessed sin; that you need to try some other way to get what you want, or to hurry God along. In my case, I had people trying to fix me up, suggest dating services, remind me that my “clock” was ticking (it was broken, but they didn’t know that), or suggest that it just wasn’t God’s will that I marry, and I should pray for him to take away the desire for a husband. Listen to folks like this (if you must) with half an ear and less than 10% of your heart– let them cause you to re-examine your heart and your desires, but don’t let them cause you to give up or doubt God. That was not their intention, but it can often be the result of their ill-considered words.
Do the next right thing. Doing nothing while you wait for the perfect answer gets you nowhere. Wringing your hands and pacing gets you nowhere. God wants our trust and our obedience. As we wait for more specific direction, we need to trust that doing the next right thing IS the RIGHT thing to do. This was the hardest lesson for me, but the one I most needed to learn. So while I waited, I moved ahead step-by-step. I made a lot of friends, gained a lot of experiences, and learned about marriage by watching the examples of others (both good and bad). I got involved working with children, first as a secondary teacher, and then as a librarian. I got to spend nearly thirty years of my working life surrounded by young people. I got to laugh with them, love on them, mentor them, dream with them, discipline them, and cry over them (and send them home). I didn’t just “settle for” a single lifestyle– I learned to embrace it. I learned to be grateful for the wonderful opportunities I had as a single woman, and to anticipate the changes that marriage would bring, should it come along. I learned that marriage should be a means to an end, not the end itself– that marriage done right is not about my growth and fulfillment; not even about his growth and fulfillment; but about OUR growth together and toward Godliness.
Trust “that voice in your head”– not the one that speaks out loud and gets you strange looks–but your God-given conscience, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. “That still, small voice” is often the most personal way God speaks to us. In my own life, it was taking the risk to leave a career I loved (teaching) to reach for a deeper dependence on God. I left the security of my teaching position for three part-time jobs (at one point), no health insurance, and a move to a new community where I knew virtually no one. I had other choices, other more appealing options, chances to reconsider. I wasn’t being pushed out of teaching–in fact, I left just as my options at the school were opening up for bigger and better things. Yet I felt compelled to leave. I had no safety net waiting– I ended up in libraries, but that wasn’t my original plan. There were many people counseling me to reconsider– and their reasons were compelling. But as I stood firm, other voices came along to encourage me. I believe they were sent by God to confirm that this risk was from him and for my good.
Don’t trust “that voice in your head”–No, I’m not trying to confuse you or contradict what I just said. But this is another caveat (see above). We are told to “test the spirits”, and sometimes, that voice in your head is NOT the Holy Spirit. In the case I mentioned above, I had to follow all the other principles of discerning God’s will. In my case, leaving teaching did not violate God’s holiness or come about because I wasn’t willing to follow God’s leading–I wasn’t leaving teaching to try my hand at a get-rich-quick scheme, or because I had lost my desire to work with students, or had lost faith in God’s sovereignty in my life. God DID use circumstances and people to confirm my decision and help me grow through the experiences that followed. God used time to help me transition from schools to libraries, and prepare me for other opportunities, including short-term missions trips and marriage. I can’t even begin to list all the ways I tested and examined what I felt God was leading me to do before I made the leap. That much testing may not always be necessary, but we need to be careful not to rely on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6), but to Trust in the Lord with all our hearts. He WILL direct our paths when we do that.
Finally, Pray for it– pray for discernment, for wisdom, for strength to do the right thing! Won’t God DO IT!