Be Careful What You Pray For…

When I was a young woman, I prayed for patience. Several well-meaning friends and family tried to tell me that this was a mistake. “Be careful what you pray for,” they said. It was their belief that, if I prayed for patience, God would send situations into my life that would force me to be patient. God doesn’t “give” patience, they warned–He merely teaches us to be patient.

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I wanted more patience, in preparation for marriage and children; I wanted to be a patient wife and mother. But I was unprepared for this reaction of others. DON’T ask God for something good? Isn’t patience (long-suffering) one of the attributes listed as the “Fruit of the Spirit?”(Galatians 5:23-24) Why should I hesitate, or fear to ask God for something that will help me serve Him better?

Looking back, I suppose some of those same friends and family might say, “I told you so!” I’m sure they wanted a happy and easy future for me– one that didn’t include some of the challenges that I have had to face. And in their eyes, I was “tempting fate” to draw attention to my lack of patience. On the surface, it probably looks like that’s exactly what happened. I never had any children; I didn’t marry until I was in my mid-40s, and I have learned patience in many areas through many challenges.

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But that’s just one perspective. What if I hadn’t prayed that prayer? Would God have let me drift through life without “needing” more patience? Would I have “avoided” the years of loneliness and lack of children? Would I have married and had a family and lived happily ever after without having to learn patience? Would my life have been totally different? Or would my circumstances have been the same, except that I never would have learned patience–never sought to become more patient during the same trials and challenges? What kind of life might I have had WITHOUT patience?

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During the years that I was single, I worked full-time in youth-oriented jobs– teaching and serving in the youth department at a library. I learned patience by disciplining teenagers, cleaning up after toddlers, answering the same questions twenty times a day, and dealing with obstinate parents! I suffered with my students when one of their classmates died; and when it happened again the next year. I agonized with my student who chose to keep her baby after those close to her wanted her to have an abortion. And I rejoiced with her when she brought her son to visit me a year later. I suffered the frustration of parents whose children were rebellious, or had learning issues, or had been diagnosed with autism or ADHD. But I also endured the long nights when I had no little ones to tuck in or talk to (and learned to be thankful for the nights I didn’t have to deal with fever and sickness, or arguing–again– about the rules of the house!) But in the course of my work, I connected with hundreds of children and teens. They were never “mine” to hold or scold or say, “I love you”, but they touched my life, and I hope that I touched theirs as well. I didn’t choose my career path knowing that I would never become a “mom.” But I needed (and learned) patience in the process. I learned patience in the years I spent single–and I learned to appreciate my husband in ways I wouldn’t have as a young woman.

Story hour at the library c. 2009.

There IS some truth to the phrase, “Be careful what you pray for.” When we pray, we should pray for things that align with His will– like wisdom, patience, courage, or peace. We should not pray for things that contradict His will– instant popularity, wealth without work, or relationships or circumstances that dishonor Him. We should also be prepared for God to answer in the way He deems best–which may not look or feel like what we desired. It was His best for me not to marry young or have children of my own. He has since blessed me with a wonderful husband and step-children and grandchildren. But He might have chosen not to. And I would still thank Him for the life I have led. It’s been fantastic. I’ve met amazing people, had amazing opportunities, and traveled to wonderful places. I don’t feel like God ever “punished” me for asking for patience– instead, I feel that He has more than answered my prayer. That doesn’t mean that I have learned to be perfectly patient in every situation (just ask my husband!) But God is eternally good and faithful to give us what is in our best interest– if we ask, AND if we trust His answer more than our expectation. (see Hebrews 11:6; John 17; 1 Peter 5:7)

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Don’t be too afraid or too proud to ask God for any good thing. God will not only give you what you need, He will be with you every step of the way as you learn and grow, and develop into the person He wants you to be!

The Righteous Will Live By Faith

“Look at the proud! They trust in themselves, and their lives are crooked, but the righteous will live by their faith.”

Habakkuk 2:4

Is it rational to believe in God? About three and a half centuries ago, the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, drew up what is now known as “Pascal’s Wager.” In it, he gives a “rational” justification for belief in God (theism). In it, he posits that if God doesn’t exist, it doesn’t matter whether or not we believe that He does. But if God is real, the consequences of our belief or denial are crucial. If the God of the Bible exists (along with heaven and hell, sin and salvation), the failure to believe will lead us to lose everything; the decision to believe will lead us to gain everything…there is no in between.

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I’m not a big fan of Pascal’s Wager. Not because it’s bad logic, per se, but because it depends on belief, but not faith.

What’s the difference? Belief says that God exists–that He is supreme, that He controls our destiny, and that He must be obeyed. It will produce a life of theistic obedience to God’s Law, including a life of “good” works, moral conduct, and “right” thinking. But it will not produce a Godly character. It will not be a life of righteousness.

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Faith, on the other hand, believes that God not only exists, but that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrews 11:6) and that He so loved the world, that He gave His only Son (John 3:16) to save us from Sin and Death (1 Corinthians 15:56-7). It is not our belief in God’s existence that saves us and gives us life; rather it is Faith by His Grace! (Ephesians 2:8-9) in the nature and character of God– in the atoning work of Jesus as revelation and proof of His character– that saves us from Sin and Death.

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Pascal’s Wager is a way of thinking about God. It can lead someone to believe, which can produce a life of Faith. But it can also produce a kind of life that is ruled by grudging obedience, resentment, and pride in one’s own powers of self-control and understanding. Faith lives in dependence and humility, and joyous gratitude for God’s gifts.

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The prophet Habakkuk, who first wrote the phrase, “the righteous will live by faith,” learned this lesson in dramatic fashion. He “believed” in God– in His righteousness and justice. He spoke to God about the wickedness he saw all around him, among his own people. God gave him a difficult answer: Justice was coming in the form of an invasion by the Babylonians– a group known for their wickedness and cruelty and lack of justice! God’s answer was shocking and counter-intuitive. But Habakkuk chose to believe in God’s Eternal Character, as God revealed the “rest of the story.” Israel would suffer; justice would be cruel–but God’s glory and His salvation would triumph. Habakkuk’s response was a song of praise and faith. Regardless of his circumstances, Habakkuk would wait and rejoice, knowing that God’s ways are perfect.

It’s not difficult to say we believe in God. But are we living in Faith? I find it easy to let circumstances–especially injustice and wickedness–overwhelm me and rob me of peace and joy. But I find it comforting to know that my momentary doubts cannot stop God’s promises, His Mercy, or His power to help me live by Faith. That’s due to His righteousness, not mine, but through Christ, I can trust in it, walk in it, and live in it!

Evidence of Things Not Seen

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good testimony.

Hebrews 11:1-2 NKJV via Biblia.com

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

Hebrews 11:6 ESV via biblegateway.com
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Prayer is an act of faith. Whether a prayer of confession, adoration, thanksgiving, supplication, or a combination of all these types, we pray to an invisible God. We do not see Him, but we acknowledge that He exists, and that He hears us when we pray. We also acknowledge that He forgives sins, is worthy of our adoration and thanksgiving, and that He cares about our needs and desires.

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Faith is defined by the writer of Hebrews as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” There are many who scoff at this type of faith, claiming it is “blind faith.” Because we cannot see God, because we do not hear Him audibly, because we cannot touch Him–they claim that our faith is nothing more than wishful thinking or delusion. But our faith is actually “evidence” of God’s existence– not because we make a claim to believe, but because we act on and live out our belief. One brief prayer whispered in panic is not compelling, but a lifetime of praying and faithfully acting on the belief that God listens and responds–that is evidence that commands attention.

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Sometimes, we become so familiar with the ancient stories of the Bible, that we discount the very real faith shown by the “elders.” Noah didn’t build a rowboat or even a trading ship– he built an Ark to withstand a flood he could not have imagined. Abraham left his home to go to a land God would show him– he had no map, or any way of knowing what awaited him. He lived as a nomad in tents the rest of his life. But what about his life before? He didn’t begin as a nomad and a wanderer. And there was nothing to suggest that he would ever become the patriarch of an entire nation/many nations. The shepherd boy, David, was told that he would someday be king. Yet he put himself in mortal danger several times, and refused to challenge King Saul in order to claim the crown. Daniel was certainly aware of the danger he was in over the course of his service to foreign kings, yet he stood firm in his convictions, when common sense would have had him compromise to keep his position (and his life!).

Faith (and praying in faith) doesn’t always some easily. We are bombarded with images and sounds that suggest that God does NOT exist, or that He does not listen or respond. I have prayed many times for people to be healed of cancer, only to see them die. I have days filled with stress or frustration, when my prayers seem to go unheard. Does this mean that my faith is void, or based on nothing more than a vapor?

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No, because faith is the evidence, not of the things I am seeing or experiencing now, but of things unseen. My perspective is narrow and distorted. I may see my friends’ deaths as the “end.” I may see my temporary trials as impossible obstacles and heavy burdens. I may see my past as a prison, trapping me in the bad choices I have made, or the hurts I have suffered. Faith is the evidence that such things, while they are real, and devastating, are not the entire picture, or the final word. Faith is the evidence that life is worth celebrating, even on the “bad” days. Faith is the evidence that God is bigger than injustice, or disease, or heartbreak, or death.

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Faith isn’t “proof” of God’s existence for those who will not believe. But it is strong and solid evidence for those who are searching. When I pray for someone else’s health, I am not ordering God to do what I want. If He doesn’t answer with immediate or total healing, it is not because I don’t have enough faith or because He just doesn’t listen to me. Buy when I lift others up in prayer, I am acting on the promise that God will listen and act according to His perfect and sovereign character. I have seen miracles of healing; I have also seen miracles in suffering and even death. “Things not seen” often includes things outside of my knowledge or perspective– things that I can only see after I take steps of faith that take me out of my limited vision.

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As I write this post, I’m having one of those “bad” days– frustrating, filled with stress and pain. And not just my own– I’ve had several friends and family members who are dealing with death, disease, job loss, broken family issues, and more. Two of my childhood classmates died within a week of each other earlier this month, while three families in our church are dealing with hospitalizations and a death. And that isn’t even covering the crises in Afghanistan, Haiti, Tennessee, and elsewhere– floods, persecution, earthquakes and hurricanes, upheaval, and more. Those are the things we see. Faith is not blinding ourselves to those realities. It is choosing to believe that there is much more that we do not see–that God is in control, and that He is capable of redeeming and restoring even the mess that surrounds us.

I sat down to write this post, and had to stop–my faith was taking a beating. But I prayed. I listened for that still, small voice that led me to revisit Hebrews 11. I phoned a friend. Small steps of faith, but God is faithful. He gave my faith a booster shot. He can do the same for anyone who comes to Him in faith.

Mustard Seeds..

He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Matthew17:20 ESV (via biblehub.com)

Faith is a vital part of life, and especially a life in pursuit of prayer. If I don’t believe that God exists, and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrews 11:6) then my prayers are little more than wishes made on a star or empty dreams.

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During Jesus’ ministry on earth, He lamented often that His disciples had so little faith. And yet, He said that if they had “faith like a grain of mustard seed,” nothing would be impossible. In fact, Jesus used seeds in a lot of His teaching. He talked of seeds scattered on different types of soil; mustard seeds growing into large plants; seeds in good soil yielding exponentially large harvests. There is something about seeds that can teach us about the nature of faith. And, according to Jesus Himself, we need to learn about and practice faith in greater measure!

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So what are some of the seed lessons we still need to learn?

  • Seeds start out small. Jesus used a mustard seed, mentioning that it is one of the smallest of all seeds. So often, we want to start out “large” in our faith. We see our doubts as failure, rather than immaturity. We see our slow growth as weakness–and it is! It is that very weakness that God wants to use to show HIS strength. When Jesus “lamented” that the disciples had so little faith, He wasn’t condemning them– instead He was pointing out that faith is a process–that seeds GROW into larger plants.
  • Seeds do not produce plants unless they are planted! I see websites and Christian bookstores selling jewelry featuring a small glass case with a tiny mustard seed inside. It’s a nice reminder of Jesus’ teaching about faith, but carrying around a mustard seed is NOT the same thing as having faith like a mustard seed. Faith that is never planted and rooted in good soil will remain nothing more than a seed– useful as a piece of decoration, perhaps, but dormant and unproductive. If I have faith “like a mustard seed” in money, or power, or in my own wisdom and skills, it is no more effective than if I throw it on the sidewalk, wear it around my neck, or put it in my pocket.
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  • Seeds need soil, light, and water. Faith doesn’t grow in isolation. I need to listen to others, share with others, and, most of all, live in the good soil of God’s word. I need to pray for others– and I need the prayers of others! I need to talk to God daily; but I also need to read His words to me daily!
  • Seeds are designed to produce a harvest– fruit, grain, trees, and new seeds! I get distracted, thinking of how faith impacts MY life and my Christian walk. God wants me to grow stronger in my own, yes. But He wants my faith to be multiplied by being visible. Even a root vegetable sends a shoot or a plant above-ground, so there is evidence of growth underground. In doing go, the original seed will disappear! There are days when I cannot see my “mustard seed.” But that is (I hope) because the seed is becoming a mustard plant– producing evidence of God’s sustaining power and love, and providing “seeds” for others to plant.
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There are days when my faith may feel small and dead. But I need to remember that the power is not in the “seed” of faith– no matter how small; no matter how large its potential–it is in planting that seed and letting God’s power transform a seed into fruit that will last!

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More more on this topic, see:https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/bible-study/what-does-jesus-mean-by-faith-as-small-as-a-mustard-seed.html

Prayers That God Will Not Hear

We like to point out scripture that assures us that God will hear (and answer) our prayers. We like to remember God’s promises of blessing and peace and grace. And we tend to ignore or forget that there are some prayers that God has said He will not hear or answer.

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God will not answer prayers that are selfish, or hypocritical. He will not answer prayers offered in pride, self-righteousness, or unbelief (see Luke 18:9-14, and Hebrews 11:6). He will not listen to prayers offered by those who oppress the poor, those who worship idols, or those who practice violence. And He will not listen to the prayers of those who reject Him, and remain in sin. https://www.gty.org/library/questions/QA160/does-god-answer-the-prayers-of-unbelievers (Please note: I don’t totally agree with the general conclusion here, but there are several great references for the individual points..)

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Please note that God does not say that He will not answer prayer based on WHO a person is–God does not refuse to answer prayers based on a person’s age, nationality, gender, physical health, mental health, height, weight, social status, or any other label, including their past religious affiliation! This means that a sincere prayer of a person who is seeking God may be heard ahead of (or instead of) a prideful prayer of someone who claims to be a Christ-follower.

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God is sovereign and omniscient– He knows what is in each heart, and He answers, not according to who we are, but according to who HE is. And just as He can separate our sins “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12), and “remember (our) sins no more”(Hebrews 8:12), He can choose not to hear prayers that are offered with wrong motives or offered in defiance of His sovereignty and holiness.

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None of this takes away from the fact that God DOES hear and answer prayer…God LOVES to hear from anyone and everyone who seeks His face. Nothing external can separate you from His love. Come with your anger, questions, sorrows, pains, gratitude, hope; bring your failures, your fears, and your triumphs. But God, like a wise father, doesn’t suffer fools and fakers. Even if you can fool your neighbors, friends, family, or yourself, you cannot fool God. He doesn’t want a false narrative– He wants you as you really are. And He will listen with an everlasting love and compassion to all such prayers!

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