When I Don’t Know How to Pray

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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

Name Above All Names

We live in a wonderfully diverse world, filled with unique individuals. One thing that defines us to our families, neighbors, and friends, is our name. Names can be tricky–some are difficult to pronounce, or spell. Some names are shortened or changed to form “nicknames.” Others are changed by circumstances, like adoption or marriage. Some names are common to several people, or shared as “namesakes” of others, or shared between generations, calling for additions, like “Jr.,” or “the elder” or “the fourth.” Some people reject the name they were given at birth, preferring to use an alias, or going through a legal process to change it. Some names have become symbolic, or stereotyped, famous, or infamous, or iconic.

Civil Rights activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gesturing during sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Photo by Donald Uhrbrock//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Even though many of us may share a common first name, or surname, (or even both), our name still represents who we are–it becomes a symbolic representation of all that makes us unique– our personality, our history, and our character. And it’s not just people who carry names. We name rivers and mountains, cities, houses, farms, cars, products, pets, works of art…the list goes on. It is deep in the human soul to name things. This is a God-given desire. All the way back in the second chapter of Genesis, God brought all the beasts of the air and land to Adam, to see what name he would give them. Adam and Eve chose the names for their sons– names with very personal meanings. Names are important and carry power; they should never be taken lightly.

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God recognizes each one of us by name. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah both refer to God calling them before they were even born! Before the great judge Samuel even knew how to recognize God’s voice, God called him by name. God often changes names– Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, Saul of Tarsus to Paul, the disciple Simon to Peter (or Cephas). One reason God changes names is to show His power to transform people and give them, not just a new name, but a renewed nature and spirit.

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And when we talk to God, whose very name is sacred, He allows us to call on Him through the Name He gave to Himself/His Son– Jesus. There are many boys and men who carry this name, but when we pray in the name of Jesus, we are referring to the one and only Begotten Son of God the Father; the Jesus of the Trinity; Jesus the Virgin-born Messiah. HIS name is above all other names. There is power in every ordinary name, but THIS name carries eternal, sovereign, immeasurable power. It encompasses His holiness, His compassion, His wisdom, His goodness, His faithfulness, and His Love. There is no other name by which we are saved; no other name by which we can be made new. It is not a name to be taken lightly or in vain. It is a name to be honored, cherished, and exalted. JESUS. The name above all names!

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Mama Said There Would Be Days Like This..

Yesterday was a roller-coaster ride–pain, annoying interruptions, difficult encounters, successful ventures, bad moods, beautiful skies. And I almost forgot to write this post. It was just one of “those” days.

I am comforted by three things, though:

God’s love is never a roller-coaster. It is steady, eternal, and extravagant. Even on days when I can’t feel it or turn my back on it, God’s love surrounds me. No matter what the circumstances; no matter what I’ve done or what’s been done to me, God’s love never changes– it never falters, it never diminishes. He loves me just as much as he would on a perfect day; just as much as He has on my “better” days. God’s love is not based on what kind of day I might be having. It is based on WHO HE IS!

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Jesus had days like this, too– he KNOWS what I’m going through. He knew pain, frustration, misunderstandings, betrayal, loneliness, grief, joy, struggle, success, and even “failure” (at least in the eyes of those around him). Some days, it feels like no one understands; that no one wants to listen. Jesus was a great listener during his time here; better than any of his friends or family. And when no one wanted to listen to Jesus, he simply found time to get away and talk with the Father. What a great example for us to follow. Better yet, Jesus is always on call to listen and advocate FOR us to the Father. And the Holy Spirit gets involved, too, helping us find words and expressions when we pray. God made us. He understands our weaknesses. He doesn’t condemn– He stands ready to help!

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God is Alpha and Omega. He is eternal, and He is God of the Past, Present, and Future. Today may be an awful day– or a wonderful day. Tomorrow is a mystery to us. Yesterday tends to haunt us. But God is present in all three times at once. Nothing takes Him by surprise or causes Him to wallow in worry or regret. And that should give us courage to live in the present (even if it seems chaotic or frustrating), knowing that God’s plans and timing are for our Good. Even if we “mess up” in the present, God has the power to redeem and renew our future– if we let Him.

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My wise Mama told me there would be days like this–she knows from experience. And she also knows all the ways God is ever-present and ever-ready to give wisdom, courage, and comfort. Today, I want to pass along a little of that wisdom– just like she passed it on to me. I hope your day is not the kind of roller-coaster I had yesterday. But even if it is: God Loves you, He knows what you’re going through, and He is eternally present and powerful to give you all that you need to get through.

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What a Waste!

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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)

Continuous Prayer

1 Thessalonians 5:12-24 English Standard Version (ESV)

(Via http://www.biblegateway.com)
Final Instructions and Benediction

12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle,[a] encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

Footnotes:
  1. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 Or disorderly, or undisciplined
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The Apostle Paul, writing nearly two thousand years ago, left some final instructions to believers in Thessalonica. One of the instructions was to “pray without ceasing.” I have visited this phrase before, and I came back to it recently, because it still has much to teach us.

As with any verse or passage in the Bible, it helps to have context. To say “pray without ceasing,” without acknowledging the other instructions may leave a false impression. Paul is not saying that we should all stop living and working, eating or sleeping, and do nothing else but pray. But he means that we should pray consistently and frequently– prayer should be a natural part of our daily routine, and a natural reaction to events and circumstances as they occur. Prayer should not only be a personal practice, either. It should be part of “admonishing,” “encouraging,” and “helping” those around us. In fact, everything we do can be infused with prayer, and can actually be part of our ongoing prayer life. Also, prayer is part of being joyful always and giving thanks in all circumstances–“for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Not just joy or thanksgiving or prayer, but all of them together!

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What struck me about this passage today was the idea that if we are practicing consistent prayer (and rejoicing and being thankful in prayer), and teaching and encouraging others to do the same, there will be prayer “without ceasing.” As the world spins, people all over the globe who are faithful will lift up prayers that never cease. My prayers rise with those of millions of others who pray at the same moment. But someone else just finished praying before I started; someone else will begin praying as I say my “Amen.” People with very different circumstances, praying in different languages, from different parts of the world– but we have so much in common! And each prayer–each pray-er–is like a note in a symphony rising to the throne of Grace.

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Our prayers are so much more than we know. They have so much more value than we imagine. Not just because we say them; not just because of the thoughts and emotions that go into them. But because, when we lift them to the God of all Creation, He weaves them into what only He can.

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Afraid to Call?

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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And we don’t need to use a phone to call on Him!

For Thou Art With Me…

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“Social Distancing” is the latest buzz-phrase in the media. With the spread of COVID-19, governments and health officials are asking people to avoid meeting in groups, avoid physical contact, and keep our distance from those outside our immediate family. Those who are most susceptible to the disease are being asked to self-quarantine; those who contract the disease are put in isolation. This is causing many people additional suffering, because they feel alone and even abandoned.

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But God assures us that He will never leave nor forsake us. No matter how “distant” we may be from others, God is always with us– ALWAYS. Prayer does not summon God to our side, or capture His focus and attention from someone or something else. Our God is omnipresent and omniscient– He know our every thought; He is with us through every moment and every breath.

So why do we feel so alone and frightened at times like these?

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I think there are several reasons:

  • Disaster, disease, hardship– especially when they come unexpectedly or develop rapidly– remind us that we live in a fallen world. We KNOW our world isn’t perfect. We know that life is fragile. We know that health and comfort are not guaranteed. But sudden tragedy leaves us unable to deny that our world is broken and we cannot, by our own efforts, fix it. We expect that God’s presence means God’s perfection will surround us, protect us, and shield us from the reality of Sin and its consequences– including the reality of Sin in the natural world around us. Hurricanes, earthquakes, infections, climate change– God allows them to happen. They will continue to impact our fallen world until God chooses to step in and put a permanent end to them. But He is still here WITH us through the storms and sicknesses and trials of life.
  • God’s voice is often gentle and comforting. Panic and fear are loud and insistent. We will hear the voice we focus on most. God whispers in our ear if we are listening to Him– if we concentrate on spending time with Him. How much of my time today was spent in Scripture and prayer? How much of it spent listening to the news or reading FB posts full of anger and confusion?
  • Sometimes, in the good times, we pay God lip service; taking for granted that He is there, but not acknowledging His presence. Sure, we say that He walks with us (or we walk with Him); but we don’t take a moment to look up and see where He is leading us. Instead of being close to God by following our Shepherd, we are close to Him because He is chasing us down to bring us back to the right path. He is right there, but in our panic, we don’t see Him, because He is no longer leading us.
  • Fear and panic draw our attention inward. It’s one of the reasons “social distancing” causes emotional distress. We are social creatures, but our focus is easily drawn inward, and more so when there seem to be no other people around. Our own thoughts, fears, and questions grow bigger– enough to consume us if we are not careful.
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God IS with us–let’s rejoice and embrace it:

  • Pray. Pray some more. Pray without ceasing! (2 Thessalonians 5:17)
  • Let God speak– meditate on God’s word. Meditate on His names and His character.(Psalm 19) Seek out websites that magnify God. Call or e-mail friends who can pray or praise with you.
  • Sing! Worship the God who is bigger than any crisis we may face. Sing at the top of your lungs– if you are alone, there is no one else to hear you, but the one who adores your “joyful noise” (Psalm 100)
  • Encourage others– Be the reminder that someone else needs today. (1 John 4)
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I Will Fear No Evil

These are fearful days. As I write this, the world is reeling from the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. There are travel bans and business closures; people are hoarding hand sanitizer, soap, and toilet tissue, bread and bottled water.

But what do we really fear? The Coronavirus is dangerous– even potentially deadly–but so is the “regular” flu (to a lesser extent). Many people will suffer from the Coronavirus for a few days, only to recover and return to “normal”life. The economic reverses and closures, while temporarily devastating, will come to an end, as well.

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In many ways, the real fear is, as Franklin Roosevelt once said, “fear, itself.” Panicked people hoarding basic supplies leave us wondering if we will face food shortages, or be left without any way to protect ourselves from the spread of this disease. We fear the rumors, the exaggerated stories, the dire possibilities and predictions. We fear over-reacting and inviting unnecessary dangers, and we fear under-reacting and taking unnecessary risks. We even begin to fear those close to us– are they telling us the truth? Are they giving us helpful advice? Do we trust their sources of information?

In the midst of this atmosphere, there are three mistakes I think we need to avoid as Christians:

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  • Panic– the world around us reacts with fear. We are told, again and again in scripture, not to be afraid, not to worry, and not to fret. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” (Psalm 23:4) Why can we keep calm when the rest of the world succumbs to fear? “For Thou art with me..” (v. 5a) No set of circumstances– even a worldwide pandemic– are a match for God’s omniscience, His power, or His mercy. We may not know the future, but God does. He knows how this chapter of the story ends. He knows what we need, and how to supply it; He knows every cell of our bodies, and every virus in the atmosphere. And, while He may not supernaturally stop this disease in its tracks, He will give us wisdom to respond in ways that may limit the spread and severity of COVID-19– and even teach us lessons to face the next crisis.
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  • Over-confidence–the Psalmist says, “I will fear no evil.” That doesn’t mean that I will take no caution, make no plan to protect my loved ones and myself, or feel no concern over adverse conditions. It is very tempting to put on a show of bravado in the face of worldly panic; to project confidence in ourselves and disdain for danger. Our confidence doesn’t lie in ignoring the very real dangers and struggles ahead– our confidence lies in knowing that God is ALWAYS in control. We should have a healthy concern in the weeks ahead. We should not berate those who express worries–we should direct them toward our source of comfort and strength, not waste time bragging or sneering.
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  • Isolation– times of crisis bring out the best or worst in us. Panic and over-confidence can make us step back and close ourselves off to those in need. We need to be wise to ways that we can offer practical help and spiritual guidance to those around us. How can we offer to share burdens? Ease financial difficulties? Help deliver food or medicine to those in quarantine? Offer shelter or hospitality to those displaced by quarantine or travel bans? Help those who are grieving or stressed?
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Finally, notice that the Psalmist singles out the fear of evil. Panic will bring evil in its wake. Evil will need to be confronted and checked by those willing to fight it. We need to confront those who try to take advantage of others; we need to hold thieves and liars and fear-mongers accountable, as we combat their message of greed and panic. Not because we are here to judge; but because we are here to spread Grace and Peace, Blessing and Kindness. May we be more contagious than Coronavirus in bringing God’s power and Love to those who need it so desperately at this time.

Helpful links:

https://www.who.int/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/03/15/hospitals-are-overwhelmed-because-coronavirus-heres-how-help/

https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/15/success/small-businesses-coronavirus/index.html

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-51821470

https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/proclamation-national-day-prayer-americans-affected-coronavirus-pandemic-national-response-efforts/?utm_source=link

I Shall Not Want..

Of all the 150 Psalms in the Bible, Psalm 23 is the most well-known. It speaks of our Lord as a Shepherd who takes care of us, leading us to green pastures and calming our fears even in the valley of the shadow of death. But these four words in the very first verse, though comforting to many, have also been a source of grief to others. If the Lord is my Shepherd, I should have no reason to want. But what if I still have wants? Unanswered prayers? Struggles and trials and lacks?

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Let’s look at the phrase carefully. “I shall not want” is the wording in the King James (English) version of scripture. More modern translations render the phrase as “I lack nothing (NIV),” “I have what I need (CSB),” or other variations of “I shall not want.” Let’s stick with “I shall not want,” and look at it word by word.

This Psalm is very personal. The Lord is MY Shepherd– I shall not want. This is between me and my Shepherd. I may be tempted to look around and compare, to want what someone else has, even if I don’t need it; even if it isn’t good for me. But when I depend on my Shepherd to provide, I can trust that whatever comes, He knows what I want and what I need. He knows what is best. Therefore, I shall not worry or wonder or want.

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I am a former English teacher, so the verb “shall” interests me here. “Shall” and “will” are sometimes used interchangeably in English, but they are not exactly the same. “Shall” is not used much, but it indicates a future condition, or a condition that is ongoing into the future. It is not the active verb in this phrase, but rather the indicator of when that action (wanting, lacking, needing) will take place and how. The difference between “shall” and “will” in this case is not one of action, or time, but of volition. “Will” indicates a conscious decision– I “Will not want” means I will determine the action and outcome–without a Shepherd’s guidance or provision. I “Shall not want” means the outcome is determined by my Shepherd (in this case), not by my own volition or actions. There may be things I “will” still want– if I’m trying to go my own way and depend on my own wisdom and abilities, but that doesn’t change my condition–God has provided. God has given. God WILL continue to provide.

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“I shall NOT want”– I may desire something else; I may not have what others have; I may be poor or sick or sad. I may respond to my circumstances with grumbling, doubt, anger, envy, greed, or disbelief. But I can also respond with trust, gratitude, wonder and worship, knowing that God sees me, knows me, and cares for my always. God doesn’t force me to respond positively to hard times– the Psalmist doesn’t say, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall be grateful,” or “I shall never complain.” He doesn’t say, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall have whatever gives me pleasure or makes my life easier.” Rather, he gives us a true picture life– I will NOT have everything I wish for; I will NOT understand or take pleasure in all the circumstances of my life, but I shall NOT be abandoned, left alone and without help or resources, lacking any source of hope, joy, peace, or love.

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Finally, we come to the word “want.” In this context, it is meant to signify lack– I shall lack for nothing; I shall not be without (God who provides). And this is where many people struggle with the verse; with the Psalm; with the Shepherd Himself. We DO lack– many things. We lack money to pay the bills, we lack in our relationships, we lack perfect health, we lack patience…the list is endless. We “want” for many things. And we read Psalm 23, and it seems to mock us. If God is our Shepherd, why do we lose loved ones to disease? Why do we have to declare bankruptcy? Why did our spouse file for divorce? Why can’t we break that bad habit or addiction? Why do we see “good” people suffering? Doesn’t God see or care? God doesn’t give us easy answers. He doesn’t promise ease and comfort in this fallen world. But He is with us, not matter where, no matter what, no matter how we got there. And He promises to renew, restore, and redeem all that we lack in the present– perfectly and forever after.

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I shall not WANT. I shall suffer in the present– loss, pain, confusion, heartbreak, disappointment, failure. But I am not without– not without God’s presence in this world, and not without His promise of justice, mercy, hope, and love now and in the world to come. I am still a sheep–I have needs, I make unwise decisions, and I don’t have the ability to see or defend against the dangers of this world. But I have a Shepherd– all-knowing, all-powerful, and extravagant in Love and Grace. I will depend on Him. I will call out to Him. I will follow Him. And I shall not want!

When God Doesn’t Answer…

Prayer is a conversation with God. But sometimes it can seem like a one-sided conversation. We have pressing needs for healing, or strength to bear up under stress or oppression. Sometimes, we pray for our loved ones’ struggles against addiction or wrong choices. And God seems silent.

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Sometimes, it’s better to get an answer we don’t like than no answer at all. When I was younger, I prayed for a family– a dream family with a handsome husband (preferably wealthy), three adorable and well-behaved children (I already had names picked out..), and maybe a beloved family pet, all living in a beautiful house with a big back yard, and maybe a small woods. I waited and prayed; prayed and waited. When I was in my thirties, still waiting and praying, I found out that I have several health problems– none of them life-threatening, but they mean that the chances that I would ever have had children are slim to none. I would never have the pleasure of watching my own children grow up; never know the joy of having a little voice calling me “mommy.”

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But God had not abandoned me. In my careers as a teacher and a children’s librarian (careers I had begun before I knew I couldn’t have children of my own), I had the joy of working with hundreds of children across a spectrum of ages, from nearly newborn through college! My memories are filled with a choir of voices calling me Miss Toney or Miss Lila (as I was known then). God had not closed the door on my dream– he had opened a window.

It wasn’t the answer I had hoped for, but it was an answer. However, I was still single. I didn’t want to be single. I didn’t feel it was what God wanted for my life, yet He didn’t seem to be listening or giving me any sign that He heard or understood. There was only silence. No promising relationships– only a few scattered dates over the long years–a few budding friendships, and many lonely days and nights.

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There were many helpful friends and family with suggestions, ideas, advice, comforting thoughts, or “explanations.” “God is waiting for you to become more mature in your walk with Him.” “God is saving the best for last.” “You’re too picky (I was never quite sure what that meant in light of the scarcity of dates, but…)” “You need to ‘get out there’ more–have you tried on-line dating? (I did. It was ‘meh’..).” “You should change jobs– single men are not hanging out at the library.” “You should change churches– find one with more single men.” But God stayed silent through my thirties and into my forties.

I did take some of the very good advice I received. I signed up to do short term missions trips. I traveled when I could, with family and friends, and even on my own. I read and went back to college. I spent time in the woods and at the beach, meditating, singing, or just enjoying God’s nature. I got “involved” in various volunteer opportunities. I joined the church choir. And I continued to pray.

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By the time I was squarely in my forties, I had decided to stop praying for a husband, to stop hoping, and praying, and seeking, and dreaming. And God said nothing. But I began getting phone calls from an old friend– someone I had known in childhood–in fact, the very first boy I had ever dated, nearly 30 years before! At first, I listened to his voice-mail messages, but didn’t return his calls. I was annoyed, and even a bit angry. After all this time, was God laughing at me? Did He really expect me to go all the way back to the very beginning and start over?

Finally, I let go of my pride, and my ancient dream– I decided to give David a chance. Maybe it would lead to another (renewed) friendship. Maybe it would be another disappointment. But it led to a new dream. It led to marriage, and a huge extended family, including David’s wonderful children, and three adorable (and mostly well-behaved) grandchildren. My husband is kind, and honorable, and Godly. He is a treasure. And God’s timing is perfect, even as it is mysterious. God didn’t withhold marriage as a bargaining chip to get me to “grow up,” or grant it as a “reward” for going on a couple of mission trips. God was silent–but He wasn’t absent. He saw every teardrop, rejoiced in every busy child-filled day at work, smiled at every snapshot of every natural wonder, every Teddy Bear picnic, every Bible School. He want along on every date, kept track of all the hundreds of books I read over the years, and hovered over the dinner table set for one every night. I committed my life to serving Him– whether I was single or married, alone, or surrounded by children. His ways are higher, and better, and wiser than mine.

I may never understand why God allowed me to travel the roads that have been set before me. And my roads could have looked much different. I could have married young, unaware of my barrenness, and ended up bitter and feeling guilty about my body for years before I was diagnosed. I might have had a child (or children), and become proud and controlling and fearful. I might have made idols of my “dream” husband and family.

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I know many dozens of people who are praying into the “silence” and waiting for God’s answer. Some are praying for healing. They may pray for hours in the hospital, only to lose their loved one. They may pray for weeks or months, as their child battles chronic illness. They may pray for years as they battle depression and loneliness. God may seem silent. But He is never absent. His ways sometimes lead to a happy ending in this life. Sometimes, they lead to a legacy that we cannot see this side of death. He does not promise us the answer we want, when or how we want it. He doesn’t promise us an easy or “happy” answer. What He does promise is that He will never forsake us. Long after we have been tempted to give up, to doubt, to turn away, God will still be waiting– sometimes in the silence– for the perfect moment, the perfect justice, the perfect word, the perfect solution.

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