Praying the Perimeter

I love puzzles–jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, logic puzzles, etc.

This may seem like a strange way to begin a blog on prayer, but stick with me…

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Puzzles can be fun, but they can also be very frustrating, especially if you approach them with no strategy. If you dump 1,000 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on a table, and begin by trying to find any two pieces that fit, you may be able to eventually solve the puzzle, but it makes more sense to look for the “edge” and “corner” pieces first, and build a framework. Depending on the puzzle picture, you may also be able to work on colors or patterns that stand out– sky/clouds, a patch of red or blue, a dog in the foreground, etc.

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The same is true of word and logic puzzles. There is usually a strategy when you approach each puzzle that can help make it easier and more rewarding. Words have patterns of letters– vowels and consonants; logic puzzles depend on deduction– narrowing down the possible by eliminating the impossible. Sudoku, and its cousin, Kakuro, involve simple math and numbers 1-9 in changing patterns. Start with the strategy, and you will find even the most challenging puzzles a little less challenging.

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Some puzzles seem impossible; and some are beyond my ability to solve, even with the best of strategies. That’s life. We don’t know all the answers, and we can’t always “see” the solution, or make all the pieces fit.

Sometimes, our lives seem like a challenging puzzle. Nothing seems to “fit” a pattern or make sense, and we end up lost and frustrated. Our most basic need is to trust God. But God does not leave us without a strategy. Prayer (along with reading God’s word and keeping in fellowship with other Christians) is part of an excellent strategy. Just like putting the “edge” pieces together in a jigsaw puzzle, praying “the perimeter” of our problems can put them in the proper frame.

What does that mean? Jesus gave us a perfect example in “The Lord’s Prayer.” When His disciples asked Him how they should pray, He started with the “frame.” “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.” God should be at the center of our life and trust, but He also needs to be the “edge” and framework of our life. There is no problem or worry that is outside of His control and awareness, no need that He cannot meet, and no problem that can take Him by surprise or leave Him frustrated and “stumped.”

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“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth as it is in Heaven.” God already has the right strategy, and solution for our need. We can’t see it; we may not have a clue how to pay our bills, or deal with that devastating diagnosis, or make peace with our enemy–we may never find “the solution” on our own or in our short lifetime. But God sees the entire picture, and He has the power to make all the pieces “fit”– in His time and in His perfect will.

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“Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Sometimes our “puzzles” seem too big because we try to tackle everything at once, or we try to tackle things from the wrong end. God’s strategy is to rest in Him daily, letting tomorrow’s troubles wait for tomorrow, and letting go of yesterday’s struggles. That doesn’t mean that we don’t make plans or budgets, or that we don’t take responsibility for our health, or the mistakes we’ve made. But it means that we stop focusing on what we can’t control, and focus on the present. Instead of worrying, I can be thankful for what I have right now. Instead of focusing on what others think of me, or the threat they pose, I can concentrate on my own attitude and actions, making sure that I am practicing trust and obedience. Instead of getting angry when things don’t make sense, I can rest, knowing that God knows the end from the beginning.

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“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” God is our “Good Shepherd” (See Psalm 23 and John 10). He “leads us beside the still waters” and “makes us lie down in green pastures.” “He restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:3a) If we let God determine our “edges” and boundaries, we will still have to travel through troubled times and valleys “of the shadow of death.” But we need not fear evil, when we trust that God will deliver us. We need not fear the shadows and uncertainties within the boundaries of God’s will. And even when we have taken the wrong path, and “messed up” the puzzle we are in, God is in the business of redemption and restoration! He will deliver us– if we confess and seek His solution. He will wipe away the “wrong” answers and rearrange the pieces of our life, so that we can find wholeness.

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When we develop the pursuit of prayer– daily meeting with God, acknowledging who He is, and seeking His wisdom and grace– we will meet the challenges of life with the right strategy. We will still face the frustration of not knowing all the answers, or not seeing the whole picture. We will still have to deal with struggles, shadows, grief, and pain. But we will have a stronger “framework” and a God-given strategy to help.

But I Don’t Understand…

I’m getting a double whammy this week–two Bible study groups; one studying Daniel and the other Job.  Some of you will groan just reading the first sentence.  Along with the book of Revelations, these are two of the most difficult and misunderstood books in the Bible.  And for good reason.  The book of Daniel doesn’t just contain the favorite stories of Daniel in the Lions’ Den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, it also contains prophetic visions that seem to foreshadow two distinct sets of events– one set that happened in the time between Daniel’s life and the birth of Christ, and another set of events yet to come.

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The book of Job is puzzling– there are no good clues as to when it took place, or exactly where, or even if it is real or a parable.  There is a curious interchange between God and Satan that is unlike any other passage in scripture.  Finally, it is filled with difficult dialogues from Job and his friends, as they try to make sense of his suffering as God stays silent.  When God finally speaks, He doesn’t directly answer Job’s questions or his friends’ misleading statements.

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What happens when I don’t understand what God is doing (or seemingly NOT doing) in my life or the lives of others?  What happens when the world doesn’t make sense, and the Bible doesn’t seem to shed any light?  What happens when I pray, but God seems silent?

I think the answer has a lot to do with where I am in my relationship with Christ:

  • I can panic, lose faith, or become angry and insolent.  If I don’t know God or don’t trust him; if I doubt his goodness or wisdom or power, I may run from his word and his presence.
  • I can lean on my own understanding.  I can substitute my own limited wisdom for God’s, and try to “explain away” all the things I don’t quite understand.  I may ignore the Bible passages I don’t understand, in favor of doubling down on the ones I think I know.  I can insist on my own interpretations of difficult or disturbing passages, even if someone points out inconsistencies in my logic, or context clues that disagree with my view.

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  • I can lean on someone else’s understanding, listening to their views without question or without reading and praying through it myself.  If someone else has an answer, shouldn’t that be enough?  Even if I still don’t fully understand, at least I have an answer…
  • I can ignore the question–after all, do I really need to know about God?  Isn’t it enough that He exists and He is good?  If I say it loud enough and often enough, won’t that make the questions go away?

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It seems that there is a better way– God never promises us easy answers or complete answers to all the questions in this life.  We can be angry or grateful for that truth, but most of all we must accept it.  God will answer many of our questions–maybe not in the time and manner we expect.  And some of them we won’t understand this side of heaven.  But the Bible is clear in calling us to pursue answers, and be honest when we don’t understand.  God may not give us a simple answer, but He promises to give us wisdom– wisdom to seek, and wisdom to wait; wisdom to trust, and wisdom to keep knocking.
Ask, Seek, Knock, Wrestle, Search, Pray, Plead, Study, and Learn.

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Puzzling Prayers

Have you ever had one of those days where things just don’t seem to make sense?  It doesn’t have to be a “bad” day, necessarily–just a day when things don’t seem to “fit.”  I had one of those days yesterday.

I journal my prayer life– I have notebooks with names and places for each day of the year.  Yesterday, my notebook included the city where my daughter lives and the names of three people celebrating birthdays, among other needs.  One of the names was a complete mystery to me.  I couldn’t remember who this person was, or how I knew either her or her name…I was drawing a blank and didn’t know how I should pray for her.  Was she a former classmate? Was she a daughter or mother or sister of someone I knew better?  I ended up praying a very general prayer– for her health, her family, etc., but it bothered me.

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Hours later, speaking with someone on the phone, another name came up, along with a prayer request– a man suffering with an illness who happened to have the same surname.  Coincidence?  Possibly, but the name stood out, and I prayed again– for both.  Now I was really curious.  I did some digging.  The first person WAS the sister of someone I knew, and their father is the one suffering from an illness.

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God is amazing, and one way is how he gives us the opportunity for “a-ha!” moments like the one I had yesterday.  I have spoken to several Christians who are sometimes separated by several time zones from those they normally call on for help or advice.  In crisis moments, they have cried out to God.  Thousands of miles away, someone will be awakened from a sound sleep with a sudden urge to pray for their distant friend, or another will be stopped in their tracks and send up a random prayer as their mind wanders.  Often, this will be in the exact moment of the crisis, and God will intervene with a miraculous healing or rescue or provision.  Days later, the two parties will connect and be astonished at the timing.

What used to puzzle me about such prayers was this– if God already knows the need, and plans to act, why involve the second (or third) party?  Because stories like this, while impressive and inspiring for those who believe, rarely cause a skeptic to come to faith, and aren’t necessary for those who already believe.

I think God has many answers, and I know I don’t have all of them, but here are three things I believe God is doing through such puzzling circumstances and outcomes:

  • While it doesn’t turn a skeptic into a believer, it DOES give the skeptic something to explain away– one such instance might be ignored as coincidence, but five?  two hundred?  And we have a Biblical precedent in the book of Acts, chapter 12, when Peter is rescued from prison and shows up at the very house where believers are praying for his release!  Even they didn’t believe at first, and left Peter out in the cold!
  • It IS an inspiration and an encouragement as a follower of Christ to know that he not only hears our prayers, but he recruits others to think about us, bear our burdens, and share in our trials.
  • Last (on my short list; I’m sure God has many other wonderful answers I haven’t imagined yet), I believe that God’s purpose for us involves communion– eternally living, sharing, and loving together with Him and with each other.  It is one of the highest honors and greatest privileges to be involved in God’s work through prayer…it is something we all can do, anywhere, anytime, but it requires being humble and willing to stop what we’re doing, commit our moments and our hearts in prayer for others (sometimes without knowing why!), and trust God to do all that we cannot.

Prayer sometimes seems puzzling, but that’s because we don’t see all the answers– yet.  Someday, what a marvelous and miraculous picture will unfold– and we have the opportunity to fill in the gap; to be the answer to 34-down; to be the missing piece of the pine tree in the upper right corner– to answer the call and finish the puzzle!

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