The Thief of Joy

Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John 10:7-10 NIV (via biblegateway.com)

Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States, once said, “Comparison is the thief of Joy.” Comparison, envy, judgment– they have a way of sapping our joy, our energy, and our purpose, leaving us angry, deflated, and anxious. He knew a lot about the subject. Coming to the office as the result of the assassination of William McKinley, Roosevelt was the youngest man ever to hold the office of president, and it was not expected that he would be capable of fulfilling his duties. He was a blunt, restless, often hot-tempered man– not a smooth and polished statesman. There were plenty of people comparing him to McKinley and others– and finding him on the short end of the comparison! Yet Roosevelt was a man known for his optimism and joy. Even with his bluster, he was rarely seen without a smile and a positive outlook. And that optimism won people over so that he won his reelection bid in 1904, and became one of our most esteemed presidents.

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Comparison can creep into all sorts of areas of our lives– we compare finances, status, “likes” on social media, looks, job status, clothes, houses, cars, even shoes! And sometimes, it impacts our prayers. I know people who won’t pray in public because their prayers “aren’t good enough.” They fear that their prayers lack eloquence; that the people listening will be disappointed or bored or even amused or disdainful. And sometimes, I’m ashamed to say, they have reason for their fears! This should never be.

But it isn’t just public prayers that we compare.

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I write about prayer; I’m very open about praying, and I receive a lot of prayer requests. I’m honored and glad to be able to share in praying for others. But every once in awhile, I hear from people that they want certain people to pray for them (as opposed to other people). They seek out “prayer warriors”– people who are viewed as being “better” at prayer than others. On the surface, this seems like a wonderful thing– some people are gifted with more time or more opportunity to pray–why not celebrate their gift or promote their ability?

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But what about those who are not seen as “prayer warriors?” What about those whose prayers involve months and even years of crying out in groans and tears and unfulfilled hopes? What of those learning to pray?

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We can easily fall into the bad habit of comparing our prayers– our style of praying, the amount of time we spend on our knees, the stories of answered prayer and miraculous outcomes, the number of people who come to us asking for prayer… And this can rob us of the joy of spending time with God! God loves each of us for who we are. And He wants to spend time with US– not our neighbor, or the sweet lady at church who prays so beautifully.

I love communal prayer– even though I know there are people who are terrified of praying in groups. I love to hear the individual voices and styles of those who come together to cry out to God. Some are short and sweet; some are convoluted and conversational; some are anguished and passionate– but all reflect God’s heart to communicate and interact with us, and to have us draw near to Him. He never pulls away from us when we stutter or stumble, or forget someone’s name or mix up a request. He patiently listens to our rambling; He reads the deeper heart of our short outbursts– He even hears our unintelligible moans and mumblings (see Romans 8:26)! And His heart is filled with compassion, love, and inexpressible, boundless joy as He hears the sound of one of His precious sheep.

Jesus described Himself as the “Good Shepherd.” He told the religious leaders of His day that the true sheep would recognize His voice over all others. And He spoke of the “thief” who comes only to kill and steal and destroy. This “thief”– Satan– uses certain tricks to steal our joy and take our focus away from God’s love and wisdom. One of his favorites is to whisper comparisons in our ear. And if we listen to his voice, we will begin to look around instead of up; to ourselves and our words, instead of God and the Word of God. But Satan does not use the voice of our Good Shepherd. His words do not bring safety and peace–they bring doubt and discontent.

God will not urge us to comparison– He will always urge us to Communion!

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.

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