Prayer is a wonderful thing; sometimes it’s also a curious thing. Why do we pray to a God who is omniscient? If He already knows our needs, why do we bother to ask? If He already knows everything we’ve done, why do we need to confess? If He already knows about my neighbor’s cancer, why do I start a prayer chain?
Prayer is much more than sharing information with God. It is sharing my heart with God. What I pray, who I pray for, how and when and even where I pray– all come from my heart. God knows the information. He knows my heart, too. But He longs for me to take the time and effort to share it with Him (and to listen to His response!). God doesn’t want to be the one I turn to when I’ve tried all the other options. He is my Father, and He wants me to come to Him at every opportunity.
Moreover, when I pray, God is not surprised by anything I say, but sometimes I am! I find that one confession often leads to another– God already knew all that I had done and all about my attitude, but I lied to myself about my motive or about a small act or comment. Only in prayer does God have my full attention, and His Spirit uses that opportunity to help me see myself better, and clean the slate. Sometimes, I ask God for something I want, and God’s Spirit causes me to see what I really need, instead. Often, when I pray for someone I know, the Spirit will remind me of other ways I can pray for them, or bring another person to my thoughts. I may not know the other person’s need– but God already knows!
Finally, I find it a great comfort to pray to the one who holds everything together– the one who knows the end from the beginning, and everything in between. I don’t pray to a God who is kind, but ineffective. I don’t pray to a God who knows, but doesn’t care. God is the maker and sustainer of the universe; He is the lover of my soul, and the Almighty and Eternal One.
Today may be full of surprises– some good, some disappointing, some even overwhelming. God already knows. He knows our anguish, our hopes, our faults, and our triumphs (even the tiny ones). Many things about my life are difficult to understand or anticipate. I don’t have to know all the answers. I don’t even have to know all the “right” questions. God already knows!
Have you ever been the “victim” of a surprise party? Maybe you sensed that something was “up”, but you were still shocked and elated to see old friends or family all wanting to wish you well on (or near) your birthday, anniversary, wedding, retirement, or even “just because”. Even is you “catch on” or if someone “spoils” the surprise, it can be a wonderful celebration. (Or, on occasion, a disaster.)
Have you ever been on the planning side of a surprise party? Several years ago, we threw a surprise birthday/retirement party for my father. It required several months of planning. We invited cousins from out of town, co-workers, neighbors, and old friends. We gathered old pictures and momentos to display, ordered cake and balloons, and tried to keep the excitement under wraps, lest my father guess our intentions. All the details fell together, except we couldn’t figure out how to get him to the party without guessing. Dad was a genius at “sussing out” secrets and surprises, and also at setting them up. We wanted to turn the tables and give him the best surprise of his life.
Just less than a week before the party, my aunt (my mom’s sister) died in a car accident. The funeral was arranged for the same day as Dad’s celebration. We suddenly had to wrestle with a decision– to cancel or to forge ahead. With so many coming from out of town, we decided to stick with the original plan. It would be difficult– my aunt’s funeral was scheduled earlier in the day, and there would be about an hour to drive from one event to the other. Dad was certainly surprised–already dressed in his best suit, he drove from a funeral in one town to a party in his honor 20 miles away. From flowers and tears to laughter and cake..it was a day unlike any other. The first several minutes were surreal and jarring. But it was also cathartic. As difficult as the day was, we honored both my father and my aunt. Being surrounded by family and friends, some of whom joined us for both events, became a healing and encouraging experience.
It was not the surprise we expected–certainly not the surprise we had planned.
Several years later, (in fact, after my father had passed away) we planned another surprise party– this time for my mother. Mom had, of course, been part of the planning (as well as the trauma) of the first event. As with the first party, we invited family from out of town, ordered cake and balloons, gathered photos and memorabilia, and wondered how to get her to the event without suspicion. All went as planned, and we had a wonderful time. Mom was delightfully surprised, and even more so for having been through the experience of the prior party.
What does any of this have to do with prayer?
Well…we prayed for both parties. We prayed that all would go well, that Dad and Mom in their turn would be surprised, that guests would arrive safely, and that the parties would both please and honor the recipient.
But, far more, the two parties offer an illustration of God’s grace in the area of knowledge and foreknowledge. “If I had only known…” is a common phrase, and one that we could readily apply to the Dad’s party. But if we had known the end from the beginning, would we have changed our plans? When we say that we want to know the future, we’re generally asking to know a specific outcome of a specific event– without considering the greater consequences and impact of that outcome. When we pray, we generally pray for a specific outcome, again without knowing the full consequences. What seems like a disastrous outcome to us may be God’s way of preparing us for an unexpected blessing. God doesn’t send bad gifts– disasters come (and God allows them in His sovereignty)–but He doesn’t send disaster and pain to mock us or ruin our lives. Instead, in the midst of tragedy, He gives us unexpected strength, comfort, and sometimes, even joy.
If we had known that Dad’s party would be shadowed; that my aunt would be so suddenly gone, we might have given in to despair and bitterness. And though the party brought unexpected comfort, it did nothing to erase the overall grief of my aunt’s passing. But we learned so many things that day. We were reminded that our time with Dad was precious– that life itself is precious– in a solemn and powerful way. We were able to receive comfort from unexpected sources. We would not have shared our tragedy in such a public way with those who did not even know my aunt. But circumstances forced us to do so, and in the process, we were able to continue to honor her in the celebration.
If we had known all that would happen at Dad’s party, and not seen it through, we might never have risked planning a party for Mom. If we knew in advance all the joys and tragedies we would face, we would never learn how to trust God for the next step in life. Even more, we would live in constant dread of looming tragedies and negate all the joy of discovery and wonder. We might not be driven to take risks if we already knew their outcome, and we might not learn from our mistakes if we already knew their consequences…and because our lives are so short, we might only see the short-term consequences, and never see the ultimate outcome.
God is above and beyond time– He is the creator of all things, including time. He has decreed for us a beginning and an end to life on earth, and He has decreed that we should life our lives with a certain amount of suspense– of not knowing what the future holds. It holds both triumph and tragedy– trial and temptation. Life is filled with surprises– catastrophes, ecstatic joy, and “a-ha” moments–as well as peacefully uneventful moments to reflect and enjoy.
As we pray today, we can be thankful that God’s knowledge is perfect, and that His power is sufficient to hold us in the midst of shock, lift us in the midst of tragedy, and surprise us with joy along the way. And we can ask Him to grant us the wisdom to trust Him fully when we don’t see the end from the beginning.. or from the middle of the storm.
The world is full of surprises– some good, some bad. Open your mailbox on any given day, or walk down the street…you are bound to see something unexpected. You may get a bill you forgot about, or run into an old friend. There are surprises in the weather patterns, in traffic patterns, in relationships, in jobs, all around our houses and neighborhoods, in world events. Some are shocking, some delightful, and any of them can change our days or even our lives.
We like pleasant surprises; we fear the unpleasant ones. But most of us don’t pray for them. We pray for miracles–healing and rescue and transformation–pleasant outcomes that we hope for or imagine. We pray for ease and comfort, or wisdom and strength to face the bad times. But we don’t ask God to surprise us.
Why don’t I ask God to awe me? Dazzle me? Surprise me? Sometimes I fear that he might surprise me with what my past actions deserve. More often, I simply want to stay in the comfort and simplicity of what I already know. I don’t want to be delighted; I just want to be entertained.
One thing I know, but I need to be reminded: God does not give bad surprises. He does not send ANYTHING into my life that can’t be used for my good and his glory. The world will send tragedy and I will have to face the consequences of Sin– mine and others’. I may be unfairly treated at work; I may be struck by a drunk driver and paralyzed. I may face difficult losses, and inexplicable circumstances. And the mistake is to see these as “surprises” from God. God never promised a pain-free, problem-free life in this world, but he surprises us with the kind of gifts that overcome and even confound our tragic circumstances– the power to forgive, to be joyful, to have peace, and share love.
John 16:33English Standard Version (ESV)
33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Matthew 7:9-11New International Version (NIV)
9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
The road ahead is full of surprises–that’s a great reason to pray. God loves to surprise us with good things– that’s another great reason to pray for them!