Repentance Is Good for the Soul

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. I didn’t grow up in a tradition that observed Lent. In fact, generally speaking, the only way I was aware of Easter’s approach was when the Peeps and chocolate bunnies started showing up in stores. I had Catholic friends who observed Lent, usually by fasting from a favorite food, but as an evangelical, I thought that sounded like “works,” so it didn’t seem to apply to me.

Years later, I realized that I had thrown out the baby with the bathwater. The intent of Lent is not “works,” but rather, to invite believers to a time of examination and repentance that prepares us for receive the forgiveness of Good Friday and the hope of Resurrection Sunday. And that kind of Lenten observance is something I very much want and need!

Centuries ago, Ignatius of Loyola taught a method for engaging in this kind of humble reflection. He called it the “prayer of examen.” There are different ways to do an “examen,” but I’ll suggest one, the examen of conscience, that is especially good for the Lenten season.

Basically, the idea is simply to invite the Holy Spirit to show you anything in your life that is out of line with God’s purposes for you. That’s what sin is, after all—it’s the things we think, say, or do (or fail to think, say, or do) that prevent us from experiencing the abundant life God intends for us and those we live among. So we ask the Holy Spirit to uncover those things for us so that we can ask forgiveness for them and, with His help, turn from them.

It’s important not try to do an examen on your own. By ourselves, most of us will either justify things that need to be repented of, or else beat ourselves up. Neither is God’s approach. When the Holy Spirit points out sin, He doesn’t blame or condemn—He offers help and hope. He reveals areas of darkness so that we can come into God’s light and be freed, healed, and restored.

You can pray in your own words, or if you like, Psalm 139:23-24 makes a great ready-made prayer: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

After you invite the Holy Spirit to examine your heart and mind, listen in silence for a few minutes. Jot down whatever impressions come to mind. Then talk to God about them. Confess whatever He has shown you, ask Him to forgive you, see if He wants you to make things right in any particular way, and ask for His help to turn from what He has shown you.

Can you see how engaging in a prayer practice like this over the days between now and Easter can make you more grateful for Jesus’ death and more hopeful and joyful because of His resurrection?

10 Ways the Bible Feeds My Prayer Life

I think I have taken it for granted that everyone who is excited about prayer is also excited about Scripture. But several conversations I’ve had recently have caused me to start questioning that assumption. So, by way of encouragement—or perhaps challenge—I want to share with you some reasons why as a pray-er, I can’t live without spending time in God’s written Word.

1.     It helps me get to know and love the God I’m praying to. Which helps me to understand what He’s like—what brings Him joy, what grieves His heart, what He longs for, what He likes doing, how He feels about me, about my friends, about my enemies—it reveals what kind of Person He is. Which is not just making requests at a celestial service desk—it’s relating with a real Person who has feelings, opinions, and a definite personality.

2.     It shows me what kinds of things God has already done—as well as the things He has opposed. It teaches me about what kinds of prayers He loves to answer, and which ones He doesn’t. It helps me see His purposes in history—which helps me to better align with what He is doing now.

3.     It helps me to pray beyond my personal scope and small perspective on the world. I see how big God is. And as I become better acquainted with the things that concern Him, I pray larger, broader prayers.

4.     It gives me faith-building promises that give me confidence as I pray.

5.     It provides a way for God to initiate conversation with me. Instead of prayer always starting with me talking to Him, I can let Him talk to me through His Word and respond to Him. In this way He gets a chance to talk about what He wants to talk about for a change.

6.     It teaches me what God’s voice sounds like and the kinds of things He says so that when He speaks to me, I can be assured that it’s really Him.

7.     It introduces me to prayer mentors from whom I can learn how to go deeper with God in prayer.

8.     It gives me words for prayer—words to express praise, adoration, wonder, thanksgiving—as well as words (and permission!) to cry for help, complain and groan, lament, or express my contrition.

9.     It inspires me to persevere in prayer, grow in faith, live honestly before God, and love others—because in His Word I learn that God especially honors the prayers of those who seek to live in these ways.

10.It shows me the possibilities for relationship with God. When I look at how Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, Paul, and others related to God and enjoyed Him, I am inspired also to go after a similar degree of intimacy, companionship, mutual trust, and meaningful partnership with God. His Word lets me know that He wants to have that kind of closeness with me, too—and teaches me how to cultivate that relationship.

How does the Bible help you in prayer? Or, perhaps you struggle to get into the Word. I’d like to hear about that, too. Let’s keep learning from each other.

Bringing Listening Prayer into Corporate Intercession

A church prayer leader recently asked me a great question: “Is there a way our prayer ministry can incorporate listening prayer into our times of intercession for the church body?”

In her local church, the prayer team typically receives dozens of prayer requests each week for the needs of the congregation. Unemployment, illness, wayward children, and relationship issues usually top the list. The people submitting the prayer requests generally know what they would like God to do: They would like Him to fix, heal, and make the pain go away. If we’re honest, that’s what we all would like God to do when we’re anxious and hurting—no matter how mature we are. However, those of us who have walked with the Lord for a while also realize that God’s perspective and plans are larger than ours. In spite of how good and loving He is, making the pain go away is not always His first priority. He knows what we need far better than we do, after all.

So this prayer leader wanted to know how to handle the prayer team’s prayer times. Should they get together and pray through the prayer requests one by one, asking God to do exactly what the person making the request wants Him to do? Or is there a way to listen for God’s heart and see what He might want to add or how He might want to redirect?

I suggested that she group the prayer requests into categories. These would vary according to the requests submitted, obviously, but general categories might include: marriages, health, finances, wayward children, salvation of friends and family, and so on. Then when the prayer team gathers to pray, they could select a category, quickly read through all the requests in that category, and then begin praying by asking something like this: “Father, you hear these people’s hurts and hopes. We know You are good and You want to answer their requests with good gifts. We also know that Your ways are higher and wiser than ours. So what are You thinking You’d like to do for these children of Yours? Is there something You’d like to do in addition to what they’ve asked for? Are there things You want them to learn about You and Your purposes for their lives as they go through this trial?” (Or other similar questions the Holy Spirit may lead you to ask.)

Then, and this is important, then wait. Expect God to answer. Allow for at least five minutes of silence. Encourage your prayer team to write down impressions, Scriptures, pictures, or anything else that comes to mind as they are listening to God. After five minutes or so, invite your prayer team very briefly to share what they heard. Encourage them not to editorialize or elaborate beyond what they specifically heard. You don’t want to take up a lot of time with this part. The main thing is to see if there is a trend in what is being heard—if so that’s often a confirmation of God’s leading. So limit this time to two or three minutes at the most. Then spend the next ten minutes or so praying according to what you sensed God was saying.

You can repeat this process with the other requests. Or, if time is running short, you can divide your team into smaller groups, divvy up the remaining requests, and finish praying through in a more “conventional” way. Then next time you get together to pray, you could choose a different category to pray about so that over time, the various needs get prayed for in this more in-depth, “listening” type of prayer.

So there is one idea for how to combine listening prayer into a time of corporate intercession. But I’m sure there are others. I would love to hear from those of you in prayer ministries who also have thought about this interesting question—so if you have other ideas, please share them with us! Let’s learn from one another!

Have You Prayed for Your Waiter Today?

My friend Colin is one of the most enthusiastic pray-ers I know. If you were to ask him to describe the most fun he’s ever had, I am pretty sure his answer would involve praying for someone.

Granted, Colin is an extrovert who could probably make conversation with a hubcap. We’re not all wired that way. Still, he shared an experience he had the other day that inspired an introvert like me—and maybe it will inspire you, too.

Like many of us, Colin practices the habit of thanking God for his food—even when he is in a public place such as a restaurant. But Colin sometimes adds this next step: As the wait person is taking the order, he asks him or her (“her” in this case), “Shelly (name changed), we are going to ask a blessing on our food; if there was one thing we could pray for you tonight what would it be?” Shelly may have been surprised by Colin’s offer, but Colin wasn’t surprised when she actually did give a prayer request—for her young son. And so Colin and his wife prayed for her little boy. And it was a rich moment for all involved. As is always true about prayer, there’s more to the story—but not room here to tell it.

Mostly, I just wanted to share with you this simple idea for how to reach out to people who may not have anyone else to pray for them.

How about you? If you try this idea, let me know how it goes. Or if you have other ways that you pray for people outside your comfort zone of church and Christian community, I’d love to hear about those, too. Your story will be an encouragement to all of us.