More Than They Bargain For

When people ask me to pray for them, of course I agree. But what they often don’t know is that I don’t always pray what they think I am going to pray. In fact, when I pray for people, they may very well get more than they bargain for.

Mind you, I always pray something good for them. I always pray blessings. But I don’t limit blessing to the immediate relief from pain, deliverance from trouble, and victory over obstacles. I see blessing as something more and deeper (and often longer and harder) than that.

I wonder if I scared any of you away with that confession. I hope not! It’s just that I’ve lived long enough to know that what I most need is not always what I most want. I usually want sweetness and light, peace, joy, and harmony—and could You please make that quick, God? What I usually need are faith, integrity, humility, and truth—and I suppose some patience would also help.

So what does praying with these things in mind look like? I can give a few general examples. People often share prayer requests for health concerns. They ask me to pray for their healing—and I do, since God invites us to ask Him for healing, and Yaweh-Rapha is one of His names. But sometimes I sense that God wants to do more than just heal the immediate health issue. Sometimes the health issue provides an opportunity for Him to help them cultivate an important relationship, grow certain graces, or deal with habits such as stress, anger, unforgiveness, and workaholism that  contribute to poor health both physically and spiritually. If God always healed our physical concerns immediately, we might never grow in the ways that bring us ultimate peace and joy, and in the ways that make us most like Jesus. So when I pray for healing, I am likely also to take time to listen: Jesus, what else do You want to do here? Do You have bigger purposes behind this illness?

Similarly, both individuals and ministries often share prayer requests concerning finances. God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and He promises to supply all our needs. So I can pray about finances, knowing that God is willing and able to provide. But when I listen to God’s heart for these people and organizations, He frequently seems to direct me to pray about identity issues, self-discipline, faith, wisdom, relationships, integrity, and other less obvious but even more important needs.

You probably have the idea, but I’ll give one more example. It’s not uncommon for people to ask me to pray for peace—for their own hearts and minds, or for relationships that are important to them: family, work, church, and so on. Peace is a fruit of the Spirit, so of course I can ask God to give them peace. But when I take time to ask God if there’s anything more He wants me to pray, He often gives me important insight. Usually those of us praying for peace are extremely uncomfortable with conflict. So our request for “peace” basically means, “God, please make the conflict go away!” But God’s usual method for bringing peace seems to be by addressing the underlying issues: fear, pride, selfishness, stubbornness, insensitivity, unforgiveness, control, and so on. Sigh. Those are not easy things to pray about! But if we really want peace, then it’s pretty sure that God is going to want to address those issues first, so we can enjoy deep, real, and lasting peace.I

I wonder if this public confession will result in fewer people asking me to pray for them. I hope not! Because I really do believe that God wants to and “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Eph. 3:20, ESV). So, when I pray in this way, the most important thing I pray—the biggest blessing of all—is that God will personally take up residence in them, making His presence, power, and love known to them in ways deeper than they’ve ever known.



You Don’t Have to Be Elijah (To Have Powerful and Effective Prayes)

I had a real “a-ha” moment a month or so ago while a friend and I were studying the Bible together. We were looking at a familiar verse, James 5:16, which says: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” She was quiet a moment, then mused aloud, “I wonder what it would be like if I really believed that?”

We had been talking about what it means to believe God—what faith really looks like in our everyday lives and in our everyday prayers. I suppose that ordinarily when I think of faith and believing God, at least in the context of prayer, I think about whether I believe God will do “big things.” You know, healings, miracles, returned prodigals, salvations, revival, and the like. But when my friend made her comment, it struck me that God intends for every prayer I pray to be powerful and effective. He says so in that verse.

I thought about the things that I most often talk to God about. I imagined this verse superimposed over every request. Do I really believe that every prayer I pray is powerful and effective? Honestly? I’m sorry to say that usually I don’t. And why not?

I was taught—and I believe—that when we pray God’s promises, we need to pay attention to any conditions that go along with them. God is not bound to keep a promise if there is a qualification to it that we do not meet. So in this case, the condition is that the pray-er must be a “righteous person.” But how daunting is that? I mean, who is truly righteous, after all? The Bible says no one is! So how can anyone really “claim” that promise? For most of my life I have basically dismissed this incredible promise; I felt I never could meet the condition. I’m no Elijah, after all (see the next verse).

But as I pondered this, God reminded me that it’s not my righteousness that allows me to come before His throne of grace. Although I take my spiritual transformation seriously, I know that my personal efforts at righteousness don’t amount to more than a bunch of filthy rags. That’s why Jesus offers to clothe me in His.

So, what does this mean in terms of James 5:16? I think it means that the promise can apply to my prayers, if I will just believe and receive God’s provision for my righteousness. God does not disqualify me from powerful and effective prayer because I can’t (and never could) meet the condition on my own. He makes it possible for me to meet the condition by accepting Jesus’ righteousness as my own! And, if I understand James 5:16 correctly, that means my prayers can be powerful and effective, too.

When I started praying with these ideas in mind, it has made a noticeable difference. For instance, I have a bunch of long-term concerns that I talk to God about often. These are not things that I expect an instant answer to. Typically, when I have prayed about these things before, I haven’t felt much power and effectiveness. Sometimes it has felt more like, “Well, I want to persevere in this and hope that someday, somehow, maybe God will work it out.” But now when I pray with James 5:16 in mind, I am bit-by-bit learning to say something like this: Abba, I have no idea what You need to do in this situation in order to answer this prayer, but I believe that my prayer matters. Somehow, simply because I, your forgiven and redeemed child, am asking, You are able to work in ways that You might not otherwise work if I weren’t talking to You about this. You tell me that my prayer—which includes this very prayer about this very thing—is powerful and effective. So I choose to believe You about that!

I still have a lot to learn about this, I think, and I have a way to go before praying like this becomes a solid habit. But I really appreciate the benefits this new approach to James 5:16 has brought so far. Thinking about the importance God places on righteousness prompts me to regularly receive His cleansing and forgiveness and to intentionally claim Jesus’ righteousness as my own. And realizing that God really does mean that my everyday prayers can be powerful and effective motivates me to talk—and keep talking—to Him about everything. And I don’t even have to be Elijah!



Tagging along with Jesus

One morning a couple of weeks ago I prayed the prayer I often pray before rising: Lord, I know You are always with me, so today, would You please help me to know—to  really know—that You are with me? Will You please do life with me today?

Usually when I pray that prayer, I hop out of bed without waiting for a response. But I lingered for a moment on this particular day, and to my surprise (I really wasn’t expecting a response) I heard God say, For something different, how about if you do your day with Me rather than Me doing Mine with you?

It may not seem like a big difference—God doing life with me, me doing life with God—but actually, it is huge. As soon as I heard His words, I realized that I had been asking God to be my Helper for the things I’d be involved with that day. Which isn’t bad, I hasten to add. He is our Helper and wants us to do everything in His strength. However, even though I was well intentioned, I realized that subtly, I’d been putting God on my program rather than seeking how I could be on His.

So, I accepted His suggestion. Okay, Jesus, that’s good with me. Please help me to stay with You throughout the day, to be involved with You in the things You want to be about today.

As you might guess, my day went differently from how it usually does. Each time I’d start a new activity, see someone, or think about something, I’d try to remember to ask, Jesus, what are You doing in this? How do You want to meet this person or address this issue? What are Your desires?

(In the interest of full disclosure: I’m no saint, so please notice the operative word “try” in the previous paragraph. I did not succeed in asking these questions in every aspect of my day. Many times I forgot. But I did try to remember to do that, and the result was much different and better than if I hadn’t tried!)

For example, at work I ran into someone I had never had a conversation with. Introvert that I am, I was fine with that. What’s wrong with a smile and a silent nod? But I asked Jesus if He had anything He wanted to do for her or say to her, and He did. He reminded me of a new venture she was beginning; Ask her about that. So I did. And we had a 10-minute conversation. I got the impression she was encouraged.

That afternoon I was on the phone with someone I’d be doing ministry with a few weeks down the road. Before we hung up I asked Jesus if there was anything He had in mind for her. Instantly I felt that He wanted me to pray with her. I didn’t really want to do that . . . I enjoy praying on the phone with friends, but not so much with people I have never met. But before I could lose courage, I blurted out, “Can we pray together?” She agreed. And when we finished, she told me that she thought she had heard the answer to a wrinkle in the program that we’d not been able to iron out earlier in the conversation.

Still later that day, I attended a prayer meeting and sat next to someone I barely know. This person shared a serious prayer need that was burdening her greatly. To my dismay, she started to cry. I’d never seen this person cry before. She seems to me a very private person. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to console her, but I didn’t want to intrude on her space. Oh yeah, I forgot. This isn’t up to me. Jesus, what do you want for this person right now? Well, it seemed He wanted me to lay a comforting hand on her shoulder. But I didn’t want to do that! So I reminded Him of a few things. Some people don’t like to be touched! That’s a very forward action, Lord. Besides, I think she stopped crying. I think she’s good now. Right, Lord, okay, Jesus?  He didn’t respond. Sighing, I told Him, Okay, if she sniffles again, I’ll do it. But please don’t let her sniffle again!

Well, guess what. She sniffled. So quickly, before I could talk myself out of it, I placed my hand gently on her shoulder. I could feel her relax. It felt good to think that she was feeling Jesus’ love for her, through me. After the prayer meeting, she shared more of her concern with me privately. I felt as if being with her the way Jesus wanted to be with her had opened the door to deeper relationship.

I wish I could say I’ve done every day like I did that special day a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t. It takes a lot of focus and concentration, and frankly, I am easily distracted. However, I still aim to keep company with Jesus like that, and as I continue practicing, offering myself the grace I know He offers me, I am sure it will come. After all, incredibly enough, He enjoys my company as much as I need His.

Standing before a Holy God

I’m struggling today. A friend I knew well took her own life Sunday morning. She had been seriously depressed for several years. Still, the news came like a punch to the gut.
A group of us gathered last night to comfort one another and try to sort through the tangle of hurt. Our friend was a believer. She faithfully participated in the Sunday school class I helped to lead, had attended one of my listening prayer retreats, and I’d had many spiritual discussions with her. Others of us had done healing prayer with her over the long haul. Still others had studied God’s Word with her. Not to mention the meals, walks, and games of Scrabble we shared with her.
Some of those gathered mentioned conversations they’d had with our friend about what happens to the souls of believers who commit suicide. She’d asked me that, too. I remember feeling uncomfortable at the question. I didn’t want to suggest a simple answer to such a significant issue which, for my friend, was probably not merely hypothetical.
I think I said something about the Bible not clearly spelling out the answer to such a question so I didn’t want to either. In retrospect, I regret not saying more, not following up and suggesting we study the question together.
All of this has me thinking deeply about what I think about God and eternity. My evangelism training taught me to ask, “If you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?” But I couldn’t sleep last night wondering, Important as it is, isn’t there more to consider than just one’s eternal destination? How does our relationship with God figure in?
My spiritual journey has taught me the value of my relationship with God—not just the assurance of heaven when I die, but of living in actual relationship with God right now. I know the effect our friend’s suicide has had on those of us who cared about her. So how, I wonder, does our friend’s choice to end her life affect her Father who made her, loves her, and had plans and purposes for her life?
Sometime in the middle of the night Hebrews 9:27 rang in my soul: “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” Related verses rushed in: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10); “So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12).
I pictured Job. At first he boldly attempted to present his case to God—but when God showed up in all His holy power, Job fell speechless. I wondered what it would be like for my friend to stand before God. I wondered what it will be like for me when my turn comes.
What I realize now and so much wish I’d seen earlier is that making it to heaven and avoiding hell is not the only issue to consider. My friend’s death has made me realize that grateful as I’ll be to be in heaven when I die, I also want to be ready to face my Maker. He loves me infinitely well—but He also will ask me to give an account for my life and faith. How much I wish I’d discussed these things with her!
I often talk and write about the importance of cultivating an accurate view of God so we can pray effectively. Usually, I address the harsh views people typically have of God and help them to see Him as gentle Father and faithful Friend. I won’t stop doing that—it’s critical. But this experience with my friend has taught me that I also don’t ever want to forget that He is also a holy, righteous Judge. He is our Creator who made us with His own purposes in mind. He is our Lord and Master—to whom we owe an account for how we use the things He entrusts to us, including our very lives. And He is our Father who one day will look us in the eye—perhaps with tears in His own—to ask us how much we trusted Him as we lived out the lives He gave us.