Selfish Prayers?

My son lives in New York City, and survived Hurricane Sandy unscathed. While millions of people lost power, thousands had their homes flood, scores had their homes burn, and at least 50 lost their lives, Ian remained comfortable and safe in his apartment. The wind howled and his lights flickered occasionally, but that’s about all he had to deal with. God answered my prayers and protected my son—and I’m incredibly grateful.

So, I was feeling selfish to ask God for more. But here’s the thing—Ian was supposed to come home to Colorado Friday to celebrate his birthday. He was supposed to fly from LaGuardia, which flooded. The whole region has been crippled since before Sandy hit, and the prospect for air travel from that part of the world is not encouraging.

But it’s been almost a year since Ian’s last visit. I’ve made a bunch of special plans, and I am going to be really disappointed and sad if he can’t come—that’s an understatement.

Sometimes prayer gurus discourage us from praying “little prayers,” prayers that only involve me and mine. They say we should focus on kingdom prayers, bringing God’s kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. So we should be praying for revival, an end to injustice, global evangelism, righteous government, and other big-ticket prayers.

And of course God is honored by those prayers. He wants to glorify Himself by doing those things, and encourages us to partner with Him by praying about them. However, I’m not so sure it’s an either/or. Why can’t it be a both/and?

I told Ian Monday night that I was praying that God would get him to Colorado somehow. “I know it’s a selfish prayer,” I said, apologetically, “But I really hope that in spite of all this, He will make a way for you to come.”

Ian’s answer surprised me. “If God answers your prayer, it will be for the greater good of many people in this city,” he said. It only took me a second to see that he was right. In order to get Ian out of New York City, God had a lot of work to do to get the city back on its feet. That would benefit far more people than just my son.

And that’s probably true for a lot of “selfish” requests we make of God. Prayers for employment, healing, provision, restored relationships, protection, favor for our children, deliverance from bad habits, affect more than just us. The effects of those prayers can ripple across space and time, bringing glory to God in ways we could never have anticipated when we asked for what we “selfishly” wanted or needed.

God urges us to worry about nothing and pray about everything (Phil 4:6). He wants us to cast our cares on Him because He cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7). He reminds us that unless we become like little children (who aren’t known for thinking much beyond their own concerns) we can’t enter the kingdom of God (Mat. 18:3). Maybe it’s in the act of talking to God about everything—as a little child would talk to his parent about anything that concerns him—that we learn to pray not just for the little things, but also for the big ones.

That’s seems to be what Dallas Willard suggests in The Divine Conspiracy:  “Many people have found prayer impossible because they thought they should only pray for wonderful but remote needs they actually had little or no interest in or even knowledge of. Prayer simply dies from efforts to pray about ‘good things’ that honestly do not matter to us. The way to get to meaningful prayer for those good things is to start by praying for what we are truly interested in. The circle of our interests will inevitably grow in the largeness of God’s love.”

All that to say, I’m praying that God makes a way to bring my son home on Friday. And I am not feeling selfish about it anymore.

 

 

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Don’t Ask for Just a Few!

My God is not skimpy. And He doesn’t want me to make skimpy requests of Him. He reminded me of that once again this week when I was reading in 2 Kings 4.

A prophet had just died, leaving behind his wife and two sons. His creditor came to the widow requesting payment. When the poor woman said she could not pay, he demanded that her boys become his slaves.

Desperate, she went to the great prophet Elisha, who had known her husband.

“What do you have in your house?” the prophet asked.

“Nothing at all, except a small jar of olive oil,” she replied.

“Go around and ask all your neighbors for empty jars. Don’t ask for just a few” Elisha instructed. He explained that when she had gathered up the jars, she was to shut her door, and pour oil into all the jars.

The woman did as she was told. I wonder how many jars she collected. I picture her house full of them. But Scripture doesn’t tell us. At any rate, the oil poured and poured, filling jar after jar, after jar—a miracle in front of her very eyes. “Bring me another jar,” she instructed one of the boys. But they were out. There were no more. And at just that moment, the olive oil stopped flowing. I felt her disappointment as if it were my own. How I wished she’d asked for more jars!

As I read that story, I sensed the Lord saying to me, Don’t ask for just a few.

I knew right away what He meant. In spite of His repeated invitations, I still am often hesitant to ask for “big” or “many.” Although His giving isn’t skimpy, my faith sometimes is. But He was challenging me to more.

The widow’s story has become a new picture for me to pray with. When I want to intercede for people, I picture each of them as a jar. One by one, I place each jar on the altar in heaven, name the need, and ask God to fill the jar. I have put all kinds of “jars” there—a Grecian urn, a colorful art-deco pot, an apothecary jar, a big garden planter, a cookie jar—all kinds of receptacles on God’s altar waiting to be filled.

This afternoon when I was “praying with pots,” I thought of the widow’s oil. In her case, oil was a practical commodity that could be sold to pay off her debts. But the Lord reminded me that oil is also a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The idea thrilled me as, in my mind’s eye, I saw Jesus filling each of the pots I’d placed before Him with the Holy Spirit! Isn’t the best answer to any prayer God Himself? If the Holy Spirit were to flood the lives of each of the people I’m praying for, all the needs I so carefully itemize before God would take care of themselves.

So, because of God’s encouragement, I’m taking a few more faith risks and asking not “just for a few.” My jar collection on heaven’s altar is growing—and I’m eager to see Him fill them.

This Post Is Not Political

I promise, this post is not political. But what I’m going to write about was triggered by political bumper stickers, and it does offer hope in uncertain political times.

I was sitting behind a bumper sticker-covered car at a red light, reading the slogans and wise cracks plastered all over the rear of the vehicle. The thought came to me, Pray for those who counsel the people in elected office.

That sounded like the Lord, so I stuck with the thought. Who are those people? I wondered. I don’t even know their names! We don’t get to vote for them. But what tremendous influence they have!

My thoughts turned to governments in Bible times. During the thousands of years covered in biblical history, there were far more godless leaders than good ones, yet God was not the least bit hindered from carrying out His sovereign plans. I thought of some of His incredible methods: promote a slave from Israel into Egypt’s second-in-command; position a young man from an exiled nation into the king’s court and give him favor with the king; cause the adopted uncle of the new queen to be noticed at just the right time. Yup, Joseph, Daniel, and Mordecai were all highly unlikely candidates to be the closest confidants of pagan kings—yet God put them in those positions, and their counsel turned the course of history.

Pondering God’s ways with Egypt, Babylon, and Persia through His hand-picked servants, Joseph, Daniel, and Mordecai, encourages me. Truly, “the king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases” (Prov. 21:1). And one of the ways He can do that is by giving godly counselors favor and influence with people in power. So, while I’m still praying about how to vote, I’m also praying for the men and women behind the scenes, the unlikely people that God may use to turn leader’s hearts toward His kingdom purposes. Lord, raise up another Daniel, Esther, or Joseph!

 

 

Alas, Sovereign LORD!

I guess I need lots of reminders to “always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1).  But, kind as He is, God never seems to mind giving them to me.  This week His encouragement came from what seemed to me an unlikely place—the book of Ezekiel.

It was not a good day in Jerusalem. God’s people had forsaken Him for years, and the priests and leaders were the worst of the entire bunch. God gave Ezekiel a vision of judgment, destruction and bloodshed that climaxed with His glory—His very presence—leaving His temple. His people had forsaken Him and now He was forsaking them.

Ezekiel was beside himself in agony. He “fell facedown, crying out, “Alas, Sovereign Lord!Are you going to destroy the entire remnant of Israel in this outpouring of your wrathon Jerusalem?” (9:8).

I could feel Ezekiel’s anguish and hurried to read the Lord’s reply. To my dismay, it seemed as if God had not even heard Ezekiel, or else was ignoring him.  In reply, He simply restated His plans for justly deserved judgment (9:9-10).

Yet Ezekiel, more persevering—or perhaps more desperate—than I, wouldn’t let it go. The vision of God’s judgment continued, just as God had said it would. But, summoning faith and courage from someplace deep inside, Ezekiel again “fell facedown and cried out in a loud voice, “Alas, Sovereign Lord! Will you completely destroy the remnant of Israel?(11:13).

Was God just waiting to see if Ezekiel would hold on to faith? I really don’t know. But His answer this time was nothing but encouraging and gentle. He assured Ezekiel that He would indeed spare a remnant. And then God gave Ezekiel one of the most beautiful promises in Scripture: “I will give them an undivided heartand put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.They will be my people,and I will be their God” (11:19-20).

The concerns I’ve been praying about for a long time aren’t as terrifying and widespread as what troubled Ezekiel. Nevertheless, I sometimes feel something akin to the distress Ezekiel must have felt. If the Lord doesn’t intervene, there are certain hopes I have that will be lost.

But the Lord seems to want me to keep asking. That fits with what Jesus said in Luke 18, and it fits with what He showed me in Ezekiel this week. Even when it seems like things are heading toward the point of no return, from God’s perspective it’s not too late. So for my part, I will keep on asking.

Getting Below The Waterline: Inner-Healing Prayer in Spiritual Transformation

One of the coolest things I’ve learned about prayer in the last decade is how God can bring deep inner healing to us as we bring our wounded hearts to Him, then listen to Him and respond to what He says to us in response. I’ve experienced His healing, and so have others I’ve prayed with. Next month Rusty Rustenbach, author of A Guide for Listening and Inner-Healing Prayer and I will lead a seminar on this topic in Boulder, Colorado. If you’d like information about that, contact me. Or if you’d like us to do a seminar for you in your part of the world, let me know that too; perhaps we can arrange for it.

In the meantime, here’s an article I recently wrote for Conversations Journal in which I share my own journey, and talk about what healing prayer is and how God uses it to transform lives. If you’d prefer to read it on their website, here’s the link:http://conversationsjournal.com/2012/09/getting-below-the-waterline/

Getting Below The Waterline: The Role of Inner-Healing Prayer in Spiritual Transformation

In the days following my husband’s death, I desperately sought God’s comfort in the Scriptures. After an eleven-year battle with Multiple Sclerosis and all the humiliation, fear, hardship, and losses that go with it, my faith was on the fragile side. I needed solace, the kind only God could give.  So I went to the Psalms. Isn’t that where God’s children always find consolation?

But I found no consolation there. On the contrary, in fact. One day I was reading Psalm 91, the psalm just about every Christian turns to in times of fear or discouragement:

Surely he will save you
from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,

nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only observe with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.

If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
and you make the Most High your dwelling,
no harm will overtake you,
no disaster will come near your tent.[1]

I didn’t want to admit it, but the psalm made me feel angry. My husband had not been saved from the deadly pestilence or the destroying plague. My whole family had experienced plenty of terrors by night, and plenty of arrows by day. Disaster had come near our tent. More than just near, it had invaded our tent, taken my husband’s life, and left my son and me wounded and bereft. God did not feel like a refuge. Actually, reading the psalm made me feel as if God were mocking me.

 

Hadn’t I loved God enough to deserve His protection? I wondered. Had I failed Him and in the process, nullified His promises? If God had allowed so much pain and suffering to happen to my family and me already, how did I know there wasn’t more or even worse to come? I felt as if I were just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Mind you, I admitted these thoughts to no one, hardly even to myself. I was a leader in full-time ministry, after all. I’d been serious about my walk with God for decades. I invested myself in helping others to grow spiritually. How could I possibly admit such thoughts and feelings? They seemed almost blasphemous to me. I didn’t want to jeopardize the faith of others.

About that time, a man in my church whom I’d only met on a couple of occasions mentioned a healing prayer ministry he was part of. With no knowledge of my spiritual crisis, he offered, “If you ever want to have somebody pray with you and help you listen to God, we have people who do that. Just let me know.”

At that point in my spiritual journey, listening to God was something that was still relatively new to me. For much of my Christian life, I didn’t know how to hear God speak to me personally. Although I had puzzled over Scriptures like John 10 that assured me that Jesus’ sheep hear His voice,[2] my prayers had been mostly one-way monologues. And the impersonality of that seemingly one-way relationship left me feeling lonely and detached from God. But during the hardest years of my husband’s illness, God had mercifully taught me how to listen to His voice. Through experience, He proved to me that I could call to Him and He would answer me,[3] and that I could come to Him with my ears wide open and in listening, I would find life.[4] He helped me to understand that He really does call me friend,[5] and that He enjoys it when I invite Him to have conversation with me, Friend to friend.[6]

I don’t think I would have survived the years of illness, loss, and relentless caregiving if I hadn’t learned to hear my Father’s tender voice. Time and time again I was amazed by His almost unnervingly personal care for me as He patiently responded to my anger and fear, and gently comforted me and fathered me. As my ability to discern His voice grew, so did my relationship with Him. God became more personal and intimate—and thus more indispensable to me—than He had ever been before.

But in spite of having heard God and even dialogued with Him in deeply personal, relational ways, He seemed pretty silent in those dark days after my husband’s death. The warm conversations we’d had previously seemed like ancient history. So when Jack asked me if I would like somebody to listen to God with me, I was open. I wasn’t hearing much from God on my own, but maybe listening with others could help me to re-connect. I had no idea what to expect, but I set up a time to pray with him and a woman from the church’s healing prayer team.

Healing prayer, it turned out, was different from any other kind of prayer I’d ever been involved with. But even though it was a stretch for me, it made complete sense. Using listening prayer as a foundation, it is a way of asking Jesus to do for people now, in our generation, the kind of ministry that Isaiah 61 (and Luke 4) describe Him as doing—binding up broken hearts, freeing captives, releasing prisoners, comforting all who mourn, exchanging despair for praise.

My prayer partners explained that they had no agenda except to ask Jesus to do His healing work. They said they would focus our prayer time on asking God what I needed and how He wanted to meet me. They asked me a few questions, equivalent to a medical doctor asking, “Where does it hurt?” Then they explained to me that they would ask God a question and invite Him to respond to me. He might bring up a memory or impression, perhaps He would stir up a painful emotion. He might bring to mind words that had been spoken to me, or maybe a verse of Scripture. Maybe He would give me a picture. Whatever came to mind I was to report. If we weren’t sure if it was from God or not, or if we didn’t know what it meant, we would simply ask Him to confirm or clarify.

In the process of listening to God in that manner, He did speak. He revealed early memories—long before the ordeal with my husband—of times when I had felt unprotected and vulnerable. He helped me to see that long before adulthood I had come to believe that those who are supposed to protect me, won’t. That if I don’t look out for myself, no one else will. He helped me to see how, subconsciously, I’d transferred these beliefs to Him, too. Without even knowing it, I’d come to believe that God would not protect or help me, that I had to take care of myself. Was it any wonder that when I needed God the most, I couldn’t find Him? I’d built my life around those devastating, isolating lies, so that I had no real expectation that He would rescue me. Sure, I “believed” Psalm 91 intellectually, but in my deepest heart, I doubted.

When those lies were exposed, I was able to confess them and ask God’s forgiveness for doubting His love and care. I was able to see and declare the truth that God is for me and He helps those who call to Him in faith. Over time, I was able to forgive the ones who had failed to keep me safe and had set me up to believe awful lies about God and life.

Healing for me wasn’t one quick prayer session. It involved a series of times similar to what I just described in which God revealed to me the obstacles that were standing in the way of my trusting Him. Over a period of months, as one by one I dealt with them, my confidence in God’s loving care grew so that now I can read Psalm 91 with peace and hope.

Inner-Healing Prayer’s Part in Spiritual Formation

My personal experience with inner-healing prayer, both offering it to others and receiving it, has prompted me to believe that it plays a helpful, if not critical, role in spiritual formation. In my case, I desperately wanted to trust God. I was miserable when I dreaded the future because I couldn’t bring myself to trust in His care for me. My struggle filled me with guilt and shame. I hated feeling suspicious of God while all the while professing my faith in His goodness. So I read books on faith. I memorized Scriptures about His goodness. I confessed (over and over and over) my fear. I gritted my teeth and tried to “just do it.” I learned so much about what it meant to trust God that I suspect I probably could have given a convincing inspirational talk or written a powerful devotional about the faithfulness of God. But no matter how firmly my head was convinced, my heart still struggled.

As others have invited me to pray with them for inner healing, I’ve discovered that I was by no means alone in my spiritual frustration. Many of us have deep-rooted wounds that get in the way of our spiritual transformation. My issues of doubting and distrusting God are far more common than I realized. But there are many others: inferiority, shame, perfectionism, addictions, obsessive and compulsive behavior, anxiety, gender confusion, people-pleasing, body image issues, and more. All of these are serious barriers to our ability to experience God and grow in Jesus’ likeness. And all of them are nearly impossible to address by conventional means of discipleship such as Bible study, Scripture memorization, or petition-based prayer.

Rusty Rustenbach, director of pastoral care and counseling for The Navigators and author of A Guide to Inner-Healing Prayer: Meeting God in the Broken Places, describes how, as a seasoned counselor, missionary, and disciple-maker, not only was he unable to help the people he ministered to get past these obstacles—he could not get past them himself. As a boy, he had not received from authority figures the affirmation he needed—which led to insecurity, people-pleasing, and periodic overreactions to triggering events that continued into adulthood. He wanted to be free from those inner attitudes and weights —but the spiritual disciplines he tried weren’t setting him free. Then one day he read Psalm 18:9: “He brought me forth also into a broad place; He rescued me because He delighted in me.”[7] Yeah, I’ll bet God delights in me, Rustenbach mused, cynically. No, He puts up with me because He’s stuck with me.”[8]

A friend talked to Rustenbach about listening prayer (in 1997, before much had been taught or written about the inner-healing aspect of listening prayer) and Rustenbach reluctantly agreed to try it. He really didn’t expect anything to happen, but God surprised him. “Rusty, I am for you… for you and not against you. You belong to me I chose you to belong to Me because I love you with an everlasting love. You are Mine!”[9] That intimate encounter with God was deeply healing to Rustenbach; as he relates the story today, fifteen years later, his eyes still fill with tears. And now, listening and inner-healing prayer has become the foundation of his fruitful ministry with The Navigators.

“As our global society increases in complexity, size, and brokenness, growing numbers of people struggle with issues that seem impervious to traditional ministry methods.”[10] Rustenbach says. Spiritual disciplines are useful and necessary, but inadequate to deal with issues that are hidden “below the water line.”[11]

Often a person is not even aware of these below-the-surface wounds. Nevertheless, he or she may feel trapped by unwanted but automatic reactions, unhealthy habits, and negative thought patterns. In persons who have walked with the Lord for a long time these are especially troubling. After all, intellectually, they believe the right things. They have good theology. But there is a head-heart schism. What they believe in their heads does not work itself out in their lives, in spite of counseling , effort, or traditional forms of prayer. These kinds of wounds require a touch from Jesus, a manifestation of God’s grace. We need God to show us where the problem is rooted—and we need Him to bring the healing.

This process does not require a person to probe deeply into his or her past. Such introspection, as many of us have learned the hard way, often isn’t helpful, and can even be harmful. Through difficult experience we understand that “the heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful, a puzzle that no one can figure out.”[12] But God is able to lovingly, gently, objectively sort out what we cannot. “I, God, search the heart and examine the mind. I get to the heart of the human. I get to the root of things. I treat them as they really are, not as they pretend to be.”[13]

Assumptions and Principles of Inner-Healing Prayer

There are different models of inner-healing prayer, most of which rely on some variation of these assumptions and principles:

  • A person experienced an emotional wounding, often in childhood (e.g. abandonment by a parent, real or perceived rejection by significant people, sexual, verbal, or physical abuse, loss, deprivation, etc.).
  • Lies about God, self, or the way the world works were believed as a result of that traumatic, painful or disappointing experience (e.g. “If I let people know who I really am, they won’t like me”).
  • Vows may have been made in an attempt to protect the person from future hurt (e.g. “I’ll never trust a man again”).
  • Generational patterns may have been inherited (such as patterns of fear, a poverty mindset, and so on).
  • As we practice listening prayer, the Holy Spirit speaks in our minds or hearts, through pictures, the stirring of emotions, words, symbols, or other creative and very personal means.
  • Usually God takes us back to memories from childhood where the wounding took place. He helps us to see what happened to our souls at that time, exposing lies we came to believe, unbiblical vows we made, faulty strategies for living that we adopted, and perhaps the pronouncements others made over us.
  • We confess these lies, vows, and so on, to Him and ask Him to reveal truth. As we embrace the truth He reveals, our minds are renewed and we are freed from the emotional bondage that hindered our spiritual growth and freedom. We stand with Jesus, Way, Truth, and Life, and declare our independence from the father of lies.
  • Sometimes we see Jesus with us in the memory of the painful event.  He may speak words of truth or offer comfort that usually is deeply moving and penetrating.
  • With His help, (sometimes over time rather than immediately) we forgive the ones who wounded us, both for the actual offense, as well as for the consequences we have experienced as a result of that offense.
  • By replacing lies with truth and forgiving those who hurt us, we close off areas of access to the enemy. He can no longer energize those places for us.
  • We adopt our true identity in Christ rather than the false identities we assumed because of the lies we believed and the wounds we were compensating for.
  • We expect that the Wonderful Counselor actually will meet us and touch us when we invite Him into our wounded places. When we invite Him, He will come, and He will heal.

Recently I had a conversation with a young Christian medical student who is seeking to understand God’s role in healing. He cited research that supports the efficacy of prayer for soul healing. That wasn’t surprising, he told me, since prayer is a form of catharsis, allowing for the release of painful emotions so that healing can occur. I agreed with him that pouring out our hearts to God is indeed cathartic. What kinder, wiser Listener could we ever have than our Abba, Father, who made us and redeemed us and constantly watches over us in love? But there’s more, I told him. Inner-healing prayer is supernatural. God actually does something when we invite Him to heal our hurting hearts. Somehow, He enters into our pain with us and releases us from it with no less power than when He healed 2,000 years ago.

As Richard Foster so aptly puts it, “Don’t you know that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who lives in the eternal now, can enter that old painful memory and heal it so that it will no longer control you?”[14]