Cries from the Wilderness

My dad died on Sunday, and the memorial service is today. It seemed like this article, adapted from one I wrote for the March/April issue of Pray! Magazine in 2008, was appropriate. 

There’s no question about it: Trials and hardships affect our prayer lives. The way they affect our praying, however, differs from person to person and from season to season.

When my husband was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, my initial reaction was emotional paralysis. “It’s not that I don’t want to pray,” I confided in a friend, “I just can’t!” My friend reassured me that she and others would be praying for me until I was able to pray again. They did pray, and eventually so could I.

Later on I went through times when it was difficult to pray because I didn’t dare to be honest with God. I was hurt, angry, scared, and confused. Anything I might have said to Him wouldn’t have sounded at all like the pretty and polite prayers I was used to hearing in church. It was then that another friend pointed me to the Psalms. She observed that the psalmists were gut-honest about how they felt and that God seemed capable of handling their negative feelings. So in that season, I learned to lament.

In still another season, I was frustrated. I had prayed all the “right” things, yet God wasn’t answering in the way or on the timetable I’d hoped for. I wondered if He even heard me. Frankly, I wondered if He cared. Why bother? I thought. But God sent still more friends to come alongside me. One helped me to appreciate and join in the fellowship of Jesus’ sufferings and His wilderness cries to God. Another helped me to hear and receive God’s loving comfort even though He was not giving me the answers I wanted. During that time my prayers became deeper and richer, my relationship with the Lord became more intimate, and my trust in Him became more complete.

When my husband died (and during the weeks before when, more than once, he almost died) it was a most painful time. Yet during that time I found that I could honestly praise and thank God for many things, both spiritual and material. How God has grown me in these difficult times, I realized.

I know that the future will provide plenty more trials to challenge my prayer life. There may even be times again when I feel that I cannot pray. Still, I rejoice that God allowed me to see at least this one time that even the valley of the shadow of death can become an occasion for me to commune deeply with Him, through prayer.

While it doesn’t happen automatically, suffering can be a catalyst to a stronger prayer life. That doesn’t mean you should ask God to send trials your way! More than likely, you already are experiencing some hardship. If not, you’re probably interceding for someone who has. So whether you are in a wilderness right now, or you know someone who is, my prayer is that you can break through the numbness and pain and persevere in prayer. As I’ve walked through my own wilderness season, I’ve experienced that God really does hear, He really does care, and He really will use our suffering not only for good but also to deepen our conversations with Him.

Turning Disappointment into Praise

I expect I’m in good company when I say that finding “pure joy” in trials does not come easily to me (see James 1:2). However, God has shown me something recently that helps me to find ways to worship Him in these trials—especially the everyday disappointments that come when I, a broken person, brush against other broken people. He is showing me that it is possible to use many of these disappointing, frustrating, and painful things to prompt praise. Here’s the concept: God is the opposite of just about anything I find unjust, hurtful, or discouraging. Human imperfection can serve to point out His holy perfection. Maybe some examples will help you see what I mean.

  • If somebody failed to follow through on something that I was counting on, I could remember that God is completely reliable. His “Yes” means “Yes.” What He says, He will do. I can depend on that.
  • If somebody rejected me, I could remember that God accepts me in His beloved Son, Jesus. I am His and He is mine. He always wants me, is always happy to see me.
  • If somebody misunderstood me, I could remember that God knows me inside and out. He knows every word I will speak, even before it is on my tongue. He fashioned my heart—He understands me!
  • If somebody held a grudge against me, I could remember that God forgives all my sins and does not count them against me. He is love, and He keeps no record of wrongs.
  • If somebody was always moody and I never knew what to expect when I saw them, I could remember that God is constant; He does not change like shifting shadows. When I go to Him, I can always expect Him to be good, kind, loving, welcoming.
  • If someone was impatient or angry with me, I could remember that God is slow to anger, and abounding in love. He is patient with me.
  • If somebody was critical of me, I could remember God does not condemn me. Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to save it—and me. He is merciful and full of grace.
  • If someone deceived me, I could remember that Jesus is Truth, and God cannot lie. I can count on whatever He says to be true.
  • If someone was demanding or overbearing, I could remember that Jesus gives rest. His yoke is easy and His burden is light. He knows what I am made of and has compassion on me as a father has compassion on his children.

Do you get the idea? When I’ve been hurt or offended, I always need help to “change the channel.” By seeing God’s attributes in light of the disappointment, I can renew my mind. I can tell Him my hurt (disappointment, frustration, etc.), ask Him to lift it from me, and then I can praise Him because He is the opposite—He is faithful, kind, forgiving, patient, understanding, true, good, accepting, steady, strong—He is everything we broken and fallen people are not. And that is reason for praise!

The Importance of Follow-Through

This post is adapted from an article I wrote for Pray! magazine in the January/February 2007 issue. I still find this topic challenging—how about you?

When I began a new job and ministry a number of years ago, I attempted to round up an intercessory prayer team. I knew I’d need a lot of prayer. Most of the people I asked to join the team said yes. But one friend, an elderly pastor and prayer warrior, declined. He told me kindly that he already had a good number of prayer commitments, and he wasn’t sure he would be able to invest the time that my new ministry’s needs would require. He assured me of his confidence in the ministry and in me, and he said that he would pray for me as the Holy Spirit brought me to mind. And I know for a fact that he did just that. He occasionally sent me notes telling me so.

I’d never had an experience like that before. Always before when I asked people to pray for me, without missing a beat they assured me they would. But I never really knew whether they followed through or not. After all, I’d made similar promises to other people scores of times, and my own follow-through was pretty spotty.

The interaction with my pastor-friend taught me to take people’s requests for prayer more seriously. I can’t say I’ve been brave enough to tell people that I won’t take on their prayer assignments, but I do try to pray for the people who ask me for prayer, even if it means praying for them on-the-spot, at the moment they ask. I don’t want people to count on me for prayer and then be left exposed because I didn’t make good on my promise.

Romans 6:18 tells us to “Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.” That’s a lot of believers to pray for! I know I’m not the only one who gets lots of emails, texts, Facebook messages, missionary letters, and other communications with prayer requests—often urgent ones. How do the rest of you handle this huge responsibility and privilege? What ways have you found to follow through?


Body and Soul Prayer

What I’m about to share may be news to no one but me. But I’m going to share it anyhow, because for me it was a revelation.

Are you ready? Here it is: You don’t have to do intercession on your knees. You don’t have to be quiet and still in order to pray for others. In fact, concentrating on the prayer needs of loved ones may actually happen better—at least it does for me—when you’re not trying to sit silently and contemplatively.

Like I said, that probably is not an epiphany for many people. But it has been a wonderful discovery for me. Here’s why.

For many years, the only kinds of prayer I knew were petition and intercession—that is, praying for my needs and the needs of others. Usually that need-based prayer generated from a prayer list. I have used a lot of different kinds of prayer lists over the years (loose-leaf “prayer organizers”; index cards with people’s needs written on them; prayer lists compiled by my church; 31-day prayer cards; special-interest daily prayer guides, and so on).

When, in more recent years, I learned about prayer as conversation and relationship with God, my prayer times changed radically. Talking with God was like talking with a friend. We talked about all kinds of things, and sometimes we had entire long conversations in which I didn’t ask Him for anything at all. So after experiencing prayer like that, bringing the equivalent of a grocery list to this intimate conversation no longer seemed natural or appropriate. So I stopped praying from lists. For a while.

But before long, I realized something was missing. Although I was enjoying conversations with God and my prayer life was more meaningful than it had been before, I felt as if I was leaving out something important. Friends and situations still needed my prayer—but I didn’t know how to work it into this new, more contemplative way of interacting with God. I wondered if I’d thrown out the baby with the bath.

So I started experimenting with ways to bring intercession back into my prayer life. I have had varying degrees of success with that. But something God has shown me recently holds a lot of promise. And so here is my discovery: intercession mixes very well with exercise.

I joined a gym in January at God’s invitation (long story—maybe I’ll share it sometime). And to my astonishment, I’m enjoying it and can actually seeing myself continuing for the long haul. My favorite activity is swimming. I now swim for 30 minutes every other day.

There is nothing to look at in a swimming pool but the black line at the bottom. And there is nothing to listen to since water and iPods don’t go together. But one day, halfway through my work out, God stirred my thoughts out of idle. He brought someone to mind just as I was finishing a lap. I decided to pray for that person as I swam the next lap. When I came to the end of that lap, another person came to mind. The same thing happened for the rest of my laps that day. When I got out of the pool, I counted: I’d prayed for 10 people. And it had felt very different from praying a list. Somehow my prayers for people that day went deeper—I prayed for the obvious needs, but I also prayed for other less-immediate (but perhaps even more important) things for them. I prayed Scripture for them. I prayed from my heart, not just a list. It was good—and I was hooked.

The next time I swam, I planned ahead for how many laps I was going to do. I asked God to help me identify a person to pray for during each lap. Then, instead of counting laps, I prayed for people. When I had finished praying for all the people, my workout was done.

Another day, the Holy Spirit brought to mind some situations and people with complex and serious needs, so each need got six laps. Another day close friends and family got two laps apiece, while people I didn’t know as well each got one. Each day it’s different, depending on how the Holy Spirit directs me to pray.

This new-found structure for intercession has worked well for me. It allows enough time to actually talk to God about the situation (rather than just recite the need as it appears on my list). But it’s not so still-and-silent that I lose focus. Somehow the rhythm of the laps and the sameness of the black line keep me from distraction so I can engage with God more fully about the needs He invites me to pray about.

Has anyone else out there discovered a way to make extended times of intercession meaningful and engaging? I’d love to hear your stories and ideas!