Little by LIttle

I am often impatient for God’s answers to my prayers. It doesn’t help any that when people asked Jesus for what they wanted or needed, they usually got it the same hour, or if not the same hour, at least the same day. Sometimes I read the Gospels and wonder why those folks got such quick answers when some of my prayers seem to have been going on for years.

But God showed me something the other day that encouraged me. It came from Exodus. It wasn’t exactly about prayer, but it was about seeing God’s promises fulfilled.

Early in their wilderness journey, God told the Israelites that He would go ahead of them and move the Canaanites out of the way. Then they could possess the land He’d promised them. But He warned them that it would not happen overnight.

“I will not force them out of your way in one year,” He said. “Otherwise, the land would be deserted, and wild animals would take over. Little by little I will force them out of your way until you have increased enough in number to take possession of the land” (Exodus 23:29-30, God’s Word Translation).

When I read that, it was a holy aha! God wasn’t stalling just so the could develop a little more patience (although that may have been a by-product). He was intentionally delaying so that the Israelites would be able to move into and actually maintain what He was giving them.

If He’d cleared the place out overnight, it would have been too much for them. They wouldn’t have been able to fill the land fast enough to keep the weeds down and the bears out. They needed to take the land incrementally, little by little.

God showed me how some of my long-term prayers are like that, especially prayers for my own spiritual transformation or someone else’s. If He were to do what I ask in one fell swoop, it might not last. The thrill of victory might turn too soon to the agony of defeat because I would not have developed the spiritual disciplines necessary to maintain what God gave. The triumph I long for might be lost as I slide back into old habits.

Spiritual transformation, I realized, is actually a lot like taking possession of a new land. When you move into new territory, the land needs to be cleared. Brush needs to be hauled away. Crops need to be planted. Houses need to be built. In the same way, when you move into new spiritual territory, certain habits need to go. Wrong thinking needs to be replaced with life-giving truth. New habits need to be developed. Relationships need to be nurtured.

All this takes time.

I thought about some of those long-term prayers I’ve been praying. And I noticed something—although I’m a long way off from possessing the land, there are definitely signs of progress. Sure indicators that God is at work. It hasn’t happened overnight—but it is happening little by little, bit by bit. And that is all I need to keep on praying.

 

 

Scripture’s Saddest Words

I’ve read Exodus 20 many times, but one verse in that chapter always gets me, like a stab to the heart. God had just given Moses the 10 commandments. As was His habit, God had spoken directly to Moses, “personally, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11, GWT). But when Moses tells the people about it, they protest in fear: “You speak to us and we’ll listen,” they say. “But don’t let God speak to us, or we’ll die!” (Exodus 20:20, GWT).

In the earlier days of my spiritual journey, I thought God only spoke through Scripture. I didn’t believe He would speak personally to everyday people like me. I remember reading those words with dismay and great longing. What I wouldn’t give for God to speak to me! Why, why, why did they want a go-between when they could have heard from God Himself?”

Since those days, God has helped me to experience the joy of hearing His voice personally. I’m not Moses, and I’m not a prophet, but I am one of His sheep, and Jesus has taught me to know His voice (John 10:27). I am God’s child, and His Spirit cries “Abba Father” in my heart (Galatians 4:6). When I trust in Him instead of leaning on my own understanding, He directs my paths and guides me into all truth (Proverbs 3:5-6; John 16:13). When I call out to Him, He answers me and shows me things I didn’t know before (Jeremiah 33:3). He comforts me and teaches me (John 14:26). He gives me wisdom when I ask for it (James 1:5).

So I was surprised when I read Exodus 20 again this morning and instead of my usual “What is wrong with those people?” my response was a sober “I think I get it. Sometimes I’d rather hear God through somebody else. There’s too much responsibility if He speaks directly to me.”

You may possibly know what I mean. Sometimes the Holy Spirit urges me to go someplace I am scared to go. Sometimes He speaks truth to me that is hard to hear. Sometimes He asks me to give Him something I’m not ready to give.

But see, if someone else acts as the go-between, I don’t necessarily feel like I have to take them as seriously. That’s how the Israelites were. They said they would listen to Moses as God’s representative, but the truth is, they argued with Moses. They didn’t accept his words as the very words of God. They grumbled and complained and debated with him—even though they wouldn’t have dared do that with God.

I realized that I sometimes do that, too. God may speak to me through a pastor, author, or speaker—but if I don’t like what He says, it’s easy to dismiss. I can disagree with the pastor’s interpretation, I can disregard what the author says as “her opinion,” I see the speaker’s shortcomings and throw out the message with the messenger.

But if God says it—well, that’s another matter. It’s a lot harder to argue with or ignore God!

So, today, I was more sympathetic to the Israelites than I usually am. But I was sad for them, too. They missed God—twice. First because they didn’t realize the tremendous privilege it is to hear God’s voice personally. And second, because of all the times they wrote Him off when He tried to speak to them through Moses. Because what I’ve learned is, God’s words—whether they are hard or easy, affirming or challenging—are life. And that’s true whether they come to me directly from His Spirit, through His written Word, or through His human agent. So I might as well get them direct from the Source! I get to enjoy His company and friendship that way, like Moses did.

 

Do it Again, Lord!

Sometimes I get annoyed with Bible people. Like this morning. I was reading in Exodus and getting really excited about God. He parted the Red Sea for the Israelites—incredible to imagine! And then when the Egyptian army tried to follow, the waters crashed down on them and they all were destroyed. What an amazing rescue!

Is it any wonder the people rejoiced and worshiped? Moses led them in a song of praise to the Lord. And then his sister, Miriam, led all the women in a joyful dance before the Lord. As I read, the people’s joy nearly vibrated off the pages.

“I will sing to the Lord. He has won a glorious victory!”

 

“The Lord is my strength and my song. He is my Savior. This is my God, and I will praise him, I will honor him!”

 

“O Lord, who is like you? You are glorious because of your holiness and awe-inspiring because of your splendor. You perform miracles!”

 

“Lovingly, you will lead the people you have saved. Powerfully, you will guide them to your holy dwelling. The Lord will rule as king forever and ever!” (excerpted from Exodus 15, God’s Word translation).

But a mere two verses later, I got pretty upset with the whole lot of them. For Pete’s sake, they act as if God had died! True, they’d traveled for three days in the desert without water. That’s a problem. But instead of asking God for help, they griped about Moses. Instead of trusting God to provide for them as He had done not even 72 hours earlier, they whined: “What are we supposed to drink?” (verse 24).

I paused from my Bible reading. I cannot believe these people! I said out loud.

Really? a Still Small Voice asked in reply.

I realized I’d been busted. The Holy Spirit was gently pointing out how much I have in common with the Israelites. Immediately I thought about a situation that I’m struggling with. It’s a genuine problem, no less real than the Israelite’s need for water. And I am utterly incapable of solving this problem. If I think about it very long—like more than about three seconds—I am very likely to gripe and whine, just like the Israelites did.

The irony is, like the Israelites, I have also experienced God’s deliverance in desperate situations. I can name at least three examples of God’s loving intervention, working things out in ways I never would have imagined, and never could have orchestrated on my own.

Still, I forget. The new crisis looms in front of me, and I forget the victory song I’d sung just a few days earlier. Or I doubt. Sure, God delivered me before, but who says He’ll do it again this time?

Either way, my responses are not pretty.

God, I don’t want to be like the Israelites, I told Him this morning. You have delivered me wonderfully before. You have walked through fires and floods with me on other occasions. You have never abandoned me. You have never failed me. I am sorry I forget. I am sorry I doubt. Please help me to remember Your deliverance. And please deliver me again.

It’s a full 15 hours later, and God has not answered my prayer yet. He has not led me to water as quickly as He did the Israelites in Exodus 15. I’m still waiting for His deliverance. But however long I have to wait, I want to do it with faith, not doubt. I want to hope in the Lord. I want to trust that He will help me—as He promises always to do when I call on Him. So that has been my prayer throughout today, and probably will be for days to come: Help me to remember, Lord—and please, please do it again!

Crafted Prayer

In a few weeks, a friend will undergo major surgery. It is a newish procedure that, if successful, could significantly improve his quality of life. But if it’s not successful, well, let’s not go there. My friend has tons of hope. However, he also admits very honestly that he has a good deal of fear. And who wouldn’t? But he is dealing with it in wonderful way, I think. He is asking for prayer.

Not just ordinary, casual, “will you pray for me as the Lord brings me to mind” kind of prayer, though. He has let his friends know that he would very much appreciate having written prayers sent to him before the surgery. That way the words of our prayers can encourage his heart and his faith as he waits.

I love that idea. Often when people ask me for prayer, I say “Sure, I’ll pray for you.” And I do. But my friends don’t usually get to hear the prayers I pray. Plus, when I pray for people on my own, I don’t always put the thought into it that I put into a crafted prayer that I actually write down.

When I wrote my prayer for my friend, I asked the Lord what to pray. I listened to His reply. I sought Scriptures that supported the things He led me to pray. The resulting written prayer included phrases and ideas from God’s Word that I hope will encourage and comfort my friend, as well as strengthen his faith.

And, the written prayer, sent weeks ahead of time, can be read and prayed many times in the days leading up the surgery day. He can pray it, I can pray it. Somehow, the discipline of writing that crafted prayer seemed to place my friend more firmly in my heart, so that I think to pray for him more often, and with more faith.

I probably won’t be writing out prayers for every person who asks me to pray for them. But for loved ones experiencing the high levels of hope and fear that anticipated surgery typically prompts, I think it’s a wonderful idea.

Have any of you ever been on the giving or receiving end of this kind of praying. What has it been like for you?

One-Word Prayers

God gave me a creative idea for intercession recently. A few weeks ago I had a long list of friends I wanted to pray for. But it was a long list.

 Ask Me to give you a single word that summarizes what they need from Me right now I believe God said to me.

He did not need to convince me that less is often more when it comes to prayer. I’m an editor. I’m used to paring manuscripts down to size. I know that too many words can often mean unfocused, sloppy thinking. But one word? Even to me that seemed a bit stark.

I was fascinated, though, so I decided to give it a try. I wrote down the list of people I sensed that God was inviting me to pray for that day. There were 20 names. Ordinarily a list that long would discourage me. I want to pray meaningfully for people—yet praying loving, intelligent prays for that many people takes more time than I usually have on a work morning. But what would it be like to pray just one word?

After I’d finished compiling my list, I asked God for insight. Was there a single word that summed up each person’s need? Something that only He could do?

I presented the names to Him, one-by-one. I was amazed at how quickly He brought words to mind. For a friend in transition—“hope.” For a harried single mom—“intention.” For a woman in a difficult marriage—“perseverance.” For someone in a new leadership role—“influence.” For a widow—“security.” For a prodigal child—“restoration.” For my Compassion child—“opportunity.”

Each person had his or her own unique word, words like power, listening, heart, life, steadiness, vision, sobriety, enlargement, strength, compassion, contentment, purpose, and foundation. The words represented much more than an immediate, temporal need. They represented things that only Jesus could provide.

Throughout the day and into the next, when that person’s name or face would come to mind, so would their word. It was easy to pray for them. Because the Lord had led me regarding who to pray for and what single word to intercede about, I felt sure that my prayers were hitting the mark.

And here’s a bonus: Several weeks later, I still remember their words. So praying for them anytime, anywhere, is easy.

If anyone decides to try this, I’d love to hear how it goes. Will you comment here and let me know?