Pain with Gain

This post is adapted from an article I wrote in Pray! magazine in May/June 2008. It encouraged me when I re-read it this week—I hope it encourages you, too!

A friend called last week with bad news. She’d been fired from her job after a long series of irreconcilable misunderstandings with her boss. I listened, offering little more than an occasional groan, sigh, or small attempt to comfort. When she finished, I offered to pray for her. But realizing how powerless I was to say or do anything that would address her devastation, I pleaded with the Holy Spirit for help.

I waited a few seconds in silence, and then, with a calm power that wasn’t my own, I began to pray. In a way I can’t explain, I felt as if I were actually bearing some of the weight of my friend’s burdens. Somehow, I was able to put words to her emotions and express her needs to the Lord in ways she told me later made her feel truly understood and cared for. I think we were both a little surprised by how meaningfully the Holy Spirit had helped me to intercede for her deep needs and longings. How did this happen?

Romans 8 says that the Holy Spirit and I have something in common: We both sometimes groan when we pray (vv. 23, 26). I’ve never gone through the kinds of things my friend experienced. But I have experienced misunderstanding, hurt, and discouragement. And, I realized, it was this suffering of mine, though different from hers, that allowed the Holy Spirit to give me the insight and compassion to pray for her. Unless I had endured painful trials of my own, I doubt I would be able to pray for my friend—or anyone else—with much true empathy.

In the past, my own pain sometimes seemed to consume my prayer times. My self-focus frustrated me. I wanted to pray for others, but I was hurting too much to seem to get there. But my experience with my friend helped me to see how that pain and even those self-absorbed prayers are being transformed into something life-giving. My suffering was not wasted; God is using it to help me pray more compassionately for others.

God truly does work all things together for good. He wants to use even our deepest hurts and heartaches to help us to minister, through prayer, to the hurting world around us.

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Worship for Sleepless Nights

I don’t even remember her name, I’m sorry to say. But oh, how I remember her prayers! Years ago, she and I attended the same weekly prayer meeting. Every week you could count on her to worship God in the most creative way.

She’d start with the letter A: “Lord, I Adore You!.” Then she’d move through the alphabet with an expression of praise for every letter. “You’re Beautiful!” … “Desire of Nations”  … “Faithful Friend, Glorious, Hiding Place, I AM.” On she’d go, leaving no letter untouched. “You are Quintessentially Magnificent,” “eXtravagant, my heart Yearns for You, Zion’s Praise.”

It’s been many years since I heard that dear older saint pray. But recently God reminded me of her. It was the middle of the night, actually, one of those nights when I couldn’t sleep. I’d already interceded for everything and everybody I could think of. And then I remembered this sweet woman’s “Alphabet Praise.” And I tried it.

It was so much better than counting sheep! With my mind focused on worshiping God, I hardly cared if I slept or not. It was fun to realize just how many ways there are to praise Him! And the funny thing is, the next morning I couldn’t remember how far I’d gotten. But I do know that I was asleep long before I got to the hard ones—QRSTUVWXYZ.

For me, Alphabet Praise has become a very practical way to put into practice the words of King David: “On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night” (Psalm 63:6).

 

Who Exactly Are You Praying To?

For years my prayers began with “Dear God” and ended with “In Jesus’s name.” Sometimes I’d throw in “Father” or “Lord” but basically, the way I addressed God were limited.

The Bible explodes with different names, attributes, descriptions, and roles for God. There are literally hundreds of them. He’s the Potter, Rose of Sharon, Prince of Peace, Gate, Door, Way, Truth and Life. He’s Alpha, Omega, Restorer of Broken Walls. He’s Dayspring, Creator, Architect, Teacher.

And so, so, so much more! The few I just listed are just a smidgen of God’s names, attributes, descriptions, and roles.

However, my prayer vocabulary was limited only four. What’s up with that?

I mean, even though “God,” “Lord,” “Father,” and “Jesus” get the job done in praying, they are kind of two dimensional. They were so familiar to me that they had little power to evoke images, ideas, or feelings that would help me relate with God more intimately.

I think one of the reasons God gives us so many descriptions of Himself is to help us when we pray. For example, yesterday morning. I was reading in Micah and was arrested by the end of 4:4: “The LORD of Armies has spoken.”

Wow. My God is the LORD of Armies! He’s the Captain of the Hosts of Heaven. As I meditated on those names, an image of Jesus riding on a white horse came into mental view. He was majestic and powerful. Behind Him, also on horses, were more angels than I could begin to count. They were all dressed for battle, strong, fearless, and confident of victory.

I thought about President Obama, the U.S. Commander in Chief. I pictured him bowing before the LORD of Armies. In my mind’s eye, I saw other military leaders—including ones who are wreaking terror among the nations—lay down their weapons at Jesus’s feet.

My prayer didn’t have very many words. But I know Jesus “heard” it. Just the mention of His name—LORD of Armies—stirred me to worship and intercession. And I imagine He smiled to see my heart fully engaged with Him this way.

God’s name is like that. There’s power in it. As I continued reading in Micah, I read, “All the nations live by the names of their gods, but we will live by the name of the LORD our God forever” (4:5).

What does it mean to “live by the name of the LORD our God”? I pondered that question throughout the day. Does God’s name bring life? Can we live by it? Can His name bring life to others we care about?

I thought of someone I love who seems to be losing her way. “Lord, what name shall I use to talk to You about her?”

“Good Shepherd” came to mind. I pictured Jesus with His shepherd’s crook, leaving the 99 to go look for His lost sheep. He didn’t wait for her to come looking for Him. He went after her, no effort too costly, no distance too far, no peril too great, until he found her and brought her safely home.

Last evening, I caught myself stressing over too much to do and too little time. “What name do You want me to know You by now, God?”

He gently reminded me that He is Master of the Wind and Waves. I pictured the ferocious storm on Lake Galilee. Without the slightest trace of panic or concern, Jesus calmly addressed the wind and the raging sea: “Peace, be still.” He spoke just three little words, but nature immediately obeyed. I heard Him address the swirling chaos in my heart with that same gentle authority. And although my heart wasn’t as quick to obey as nature was (sigh!) the anxiety did begin to settle.

There are hundreds of names we can use to address God. Some of them are familiar and come straight out of Scripture. Others may be more personal because of our unique experiences with Him. At any rate, exploring the many different names of God is bringing life to me and depth to my conversations with Him.

What about you? Who exactly are you praying to? What are some of your favorite ways to address God?

How Do I Pray? Let Me Count the Ways!

It goes without saying that God, the Creator, is the most creative and interesting Being in the universe. If He’s the Person we talk to when we pray, why, please tell me why, would prayer ever be boring?

Answer: Because we are boring. We fall into ruts. We find our favorite patterns, postures, and topics for prayer, and we get stuck in them. Creativity takes time, and we don’t always invest ourselves that way.

That’s why several months ago I was excited to discover a blog called “1,000 Ways to Pray: Meeting God in Creative Ways.” In June 2012 its author, Adena Hodges, set out to share one creative prayer idea each week until she reaches 1,000. She has already passed the 100 mark, and shows no signs of letting up.

Her ideas pretty much cover the water front. From “Pin the Tale on the World” (a prayer game for children) to “Road Rage Prayer,” she shows how anyone can pray creatively, at just about any time or any place. She offers ideas taken from ancient Christian traditions (Stations of the Cross, The Prayer of St. Patrick). But she also tells how to use contemporary technology (“Facebook Prayers,” “Cell Phone Prayers.”)

If your goal is praying without ceasing, she has ideas for that, too (“Stoplight Prayer,” “Bumper Sticker Prayer.”)

She encourages us to go beyond words and experiment with painting, drawing, dancing, or creating a collage of our prayers. She stretches us to try different prayer postures. She challenges us to pray for people we might not ordinarily think of praying for.

I don’t know Adena. We only briefly met through Facebook. But she feels like a friend. I hope you will check out what she has to say at http://www.1000waystopray.com/.

 

Where Is God on Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Days?

Why, when I need Him most, does it seem as if God is most silent?

I asked God about this last week. I wasn’t in a particularly hard place at the time, but I wanted to prepare for a storm that seemed to be brewing on the horizon.

His answer came surprisingly fast: Child, you think that I only want to be around you when you are cheerful and upbeat. You think that I parent like people do—that when My kids have bad attitudes, I send them to their rooms. But that’s not true. I don’t withdraw from My children until they can pull themselves back together—I join them in their messes and help them sort through and clean up. When they are prickliest is when they need Me most!

Well, those words sounded almost too good to be true. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t just telling myself what I wanted to hear. So I asked God for confirmation.

Remember Cain? He asked.

Yes, I remembered. Cain was full of jealousy and murderous hate toward his brother, Abel. But God did not pull away from him. In fact, God pursued his heart. He gently pleaded with him and offered him a way through his sinful anger: “The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.’” (Genesis 4:6-7).

Then God reminded me of Hagar. Twice, after experiencing her mistress’s cruelty, she went to the desert. The first time, alone and pregnant, she got there by running away. The other time she and her son were banished there. We are not told exactly what Hagar felt—but we can imagine that it might have included fear, anger, self-pity, hopelessness, and despair. But rather than be put off by her emotions, God reached out to her. Both times, God met her. Amazed, Hagar responded, “You are the God who sees me” (Genesis 16:13).

Finally, He reminded me of Jonah. After the big fish spit him out on the beach, Jonah finally decided to obey God. He preached to wicked Nineveh, and the city repented. This was exactly what God wanted—and exactly what Jonah had been afraid of. In fact, Scripture says it “displeased Jonah exceedingly and he was angry” (4:1). Jonah didn’t want mercy for Nineveh—he wanted them to get what they had coming to them. So Jonah had a temper tantrum. His anger escalated to the point that he told God he wanted to die. But God answered him kindly. “Do you do well to be angry?” (4:4). And He provided Jonah shade from the blazing sun. A while later, God shared His heart with Jonah: “Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” (4:11).

As I continued my own dialogue with God, He showed me that when I have trouble hearing Him, it’s not because He has shut me out—it’s the other way around. I have mistakenly believed that God doesn’t want to be around me when I’m stubborn, fearful, resentful, frustrated, or otherwise out of sorts. But He showed me that it’s just the opposite.

So, next time I’m in a hard place emotionally, I will no longer give room for the lie that God doesn’t want to be around me. Instead, I’ll go looking for Him. If He wanted to be with Cain, Hagar, and Jonah on their terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days, then I know He wants to be with me on mine, too.