“Don’t Pray for Them”

God says some pretty shocking things sometimes. He’s constantly surprising me. I will never figure Him out (which is a good thing since He’s God, after all). But anyhow, He did it again. Here’s the latest. Three times—count them—God told the prophet Jeremiah not to pray.

You don’t believe me? I don’t blame you. See for yourself—here they are:

“As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you.” (Jeremiah 7:16)

“Therefore do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble.” (Jeremiah 11:14)

“The LORD said to me: ‘Do not pray for the welfare of this people.’” (Jeremiah 14:11)

God was fed up with Judah. For years, the people of Judah persisted in brazen rebellion against Him. They were ripe for judgment.  Jeremiah refused to give up on them, however. He kept preaching, warning, and praying. But the people refused to repent—they kept sinning, oppressing, and chasing after idols.

Finally, God told Jeremiah to save his breath.  But did he? Did Jeremiah stop praying?

No! Jeremiah did not stop praying. If anything, his prayers took on even more urgency than they’d had before. In chapter 8, he appealed to God with words so plaintive you can almost hear his voice tremble:

“O my Comforter in sorrow, my heart is faint within me. Listen to the cry of my people from a land far away; ‘Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King no longer there?’ … Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?” (8:18-19, 21-22).

In chapter 14, he appealed to God on the basis of His name:

“Although our sins testify against us, O LORD, do something for the sake of your name. For our backsliding is great; we have sinned against you. O Hope of Israel, its Savior in times of distress, why are you like a stranger in the land, like a traveler who stays only a night? Why are you like a man taken by surprise, like a warrior powerless to save? You are among us, O LORD, and we bear your name; do not forsake us!” (7-9)

And in another prayer recorded in chapter 14, he reminded God of his covenant with Israel:

“O LORD, we acknowledge our wickedness and the guilt of our fathers; we have indeed sinned against you. For the sake of your name do not despise us; do not dishonor your glorious throne. Remember your covenant with us and do not break it. Do any of the worthless idols of the nations bring rain? Do the skies themselves send down showers? No, it is you, O LORD our God. Therefore our hope is in you, for you are the one who does all this.” (20-22)

I’m not sure what to make of it all. I can’t really imagine that God would ever tell me to stop praying for someone. But if He did, I don’t know what I would do. Would I dutifully resign from my pleadings? Would I give a secret sigh of relief, glad to be relieved of my intercessory duties? Or would I wrestle with God, persisting boldly, as Jeremiah did?

We may wonder what effect Jeremiah’s intercession had. Did God listen to him? That question isn’t answered directly. We know that Jeremiah’s intercession did not cause God to relent from taking Judah off to Babylon. God still judged His people for their sin.

However, God mingled His judgment with mercy. Could that be an effect of Jeremiah’s prayers?

The book of Jeremiah contains some of God’s most beautiful promises. Who doesn’t love the promise He gave to prosper (and not harm) Judah and give her “hope and a future” (29:11)? Or His promise to put His law in their minds and write it in their hearts (31:33). Or how about this one—it’s my favorite: “They will be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them; I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me so that they will never turn away from me” (32:38-40).

Should Jeremiah have stopped praying when God told him to stop? Or was Jeremiah just doing what godly men before him had done—men like Abraham and Moses, men who stood in the gap for the sinners? I can’t answer that. But I can’t help but think, once again, that God actually likes it when we wrestle with Him over the souls of sinners. After all, He’s the one who said that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

Reminding God (Especially at Father’s Day)

Until a couple of weeks ago, I rarely, if ever, reminded God of anything. Why should I? It’s not exactly like He’s forgetful!

But I was reading Psalm 25 one afternoon and came across an interesting set of verses that used the word “remember” not once, not twice, but three times! Here they are:

Remember, Lord, your great mercy and love,

for they are from of old.

Do not remember the sins of my youth

and my rebellious ways;

according to your love remember me,

for you, Lord, are good (6-7).

Obviously the psalmist—David—would have known that God didn’t need reminding. Clearly, it was David himself who needed the reminding of God’s attributes and character. Still, I was intrigued.

I decided to apply that pattern to one of my frequent prayer requests—the needs of kids and young adults who have no fathers. I pray this request year round, but it’s especially important at Father’s Day, I think. My son is one of these young adults who has no father. His dad got sick when he was 8 and died when he was 19. Probably it’s because of his loss that I have compassion for and often am called to pray for other fatherless people as well—people who lost their dads through death or divorce and who feel deeply the effects of his absence.

The effects of losing one’s father vary from person to person. So when I pray for these children, teens, and young adults, I usually pray pretty specifically, for whatever wounds seem to be closest to the surface. But, because I was following the model of Psalm 25:6-7, I made my prayer much more general this time. It became less issue-focused and more God-focused. I prayed something like this:

Remember, God, that You are Father of the fatherless. You love the orphan and widow. You show compassion and kindness to them. You protect them.

Please do not remember any mistakes or bad choices these dear ones may have made either willfully or in the pain and confusion that comes from losing their fathers.

Instead, according to your faithfulness and mercy, remember them, for You are good.

It was interesting how this Remember-Don’t Remember-Remember prayer affected me. By focusing almost entirely on God and not on the troubles—sometimes huge troubles—of the people I pray for, I felt hopeful. My faith grew. My heart felt more peace.

That’s not to say that I won’t still pray specific prayers for these special people I’m called to intercede for. But from now on I want to remember to ask God to remember, too . . . because ultimately He knows far better how to care for them than I do. And it’s perfectly in character for Him to do just that!

In Good Company

Occasionally, God has to remind me just exactly what “following Jesus” means. I tend to forget.

One of these reminders came a while ago when I received a series of criticisms from fellow Christians. I sought to understand the reasons for their disapproval—but I couldn’t. I felt misjudged.

To make matters worse, the accuser of the brethren (and sistren!)  stepped in to energize my discouragement. Just who do you think you are, anyway? He taunted. What makes you think God can use you?

I hate to admit this, but I saw his point. If God was actually using me, should I be receiving such harsh criticism? Doesn’t following Jesus mean doing ministry well? Doesn’t it mean following Jesus well? How could God use me if people misunderstood me so badly and misinterpreted what I was trying to do for God and His kingdom?

But I was forgetting something really important. I was forgetting what following Jesus includes.

God reminded me through a very old poem written by Amy Carmichael, a missionary to India in the early 1900s.

Hast thou no scar?

No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand?

I hear thee sung as mighty in the land;

I hear them hail thy bright, ascendant star.

Hast thou no scar?

Hast thou no wound?

Yet I was wounded by the archers; spent,

Leaned Me against a tree to die; and rent

By ravening beasts that compassed Me, I swooned.

Hast thou no wound?

No wound? No scar?

Yet, as the Master shall the servant be,

And piercèd are the feet that follow Me.

But thine are whole; can he have followed far

Who hast no wound or scar?

God reminded me that following Jesus means identifying with Him in suffering. He was opposed at every turn. He was misunderstood and mistreated. Jesus told us that “No servant is greater than his master” (John 13:16). He said that if people persecuted Him (and they did) then they would persecute His followers, too (John 15:20). Jesus was criticized far more harshly than I ever have been. And it wasn’t because He messed up somehow. He did everything well—every time! Yet His path was anything but smooth. Following God does not mean an absence of criticism—it actually may mean the presence of it!

Being criticized, especially by fellow believers, is painful. But remembering that it’s part of what it means to follow Jesus has taken the edge off the pain. It helps to know that it goes with the territory of serving Jesus. And it helps to know I’m in good company—with Him.

Doggy Dilemma

Until about a few months ago, I don’t think I’d ever prayed a single prayer about a dog. They just don’t usually make it onto my prayer list.

But one of my friends has a dog. A big dog. A loud dog. An enthusiastic dog who, in unrestrained doggy glee, nearly pushes me over whenever I visit.

One time Doggy’s enthusiasm was unusually great and at a time when my moxie was unusually undersupplied. I left somewhat traumatized. Sadly, although I love my friend, I was reticent about returning for another visit.

Several weeks went by. I missed my friend. But I dreaded another encounter with her dog. So I stayed away. And fretted.

Finally, it occurred to me that I could pray about this. God cares about dogs. And He especially cares about relationships. Why wouldn’t He care about the relational challenges I was experiencing with a friend’s beloved pet?

So I laid out the situation before God and asked Him what to do. Rarely do His answers come to me as quickly as this one did: “Dog biscuits.” That’s all I heard, just two words.

“Dog biscuits?” I echoed.

Then His voice came quietly to my heart again. “Why not make friends with the dog?”

His words to me seemed nothing short of brilliant. It had never occurred to me to befriend the dog. But this new perspective caused a huge heart shift. The intimidation drained away and purpose replaced it.

I bought some dog treats and a few days later showed up on my friend’s doorstep. The dog barked like crazy when I rang the bell. But when I offered the treat and told the dog to sit, she obeyed immediately, as if I were her favorite family friend. And the same thing happened the next time I visited.

To all of you dog lovers out there, this all probably seems ridiculously obvious. But hey, I’m a cat person. How am I to know these things? Anyhow, it was revelation to me. And, even more important than the resolution it brought to my dog dilemma, was the joy it gave me to realize how much God cares about and wants to be involved with the everyday details of my life. Even strained relationships with dogs.