Friends, this week I am at a spiritual formation retreat, which is part of the two-year program I’ve been doing through Renovare;. While I’m away, I’ve asked my friend Connie Willems, former editor of Discipleship Journal, to share an article from her newsletter with you. Like me, she has been on an exciting journey of learning to hear from God personally, in the context of relationship. I think you’ll appreciate what she has to say.
I’ve been doing an intense Bible study over the past year on how God speaks, whom He speaks to, and what methods He uses. I want to make sure that as we relate and listen with God, we’re doing so in ways that match His character and habits as revealed in Scripture.
One of the first things I noticed was that when God speaks in the Bible, He is talking with people He knows by name. That may seem stunningly obvious, but seeing the stories one after another really drove it home to me. As I paged through Genesis, I noted that
The Lord said to Cain . . . (4:6)
The Lord appeared to Abraham . . . (18:1)
God came to Abimelech in a dream . . . (20:3)
The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven . . . (21:17)
The Lord appeared to Isaac . . . (26:2)
God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream at night . . . (31:24)
God said to Jacob . . . (35:1)
Time after time, I noted, God talks with an individual, often addressing him or her by name. In fact, it wasn’t until much later — the book of Judges — that I saw God speaking to a group of unnamed people. The more I pondered this, the more I realized that seeing God speak (and even dialogue) so personally corrected a perception I hadn’t been aware I held.
I sort of had an unstated idea that God broadcasts His speech to everyone, somewhat like a radio station sends out a signal; it’s up to us to tune in and hear — or not. That hidden thought was exposed when I saw God talking so often with one person. He knew exactly whom He was talking with, what the person’s name was, and why He was taking time with him or her. God was being highly personal and very deliberate.
I’d experienced times that God spoke with me, but I’m not sure I recognized just how personal those interactions were. God hadn’t wandered into a conversation with me because I was the only one around. He had chosen to speak with me because He knew me and wanted to talk with me.
While God is omniscient and therefore knows everything, it’s still stunning to experience that He knows our names . . . He knows us. Hagar expressed this wonder after the angel of the Lord came and found her in the desert. He addressed her by name, talked with her, and gave her direction and a new vision for the future. Afterward, marveling, she named God El Roi, “the God who sees me,” saying, “I have now seen the One who sees me” (Genesis 16:13).
Note: Connie writes this newsletter along with our mutual friend, Buddy Westbrook. If you’d like to subscribe to their free newsletter, Talking Points, click on http://eepurl.com/kBRBX.
Some time ago, I heard someone describe a deeply painful personal situation. He shared his story in matter-of-fact tones, describing what was, what is, and, what in his mind, always will be. Day after painful day, nothing changed. Experts had weighed in: improvement is out of the question; to hope for it is a set-up for disappointment. It will never get better, it will always be like this. So in his discouraged thinking, coping and surviving are the best he can hope for.
My heart has ached since hearing him tell his story. I hurt for him because I know that “always” and “never” are not part of God’s vocabulary. God has good plans for this person—that’s a fact. He is not excluded from the abundant life Jesus came to bring. But in his discouragement, he can’t see it or even hope for it. Which certainly puts a damper on prayer.
I don’t fault him, though. I’ve been there. I remember a season when I also was in an impossible-seeming situation that caused me persistent, unrelenting, unbroken pain. “It won’t always be like this,” a well-meaning friend said, trying to encourage me. “Yeah, I know, “I replied gloomily. “ It’s going to get worse.” I utterly believed that.
Truthfully, in many ways, it did get worse before it got better. But when I was in that pit, I wasn’t able to see that by God’s grace, it really would get better eventually. My painful season was not a permanent condition. God saw me and heard my cries and He delivered me.
God is a Rescuer, a Savior, a Redeemer, and a Helper. That’s His character—that’s who He is. He “is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lam. 3:25-26). In painful seasons, our “weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps. 30:5, NLT). It will not always be this way: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him’” (Lam. 3:22-24; see also 2 Cor. 4:17; Ps. 103:9, 126:5); Is. 12:1, 54:7-8; Hos. 6:2).
I’m not sure the person I told you about would be able to respond to a spiritual pep talk. Sometimes trying to pump up another person’s faith does more harm than good, so I’m not going to try it. But when I was in a similar dark place, I appreciated the prayers of others who could lend me some of their faith (see my blog from last week, “Brother, Can You Spare Some Faith?”). They prayed with hope that I didn’t have and that comforted me. So that’s what I’m doing for this person. I know that because of God, his situation is not impossible. It does not have to always be this way. So I’m praying for him, asking first for God to give him hope, and then, also, to bring the rescue he so desperately needs.
It’s always encouraging to hear others’ stories of God’s rescues. Do you have an impossible-always-never story you can share?
Sometimes I seem to have more faith to pray for other people’s situations than I do for my own. Their “giants” seem smaller than mine. I can pray for their needs longer without being tempted to give up. I can envision miracles more easily in their circumstances than in mine. I know it doesn’t make much sense, but that’s just how it is.
A while ago, God put it on my heart to pray with unusual (for me, it was unusual) faith for a friend’s rather large burden. I am pretty sure this will be a long-term prayer assignment, but that doesn’t bother me. I am confident that what I’m asking for is God’s will, and I am confident that He can do it, so I am asking Him to do what seems humanly impossible, but is an easy thing for Him. It is a joy to pray for my friend’s situation—and to watch God respond in small yet undeniable ways.
Meanwhile, quietly and on her own, my friend had been praying for an “impossible” situation of mine. It’s something that frankly, I hardly even talked to God about anymore—I’d prayed for it for so long without seeing any signs of an answer that I’d all but given up. Somehow it came up one day, and I learned about her quiet intercession for me. So I asked her about it. She told me she really believes that God is going to come through for me in it—so she keeps praying. The fact that it felt hopeless to me didn’t faze her; she had faith to spare.
It was fun to realize that God had given her spare faith for my need, and He had given me spare faith for hers. It was like we were trading faith. And in the process, our faith in God for our own situations is increasing.
I point out to her the little ways I can see God working in her circumstances. And she does the same for me. We’ve talked about how hearing things from the other’s (more objective) perspective, boosts our faith: God really does seem to be doing something here!
Maybe there’s someone in your life who needs some of your faith to intercede for their “impossible” burden. What do you think, brother, sister . . . can you spare some faith to pray for them?
Have any of you have similar experiences? I’d love to hear about them. Or any other thoughts you have about faith and intercession.
A “Let’s Talk” reader posted an interesting question on my blog last week. “When you pray ‘Your kingdom come, Your will be done,’ is whatever happens then God’s will, and our part is to submit to His apparent will?” she wanted to know. “Or is it more like, ‘Here I am, send me?’ Is that a passive prayer of acceptance, or an active prayer of ‘Sign me up!’?”
My reader’s question is a bit tough to address because of course I believe in submitting to God’s will and accepting His plans for me. But I also need to say that although I firmly believe in God’s sovereignty, I firmly do not believe that everything that happens is God’s will. Evil is never God’s will. He is light and in Him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). He does not will child abuse, oppression, deception, rape, murder, or any kind of injustice. It is entirely contrary to His character. Can He redeem it? Of course! But does He will it? Never.
So if we are praying about a situation that involves any kind of evil, but the evil persists, in order to see God’s kingdom come and His will be done, we must continue to pray until either the situation changes or He tells us to stop or change the way we are praying.
Similarly, if our prayer is about something dear to us—the welfare of a child, a close friend’s health, a prodigal family member, a painful relationship—we can be sure that our concern is also dear to God. He invites us to cast our cares on Him because He cares about us (1 Peter 5:7). He tells us not to worry about anything, but to pray about everything (Philippians 4:6). So if we pray and the troubling circumstance doesn’t change, we should continue praying—unless He tells us to stop or change the way we are praying.
The Value of Persistence
God places high value on persevering prayer. Jesus teaches this in Luke 11 when He tells the disciples to “keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you” (v. 9, NLT). He says it again when He tells His disciples the parable of the persistent widow “to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1, NIV). We see it in the example of Elijah who prayed for rain seven times—even though the first six prayers didn’t bring about so much as even a tiny cloud (1 Kings 18). We see it in Job who for chapter after chapter keeps making his case with God until finally He shows up. We see it in Abraham who haggles with God over Sodom and Gomorrah until he is assured that his nephew will be saved (Genesis 18). We see it in David, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Zechariah who all cry out, “How long, Lord?” And in Daniel who fasts and prays for three weeks, not knowing until the angel showed up, why God had seemed to delay (Daniel 10). It seems that persevering prayer is the scriptural norm.
So what’s the bit about “Until He tells us to stop or change the way we are praying?” As most of my readers know, I believe that prayer is a two-way conversation. If it’s just monologue, we’re missing out on a lot—including the Holy Spirit’s help in knowing how to pray. God meant for prayer to be one of the primary ways we develop our relationship with Him. So He intends for us to tell Him what’s on our hearts and minds—but also intends for us to listen to what’s on His.
“Stop Praying for Physical Healing”
Several years into my husband’s battle with multiple sclerosis, I sensed the Lord inviting me to pray for his healing—until he was healed or He told me to stop. But my prayer was more than simply repeating, “please heal David.” Each time I went to God it seemed like something new was unfolding with how He wanted to take care of us, what He wanted to show us, and how He was working in our lives, even though we weren’t seeing physical improvements. My relationship with God grew and deepened more during those two or three years than it had during the sum of my Christian life up to that point.
But one day when I talked to God about my husband, I sensed Him saying clearly that I was to stop praying for David’s physical healing and focus instead on praying for his spiritual, emotional, and relational healing. I cried buckets when I heard Him say that—but it made sense to me based on the months of conversations we’d shared. So I stopped praying for physical healing, and prayed for my husband to become whole in other ways. Some of the things God did in answer to those prayers astounded me.
If I had just prayed two or three times and then passively accepted that my husband was going to die, I would have missed out on the incredible care Abba wanted to give my family and me during those hard years . It made sense for me to keep that request before God even though ultimately it wasn’t answered the way I’d hoped.
So I suppose if I have to give an answer, I’d say that I don’t really believe in passive prayer, per se. Should we accept His answers after He makes them clear? Absolutely! Should we submit our wills to what He reveals? Of course! God does sometimes choose to let me in on what He’s doing, so I’d rather keep the conversation going than assume prematurely that whatever happens (or doesn’t) is His plan.
Thanks so much for the great question! If others of you have a thought to share or a question about prayer you’ve been pondering, I’d love to hear from you.
A commonly taught “rule” of prayer goes something like this: “You should pray specifically because if you don’t, how will you ever know when God answers?” It’s a valid point, to be sure. If you merely ask God to bless the missionaries or a friend’s marriage or the president of your country, you may never notice when or how God does that. The prayer is too vague.
But I’m starting to realize that while there are definitely times when praying specifically is critical (see Mark 10:51), at other times, praying specifically can actually limit God. Remember the story of the disciples and the hungry multitude (John 6:5-15)? Jesus asked Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” Not realizing that Jesus was testing him, Philip could only see a practical, human answer to the problem: We need money, and lots of it! If Philip were to have prayed specifically about the situation, he probably would have prayed for a boatload of money to buy everyone Chick-fil-A, or its Galilean equivalent. That would have been a specific prayer request. But that prayer also would have missed the much bigger thing God wanted to do.
Sometimes my prayers are like that. I can be so near-sighted, earth-bound—and specific!—that I ask for much less than what God is willing to do. A while ago I was in a soul-wearying situation that dragged on day-in and day-out for several years. Of course I prayed about it, and you can be sure that I prayed specifically. I asked God to do specific things and influence specific people and give me specific graces. They weren’t bad prayers, and God graciously answered many of them. However, the overall situation didn’t change much. One day a friend asked me, “Cynthia, do you ever ask God to rescue you?”
I was flummoxed. No, I had never asked God for that. Oddly enough, it had never even occurred to me. I had just assumed that, in an effort to grow me in Christ-like character, God might want to keep me in that tough situation indefinitely. And besides that, what would “rescue” even look like?
But I realized that my friend’s question was actually an invitation from God. The Holy Spirit reminded me of the many “Rescue me!” psalms (22, 25, 31, 35, 43, etc.) and urged me to take the risk and pray this very general, very big, very vulnerable request. So, without giving God any parameters for what His rescue should look like, I simply asked Him to rescue me.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that within a short period of when I started praying that way, God made an out-of-the-blue rescue that I never would have dreamed of. It was bigger and better than all my previous prayer requests—and even though it was not specific, I had no question whatsoever that He had answered.
So, should we pray specifically or generally? I’d have to say “It depends.” Sometimes we pray for “our daily bread” and other times we pray “Your kingdom come, Your will be done.” There is a place for both types of requests, and I’m learning that the Holy Spirit is more than glad to help us when we don’t know what to pray (Romans 8:26-27).
I’d love to hear from you: What are your thoughts and experiences with general and specific prayer?
I was talking with God recently about a person who had offended me. The offense was not deeply wounding—my toes had been stepped on and there was some money involved, but really, it wasn’t a big deal. I kept telling myself that: This is not a big deal.
But then if it wasn’t a big deal, how come I couldn’t stop thinking about it?
Eventually, when the offense kept nagging at me, I reluctantly decided to pray about it. “Reluctantly,” I say, because I was embarrassed that such a small thing could consume me so. I wished I didn’t have to admit to God how stuck I was.
But I pulled out my journal and began telling Him exactly what so-and-so had done and how angry it made me feel. My prayer was full of justifications for why it made sense for me to feel as I did. Reading over it now, I can tell you it was neither pretty nor “spiritual.” But it was honest, and I know that God desires truth in the inner places (Ps. 51:6).
After I’d poured it all out, I gave Him a chance to reply. What He said was gentle but firm: Forgive her.
Well, that’s hardly a surprise. Of course God would tell me to forgive her. The problem was, I really didn’t want to. I wasn’t proud of that, and I sure wasn’t trying to rebel against God! But despite the fact that my head agreed with God—of course I needed to forgive!—my heart was like a two-year-old about to have a tantrum.
What’s going on, Abba? Please help me! I can’t do this without your help!
His reply was immediate: What does spite look like?
An image of a woman with a permanent scowl on her face came to mind. I recognized her as someone who all her life had inwardly nursed petty offenses while saying outwardly “It’s no big deal.” If the woman had ever been attractive, she wasn’t now because her countenance was full of resentment and spite.
Oh, Father! I don’t want to look like that! I don’t want to be like that!
I immediately realized that to choose unforgiveness was also to choose resentment and spite. They are inseparable. And they have ugly consequences.
Then Father helped me to see the peace and wholeness that could be mine if I would forgive my offender and give Jesus the hurt. My anger started to dissipate. And soon my heart joined my head in wanting to forgive her. So I did.
And they all lived happily ever after. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you that, would you? So here’s the rest of the story: thoughts of the offense still return from time to time. But never as powerfully as they did before I forgave. When the thoughts come now, I remind myself that I have forgiven and I choose peace instead of spite. I ask God for help, and before long, I am peaceful again.
Moral of the story? I can’t narrow it down to just one, so here are three:
- Forgiveness is a spiritual power struggle which cannot be won apart from the help God offers through prayer;
- To choose not to forgive is to invite ugly emotions to take up residence in your heart and eventually your countenance;
- Pouring out your heart to God—even (especially?) when what’s inside isn’t pretty—is always the best thing you can do. God promises to give mercy and grace in your time of need (Heb. 4:16).
It’s hard to feel Christ’s peace and to act with His grace when the environment you’re in is full of negativity and contention. At least it’s hard for me. I recently spent a few days in that kind of relational setting, and it left me feeling like a spiritual failure. Instead of bringing light to the darkness, as I had prayed ahead of time to do, I felt as if the darkness sucked me in. I tried to pray, but my prayers only seemed to ricochet off the ceiling. God seemed a trillion miles away.
Later, when I was able to talk with God about it, I confessed my sense of defeat. Why did You seem so far away? I asked. Why was praying so hard? Why couldn’t I stay near You so I wouldn’t get taken out?
The Holy Spirit’s answer surprised me. What I think I heard Him say was, I was quiet but I never left you. I was quiet because I was grieving, too. You weren’t the only one who felt the oppression and sadness in that place. I went there with you; I felt it all, too.
It wasn’t news to me that the Holy Spirit has emotions. As a Person, He, like the rest of the godhead, feels. I knew that He can be quenched (1 Thess. 5:19) or grieved (Eph. 4:30). But I’d never thought about Him being grieved by the same things, at the same time, as I was grieved. Who knows? Perhaps the grief I was feeling didn’t even originate with me—maybe its source was the Spirit in me!
At any rate, I felt His consolation as I pondered this idea. There is something comforting about having someone to cry with. The Holy Spirit’s grief validated the grief I was feeling. It didn’t change circumstances, but it made me realize that feeling what I was feeling (instead of peace and joy) was appropriate in God’s eyes.
I asked the Holy Spirit how to avoid missing Him when I encounter similar challenging situations in the future. Romans 8:26 came to mind: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (ESV).
I realized that I had seemed to be missing God in that situation because I’d been looking for the wrong thing. I was thinking that somehow if I were truly in step with the Him that all would seem right with the world. But the world I was in most definitely did not seem right. What the Holy Spirit seemed to be telling me was that it was not right with Him, either. Why should I think I should be feeling perfect peace when He was grieving and groaning?
I had jumped the gun. I had been trying to be content in whatever situation I found myself in (Phil 4:11)—and bypass anything that felt yucky. But that’s not how Jesus does it (e.g. Isa. 53:3, Lk. 19:41, Jn. 11:35, Heb. 5:7). And it’s not how the Holy Spirit does it. So why should I try to do it that way?
It seems that the Holy Spirit is inviting me to groan and grieve with Him when circumstances call for it. Those groans become prayers of intercession, Him praying in me, for me, and through me in my weakness. I’d rather pray prayers of joy and thanksgiving. But sometimes nights of weeping must precede mornings of joy (Ps. 30:5).
What about you? I’d love to hear from those of you who have grieved and groaned your prayers to God in the company of the Holy Spirit. What was that kind of praying like for you?
What is the single most important thing we could ever pray as Christians? Please resist the temptation to read ahead. Indulge me, and take a few minutes and actually think about it. What would your answer be?
If you were to ask a dozen believers that question you’d probably get a dozen different answers. I first encountered the question a month or so ago when my small group was working through James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful Community. In it, Smith quotes author and philosopher Dallas Willard’s answer: “The most important task we have, especially for those in church leadership, is to pray for the success of our neighboring churches.”
I have to be honest—my small group protested. While most of us agreed that it might be a good idea to pray for churches around us, no one wanted to commit to saying it was the most important thing to pray for. Furthermore, the idea of praying for other ministries doesn’t usually even cross our minds. So after that brief discussion, I, at least, didn’t give the idea much more thought.
Then last week during our daily prayer time at Community Bible Study where I work (www.communitybiblestudy.org), someone caught my attention with her prayer. She asked God to bless other ministries similar to ours, whose purpose is to disciple people in the Word of God. She listed several ministries by name, including ones that might even be considered “competitors” if we were to think in those terms. (Nobody wants to think in those terms—but be honest! Don’t we sometimes?)
Well, God had my attention now. Here was a colleague who was actually doing what Willard had suggested. Instead of praying only for our ministry’s needs, she was praying for God to bless and prosper other ministries that do the same Kingdom work. I was touched. And humbled. And challenged. Maybe I need to pay more attention to this idea.
And so this week, Passion Week, I have been meditating on the lengthy prayer Jesus prayed the night before He died. You’re probably familiar with it; it’s found in John 17. Several themes run throughout the prayer, the most prominent one being about unity. Jesus prayed in a variety of different ways, “that [believers] may be one as we are one” (v. 11). The night before He died there are many things Jesus could have petitioned His Father about—but foremost in His mind, it seems, was that His followers would get along and work and live together harmoniously.
So maybe Willard isn’t being too extreme when he enjoins us so strongly to pray for other ministries. At any rate, I know that when I’ve started trying it, my heart becomes more humble and hopeful. I become less distracted by things that seem to me to be weaknesses and faults in other ministries because I am putting them in the Lord’s hands and He can mature them according to His will. And I can genuinely rejoice (and not be envious) when God blesses another church or Christian organization.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with this type of praying. Have you ever prayed for the megachurch in your community that seems to be “stealing sheep”? How about denominations that you disagree with? Or the church that wounded you? Or maybe you pray for all the churches in your small town. Anyone want to experiment with it for a month and then share what happened with us on this blog?