Adventures in Overthinking Prayer

thinking(This ended up becoming a series. Here’s Part 2 and Part 3.)

I have no guarantee that God will grant my prayers.

Disruptive statement, no?

This is not me fishing for reassurance in your comments, by the way. I’m trying to speak honestly about a stark reality. Except for a handful of explicit promises in Scripture (salvation, peace, heaven, etc.), there’s no guarantee that God will grant any prayer of mine. Like the missions opportunity I’m currently examining, or the kidney healing for a friend.

First, to be perfectly frank, my very audience before him is an undeserved gift.

Second, it’s hard to know whether certain prayers – for myself or others – are optimal for the person being prayed for. That can be a huge hangup to prayer confidence. Why invest months or years of heartfelt prayer in something when you don’t yet know God wants it?

Third, I know my theology of suffering too well. Christianity is a call to come and die. If you think it’s about getting your dreams actualized, you’ve got another thing coming. Even Jesus didn’t get all his prayers answered – and there was glory in that (Matt. 26:39). Dare we think that a servant is greater than that Master?

Finally, Scripture gives us every reason to think that God might deny our prayers for our spiritual benefit (2 Cor. 12:9). I wholeheartedly believe that he leaves to each of us at least one lingering heartache, a thorn, a cross to carry all of our days without resolution (do you not have yours?) so we’ll remember that this isn’t our home. Denied prayers transform us; they provide opportunities to allow God to become our all; they lift our gaze to heaven. There is no greater treasure. So why would God grant a lesser one by answering my prayer?

You might begin to suspect that I have an overthinking problem.

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A Little Forgiveness to Try if Your Prayers Aren’t Answered

A year ago this week, I received a gargantuan answer to prayer. I and many others close to me were quite giddy about it.figs

The fascinating thing is – it came very shortly after a week spent forgiving people.

In Mark 11, after seeing a prayer of Christ’s answered (surprise), the disciples receive a glimmer into the mystery of prayer.

“Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” (Mark 11:21-25)

This is one of those stories that we don’t quite know what to do with. One look at the world around us confirms that not all prayers are answered. That and our fear of disappointment has made us cautious of prayer. We know we’re commanded to do it; most of us pray over our meals at the very least. But to really dive into deep prayer – to really hit our knees and spend a season there, emotionally invested and powerfully engaged – is like jumping into a new workout program. The thought makes us groan. Will it really be worth it?

Jesus, on the other hand, seems to see prayer more like a pursuit whose ways must be learned, like sailing or creating pottery. The Bible drops hints about prayer being affected by our holiness, by our maturity, and by the kingdom of darkness. Yet even the most basic of these hints – praying with persistence – is not practiced by many Christians, despite the fact that you can’t get through an honest reading of the Gospels without seeing it everywhere.

So it comes as no surprise that the harder “keys” to prayer are neglected also. One of them is forgiveness.

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Thankful For My Life – 12/26/02

Many of us speak of our first car with fondness. I am foremost among them, but not for the reasons you’d think.

It was the day after Christmas, 2002. I was driving my Dodge Intrepid down Interstate 10 from Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix, where I was stationed, to visit my grandfather in Tucson. A nap attack arrived – I swear it’s always around 1:35pm – and I figured I could fight the fatigue and keep driving. Older and wiser now, I advise thus: pull over and nap. It only takes twenty minutes to reset your body.

That day, somewhere north of Casa Grande, I nodded off. The freeway curved to the right; I did not. The rumble strips woke me up and I swerved hard right to correct – too hard. The back end of my Intrepid swung out left and took the rest with it. I remember only skidding into the median like a really loud, really fast, really big bike accident multiplied by ten. It remains the most terrifying 1.5-second memory of my life.

The next thing I remember was lying face up, outside my car, blood streaming down my face as I stared up at the sky, scared, wondering what had happened.

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3 Reasons You Must Pray For Your Heart’s Desire

prayerYou probably had one of two reactions upon reading the title of this post.

The first was a groan. I don’t want to. Not again. I’m tired of bringing these things before God and being met with silence week after week. I can’t keep doing that.

The other was a sharp intake of breath. That’s dangerous. Don’t write that. We’ve got too much bad theology out there. Talk about holiness and surrender instead.

Perhaps you had a bit of both reactions.

Indeed, I cannot guarantee that praying for your heart’s desire will get you what you want. I know Psalm 37:4 seems to say it will. But one look around the world should reveal that God isn’t exactly handing out heart’s desires like candy. There must be something more to that verse.

But…

What if that’s not the only reason to pray for our heart’s desire?

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Can You Be a Realist and Still Have Faith?

Public domain image from www.public-domain-image.comI saw a friend ask this question on my Facebook feed recently.

We all desire. Victory, deliverance, breakthrough, blessing, healing, hearts’ desires. It’s a tricky high-wire, for no matter what some say, the Christian life is not all about these things. George Herbert wrote,

To be in both worlds full
Is more than God was, who was hungry here.

Is a servant is greater than his master? The Bible doesn’t stutter: not every prayer will be granted in this life. And that is both curse and privilege. We simply must start there. If you can’t accept that word, your life will be a shattering staccato of foiled expectations.

However.

I’ve also learned not to put limits on God’s generosity. He is scandalously generous. Sometimes the church, in frustration with the masses grasping for “prosperity” and deaf to all else, races to the other extreme and throws cold water on blessing of any kind. You’ve probably absorbed this yourself. Just observe your reaction if I write the phrase “bold prayer”. You instantly pull up and worry: Is this right? Respectful? Scriptural? It’s understandable hesitation.

But God does answer prayer. The Bible speaks of many such times, holds them out  rather excitedly. God reveals himself through “yes” as well as “no”.

So…where is this generosity? Our experiences don’t match up to that awesome power  – yet. “This is reality,” we want to say. “God doesn’t do that stuff anymore.”

I certainly want to believe. What is reality if God is your God?

But regardless of how many stories we hear about provisions and breakthroughs, something in our hearts has a hard time with faith. Some of us are fed up with hope; others are just down-to-earth by nature. We feel stuck between reality and faith, between hope and surrender. “If I’m going to undertake a long season of prayer,” we say, “then I want to know I’m grounded in reality.”

You could have been friends with Abraham.

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Is Persistent Prayer Wrong?

What is it with the vague, apprehensive feeling that persistent prayer is wrong?

A lot of people have this. For me, it was something along these lines: “God has perfect hearing, memory, and knowledge of our needs. Repeating a prayer reveals that you’re not thinking about God’s qualities.” There’s also the thought, pushing back like an invisible barrier, saying that we’re fortunate to be tolerated by God anyway and that we really shouldn’t be pushing our luck. The result is that importunate prayer often goes untried. “Just pray once and let it go.”hands

I do not deny that some prayers can be offered out of anxiety, ignorance, or selfishness. Those prayers are worthless before God, and should be countered with other prayers for sanctification and wisdom.

But would you have told Elijah to stop praying for rain upon Israel after his first prayer was met with silence?

Would you have told Moses to stop interceding for the Israelites’ lives after his first day of pleading was met with silence?

What about Jesus praying to God three times in Gethsemane for the cup of the cross to be taken from him?

Oh, and hoo boy: What do we do with the story of the Canaanite woman?

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Defeating the Fear of a No in Prayer

prayerIn the last couple months, I’ve been on my knees in prayer for a lot of things, both for myself and others. Nothing will reveal your view of God – your real view – quite like committed prayer. It exposes what you really believe about his heart.

My pastor spoke very honestly about deep prayer this weekend. “It’s not light duty,” he said, and it’s so true. It’s costly; intercessory prayer requires time and focus.

When we are urged by God to enter into committed prayer, there is something in us that…hesitates.

It’s more than laziness (although sometimes it is that). We don’t want to get let down. We don’t want to invest emotionally in a prayer, ask fervently of God for months or years on end, only to have God say no. I certainly don’t. Like all of us, I have a number of requests in God’s inbox right now that carry the potential to really dishearten me if they’re denied (and if I don’t guard my heart).

Sure, we have our “Theology of No” to help explain things. Maybe it wasn’t God’s will; maybe he has something better. Often, he does. But that doesn’t make the disappointment any less real in the moment, doesn’t make our toilings feel any less wasted while we wait to see the better. The wait could be years.

And when this happens, there is the temptation to sigh, or throw up our hands, and stop praying – “let God do whatever he wants”. It sounds holy on the surface. We might even justify it with more theology. “God knows best anyway.” “God knows what we need before we ask, so we don’t need to ask.” And this is all true.

But sometimes – the fruit is what we give up on committed prayer.

So I’m asking myself – is this good theology just a cover up for my fear of a no? An excuse for prayers that slowly become timid and cold?

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