Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Simple Lessons Are Sometimes the Hardest

I've always resisted writing on the topic of prayer. Why?

For one thing, it seems like an area that ought to be really simple. The main idea is, "Just do it." Right? But we don't just do it. We don't do much of it at all, and we certainly don't do it well. (And by "we" I mean "me." Sometimes the editorial we comes in handy.)
So, it's not like I'm an expert. There are things I spend a lot more time doing; like biking. I do a lot of biking, probably 5-10 hours per week. So I can talk at length about Shimano gear systems and clipless pedals and the advantages of carbon fiber frames over aluminum frames, whether your padding should be felt or gel, etc.

But prayer? Am I even qualified to talk about the basics?

Moreover, prayer is one of those things that just seems so huge, at least from a biblical perspective. So important. It moves mountains. It ushers us into the presence of an unfathomable God. If I really believed what the Bible says about prayer, wouldn't I be doing it all the time? Wouldn't I become an expert in it?

There is also my very limited experience with prayer. Whenever I've really wanted and needed God's help with something too big for me, I've prayed (eventually), and when I do, in general my experience has been, bam, there's an answer. I could fill a book with stories ...

... the Muslim taxi driver in Trinidad who picked up me and my team, whom God (miraculously) used to lead us right to an evangelistic meeting in the mountains, when we had no idea where it was. (He was so astonished that he begged us to share with him how to become a believer in Jesus.)

... or the time when I crashed my mountain bike (shredding my face and one kneecap and breaking my cheekbone and five teeth), too deep into the wilderness for help, with no one around for miles, and no signal on my cellphone. How after a half hour of wandering around, just as I was going into shock, I decided to pray for help -- and immediately saw my cellphone signal go from no bars (where it had been stuck all morning) up to 5 bars.

... or the time when I was praying in a worship service for a guy in my home fellowship group, and I silently in my heart asked God a question about how to reach him ... and the man behind me tapped me on the shoulder and told me the answer to my prayer.

... or the time when I watched a grandma with a 12-year ministry of feeding hundreds of hungry people, every Saturday on a vacant corner lot in Chicago, pray so that the entire lot was shielded from snowfall for two hours. (And then find out she had successfully prayed that exact same prayer every weekend for 12 years.)

Those are all fairly big things ... but there have been tons of little things too. Like how after searching for a lost contact lens for an hour, I finally stop and pray a frustrated prayer for help. Then open my eyes to see it glinting on the inside of the drain in my bathroom sink. (Where I have already looked 100 times. That one has actually happened several times!)

There are so many more examples that live between those two extremes. How God spoke encouragement to me through the words of a song, very unexpectedly, when I needed it most. How God used the wisdom of a friend to help me know how to approach a problem with another friend. How God supplied money from an unexpected source when I needed it desperately to pay a bill. And on and on.

All because of prayer. Frankly, I can't think of a time when I asked for something I really needed, convinced in my heart that God agreed, and He didn't answer my prayer in ways sometimes mundane and sometimes amazing.

Prayer ought to be so simple ... but it seems so hard to do. And on its face, that doesn't make any sense. What could be easier than closing your eyes, tuning out the world around you, and taking a moment to express your heart to a God you know is listening? It just doesn't seem that hard. But it is. (For me, anyway.) Why?

I think part of the answer may be that prayer is like tithing. It's one of those fundamental where-the-rubber-of-your-faith-meets-the-road kind of things. Tithing's tough at first. It's so easy to think of 100 better things to do with your money than give it away. But if you really believe God, it's a no-brainer. Prayer is the same way. If it's all in our heads, nothing is sillier than talking to Someone who isn't there. They lock people up in institutions for that kind of thing. But if God really is there and wanting to connect with us through prayer, nothing makes more sense. It really is one of those all-or-nothing things.

I think there are times in everyone's life when they pray. No atheists in the foxholes, as the saying goes, and we all have our foxholes. (Just sayin', in case you haven't had yours yet. :D ) And some of us may have found ourselves in more foxholes than others.

So, other than simply doing it, what are some important things that you can learn from prayer by reading Scripture? Here are a couple that come to my mind ...

God doesn't pay attention to us because we are good at praying. Some people think God is all about rewarding the good and punishing the bad. These people just don't get it; they don't understand the gulf that separates us from God. He is all good, we are all bad, no matter how hard we try to be otherwise. The only basis we have for connecting with God is letting go of the sin that we hold onto so hard in our hearts, letting Christ cleanse it through His blood. Scripture teaches that God's Holy Spirit inhabits the heart of His redeemed children, and it is the Holy Spirit who seals that connection with God within us.

Oswald Chambers expressed this well in My Utmost for His Highest, when he said, "God does not hear us because we pray earnestly ... he hears us solely on the basis of redemption." We have no capacity to impress God.

And yet, the flip side of this coin is James 5:16 -- "The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective." Bear in mind that a "righteous person" is one who has allowed God to redeem them!

There are many other seeming incongruities when it comes to prayer. Jesus taught against "vain repetition" in prayer. In other words, hundreds of "Hail Marys" don't amount to a hill o' beans. But then He also taught (in the parable of the widow and the unrighteous judge), that God rewards persistence in prayer (Luke 18:1-8). In fact, our passion, persistence and will seem to pay off handsomely when it comes to connecting with God. Consider this blatant promise in Jeremiah 29:13: "You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart."

Here's another one. Prayer is not simply to be about us asking God for stuff, right? When Jesus taught His disciples how to pray, there was so much more to it than that. Acknowledgment of God's sovereignty. Confession. Praise. And also supplication. Which basically means -- asking. Jesus said very simply: "You have not because you ask not." He who seeks, finds. To him who knocks, the door will be opened.

Balance that against what is written in James 4: "You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures." Motives matter. Our supplication must be God-centered rather than self-centered.

But it's comforting to know God is also intensely concerned about my well-being. When I prayed for help after my bike accident, it wasn't God's will that I bleed to death all by my lonesome out in the wilderness. He wanted me to get help, so as soon as I aligned myself in dependence on his purposes, He opened up a way for my cell phone signal to get through the ether and connect with that amazed 9-1-1 operator hundreds of miles away.

So the biggest lessons (to me) are simple ones. Take the time to pray. Seek to connect. Believe what God says. We're not talking rocket science here!

How about you? What has been your experience with prayer? (As I've said ... I'm not the expert here!) Do you feel like God is there when you pray, hearing you? How has He answered? Or do you think prayer is just an exercise in futility?

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