Unanswered Prayers and “Ask and it WILL be Given to You”

There is a super famous Bible verse that is super misused, causing two super problems. So that has got to stop.

In Luke 11 Jesus is teaching His followers about prayer. He models prayer for them via what we know as “The Lord’s Prayer,” (as if He only prayed the one time…).

Then He tells them a parable to reinforce the fact that God likes it when we annoyingly ask Him for the same thing over and over until we get it.

(The NIV calls this “boldness”. Other translations call this “persistence”. But, I can’t help but think of it as nagging. Nevertheless, God wants us to keep asking sometimes.)

After the parable Jesus says this, “So I say to you: ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened,” (Luke 11:9-10).

Most people stop there. And that’s where they run into problems.

The first issue is people take this to mean they can ask for anything and God will give it to them. After all, it appears to be a pretty straight-forward guarantee right here in God’s Word. So He is obligated to deliver, right?

Many a preacher has taken these two verses out of context and centered his entire ministry around them. Such preachers stand in pulpits across the world gleefully telling the masses that God wants them to be healthy and wealthy and these verses are the proof! These preachers claim that if the pray-er just believes enough and nags enough (er…has enough “boldness” and “persistence”…) and gives enough money to God (i.e., to the preachers’ private jet funds), God will literally make their bodies healthy and fill their pockets with cash money.

This is called the prosperity gospel, and some of the biggest churches in America teach it. Many of the preachers on TV teach it. And then it makes its way across the international airwaves to third-world countries where desperately poor people so want it to be true that they convince themselves it is.

The problem is the prosperity gospel isn’t true. The Bible does not promise good health or wealth to anyone who follows Jesus. In fact, He promises we will have trouble (John 16:33) and suffer if we follow Him (John 15:20). Yes, we will receive blessings, too (1 Corinthians 9:23), but nowhere does the Bible report those blessings will be physical and financial.

The actual gospel is we have all sinned (Romans 3:23), and those sins have earned us death (Romans 6:23), which is another word for eternal separation from the blessings of God. But God so loves us that He created an exchange program in Jesus, who never sinned during His life, thus earning Himself eternal life with God. God decided to offer every human being the chance to exchange their earned ticket to hell for Jesus’ earned ticket to Heaven (Romans 4:22-25).

The prosperity gospel preachers never get around to the actual gospel. The only “need” for Jesus they present is we “need” Him to give us good health and money. Unfortunately, our need is much greater than that. We need Him to take the punishment our sinning deserves and give us the blessing His obedience deserved.

All that to say, millions of people are being led to believe Christianity is about manipulating God into giving them whatever they want by taking these verses out of context. And that is a huge problem. Not only will those people not get what they are trying to get, they will also not get Heaven when they die because/if they have not properly understood and accepted the actual gospel.

The second problem from misusing these verses applies to those of us who do understand and believe the actual gospel but are then left disappointed, doubting, and/or in a state of self-loathing when we persistently ask God for something and don’t get it.

We start to think, “Maybe the Bible isn’t true after all,” or “Maybe I don’t have enough faith,” or “Maybe God doesn’t really care about me,” or “Maybe God isn’t even real.”

Our faith can be seriously challenged when we think these verses mean if we pray enough times, God promises to give us whatever it is we are asking him for no matter what. We can become bitter, angry, distant, depressed, and even turn our backs on God completely if our “bold” prayers aren’t answered the way we want them to be…the way we think these verses teach that they will be.

So what’s the solution to these two huge problems?

CONTEXT.

Don’t stop reading after verse 10! Read through verse 13.

“So I say to you: ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”

The first verse uses a little pronoun: it. We have to ask ourselves what “it” is in reference to.

The previous verse is part of the parable Jesus told. The subject of the sentence is what the ask-er needs. So, perhaps the “it” covers what we need, but not necessarily what we want. And that accounts for why we don’t always get what we ask Him for.

But in the parable the “need” presented isn’t a true need; rather, the ask-er is wanting some food to entertain unexpected company with. They likely will not starve without said food. The host was following the cultural rules of hospitality and did not want to dishonor his visitors, the worst insult in that day.

So his “need” is more of a “want”, which would make the “it” in “ask and it will be given to you” more of a want. We’ve all experienced God not giving us our wants, so we are back to square one. How can this verse be true if we can make “it” be anything we want it to be?

Maybe “it” doesn’t refer to a noun in the previous story. Maybe it refers to a noun in the verses that come after it.

After the promise “it will be given to you,” Jesus makes a comparison to illustrate His teaching. Then, in verse 13, Jesus summarizes everything He has just taught on the subject of prayer: “How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”

What is being given?

The Holy Spirit.

To whom?

To those who ask Him for it.

It.

IT.

We found our “it”!

Take the “the Holy Spirit” back up to verses 9 & 10.

“So I say to you: ask and [the Holy Spirit] will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Our verses are not a blank check waiting for you to fill out so the Bank of God can cash it.

Our verses are a specific check God filled out and is waiting for you to cash through prayer!

Ask for a greater awareness of the Holy Spirit and it will be given to you; seek deeper intimacy with the Spirit, and you will find it; knock and the door to more powerful connection with the Spirit will be opened.

These are promises God will keep. These are the guarantees Jesus was making when He said these words to His followers.

Don’t let foolish preachers pluck these verses out of context to convince you God wants you fat and happy above all else. Don’t take these verses out of context yourself and then allow doubt and disappointment to overtake you when you don’t get what you want.

Rather, read these verses in context and get to praying for the “it” God is offering you if you are a follower of Jesus: greater intimacy with the Holy Spirit.

That’s a far greater gift than whatever else you wanted from God anyway.

 

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How to Struggle

This morning I read Romans 15, and I became fixated on one verse in particular. Verse 30 says, “I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.”

Paul is wrapping up a long letter to the Christians in Rome, and in chapter 15 he is explaining his future plans. He is going to run an offering from the Christians in Macedonia and Achaia (think Greece) east to the poor Christians in Jerusalem. Then he is going back west to drop by Rome on his way further west to Spain. Why he didn’t just wire the money I’ll never know. I digress.

Paul is a bit apprehensive about returning to Jerusalem because, well, Paul’s “betraying” Judaism and becoming a Christ-follower was generally frowned upon by the Jewish establishment, and, thus, the general Jewish population in the region. Paul petitions the Romans to, “Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea and that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favorably received by the Lord’s people there, so that I may come to you with joy, by God’s will, and in your company be refreshed,” (Romans 15:31-32).

I am struck by Paul’s vulnerability in his prayer request. Here is the greatest missionary of all time asking those he has discipled in the faith to pray for him because he is SCARED. He knows he is walking into a volatile situation in which he could quite literally be murdered if he falls into the wrong hands. But the poor Christians in Jerusalem need help, and he has the ability to help them. So he really does not think twice about going to aide them.

However, he still “urges” fellow believers to pray for his safety. “Dangerous conditions” won’t stop Paul from doing what God wants him to do, but the reality of the danger is still enough for him to plead for prayer. It’s like Paul thinks prayer really works or something… … …

I’m also struck by the verbiage Paul uses in his request. His “urging” the Roman Christians to pray for him communicates…urgency. He has a serious task before him and doesn’t take it lightly.

But beyond that, Paul describes a) the mechanisms by which he is urging the brothers to join him, or b) the mechanisms by which he and the Roman Christians are brothers. And those mechanisms are “our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of the Spirit.” Since there were no commas in the original language, it’s hard to say which possibility Paul meant.

Maybe all Paul means is he and the Roman Christians are brothers because they all were saved by God’s love exhibited through the Holy Spirit’s drawing each of them to Jesus (option b). And as spiritual brothers, they can and ought to join in each others’ struggles.

On the other hand, if the commas are right (option a), Paul is urging the brothers to join him in his struggle via Jesus and the love of the Spirit. It would seem these are the avenues of their joining together.

Perhaps, then, Paul means that their being Christians and their possession of the love of the Spirit make it possible for the Romans to truly unite with him in his struggle. Without the commonality of being believers, maybe it wouldn’t be possible for the Romans to join Paul in his struggle? Can non-believers reallyfully join in believers’ struggles when non-believers lack the correct perspective of prayer and God?

And/Or, without the love of the Spirit working through them, maybe it wouldn’t be possible for the Romans to have the motivation to join Paul in his struggle? I mean, how fun does that sound, anyway? If the decision is left up to us selfish humans, I’m thinking most of the time we won’t be chomping at the bit to join anyone in struggles…Paul is essentially saying, “Hey, you guys? Wanna  feel this incredible fear and anxiety I’m currently experiencing? It sucks big time! You’re gonna hate it. There’s a heavy weight on my chest, I toss and turn all night, and the panic attacks are coming every hour or so… but come on over and suffer with me! I’ll put on a pot of coffee, and you bring cookies.”

At any rate. Paul tells the Romans they can join together with him in his struggle by doing one thing: “praying to God for me.” 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t pray enough. I hardly pray at all, really. I’d never say this out loud (yeah, I would; I have no shame/filter/verbal boundaries), but I feel like prayer is pretty boring and is more of a chore than a privilege. I don’t like feeling this way; I know it is wrong. But prayer is a pretty passive thing to me most the time. I rattle off some thanks and some requests while God sits by trying not to yawn in my face.

But there have been a few times in my life where a friend desperately needed prayer, and I fervently prayed for him. About a year and a half ago, for example, a friend of mine was in a car wreck. He was airlifted, had emergency surgery, was in a medically induced coma in a trauma ICU unit for 6 weeks, etc. Things were broken, breathing was inconsistent, infections arose. He almost died numerous times. Due to the emotion of the circumstances, it was easy for me to “pray without ceasing.” I “joined” this friend and his family in their struggle for life. And there was nothing passive about it. Praying for him and them consumed my thoughts most of every day. Worship songs about depending on God and trusting God came alive to me in a whole new way. I actively worshiped God as I learned how to live what those songs say I believe. I grew spiritually, my friend eventually recovered, his family made it through the worst couple of months of their lives, and God was glorified.

It kind of blows me away that we believers have this ability to actually enter into someone else’s struggle. We can actively join together with them, experiencing at least some level of the pain they are experiencing. We can suffer along with them. And, yes, at first glance, this seems sadistic. Why would anyone purposefully subject themselves to suffering, esp. on someone else’s behalf? Hmm…I don’t know, why don’t we ask Jesus?

Jesus chose to enter our world and our lives to suffer on our behalves. In salvation He takes all the suffering for us. But in daily living He enters our lives and suffers alongside us when we are hurting or scared or anxious or depressed because we still live in a fallen world. He is with us always (Matthew 28:20), even when we’re broken-hearted (Psalm 34:18). We may forget He is there most of the time, but that doesn’t change the fact that He is, and He is feeling all the same emotions of the moment we are (Hebrews 4:15). And just knowing that makes our suffering a little more bearable.

There is something beautiful about us humans loving someone else like this. When we willingly volunteer to walk so closely with someone who is struggling that we actually feel their pain ourselves, we’re showing Jesus to them. A holy communion of sorts takes place, and we come to see that joining them in their struggle is actually a privilege. And the chief way we do this is by praying for them.

  When we struggle, we are to struggle together.

What to do when You’re Sinning

A lot of times when I am going through a time of not caring about much, having a “meh” attitude about life, I slip into some pretty comfortable sins. Perhaps my favorite one is not doing the good I know I ought to do, per James 4:17. I don’t use my time for His purposes…I don’t intentionally invest in people in order to encourage them toward Him…I don’t think of others more highly than myself and act accordingly (Philippians 2:3). I don’t discipline my thoughts or my mouth to think and speak things that honor God.

After a lengthy spell of this self-centeredness, the Holy Spirit breaks through and convicts my hard heart of my wrongdoing. My stubborn self probably won’t admit to other humans that I’ve been sinning, but, I know the Spirit has nailed me…

Usually, what ensues next is an internal debate about how I need to stop myself and do right, but also that I don’t really want to stop and/or I don’t have the will power to stop on my own. Sometimes the excuses win and I stay stuck in my pattern of sin for a while longer. Other times, I respond to the Spirit.

It occurred to me while studying 1 Samuel that I’m probably Jewish. Not nationality-wise, of course. Blond hair and blue eyes are not what you think of when you hear “of middle-eastern descent.” What really occurred to me is I am just like the Israelites in behavior.

In 1 Samuel the Israelites start out as a theocracy. That is, they are governed by God Himself. They have judges/leaders in place to help them through civil affairs and military strategies and whatnot, but, ultimately, those leaders are not leading Israel: God is. The prophets tell the judges what God wants them to do, and the Israelites decide whether or not to do it.

After some pretty amazing military battles in which Leader God miraculously delivers Israel from enemies and grants peace between Israel and rowdy neighbors for the first time in forever, the Israelites decide they don’t want a theocracy anymore. Rather, they want a king–i.e., a human–to lead them (1 Samuel 8:20).

Why? Because they want to keep up with the Joneses. “All the other nations get to have kings, why can’t we?” they whine (1 Samuel 8:5, 19-20, Kelly Levatino Translation).

Now, Samuel knows this is a stupid request. So you know what he does? He prays. If that ain’t a lesson in leadership, I don’t know what is. But I digress.

And when Samuel prays, God tells him what to do. Crazy right? Maybe if you and I thought that could still happen today when we pray, we’d pray more often and with more anticipation. But probably not. I digress.

Sam tells the Israelites, “Look, I talked to God, and He says if you guys want a king, you need to know that man is going to oppress the daylights out of you. It’s not going to be good, you guys,” (1 Samuel 8:11-17).

“We don’t care!” the stupid people reply, “We want a king!” (1 Samuel 8:19-20).

Samuel just shakes his head. He does’t argue with them or call them names or pull his judge card and “overrule” their decision. Instead, you know what he does? That guy prays again! He goes back to God and tells Him what happened (as if He didn’t already know), and God says, “Give them the king they want,” (1 Samuel 8:21-22).

Samuel installs Saul as king, effectively ending his own rule as judge. And as he steps down, Samuel says, “Let me tell you people something. You all have a long history of doing whatever you want, getting yourselves into desperate situations, realizing you’re in those situations because you’ve been sinning, and then running back to God crying, ‘Mea culpa!’ And you know what? Every time you’ve sincerely repented, God has been faithful to forgive you and deliver you from your circumstances,” (1 Samuel 12:6-11).

Samuel continues, “This time your sin is that you said, ‘We want a king to rule over us’–even though the Lord your God was your king,”(1 Samuel 12:12 NIV).

And so it finally dawns on the Israelites how their demanding a king has been sin all this time. When this reality hits them between the eyes, they respond to Samuel, “Pray to the Lord your God for your servants so that we will not die, for we have added to all our other sins the evil of asking for a king,” (1 Samuel 12:19).

Instead of going to God themselves in the midst of their guiltiness, the Israelites ask the “senior pastor”, as it were, to pray for them while they keep their distance from the Lord they think will kill them for their disobedience (and for good reason; He does have a track record of that…).

But Samuel tells them, “Do not be afraid. You have done all this evil; yet do not turn away from the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart,” (1 Samuel 12:20).

In other words, RUN TO GOD! This is when you need Him the most! When you’re being convicted of your sin and need to make things right with Him, GO TO HIM!

Samuel goes on to advise, “Do not turn away after useless idols. They can do you no good, nor can they rescue you, because they are useless,” (1 Samuel 8:21).

So, not only do the Israelites need to go to God in their sinful state, they also need to stop turning to useless idols in their sinful state.

When we are caught up in sinful patterns and are convicted to repent, we have the same two choices Israel had: we can run to God and deal with it, or we can run to useless idols.

Our “useless idols” may look a little different than Israel’s Baals and Ashteroths, but, essentially, they are the same. Today we run to Netflix or Facebook or ice cream or adult beverages or our spouses’ approval or overworking or helicopter parenting or spending too much time on hobbies or a million other things in an effort to not have to deal with our sin, our guilt. We indulge in distractions and/or surround ourselves with people who will tell us we aren’t that bad, hoping God will agree and the Spirit will leave us alone.

But those useless idols cannot rescue us.

There is only One rescuer.

Jesus took our sin upon Himself, in part, so that when we screw up, we can go to God WITHOUT FEAR of punishment. The only thing God gives us when we come to Him with repentant hearts is grace. He graciously forgives us and repairs our brokenness that results from our sinning. He puts us back together.

Samuel goes on to tell the Israelites, “For the sake of His great name the Lord will not reject His people, because the Lord was pleased to make you His own,” (1 Samuel 12:22).

When we go to Him, He WILL NOT reject us; He chose us–we are His.

In the midst of our sin, do not turn away from the Lord. Go to Him. The sooner the better.

How to Not Sin When You Don’t Like God’s Plan

I’m thinking of starting a series called, “Stuff Jesus Did that We Label Sin but Shouldn’t Because Jesus Did that Stuff”.

(It’s a working title.)

As I read through the gospels, I see a lot of things that fall into this category. I am often scratching my head (not literally though; my dandruff is under control. But if yours isn’t, no judgment here. Scratch away).

Many of the things Jesus says seem harsh and unloving at times. I wrestle with how to reconcile those statements with His sinlessness when if I said the same words today, everyone would think I’m a big fat impatient jerk.

This morning I was reading in Mark about Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and, again, I found myself wondering, “Is He sinning?”

Now, of course, He isn’t sinning anywhere ever in the Bible (or out of the Bible, for that matter), but you get my point: as I read I had to open up my mind a little bit and try to figure out why what appeared to be sin wasn’t actually sin and what that means for us.

At this point, details would be helpful.

Jesus is in the Garden, full of sorrow, presumably regarding His impending arrest, mauling, and crucifixion. So Jesus did the best thing He could think of when He was “full of sorrow to the point of death”: He got alone and prayed (Mark 14:34-36).

(That’s a whole different post, but it’s a pretty short one, so let me sum it up: when we feel that way, we should do what Jesus did, too.)

On we go.

This post wants to focus on the content of the prayer (I asked it; it told me).

“[Jesus] fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. ‘AbbaFather,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’”

What is Jesus really saying here?

Jesus is telling/asking God to change the plan.

To me, that communicates Jesus doesn’t trust or agree with the plan. And not trusting God seems like a sin. Disagreeing with God is unwise, at best. It smells of rebellion.

Maybe I am reading my own life into this situation: when I ask God to change the plan, I know it comes from a place of not trusting Him.

But that can’t be so with Jesus because He is sinless. He is not distrusting or disagreeable with the Father or unwise or rebellious in any cell of His body.

So what’s the difference? How can Jesus tell God to change the plan and not sin, but when I tell God to change the plan, it’s usually rooted in sin? 

I think the answer is two-fold.

First, Jesus had the correct understanding of what asking God to do things differently is: not a sin. Asking God to change the plan is simply not a sin in and of itself. We may have been brought up to think it is, but, apparently, it’s not because of the sheer fact that Jesus did it. It is perfectly acceptable to God for us to suggest alternate ways of doing things when His ways scare the crap out of us. But I think most of us wrongly assume it is always a sin to “help” God brainstorm options that are more palatable to us.

(For more on this, go read all the times Moses petitioned God to change His mind/plan. It happened a lot, and God didn’t ever call it sin or dole out a punishment to Moses for objecting to God’s plan. This, logically, does not guarantee God didn’t consider Moses’ objecting sinful, but it makes a pretty good case.)

The second difference is how Jesus couched His request that God do things differently.

Before He told God to change it up, Jesus said, “Everything is possible for you.” Jesus acknowledged God’s omnipotence. Jesus was saying, “I know, Father, that You have the ability to change the way this thing is going to go down. I wouldn’t bother to ask if I didn’t believe that with My whole heart.”

In my estimation, Jesus’ prefacing His request with this admission is an expression of trust. It’s also an acknowledgement that Jesus can’t change things Himself; He is under the Father’s sovereignty and is letting God know He accepts that.

After Jesus told God to take His cup, He ended His prayer with, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” In other words, Jesus was saying, “I realize the fact that whatever You decide to do – go ahead with Your original plan or adapt things at my request – it will be the best choice.”

Again, Jesus is showing complete trust in God and deferral to the Father’s ultimate authority. Jesus is expressing that while His mind might believe a different plan would be better, His heart’s true desire is to do what the Father wants done.

And I think Jesus’ framing His request this way is what determines He is not sinning for desiring a different course of action.

Where the rest of us get tripped up is we either don’t believe God can truly change things or our hearts don’t truly want what He wants. Or, worse, both are true of us. 

After a brief consultation with His disciples, Jesus prayed one more time. He determined His job was to get on with things, and if God wanted to answer His prayer and change the plan along the way, that was up to the Father.

So that’s just what Jesus did. “Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” (Mark 14:42). He embraced the path God had set before Him head on and trusted God to make it lead exactly where the Father wanted it to.

All this to say desiring things to go differently than how God appears to be making them go is not the sin. Doing things differently than how you know God wants them to be done is the sin. It’s in the doing things our own way that we express disregard for His omnipotence and sovereignty. It’s in the doing things against His orders that we show Him we really don’t care about His will at all; we want our will to be done no matter what.

As usual, it’s about the heart. If our hearts are right, like Jesus’ heart was – yielded to God’s wisdom, love, and ultimate authority – we can ask Him to change anything without sinning in the process.

 

Learning to Hear God

My 8 year old, Lexi, stayed home from school Thursday with a fever and cold. Apparently, her immune system didn’t get the memo that Mommy needed to be writing a 7 page paper for grad school, but that’s ok.

I took it in stride.

I.

Took something in stride.

(For an explanation as to why that is so shocking, see my previous post.)

Any who, I used the day to clean the house a little (a very little), finish reading a book, and play Monopoly for 2 hours because Lexi is addicted to it.

As we got ready to go pick up the 6 year old from school, my daughter noticed her dad and me texting. She asked what we were talking about so, I shared that our friend is going to Ethiopia next month to work with some orphans over there our family has long prayed and hurt for. Lexi said she wanted to give our friend money to help fund her trip.

Lexi asked, “How much do you think I should give? $1?”

As we got into the car, I suggested we ask the Lord what He thought.

[Note: like all of you Christian parents out there, I have recently been lamenting that I fail way too often to teach my daughters how to have relationship with the Lord. They have plenty of head knowledge about Him, but I long for them to learn what it means to live with Him, day in and day out, far past rote bedtime prayers. And, like you, I’ve struggled not only to make the time to teach them to be relational with God, but I’ve also lacked the know-how, or so I thought. How do you teach a 6 and 8 year old (read: little people who aren’t great at thinking abstractly yet) to discern the voice of God, something most adults can’t do? Well, He was about to teach me how to teach them.]

My daughter whispered a prayer asking God how much He wanted her to give, and then I instructed her to listen. She said she didn’t hear anything, so I told her what I heard. I heard God say, “I love Lexi. I love her caring heart and that she wants to give. I would love it if she gave $1.”

Lexi responded, “I keep thinking of the numbers 9, 2, and 3, but I don’t have $923…”

I told her we should ask the Lord what He means with those numbers, and as we began to pray, my phone rang. It was my husband, so I put God on hold. (I was very polite about it and said, “Excuse me, Lord.” He understood completely. At least that’s what I’m telling myself…)

I told my husband what Lexi and I were doing, and he suggested God might mean $9.23. I told Lexi when I hung up, and she quickly dismissed the idea of giving her version of a small fortune. Since she was sure that’s not what God meant, I told her we should pray some more and ask Him to make it clear. She said she didn’t hear anything, so I told her what I thought I heard, “I want Lexi to give $9.23.” I reported this to Lexi, but she was still hesitant. She suggested $1 again, so we prayed and asked the Lord how He felt about $1. She didn’t sense anything, so I told her what I heard Him say, “No, I want her to give $9.23 exactly.”

I decided it was a good time to show Lexi how to determine if we are hearing from God, making things up ourselves, or hearing from Satan when we pray. To be clear, I don’t think we can corner the market on this exercise. We can and should have a rule of thumb, like anything we hear in prayer that goes against scripture is not from God. But I think, for the most part, we have to take things we think are from God with a grain of salt, unless something we sense He says is directly backed up by scripture.

In this case, there is no Bible verse that tells Lexi to give or not to give $9.23 to the Lord. So I told her about general giving verses and how the Bible teaches we are to take care of orphans (James 1:27), and we are to give with cheerful hearts (2 Corinthians 9:7), so God is definitely for her supporting our friend’s trip. I suggested to her the amount she gave was inconsequential; it was the spirit behind the giving that God cared most about…unless she felt very strongly that He told her to give an exact amount…then she’d better obey Him.

We decided we’d ask the Lord to confirm the amount He wanted her to give, and we’d keep our eyes and hearts open the rest of the day to see if He did. I told her not to be surprised if she started to see 923 different places. She got excited at the thought of it, and so did I.

I prayed silently all the way to our destination that God would visually confirm His will for her immediately. When we pulled into the parking lot and got in the car line to pick up her sister, we found ourselves behind this vehicle.

IMG_6126

I asked Lexi to tell me what numbers were on the license plate. She didn’t understand at first, but then she realized the three numbers she thought God was showing her – 9, 2, and 3 – were right there on the plate.

I said, “Huh, there are your three numbers… but they’re not in the order we expected to see them, are they?” Her face lit up, “Do you think God is trying to tell me to give $3.29?” I said, “Maybe.” She texted her dad a picture of the license plate and her theory, and he agreed he thought she was right.

She smiled at me and said, “Good – that’s a lot less than $9.23!”

I smiled as I watched this little girl learn to hear from God while continuing to struggle with her humanity all at the same time.

She is not perfect. Her heart will always have selfish leanings. But they pale in comparison to the amazing goodness and obedience and delight in Him that God is growing in her heart. So I rejoiced.

And as I finish this post, God is reminding me that is exactly how He feels about me. I may be 32 years old, and I may have been a Christian for 16 years, but I am still His little girl, learning to hear from Him while continuing to struggle with my humanity all at the same time. I am not perfect. My heart will always have selfish leanings. But they pale in comparison to the amazing goodness and obedience and delight in Him that God is growing in my heart. So He rejoices.

What to Do When You’re Depressed

Tonight was one of those nights I casually flipped through my Bible looking for something to speak to the crap in my heart. Usually, I can rely on David to put pen to paper for me, so I broke open the Psalms and started reading at random. About ten minutes into it, I found what I needed to ponder.

Psalm 13.

Allow me to mash the NIV, ESV, and Amplified versions together to propose the most impactful reading possible:

How long will You forget me, O Lord? Forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and have sorrow in my heart day after day? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; lighten the eyes [of my faith to behold Your face in the pitchlike darkness], lest I sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. 

Cheery so far, no?

It’s important to point out that David is speaking like this to God. I know that seems pretty self-explanatory, but it’s worth mentioning because I have a hunch a lot of religious people and/or new believers don’t understand they have the freedom to be transparent with the Lord.

David is depressed, and he just can’t keep his overwhelming thoughts to himself anymore. Although he has tried to keep his thoughts sorted out and his emotions in check, verse 2 tells us he hasn’t been successful. He’s spinning his spiritual wheels, and he can’t take it anymore. So, to borrow an expression from my friend, David verbally vomits all over God.

Now, David is not blaming God for whatever challenging circumstances he has found himself in that are causing his depression. And David is not being disrespectful toward God by expressing his feelings, albeit passionately. Yes, we’re allowed and encouraged to be candid with the Lord, but we still must be mindful that He is God and we are not, and, therefore, He is due respect at all times.

David communicates his painful feelings of sorrow, neglect, and frustration, and then he asks the Lord to “lighten the eyes” of his faith to behold God’s face in the utter darkness of his depression. That’s an interestingly worded request.

David understands his feelings are not necessarily reflective of reality. He feels forgotten and abandoned by God, but he knows he isn’t. Why else would he continue to pray? If he truly believed God had left him, David wouldn’t be calling out to Him anymore.

As inaccurate as they may be, his feelings are still a powerful force that needs to be dealt with. So David asks God to refocus his heart. David asks for his faith to be refreshed and his spiritual eyes to be put back on God.

Why does David make this request of God? Perhaps because David knows he can’t accomplish this feat himself. In the throes of depression, David doesn’t have the strength nor the will power to “pull himself up by his boot straps” and “turn that frown upside down”.

He asks the Lord to “lighten his eyes” because he can’t possibly lighten them himself. If you’ve ever been around a depressed person, you know this is true. There is no light in their eyes – no hope or faith in God – and no amount of them wishing there was makes it so.

[Note: I am not saying depressed people are not people of faith. Don’t send me letters. Read this instead.]

David knows if God doesn’t correct his eyesight – restore hope to his soul by refocusing his vision on the Lord – he WILL be overcome. David is in a desperate place, and, in a very literal way, his life is at stake. I don’t know that we can go so far as to say David’s lament that he will “sleep the sleep of death” if God doesn’t rescue him from his depression is an indication that he may have been suicidal. But I don’t know that we can rule that out, either. Most of the commentaries like to think of this as a reference to spiritual death – David’s soul will be so utterly overwhelmed if the Lord doesn’t deliver him that he will be as good as dead. In either case, David’s life will be profoundly changed for the worse – either literally through physical death or spiritually through spiritual collapse.

Just when this psalm couldn’t get any graver, David pens this conclusion:

But I have trusted, leaned on, and been confident in Your mercy and loving-kindness; my heart shall rejoice and be in high spirits in Your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.

Wait, what?

Where did that come from?

In verse 4 David is on the brink of spiritual annihilation, and in verse 5 he is skipping through fields of wildflowers with Pharrell’s “Happy” as his soundtrack.

This is about the point I want to shut my Bible and say, “I can’t even.” David and I had been tracking together just fine until now…

Just after he says he can’t pull himself up by his boot straps, he does? No, I don’t think this change of heart came from David’s can-do attitude. Remember, he just got done communicating he didn’t have what it took to overcome his thoughts and sorrow himself. He needed God in the worst way!

No, I think David’s sudden change of heart wasn’t of his own doing; I think it was a direct answer to David’s prayer in verse 4.

(I legitimately wonder how much time passed between David recording his plea with the Lord to deliver him from his depression in verse 4 and his inspirational self pep talk in verses 5 and 6. I’m thinking DAYS.)

The Lord answered David’s request to refocus his heart on God by empowering David to recall God’s trustworthiness, dependability, mercy, and unfailing loving-kindness, as well as by reminding David of his salvation and other blessings from the Lord. No matter how long it did or did not take for David’s tune to change, the Lord pulled him out of his depression by directing him to mediate on these things.

You and I can take a page out of David’s book when we’re flat on our backs emotionally. We can be honest with the Lord – passionately and transparently, yet respectfully honest – about how we’re feeling when we’re down. And we can fervently ask the Lord to “lighten our eyes” and refocus our hearts on Him. And then – and this is my favorite part – we can wait for the Lord to lift us from our sadness by empowering us like He did David to think truthful, helpful thoughts.

We don’t have to get ourselves together. Frankly, often we can’t. But God can. He did it for David time and time again (see Psalms 42, 43, and 55 for more examples), and He can do it for us too. Ask.

How to Pray Better

One thing I love about Paul is his ridiculously eloquent and powerful prayers. Every opening and every closing and, usually, somewhere in the body of each letter, Paul tells whoever he is writing to that he is praying for them. But he doesn’t just say, “Hey – I’m praying for you, brother,” and then totally forget to pray for that guy.

No, Paul tells each recipient what he is praying for them and why. And, even more awe-inspiring, Paul’s prayers are always Kingdom-focused. He doesn’t tell people, “I’m praying for your sick grandma to feel better,” even though I am sure he would be concerned about Mee Maw. He doesn’t tell them, “I’m praying the Grizzlies win Sunday night,” because a) he already knows they will, and b) as much as Americans hate to admit it, the NBA playoffs are not important in the scheme of things. No, Paul prays prayers that are focused on God’s ultimate purposes for His Church.

One such prayer hangs out in 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12. Verse 11 tells what Paul is praying for the believers in Thessalonica, and verse 12 tells why he is praying to that end (and, if you care to get technical, the last clause of verse 12 tells how the why will be accomplished).

11 With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. 12 We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When was the last time I prayed like that? And then told someone I prayed like that for them?

How on-cloud-nine would you feel if someone sent you a text or pulled you aside one Sunday morning and said, “Hey, I am constantly praying for you. I’m praying that our God may make you worthy of His calling on your life and that by His power He will make everything you desire that is good and everything you do by faith succeed. And let me tell you why I’m constantly praying these things for you – so that people will see Jesus glorified in you, and you in Him. That will lead unbelievers to marvel at His mysterious power and believers to rejoice over His work in your life. Much will be made of Him. And I know all of this can happen by God’s grace.”

(All right, so maybe this wouldn’t be a great thing to text someone. It’s so long your phone would splice it up into at least four different texts, and you’d inevitably receive them in the wrong order and have no earthly idea what that person is trying to say to you, but bless them for trying… perhaps an email of this nature would be more beneficial?)

The point is, if we want to learn how to pray better, we should spend a little time pondering Paul’s prayers and his communication to others about his praying for them.

I know it’s probably politically incorrect to say some prayers are “better” than others, but I’m okay with that. Some prayers are better than others… I’m sorry if that hurts your feelings… God loves to hear from us, but when we pray boring, rote prayers that our hearts aren’t in, I don’t think He gets real excited. I myself have been praying prayers like that with my children lately, and I’ve had about all I can take of that nonsense. But when we pour our hearts into meaningful and biblical conversation with Him, I think He can hardly contain His joy.

Some prayers are just better than others. Let’s resolve to pray better.