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.

 

Advertisements

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. 

 

A Conversation within a Conversation

Have you ever prayed mid-conversation? Not out loud, but just silently in your heart? 

Have you ever been having a conversation with someone, and while they are speaking or during a pause, you start talking to God about the conversation you are having with that person?

Confused yet?

It’s a conversation between you and God within a conversation between you and another person.

There’s an example of this in the Bible that may help illustrate things.

Nehemiah, cup bearer to King Artaxerxes of Susa, was burdened that his homeland, Jerusalem, was in ruins. The sadness was so evident on Nehemiah’s face, the king noticed it immediately and asked for an explanation. Nehemiah was afraid, but he told the king about the situation in Jerusalem anyway (Nehemiah 2:1-3).

The king responded, “What is it you want?” (Nehemiah 2:4).

Up until this point, Nehemiah hadn’t expressed what he wanted to anyone in this account. Maybe he didn’t even know.

What Nehemiah did next is significant. Instead of immediately responding to the king’s question, Nehemiah “prayed to the God of heaven…” and then he “answered the king,” (Nehemiah 2:4:5).

Nehemiah stopped and had a conversation with God within his conversation with the king.  

What do you think Nehemiah said to God? Maybe he asked for favor from the king. Maybe he asked for God to order his words as he made a request of the king. Maybe he asked God what he should ask the king for. Maybe he asked for protection from the king, who, I’m sure, would’ve been well within his rights to fire, if not kill, Nehemiah for asking for time off.

At any rate, Nehemiah prayed before he responded.

And that half of a verse, when applied in our own conversations, could be a game-changer (when we remember to do it). 

I’ve experienced some “success” with this concept while witnessing.

In a ministry I work with, I do a lot of “cold” evangelism, meaning I talk to strangers about their spiritual beliefs. I don’t have a lot of time to get to know these women, so I don’t have much to go off of as far as deciding what angle to take with them.

But what I do have is the Holy Spirit. He knows these women more intimately than I ever could, and He also lives inside of me, which is convenient.

When I get to the part of the conversation that involves asking a woman to tell me about her spiritual beliefs – and when I can remember to ask the Spirit to say through me what each woman needs to hear about Jesus in that moment – some pretty cool things happen. In other words, when I remember to have a conversation with the Lord within my conversation with the woman, things usually go better than when I forget to consult Him.

I may also have tried this “praying before I respond” concept with my husband and kids on occasion with varying degrees of success, but I wonder how much better communication and conflict resolution would go with them if prayer during conversation became the norm instead of the exception.

While it’s not a formula we can manipulate God with, when done with the right heart – one of seeking wisdom from the Lord and for the Lord – I think it’s a pretty wise approach to interpersonal communication.

When We Suffer

Paul.

I can’t begin to understand the fervency of this dude’s faith. I think part of it is just his personality. He was a zealous Jew before he became a zealous Christ-follower. He seems to just be one of those people that never does anything halfway. It’s all or nothing for Paul.

As such, his vocal dedication to Jesus through every conceivable trial and tribulation makes sense… sort of.

I mean, Paul went. through. it. If ever there were a Christian who would have had reasonable cause to give up the faith, it was Paul. Beatings and imprisonments and persecution far greater than anything we could imagine – not to mention having to lead a bunch of knuckleheads in the faith who seemed to exasperate him in every city he planted a church… The whole thing sounds exhausting to me.

So what was Paul’s secret to staying the course? How did he muster up the emotional, spiritual, and physical energy to go round after round of his ridiculous life?

I think he gives us a little glimpse in 2 Corinthians.

He tells the believers at Corinth that he and Timothy suffered and had hardships in Asia. In fact, Paul says, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death,” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).

Can I just tell you I am there with Paul some days?

No, there is no bounty on my head. The government isn’t after me (although folks from the Department of Defense have been reading my blog – I like to pretend it’s Jack Bauer). I don’t have a physical malady that is threatening my life like Paul seemed to have had.

But I do often share Paul’s sentiments that I am under great pressure, far beyond my ability to endure… at home… at church… in new ministry ventures… in relationships… in my walk with the Lord… and sometimes I just want to pack it all up and go Home. My mind spins, like Paul’s, and I despair, thinking to myself, “Surely, this is it. Surely, this is the end of the madness because I cannot. take. any. more.”

And that’s usually where I stop. I identify with Paul’s emotions, and I sit down in the mud and give up. I stop reading his letter to the Corinthians right there, in the middle of verse 9.

And I miss out.

I miss out on the explanation as to why hard things happen in my life.

“But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead,” (2 Corinthians 1:9). I miss out on the invitation to intimacy with the Lord – utter reliance on Him – and seeing His power displayed in a new, tangible, personal way in my life. One reason we experience hardship is because God wants us! He wants us to realize we can’t really do anything – much less anything difficult – without Him. He wants us to draw near to Him, and we simply will not do that unless circumstances force us to. The human heart is a stubborn beast that way.

As if He Himself weren’t enough reason for us to draw near, God offers us even more. He is not “empty-handed”, as it were. He gives us an invaluable gift I miss out on when I give up during hard times.

I miss out on the deliverance offered me by the Lord.

If I would just keep walking, relying on Him, “…he will deliver [me],” as Paul says (2 Corinthians 1:10). Paul recounts how God has delivered him in the past and declares his belief that God will deliver him in the future. “On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us,” (2 Corinthians 1:10).

(Side note: what deliverance looks like in your mind may be far different than the deliverance God has in mind. His version is always better, even if it doesn’t feel that way at the time.)

At this point I’m thinking, “This is all well and good, Paul, but I am not an optimist like you seem to be. You may be able to ‘set your hope‘ on God’s deliverance, but I just can’t swing that in my own power.”

And Paul says to me, “Kelly, once again, you’ve stopped reading prematurely. Look at the next verse, friend.”

“On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers,” (2 Corinthians 1:10-11).

Whoa.

Zealous Paul – superhero Christian Paul – derives help keeping his hope set on God through the prayers of fellow believers!

I feel better.

Paul needed people to pray for Him. I need people to pray for me. And I need to be praying for other people, especially those who are struggling to keep their hope set on God.

And Paul really believed that the Corinthians’ praying for him helped him. Prayer to Paul was not some obligatory, trite ritual. It was an avenue of powerful support one believer could and should offer to another.

When we are suffering, we need to remember how the Lord has delivered us in the past, and we need to believe He will do it again. And when we can’t muster up that belief on our own, we need to ask believers who love us to help us set our hope on God by praying for us.