This is Chapter 12 of "Discovering Joy," a devotion-style diary written during the coronavirus self-isolation. I've been posting it chapter-by-chapter on Wattpad. Enjoy!
10. Pray until you get an answer.
I was talking recently with some ladies and the question arose: "Is it okay to pray many times for the same thing, even in the same day?" The ladies were talking about those times when a particular matter weighed heavily on their spirits and they could barely think of any other thing throughout the day. They feared falling into the category of "vain repetition," as Jesus described it in Matthew 6:7-8:
The Gentiles engaged in long, repetitive prayers because they thought if they just found the "right words," a kind of magic formula, they could get the god to do what they wanted. If a Christian's prayer is rambling, repetitive, and long because of desperation and brokenness, this is right. Prayer is the proper place for such incoherent expressions of need. These are often moments when:
I recall a time in life when a particular pain was so consuming to me that I couldn't pray for anything else. Every prayer came back to that one need. There were times I didn't even have any words anymore; I just sat in God's presence the way a broken-hearted child would sit and sob in her father's lap, unable to speak, unable to listen, just wanting to be held. It was in those times that I felt the Holy Spirit speaking to God the things I could not even put into words.
Were the prayers during those times long and repetitive? Probably. But it was not an attempt to be heard because of the longevity and the repetition. I prayed that way simply because I needed the Lord's presence.
The answer to any prayer comes in the Lord's own time, but it does come. Sometimes you pray just a day. Sometimes a year. Sometimes a decade. Sometimes a lifetime. But the length of time between commencement of prayer and God's answering of it is not indicative of His favor or disfavor upon the request. I started praying and writing letters to my future husband when I transitioned from my teens to my twenties. God did not answer that prayer for a husband until I was almost 29, and I'm so glad that He delayed the timing! The woman God molded me into during that season of singleness was a woman I could not have become any other way. I needed to become that woman both for my singleness and my marriage.
Also, we do not know what goes on behind the scenes when a prayer seems delayed. In Daniel 10, a heavenly messenger tells this to Daniel,
The twenty-one day delay between the start of Daniel's period of fasting and prayer and the powerful answer to his mourning was because of an intense spiritual battle being waged on his behalf.
What battles might be waged in Heaven on our behalf when we pray fervently?
11. Pray to recognize and confess sin.
While the believer's free access to God through Christ is affirmed over and over in the New Testament, there is one thing that God identifies as an automatic roadblock to effective, heard prayer: Sin.
In 1 Peter, God's response to a husband's prayers is directly related to that husband's treatment of his wife:
In Jeremiah 7, God lists the ways in which the Israelites have claimed to be God's people and yet defied Him with egregious, repeated, habitual sin. When God called them to repentance over and over, they refused to hear Him, trusting in their privileged and protected status as God's people instead of humbling themselves to do His will. As a result, God removed their privilege and protections, and issued this warning to Jeremiah:
The people's sin was so great that even the intercessory prayer of a righteous man on their behalf would go unheard.
I have experienced this once. A professing believer was actively cursing and blaming God, while engaging in habitual sin. I began to pray fervently for God for overlook this sin, hoping that my intercession would have more weight than this person's continued rebellion. Halfway through my prayer, I felt a very strong, stern presence pressing upon me. There were no words, but the message was extremely clear. "Do not continue to pray. This person has chosen to rebel against me and I will deal with them Myself." I realized that I was more concerned with this person escaping the consequences of their sin than I was about the fact that God's name was being blasphemed. It is truly a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God. I turned this person's soul into God's keeping, trusting that His mercy and justice was enough.
To choose sin knowingly over obedience is to forfeit the right to be heard. This doesn't mean that God will refuse to hear the prayer of a truly repentant sinner. But if we're using prayer like a get-out-of-jail-free card and abusing the grace and forgiveness He offers so freely, we should be fearful. We should be utterly terrified for the state of our souls.
It is with this godly fear that David begged:
David wanted to see his sin, so that he could confess it and petition for the removal of that barrier between himself and God.
12. Pray even if your spouse (if you have one) cannot pray with you.
When Paul and I first got married, we had grand ideas that we would have a dedicated prayer time together every night (or perhaps, morning. Or both!). The reality? When you get up at 4:30 a.m. to rush out the door to work, prayer barely registers on the to-do list. When you get home at 10 p.m. at night and stumble into bed exhausted, prayer lasts about 0.2 seconds. Finding a routine amidst Paul's variable work schedule, unexpected ministry demands, and class times was almost impossible. We had better luck just coming to one another during moments of need and asking, "Can we pray just for a few minutes before you have to leave?"
And sometimes we were just plain lazy. That's the truth of it. We'd rather watch the Great British Bake-off or go for a walk than pray together. If we thought about praying at all.
It was a relief to hear the honesty of Tim and Cathy Keller when they participated in a Q&A following Tim's excellent sermon series on marriage. They said (and I paraphrase):"For the first twenty years of our marriage--while we were in ministry, no less--we did not have a dedicated prayer time together. That said, we instituted one before bed about four years ago. We don't pray very long, but we do make sure to pray. We have found that even with short prayers, we've seen a tremendous difference."
Paul and I are focusing more on prayer as a necessary part of our marriage and our parenthood. That said, there are times when the opportunity to pray together just does not happen, for various reasons. If I waited on Paul's availability to pray for the things on my heart, I would accrue so much need. I cannot wait on someone else's schedule before I pursue my God or pay attention to my own spiritual needs. I must be proactive now. Much of the time, I end up praying on my own and Paul prays on his own. Interestingly, I notice that the more faithful I am in my own prayer life, the more faithful he is, and the greater the likelihood that we'll magically "find time" to pray together. Prayer often fuels prayer, even in one's spouse.
13. Pray at the moment of "I'll pray for you."
The ladies and I have laughed many times over that cringe-worthy moment when someone says, "Oh, thanks for praying for such-and-such! God has really worked in the situation." And we've recalled our glib "I'll pray for you" several weeks or months ago and realized we never actually prayed. And here we are, hypocrites, getting credit for prayerful intervention when we never took the time to do it.
Some time ago, I began an experiment. As soon as I say, "I'll pray for you," I pray. As soon as the petitioner texts her prayer request or posts it on Facebook, I pray. At the very least, it ensures that I have prayed once for the situation. But often, having prayed, I recall the request randomly throughout the day, and, if I pray at the moment of thinking, "I should pray for this," then I have intervened yet again on behalf of my friend. I may also add it to my prayer list to pray with more focus and dedication, but the fact remains that, in having already begun to pray, it is easier to continue praying.
So when she says, "Thank you for praying!" I can say with confidence. "You're welcome! Now tell me how God answered your prayer."
14. Pray with the person.
If you are in a face-to-face situation, or on the phone with someone, and the prayer request makes itself known, I have learned that it is an incredibly powerful thing to simply ask, "Can we pray for it together right now?" After the initial surprise, 99% of people will say "yes," even if they are not Christians or particularly prayerful people. They accept the gesture as one of good will and thoughtfulness, even if they do not believe the petitioning of God actually has power.
One day on a bus, I sat next to an elderly woman who told me story after story of woe. Now, I couldn't discern how much of the story was the need of a lonely woman to gain attention, but if even half of the things she told me were true, she needed God's intervention in a big way. I felt overwhelmed with her need, and was about to open my mouth to say, "I'll pray for you," when the Holy Spirit nudged me. "No, do not pray for her. Pray with her."
On a crowded bus? In front of people? I fought the command hard and threw every "but" at God, but He was relentless. So I asked the woman if I could pray with her right now.
"Oh, sweetie, what a lovely thing. Yes, please!"
I took her hand and prayed a simple prayer for healing, peace, spiritual growth. It was vague and stumbling, but it came from genuine compassion.
The bus stopped. The doors opened. I wasn't done my prayer yet, so I just kept praying. I don't know if it was just my impression or reality, but as I recall, no one on the bus moved during that prayer, even to exit. It was like we were frozen in that moment of intercession. Then I said "Amen" and the world started moving again. And both the woman and I were in tears, for reasons I still can't identify.
That was the first time I prayed with someone, publicly and at the moment of need, but it was not the last. I am still building the habit, but about 50% of the time now, when someone says, "Will you pray for...?" and I have the opportunity to pray for them at that moment, I ask to do so. You'd think it would be awkward, but I'm learning that it's the opposite. Something spiritually rich and powerful releases at that moment, and both of us can feel it as we pray. Often there are tears or a deep, settled sense of some weighty and meaningful Presence.
Do you have any thoughts, experiences, or tips on building a prayerful life? I'd love to hear them at theunexpectedgood @ gmail.com.
None of my life has gone the way it was "supposed to go," but I don't love my life any less because of the hardships and new directions. I see so much unexpected good in it, and I want others to see the good in theirs.