Prayer: Not for the Faint of Heart

My “Wall O’ Prayer Post-Its” 

A Passive Aggressive Prayer:

Heavenly Father,

It’s been a hard week (month or year) and, I’m not sure why I’m praying…it’s not like you can do anything, can you? Or will you? I’m just a lowly creature whose problems don’t mean much in the scheme of the universe. Do you even care? I mean, why should you? I’m a pretty awful example of a Christ-follower. But I’m praying anyway hoping you’ll actually listen and move. But I doubt it. You’re just going to do what you want to do anyway. Sometimes it seems like you’re a tyrant god who likes to watch us squirm so we can see how incapable we are without you. Right? But I’m going to ask anyway…just in case. But I don’t expect much. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

And so it goes.

I never thought of myself as a passive-aggressive person. I don’t try to manipulate people to do what I want them to do through subtle derogatory remarks intended to zing or pinch. Well, sometimes I do. It’s a cowardly technique. I should just say I what mean instead of trying to get someone to feel the way I want him or her to feel. Even writing it sounds tacky, but I do it and I practice it with God sometimes.

I’m trying not to do it anymore. My New Year’s resolution for 2016 was to develop a prayer discipline that was consistent and focused. I resolved to read Christian authors I respect and study the scriptures regarding prayer, from Old to New Testaments.

I also determined to keep “prayer promises.” Whenever I tell someone, “I’ll pray for you,” I do. I write it on a post-it note and stick it on my prayer wall. I have a big sheet metal board that my hubster made for me a few years ago. It hangs over my desk and I used it to keep my teaching plans organized. Since I don’t teach anymore, it has become a catch-all for “meditation notes,” pictures, quirky magnets, coffee sleeves from favorite coffee shops, and now it’s also covered with family photos and post-it note prayer requests. I may need another board…

I wish I could say that in these last four months I have discovered some great prayer insights. Maybe even a step-by-step process into manipulating God into answering prayers. I didn’t though. Some of my prayer post-its haven’t changed at all, while others have been removed and altered. But the big ones have stayed in place. No movement from Heaven that I can see.

However…do I walk by faith or by sight? Does the character of God change just because I don’t see answers? Is He a Father of love who listens and moves, or is He a judging, condemning Father who likes us to suffer so we learn to be stronger individuals?

(Quite frankly, I prefer not to have anymore “character-shaping” moments. I prefer being weak and wimpy if it means life goes more smoothly. In fact, I kind of like my “ostrich faith.” Sticking my head in the sand so I don’t have to feel fear, disappointment, anguish, or grief. My character is shaped enough, thank you very much. God disagrees.)

Prayer is more complex than all my whining. It isn’t a “fix,” but nor is it empty and fruitless. It is an essential component—even “THE” central component for a Christian. But be forewarned! Diligent—and sometimes urgent—prayer requires concentrated time and effort, and it will reveal your true self while also revealing a fearsome glimpse of the God who created all.

Here is a bit of what I have learned: 

  1. Prayer reveals the status of my own heart first, and it can be a very painful experience. I don’t say this lightly. It is very painful. During this prayer process, I’ve become acutely aware of my own failures. My “dirty-ness.” It’s like I’m looking at an overview of my entire life and seeing all the places that I’m ashamed of—all the things I thought were secret play out again and again. Emotions I thought I had dealt with long ago resurface. It’s crushing. I am not the person I thought I was. I am a frail, sinful person who hurt people I loved over and over again—not through intentionality, but through my choices and behavior patterns. Oy to the vey. This is not what I expected to have happen through disciplined prayer. I guess I thought I’d become respected and admired for my righteousness. Woe to me. A Pharisee by nature; however, I am a child of God through Christ. Prayer has tuned me into my base nature and thus my need for a Savior.
  2. Prayer doesn’t always have to be an emotional heart cry. Sometimes it will be, but when I look at my prayer board, I see a journey I need to take everyday, and it’s hard to keep that emotional state going daily. Nor should we. Prayer is disciplined. Emotional outpourings are also necessary and will occur, but most days, prayer will be a steady procedure anchored in faith that God hears and Heaven moves according to HIS will and not mine. And some days, I merely plod through my wall in a circular pattern because I promised I would do so. Usually during my plodding, more sincere and even new revelations happen that shift my prayers slightly. But sometimes it doesn’t happen. Sometimes it stays a steady plod forward. That’s ok…I hope. I’m trusting God that He still finds pleasure in my supplication even when I don’t feel that emotional pulse that exhilarates.
  3. Bible study is essential. Experts continually write books that explore the Lord’s Prayer, the Gethsemane prayer, Jesus’ quiet times in the wilderness (40 days and nights), fasting, the Psalms, Daniel’s prayers…seemingly every prayer written in God’s Word. These writers analyze and pull biblical prayers apart at the seams trying to decode the secret to making things happen. Prayers for prosperity and healing leave hurting people cynical when their formulaic prayers aren’t answered. So many well-intentioned folks try to figure out why these prayers aren’t being answered and often turn the blame back on the pray-er. There must be secret sin in your life. You’re not praising God enough before you make a request (as if God doesn’t understand when He’s being manipulated). There’s a tinge of condemnation and self-righteousness in those remarks. I’ve been on the receiving end of those well-intentioned folks, as have so many that I love. I have found this to be true: the only authority on prayer is God. And it follows that the only way we can know God is through His Word. The character of our creator is spread out through 66 books written by man, but inspired by God. He has given us everything we need to know about His character through His Bible. Nothing added. Nothing taken away. The more I understand who God is and what His plan is for the world and people He created, the more I can pray with assurance that God will not act outside of His character. He is an unchanging God, full of love, compassion, mercy, and holy justice. I am to stand in awe of Him, and the Bible shows me why He is deserving of my awe. Read the Word. Bill Hybels (Willow Creek Community Church of Chicago) talks about “chair time”—15 minutes a day in God’s Word. I love that.
  4. Pray with a sense of the eternal: The soul was not created for the body, but the body for the soul. We are eternal creatures stamped with the image of God. We defiled that image, so now we are but poor shadows of what God intended for us to be. But we will be like Him. In a moment. In a twinkling of an eye (God does love poetry!). My life feels so rooted in the “right now,” but I’m also very conscious of an ache for something more. Something purer. I think that is part of our eternal longing. Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:10-11: “What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” We long for something that we can’t name (but advertisers certainly can!). I notice it most when I’m in nature. Colorado is so beautiful and majestic, but people continue to defile it and make it less so! Stop it! An example: Steve and I went on a short traipse the other day—a trail we had been wanting to try for a while. We parked the car, got out and started walking. The grasses were high and the red-winged blackbirds sat on them without bending them. We could hear their songs, as well as the rustle of critters scurrying around us. But shading the sounds of nature was the steady thrum of traffic. All those cars and trucks flying down the road depleted my joy. Then as we headed back to our Jeep, the wafting smell of pot from a nearby truck sealed my mood. I became very aware of a sense of the eternal. Cars became symbolic of man’s need for more and more while depleting natural resources and finances, and pot…well, outside of medical usage, it’s just another drug used to alter a state of being rooted in dissatisfaction or unhappiness. God has placed eternity in my heart—a longing for Eden. For what was intended. When I pray, I try to remember that God has eternal purposes that I can’t see. I let that shape my prayers so that I don’t pray without hope.
  5. Prayer “tunes me in” to God’s will. The older I get, the more I understand that religion is man’s feeble attempt to understand God. God is not religion. Jesus did not come to earth, die, and then return to Heaven in order to create a religion. He came that ALL men and women might know God and repent–to serve the one true God and only the one true God. We mess things up by trying to make God completely knowable. Sometimes I think religion tries to shape God in order to make him smaller. We set up rituals and doctrine to explain the character of God. There is nothing wrong with rituals and doctrine as long as it is rooted in biblical truth. Yes, I am one of THOSE Christ-followers who believe that the Bible is inerrant. Everything that God needed us to know is in His Word. And if you study it—really study it with a searching heart—He reveals Himself. I taught books for years. It’s my identity, I’m afraid: A teacher of books. I love great writing whether it’s classic or whimsical, but literature only reveals truth about mankind’s nature; it can’t reveal the nature of God. Only the Bible can do that. The more I pray, I find myself getting a glimpse of our world through God’s eyes. His word becomes a filter through which I see the heartbreaks and joys of life. As I watch our culture move so far away from God, I can’t help but contemplate what the world would have been like had Jesus never come. And the vision I get breaks my heart. Such darkness and hopelessness. Such hedonism and selfishness. Such desperation and searching. I hesitate to make this statement, but I must: the Church has failed to be salt and light as Jesus commanded. Culture will go the way cultures will go, but Church—we should have been salt and light. We should be praying and seeing through Jesus’ lenses. Loving the poor and broken, not lashing out at them in fear. There is no fear in God. And there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. We should be proclaiming this truth instead of condemning first and then trying to justify our condemnation. No, I don’t agree with the direction of our culture. Making everything morally acceptable is not how God wants us to live. But how will they know if we don’t tell them? How will they know if we don’t show them by our actions through love…not fear. Consistent and disciplined prayer, with Bible study, allows me to glimpse the world through God’s eyes and for just a moment, I feel His agony for a lost and striving people. God’s eternal purpose moves me to action and prayer.
  6. Unanswered prayer. This is my last category because I could write another 10 pages on prayer and never get to a conclusion! Unanswered prayer can defeat us and cause us to turn away from prayer in cynicism and disappointment. One of my favorite teachers is Amy Orr-Ewing. She is an apologist out of England who works with Ravi Zacharias. One of the many “meditation notes” on my prayer board is a quote from a YouTube video I watched of her. It says “Disappointment can blind us from seeing Christ.” When our prayers go unanswered, we begin to doubt that they even matter. We doubt that God is in action for us. When healing doesn’t occur, when that pregnancy doesn’t happen, when a wave of depression or anxiety overwhelms once more, unanswered prayers turn to anger and rejection. It seems safer to reject God than to trust Him in circumstances that appear hopeless. Despair is dangerous, and unanswered cries to God can build a wall in our hearts that is difficult to tear down. It’s easy to travel along our path of anger and disbelief because God has not performed. The world cries, “If God exists, why did he let _________happen?” Yesterday—Mother’s Day—two young brothers drowned in the Big Thompson River in Lyons, Colorado. They were both under the age of 10. The police spokesman was shaken when interviewed.Those on the recovery and investigation teams were clearly devastated. I think of that mother and what she is facing today as she wakes up and realizes her sons are gone. Where was God? Why couldn’t He have prevented this? I don’t know. Such tragedies happen every moment across the world. Suffering is a common thread across humanity. Yet God reigns. He wins in the end. And because He wins, I can face the unanswered prayers and questions about the future. My hope must rest in Christ alone. It must. Right now, a dear family member is in isolation at a hospital in Arkansas fighting to defeat the cancer that has invaded his body. He is a good man. A good husband. A good father. A good son. People need him. We pray for healing every day. We pray the transplanted stem cells will start doing whatever those stem cells were created to do. Prayers for healing haven’t been answered yet, but we remain determined in our seeking for God’s hand in this dear life. Yes, he struggles, but as he struggles his emails show all of us how God is sustaining him through this time. I picture our prayers as God’s hands holding him close, and I feel a sense of urgency to pray and pray, as if our prayers keep God’s hands in place.

Are my prayers actually moving God? When I ask myself that question, I remember the character of God: loving, compassionate, merciful, just, fearsome, and above all, HOLY. Ultimately my prayers connect me to my Father. They empower me to move through this tumultuous life with hope that is based on the truth of God’s unchanging character. I may never know or see the results of my prayers. I doubt the angel, Michael, will show up as he did for Daniel and say, “Cindy, your prayers have moved heaven!” I’m just an itty-bitty light (as my Bible study ladies said) with an itty-bitty voice. A speck on the earth for a brief moment of time. An itty-bitty blink. But God’s Word—His sacred covenant—promises that I am a child of God. And He loves me with an infinite love that I can’t even fathom. His character is my promise, and prayer reveals that character even when He is silent.

I’ve learned so much more than this and may write a “Part Two,” but right now, my prayer board is calling. Time to pray.