Prayer is hard to understand.
When I was a boy I prayed for a pony. This thought came to mind the other day when I saw Immortals. Stavros, the thief says he quit believing in the gods because he prayed for a horse and didn’t get one. (MINOR SPOILER ALERT: At one point in the movie he dismounts from a god-provided horse and looks in awe, saying something like “It’s the horse I asked for.”)
I didn’t stop believing in God because I didn’t get a pony. In fact, I did get one, except it was a horse. We named him Cocoa and owned him for a few months before Dad figured out he was more work than a dog or cat. Perhaps it was Mom that figured that out. Seems like Mom was the one in the stable mucking it out.
Getting a horse didn’t make me believe in God more either. Even as a child, I knew He was the God of the Universe and he was sitting somewhere in Heaven on a throne and He could do whatever He wanted. If God wanted me to have a horse, I was good with that.
I was in High School, a Catholic kid in a Baptist Bible study, when I learned that God the Almighty, who is exactly the same person as Jesus the Christ, loved me so much He died for me. (John 3:16, For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.) For a Catholic kid, who was taught that we earned a place in Heaven, that somehow our goodness had to outweigh our badness, this was revolutionary news.
It took a few months to sink in, but I finally figured out this meant God loved me, individually, the real, entire me, forever and ever. Realizing that was so much better than getting a horse. I fell on my knees and swore loyalty to God the Almighty as my King, my Lord, and my God. Many people can tell you the day and time. I can tell you the place (the back yard of our house in Michigan), the weather (a beautiful spring day, but there were leaves on the ground), and that my friend Pete Okhuysen was with me as a witness (thank you forever, Pete).
One thing remained the same in my mind and remains the same to this very day: God is King, enthroned in Heaven, and whatever He wills, so be it.
So I have a hard time with some prayer. Not the normal type of prayer that happens with me all day long, most days. Those prayers come unbidden to my mind. I’ll think of someone, that they have a need, and I’ll ask the Lord God to give them strength, courage and wisdom and grant them a closeness to Him.
Those prayers are easy.
The prayers where you are trying to decide to do something, where you articulate what you want (usually expressed as a need). Those are hard.
I still question God. Anyone who knows me knows I do this, but they might misinterpret why I do the questioning.
The best example is when I thought I heard God tell me to go to Africa. Pastor Don mentioned the Africa trip and something tugged on my heart. “No,” I said to what I thought might be God, but might also be that bit of undigested bran I had for breakfast, “you can’t mean for me to go to Africa. For two weeks. Not to Rwanda. Maybe you mean the orphanage in Kenya. That might be all right.”
When I heard the trip mentioned again, weeks later, I felt that tug again, but now I was a bit confused. “No,” I replied, a bit more sternly (so I thought). “You can’t mean this trip to Africa. It’s two weeks long. I don’t have the money, not money that is solely mine. I don’t have the vacation time, not for two weeks. I don’t have any reason to go. It’s not like the orphanage, where I actually have an interest.” On the way home I casually mentioned that I might need to go to Africa, but I say things like this often enough that Darling didn’t notice.
Still, I felt I needed to check my vacation time. I was about four hours short of having the full two weeks. “No problem,” my boss said, “you can make it up when you get back.” That wasn’t quite what I wanted to hear.
Now the next part is spooky strange, and if I put it in one of my stories people would give me grief for deus ex machina in the plot. The weekend was cold and as I went upstairs I noticed my twenty-year-old Ugs sitting on the floor. My feet were chilly, so I put the boots on. The bottom of the left boot had something in it. When I pulled it out I saw it was an envelope – with my name on it in large printed letters. Not my handwriting, not Cella’s, not her mother’s. In that envelope was enough cash for me to go on the trip to Africa. Money in an envelope, addressed specifically to me. I still have the envelope.
I did have one reason for going to Africa: obedience. God’s will. That’s key.
The next day, when Pastor Don mentioned the trip after the church service I turned to Darling and said “I have to go to Africa.”
When people hear this story they immediately think I am arguing with God. Nothing could be further from the truth. My problem is that I’m not sure (in most instances) when God speaks to me and when it is simply me speaking my own desires, imitating God. So I have to be very, very careful it isn’t me.
Another good example is one time when I was told I had to say something to someone in church. I had the message in my mind, but it meant nothing to me and I wasn’t sure it was God. Then the Pastor mentioned the young woman during the service and when the time for prayer came, I knew she would be overwhelmed with the good people from church praying over her. So my prayer at that time was not rebellious, but it was a similar thing to the Africa trip decision. “God, if this is what you want me to say to her, then I’ll do it, but only if she’s not crowded by people praying over her at prayer time.” Prayer time came and people went to the altar to pray, but nobody went to pray over this young woman. So I went to her. It’s a little tough, and embarrassing, but I told her I didn’t know what the message meant, and told her the message, then prayed with her briefly. Now, I barely knew her, her husband, or her little girl, and they surely didn’t know me. So they might think I’m crazy, or the message inane, but I was obedient, and I’m certain it wasn’t just me thinking it all up.
So hearing from God is a tricky thing for me. Talking to God, praying, is hard also. Like I said, not the normal every day, all-the-time prayers, but the really hard ones. The ones where I want to ask for something but I’m not sure what I want is within God’s will, and (from personal experience) I certainly want to stay in God’s will.
But there’s more to prayer and praying. That comes in the next post.