No one way praying allowed
Proverbs 28: God has no use for the prayers of people who won’t listen to him.
I believe in prayer and consider myself to be a prayer learner. I’ve read books about it, talked about it, and practiced it. I’ve learned that there are different ways to pray. For instance, a person can kneel by their bedside or sit in an easy chair with a cup of coffee or write out a prayer or take a “prayer walk.” These and several other approaches are good ways to pray. One deal breaker to prayer is what is stated in this proverb: one way praying. Prayer is intended to be a conversation with God. It isn’t about my airing my list of wants and concerns while God patiently stands by like the waitress in a restaurant taking an order. I’ve found that, generally speaking, it’s my perspective that’s changed in prayer. The wise man of the proverbs reminds me of the conversational nature of prayer. Of course, there’s another aspect of “listening” here. When I spend time in the Presence of God and he does speak I’m to listen to what he says. That is, I’m to take it to heart and move forward in obedience. Often, I’ve found, God intends to use me in answer to my own prayers. He has work for me to do and, no matter how fervently I continue to pray, nothing will come of it until I start listening to what the Lord’s saying to me.
Take Away: Often, the Lord intends to use us in answer to our own prayers
Learning to listen
Proverbs 3: Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go.
We tend to think that hearing from God is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, or maybe that it’s something only saints on earth experience. It isn’t true. The Lord created us for fellowship with himself. From the beginning he walked with Adam in the cool of the day. I don’t have to do some extreme thing to hear from God. All I have to do is listen. But that’s a problem isn’t it? Hearing the Voice of God in the ordinary flow of life takes practice. If I want to hear him speak when I’m sitting in the emergency room of a hospital or when a precious friend is pouring his heart out to me seeking spiritual council I have to practice listening for him when I’m not in the pressure cooker of life. I’m certain that God speaks, and that he does so constantly. Sadly, I am also sure that I’m not a very good listener. For this proverb to work for me; for me to listen for God’s voice everywhere I go, I need to practice the presence of God every day. The way to accomplish that is for me to discipline myself to meet God by creating quiet places in life where I can learn to hear his Voice. Then, when I’m out there in the “everywhere you go” part of life, I will have trained my spiritual ear to recognize the Master’s Voice.
Take Away: It takes practice to learn to hear the Voice of God in the noisy situations of life.
Being real with God
Psalm 6: If you love me at all, get me out of here.
When I spend any time in the Psalms at all (getting beyond the 1st Psalm, the 23rd, and the 100th) I find that they aren’t all about praising the Lord for his blessings and protection. In fact, there is a lot of heartfelt pain. In this Psalm David cries out to God, asking the Lord to let up on him. He says he’s black and blue and tired of all this! I find here, not only permission to speak to God frankly, from my heart, but I sense the whisper of the Holy Spirit reminding me that, if I do complain to God like that it had better be the real deal. That is, if I’m really hurting and broken and angry, then God wants me to freely express it to him. If I’m just complaining though, I need to stop whining. I need to get on with life; trusting God to see me through. There’s a big difference between my bringing my brokenness to God, honestly expressing my heart to him, and my just being a wimp who complains to God about every little setback in life.
Take Away: I can be real with God, in fact, I’d better be.
Note to my readers:
As most folks know, the Book of Psalms is the longest book of the Bible. It’s also the lynchpin of the Wisdom Literature in Scripture. By their very nature the Psalms are devotional reading. More often than not, as I read the Psalms I don’t need a commentary as much as I need to listen to what’s being said and then find ways to internalize it into my life. Many people do that by reading a Psalm each day as a part of their daily Bible reading. I don’t intend to write a devotional on each Psalm. Instead, I encourage you to spend some time letting the Psalms feed your spirit. Perhaps the devotionals I do write will serve as primer to help you do that.
Chewing on the word of God
Psalm 1: You chew on Scripture day and night.
The book of Psalms is the world’s finest songbook. For centuries the Hebrew people turn to the Psalms and chant them as a part of their worship. Four part harmony hasn’t been invented yet, but they have the themes of worship down pat. Not only are the Psalms worship songs, they’re often prayers too. They’re not always high sounding and polished prayers. Often they’re prayers from the heart and they reflect the entire range of human emotion. If I know a few things about harmony and chord progression that the Psalmists don’t know, I have to admit that the Psalmists know some things about absolute honesty with God that I need to learn. The first Psalm is a simple consideration of the kind of people God likes. Right at the heart of it is the fact that God likes people who “chew on Scripture day and night.” This goes way beyond doing my daily devotions and reading a bit of the Bible. Instead, it reaches down into my life as I take what I’ve read and consider how it applies to what I’m doing throughout the day. Today, I’m reminded that God likes people who like his Word. That’s a fine reason to allow it to permeate my life.
Take Away: God likes people who like his Word.
Not a very pious prayer
Job 11: Should this kind of loose talk be permitted?
When Job finishes responding to Bildad he addresses the Almighty, Himself. His words in chapter 10 are that prayer, but it isn’t a very pious one. Job, in his misery, cries out to God, demanding to know why his life has taken such a terrible turn. He complains that, apparently, he’s accidentally missed some step and is being punished for it even though he has no idea of why. If this is how things are, Job decides, it would be better to never live at all. Zophar, but not God, responds to this prayer of complaint. He’s scandalized; maybe backing away lest the bolt of lightning he’s sure is coming doesn’t hit him too. In his thinking bad things happen to us because we deserve it. This is no time to complain to God, it’s a time to repent and admit wrong doing so God will let up. Listen, Job’s prayer is the right prayer here because it’s his heart’s cry. God doesn’t want to hear us pray little fake prayers that pretend things about ourselves and our relationship with him. He’d rather hear an honest prayer of complaint than a dishonest prayer of contrition. It may be that we Christians have so narrowly defined how prayer should sound that we’ve defused it of much of its power.
Take Away: A dishonest prayer is more posturing than it is praying.
The extended scepter
Esther 5: He was pleased to see her, the king extended the gold scepter in his hand.
The first great hurdle for Esther is getting an audience with King Xerxes. It sounds crazy to us, but in that kingdom Xerxes is treated like a god. Even his own queen can come into his presence only when summoned. If she or anyone else breaks that rule they can be put to death. However, the king, himself, can grant a sort of “instant reprieve” if he wants to simply by extending his scepter to the uninvited person. Xerxes is just a man, and, apparently, a rather insecure one at that, but that’s how it is in his kingdom. Esther tells Mordecai that she hasn’t been summoned by the king for more than a month, and, in light of what happened to the previous queen when she didn’t come when summoned, Esther is taking a real risk here. However, it’s a necessary one. If Xerxes is unworthy of such deference, there is a King who is King of kings who is worthy of all that and more. However, his relationship to me is so much better than that of Xerxes to his subjects. In fact, I have a standing invitation to come into his Presence any time. This King extended the scepter to me and everyone else long ago, declaring his throne room open for all who will come.
Take Away: We have a standing invitation to enter the throne room, let’s take advantage of it.
Summing up a good man’s life
Nehemiah 13: Remember me, O my God.
As I reach the conclusion of Nehemiah’s story I find myself reflecting on this man’s life. One thing that stands out is his leadership and vision. Even from far off Babylon Nehemiah envisions the great project of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. He organizes the work and stays on course through all kinds of distractions and discouragements. A second thing that comes to mind is his love for, and trust in, God. Nehemiah isn’t driven by desire for power or to leave some sort of legacy. Instead, his eye is always on the God he serves. Finally, I see the third outstanding thing about Nehemiah. That is his spontaneous prayer life. Nehemiah doesn’t wait until some specified time to pray, although it’s clear that he does honor the scheduled worship times. For him, prayer is like breathing; a natural and necessary part of life. In the final words of his story, written by his own hand, three times he inserts short bursts of prayer, asking for God’s favor in light of his faithfulness. I get the feeling that this is not just for the official record of his work but an example of what it was like to be around Nehemiah. Here’s a man who practices the constant presence of God in his life and it’s not unusual to hear him address the Almighty right in the middle of a conversation. This, I think, is the greatest lesson of all I can learn from this good man.
Take Away: Practice prayer until it becomes as natural for you as is breathing.
When the enemy throws everything at you
Nehemiah 6: I prayed, “Give me strength.”
As the rebuilding project nears completion the enemies of Nehemiah desperately try to stop it. Since Nehemiah doesn’t fall for their “let’s meet” ploy they try slandering him. Their rumor is that Nehemiah’s about to set up a private kingdom behind the walls of Jerusalem and they threaten to send this word to Artaxerxes, himself. Nehemiah can’t stop them from their lies, but he can pray. Their next effort is to hire Shemaish son of Delaiah to pose as a prophet of God. Shemaish comes to Nehemiah pretending to be his friend. He’s heard from God that this very night people are coming to take his life. According to Shemaish, Nehemiah’s only hope is to hide in the part of the Temple reserved only for priests of God. It’s there that he’ll be safe. In spite of the credibility of this warning, Nehemiah decides that this “prophecy” doesn’t add up. For one thing, he’s not a priest and his going into that part of the Temple would be an act of desecration. Nehemiah refuses to cooperate and continues rebuilding the wall. The effort of Tobiah and Sanballat to stop Nehemiah from doing what God called him to do serves as a sort of spiritual warfare field manual for us. The enemy of our souls uses all these ploys to distract us from serving the Lord. First, they mock Nehemiah and his crew, telling them that they’ll never be able to finish what they’ve started. When that fails, they threaten them with personal violence. Next, they pretend compromise. After that there are lies and insinuation. Finally, they pretend to be the Voice of God. Nehemiah’s defenses are: a firm belief that he’s doing God’s will, absolute commitment to the task, an abundance of common sense, and lots of prayer. Fifty-two days later, Jerusalem is once again a walled city.
Take Away: The more committed you are to doing the will of the Lord the more committed his enemies will be to stop you from doing just that.
Preparedness and perseverance
Nehemiah 4: The common laborers held a tool in one hand and a spear in the other.
Nehemiah thinks the threats of his enemies to attack the builders are more than just hot air. Prayer is backed up by planning. He stations armed guards, divides the work crew up into builders and defenders, and distributes weapons to every worker. He also assigns trumpeters to each work crew so that they can quickly call for help if an attack comes. Some are given double duty: they’re guards at night and workmen by day. They sleep in their clothes with weapons at hand. A key phrase is: “and so we kept working.” Nehemiah and his crew’s commitment to the task is impressive. Even without the threat of an attack their job is a daunting one as they attempt to build a great wall out of rubble. Great accomplishments often include working through opposition and discouragement. It might be said that the greater the goal the more difficult the task. How do I respond in such situations? Do I work with “a tool in one hand and a spear in the other” or do I decide it’s too hard and find an easier route? Nehemiah’s story teaches us the importance of preparedness and perseverance.
Take Away: Preparedness, perseverance, and prayerfulness: these three are keys to accomplishing great things in the Name of the Lord.
The real work
Nehemiah 4: We countered with prayer to our God and set a round-the-clock guard against them.
The enemies of Nehemiah and his rebuilding project first try to discourage the workers by making fun of their effort. When that doesn’t work they begin to prepare for more concrete action, or at least threaten an attack. Nehemiah takes this threat seriously and organizes two defense efforts. One is to post guards to keep watch. The other is to organize prayer. This reliance on prayer isn’t unusual for Nehemiah at all. Often we find him responding to problems by praying. While posting guards is a practical thing to do, I think the most practical thing he does is to pray. I tend to treat prayer as a last ditch effort to be used when all else has failed, or something to be done by people who are unable for some reason to get involved in the “real work.” Know what? It’s prayer that’s the real work. Nehemiah goes ahead and arms the workers for self-defense but the attack never comes. The reason is that he and his team first countered the threat with prayer. Thank God for prayer “warriors” who fight and win battles in prayer.
Take Away: Its prayer that’s the real work.