Praying when in pain
1Kings 19: Elijah, what are you doing here?
More than a month has passed since Elijah fled Jezebel and asked God to take his life. During this time the angel of the Lord has ministered to him and he’s traveled 40 days across the wilderness to Horeb which is the mountain range that includes Sinai where Moses met God and was given the Law. In other words, Elijah has retreated to holy ground. Here, even as Moses encountered God, Elijah has an encounter of his own. This meeting though, starts very differently. For Moses, there were earthquakes and thick smoke. For Elijah, things start with God asking him a question, “So, Elijah, what are you doing here?” With that, Elijah begins to state his discouragement, loneliness, and fear. The big stuff is still coming but I’m taken with just this today. I know that prayer should generally start with words of worship and reverence. Sometimes, though, we’re so broken and confused that we can hardly bring ourselves to pray at all. Sometimes we have to travel out into the wilderness for a while possibly ending up at some place that’s significant to us. And then, it isn’t us but God who starts a conversation that doesn’t begin with “Our Father who art in heaven” but instead with words of pain. Know what? That’s okay with God. Take note of just who it is that asks the opening question here.
Take Away: Our prayers are going nowhere if they don’t come from an honest heart.
Praying to exhaustion
1Kings 19: When Elijah saw how things were, he ran for dear life.
It’s been a banner day for Elijah, the man of God. First, he challenges the prophets of Baal to a “god-contest” and wins a decisive victory when, as a result of his prayer, fire falls from heaven. The people are now convinced that “the Lord is God.” Then, he turns his attention to the three-year drought. He prevails in prayer and, as a result, the rain comes in a great storm. Finally, empowered by the Spirit of God, Elijah outruns the chariot of Ahab, racing down the mountain into the city. Tell you what, I call that a good day’s work! Ahab arrives home in the midst of the welcome storm, but the news for his Baal-worshipping, God-hating wife Jezebel isn’t good. All because of Elijah Baal has been defeated and his prophets executed. Jezebel never hesitates; she sends word to Elijah that he’ll be next. In a surprising twist, her words terrify Elijah! This is the guy who prayed down fire on the altar and rain from the sky. This is the guy who saw to the execution of hundreds of false prophets. Now, because of the threats of one woman he runs for his life. I’d expect Elijah to just pray down a bit more fire and take care of this wicked woman then and there. Why on earth is Elijah scared witless by Jezebel? I think the answer is that he’s simply out of gas. Intense praying, especially intercession requires of us all our energy. Sometimes prayer is pictured as a tranquil respite from the pressures of life, and, happily, sometimes it is. Still, that’s not always the case. Sometimes prayer is the hardest work we’ll ever do. Such prayer is worth doing in spite of its emotional, spiritual, and even physical price. In this, we’re soldiers in the army of God who have an active, demanding assignment.
Take Away: Prayer can be the most rewarding, exhausting work we’ll ever do.
With Elijah in the school of prayer
1Kings 18: Oh yes, a cloud! But very small….
Revival has come to the famine, drought stricken land of Israel. The people have turned from Baal back to Jehovah God. Now Elijah, God’s man, turns his attention to the drought. He begins to pray for rain. Six times he stops praying and sends his servant to scan the horizon and six times there’s a negative report. Elijah never gives up and continues calling on God to send rain. Then, on his seventh reconnaissance mission, the servant reports a very small cloud rising out over the sea. That’s enough for Elijah. He stops praying and starts preparing for a rainstorm! This incident causes me to think about prayer. I wonder why it is that Elijah could pray one 30-second prayer resulting in fire falling from the sky, but then has to pray seven intense prayers to get rain to fall from the sky. My own prayer life, in much less spectacular ways, is like that. Some prayers are answered quickly and others, after years, are still unanswered. Then, this story reminds me of the power of prayer. Many years later James uses this incident as his example of what happens when just one man prays a fervent prayer. It’s interesting that Elijah doesn’t contact everyone he knows (the country is filled with newly committed followers of God) to ask them to join him in praying for rain. In similar circumstances I might have posted the need on the Internet and fired up the church prayer chain. Instead, Elijah just shoulders the task and starts praying this important prayer. Finally, there’s Elijah’s response to the cloud the “size of a man’s hand.” For me, that would be encouragement to hang in there and keep praying, but for him, it’s answer enough. In this case, his ceasing prayer is more of an act of faith than his continuing in prayer. For those of us who are “prayer learners” this is instructive reading indeed.
Take Away: The prayer of a righteous person avails much.
Centered on God
1Kings 8: May he keep us centered and devoted to him.
Solomon concludes his beautiful prayer of dedication of the new Temple. He then stands to bless the great congregation that has gathered. His words, “may he keep us centered and devoted to him” are important and powerful words in any setting. How we need God’s help in this! There are so many voices calling to us, so many distractions, so many opportunities to turn our hearts from God. If I’m not careful the Lord is pushed from the center of my life to some secondary role. Many things lay claim to “first” in my life. Some of those things are worthy in and of themselves: family, health, relationships. Others are merely pretenders: comfort, entertainment, security. The thing is that when my life is centered on God everything else tends to land in its proper place. That includes both those things that are pretty important and those that only seem to be important. My prayer for myself today is Solomon’s prayer for his people, “May he keep me centered and devoted to him.”
Take Away: When the Lord is at the center of our lives, the throne of our hearts, everything else tends to fall into their proper places.
Do I really believe the battle belongs to God?
1 Samuel 17: Everyone gathered here will learn that God doesn’t save by means of sword or spear. The battle belongs to God.
“This very day God is handing you over to me.” So says David as he prepares for battle with Goliath. For us this is a nifty story, one of the most memorable in the entire Bible. For David, well, this is the real deal. Before him stands a giant of a man who intends to disembowel him. David has chosen a sling and some stones as his weapon of choice but he knows this fight isn’t really about weapons at all. This is a spiritual event, and he correctly identifies it as such: “I come to you in the name of God-of-the-Angel-Armies.” In spite of the real and material threat, David correctly classifies it as a real and spiritual matter. As much as I like this story, do I really apply it to my own “real and material” life? Am I good at praying and trusting God only in theory or do I do it into practice, where the “rubber meets the road”? Instead of viewing conflicts as spiritual events, do I rush to defend myself — or call a meeting to plot a strategy for getting my way — or throw my weight around — or manipulate the people involved? To do so is to view the issue at hand as one of “swords and spears” rather than as a spiritual battle that belongs to God. When I do that kind of stuff, I may get my way in the short run, but it will always come at a price to me and to others. Then again, I may not get my way at all and the giant may just win, leaving me fatally wounded.
Take Away: It’s a real challenge to retrain oneself to recognize spiritual battles for what they are.
X marks the spot
1 Samuel 7: Samuel took a single rock and set it upright…He named it “Ebenezer” (Rock of Help), saying, “This marks the place where God helped us.”
Samuel’s first test of leadership comes about because of a revival. He calls the people to make a real commitment to God and they gather at Mizpah to do just that. As they’re praying and fasting their enemies, the Philistines, hear about the meeting but mistake it for preparation for war. They decide to take the initiative and attack first. When word reaches the prayer meeting the people turn to Samuel for leadership. A wonderful indication of the genuineness of their new commitment to God is that they call on Samuel, not to rally troops for battle but…to pray! He prays and they pray, and God answers. As the Philistine force moves in for the fight God moves in their behalf. Thunder explodes in their midst and the result is panic. As the Philistine forces break ranks and run, Israel pursues, winning a great victory. They chase their enemies all the way past Beth Car. Here Samuel stands a rock as a monument to God’s help. He names it “Ebenezer” or “Rock of Help.” Every follower of God has some “Ebenezars” in his or her life. These are momentous victories, turning points. Samuel thinks such places are worth marking and remembering. What monuments to God’s help should I have standing in my life?
Take Away: There’s something powerful about remembering God’s grace, mercy, and help in days gone by.
Can you hear me now?
1 Samuel 3: Then God came and stood before him exactly as before calling out, “Samuel, Samuel!”
It’s as Samuel sleeps that God first calls him. The lad hears the Voice of God but doesn’t recognize it as the Lord’s call. The old priest, Eli, (in spite of his failings) solves the riddle. Something unexpected is happening. God is calling. I wonder how often God speaks to me and I mistake his Voice for something else? “Now, there’s an unusual idea” or “Where did that come from?” Samuel mistook the call of God to be the call of Eli. Have I misidentified his voice to be my own rambling thoughts? I’ve learned something about God’s Voice in my own life. While God speaks fairly often I don’t listen very often. It’s as Samuel sleeps, unencumbered with the thoughts of everyday life that God calls his name. Could it be that my prayers are so full of my own wants and wishes that I drown out God’s Voice? It’s as I pray with a listening heart that I’m most likely to hear the Divine Voice in my own life.
Take Away: Prayer is as much about listening as it is about talking.
When God says “yes”
1 Samuel 1: Crushed in soul, Hannah prayed to God and cried and cried — inconsolably.
As I begin reading the books of Samuel the first thing I hear is the prayer of a broken hearted woman named Hannah. Young women across the ages have longed for children and that desire is especially true in this age, 3000 years ago. In her society much of Hannah’s worth as a human being is dependent on her ability to have offspring. Even her good husband’s efforts to make her feel better about herself fail. On a trip to Shiloh everything comes to a head. In her misery Hannah pours out her heart to God at this place of worship. The Lord hears her prayer and answers, bringing not only relief to this good woman, but the beginning of restoration to Israel which has fallen far from God. I wish I understood why God hears and responds to Hannah’s prayer and not similar prayers prayed by people just as good and just as miserable as she. I know that God cares for hurting people and provides strength and comfort for them, and, sometimes he says “yes.” The rest of the time, we do the only thing we know to do: we trust him with that which we don’t understand.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for the times when the answer is “yes” – trust him in the times when the answer isn’t the one we want.
Joshua 9: The men of Israel looked them over and accepted the evidence. But they didn’t ask God about it.
Word of the impressive victories of the Israelite army has spread far and wide. Waves of fear sweep across Canaan when the powerful armies of the kings west of the Jordan fall. Now, with Jericho and Ai both destroyed the region is in the grip of dismay. Some are gearing up for war but one group desperately tries a different approach. The people of Gibeon send emissaries to the Israelites. They’re made up to look as though they’ve been on a long journey but actually they’re local. They tell Joshua’s people that they’ve heard of the might of God and their exploits and that, from a distance, they want to make a peace treaty with them. Apparently, the Israelites are somewhat flattered that their fame has spread far and wide, so, without giving it much thought, they seal the deal with Gibeon. To the surprise of the Israelites, they find that they’ve made a deal with one of the groups they’re supposed to purge from Canaan! What a blunder on the side of the Israelites and what resourcefulness on the side of Gibeon! The problem, of course, for Israel is that, while they were examining the dried, moldy bread from the saddlebags of the emissaries they forgot to “ask God about it.” They relied on their own wisdom rather than on the guidance of the Lord. I’d like to be very critical of the Israelites at this point, but I’d better tread carefully here. How many times have I, in my so called wisdom, checked out all the facts, made up a “pros and cons” list, researched the issue and moved on it. Only after the fact I may have tossed an “and, by the way Lord, please bless what I’m about to do” prayer. As I see Israel making an un-prayed over deal with Gibeon I’m sorry to say I see myself all too often doing the same sort of thing.
Take Away: You’ll never be sorry you prayed first.
Numbers 27: Give us an inheritance among our father’s relatives.
In preparation for entry into the Promised Land a census has been taken and the method for division of the land is made public. A group of sisters, all daughters of the late Zelophehad appear before Moses to seek justice. The division of land is by families and it’s sons who are to inherit from their fathers. These women explain that their father died without any sons and because of that his descendants are being left out of the plans for property ownership in Canaan. Moses takes the issue to the Lord and the Lord agrees. The plan is rewritten to take into account men who die with no sons to inherit their property. This is a historical decision that elevates the status of women in Israel. I find the circumstances quite interesting. What would have happened had these women not come forward with their petition? My guess is that their unique situation would have been overlooked. As individuals, they would have been okay because when they married they would have shared in their husband’s inheritance. Because of their bold request, though, the Lord listened, agreed, and responded. This then, becomes an example of prayer having a direct influence on the Lord. He willingly listens to us and allows us to have influence in what he does in this world. Had they not stepped forward things would have been okay; but because they did, things happened as they desired. To think that the Almighty welcomes my petitions, considers them, and is willing to respond to them amazes me. This is quite a powerful lesson to find buried here between the report of the census and more instructions concerning burnt offerings in the book of Numbers!
Take Away: As surprising as it is, the Lord welcomes my petitions and is willing to consider them and to grant them.