Thursday, August 11, 2016

Prayer Problems

Do you ever wonder if the Lord answers prayer? I’m not asking you to answer at church, where the answer is always, “Of course, the Lord answers prayer.” I’m asking you to answer from that place where the silence is deafening, where your heart is broken, where you are out of breath from a punch in the gut, where the floor is wet with your tears. In that place, do you ever wonder if the Lord answers prayer?

At church, we have these prayer lists. Every once in a while, someone will mention “a praise” because someone is out of the hospital. Someone might mention “a praise” because someone found a job or found a house to buy. But those things may have happened whether we prayed or not. What I’ve noticed is that people tend to praise the Lord for answered prayer when they receive their petition in a predictable way. In other situations, people seem to pass it off as happenstance, or “I just wasted a good worry.” I wonder if we aren’t looking at answered prayer wrong.

Several months ago, I set my goals for the year. One of those goals was to write a book. At the time, I thought I would get started right away and have one knocked out by midyear. Midyear came and I realized I hadn’t even started. I worded a prayer. It’s not the type of thing someone would put on the church prayer list. It’s not like I make much money from writing books. It’s not like I expect it will impact many people’s lives. It’s just a personal goal for the year. I could just hear Jerry on Wednesday night, “And pray for Timothy to write a book.” I don’t see that getting anywhere. But it was between me and the Lord. I had a pretty good idea of what the Lord would do. I was certain that if he answered my prayer it would be by persuading me to spend less time watching television and playing games, and he would focus my attention on the task at hand. But that’s not what happened. Does that mean he didn’t answer my prayer? If he didn’t, then why am over fifty pages into writing a book that I hadn’t even started a little over a week ago?

The answer came in the form of a mess. It adds no value to try to explain that mess, even if I knew how, but it was a mess involving people and emotions and opinions and church work, of all things. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to see things like this as the Lord’s answer to prayer. In this case, I felt it best to remove myself from the mess rather than risk of exacerbating the situation. I stepped away from Christian service that has been consuming between ten and twenty hours of my time each week for the past decade. Is that really the answer to my prayer? Would the Lord really put me in a situation where I felt it best to step away from a form of Christian service, so that I could write a book that won’t be read by many people? Really? This is really the Lord’s answer?

I’d be lying if I said there aren’t other higher priority tasks that can receive more of my attention now. It’s extra time I can spend preparing for Sunday school. I actually automated the local association letterform, which I’ve wanted to do for several years. There are some committees I’m on that require some attention right now. But mostly, I’m using the time to write a book. I’m sure I would’ve managed with the other stuff, but the one thing I can do now that I couldn’t do before is turn my focus to writing a book. And out of all this stuff, that is the one thing I prayed for.

We might have an easier time believing that the Lord answers prayers for things other than healing if we would stop expecting him to answer in the way we predict and look for the answer to come in ways we don’t. We might also do well to remember that God doesn’t need to prioritize or optimize anything. We prioritize ministries and look for the most efficient ways to do things because our resources are limited. That’s good stewardship on our part, but God’s resources aren’t limited. We shouldn’t expect God to answer prayer in the most efficient way possible and we shouldn’t be surprised if God turns our attention from a ministry that we gage to be high priority in order to answer a prayer that seems less important. Remember that Jesus rebuked the disciples who murmured when a woman anointed Jesus before his crucifixion rather than feeding the poor. It is a small thing for the Lord to tear down and build again.

But more importantly, we should stop praying and expecting the Lord to answer without changing anything. How many people have asked to see souls saved, and then they got upset when lost people came to church? We tend to be like the church praying for Peter’s release who were then surprised when he came knocking on the door. We say, “Prayer changes things,” but then we think something’s wrong when it changes things we weren’t expecting. If things the way they are aren’t giving us what we’re praying for, we’d better expect to see change when we pray.

That’s the problem I see with praying for sick folk. It’s not that we shouldn’t pray for the sick and afflicted, but many of them would get better, even if we didn’t pray. No change is required. Maybe someone gets a different doctor or they change their medicine, but that’s about it. It’s easy to pray for the sick because it requires nothing of us. But start praying for something that requires change and we have to do something. We might have to take on a new task. We might have to let a task go. We might have to meet some new people. We might have to change some habits. We might have to go answer a knock at the door. But we’ll be better for it.