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Prayer: The most rewarding (or frustrating) activity

Blog -> Bible



2 weeks ago we have started a new topic in our Aletheia Small Group. The topic is prayer. And since this topic is essential for all Christians, I wanted to keep up here on our blog what we are talking about. Because even if we can’t discuss this topic with everybody, like we are doing on Friday nights, it’s nevertheless an aspect in our Christian life that we believe every single Christian can improve on. If you don’t think so, then let me just ask a few questions. For example:

  • Do you always feel joyful in prayer? If not, then how does that reconcile with God’s promise to give us “joy in prayer”? After all we read this: Isaiah 56:7 Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people. So if we don’t feel joy in prayer, does that mean something is wrong? Well, not necessarily. But possibly. I’ll get back to this point.
  • Do you always feel that your prayers get heard? Or do you have days when it feels more like your prayers are bouncing right off the ceiling, and nobody other than yourself seems to care that you are praying?
  • Do you get clear guidance from God in prayer? Do you always know what God is speaking to you when you are praying? Or is it more like “happy guessing” some of the time? Most of the time? Always?
  • Do your prayers always get answered? Or do you sometimes pray, and pray, and pray, and pray,… and in the end, things don’t turn out the way you expected?
  • Do you struggle finding time for prayer? You probably know how important prayer is, and you do what you can to find time. But somehow, 80% of the days, something else comes in between, and you are going to bed at night, feeling condemned and frustrated that “again, I didn’t make time to speak to God today”?

If you sometimes have such questions or struggles on the topic of prayer, then you can improve in your prayer life. I can’t speak for you, but I can say that I struggle with all of them at times. Sometimes I struggle with my consistency, at other times I struggle with joy. Then at other times, I feel like my prayers are bouncing off right from the wall. There are times when I do relatively well. But if I look at this list, and think about the last year in my prayer life, I have to admit that on most of my days, I do struggle with at least one of these elements. I definitely want to improve in this area. And I would guess that I’m probably not the only one.

So let’s get started by looking at something very foundational about prayer. I believe that part of why we often struggle with prayer is simply because of the kind of prayer we pray. Let’s take a look at a couple of verses:

John 15:16 You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that you should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever you shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it to you.  

Psalms 37:4 Delight yourself also in the LORD; and he shall give you the desires of your heart.

A common interpretation of the first verse goes something like this: “If I pray in Jesus’ name (meaning: I add the words ‘in Jesus’ name’ at the end of my prayer)” then God will give me whatever I ask for”.

A common interpretation of the second verse goes like this: “God will give me whatever my heart desires.”

And so we pray accordingly. “God, fix my husband/wife!”, “God, give me a better job (better = more income)”, “God, fire my annoying co-worker” or “God, can I just win the lottery? Then I wouldn’t have to spend so much time on my job, and instead, I could serve you fulltime. It’s better for everybody, don’t you see?”

Well, we might not use these exact words. But somehow, we have all prayed such prayers before, haven’t we? Now here’s my follow-up question: Did it work? Did we get what we asked for? Most of the time, we didn’t, right? So obviously, if we interpret Jesus’ teachings on prayer this way, then only pray such prayers, then we will get disillusioned. Because what we expect (“God will give me whatever I ask for”)  and the result (“Well, … He didn’t …. Not sure what happened,….”) don’t match. And then, we have a choice to make. Either giving up (not a good choice), trying to pray harder (also not a good choice) or praying differently (right choice). But how? How can we pray the right way? How can we pray “effective and fervent prayers that achieve much”? (Paraphrased from James 5:16)

Well, obviously, there’s no simple answer to this question. But here’s something that I think is one of the keys for many people, to improve their prayer life. Here it is:

 

The only prayers that God promised to answer are prayers according to His will

 

So simple. Yet so difficult. So what exactly does that mean?

Let me go back to the verses I quoted earlier:

John 15:16 You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that you should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever you shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it to you.

Psalms 37:4 Delight yourself also in the LORD; and he shall give you the desires of your heart.

Here’s what I believe these verses really mean: When Jesus said “ask in my name” what He meant was: “You can ask me for whatever you want according to MY will (not your will). And IF it is according to my will, then the Father will give it to you.”

For the second verse, I believe it means this: “If you delight yourself in God, He will change your heart’s desires. Your desires will become God’s desires for your life. And God’s desires for your life, He will always fulfill!”

Sounds quite a bit different, huh? But I believe that this is one of the (if not THE) greatest misconception or struggle Christians have today. We pray our will, our desires, our wishes, our goals. And we make our own decisions, walk our own path, life our own lives. Until we hit a roadblock. Until something goes wrong. Maybe the dating-relationship we are in turns out to be more difficult than we expected. Maybe the job we accepted turns out to be a nightmare. Maybe the financial investment we made turns out to be a money grave. And then, when we face difficulties, when we face disaster, when we realize that “my way doesn’t seem to work”, then we turn to God, and expect Him to recue us.

Now the good news is: God is merciful. He can, and often will, rescue us from the situation we are in and turn something around. BUT: I think a much better way of living is simply this:

Ask God in the first place what He wants for your life. And don’t just go your own way, until disaster hits.

So practically, what does that mean? Well, before we make kind of major decisions in our lives, we should go to God first, and ask Him what His will for our lives is. Let me get back to the examples above:

  • God, I’m attracted to this person. Do you want me to pursue a relationship?
  • God, I got a job offer here. It looks great to me. But I don’t know what the future brings, and I don’t know what exactly this company is like on a daily basis. But you know. Do you want me to take the offer? Or is there something else coming that’s a better fit for me?
  • God, you have blessed me financially in recent years. But it’s your money, not mine. What do you want me to do with it? Do you want me to invest it? Give some away? What is your plan?

And then, when we hear God’s answer, simply doing what He says, whether it makes sense to us or not. If we choose to go our own way, we will eventually regret. We’ll realize that our own choice might have been great for a short time, but ultimately really hurt us and/or others. But when we decide to follow God and eventually see how He miraculously changes circumstances, how everything suddenly turns out perfectly,… That’s when our Faith in God will grow deeper and deeper.

I believe a lot of the trouble we get ourselves in are really at least partly our own fault. Now let me be clear: Not everything bad that happens to us is always our fault. But I can say for my own life: When I face a roadblock, a challenge, a difficult situation in my life,… Many times I eventually have to admit: “I’m here in this mess because of my own decision. I didn’t ask God 1 month ago what His will for this situation was. I simply went ahead with what I thought was the best choice. Now I realize, it wasn’t. And that’s why I find myself in this difficult situation now.” Not always, but more often than not, that’s my eventual conclusion. And confession.

At the same time I can say: Not a single time have I regretted following God’s plan. When I had the discipline to listen to His guidance first and then the courage to follow Him, it always turned out awesome in the end. Not always on the spot, there are certainly times when “following God’s will gets really, really difficult”. But eventually, after a few weeks, months, or even years, I can always say: “God got it right. And I’m so thankful I followed.”

I believe prayer can be the most frustrating or most fulfilling activity we could ever do in our lives. When we pray our own will, we will get disappointed. Prayers don’t get answered, we will get disillusioned, frustrations will rise, we will try to “make things happen” in our own strength,… Such a lifestyle will lead to burnout, prayer as a duty (“I know I’m supposed to pray, but it really doesn’t achieve anything, does it?”), etc. Some people even completely give up their faith, because they simply cannot deal with their disappointments any longer. I can’t think of a greater frustration than to feel disappointed again, and again, and again, without any signs of change.

At the same time, when we pray according to God’s will, stand on His promises, and see how He answers prayers, performs miracles and makes stuff happen, simply because we pray in Faith, according to His will,… there are no words that can describe that joy and excitement.

We don’t always get it right. But there are a few times when we personally experienced God’s miracles. One time was in 2010, when I knew God had told me that I will be joining the fulltime SCF staff the following year. Reality looked like it was impossible, but the more impossible it looked, the more I felt God was telling me: “Keep trusting me, it’ll happen.” For 10 months, we prayed, for 10 months, circumstances pointed more and more towards the fact that “it’s not going to happen.” Until around 2 weeks before the final decision had to be made. Suddenly, another staff member resigned, totally unexpectedly. And the door opened for me. God knew from the very beginning. All we had to do was pressing in, standing on His promises, and praying what He told us to pray. And He did the rest.

Something similar happened again in 2015, when God started to tell us that it’s time to leave Shanghai. There were just so many worldly realities that seemed to indicate that it’s not going to happen. But we just kept asking God for confirmations, and we asked him for ~5 different things. It was somewhere around early November, and we told God that if He did these things until the end of the year, we’d officially resign with SCF and leave Shanghai the following summer. Some of the things we asked for were just crazy, humanly speaking. But we felt we should ask for these things. Well, the really crazy thing was: It didn’t take God 2 months to answer all of them. It took him just 2 or 3 weeks. Miracle after miracle just happened right in our face. And He just made it so obvious: It’s time to move on.

The same He did again here in Munich. We knew we were called to this city. But it seemed impossible to find an apartment. We prayed, asking God for confirmations that we were really in the right city. He confirmed again, and again, and again. So we told Him: “We’ll stay here, but you have to make something happen. We can’t build a church here in Munich without an apartment.” Well, the miracle happened, just in time for all the things that had to happen soon after. (Kids had to start school, I was starting my freelance work, our friends’ place where we stayed temporarily had to be returned to the landlord 2 weeks later,…) It wasn’t too late for everything to happen that needed to happen. But it was also late enough so that we could see God’s hand on our journey, confirming to us again that “we are in the right place”.

Now before anyone thinks too highly of me: Many times I get it wrong. The good thing about preaching, teaching or writing a blog is that you can focus on the 5% of the time you get things right, and just don’t mention about the other 95%. So I don’t want you think that I have it all together. But what I’m trying to say is this:

When I pray my own will, it often feels very frustrating. Often, it feels like the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done. When I pray God’s will, and see Him do miracles, I feel like I’m doing the best thing with my life I could ever do.

What kind of prayers are you generally praying? Do you feel like your prayers are effective? Do they get answered? Do you feel joy in your prayers? And do you think that the kind of prayers you pray and how you experience prayer, could be connected?

These are the kind of questions we are currently discussing in our smallgroup. And these are also the kind of questions we’d like to encourage everyone to think about in his/her own walk with Christ. Because we believe that if every Christian prays a bit more in the way Jesus taught us to pray, our churches and communities would be completely changed.

We’re in. We want to pray God’s will only. How about you?



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