Friday, July 4, 2014

Answered Prayers

            Whenever I go through one of these prayer funks where God seems to not be answering any prayers, it’s all too easy to begin listening to Satan’s lies that “God’s not listening anyway” or “He doesn’t care,” and to begin questioning Bible verses on prayer and on receiving what you ask for in faith and moving mountains with your prayers.  (Such as Mark 11:22-24, John 14:13-14)  I have questioned these verses many times over.  And I always come to the same conclusions:
            1.  There are simply things that are beyond our ability to understand.
            2.  How He answers depends on what His Will is, regardless of how much we believe in what we are asking for.
            3.  And if they move at all, sometimes the mountains move very slowly.  Pebble by Pebble.  And sometimes a different mountain moves than the one we were praying about.  And sometimes we’ll never actually get to see them move, even if God did answer our prayers. 
            The thing is, we may never know the results of our prayers.  But it doesn’t mean they didn’t do anything.  We may never know the impact they had in the spiritual or earthly or eternal realm.  All we can do is cling to the fact that God listens and that He does what is best.  All we can do is trust that our job is to pray and His job is to answer. 
            And when it comes to the times we question prayer’s effectiveness and begin to doubt that God is listening, it is crucial to recall the times in the past that He has answered clearly.  When He has felt absent for so long, it is so easy to forget that He is listening and that He does indeed respond to our prayers.  We are so human, and all we tend to focus on are the prayers that He hasn’t answered: the healings that didn’t happen, the ways He let us down, the unmet longings or needs we still have.  And this kind of focus can crush us.  We need to remember the ways He moved in the past.  I need to.  It really does help. 
            And so, as I was thinking about how discouraged I am and how I feel like such a failure at prayer and at understanding God’s ways, I began to recall some of the clear answers to prayer I have had in the past.  Sometimes, the mountains did move quickly and clearly.
            1.  A couple years ago, my husband had a mole on his back that looked suspicious.  It had turned from normal, fleshy mole color to a shiny, smooth black surface.  I took a picture.  (His mother had skin cancers removed before.)  So he set up an appointment to get it looked at.  A few days before he went in, it dawned on me to pray for it.  So I simply said a prayer that the mole would not be cancerous and that, if God willed it, it would return to normal. 
            I kid you not, the day he was going to get it removed, I checked it and could see no sign of shiny, black skin.  I looked at it from various angles.  I even looked for ragged edges to see if it had been a scab that fell off.  But all I could see was a normal, healthy, brown mole. 
            I’ll admit, I was still somewhat skeptical that it wasn’t just some scab that fell off, but why are we so hesitant to chalk things up to “gracious answers to prayer”?  And although my husband did get the mole removed anyway, I thanked God for that obvious answer to prayer. 
            And then I forgot about it all too quickly, until just a few days ago when I started to recall past answered prayers to bolster my tired faith.  How it must pain God to have His blessings so quickly forgotten?  I think many times we make our own “faith struggles” simply because we are so forgetful.
            2.  Another mole story.  My son has had a mole growing on his arm since he was tiny.  A couple years ago, it was getting to “start to really worry” size.  We began to say that he really should get it looked at or taken off.  I usually worry first for a while, and then I pray.  Totally backwards.  But I finally decided to pray about it.  “Lord, please heal this mole.  Let it not be a problem.  Stop it from growing any bigger or remove it completely, if You will.” 
            You see, I do indeed believe that God can do anything that I ask Him to do; I just don’t always believe that He will do things the way I ask Him to.  I’ve prayed for two relatives with cancer, and both still died.  I’ve prayed for more friends and closer relationships, and I’m more lonely than ever.  I’ve prayed for the salvation of many people I know, and no one shows any sign of being interested.  Too much has happened for me to ever be able to be a “name it and claim it” Christian.
            And I wonder sometimes if I am wrong to not “believe in my heart that He will do it.”  But I simply can’t do that.  I cannot presume that what I am asking is what His Will is.  Maybe I am off in looking at it this way?  Maybe more “charismatic” types can believe that God will do what they say?  Maybe they have prayer power I’ll never have?  But I cannot presume to know His Will.  I can only ask, and then let Him answer as He will.  I absolutely believe He can, but I have to give Him the room to say, “No.”  And I have to be able to trust Him regardless of how He answers.
            Anyway, so I prayed for this mole and forgot about it for a while.  Until one day when I noticed that it looked a lot smaller.  Were my eyes playing tricks on me, or was that mole getting smaller?  I had measured this mole as it grew.  And when I prayed about it, it was about a half-inch big on his 8-year-old arm (or so).  And steadily growing along with him. 
            But now, about two or three years later, I measured it again and it had stopped growing.  It was still a half-inch big, but now that he was getting older, it looked a lot smaller.  God had indeed answered my prayer to stop the mole’s growth.  It no longer looks threatening.  Thank You, Lord.  Yet how many prayers do I fail to pray simply because I don’t stop to think that You might just be willing to answer this request?  How many things do I worry about and sweat over before I bother to bring the issue to You?  It’s humbling to see how human I am!  It really is!
             3.  A couple years ago, a friend called at 9 p.m. to ask if I would come watch her other kids so she could take her young son to the emergency room because he had a fever for a couple hours of about 103 or 104.  So I went over there.  And he looked red-faced, sweaty, and just plain sick.  Poor kid.  As she left the room for a moment, I put my hand on his head and quietly muttered a prayer for healing, in Jesus name.  Quick and simple.  Very short.  And then she took him to the ER.
            She came back a little while later and said, “It was the weirdest thing.  But when we got to the ER, they took his temperature and said it was basically normal.  The car ride over must have helped.”  They sent him home with no treatment and no fever.  I knew what had happened, and I thanked God for it.  He really does move mountains quickly sometimes.  But how easy it would have been to not think to pray about it.  To see it only as a medical issue in need of a doctor. 
            I tell you, all we can do is ask, and let God answer as He chooses.  But if we fail to ask, He has nothing to answer.  Our prayers are what call Him to move and act.  And if we fail to pray about concerns, we fail to include Him in the problem and the results.  If we do not even have faith enough to even bring a request to Him, we’ll never know wondrous answers to prayer. 
            Mark 6:5-6: “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.  And he was amazed at their lack of faith.”  And as James 4:2 says, “You do not have, because you do not ask God.”  
            (Yet we always have to be willing to accept His many “no” answers and to still trust Him anyway.  It’s part of letting Him be God and humbling ourselves before Him and trusting that He will eventually make all things right again.  And I think this is what real faith is.) 
            4.  When I was a leader in our youth group, I was driving to the Fourth of July fireworks with a carload of high-schoolers.  And we couldn’t find a parking space.  It was packed and we had to get parked so we could meet up with everyone else at the entrance.  So I prayed about it, out loud.  “Dear Lord, help us find a parking spot.”  Short and simple. 
            We turned down the very next lane, and there was a man leaning against a car at the end of a row of cars.  And he flagged me down.  (This is no joke!)  “Hey!  Do you guys want a parking spot?  I’m leaving right now,” he said. 
            What an obvious answer to prayer.  I’m so glad that the young people were there to see it.  In fact, I believe it happened because they were there to see it.  And then it dawned on me what a wild answer that was.  Because what are the odds that anyone would be leaving the parking lot before the fireworks even began?  And that they would wait to find someone to take their spot?  That was really cool!  Definitely a clear answer to prayer.  And even though it was such a minor request, who knows how God used that in the hearts of those young believers and seekers? 
            5.  Since I was about 21, I have had constant heart flutters or “skipped beats” all day long.  It got so bad that I would find it hard to fall asleep because I could feel a “skipped beat” every 20 seconds or so.  For hours.  Every night.  It’s always bothered me, and I wished it would stop.  But one night, it finally bothered me enough to plead with God to stop this arrhythmia.  I spent a couple minutes in prayer, asking Him to heal this problem or to take away any anxiety that may be causing it.  And you know what?  Since that night (several months ago), I have only felt skipped beats periodically, maybe a few times each day.  It’s much better than it was.  And what amazes me is that I put up with it all those years, never thinking to seriously bring it to God.  How small my faith is sometimes that I don’t even think to bring things like this to God.  How different life would be if I lived like He is Lord of all, like He is truly God of everything.
            6.  This one happened years ago.  (I mentioned this in earlier posts.)  This is one Jason and I recall when we need a reminder that God does indeed listen and respond at the right time.             We were in desperate need of another vehicle.  For years, we had only one vehicle; a little, two-door car for a family of four.  It was getting old and cramped, and we were expecting our third child.  It was time for a van.  (Oh, yes!  I fought it for a long time, but I was becoming one of those moms!  A mini-van mom!) 
            We carefully searched for a long time and finally picked out one to go look at.  The only problem was that we only had a certain amount to spend and we could not go above it.  This van was just a little out of our reach, but we wondered if we could talk them down. 
            “Lord,” we prayed on the way there, “please give us a clear sign if this is Your Will.  We can’t make a mistake because we don’t have any more money, and we’ve waited two years to get one.  Please, give us a clear sign.”   
            Well, we got there and it looked good.  So my husband went to take it for a spin.  It ran good.  We both had a good feeling about it, so we were discussing it amongst ourselves and talking it over with the owner.  We asked her again what the price was and she told us, “Well, I’m asking for such-and-such an amount, but . . .” And then she gave us a wink and basically encouraged us to talk her down four hundred dollars.  To an amount that we could more easily afford.  Who actually asks to be talked down?  It was a great answer to prayer. 
            And if that wasn’t clear enough.  Jason went to go move our car and, for no reason that we could tell, the starter went out and the car wouldn’t move at all.  It just died right there in front of the house.  It had never even acted up like that at all before that day.  We actually ended up getting the car towed home, while we drove the new van.  It couldn’t get more obvious than that. 
            This kind of clear answer from God helps me have faith that He’ll get His message through when it is time.  I don’t have to freak out that I won’t hear Him or know if it’s right.  Although I do try to be a little more careful and specific when I ask for a clear answer now.  (Just kidding!  Okay . . . mostly kidding!)  
            7.  This one was such a gracious answer to my prayers, especially when I had been so faithless, that it brings tears to my eyes and fills me with thankfulness.   When my third son was young, he had Baby Bottle Tooth Decay from breastfeeding at night.  And I did not handle it well.  For over a year, I had chronic tension in my neck and shoulders from all the stress and worry.  I would examine his teeth every day and brush and medicate them to try to slow the decay down, hoping we could hold out until he got old enough to see our dentist.  (Poor kid.  For the longest time he came to me with an open mouth whenever I said, “Hey, come here!  I want to see something!”)    
            We had gone through all the options: knocking him out to fix them, baby root canals, letting them rot and getting them pulled later, spacers, etc.  I wasn’t comfortable with anything.  And I needed to know what God thought the best route was  . . . because He could see the consequences of our choices and I couldn’t.  (And, oh, how I hated it that I couldn’t!)  The only thing I knew was that I could not get him knocked out and that I needed to be there with him when he was being treated.
            But every dentist we talked to or consulted said the same thing, “We don’t treat children that young without knocking him out, and you will have to wait in the waiting room when it happens.”  I was a wreck!  I couldn’t do that!  I decided to give up and let them rot, even though it was causing him pain in one tooth.  I would pull it myself when it died, if I had to!  (Not really, I don’t even like paper cuts.  But it sounded good to say at the time!  So, please, if you are a dentist, do not write me a letter telling me how dangerous and irresponsible that would be.  I know!  I know!  Trust me, I looked it up on-line.)
            There was one dentist left to consult.  We had tried to get a hold of her two or three times, with no luck.  Must not be God’s Will?  But something (Someone?) told me that I couldn’t give up until I got a definitive answer from her.  Then after that I could call it quits and schedule a visit with the dentist forty-five minutes away who would knock him out and make me sit in the waiting room. 
            When we finally got a hold of her, we found out that she was just one mile from our house.  What are the odds that the right dentist would be only a mile from our house?  I’d say, “Pretty good when God’s hand is in it!”  After examining his teeth, she told us that he would indeed need two root canals (Ugh!) and a few smaller fillings.  But she would not knock him out.  She would just use nitrous oxide and local anesthesia, if needed.  And she encouraged parents to stay by their side. 
            This was it!  This was the answer that we needed from God, that we waited for over a year to get!  Thank you, Lord!  I just about cried with relief!  Actually, I think I did cry.  And for the first time in years, I relaxed my shoulders and neck!  (If I had greater faith, though, they would have never been tense to begin with.)
            And you want to know the most amazing part?  Both of the teeth that needed root canals ended up dying on their own, the second one just a week before the visit.  This sounds like a bad thing, but when she treated him, he felt no pain whatsoever.  And I was so afraid of him being in pain and not being able to help him. 
            Had we gotten a hold of her the first two or three times we tried, it would have been months earlier, and it could have been a much more painful, traumatic experience for him because the teeth would have still been alive.  And had I not listened to that still, small voice that said, “One more try!” it could have been a lot worse!  He does listen and He does answer prayer, even if the timing doesn’t make sense to us and the wait seems pointless and the detours are discouraging!  My God is a good God!
            (And as an added blessing, this whole procedure cost us $1,500 compared to the projected amount of $5,000 for going to the other dentist who would knock him out.)
            8.  And one last “answer” to prayer is really more of an inside joke between my husband and me.  When we were headed to Wisconsin Dells for our first family vacation, it was exceptionally sunny and hot out, almost ninety degrees.  And I am the biggest wimp in excessive heat (and cold), so you can guess how very uncomfortable I was.  I was climbing out of my skin as we drove because my side was in the sun.  So on the ride there, I prayed out loud for clouds.  I prayed that it would cool down because I was dying in the hot sun.  Now, this is not necessarily because of me, I don’t know.  But the timing is strange.  It dropped forty degrees within a day, and rained for hours.  It went from ninety degrees to fifty.  We actually had to go to the store to buy long-sleeve shirts.  Jason doesn’t like it when I pray about the weather now!  (I wonder if that “answer” was more of a gentle rebuke from God for my ingratitude towards a perfectly fine, hot, summer’s day.)   
            My point in sharing all of this is that it is so important to recall God’s faithfulness in the past - His gracious care - when I find myself afraid that He may not be listening to us or answering us.  It is so easy to lose perspective when times get rough and many prayers go unanswered. 
            Don’t wait until you are despairing to recall the blessings.  Set reminders around your house of God’s faithfulness in the past.  Talk about them with your family and friends.  Write them down.  Pass down stories of God’s goodness and faithfulness to your children.  Make it a habit to reflect on them often, and to focus on the blessings that He has given us each and every day. 
            I think this is why God tells His people to remember and to make monuments and to hold yearly celebrations.  He knows that we need to, to remember what kind of God He is so that we can make it through the hard times without falling apart completely.  (Or so that when we do fall apart completely, we eventually get up off the floor, dust ourselves off, and find our way back to Him.  I’m getting good at dusting myself off.)
            “Remembering” is so important because it reminds me that when I am praying, I am not just talking to the ceiling or to empty space.  There is a huge, omnipotent, omnipresent God who is right here with me, listening to every word I utter, watching to see which direction I will let my feelings and my discouragement take me, waiting for me to learn things I need to learn during the struggles, and waiting to move the right mountain at the right time. 
            I don’t always get the answers to prayer that I want.  I may not have the kind of “prayer power” that makes people sit up and take notice.  But I don’t think it’s about “our power in prayer.”  I think it’s all about the powerful God we pray to.  And while I don’t always get from God what I want, I do have the kind of God that I need.  One who is always here, always loving and holy and just, always looking out for me and holding me, always concerned with our eternal souls, always acting in our best interest and for His glory, and always too big and too mysterious to be totally understood by me or to be manipulated by me or my prayers.  He answers as He knows best.  And I can trust Him more because of it. 
            I need a God who is that big.  Not some tiny, little, “puppet on a string” God.  I couldn’t have true, rock-solid faith in a wishy-washy, pushover God like that.  But even if I don’t always get what I want and still have unanswered questions and prayers, that’s okay.  Because I can – and do – have rock-solid faith in a great, big, mysterious, holy, loving God who has proven Himself time and time again in the past.  And someday, all things will be clear.  Until then, I will just have to trust Him.  And He’s given me so many reasons to trust in His presence and His goodness!  Thank You, Father, for being the God that You are!