Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Heart of Prayer

            “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”  (Psalm 121:1-2)]

            “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 4:6-7)

            “Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”  (Psalm 46: 10)

            A couple months ago, I was struggling with prayer, with laying requests down at God’s feet, with asking Him for more.  I just couldn’t bring myself to “ask for more” when He’s already been so good to me.  I felt like an ingrate who wasn’t satisfied with what He gave me, like asking for more would be showing that I didn’t appreciate what He already gave me, like it would say that I wasn’t content or joyful with my life. 
            I found myself tripping over the words in my prayer. 
            “Lord, You have been so good to me.  And I am thankful for what I have.  I’m not asking for something else or something more because I am not thankful, I’m just trying to be honest with what’s going on in my heart.  We are supposed to be honest and lay our requests before You.  But I don’t want to seem like I’m not thankful or content.  You know that I am.   Or at least I really try to be.  But I still think it’s right to go to You with all wants and needs.  So I’m not coming to You with my requests because I’m not thankful.  I mean, You have proven to me how good You are by blessing me so much in the past, by always answering me, even if it’s not the answer I expected or wanted.  But You always listen, always answer, and have always been good.  And so I feel bad bringing another request to You, but . . . it’s just that . . . it’s just that . . .”

            And at that moment, I realized something.  I shouldn’t worry that bringing new requests to the Lord will look unthankful or ungrateful.  The very reason that I should go to the Lord with new requests – with all requests - is because I am thankful.   Because I know where my help comes from.  Because He has shown such goodness in the past.  He has proven Himself to be a good, gracious, loving, wise God, even when I don’t get what I want.  He’s always answered – in His time and way – because He wants to be the answer to all of our needs and requests.  He wants to be the one we go to for help. 
            So if I know where my help comes from and if He wants to be the one to help, why would I not bring each new request to Him?  For fear of offending His past goodness?  No!  It is because of His past goodness that I go to Him now, with every request.  He keeps showing me how much He wants me to rely on Him and how much He wants to bless me  by continuing to pour out His goodness with each request.   
            Not going to Him with our requests – holding in our thoughts and feelings and wants and desires and needs – would be offensive.  It would be saying, “I don’t really need You . . . I don’t want to burden You (as if He isn’t full of love for us) . . . I don’t trust You with my request . . . I don’t want to rely on You; I want to do it myself. . . I’d rather go without . . . Anything, just so I don’t have to humbly come before You again.” 
            But that is exactly what He wants.  He wants us to humbly come before Him and to present our requests to Him.  It shows dependency and trust.  It shows an acceptance of His love for us and it’s an expression of our love for Him.  It shows a willingness to let Him be God, as long as we are willing to accept the answer He gives, letting even His “no” answers pull us closer to Him instead of farther away.  It shows that we know that He is the one who will help, that we are thankful for what He has done in the past and that we want more of it, trusting Him with our present and future.  It is a way of honoring Him for being a gracious, heavenly Father who loves and cares for and about His children.

            I usually get this wrong.  I feel ashamed at times to ask Him for more or for help.  I hate being a burden to anyone.  I don’t want it to seem like I am not happy with my life or with what God has currently given me.  I get a little afraid that if I ask for something else, God might actually take away something – someone – that I love to teach me that I should have been more grateful and happy with what I had. 
            And as the first-born of six and a mother of four, I am used to taking care of myself and not having others take care of me, helping others but putting my wants and needs aside, and with being agreeable and compliant so that I don’t make waves, never needing more for myself.  I try not to make a fuss and I make do with what I have.  That’s the “responsible” way. 
            Plus, I never had a “daddy.”  I never learned to need a father.  My biological-dad never really had much to do with me.  I got almost nothing from him except a bible concordance and a copy of the books he self-published and the albums he made as a folk musician.  But I never really got more than that, almost no phone calls, no cards, no birthday gifts, no letters except the first few I got as a young teen, no meaningful words of encouragement, no support as I grew up.  I never learned to need or to rely on a daddy.
            And my three step-dads were (are) good guys, but I didn’t lean on them like you would a real dad.  I never called one up and said , “I need you.  Please help me.”  I never ran to them for a hug or to share my hurts.  I simply accepted whatever minimal relationship we had, tried not to be burden, tried to always please them and never disappoint them, took care of myself, and learned to manage on my own.  Except for getting some help from step-dad #2 with my car and paying for college.  But I never went to them for emotional support.  Ever! 
            Well, except once when I was engaged.  I was getting a lot of unspoken (and sometimes spoken) grief from a couple of people who thought I shouldn’t marry my now-husband.  And since I trusted my step-dad’s opinion, I asked if he thought I should get married or call off the wedding.  I was so confused that I couldn’t even see straight anymore. 
            And he gave me the best advice anyone could have.  He said, “Before they started messing with your head, did you have any doubts about marrying Jason?”  And for the first time in months, I saw clearly.  No, I didn’t have doubts, except for those planted in my head by other people.  And I realized that the confusion wasn’t coming from me at all.  It was the most emotional support I ever got from a dad.  But I guess it was also the best.  Because I married Jason and it’s been 16 wonderful years (full of trials that we’ve faced together) and we have four amazing kids.        
            All of this to say that I had to learn to need God, to be humble with Him and dependent on Him, not self-sufficient as I had to be growing up.  I had to learn to let Him care about me and care for me, to trust Him to be a good, loving Father.  I had to learn to let Him love me.  And this wasn’t easy because I never really felt genuinely loved by a father or felt like I really mattered or belonged.  That was new to me.  To feel like I really did matter to someone.  And I had to learn that it’s okay to bring all that’s in my heart to Him, my wants and needs and fears and doubts (as long as I accept and trust His answers, which is a learning journey in itself).  This doesn’t show thanklessness.  It shows gratitude for all He has done in the past.  For who He is to me.

            I don’t want to be like Pharaoh.  Frogs were covering his land, coming up into the bedrooms, on the beds, in the ovens, etc.  Frogs!  Frogs!  Everywhere!  And he knew that getting rid of them was a job for God alone.  And he wanted God’s help getting rid of them.
            “Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, ‘Pray to the Lord to take the frogs away from me and my people,. . .’  Moses said to Pharaoh, ‘I leave to you the honor of setting the time for me to pray for you and your officials and your people that you and your houses may be rid of the frogs. . .’”  (Exodus 8:8-9)
            And what does Pharaoh say?  Frogs are everywhere.  In their homes.  In their beds.  In their food.  He had a chance to get rid of them immediately.  But what does he say?
            He wanted God’s help but didn’t want to admit that he really needed it.  He had the chance to have Moses get rid of them immediately.  He could have said, “Right now!  Don’t waste any time in praying!”  But he didn’t want to appear too eager.  Too needy.  Too out-of-control.  Too “at God’s mercy.”  He wanted to show how he could do without it for a while, how he could stand on his own two feet, even if just a little bit.  Even in his desperateness and helplessness, he still acted like he was indifferent to God’s help, to his need for God’s help.  And so he acted nonchalant about it.  A bit apathetic. 
            “Oh, I guess tomorrow will be good enough.  No big deal.  Whatever!  I can sleep with frogs for one more night.  Have one more bowl of frog soup.  I don’t mind that much.”
            And Pharaoh didn’t even consider seeking God in prayer for himself, humbling himself before God.  It was good enough to have Moses do it. 
            I don’t want to be like Pharaoh. 
            I want to need God – to really need God.  I want to be okay with needing Him, with admitting that I am desperate for Him and His help.  I want to fall down at His feet and cry out, “PLEASE get rid of the frogs NOW!  I need You NOW!”  I want to bring yet another request before Him and ask Him to answer, trusting that He will give the best answer possible.  I am not ashamed of needing Him, of knowing where my help comes from. 
            Jesus Himself, even though He knew He would get a “No” answer, spent the night crying out to God to take away the cross, to find another way to pay for mankind’s sins.  He wasn’t afraid that He might be a burden or a disappointment to God the Father by pouring out this honesty.  No!  He knew and trusted God the Father enough that He opened up His desperate heart and laid His pain and His great desires down before the Father, admitting how much He needed God’s help.  It wasn’t about getting a “Yes” answer because Jesus knew that He would still face the cross.  It was about the relationship, about needing to be close to God, about needing God.  Not just needing what He could give, but needing God Himself.  This is the heart of prayer!    

            I can’t say it enough: He is a good, loving, wise Father who wants us to need Him and rely on Him.  And even if He says, “No” to our requests, He is enough for us.  His grace is enough.  And He will provide what He knows we need. 
            “But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 4:19, KJV)
            One thing I am beginning to realize about this verse:  If He doesn’t supply it, then we don’t really need it!  Sometimes the answer is “no” because He knows we don’t need it for our spiritual journey. 
            I think discontentment usually comes from unmet expectations.  We have expectations of what He would do or should have done or how He should have blessed us.  And when He doesn’t meet those expectations, we grow discontent, feeling like He is holding out on us somehow, not giving us something we “need.” 
            But it’s not that He failed us; it’s that our expectations set us up for disappointment. 
            But contentment comes when we begin to see Him for who He really is through His Word, when we realize that He gave us everything we already have and everything we really need, that He can be trusted to give the best answer possible (even when we don’t like it), and when we start to learn that He is enough.  Contentment is letting God be God in our lives, even when – especially when - He says, “No.”

            But we will never develop that strong, secure, Father-child relationship if we are too afraid or embarrassed to approach Him in prayer or to bring Him another request.  Anytime we hold back in our relationship with Him, we miss out. 
            And while we won’t always get everything we ask Him for in prayer, we will always get more of Him.  If we open our eyes to see it.  If we begin to see that He is what our heart really wants and needs.  If we are willing to kneel humbly at His feet again, to seek His face more than seeking the things we want, to climb up into His lap and let Him put His heavenly arms around us, and to walk through life with Him, instead of trying to do it all on our own. 

            It took me a long time to learn this.  But I am no longer afraid (usually) to need Him, to ask for more or to pour out my deep desires and longings and fears and doubts.  I am not afraid anymore that doing this will offend Him.  I am not afraid that I might be a burden to Him.  Needing Him more and needing more of Him will never make us burdens.  Grumbling against Him, forgetting His goodness, and having a thankless heart burdens Him (a lesson I learned from the Israelites as they wandered the desert), but seeking Him in prayer never burdens Him.  It only draws Him closer. 
            I am more afraid of shutting Him out of my heart, of missing out on a genuine relationship with Him by trying to look strong and capable and self-reliant, by trying to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders instead of just falling down on Him in humble dependency, by trying to climb up on the throne and play God.  I would rather just be honest and open in prayer, trusting that He hears me, that He cares about my concerns, and that He will answer as only a good, loving, wise, heavenly Father can. 
            It’s really nice to finally have a Daddy.      
            “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.  Cast all your anxieties on him because he cares for you.”  (1 Peter 5:6-7)

Have you struggled with prayer before?  Why?  And what helped you overcome it?