|September 1, 2001
Prayer and Your
Focus and Persistence
In Praying Make a
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Itís inspiring enough that
Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding. The fact that he
changed water to wine at a wedding feast in Cana as his first
extraordinary act symbolizes his abundant willingness to bless all the
particulars of bringing two people together in marriage. It reminds
us, too, of the miracles he can work in the process.
Yet thereís another dimension to this event thatís equally encouraging to consider. Jesus performed this miracle in response to someoneís request. Apart from the earnest urging of Jesusí mother, the six earthen jars would likely have remained so many empty vessels.
So it is with most of Jesusí feats recorded in the Gospels. He performed the vast majority in response to someoneís plea for assistance. As such, they give us not only a message about Christís power but also about the significance of prayer. In the case of his healing miracles, he never turned down a single request for help. What touches me so deeply about these incidents is that Jesus not only solved an immense problem for someone, but that their courage to ask for help also played an important role.
I am always moved profoundly by biblical examples of answered prayer. I include among my favorite passages of Scripture those that speak of Godís response to petitions for a child. "And the LORD remembered her; and in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, ĎI have asked him of the LORDí" (1 Sam 1:19-20 RSV). And, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John" (Lk 1:13 RSV). It never ceases to inspire me to think that God allows us to influence what happens in our lives not only through our actions but also through our petitions.
Appreciating how broadly and emphatically prayer is presented as effective in Scripture should encourage us to make bold requests to God about our personal needs. We ought to conclude we have not just permission to do so but a mandate. In reality, many Christians feel squeamish giving much attention to personal requests. They fear such praying is selfish and a diversion from more reverent concerns.
We can overdo praying for personal concerns, unquestionably. Yet some attention to doing so is essential. Such praying is especially important if we have a major dream that is propelling our life. We need to be seeking Godís direction and his help and success at many points as well. Letís look at how such petitioning should fit into a healthy prayer life.
The Three Purposes of Prayer
Scripture speaks of three broad roles that prayer should play in our lives. The first is its effect upon our attitude--its redemptive influence on our own disposition and outlook. Through prayer our attitude becomes more Christlike; we become more inclined to do Godís will, and we grow more encouraged as well. There are a variety of approaches to prayer that point us in this direction, from confession, to praise and thanksgiving, to meditation, to praying for the grace and strength to accept Godís will--as Jesus did in Gethsemane.
The second role of prayer is its effect upon our understanding. By praying for Godís direction, and through silent, prayerful meditation, we position ourselves for God to influence our thinking, and we vastly improve our grasp of his guidance. Itís through such praying that weíre able to establish which dreams and goals reflect Godís best intentions for our life.
These first two roles have to do with prayerís effect upon us. Yet just as frequently, Scripture reminds us of the influence prayer has not only upon us but upon God. While the Bible never implies that we can manipulate God through prayer, it does emphasize that God purposely chooses to limit much of what he does in our experience to what we choose to pray for. He graciously extends to us the possibility of having influence through our petitions. This third role of prayer is as critical to healthy spirituality and to living effectively for Christ as the first two.
This third role cannot function effectively without the first two. Our single greatest need as Christians is to stay in a relationship of trust with Christ where he can encourage and guide us. The first role of prayer most clearly nurtures this relationship. The benefits of a renewed heart extend to all areas of our life--inspiring health and vitality, the ability to enjoy our present situation, the capacity to think clearly about steps of faith that we should take. Through praying specifically for Godís guidance (prayerís second role), we sharpen that understanding further, and our sense of intimacy with Christ benefits immensely.
The benefits of prayerís third role, though--both in strengthening our relationship with Christ and enabling us to live effectively for him--shouldnít be minimized. Through making requests of God we grow through taking responsibility. We also gain a valued sense of partnership in what he is doing. In his extensive study of prayer in Scripture, John Calvin concluded, "We see that to us nothing is promised to be expected from the Lord, which we are not also bidden to ask of him in prayers."1
Scripture consistently shows, too, that the possibility of having influence through prayer is much greater than we normally think. The biblical emphasis on this point is so pervasive that it led African pastor Andrew Murray to declare, "As image-bearer and representative of God on earth, redeemed man has by his prayers to determine the history of this earth."2
Practicing the Privilege
When it comes to praying for a major personal need or dream, no one would deny the importance of the first two roles of prayer in keeping us grounded and encouraged in Christ, and in keeping us alert to his direction. We clearly do well to give ourselves to the whole realm of prayer that Scripture recommends. But what about the third role? How important is it to ask God pointedly to meet a need or to make a dream possible? I find that Christians generally have two hesitations here.
One is the fear that God doesnít want us to spend our energy praying over such self-focused matters. Donít we do best to devote the petitioning part of our prayer life to more ministry-centered concerns?
Thereís no question that we need to pray faithfully for the needs of others and for the broader concerns of Christís ministry. Yet Jesus told us also to pray for our "daily bread," implying that we should give at least some attention each day to raising our personal needs to God. Paul made basically the same point in Philippians 4:6, when he declared, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." God, then, has encouraged us to be straightforward in bringing our personal needs before him.
More troubling for many, though, is the question of how bold and persistent we should be in raising a personal concern to God. What if youíve done so for months, years--or decades!--without receiving an answer? Doesnít the point come when you should cease your petitioning and simply pray for acceptance?
The answer of Scripture is surprising. Jesus encouraged his followers to continue bringing requests to God until they received a clear answer. To this end he told two parables--one of a widow who continued to implore a judge to vindicate her case in court (Lk 18:1-8), another of a man who continued to ask a friend for bread to serve to an unexpected guest (Lk 11:5-8).
At first this emphasis on importunity seems brazen and irreverent, tantamount to pestering God. Yet in reality some vital benefits come through long-term persistence in prayer. One is that our desires become clarified. When we persist in making a prayer over a period of time, we give God the fullest opportunity to work within us--either to change our desire or to deepen our conviction that we really do want what weíre asking.
In addition, persistence may be needed for the deepening of our faith. When weíve prayed only briefly about a matter, weíre likely to think an outcome has resulted from our own effort or fortuitous circumstances. Long-term persistence in prayer deepens our conviction that we truly need Godís help and that he is behind the solutions that come.
It is striking that in both of the parables that Jesus told, someone persisted in asking help for a rather limited personal need. Certainly in a matter as life-changing and far-reaching as a major personal dream, we should assume God not only permits us to continuing praying for its success but wants us to do so.
Abusing the Privilege
This isnít to say that praying for a personal concern cannot become obsessive. It does so if it either robs us of our well-being in Christ or diverts our attention from other responsibilities in prayer. A Christian woman in her mid-thirties who told me that she was continually depressed over being unmarried also admitted, "I spend a lot of time walking around my yard getting angry with God over my predicament." While I respected her honesty with God, I feared that her prayer life was doing more to hurt her than help her. In this case the third role of prayer was far overshadowing the first two. Her ongoing argument with God about wanting to be married simply nurtured her frustration over being single. It did little to strengthen her contentment in Christ or to help her gain perspective.
A married friend of mine and his wife had a similar experience in praying about their infertility. He told me, "We made this a matter of constant prayer over a long period of time. After a while we discovered that our prayer life was little more than an attempt to try to jerk Godís chain in order to get a child. Sure, our prayer life included adoration and intercession on behalf of others, but it was just preliminary measures to get to the real issue. Finally, we realized that daily, persistent prayer for a child was not only damaging the other aspects of our prayer life, but was also causing us to focus on this one matter in our daily activities. Our lives became consumed by this one issue."
Interestingly, they decided to stop praying for a child on a consistent basis. He notes that "after we made this decision, I was able to focus more on communicating with God and growing in my spiritual walk with him. When my prayer life changed, I actually believe God gave me more insight into how I should approach the infertility crisis. I truly felt a wisdom from God about life in general that Iíd not experienced earlier. My decision-making ability was greatly improved. And only then were we able to make some responsible decisions about our crisis."
My friendís experience brings us back to what the primary purpose of our prayer life should be--an activity that helps us to gain a joyful, Christ-centered perspective on our life. If you find that your prayers for a personal concern are working against you at this point, you should look carefully at why this is happening. Itís possible youíll do best to stop praying for this matter altogether, at least for a time.
More probably some adjustments in your prayer routine will solve the problem. Try giving at least half of your time in regular devotions to praise, thanksgiving and devotional practices that strengthen your joy in Christ. Then, in the time you spend making requests, give most of your attention to other concerns besides your personal one. Spend significant time praying for the needs of others. Limit the time you devote to praying for your personal matter to two or three minutes at most. This should be quite adequate for expressing your concern, yet should prevent it from becoming the main focus of your prayer life.
Of course there may be exceptions to this pattern. If youíre facing a major decision regarding an important personal dream, then you may need to give more attention to this area for a time. But as a general rule, it is best to be persistent yet succinct in bringing regular petitions before God. Remember that most prayers of petition recorded in Scripture are brief and to the point. And many of them were far-reaching in their consequences.
Extended Prayer--A Special Privilege
There is, though, also an important place in Scripture for special times set aside for praying for special needs. The examples of Jesus in Gethsemane, Hannah in the sanctuary, Moses in the wilderness and many others remind us of the benefits that come from extended prayer over a pressing need. Such periods can be invaluable occasions for determining major directions to take with our life. They can be equally helpful opportunities to pray for Godís help with dreams and goals that are already in place.
The desire for marriage is often a justified reason for a personal retreat devoted especially to praying for this concern. To be honest, I seldom find that someone who wants to be married has ever spent an extended time praying for this need. My impression is that most Christians donít take praying on this level as seriously as they should.
My own experience, too, has given me reason to be optimistic about the benefits of such prayer. When I was twenty-six, I spent a day on a personal retreat for the purpose of asking God to provide a marriage partner for me. The time is vivid in my mind, for I picked a striking and beautiful setting for this time of prayer--the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive route through central Virginia, as I drove home to Maryland from Roanoke.
It was about six months afterward that my relationship with Evie began to develop, leading to our marrying a year later. I suppose I will only know in eternity if there was a relationship between that day spent in prayer and Godís bountiful provision for my need. However, I suspect the connection was more than coincidental.
Perhaps you are single and eager to find an opportunity for marriage. Or you may have some other major dream that just doesnít seem to be moving forward, even though it appears to fit well with how God has fashioned your life. If youíve never done so before, let me recommend setting aside a generous portion of time--an afternoon, a full day, a weekend perhaps--for the purpose of praying to God about your need. Itís certainly not asking too much to give a day or two to an effort that may have lasting benefits. At the very least you should grow closer to Christ through the time. Beyond that it may open you more fully to his provision for you.
Remember that such a time shouldnít only allow you to express your desires to God but should give him room to do his redemptive work within you as well. Be sure to plan your personal retreat with a view toward both of these goals. Give time to thanking God for how he has provided for you in the past. Pray for acceptance of your present situation. Allow liberal time, too, for silent reflection. This is an opportunity for God to bring order to your thoughts and to help you see steps you may need to take to find an answer to your need.
But donít feel squeamish about clearly expressing your dream to God. Ask him to change your heart if in fact this aspiration isnít right for you. Yet be straightforward also in asking him to help you achieve your dream within his own wisdom and timing You will not force him to do anything he wouldnít otherwise wish to do (Rom 8:26) but through this process will give him greater freedom to bring about his best for your life.
Whether in daily devotions or special times of prayer, we should take heart that God wants us to bring our petitions before him. The biblical message could hardly be clearer on this point. Before you make the effort to pursue a major life dream or to find the answer to a pressing need, give some serious attention to praying for Christís direction and help. This can make all the difference.
1John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.20.2. Back.
2Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer (Old Tappan, N.J.: Revell, 1974), p. 103. Back.
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