|June 15, 2008
Prayer and Your
Focus and Persistence
In Praying Make
All the Difference
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It’s 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 there’s another dimension to this miracle that’s equally encouraging to consider: Jesus performed it in response to someone’s request. Apart from his mother’s earnest urging, the six earthen jars would likely have remained so many empty vessels (Jn 2:1-10).
So it is with most of Jesus’ feats recorded in the Gospels. He performed the vast majority in response to someone’s plea for help. As such, they give us not only a message about Christ’s power but also about the significance of prayer. Stunningly, he never turned down anyone’s request for healing during his earthly ministry. What touches me so deeply about Jesus’ healing miracles is that he not only helped someone unspeakably in each case, but the person’s courage to ask for help also played an important role.
I am always moved profoundly by biblical examples of answered prayer. I count among my favorite passages those where God grants someone’s request for a child. His provision to Hannah, for instance: “And the LORD remembered her; and in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the LORD’” (1 Sam 1:19-20 RSV). And to Zechariah: “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 that God allows us to influence him to such an extent through what we ask.
Appreciating how broadly and emphatically prayer is presented as effective in Scripture should encourage us to approach God boldly about our personal needs. We ought to conclude we’re not just permitted but mandated to do so. Yet many Christians feel uneasy giving much attention to “prayers of petition.” They fear such requesting is selfish and a diversion from more “reverent” prayer concerns.
We can overdo praying for personal concerns, unquestionably. Yet some attention to doing so is essential. Such praying is especially important if we’re pursuing a major goal or dream. We need to be seeking God’s direction, and his help and success, at many points. Let’s look at how 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 on our attitude--its redemptive influence upon our heart and will. Through prayer, we grow more Christlike; we become more inclined to do God’s will, and we feel more encouraged as well. Our attitude is affected most positively by certain types of praying, including confession, praise and thanksgiving, meditation, and praying for openness to God’s will--as Jesus did in Gethsemane.
The second role of prayer is its effect upon our understanding. By praying for God’s direction, and through silent, prayerful meditation, we allow God to influence our thinking, and we vastly improve our grasp of his guidance. We’re better able to determine which dreams and goals reflect his best intentions for our life.
These first two roles have to do with prayer’s effect upon us. Yet just as frequently, Scripture reminds us of the influence prayer has, not only upon us, but upon God. The Bible never implies that we can manipulate God through prayer. But it does emphasize that God purposely chooses to limit much of what he does in our life to what we choose to pray for. He graciously extends to us the possibility of influencing him through our petitions. This third role of prayer is as critical to healthy spirituality, and to living effectively for Christ, as the first two are.
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, that come through this praying, extend to all areas of our life--inspiring health and vitality, the ability to enjoy our present circumstances, and clearer thinking about our decisions. Through praying specifically for God’s guidance (prayer’s second role), we further sharpen our understanding of his will, and our sense of intimacy with Christ benefits greatly as well.
The benefits of prayer’s third role, though--both in strengthening our relationship with Christ and enabling us to live effectively for him--shouldn’t be minimized. Through making requests of God, we grow by taking responsibility for our needs. We also gain a treasured sense of partnership with Christ 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.”*
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.”*
Practicing the Privilege
When it comes to praying about our own needs, no one would deny the importance of the first two roles of prayer--in helping us stay grounded in Christ and alert to his direction. We clearly benefit from the whole variety of prayer that Scripture recommends. But what about prayer’s third role? How important is it to ask God pointedly to meet a need that we have, or to make a dream possible? I find that Christians generally have two hesitations here.
One is the fear that such praying is selfish. Shouldn’t we devote what time we spend petitioning to more ministry-centered concerns?
There is no question that we need to pray faithfully and frequently for the needs of others, and for the broader needs of Christ’s ministry. Yet Jesus also told us 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 also spoke of the importance of praying for our own concerns, when he declared, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil 4:6). 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 need to God. What if you’ve done so for months, years--or decades!--without receiving an answer? Doesn’t 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 of individuals who exercised “importunity” (the King James term for heartfelt persistence)--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). Jesus told these stories “to show [his disciples] that they should always pray and not give up” (Lk 11:1).
At first, this emphasis on importunity seems brazen and irreverent, as though we’re being urged to pester God. Yet, in reality, we enjoy some vital spiritual benefits from long-term persistence in prayer. One is that our desires become clarified. As we persist in making a prayer, we give God a greater opportunity to work within us--either to change our desire, or to deepen our conviction that we really do want what we’re asking.
In addition, persistence may be needed for the deepening of our faith. When we’ve prayed only briefly about a certain matter, we’re likely to think that a welcome outcome has resulted from our own efforts or “fortuitous circumstances.” As we continue to pray, our conviction grows that we truly do need God’s help, and we’re more likely to believe that a solution which comes has been brought about by him.
It is striking that in both of the parables about importunity that Jesus told, someone persisted in asking help for a rather limited personal need! Certainly in a matter as vital and far-reaching as a major personal dream, we should assume God not only permits us to continue praying for its success, but want us to do so.
Abusing the Privilege
This isn’t to say that praying for personal concerns can’t become obsessive. It does if it either robs us of our well-being in Christ, or keeps us from focusing in other needed areas in our prayer life.
A Christian woman in her mid-thirties, who told me that she was continually depressed over being unmarried, also confessed, “I spend a lot of time walking around my yard getting angry with God over my predicament.” While I respected her being so honest with God, I feared that her prayer life was doing more to discourage than help her. The third role of prayer was far overshadowing the first two. Her ongoing ventilation to 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 on how she might find someone to marry
A married friend of mine and his wife, who prayed frequently about their infertility, had a similar experience of prayer’s being counter-productive. 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 God’s 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. “After we made this decision,” he explained, “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 I’d 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 friend’s experience brings us back to what the primary purpose of prayer should be--an activity that helps us to gain a joyful, Christ-centered perspective on our life. If you find that praying for a certain need is working against this happening, you should look carefully at why this is so. It’s possible you should 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 devotional time to thanksgiving, praise, and prayer and study that strengthens your joy in Christ. Then, in the time you spend making requests, give more attention to other matters than the one that’s become such an overwhelming concern. Spend some time praying for the needs of others. Limit the time you devote to praying for your “big” request to several minutes. Bringing this sort of balance to your prayer life will allow you the opportunity you need to express your need to God, while making it less likely it becomes an obsession. And it will make it more likely that you actually feel encouraged when you finish praying, rather than defeated.
Of course, there may be exceptions to this pattern. If you’re facing a pressing decision, you may want to give special focus to it in your devotional time for a while. But as a general rule, it’s best to be persistent yet succinct in bringing ongoing concerns 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
In addition to our regular devotional time, though, there is an important place in the Christian life 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 in Scripture who earnestly sought God’s help, remind us of the benefits that can come from extended praying about a major concern. Such times can be invaluable occasions for resolving big decisions, or for praying for God’s help with dreams and goals we’re already pursuing.
The desire for marriage is usually more than ample justification to take a personal retreat devoted to praying about this concern. To be honest, I seldom find that someone who wants to be married has ever spent an extended time praying about it. My impression is that most Christians don’t 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 focused 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 occasion: the Blue Ridge Parkway 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 marriage a year later. I suppose I will only know in eternity if there was a relation between that day spent in prayer and God’s 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 perhaps you have some other major dream that you can’t seem to get in motion, even though it seems to fit you well. If you’ve never done so before, set aside a generous portion of time--an afternoon, a full day, a weekend perhaps--for the purpose of praying to God about your need. It’s certainly not asking too much to give a day or two to an effort that may have lasting benefits. At the very least, you will grow closer to Christ through investing this time. And it just may open you more fully to his provision for you.
Remember that the purpose of your personal retreat shouldn’t be only to express your desires to God, but to allow him to influence you as well. Be sure to plan your time with both of these goals in mind. Spend time 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 what steps you may need to take to find an answer to your need.
But don’t feel squeamish about clearly expressing your desires to God. Ask him to change your heart if, in fact, what you want isn’t right for you. Yet also ask him straightforwardly to help you achieve your dream, within his timing, and in light of his infinite understanding of your circumstances. By praying in this manner, you will not force him to do anything he wouldn’t otherwise wish to do (Rom 8:26), but you will give him greater freedom to bring about his best for your life.
We should take heart that, whether in
our daily devotions or special times of prayer, 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 Christ’s direction and help. It is hard to
overemphasize the difference this step can make. To grasp its
importance, is to appreciate one of the most encouraging principles of
the Christian life.
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