(This will be long! Lots to talk about. And ignore the gray/black font-color changes. It wasn't intentional, and I can't fix it.) Do you think prayer actually does anything? I mean, honestly, do you think it affects what happens in life or makes a difference? Or do you think, as many Christians do, that it’s just a formality, that it’s simply to show our dependence on God but it doesn’t really do anything because God’s already planned everything He’s gonna do?
I used to wonder about prayer: what it was, what it accomplished, how it worked. I used to think that since God is all-knowing and all-powerful then He didn’t really need our prayers, that He’d just do what He’s gonna do, with or without our prayers. So what good were they, other than helping us connect with Him and show our reliance on Him?
Job 42:8: “... My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer ...” This is the verse that cracked it all wide open for me. In this chapter, God planned to forgive Job’s friends for speaking wrong of Him. It was His Will, what He wanted to have happen. But He required Job to pray for it, and He waited for Job’s prayer before He accomplished His plan. This verse taught me one of the main reasons for prayer: it gets God’s Will done.
It isn’t just poetry when Jesus says that we are to pray “Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. He told us to pray for God’s Will to get done because prayer is how God’s Will gets done. God has chosen, in large part, to work out His Will in cooperation with mankind, through our prayers and obedience and choices. He waits on us to bring His Will to fruition on earth through these things. Why? Partly because - even though He could control every detail if He wanted to - He has decided to create us with free-will, to give us a certain level of dominion (within boundaries) over the earth and what happens in it: “Let us make man in our image … and let them rule … over all the earth” (Genesis 1:26).
[However, God’s still got ways of getting His Will done, even without our prayers and obedience. Either He’ll find someone else to do it, or else He’ll work our disobedience into His plans, using it for His purposes. But we will miss out. We will miss out on being a part of getting His Will done and on the rewards that come with obedience, and we will create consequences God never wanted for us, that He wanted to spare us from, if we had obeyed. But even then, even if we’ve blown it badly, remember that God is full of grace, mercy, and forgiveness, that He allows U-turns. He will help us get back on track with Him, turning our messes, our sins, our pain into something good. If we let Him. If we seek Him. If we draw near to Him again in humble repentance and obedience. So do not give in to despair or shame, no matter how badly you’ve fallen. Reach for His hand, get back up, and start walking with Him again. There’s always “Kingdom work” to be done! 2 Chronicles 7:14-15: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.”]
God has plans, but He has chosen to accomplish His plans through people. You see, what I never understood before is that just because God is all-powerful doesn’t mean He always uses His power all the time to control everything or to always force His Will to happen. (If He did, then everyone would be saved and every orphan and widow would be taken care of, because these things are His Will, according to the Bible. But they don’t always happen because He leaves it up to us to do these things or not. So it’s not His fault if it doesn’t get done; it’s ours.)
[The idea that God preplans, causes, and controls everything is foundational in Calvinism (Reformed Theology), a very bad theology that has taken over many churches and that’s detrimental to our view of God, His Word, salvation, prayer, our responsibilities, etc. Yes, God is all-powerful and “in control” and does cause certain things to happen sometimes, but Scripture shows that He doesn’t use His all-powerfulness to control everything that happens or everything we think and do (which would make Him the cause of our sins and unbelief). He might put us in situations that force us to make a choice, to act out what’s in our hearts so that He can use it and deal with it, but He doesn’t control which choices we make, our sins or disobedience or unbelief. What He does is control how everything works together. He decides what to allow, what to not allow, what Satan can do to us, how to work our decisions (our obedience or disobedience) into His plans, how to make something good and useful out of the bad stuff, etc. But, contrary to Calvinism. we choose to make the choices we do. And we will be held accountable for them.]
God, the all-powerful Creator of the universe, has chosen to voluntarily limit His use of power, so that He could work with and through mankind, giving us a certain amount of influence over what happens. And prayer is part of how He expects His Will to get done. “You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (James 4:2-3)
Prayer is not just a formality or a show of dependence. It’s a responsibility. It’s having a real, active part in getting His Will done. Whether or not we pray affects our lives, what God does for us or gives us. And even our motives for praying, for wanting something, affect if God gives us what we ask for or not. God does not always do whatever He’s going to do, regardless of what we do. We affect what happens in our lives, by our choices, motives, and prayers.
If we don’t see the importance of prayer, it’s because we don’t understand it.
I think we see prayer very differently from how God does. We want it to be a “magic button” we push to get what we want; God wants us to pray to accomplish what He wants. We pray when we need something from God; God wants us to pray because we need Him. We want to relax, to take the easy road, to not have to pray too often or too intensely; God wants strong prayer-warriors who can boldly storm the gates of hell. We pray for the newest toys or fun experiences to build our happiness; God wants us to build His kingdom.
In Judges 3:1-2, God reveals that He put His people into battle simply for the military training it would provide and to test their obedience (verse 4). This was a generation that was “soft.” They hadn’t learned the disciplines and skills that come with battle or with obeying wholeheartedly. And so He puts them into a battle, just for training. He wants strong warriors.
I believe it’s the same with us when it comes to prayer and spiritual warfare. Too many of us are “soft” in this area. We don’t know how to pray because we don’t practice it. We don’t see the power in it because we don’t see the purpose of it. And when the wait for an answer to our prayers gets too long or when God doesn’t answer the way we wanted, we think He doesn’t care about us or isn’t listening … and so we give up on Him, doubting His love, His care, His Word, our faith, our worth, etc. We dabble in prayer, but we don’t know how to battle in prayer.
And so I think God allows us to struggle, to face pain and hard times, to find ourselves lost in hopelessness and helplessness … so that we are driven to prayer and to desperately need Him, so that our knowledge and faith grow, and so that we learn to pick up our spiritual weapons and face the enemy. It’s God’s “training ground” for us, how He builds His prayer warriors, teaching us to battle well. The more we struggle – in prayer, with God’s Word as our foundation - with our fears, doubts, sins, shortcomings, helplessness, etc., the more we grow in knowledge about God, prayer, faith, and the spiritual battle. And the more knowledge we gain, the more we believe God and His Word. And the more we believe Him, the more we trust Him. The more we trust Him, the more we need Him. The more we need Him, the more we pray. And the more we pray, the more we impact His kingdom and the spiritual world. Once we realize the incredible power in prayer, the necessity of it, we won’t be flippant about it anymore. We’ll be driven to it, to God, to His Word, to spiritual battle, to building His Kingdom.
It’s no wonder Satan wants to convince us that there’s no real need for prayer or power in prayer, that our thoughts are good enough, that God’s gonna do whatever He’s already planned anyway. Because then Satan can keep us ineffective. Tiny, weak, half-hearted prayer-wimps. And he loves it when there’s distance between us and God - when we pull away from prayer, from God – because it makes us trust in our own tiny wisdom and power instead of in God’s, which makes us worry, makes us insecure, makes us scramble around trying to handle things for ourselves, and leads us to make many messes and mistakes … instead of doing what we should be doing: praying to God, searching His Word for truth, listening for His answers, obeying Him, and trusting Him to handle our concerns and to work things out when it’s time.
But once we begin to take our responsibilities seriously, we‘ll see God’s power move on this earth and in the spirit realm and in our own lives in a way we never did before. Our purpose on earth is not to make our nice, little lives here more comfortable, to be happier; it’s to fight for God’s kingdom and righteousness, to make an eternal difference. Matthew 6:33: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” We should be living in such a way that Satan sees us as threats, as enemies to his plans, as targets. When he sees us on our knees, he should tremble and think, “Oh no, not again!”
So, let’s explore some misconceptions we may have about prayer that prevent us from praying like we should, that keep us ineffective, wimpy, non-threatening prayer-worriers.
Misconception #1: Prayer has to be “just right” and “pleasant-sounding,” or else God won’t like it. And it makes me freeze up because I don’t know what to say.
Some of us think we have to be pleasing, proper, and polished in our prayers, that we can never reveal negative things to God: doubts, fears, sins, negative thoughts, bad feelings, etc. And so we edit our prayers to clean them up, to make them acceptable, to word them just right. Because we think this is what God wants, that it will get Him to listen to us more and grant our requests. We fear that if we pour out the negative stuff, if we displease Him, if we reveal what’s really inside us, He won’t like it. He’ll get angry at us. He won’t love us or listen to us or respond to our prayers. And we’ll earn His wrath instead of His favor.
Now, it’s good to want to please God, to try to live in a way that honors Him and makes Him happy. This is important. A sign of humility, respect, and love. But if it means hiding parts of ourselves from Him then it’s not good. It’s a detriment to our faith and our relationship with Him because He is not pleased with our deceptions, when we hide from Him. Because it means we’re not allowing Him to be God over our whole lives, our whole hearts. Despite how it may seem, He is actually pleased with our honesty, even when it’s about the unpleasant things.
But our fears keep us from being honest with Him. We fear that we’re not good enough, that we’re not worthy or lovable or forgivable, that if He knew the real us then He’d abandon us, and we fear the consequences of admitting the bad things inside. And so we live our lives hiding from Him, trying to polish ourselves up, to look better than we are, to earn His love, etc. We can’t possibly believe that God wants us to be completely honest and transparent with Him when there is so much “ugliness” inside us. And so we work really hard to polish ourselves up, to pray the “right” words, in the “right” attitude, while hiding our real selves.
[Or maybe we don’t just hide parts of ourselves from Him; maybe we reject Him before He has the chance to reject us. Maybe we don’t even try because we don’t think He could ever love someone like us. Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God loved us enough to die for us, even as the sinners we are. And He wants us all in heaven with Him. But since He knows we could never earn His grace, love, mercy, salvation, forgiveness, etc. (because they can’t be earned), He made them free for us, by having Jesus pay for them with His blood. It’s not about earning His gifts; it’s simply about accepting them. Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We earn death with our sins, our rejection of Him, but eternal life is a free gift God offers us, because of His love, in spite of our sins. 2 Peter 3:9: “[The Lord] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” We can’t earn free gifts (if we could, they wouldn’t be free gifts anymore), but we can reach out and grab them. John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”]
We can’t grab onto His free gifts or their full benefits if we keep parts of our hearts closed off to Him, because we’re keeping Him out, pushing Him away. And yet He’s so ready and willing to help us, to heal us, to forgive us, if only we’d welcome Him in. Open your heart to Him. Pour everything out to Him honestly. Because that’s when He comes in, fills us with His healing love, and makes us whole again in Him, leading us on the best path for us, using us greatly for His plans, and working all the bad into something good.
Psalm 139:23: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
And He doesn’t do this based on whether or not we “deserve” it, but simply because He loves us. Because He made us. Because we are His, and we matter to Him.
Romans 8:38-39: "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Isaiah 55:7: “Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.”
God’s not as concerned about our pasts as He is about our futures, about where we are going next and if we’ll let Him join us, guide us, on the journey. But to go forward with Him means opening our hearts up to Him fully, honestly.
A beautiful story of this is Jesus and the adulterous woman. In John 8, the hoity-toity, holier-than-thou religious snobs brought an adulterous woman to Jesus and demanded that she be stoned, according to their laws. However, Jesus - knowing they wanted to trap Him - simply bent down and wrote something in the dirt (no one knows what, maybe the 10 commandments or the hidden sins of the people there). And then He stood up and said, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
One by one, the left, until it was just Jesus and the woman standing there. And then Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Jesus wasn’t as concerned with her past as He was with her future. He didn’t want to punish her sins; He wanted to forgive her and He wanted her to live rightly from now on. The past is over and done with. The bad parts of ourselves that we hide have been paid for with Jesus’s blood. He died to buy us forgiveness, healing, a future. And He’d rather us focus more on living rightly, in gratitude for His sacrifice, than on hiding ourselves from Him out of shame. Grab onto His forgiveness, His grace, His mercy, and “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
But don’t fail to notice that with the adulterous woman, it all started with total honesty, with having her life fully exposed to the Lord. If she hadn’t gotten caught, if she’d been able to keep hiding her sins, Jesus would never have been able to offer her the forgiveness and healing she needed. It’s not fun or easy to have everything inside us exposed to the Lord, laid bare before Him, honestly, humbly. But it’s so very necessary if we want His help, forgiveness, and healing. If we want Him to be Lord of our whole lives, our whole hearts. If we want the best life possible, here and in eternity. (Yes, there may be unpleasant consequences we need to face on earth, but we’ll experience freedom and healing in our spiritual lives and God will care for us and help guide us on the best path possible, even if there’s pain and heartache.)
God already knows everything that’s inside us anyway, all the good, all the bad, all we’re ashamed of. He’s just waiting for us to turn to Him, to be honest with Him, to accept His grace and mercy so that He can forgive our pasts, heal our wounds, and help us go forward with Him. He’s a very big and good God; He can handle it! He wants to handle it! Will you let Him?
Prayer doesn’t have to be “just right.” It just has to be real. Read the Psalms to see what real prayer looks like. David poured out real pain, fear, confession, and doubt in his Psalms, and yet God called him “a man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). I believe God called him this partly because, even though he sinned terribly, he confessed it all to the Lord. He opened his heart up to God completely, everything he was thinking and feeling. Humbly. Honestly. Even all the bad stuff. He hid nothing from God, desperately pursuing God’s heart - an intimate, open, real relationship with Him. If we won’t be all-out honest with God, then He cannot help us. Because we have chosen to remain distant from Him, to handle things ourselves, to be our own little “gods,” to build walls around ourselves that keep Him out. But David let nothing stand between his heart and the Lord’s. He poured it all out to the Lord, even all the ugly things … and the Lord drew near to him. Psalm 34:17-18: “The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
Don’t hide your fears, doubts, or sins; confess them. (Feelings are not sin. But what we do with them can become sin. And the quicker we bring them to the Lord, the less time they have to mess up our lives.) If you’re angry or hurt, even because of God, then tell Him. If you don’t have any strength or hope left, pour that out to Him and ask for His help. If you’re discouraged with life or afraid of the future, admit it to Him and ask Him to comfort you, protect you and guide you. If you’re anxious, tell Him you’re making a trade with Him: your anxieties and concerns for His peace and joy. And the walls will start coming down. The truth will set you free.
Prayer doesn’t need to be polished or follow some formula. It doesn’t need to sound proper or pleasing. It just needs to be honest - doubts, fears, praise, confessions, and all. It’s about drawing nearer to God, about needing Him, about letting Him into your heart and your life. This will bring God closer to you than any fancy, righteous-sounding, lofty prayer ever could.
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’” (Luke 18:9-14)
[And be encouraged by another reason why God doesn’t need us to polish up our prayers: Because the Holy Spirit does it for us. Romans 8:26-27: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” God doesn’t always need us to “pray right”, to know what to say or to ask for. Because in our weakness, the Holy Spirit helps us. He knows what should be prayed. And whenever we pray, no matter how simply or clumsily, the Holy Spirit cleans up our prayers for us, presenting them to God as they should be. So don’t worry if you don’t know what you “should” say. The Holy Spirit knows. Just pour it all out, and let God take over!]
Misconception Number 2: God already knows what we’re gonna say, so what’s the point of saying it?
I think a lot of us think of prayer as just a mental exercise that we’re supposed to go through because ... well ... that’s what Christians do. And so we do it. But somewhere deep down, it feels like a waste of time, because God already knows what we’re thinking. Deep down, we think things like, “Well, God knows what I need … He knows I’m sorry … He knows the choice I have to make … so why do I have to pray about it? After all, our thoughts are just as good as our prayers, aren’t they?”
I challenge you to find one verse that says that God heard (responded to) their “thoughts.” Guess what? There are none. It’s always “God heard their prayers.” While God does hear our thoughts, they do not call Him to act. It’s our prayers that do. God lets us decide to ask for His help or not, to rely on Him or to rely on ourselves. And it’s our prayers – not our thoughts - that invite God to work in our circumstances, in our lives. It’s our prayers that affect the spiritual world. Thinking is not the same thing as praying. Thinking is talking to ourselves, but prayer is talking to God. And whether or not we pray affects whether or not we get God’s help and whether or not His Will for our lives gets done.
Remember the verse: “You
do not have because you do not ask God.” God has decided to allow
His Will to be affected by our prayers.
He has determined certain things for our lives, but we need to grab
ahold of them through prayer (and obedience).
And so if we fail to pray (and obey), there are certain blessings and answers
we will fail to receive. Not because God
wasn’t willing to give them, but because we weren’t willing to pray for them. “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should
expect that God will
give it to him eventually ask God, who gives generously to all
without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” (James
1:5, correction and emphasis added).
Even godly wisdom comes to us only when we seek it, when we ask God for
it. A life without prayer will be very
different than a life with prayer.
One example of this is in Joshua 9, when a group of lying men got Joshua to make a peace treaty with them after God told Joshua not to make a peace treaty with the people around them. A critical verse here is verse 14: “… but he did not inquire of the Lord.” Joshua evaluated the men in his own wisdom, instead of seeking advice from God. And it led to Joshua breaking God’s command and to consequences God never intended.
Another time was in Joshua 7 when he went into a battle that he thought would be easy, that he was sure he’d win, but they were defeated and lost 36 men. Joshua did seek God’s help in other battles, but there is no indication that he “inquired of God” for this one. And they were beaten back and lost men. The thing was, there was a man in their group who had sinned, and God would not bless them with victory while the sin was covered up. The sin needed to be dealt with first. And if Joshua had inquired of God first, before going into battle, I believe God would have told them not to go to battle yet, to deal with the sin first. But Joshua did not ask God’s opinion before the battle, and they paid a heavy price for it. (There are two lessons here: one about the need to inquire of God in prayer and the other about the need to confess our hidden sins before expecting God to lead us and answer our prayers.)
If we convince ourselves that thoughts are as good as prayers, we won’t take the time to pray because we won’t see any purpose in it. We’ll go through the motions at mealtimes, of course: “Lord, thank you for this food. Bless it to our bodies. In Jesus’s name, Amen!” And we’ll feel good, like we’ve done our job. But we won’t really pray, on our knees, hearts wide open, humbling ourselves before Him, in desperate need of Him. We won’t run to Him first when something comes up. We’ll handle it ourselves for as long as we can, expecting that it will all work out just fine because “it doesn’t really matter what we do or don’t do, whether we pray or not, because God always does whatever He wants anyway and everything that happens is because He caused it to happen, right?” (Wrong!) And so we’ll float through life with God in our back pocket, a back-up plan for when we get ourselves into a tough spot we can’t handle.
But, oh, how different our lives would be if we “inquired of the Lord” first, and all along the way, before running ahead in our own tiny, faulty, pathetic “wisdom”! God tells us again and again to pray, and for a good reason. Because prayer matters! Prayer makes a difference! Turn everything you think and feel and wonder about into prayer … and see what happens when you invite God in!
Philippians 4:6-7: “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 your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Misconception Number 3: God’s already decided what He’s going to do, and so prayer won’t change His mind anyway, will it?
In 2 Kings 20, king Hezekiah had a severe illness, and God told him to get his house in order because he was going to die. But Hezekiah cried out to God to spare him, and so God let him live 15 more years. And in the book of Jonah, God was going to destroy Nineveh because of their wickedness. But when the people heard Jonah’s warning, they repented and humbled themselves before God, and so He changed His mind and forgave them. (If God can’t change His mind, then He would’ve had to destroy them because that’s what He said He’d do. Either that, or He would’ve been lying to say He was gonna destroy them when He didn’t. Neither of those are true. Therefore, the only other option is that God can indeed change His mind.)
Yes, God can and does change His mind based on our prayers, on our choices, on whether we humble ourselves or not. What does not change is His character, His promises. But God can plan, in His justice, to punish us for our sins … but then if He sees us repenting and humbling ourselves before Him, He can decide to change His mind and extend mercy to us instead. Both things – justice and mercy – are part of His character. And He decides which one to pour out on us based on our response to Him and on our prayers.
Here’s an eye-opening, humbling passage to consider: In Ezekiel 22, the Word of the Lord comes to Ezekiel about the disgraceful, ungodly things that Jerusalem is guilty of doing. And then in verses 30-31, we read this: “I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none. So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.”
The people’s sin earned them serious consequences and punishment. But God wanted to relent. He wanted to be talked out of destroying them. And He would have ... if only. If only He could have found at least one godly person who would “stand in the gap” for the people, one godly person who lived rightly before Him and who would intercede for the people in prayer.
God is saying, “I looked for a godly man who would pray for My mercy, that I would spare the people, a man who would be an example of how they should be living, leading them on a godly path. I would have relented for one godly man because I didn’t want to give them what they deserved. But I found no one! So I had to. I had to destroy them because there was no one righteous enough to lead them down the right path, no one who called out to Me on behalf of the people, pleading for My mercy. And so I dealt with them out of justice, instead of mercy.”
That is so sobering to me. God doesn’t just do whatever He wants. He relies on us and our prayers to get His Will done. He needs righteous people to stand in the gap for others. This is why a sensitive heart is so important, why reading His Word and spending time with Him is critical. It’s how we find out what God expects from us, how He operates (as much as we can understand that), what His Will is, and how we can live and pray to get His Will accomplished.
[However, I’m not saying we can make God do something He doesn’t want to do. We cannot. But there are things God is willing to do that don’t happen because we don’t pray for it. There are blessings He’s planned to give us, but only in response to our prayers. So we don’t control or manipulate God with our prayers; we just get the things He’s already decided to give us or do for us. And if we don’t pray, we miss out. It’s like a parent who’s willing to give their child a cookie, but they don’t do it until and unless the child wants it and asks for it. How much do we miss out on simply because we don’t ask? Because we don’t think our prayers matter?]
Our job is to pray; God’s job is to answer. (And sometimes, our prayers might need a tweak to get them more in line with God’s Will, to get the right answer. If asking God to change your circumstances isn’t working, then ask Him to give you strength to face your circumstances and to tell you what you should do next. Instead of “God, change them,” try “God, change me.” Instead of “Give me things to make me happy,” try “Help me to see and be thankful for all the blessings You’ve already given me.” Sometimes a little tweak, a shift in the focus of your prayer, makes all the difference.) As long as you’re honest with God, seeking Him through prayer and the Word, and will accept His answer and obey, then you can trust that He’ll answer your prayers in the best way possible, at the best time, whether it’s “yes” or “no” or “not yet.”
[And if it’s “no,” then accept it in trust, thanking Him for what He knows is best, even if it’s not what you wanted and doesn’t make sense to you. A “no” answer is a huge (painful) opportunity for your faith and trust in Him to grow and be purified. Ask Him to help you accept it, to help you make the most of it, to help your faith grow through it, and to guide you in the path you should take. A “no” isn’t really an ending; it’s the beginning of a new and different adventure. Remember, prayer isn’t about getting what we want; it’s about getting what God wants for us. If He says “no,” there’s a reason. Trust Him. And make the most of it by focusing on the eternal good you can do through it.]
Knowing that our prayers matter should lead us to remain connected to Him through prayer and the Word, to listen to Him and obey, and to live as righteously as we can. As James 5:16 says “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” I want my prayers to have a meaningful, lasting impact for God’s Will, for my best, for the good of others, and for eternity.
Do you? (I mean, seriously, what else can we take with us when we die? Nothing but what we do for the Lord! Is your focus on what really matters, what’s really gonna last? What will you have to show for your time on earth?)
Misconception Number 4: Prayer is just a “name it and claim it” thing, right? Ask for what we want and then we’ll get it, right? (This will be a very long answer!)
John 14:13: “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.” Wow, that sounds great, right? That we’ll get whatever we ask for? After all, God just wants us to be happy, right?
The “name it and claim it” gospel (“prosperity gospel,” “health and wealth gospel”) is very appealing, because it encourages and supports our selfish plans and desires. But the more you understand prayer, the less it becomes about getting what we want from God and the more it becomes about getting what God wants and more of God Himself. Notice in the verse: asking in Jesus’s name, to bring God glory. These are the prayers God answers, the ones that are in Jesus’s name (aligned with His purposes and plans, for His kingdom) and that bring God glory.
Remember that prayer doesn’t make God give us things He doesn’t want to give us; it just gets the things He’s already willing to give us and do for us. Ephesians 1:2-3: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” God has already placed blessings for all believers “in the heavenly realms,” but we have to bring them down here with our prayers and obedience. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). “You do not have because you do not ask God” (James 4:2). God has willed certain things from heaven - things He’s willing to give us and do for us - but He requires our prayers and obedience to get them. However, notice that these are “spiritual blessings.” God blesses us with the things that are for our spiritual well-being and for His glory, Kingdom, and purposes, not necessarily just for our physical well-being or happiness. So prayer is not a “blank check” to get what we want, to make ourselves happy; it’s about getting God’s Will done, building His Kingdom, bringing Him glory, growing our faith and our relationship with Him, and improving eternity.
In our society, we believe that “It’s all about us. God just wants us to be happy.” But good luck finding a verse like that. Yes, God likes to bless us, to see us enjoy His good gifts. But His blessings are a result of obeying Him, not living however we want. “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees, and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you…. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed…. I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).
Our problem is that we seek God’s gifts instead of seeking Him, we focus on our plans instead of His plans, we build our own little kingdoms instead of His Kingdom, we worship idols like success, status, security, money, relationships, etc., instead of worshipping Him, we pursue temporary pleasures instead of storing up eternal treasures, and we strive for happiness (temporary good feelings based on temporary good circumstances) instead of joy (a deep sense of faith, stability, and contentment in the Lord, no matter how rough life may be – not official definitions of happiness and joy, just my own).
Psalm 16:8-11: “I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave … You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”
We do not experience things like peace, security, stability, true joy, or God’s presence by following our own paths, seeking our own happiness, being our own gods, but we experience them by abiding in God, obeying Him, letting Him be God over our lives, choosing to cling to Him and trust Him in faith, even when there’s heartache, pain, and trials. If we walk the “path of life” (found only in Jesus, not in the world), we will know what true joy and security is (even in the midst of pain and difficulty), and we will be rewarded with “eternal pleasures” in the end. And this is far different than pursuing happiness on earth. God doesn’t want us to find our fulfillment and worth in the things of this world, in ourselves; He wants us to find it in Him. Romans 14:17: “For the kingdom of God is … righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
Godly joy is solid, eternal, spiritual, and leads to life. It helps us be content with what we have and trust God for what we need. It sustains us through the hard times, helping us keep an eternal perspective, focusing on what really matters. But earthly happiness is fleeting, shifting, and can lead us into sin, selfishness, and bad consequences. Pursuing happiness keeps us unsatisfied, unfulfilled, because as soon as we get what we want, we want something new or better, another dose of happiness, a bigger dose of happiness, because our sense of fulfillment, worth, peace, and satisfaction is based on what we get in this world, not on God or eternal things.
Jesus told us why He came to earth: “… to preach good news to the poor … to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19, Jesus quoting from Isaiah.) His goals are far bigger than making us happy. He came to save our souls, to give us eternal life with Him, eternal peace and joy. And it cost Him big. It cost Him His life, through a horrible death on the cross, being treated like a criminal by people He came to save. He died for us so that we could live eternally, setting us free from the consequences of sin. And yet here we are, acting like His main goal is to give us what we want, to make our lives easy, to fulfill our dreams, to make us “happy.” What a terrible way to honor the sacrifice Jesus made for us!
As hard as it may be, we have a choice to make: Pursue spiritual blessings or earthly ones? Focus on God or on ourselves? His plans or our plans? Be content with what He wants for us or demand what we want? If we want joy in Him, we have to give up our right to pursue happiness however we want. We have to learn to let Him be God. To be content with what He gives us. To trust Him to be the good, faithful God He is, even when it’s really hard and doesn’t make sense to us. To focus on eternal things instead of earthly things.
“Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2).
Now, of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we won’t get what we want, that we won’t be “happy,” or that we have to settle for a lot less. It means letting God decide what we really need and when we need it. It means trusting Him to answer our prayers the way He knows is best, even if He says “no.” It means finding out that He is enough for us, that true joy is found in Him, not in anything this world can give us. God doesn’t necessarily call us to have either a lot or a little, to big adventures or small ones, but He does call us to be joyful, grateful, and faithful with whatever we have and in whatever circumstances we’re in.
“… whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)
And while He might give us what we want, it won’t usually be how we thought it would be or what we expected. And He won’t often give it to us until He humbles us, until He can trust us to use it wisely for Him. There’s a big price to pay for misusing the gifts and experiences He gives us, for using them for ourselves instead of for Him. In Daniel 4, king Nebuchadnezzar got too proud and thought too much of himself, taking to himself all the glory for his kingdom, feeling like he built it all on his own. And so God humbled him. He let him go crazy, becoming like a wild animal who lived in the fields and ate grass for 7 years, until he was humbled and acknowledged that “the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Daniel 4:25).
God expects us to honor Him, praise Him, give Him credit, and use whatever He gives us - whether it’s a lot or a little - for His glory, Kingdom, and purposes, not just for our own fulfillment and happiness. It’s not about what we have or don’t have; it’s about our attitudes, about who we glorify with the things God’s given us. Are we using what God has given us (our time, talents, resources, experiences) for ourselves, our own happiness, dreams, and plans … or are we using them for His glory and His eternal Kingdom? If we would focus less on ourselves, less on finding our identities in our possessions, accomplishments, and circumstances, and if we would focus more on God and on finding our identity in Him then we would learn to be joyful and content, no matter the painful trials we might be going through, because we would know Who we belong to, Who holds us up, Who is in control over our circumstances, and Who holds the future in His hands. 1 Tim. 6:6: “But godliness with contentment is great gain.”
[Note: When I say God’s in control, I don’t mean He controls our decisions. He gave us free-will, the right to make our own choices. But we do not get to choose the consequences of our choices. God does that. If we choose to seek His guidance and obey Him, then we’ll make choices that are in line with His Will, and we’ll reap the blessings of it and be safe in His hands, even in the midst of trouble. But if we disobey, rebel, and make decisions without Him, then we’ll be out of His Will and no longer under His protective hand, because we walked away from Him. And He allows us to face the consequences of it, of our bad choices, our rebellion, of acting like we are gods of our lives. But He does this to try to get us to return to Him, to see our need for Him, to learn that we are not God but that He is. Like Nebuchadnezzar, God will hand us over to our pride, rebellion, and hardness of heart … until we are humbled and acknowledge Him as God and glorify Him as God. If you feel like Nebuchadnezzar, that you’ve been handed over to your pride and bad choices, then return to God as quickly as possible. Repent of your sins, seek Him again, glorify Him as God, and ask Him what He wants you to do next, inviting Him to turn your situation around for good. God can and will restore the years that the locusts have eaten (Joel 2:25), but you must turn to Him in repentance first and honor Him as God.]
When Jesus talks about giving us a full life (John 10:10), He’s not necessarily talking about an abundant life on the outside, in this world, which is temporary. He’s talking more about having an abundant life on the inside and, consequently, in eternity. Matthew 6:19-20: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth … But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven …”
And ironically, getting this abundant, internal, eternal life often involves going through painful trials first, a poverty of the spirit. (Matthew 5:3: “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”) If we face the hard times with prayer, humility, and God’s Word, trusting Him to be the big, faithful, loving God He is, then the painful trials won’t destroy us. They will convict us, prune us, humble us, draw us to Him, and help us adjust our focus - leading to the kind of spiritual growth that produces righteousness, a more pure faith, more trust in Him, more security, an abundant spiritual life (even if it’s full of pain), and a better eternity in the end. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen in eternal.”
Romans 8:18: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
“But,” we ask, “aren’t good Christian who do it right always supposed to have an easier life and get what they want?”
James 1:2-3: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
John 16:33: “… In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
We aren’t promised happy, carefree, easy lives. We’re promised hardships, trials, temptations to overcome. We’re warned that Satan prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. We’re warned that we’ll be persecuted for doing good, for choosing to follow God instead of men. A life of faith is often a life of pain. But painful trials serve an important purpose. They reveal the truth about you - about where your heart is, who you’ve placed your faith in, who’s on the throne in your life, who or what you worship, your view of yourself and God, if you’re willing to follow Him wherever He leads or not, etc. Pain reveals more than the easy, happy times ever could. If you work through the pain with the Lord, prayer, and His Word, your faith and relationship with Him will grow and be refined. And eventually you’ll call those hard times “blessings” because of the spiritual fruit they produced in your life.
James 1:12: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”
Romans 5:3-5: “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (We often think that hope is what helps us get through the trials, but notice that true hope, godly hope, comes after the trials, a result of persevering through the hardships. How different the world’s hope is from godly hope!)
No, we’d much rather hear the “prosperity gospel” teachers tell us “God will give you whatever you want because He just wants you to be happy.”
But what about when God says “no”? What about when the answers aren’t what you expected or wanted? What about when the money doesn’t come or the healing doesn’t come or the dreams don’t get fulfilled or your expectations don’t get met? What then? What about when you lose your desperately-needed job or your home burns to the ground or the tornado sweeps away everything or an illness drains your life and your savings or when God allows everything to crash down around you? Is God still good? Is He still worthy of praise? Can He still be trusted? Does He still love us and care about us, even when we don’t get what we wanted, even when life is still a mess and our heart is still broken?
You know what? I don’t want to hear the Gospel bring preached by a polished, slimy, self-centered “prosperity gospel” pastor with slicked-back hair, expensive clothes, diamond pinky rings, and a fancy, new sportscar, who’s rich enough to get whatever they want, who’s never known real pain and struggle. I don’t want to hear about their pathetic, humanistic faith.
I’d much rather hear about the Gospel, about the difficult journey of faith, from exhausted, ragged, battered souls who’ve been beaten down through many trials but who keep getting back up again and reaching for God … who’ve wrestled deeply with God and their faith, pain, discouragement, doubts and fears, but who still say “I will still cling to God, even when I’m hurting and don’t understand” … who’ve been deeply wounded in their spirit, who’ve lost all sense of self-confidence and self-sufficiency, who’ve found themselves lying on the ground at the feet of God in helplessness, in humility, fully dependent on His daily grace just to get through each day … who’ve fought hard for their faith, with the battle-scars and the spiritual limp to prove it, and yet they still say “My God sustains me. He is good, even when life is not.” … who’ve learned through great loss that nothing else can be relied on but the Lord, that He is their joy, peace, security, and reason for being … and who, like the saints of old (Hebrews 11:39), never got to see the fulfillment of the promises God made to them while they were on earth but who trusted Him anyway, knowing that He would fulfill them in the end and that their rewards would be waiting for them in heaven.
I would trust a message about faith and faithfulness from a ragged, broken-down, hurting person who struggles to persevere, faltering along the way but always getting back up again to follow after the Lord, much much more than I would trust a polished, selfish, greedy, slime-ball who thinks they have true faith and all the answers simply because they get everything they want. The “prosperity gospel” preachers can have their expensive, polished, impressive lifestyles. But I’ll take the painful trials that drive me to the Lord, that teach me what really matters in life, that purify my faith. I’ll take the battle scars that come from living out real faith in real life, even when it’s messy and it hurts. I’ll take the eternal rewards over the temporary ones, because eternity is going to be so much longer than the fleeting moments we live on this earth. The pain lasts but a moment, but the joy and peace found in the Lord will last eternally.
[Of course, don’t ask for trials and pain. Don’t overestimate your ability to handle them. You don’t need to ask God for the painful trials that grow/purify your faith because they will come eventually. So don’t ask for them, but do expect them, the trials and pain and “no” answers and long waits. The busy times, the dry times, the fearful times. Draw near to God now, in preparation for them. Get to know Him well now, through His Word. Fill your heart and mind with Scripture. Memorize verses. Learn “faith lessons” from those who’ve gone through more than you have. Because someday it will be your turn. But until then, do not take your faith or God or His Word for granted. Do not put it on the back-burner for later, for when you “really need it.” You need it now, before the painful trials hit you, because it will be what sustains you and stabilizes you later, when your world starts to fall apart.]
Even if we don’t get what we prayed for, it doesn’t mean our prayers failed. Because it’s not about getting what we want. It’s about getting more of God and what He wants.
2 Corinthians 12:7-10: “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. This is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Misconception Number 5: Isn’t prayer just talking to God, as we were taught when we were young?
No. Another important part of prayer is listening. Prayer is not just about talking to God or telling Him what we want from Him; it’s also about letting Him speak to us, listening for His answers to our prayers and questions, for His guidance, for His comfort, for His conviction of things we may need to deal with, etc. This, I believe, is a severely neglected skill - learning to listen to God and the nudges of the Holy Spirit. And this depends on our desire to hear, on taking the time to let God answer in His way and time (sometimes the answers to our prayers and questions come a lot later, when we’re not even thinking about it anymore), on whether or not we obey the nudges we do get, and if we remain in Him and let His words remain in us. If we don’t want to listen to Him then God won’t necessarily talk to us. So how do we “hear” God? How does He speak to us? There are a few ways I know of:
1. First, foremost, and most clearly, He speaks to us through His Word. This is the measuring stick that we measure all other messages by. And the more we read it and abide in it, the better equipped we are to discern the difference between His Truth and the world’s lies and deceptions, between His ideas and our own. Remember that God will never instruct us to do anything that violates His revealed, written Truth. Always go back to the Word!
2. Sometimes, when we need a specific direction from Him, He speaks through our circumstances and our consciences (the Holy Spirit guiding us from the inside). [However, we can easily convince ourselves that He is telling us whatever we want to hear. So be careful. Run all things past Scripture, discuss it with Him in prayer, ask Him to open the doors that need to be opened and close the doors that need to be closed. If and when He is guiding you to know what the “next step” is, it will be confirmed by your conscience (the Holy Spirit), by Scripture, by the sense of peace you get about it (even if it’s not what you want to do or are happy about doing), and by outside circumstances. If all these things line up, then it’s probably what God wants you to do, so go ahead and start taking steps in that direction, paying attention to if He makes any adjustments to your path along the way. But if any of those things don’t line up, then wait and pray some more, until they all do line up and the “next step” becomes clear. He will guide us when it’s time, but the problem is that we often want to move a lot faster than He does, and so we end up rushing ahead on our own, creating consequences He never wanted for us. Learn to be patient, to wait on Him, and to trust that – if you are abiding in Him and sensitive to His leading – He will make it all clear when it’s the right time. Until then, just abide in Him, stay close to Him and His Word, and focus on faithfully doing the jobs He puts in your path today.]
3. He definitely speaks through His creation and the natural world. If we get out there more often, we’ll find a lot to reflect on, to praise Him for, to learn about, and to learn from.
4. Sometimes He speaks through other people, either through their wisdom or by giving them a message for us. (Or He might speak through us to others.) And we need to be willing to listen to what others say, especially godly people and those who have our best interests at heart. Listen thoughtfully, sift out the nuggets of truth and wisdom they’re giving you, and politely decline the things that God tells you doesn’t fit your situation.
5. God also speaks through His silence and His slowness (as we call it). It is during the times of waiting on Him that He may want us to wrestle with what’s really inside of us, with how we see ourselves, how we see Him, the condition of our souls, our faith, our relationship with Him. You see, as long as we keep moving quickly through life, we’re usually able to stay distracted, to keep the problem areas hidden from other people and from ourselves (but not from God). But His slowness frustrates us and confuses us. It makes us feel out of control, helpless, afraid, lost. And suddenly all those things we tried so hard to keep hidden, to run from, start to surface, and we find ourselves face to face with the very things we didn’t want to admit or deal with in the first place (or maybe things we didn’t even know we had to admit or deal with). Let the Holy Spirit use these times of waiting – of God’s silence and slowness - to speak to you, to grow you, to refine you. It may be that God is trying to teach you some valuable lessons that can’t be learned at any other time, which might just be “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), trusting that He’s working on the answer behind the scenes, even if you can’t see it.
6. I think one way to know that God is speaking to us and leading us in a certain direction is by a sense of peace. We just have a certain deep assurance about what He wants us to do, and no other option seems right. But it takes patience to wait for the conviction and the assurance. And it is wise to check it against the Bible, in prayer, and possibly with godly counsel. We should ask God to confirm if we are on the right track but to stop us if we are not.
7. God also occasionally speaks through dreams, times when we wake up and go, “Wow, I think that dream really meant something. It was so vivid and powerful.” And it might be that it was a message from God to us about something He wants us to know, do, pray, or deal with. In the Bible, God often gave people messages through dreams. If you have a powerful dream, spend some time reflecting on it in prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to give you insight.
8. I think God speaks to our spiritual ears too - not our physical ones like someone talking to us, but our spiritual ones where it felt like someone said something to us in our heads, through our thoughts. For me, this has happened so rarely, but when it has, I knew it was from Him (after taking a moment to wonder if I just thought it myself). And it’s usually been a quick, to-the-point sentence, such as “Don’t do it!” when I’m tempted to do something I shouldn’t or “Don’t you think I can handle it?” when I’m freaking out about a stressful situation. These messages will always line up with Scripture, honor God, and draw us closer to Him and His truth. And if they don’t, then they’re not from Him! [Once again, compare everything you “hear” against Scripture. God will never lead you to do something that violates His written Word, no matter how much you want to do it. And He will never give anyone new information to add to His Word or that contradicts His Word. He just guides us in knowing how to apply His Word, His Truth, to our lives.] To be clear, I don’t think this is His normal way of talking to us. It happens very rarely because His Word contains all we really need. But when it does happen, you just know in the very depths of your spirit that it was God, and not your own thoughts.
9. I think God sometimes speaks to us not by actual words, but by a deep gut-feeling, by a message that simply forms in our minds, thoughts that pull together to give us some important messages or insights. We don’t so much hear the words, but we understand the message by how we’re feeling and what it causes us to think. (But do not run off with a message based solely on feelings or thoughts or gut-instincts. Run every message past these criteria: Is it scriptural? Is it glorifying to God? Is it loving? Is it just? Is it truth? Is it for building up and not tearing down? And check other verses for more tests. The more you know Scripture, the more you can discern God’s messages from the world’s or your own.)
There may be other ways God speaks to us, but these are the ways I’ve experienced Him and the leading of the Holy Spirit. (And be warned that if you don’t want to hear His Truth, if you don’t want to obey Him, if you’re not abiding in Him, if you’re living a life that doesn’t glorify Him, then He might not answer you or waste time talking to you. Because you wouldn’t listen or obey even if He did. So make sure to get right with Him first, to align yourself with Him, His Word, and His Truth, if you want Him to talk to you and if you want to be sure to hear Him properly, instead of being led astray by your own desires or the schemes of the devil.)
Misconception Number 6: But if God wants to get a message through to me, He’ll do it. I don’t really have to put so much effort into praying and listening, do I?
While we don’t hear His voice with our physical ears or experience His presence as they did in Bible times, God is still active in this world. He is always speaking … to those who want to hear. Matthew 11:15: “He who has ears, let him hear.” Actually, I should say that He speaks to everyone all the time – through nature and calling to their hearts, trying to draw them to Him, to truth – but we only acknowledge, listen, respond, and obey if we want to. And most people don’t want to. Most people ignore Him. To their own eternal detriment. His messages get through only to those who are receptive to Him because He doesn’t force us to listen to Him or to obey Him. He calls to us then waits for us to respond. Here are three biblical examples:
God used a burning bush to get Moses’s attention, but He didn’t talk to Moses until Moses turned aside to check out the bush. “There the angel of the Lord appeared to [Moses] in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, ‘I will go over and see this strange sight – why the bush does not burn up.’ When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’ And Moses said, “Here I am.”” (Exodus 3:2-4, emphasis added) God caught Moses’s attention but waited to speak to him until Moses showed interest. And then God called his name, and Moses responded, and then God told him about the job He wanted him to do, to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. How different it might have been if Moses ignored the bush and kept on walking!
In 1 Samuel 3, God calls Samuel’s name three times while Samuel was in his bed at night. But Samuel thought it was the priest Eli calling him, so he ran to Eli saying, “Here I am!” After the third time, Eli recognizes that something supernatural is going on here, that God is calling to Samuel, so he tells Samuel to say “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” the next time it happened. And Samuel does this. And only then did God say what He wanted to say to Samuel. God could have given His message the first time He called Samuel’s name, but He didn’t. He waited until Samuel showed his willingness to listen to and respond to Him.
And in Isaiah 6, we read about Isaiah overhearing a heavenly conversation where the Lord asks about whom they should give a certain task to, whom they should send to do a job. And Isaiah volunteers, saying “Here I am. Send me!” God didn’t tell Isaiah the plan or include him in it until Isaiah showed his willingness to be included, to obey.
Yes, God could get His messages across to anyone He wants to, but He generally chooses to speak to those who want to listen. He includes in His plans those who are willing to obey, to follow Him. The people above showed their willingness to listen to God before He spoke to them or included them in His plans. And yet we act like, “If God wants to tell me something, He will,” while we go about our lives, ignoring Him, focused on ourselves and our plans.
In fact, this is why Jesus spoke in parables to people instead of clearly saying what He meant - because He allows the people to decide if they really want to hear His message or not, if they want to know more or not, if they want the Truth or not. Those who don’t want it will brush off the parables and won’t explore them for deeper meanings. But those who do want to know more, who want the Truth, will listen harder, will dig deeper into the parables to uncover the message, and will respond to the truth Jesus is teaching through them.
It’s like that old saying by Blaise Pascal: “In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.” In matters of faith, there’s enough light, enough truth, for those who want to know more, to believe, but there are also enough shadows for those who don’t. Those who want to know more, who are willing to hear the truth, will run to light parts, will plant their faith in the light parts. But those who don’t want to believe in Jesus and don’t want to know more about Him will stand in the shadows, feeling justified for their unbelief because they found a dark spot to stand in. But their unbelief isn’t because the light wasn’t there; it’s simply because they didn’t want it. They preferred the darkness instead. And so God lets them have their way, what they want: A life without Him!
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.... Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity…” (Romans 1:24-29)
If we want to know God, if we want to believe in Him and follow Him, He will speak to us and guide us to truth. But if we don’t, He will let us go our own way, handing us over to our own desires, which cannot save us but can only condemn us and lead us further into sin. There is a huge price to pay for being unwilling to listen to the Lord!
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:18-20)
Yes, God is a powerful God who can shake the mountains with His voice. But when He wants to talk to us, He often whispers. Because He wants us to listen to Him because we want to, because we choose to, not because He screamed in our ears: “The Lord said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.” (1 Kings 19:11-13)
God wasn’t in – wasn’t speaking through – the violent wind that tore the mountains apart, the earthquake, the fire. The things that would be sure to get our attention. Instead, He chose to speak with a whisper. And His whisper was enough to make Elijah cover his face in humility.
I think that’s sometimes how it is for us in life. We want the dramatic experiences of God. We want Him to get our attention in bold ways, to shout to us. But He’s much more likely to whisper to us, causing us to slow down, quiet our hearts and minds, and strain our ears to hear Him. Because He wants to know that we want to hear from Him, that we want to hear what He’s going to tell us, that we’re humble enough to listen and obey and honor Him.
And like Elijah, many of us have to go through the wind, earthquakes, and fires first, before we can hear His whisper. We have to go through the violent winds that break apart our mountains of self-sufficiency, self-confidence, and pride, the things that push Him away. We have to go through the earthquakes that shake our worlds, that shake the security and confidence we have placed in everything that’s not Him. We have to go through the fires, the refining fires, that burn off all the impurities of our character and our faith (our fears, doubts, misconceptions, selfishness, etc.), so that we can know Him better and trust Him more. And only then will we be willing to hear His whisper, His quiet leading, and be humble enough to obey, to follow Him. Many of us need to exhaust ourselves looking for Him in the big, dramatic moments before we’re willing to find Him in the quiet, nondramatic ones. The whispers of His presence.
He is always whispering. But are willing to hear?
Do we quiet ourselves enough to hear from the Lord? Do we seek Him in His Word and in prayer? Do we obey the nudges that the Holy Spirit gives us? Do we live in ways that make us receptive to His whisper and nudges, or do we act like He’ll get through to us if He wants to? Are we willing to hang in there through the wind, earthquake, and fire so that we can hear that gentle whisper? Are we really?
Hang in there! Keep listening. Keep drawing near to Him, through prayer and the Word. Keep being receptive to Him. And someday soon, He will whisper. And it will be worth it!
Misconception Number 7: Prayer is just too hard. I don’t know why, but it is!
We will all struggle with prayer. Maybe we grew up with parents who didn’t listen to us or care about what we had to say. Maybe we felt like burdens when we had to ask for anything. Maybe we’re afraid to say the wrong thing or ask for the wrong thing. Maybe we’re afraid God isn’t really listening.
Prayer can be hard for many reasons, and it may help to explore some of these reasons, to help us get past them. Usually, it’s our own feelings or misconceptions that are blocking us from praying prayers that God is more than willing to answer. And this is just the way Satan wants it. Because if he can keep us from praying, he can keep us from drawer nearer to God and keep God’s Will from being accomplished. Of course, God might not answer our prayers the way we want, but that shouldn’t stop us from praying. Our job is to pray; His job is to answer in the way that He knows is best for us, for His glory, for His Kingdom and purposes. And at a very minimum, He simply wants to be let into all areas and concerns of our lives, even if He won’t change anything. He wants us to talk to Him as we would talk to a friend because our relationship with Him matters.
If you can tell that something blocks you from praying, ask God to reveal to you why you have a hard time praying. Is it your fears? Low-self esteem or a sense of low self-worth? Is it a prayer you shouldn’t be praying because it stems from pride, bitterness, greed, laziness, etc.? Is it that you know what the answer is and don’t want to hear it? Here are some other ideas:
Some Reasons Why We Don’t Pray:
[“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). “For God so loved the world ….” (John 3:16). “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) If God loved you enough to die for you, then you can be sure He loves you enough and cares about you enough to listen when you talk to Him. He wants to hear from you.]
2. I’m afraid to anger Him.
[God gets angry about disobedience, rebellion, and putting other things before Him, but He will not get angry when you come to Him with another request or in confession about a sin. He will not get angry when His children approach Him in prayer with a sincere heart and a desire to draw near to Him, to humble themselves before Him, or to come clean with Him.]
3. I don’t want to be a burden to Him or to seem like I’m taking all His previous blessings for granted. I don’t want Him to think I’m just using Him to get what I want.
[If you are using Him - without a desire to draw near to Him or to glorify Him - then confess it to Him. And then get into the Word to find out who He really is and who you really are, so that you can understand what a proper relationship with Him is like. Ask Him to reveal the truth to you. But if you are simply afraid to ask because you don’t share your needs with others or expect them to help you - if you don’t feel worthy of His time or love or care - then ask God to help you discover the wounds and scars around your heart. Ask for His love and truth to heal them. Tell Him you want to include Him in your life, but you need Him to help you learn how to do it. And remember, none of us “deserve” His love or care. But He loves us anyway because of who He is and who we are in His eyes. It has nothing to do with earning it, but everything to do with accepting it. And remember that prayer isn’t just about asking for what we want; it’s also about praising Him. This should be a big part of prayer because it reminds us of who He is, it expresses thankfulness for what He’s done in the past, and this helps us trust Him with new concerns and fears we’ll have in the future. So if you don’t know what to say or where to start, start by praising Him, by thanking Him for everything and anything you can think of. In fact, keep a journal of all the things you thank Him for – from the biggest things (such as saving your life) to the smallest (such as a warm, sunny day).]
4. I don’t believe He can do what I’m asking.
[This one gets down to a much deeper level of how you see God. If you think anything is impossible for Him, then you need to get to know Him as He is, in His Word. Spend daily time in the Word, focusing on the character and attributes of God. And remember that just because the Word says that everything is possible for Him doesn’t mean that He will do whatever you ask. Don't shrink God simply because He didn’t answer your prayer the way you wanted Him to or expected Him to. He sees the bigger picture and has His mysterious ways of working. I’m not saying it’s easy to trust God in the painful, confusing times. As hard as it may be, we have to choose to accept and believe what the Bible says about Him, especially when everything around us makes us doubt it, tempting us to judge Him, to give up on Him, because He didn’t answer the way we thought He should. True faith doesn’t come easily or without some battle-scars. But true faith develops as we face the hardest, most discouraging times, trusting His Word over our feelings, putting faith in His character and not in ourselves or our circumstances, and choosing to cling to Him anyway, even when we don’t want to or it doesn’t make sense.]
5. I don’t believe He will do what I am asking.
[Believing He won’t do something is different than believing He can’t do something. If we don’t present our requests to Him because we don’t think He’ll do it, then we’ve already bound His hands, because we’ve chosen to handle it ourselves or to bear with things as they are. And so He is under no obligation to help us, because we didn’t include Him. But when we put our requests before Him, we invite Him into our situations, asking Him to do something about our concerns. He may not grant what we ask for (and we need to be willing to accept that or to have Him change our requests), but if we don’t ask then we’re living as if He’s already said “no,” not even giving Him the chance to work in our lives.
Our job is to pray; His job is to answer in the best way possible, for our good and for His plans. And ultimately, at the end of any request, we should pray, “Yet not my will, but Yours be done.” And even if we don’t see anything happening, we need to trust that He is working on it, that He has His reasons for taking His time. And if He has chosen to say “no,” the only thing we can do is thank Him for listening and for doing what He knows is best, and then ask Him for the strength and grace to accept His “no,” to use it for good. Once again, this is not an easy thing to do. But we were never promised an easy life. And a life lived apart from God will be far more difficult than a life lived with God, even though He doesn’t always give us what we ask for.]
6. I’m afraid of getting a “no” response.
[Why does a “no” scare you so much? Is it because you don’t trust Him or want His Will? Because you’ve been let down so many times that you can’t face being let down by God too? Because you can’t accept not getting what you want? I think “not trusting Him or wanting His Will” gets to the heart of our view of God. And if that’s you, spend time in prayer and the Word figuring out the difference between how you view Him and who He really is.
But even if we truly trust God and His love, faithfulness, and goodness, we still might really want a “yes.” And that’s normal. None of us wants to get a “no” to our prayers. But we need to trust that God knows best. Maybe a “no” is not what we want, but maybe it’s what we really need – in order to help us sort out our priorities, to lead us to where He wants us to go, to help us grow in righteousness and faith and trust in Him, to develop our character, patience, selflessness, and self-discipline, etc.
All we can do is ask for what we want (which is a part of being honest and staying connected to God), but then we have to put our requests into the hands of the One who loves us immensely (enough to die in our place) and who will do what’s best for us, for His glory and purposes, and for eternity. We might not always understand why a “no” was the best response possible - not until eternity! - but we need to trust that God had His reasons. And if it hurts to accept His “no,” tell Him this. Tell Him that you’re struggling, that you’re confused, that your heart is broken. It’s okay; He understands. After all, even Jesus got a “no” when He asked to be spared from death on the cross. And when we hurt, just know that He hurts with us. Run to Him for the only kind of comfort that can truly lift us up and sustain us through the pain. He will comfort us, even if He wouldn’t grant our request. But the question is, do you know Him well enough to trust in His love even if He says “no”?]
7. I’m afraid to pray the wrong words or in the wrong attitude.
[I think that it’s wise to check our attitudes or the spirit in which we pray. Are we praying with a spirit of selfishness, pride, judgmentalism, vengeance, bitterness, etc.? If our request is coming from a sinful place in our hearts, we need to confess it and let God change us. But if it’s not coming from a sinful place, then there’s no reason why you can’t just say what’s on your heart. And remember that, according to Romans 8:26, as we pray, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us and “cleans” up our prayers. We don’t need to worry about making our prayers “just right,” because the Holy Spirit will do it for us, as long as we seek to be honest with God and humble before Him.]
8. I’m afraid to be that honest.
[If you’re afraid to be honest with God about something, it’s a good indication that you need to be honest with Him about it. So just start talking to Him about it, and see where the conversation goes. Hopefully, as you pray more over time and get to know God more in His Word, you’ll realize that you don’t need to be afraid to be honest with God about anything, even the bad things and ugly things. Because He knows it all already and loves you anyway. He’s just been waiting for you to be honest with yourself and with Him, for you to open up wide your heart and life to Him so that He can come in and heal the broken, hurting parts. He won’t force His way in or force you to let Him love you or heal you; He has to be invited in through prayer.]
9. I don’t like admitting that I need the help or can’t do things on my own. I don’t like to be dependent on anyone else.
[Then He can’t help you. If you choose to live in self-sufficiency, relying on yourself, He will let you do it. And He will let you create your own messes and bad consequences. But He’s always just a prayer away, ready to step in and help you, to heal you, if you call out to Him. “The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:17-18)
It may be difficult or painful, but explore with God, in prayer, why you don’t like to rely on others or be dependent on others, what you’re protecting yourself from. Many times, it stems from deep, childhood wounds. And these wounds interfere with our relationship with God, too, because we’ve learned not to trust others, even God. But He wants to and has been waiting to heal those injured parts of your past, of your heart. He’s been waiting until you were ready to let Him into those parts. Don’t settle for self-sufficiency. Run to Him and learn that He is a faithful, loving Father who cares about you and who can be trusted with your heart, your life, and your future, regardless of the wounds others have given you in the past.]
10. I don’t know how to pray.
[When we first start praying, it feels weird and forced. We’re afraid we don’t know “the protocol” - if we have to say things in the right way or in the right order. And we feel like we’re just speaking out into thin air. Is Anyone really listening? How can I keep talking when No One is talking back to keep the conversation going?
The best and most basic advice I can give for when you don’t know how or what to pray is this: Just start talking. Tell Him what’s on your mind: what you’re thinking or feeling, what you’re struggling with, what you’re thankful for, how nervous you feel, what you want or need, etc. He already knows it all anyway. He knows what’s in the very depths of our hearts, even before we do. He’s just waiting for us to invite Him in through prayer, to include Him in our lives, to want Him, to need Him. So no false fronts. No masks. No fancy words or protocol to go through. Just start talking to Him as you would to a friend who cares about you and wants to be near you. (Ask Him to help you pray, and He will.) Keep it simple and keep it real. And Him will draw near to you.
11. I can’t pray to Him because I’ve done something wrong and I think it’s pushed Him away.
[Well, then ... make it right. The first step is to honestly confess whatever you need to confess (or ask Him to help you realize what it is, if you’re not sure). Thank Him for His forgiveness and accept His forgiveness (He already forgave all sins on the cross, and all we have to do is accept it). And ask Him to help you make it right.
And if you continue to feel unforgiven, it may be that you’re having a hard time forgiving yourself. God is so much more willing to forgive us than we are to forgive ourselves. Ask Him to help you in this, to see it the way He does and to help you turn it all around for good and for His glory. Sin doesn’t have the last word; Jesus did, when He died on the cross, defeating sin and death and the devil, and said “It is finished!”
Or maybe you feel unforgiven because Satan is making you feel ashamed and guilty, tricking you into thinking God is still holding your sins against you. Jesus paid for our sins with His blood. And His blood was enough to satisfy the wrath of God. So tell the demons, out loud, “In Jesus’ name, leave me now. I am a forgiven child of God, covered by His blood, and you have no right to be here anymore.” (“Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will draw near to you.” James 4:7-8) And memorize some relevant verses that you can speak out loud when you need to. God gave us His Word as the “sword of the Spirit” to defeat evil. Use it!]
12. Fill in the blank: “I’m afraid of …”
Prayer shouldn’t be as hard or scary as we make it out to be. Prayer is about coming to a loving God with our heart’s desires and requests, hurts and needs, confessions and praise. And it’s about learning to rely on Him, to listen to Him, and to trust in His goodness and faithfulness, no matter how He answers. Once again, our job is simply to ask and to know that He will answer in His time and in His way, out of love and wisdom!
If you’re not sure what to pray or how to pray, ask God to help you. Turn verses into prayers. Ask God questions, and listen for answers. (He does not answer every question we ask, but He will answer the ones He wants to. And answers can come in a variety of ways: through a Bible verse, through “coincidental” circumstances, through the Spirit speaking to your mind or through your dreams, through other people, etc. Be willing to hear His answers whenever and however He gives them, even if it’s not the answer you wanted.) Look in the Bible for things God has promised and then pray for those things: comfort, wisdom, strength, etc. These are prayers God will always answer.
And don’t feel bad if you struggle with prayer; even the disciples (Luke 11:1) asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. His answer:
“This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptations, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.’” (Matthew 6:9-13, KJV).
[“Lead us not into temptation” does not mean that God Himself will tempt you to sin, for He cannot tempt anyone to sin (James 1:13). But God can and does present us with the opportunity to choose between sin and obedience. He can and does allow Satan and demons to dangle temptations before you. If God knows there is sin in your heart - evil or selfish desires - He will allow Satan to tempt you to act them out. God doesn’t do this to trap you, but to bring out the sins and sinful desires and sinful motives that are in your heart, so that He can expose them and deal with them. To pray “lead me not into temptation” is to pray that you stay on the right path with God, that He does not hand you over to your sin. This takes not only His help but also your obedience, your desire to remain close to Him, to allow Him to deal with what’s in your heart before it gets to a point of Him having to hand you over to your sins. "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." Psalm 139:23-24]
Notice that the Lord’s prayer is not about teaching them what to pray (the exact words) but how to pray. What lessons can be learned from this? What are the various “pieces” of prayer, according to Jesus’s example? [And notice that the closest thing to praying for what we want is to pray for our “daily bread.” But daily bread is not about getting things to make us happy; it’s about getting what we need to live, about relying on God each and every day to provide what we need, not necessarily what we think we want. We can ask God for what we want - telling Him our needs, our hopes, our desires - but we have to let Him decide how to answer our prayers and what form the “daily bread” should take. If He says “no” to our wants, it’s because He’s got other things in store for us, things we’d miss out on if He said “yes.”]
The closer we walk with Him, the less self-centered our prayers will be. And as we humble ourselves before Him, we will be more concerned with His glory and His kingdom. And we’ll become more content with the truth that He is God and we are not. And therefore, we’ll be able to trust His answers to our prayers. When He says “no,” we’ll draw near to Him in the pain and glorify Him anyway. (And we may come to see His wisdom for answering the way He did. But maybe not until eternity.) If He says “wait” or “not yet” so that He can work on the answer or change our requests/desires to be more in line with His, we’ll be okay with that, with His timing or the changes He makes, with the doors He opens and the doors He closes. And if He says “yes,” we’ll be faithful with it, using it for Him, for His Kingdom, and for the good of others, giving Him all the glory.
I think that Jesus’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, the night He was to be arrested and sent to the cross, is the ultimate picture of prayer, of humility, of brokenness. Even though He knew He would never reject the cross (the reason He came to earth in the first place), He still poured out His pain to God about it. His relationship with the Father mattered so much that He bared His heart, raw, real, unpolished, even when it was unpleasant. He even requested several times that God take the cup of death from Him. And He was in so much emotional pain that He even sweated blood. Yet in the end, He humbled Himself before God and said, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” His faith in God was bigger than His need to get the answer He wanted. And He praised God even though the answer was “no,” using it for the Father’s glory and purposes. This is real prayer! This is real faith!
Romans 12:12: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”
Romans 15:13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Reflect on these Bible passages (and those we’ve already read and any others you can find on prayer). Pray over each one, ask God to tell you what He wants you to learn from it. And listen for His answers over time.
2 Chronicles 7:14-15: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.” [Look at the requirements: Humble yourself, pray, seek God, turn from sins. Are you doing these things?]
Philippians 4:6-7: “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.” [“With thanksgiving” - a necessary step to getting the peace and protection we so desire. Remember, it’s thankful in all things, not necessarily for all things.]
James 4:16: “... The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” [In what areas of your life do you need to seek God’s righteousness? Things you watch, read, say, think, value, your priorities, your focus, your friendships, how you treat others, idols in your life, etc.?]
1 Peter 3:10-12: “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” [A whole lot of stuff to unpack here!]
Jeremiah 29:12-13: “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” [Seek Him with all your heart. How can you do this? Does anything have to change to be able to do this?]
Mark 11:25: “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” (And on the flip-side is Matthew 5:23-24 which says that if your brother has anything against you then you are to go make it right with him before worshipping God at the altar.)
[Unforgiveness towards others is us putting ourselves in God’s position. Only He has the right to be the judge, to hold anything against anyone. And yet, He doesn’t hold anyone’s sins against them, even though He has every right to. He died to forgive all sins, so that we could have eternal life. (If we go to hell, it’s not because He’s punishing us for our sins; it’s because we rejected the payment He made for them, His offer of forgiveness.) Jesus died to forgive us of all our sins, and we need to extend this forgiveness to others. Denying forgiveness for others is essentially denying it for ourselves. Forgiveness, though, does not mean forgetting what they did or excusing it or pretending it didn’t happen. There are always consequences for sin, for hurting others. It just means letting go of the right to hold it against them or to punish them for it. Let God be the judge. “To me belongeth vengeance and recompense,” says the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35, KJV). “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19) Is there anyone you need to forgive (even if you can't tell the person you forgive them, you can tell God you do)? Or is there anyone you need to seek forgiveness from, to try to get right with? (This might not work if the other person wants to be unforgiving, but your job is to at least try to seek forgiveness and make it right. If you've done that, then you've done your part. Let God deal with the rest.)]
1 Peter 3:7: “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” [How are you treating others - with respect and consideration? Because this will affect the degree to which your prayers get through to God, especially for husbands in this verse. What might you need to do differently?]
1 John 5:14-15: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us - whatever we ask - we know that we have what we asked of him.” [He hears the prayers that are in line with His Will. And when He hears them, He will grant them. Are you seeking to know His Will and to pray for it, or are your prayers for your own will to be done? Can you leave the answer up to God, or are you determined to get your way? Are you doing the things you already know are His Will for you, as revealed to you in prayer or in His Word? Do a study of these in the Bible and write them down. Or write down what you know God’s already told you to do, and do it first.]
James 4:2-3: “... You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” [Do you present God with your honest requests, or are you failing to ask? Are you trying to accomplish things on your own instead of going to God? Why? What are some wrong motives that you pray with? What should be your motives behind your prayer requests?]
John 14:13-14: “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” [To ask in Jesus’ name means asking for the things He wants us to ask for, that are in line with His Will and purposes, that bring God glory. How can you apply this to your prayers, specifically?]
1 John 3:21-23: “Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from Him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.” [Does your heart condemn you about anything? Which commands are you not obeying? What sins do you need to confess? Do you need to get right with God or other people?]
John 15:7-8: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” [Are you remaining in Him, by spending time with Him in prayer and His Word? Have you taken His Word to heart, letting it fill your mind? What are your motives for “bearing fruit”? How can you bear fruit for His glory?]
Matthew 6:33: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” [Our focus shouldn’t center on our needs; it should be on His Kingdom and righteousness. Yes, we need to ask, to pour out honest concerns and needs to Him. But they should not be our focus. We should put them in His hands, trust Him to handle them, and then focus on His kingdom and righteousness, allowing God to take care of us as He sees fit. What are your priorities? How are you seeking His kingdom and righteousness? Is the Spirit telling you to make any changes?]
Mark 12:40: “They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.” [On one hand, are you mistreating people or failing to do the good you know you should do … while, on the other hand, praying or doing showy acts of righteousness to trick God or others into being impressed by you?]
Matthew 14:22-23: “Immediately, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray...” [Do you spend time alone with God in prayer? If Jesus knew He needed to do this, how could we think that we don’t need to?]
Luke 6:28: “bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” [Do you?]
Mark 9:29: “This kind [of demon] can come out only by prayer and fasting.” [Prayer is valuable part of spiritual warfare, expelling demons. (Along with the “sword of the Spirit” – speaking Scripture out loud.) Do you use this valuable resource in the spiritual battle against evil, or do you rely on yourself and your own power? How’s that been working for you?]
1 Thessalonians 5:17: “pray continually;” [This doesn’t mean to remain on your knees in your prayer closet all day long. It means maintaining your lines of communication with God all day long, staying connected with Him, including Him in your day, your decisions, your concerns. There is a time for deep, deliberate prayers during your quiet-time devotions with God. But then there are many, many times when quick, “popcorn prayers” are what’s needed. “God, grant me wisdom in this decision.” “God, help me!” “Lord, forgive me for that.” “Thank you, Lord, for this blessing.” “Lord, what do You want me to do?” Etc. The more you abide with God, the easier it will be to remember to include Him in everything. Allow all of life – the good, bad, easy, difficult - to turn your attention back to God. And train yourself to be receptive to the Holy Spirit whenever He pricks your conscience. This is a critical part of prayer, the part that grows you to be more like Christ. If you practice obeying the nudges He does give you and His already-revealed Will from the Bible, you will become more and more sensitive to His voice and will feel more and more nudges. But you need to consciously allow your mind to think about heavenly things and to drift towards God and to hear His whispers.]
Questions for Reflection (And the Challenge is to work through these with God in prayer):
1. Did anything in this section stand out to me? Why? What is God telling me about it?
2. What is prayer and its purpose, according to me? According to God? Do I have any wrong ideas about prayer (such as “it’s a formula for getting what I want,” “it’s like magic,” “it’s wishful thinking,” “it’s useless,” “it’s just for show or for drawing nearer to God but it has no real effect,” etc.)?
3. What is God teaching me about prayer, according to the Bible and the verses I’ve read? (Go through them, write down lessons you learn from each one.)
4. When and how and why do I pray? How much do I value prayer and does my life reflect this? Do I get away alone with God for serious prayer time? Do I run to Him first when I have a concern or need? Or is prayer a “last resort”?
5. What kinds of prayers do I pray? What do my prayers center on? What is my general attitude and state of mind when I pray? Does this need to change in any way?
6. What do I expect to happen when I pray? Do I expect too little? Too much? Do I expect God to do His part while I neglect my part? Do I expect God to do what I want while I fail to do what He wants? Does anything about my expectations need to change in any way?
7. Do I edit my prayers for any reason? To sound holier? To hide doubts? To cover up for sin? Why? And what have I been hiding or running from?
8. Do I feel like I can be honest and real with God? If not, why, and what am I afraid of? (Discuss this with God Himself.)
9. What are some wonderful experiences with prayer that I have had? How has it affected me and what did I learn from them?
10. What are some disappointing experiences with prayer that I have had? How has it affected me and what did I learn from them?
11. What feelings and thoughts come up when life doesn’t go the way I planned, when God doesn’t answer the way I thought He would or wanted Him to? When the painful trials come? When He is silent and makes me wait? How does it make me feel about Him? About myself?
[Also consider this: When God is silent or when you face painful trials or when He says “no,” do you assume that it must be because He is mad at you or punishing you? I think that many of us think this. And we think that if we can do things “just right” or word our prayers right or make Him happy or learn our lesson, then He will answer our prayers the way we want. And so we work hard to do these things. Not to get more of God, but to get more of what we want. But then when our circumstances don’t change, we get hurt, our faith gets crushed, and we grow bitter. Because we “followed the formula” but it didn’t work. If this is the case for you, then is your faith really in God … or is it in yourself, your ability to make God do what you want? Are you really worshipping God and believing in Him as He really is … or are you worshipping your own version of God, a Heavenly Vending Machine in the sky who can be manipulated to give you what you want, if you push the right buttons? Sometimes, God says “no” to teach us who He really is and who’s really in control, to purify our faith in Him.]
12. Have I seen any positive outcomes from those disappointing prayer experiences or times of waiting? Lessons that I’ve learned? Blessings in disguise? (Think deeply about this. List the unexpected blessings, and thank God for them.)
13. How do I feel about my ability to pray? Like a failure? Like a great prayer giant? Like I have some sort of influence with God to get Him to do what I ask? Do I take any of the glory when my prayers are answered, feeling prideful or overly confident? (Talk this over with God, ask His opinion, and see how the Spirit challenges you.)
14. Romans 5:3-5 says that hope comes after persevering through the hardships. How is godly hope different than man’s kind of hope? How can we get more godly hope? How does prayer relate to this?
15. Colossians 3:2 says to set our minds on things above, not on earthly things. How can we do this? What are benefits of setting our minds on things above? What are the consequences of setting it on earthly things? How can we shift our focus?
16. What lessons does the Lord’s prayer teach me? How should it shape/affect my prayer life?
17. How has God grown and purified my faith and my trust in Him? In what ways or areas does it still need to grow?
18. Like king Nebuchadnezzar, have I been given over to my own pride or bad decisions or hard heart in any way? What do I need to do about it?
19. What does it mean to be “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3)? What blessings come from it? How might it relate to prayer?
20. How might prayer relate to this verse: “We walk by faith not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7)?
21. What is my part when it comes to prayer? What is God’s? Am I okay with that arrangement? What thoughts, feelings, doubts, fears does that provoke? (Talk to God about it.)
22. How do I view the God that I am praying to? (Not the Bible’s view, but my deeply held and sometimes unconscious views.) Where does this view come from? How should I view Him, according to the Bible? (Do some research on the character of God, if need be.)
23. How do I usually handle the dark times and His silence? Can I still praise Him during these? Why or why not? And what needs to change for me to be able to do that? (Sometimes, when there's nothing left to do, all you can do is praise God anyway, even when - especially when - you don't want to. This is not only for your spiritual growth and for God's glory, but it's for your spiritual protection from demons. And sing worship songs too, out loud. When we feel the least like singing is when we need to the most. Sometimes the best way to win a spiritual battle is simply to praise God when we don't feel like it, in the darkest, most "hopeless" times.)
24. Do I have any idols in my life? Any other “gods” I worship? Is there anything that has taken my focus off of God – something I pursue either by chasing after it physically or by overly focusing on it in prayer? How does this prevent me from accepting His answer and resting in Him? (Sometimes we pray desperately for good things, but maybe at the wrong time or for the wrong reasons. And sometimes we pray desperately for things we shouldn’t be praying for, such as for an affair or for ill-gotten gains or to hide the truth. But either way, if we can’t see God anymore because we are too focused on our request, then it’s become an idol, and we need to put it aside for awhile and focus on God Himself, on building our relationship with Him.)
25. In Deuteronomy 30:15-20, God says to choose life, not death. He gives us the choice. How might I be choosing death, even without realizing it? How can I choose life?
26. What does it mean to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33)? How might this relate to prayer?
27. Are there any other doubts or fears or questions that I have that get in the way of my ability or desire to pray? (Pray over these, asking God to bring them to mind, to help you see His Truth about them, and to help you overcome them.)
28. Is there anything God is teaching me about prayer or that I need to consider more? Do I feel that God is challenging me in any area concerning my prayer life? Are there any questions I’ve been wanting to ask God? (Ask Him these in prayer, and listen for His answers over time.)
A Challenge for when you’re waiting on God:
Now, let’s say that you have prayed and prayed for something, but nothing is happening. And it’s been like that for a long time. What now? I suggest a few things:
1. Ask God if there’s anything you need to do first, before He will answer the prayer. Listen for His answer over the next days and weeks.
2. Has He already told you what to do? Do you know what needs to be done but are refusing to do it or are procrastinating? If we disobeyed God at some point or failed to do what we know we need to do then He probably won’t step in to help us further, until and unless we do our part first. If we’re not willing to follow Him, He won’t lead us.
3. Is there anything you need to confess to God. Unconfessed sin can block Him from hearing your prayers and answering. “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” (Psalm 66:18)
4. Discuss your thoughts and feelings with the Lord. Does not getting an answer (or the answer you want) make you feel abandoned, rejected, unloved, out of control, etc.? Talk these over with God. Ask Him to help you see yourself, Him, and your situation the way He does. Ask Him for the wisdom to see what His answer is and the courage to accept it.
5. Use the time to build your relationship with the Lord. Seek comfort and wisdom from the Bible. Ask God to tell you if there’s a passage He wants you to read, to learn from. Or just start reading, allowing the Holy Spirit to tell you what He wants to tell you through it. Read to learn more about God’s character, to grow closer to Him. The more you do this, the more you will trust Him, even when He doesn’t give you what you want. (Another great way to use the time: Reach out to others, help those who are hurting or in need too, pour into their lives, maybe start a Bible study with them. Do the most "eternal good" you can do with the time you have. Don't just waste it in worry and despair.)
6. At the end of it all, you need to decide if you will trust Him anyway, even if He says “no.” You have to decide if He is enough for you, if He is still God even when you don’t get your way. If you decide that you will trust Him no matter what, then tell Him this in prayer. Tell Him, “I will still cling to You, even if You don’t do what I want You to do. I will believe that You will answer my prayers in the way You know is best. And even if I don’t know why You did it, I will still trust You and cling to You and praise You. Your Will be done, Lord, not mine. Help me accept the answer You give me, and help me use it for Your glory and Kingdom.”
If you cannot and will not pray something like this, then you are choosing to reject God’s authority in your life, all because He didn’t do what you wanted Him to do. And so He will hand you over to yourself, allowing you to go your own way and make your own messes, until you will humble yourself before Him and acknowledge that He is God and you are not.
It is far better to humble yourself and acknowledge that He is God now, even if He says “no” to your prayers, so that He doesn’t have to hand you over to yourself. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” (1 Peter 5:6)
7. If you are still waiting for His answer and need it before you can go forward – and are willing to accept whatever it is and to obey – then learn to wait patiently, in trust.
Psalm 121:1-2: “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.”
Isaiah 26:3: “You will keep in perfect peace he whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.”
Philippians 4:19: "And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus."
Psalm 40:1-2, 31: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand…. But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
Trust that He will answer in His time and in His way. And until then, focus on drawing near to Him, abiding in Him through prayer and the Word, praising Him no matter what, and faithfully doing whatever job (no matter how small) that He puts in your path today. Just keep doing this – faithfully walking with Him each day – and He’ll straighten out your path when it’s time.
Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”
8. And when God doesn’t make sense and you are tempted to give up all hope, the ultimate thing that you can fall back on is God’s promise to work it all out for good.
Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Cling to this when there is no other hope to hold onto.
Example prayer about prayer:
The best one I could suggest would be what the disciples asked Jesus: “Lord, teach me to pray!”
And another great one: “I believe, Lord; but help me overcome my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)