As I listened to the prayers of the two pastors beside me, I squirmed in the padded office chair. My turn was next and I scrambled to gather my thoughts.
It wasn’t that I was scared of praying out loud or sounding unintelligent. My problem was that I had different thoughts on what to ask for when it came to praying for the sick. That said, I was open to admitting I was wrong. After all, they were trained pastors and I had never gone to Bible School.
My prayer went something like this:
“Dear God, please be with Jack in the hospital and help him feel Your presence. Help him rely on Your strength in his time of weakness. I ask that Jack would be a witness and light to the medical staff he interacts with so they would see God in him and want to know You more.”
I hesitated before quickly choking out an Amen. I breathed a sigh of relief and avoided eye contact as we moved on with our informal staff meeting.
Fortunately, neither pastor questioned my prayer. They didn’t scold me for praying “wrong.” Perhaps they figured that since they had both prayed for swift healing, my requests were merely addendums. If only they knew where I was coming from.
I was 20 years old when I learned that God doesn’t give you what you want whenever you pray. Even when you pray repeatedly. Even when you pray with all the faith that must undoubtedly be bigger than a mustard seed.
The night preceding her death, I still prayed stout-heartedly for my mom’s healing. I internally cried out to God for a miracle as I gingerly rubbed her aching back, feeling every vertebrae, every rib and shoulder blade protruding from her once robust body.
I had never prayed for anything so hard. I had never believed so vehemently.
My mom died the next morning even though we had spent 8 months praying for a miracle.
That morning, I learned that God doesn’t give you what you want just because you pray passionately, repeatedly, with faith.
It took me years to learn that God gives you what you need in order to bring you into a deeper relationship with Him.
Steve Estes, the young man who helped Joni Eareckson Tada come to faith after a diving accident left her a paraplegic, told her, “Sometimes God permits what He hates to accomplish that which He loves.”
God permitted my mom to die – or perhaps He simply withheld healing – because He had something bigger in store for me. Although I’m still not sure, 24 years later, what He was working out in me, watching my mom die when I was a young, immature adult changed me in ways that healing her could never have accomplished.
Seven short years later, I found myself in a church staff meeting, struggling to pray for Jack, an otherwise healthy teenager with a treatable but temporarily health-crushing infection. Why had I not yet learned how to pray? My struggle with prayer continued.
In my quest, I’ve come to rely on the example Jesus gave us in “The Lord’s Prayer.” Two phrases that stand out to me are:
- “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)
- “Give us today our daily bread.” (Matthew 6:11)
What are your initial thoughts when you read these verses? It’s so easy to skim over these familiar verses without stopping to consider their meaning. Read those passages again.
What does it mean to have God’s will done on earth?
Of course, God’s will is done perfectly in heaven, but is God’s will done on earth? Certainly not.
We live in a sinful, broken world. A world that can be difficult to tolerate. God’s will is not always done on earth because we humans think we know best.
Yes, God could choose to enforce His will on earth but then we wouldn’t have free choice. Sometimes sickness and untimely (by our standards) death, is simply a product of living in a sinful world. Sometimes it’s God’s way of working out His will in our lives. Many times, we’ll never know the purpose of tragedy or suffering, but I believe that God can use these things to encourage us to pull closer to Him.
What was God’s will for Jack?
I’m not God, but I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that God’s overall will was for Jack to be obedient to whatever God called him to do that day, even in illness. I’m sure God wasn’t calling Jack to preach a sermon or minister to the homeless; I have no doubt that God meets us where our time and energy resources are at. God’s ultimate goal for Jack and each one of us is to see our sinful natures, accept Jesus as our Savior, and spend eternity with Him in heaven.
Assured that Jack had a personal relationship with Christ, I could pray specifically that Jack would have the desire and strength to be obedient to God’s call, even in the midst of suffering. I’m inclined to believe that God is okay with our suffering – or as Paul puts it, “our light and momentary troubles” – because suffering has the ability to redirect our focus to God and not on ourselves, our own strength, nor our earthly pleasures. This is how I try to look at my sufferings instead of thinking only about myself and my own comfort.
I wasn’t comfortable praying for swift healing that day because I sensed that Jack’s illness was not about him. I saw his infirmity as part of God’s bigger plan to have Jack rely on Him more as well as to bring others in the hospital into a new realization of a God Who comforts and walks alongside His followers through terrible times.
What does it mean to ask God for our daily bread?
Recall when God supplied the Israelites with manna in the desert. The Israelites were instructed to collect enough manna for only that day, except one day a week. On the sixth day they were told to gather additional manna for the Sabbath. Those who disobeyed God’s orders and kept manna overnight found their heavenly bread supply full of maggots with a smell that would rival a teenager’s sweaty shoes.
Have you ever wondered if, when we pray for things we don’t need for that day, our prayers are a stench to God? Perhaps not, but I believe God wants us to focus on today, “for each day has enough troubles of its own.” (Matthew 6:34).
We could fudge and ask God to supply a quick, 24-hour fix for our request but that would make God expendable to us. Like a vending machine. As I write this, I’m convicted to pray the same prayer request every single day until either my situation changes or God changes me.
What would “daily bread” have looked like for Jack?
What did he need for that one day of illness in the hospital? Perhaps Jack needed a boost of confidence in God’s sovereign and loving will that day. Perhaps that is something I missed in my prayer. If I had gone to visit him in the hospital, maybe I could have focused my prayer on his daily needs and bring those specific requests to God.
Today, I struggle when friends ask me to pray that a certain situation would be resolved in a fast and favourable way for them. I don’t believe that we should assume our lives on earth will be easy and enjoyable all of the time.
We’re told in the Bible that we will indeed have troubles. We are reminded that we live in a broken world full of sinful, hurting people. But we’re also told that our momentary troubles are building for us an eternal reward that will not be taken from us. (2 Corinthians 4:17) Can I get a Hallelujah!?
Dear friends, how do you pray? Do you pray for God’s will to be done? Or do you find yourself praying more for your will than for His?
Do you pray for just enough to get you through today? Or do you struggle with selfishness as I do, and ask for things that may end up bringing us farther from God?
As I continue to learn about prayer, I’m still not sure whether my prayer for Jack was wrong or right. And I’m not convinced that praying for my mom’s healing hours before she died was wrong.
Although I can’t say there’s a definite right or wrong way to pray, I do know that, more than anything, God wants me – and you – to pray. When we pray, we draw closer to Him, and that closeness helps us to trust in His sovereign, His good, and His loving plan for our lives.
If you want to learn how to pray when you struggle to think straight, check out the introduction to my Bible Study called, “Lament Like This: How to pray when your thoughts run out of control.”