Psalm 25:1-7, 16-18 and Ephesians 3:14-20
(Quoted scripture is New Revised Standard Version)
During the open prayer time in a church service, a young woman began to pray in a clear but wavering voice, “God, I hated you after the rape! How could you let this happen to me?” The congregation abruptly fell silent. No more rustling of papers or shifting in the seats. “And I hated the people in this church who tried to comfort me. I didn’t want comfort. I wanted revenge. I wanted to hurt back. I thank you God, that you didn’t give up on me, and neither did some of these people. You kept after me, and I come back to you now and ask that you heal the scars in my soul.”
Philip Yancey writes that of all the prayers he has heard in church, this one most resembles the style of prayers he finds in the Bible. This is the 4th and final message based on Philip Yancey’s book, Prayer, Does It Make Any Difference?
Today we’ll explore how we are to pray, what language to use, and if written prayers that we read are better, or if extemporaneous, those prayers uttered unrehearsed and spontaneously are okay. We’ll also try to answer the question, what to do when we don’t feel God present with us when we pray.
Reading the Psalms, prayers written by others, we find every emotion human beings can feel expressed. Human beings haven’t changed since we were created, and neither have our emotions. In the Psalms we read of; fear, praise, anxiety, anger, love, sorrow, despair, gratitude, grief, doubt, suffering, joy, vengeance, and repentance.
I used two Psalms today, beginning with verses from Psalm 19 for the call to worship. This Psalm expresses praise for God’s creation and His glory which is so evident all around us. The writer, and today we, end this litany praying that the words we say and the meditations of our hearts would be acceptable to God who is our rock and our redeemer.
The unison prayer is a Psalm of comfort. When we read Psalm 23, we acknowledge God as one who cares for us, leads us in the right paths, walks with us through our darkest valleys, and brings us to the table of love and to everlasting life.
When I feel angry about words said, or things done to me or others I care about, I find Psalm 69 helps express what I feel. “You know the insults I receive, and my shame and dishonor; my foes are all known to you. Insults have broken my heart so that I am in despair.” (v. 19-20a) –Pour out your indignation upon them and let your burning anger overtake them.” (v.24) “Let them be blotted out of the book of the living.” (v.28) If we are honest with ourselves, we admit we’ve all been angry with some injustice done to us, or others that we care about. I’ve never prayed to blot my enemies out of the book of the living, I’ve never been that angry or hurt!
We all have times when we feel deep sorrow, grief and even despair; the loss of a loved one, becoming dependent on others when we have always been independent and helping others. Sometimes this occurs when we are suffering from an illness, or maybe we’ve just reached the age when we are no longer able to care for ourselves. Psalm 6:6-7 express these feelings. “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eyes waste away because of grief; they grow weak because of all my foes.”
I visited a woman in a nursing home who is struggling with these feelings. As she talked, I could see that she was trying to hold back her tears over what she was feeling. I assured her whatever she was feeling was acceptable to God, and as I hugged her she cried tears of sorrow and despair, grieving the loss of her independent life.
When I am convicted of a sin I have committed, and I am human and I sin; I turn to Psalm 51. In Psalm 51 David is convicted of the sin he has committed against God, in his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah, found in 2 Samuel 11-12. As a result of David’s sin, the child born from the affair dies. David falls on his knees and cries to God, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.” (v.4) –“Create in me a clean heart, O God and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” (v. 10-12) Many times I have prayed, ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.’
Philip Yancey writes, “I learned from Psalms to converse with God as I would converse with my employer, my friend, my wife – in short, to treat God as a Person in every sense of the word. I had seen prayer as a kind of duty, not as a safe outlet for whatever I was thinking or feeling. Psalms freed me to go deeper.” (page 176)
There are Psalms we read which express adoration for God’s love and joy in what God has done in our lives. Psalm 103:1-2, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits.” And Psalm 126:1-2a, 3, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; —The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.” Read through the Psalms. I guarantee you there is no emotion that you are feeling that is not expressed there.
So what do we do when we feel God is not present with us when we pray? Philip Yancey writes, ‘Instinctively we blame ourselves, assuming we have done something to offend God. A voice inside whispers that I am unworthy of God’s presence, that God would not possibly respond to someone whose mind has been filled with such impure thoughts.’ Philip writes that he counters that inner voice with the reality that he is praying because of the pollution in his mind. He is praying for cleansing, for help. (page 200)
Job felt that way about God when he was going through his troubles, Job 23:8-11 reads, “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold. My foot has held fast to his steps; I have kept his way and have not turned aside.” When God did show up for Job, he showed up in a mighty way, and rewarded Job for his faithfulness in waiting.
Yancey gives us advice on how to survive those ‘God is silent’ times. Seek God, he writes. Continue to ask, seek, knock on the door of God’s heart. Continue to work on your relationship with God, by pouring out your heart to Him and trusting that His answers will come. He writes that during those time of dryness in prayer, he notices the rest of his life come alive. He listens more attentively to friends; ideas leap from books; nature speaks to him more deeply. He writes, “God is alive all day, living both around me and inside me, speaking in a still, small voice and in other ways I may not even recognize.” (page 202-203)
Pastor Henry Blackaby says this about God’s silence, “You can respond to the silence of God in two ways. One response is for you to go into depression, a sense of guilt and self-condemnation. The other response is for you to have an expectation that God is about to bring you to a deeper knowledge of Himself. These responses are as different as night and day.” (page 204) We are free to choose our response to God’s silence. I encourage you to choose well.
There is one more thing I’d lift out as we close this series on prayer. If you read through the Apostle Paul’s letters to the various churches, you’ll find that in each of those letters, he told them he was praying for them. We read in Ephesians 3:14-19, “For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with the power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
I encourage you to tell people you are praying for them, and better yet, stop and pray with them; when talking with them on the phone, or wherever you meet them, in a store or in a restaurant, or at an event. What better witness to your faith and the power of prayer, then to stop, take the hands of a person in distress and pray right then and there. How often do we tell someone we will pray for them and the minute we hang up the phone or walk away, we forget?
Thank you for allowing me to explore Philip Yancey’s book Prayer, Does It Make Any Difference? with you. What have we learned from this series?
We’ve learned from Jesus’ example that we have a resource that can help us in life’s daily battles. We must make time for prayer. When Jesus was drained physically, emotionally, spiritually, he would spend time in prayer with his Father God. After which he had the strength; physically, emotionally and spiritually, to continue the battle against sin and evil. Henri Nouwen wrote “To pray is to walk in the full light of God, and to say simply, without holding back, ‘You are God and I am not. I need you.”
We’ve learned that we have to believe three things; God exists, God is capable of hearing our prayers and God cares about our prayers. This is called faith, and a basic requirement of being a Christian. We’ve come to understand the best reason to pray is because Jesus did. We’ve also discovered that not all Jesus’ prayers were answered the way he wanted them to be, so why should we expect all our prayers to be answered the way we want?
We’ve explored seemingly opposing scripture; one in which God says, ‘I the Lord do not change.’(Malachi 3:6) Another where God says, ‘My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused I will not carry out my fierce anger.” (Hosea 11:8) We’ve learned that our prayers do change the mind of God, based on what we read in scripture. When God told King Hezekiah, through the prophet Isaiah, that he was going to die, Hezekiah prayed, “Remember, O Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with whole hearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” God changed His mind and Hezekiah lived for 15 more years. (2 Kings 20:1-5) We’ve come to understand that when we pray for healing for ourselves or a loved one, that healing may come when they go home to God.
John the apostle wrote in 1 John 4 that God is love. God does not merely have love or feel love. God is love and is unable to not love. Because God’s character is love, God answers our prayers with what is best for us and what is best for the people we pray for.
Jesus tells us to be persistent in prayer, to continue to ask, seek and knock. We are to be persistent because God wants to be asked. He wants to be pursued, like the parable of the persistent neighbor. Philip Yancey writes “Persistent prayer keeps bringing God and me together, with important benefits. As I pour out my soul to God, I unload some of my burden to the One who can handle it better than I. What I learn from spending time with God then better equips me to discern what God wants to do on earth, as well as my role in that plan.” (page 152)
We learned today that no emotion we are feeling has not been felt by humans since the beginning of creation. We may learn from reading prayers that someone else has prayed, yet when we cry out to God in our own words, from our authentic self, that’s what God wants to hear. Building a relationship with God, a speaking, listening relationship, an intimate personal relationship, is God’s desire. And we learned that when God is silent, we must have patience in our waiting and God will reward us for our patience.
I’ll leave you with a final thought from Philip Yancey. “Prayer invites us to rest in the fact that God is in control, and the world’s problems are ultimately God’s, not ours. If I spend enough time with God, I will inevitably begin to look at the world with a point of view that more resembles God’s own. What is faith, after all, but believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse?” (page 210)
In other words, trust God with what He is doing in the world. When we look back we see that He is working out His plan. However, we are the workers in that plan, and prayer does make a difference.
Pastor Rosemary DeHut
References: Yancey, Philip (2006). Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan