Eavesdropping on Prayer-Challenged Pastors

How might it change our prayer lives if we really, really believed – with every ounce of our being – that the God Who created Heaven and Earth was actually listening to every word we said? And I don’t mean “listening” in the sense of possessing a highly-distracted level of vague-but-not-urgent interest in the affairs of our daily lives, as if we were bothering Him with mind-numbing details “unworthy” of the attention of the president of a decidedly-large corporation. No, what I mean is, “What would your prayer life look like if Jesus Himself was sitting across the breakfast table from you like an old friend, sharing a cup of coffee and focusing intently on each and every word that was coming out of your mouth?”

As Christians, I think it is far too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that God “really has better things to take care of” than our pesky little lives. “I mean, after all,” we reason, “Jesus is upholding all of creation by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3) and at the same time writing the names of the redeemed into the Lamb’s Book of Life (Revelation 21:27), separating the goats from the sheep (Matthew 25:31-46), and preparing Himself for That Great Day when He will ride out on a white horse with a sword coming out of His mouth (Revelation 19:11-15). He must be really busy!” As fallen, frail, sinful human beings, perhaps we imagine that the very best we can hope for is to “offer up a bunch of stuff” and have Him sift through its contents, hanging onto anything that fits into His master plan and tossing the rest into the trash.

Of course, our Christian doctrine tells us that God knit us together in the wombs of our mothers (Psalm 139:13), that He (Jesus) constantly intercedes for us with the Father (Romans 8:34), that not a sparrow falls apart from God’s will (Matthew 10:29), and that He is keeping every one of our tears in a bottle (Psalm 56:8). These are most definitely not the promises of Someone Who can’t be bothered to care about the details of our lives.

But perhaps when we look at the condition of our own soul, count up the many personal failings we have charged to our account, and consider in how many different ways we have blown it (both with God and our fellow man), the temptation is strong to despair that God really does care for us and wants to have a personal relationship with us; the very idea that He would actually enjoy spending time with us may seem almost laughable.

Or perhaps we are tempted to think that God can’t possibly care about the details of our lives if He hasn’t “cared enough” to answer prayers that have been desperately, earnestly lifted up to Him, in the precise manner we would like?

As you read this, I am personally struggling with God over my own life of prayer. Without going into a lot of detail, it comes down to God (in my words) “not answering” a very specific prayer that I have been lifting up to Him for almost three years. Of course, as a fallen individual with more than his fair share of personal failings, I have been offering this prayer up with a preset expectation of what it will look like for that particular prayer to be answered. I have not been at all open to the idea that God may have already answered my prayer, that the deliverance I seek has already been accomplished, and/or that He has simply chosen to respond to my prayer with an outcome not at all in line with my expectations. The result, as I have confessed to others, is that I can sense that my own heart of prayer has hardened, and that I have been moving away from Him since He chose not bend to my will.

Even as I write this, I realize that to turn my heart from God, to allow myself to feel betrayed because He has not given me precisely what I want, is suicidal insanity. It completely ignores the character of God as revealed in the Bible, those verses I mentioned earlier. Trusting myself (instead of an all-knowing, all-powerful God) to know which prayers should be answered and which should be ignored is the absolute height of stupidity and unbelief. Naming it as such is powerful, and (I think) the first step in changing course. Confessing it to others and to God has had the very beneficial effect of exposing a hardened heart to the tender mercies of forgiveness.

And, as always, God is faithful.

Just about the time that I figured out what an idiot I was being by holding my prayer life hostage to God fulfilling the specific request that I had already laid before Him, I “just happened” to find an old e-mail that contained a link to audio, video and transcript files culled from the Desiring God 2011 Pastor’s Conference on Prayer. “Coincidentally,” I happen to be the sort of person that responds very well when people talk about their own personal struggles and failures, and if you will take time to listen to these files, you will find world-class Christian leaders confessing how they, too, struggle in their lives of prayer. Oddly, the net effect in my own heart has been encouragement; if these guys are having trouble with prayer, too, maybe I can learn something.

If anyone reading this has, like Jacob, contended with God (Genesis 32:24-30), specifically over the crushing disappointment of “unanswered” prayer, or has failed miserably to engage a consistent life of prayer for themselves and their family, I would strongly encourage you to listen to every single one of these presentations, if possible. You may be tempted to think something along the lines of, “Well, this is a pastor’s conference, after all…I’m sure much of it will be over my head.” Not true. Make the investment of time; it will surely be worth it. I am reluctant to single out any of these presentations as “better” than another as they are all excellent, approaching prayer life from various different angles, but if you must select only one, go for the panel discussion (Speaker Panel with Beeke, Miller, Chan, Rankin, and Piper). If you start there, I suspect it will increase your appetite to hear more.

How odd that the Lord, who I am tempted to think does not truly care about the nitty-gritty details of my life, should ordain that I would receive a new laptop for my work at the University. How strange that, exactly when I had achieved the height of despair over unanswered prayer, that I should be forced to clean out old e-mail folders and happen upon a link to this conference, given to me several weeks prior (and promptly ignored). Stranger still that various other uncontrollable circumstances should be shaped such that I found the time to listen to one file…then another…then another. Indeed, He does seem to have His eye on the sparrow…and on my greatest need right now. Great is Your faithfulness, Lord!

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