“Let me pray about that.”
How often do you find yourself saying that? Or hearing others say that? This line usually follows a request that you do something, or comes with regards to a decision you have to make.
Prayer is important. I’ve always been told to pray about everything. And rightly so. The Bible says to “pray unceasingly” (1 Thess 5:17). But something I read in a book recently made me think about the kind of prayers I pray.
The author talks about King Saul and his battles against the Philistines as chronicled in the book of 1 Samuel. In Chapter 7, the house of Israel was given a promise that if they return to the LORD with all their hearts, rid themselves of foreign gods and commit themselves to the Lord and serve Him only, God would deliver them out of the hand of the Philistines (7:3). Fast-forward a bit, and we see that King Saul has under his command a army of men who are willing to put their trust in God and go to war against the Philistines. One day, the Philistine assembled for battle, and Saul’s army was terrified. Saul was to wait for Samuel to offer the burnt offerings to the Lord, so that He would grant them His favour, but the appointed time for Samuel to arrive came and went, and some of Saul’s troops left out of fear. As Saul watched his numbers dwindle, his confidence also weakened. He decided that he would offer the burnt offerings himself, and just as he had finished, Samuel appeared and reprimanded him for doing so. Saul had disobeyed clear instructions to wait for Samuel to arrive and had taken things into his own hands. As a result, his kingdom was taken from him – the kingship would be passed onto David, who was not part of his lineage. God had spoken clearly, but Saul had not obeyed.
Sometimes, God speaks clearly, and there is a time to wait for Him to show up. We pray and wait on the Lord, and that is our obedience.
But sometimes, the way we are to obey is to act. Later on, Saul’s son, Jonathan, decides to confront the Philistines on his own, with his armour-bearer. They sneak away from the camp, most likely because his father, King Saul, would not have approved of the move. Now, Jonathan was fully confident in God’s character – that He is a God who keeps His promises, that He is a God who is mighty to save, and that He is a God who can be trusted. God didn’t speak to him and give him a specific time to go and meet the Philistines. In fact, when Jonathan goes up, he tells his armour-bearer, whom he has brought with him, “Let’s go. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf.” PERHAPS. He was either completely foolish or completely trusting of who God is. God shows up and grants them favour, and back at camp, Saul and his troops awaken to the sound of battle. When they realise what is going on, Saul calls the priest to bring the ark of God to pray. But as they do, they hear things getting crazier in the battle, and Saul realises that it’s time to fight and, in essence, it was not a time to sit and pray.
That’s a strange thing to hear, isn’t it? That it wasn’t time to pray? I’ve grown up with tag lines like, “There’s always time for prayer.” And that isn’t wrong – we have to be careful with the linguistic nuances here. Yes, we are to be praying unceasingly, but there are times of prayer that are set aside specifically for prayer – times when you bring the ark of God out and seek Him fervently in prayer, and there are also times when you’ve got to be doing something but you keep talking to God as you do it. If we confuse those two times, we can miss out on what God is doing.
The author, Erwin McManus, puts it like this: “To live a prayerless life is to miss the life that God created you to experience. Yet there are times when prayer can become a religious veil for an empty life.”
So back to the title of this post. I was trying to think of times when I have used or tend to use prayer as a “religious veil” – times when it is clear what God wants me to do, and yet I am still simply praying about it. I definitely have not decided to stop praying, but I have decided not to pray certain kinds of prayers – in particular, I’ve decided not to pray prayers that go like this: “Dear God, please help me to be more disciplined / avoid temptation / be more loving / etc.”
Why? Well, I don’t think there’s anything wrong in praying those prayers, but I have noticed that when I pray them, I have this subconscious expectation that God is somehow going to show up and turn me into some sort of superwoman who will suddenly be super disciplined or not tempted by anything at all or full of ooeygooey love for everyone. I believe God can do that, but more often than not, that’s not how He works. The thing is, when I pray those prayers, I’m waiting – I’m waiting for something to show up to help me do the things I’m asking. But the directives are clear: discipline yourself, flee from temptation, show love to others. There really is nothing to wait for, and nothing magical about it – you just do it.
“But, but, but… I can’t! I’m too weak! I need God’s strength!” Yeah, you betcha. But here’s what I’m learning: God’s strength comes as we obey. More often than not, I expect to pray and then suddenly feel a rush of superhuman, divine strength, confident that I’ll be able to face the challenge. Nope. But as I obey, I am made stronger. The strength I pray for comes through obedience.
So when God speaks, keep praying, yes, but also act. Be more disciplined? Force yourself to do what you need to do, when you need to do it. The more you do it, the easier it gets. Habits start to form, and your prayers have been answered. Facing temptation? Don’t stop in the place of temptation and pray for the strength to resist! Just run! As you keep running, you will be strengthened as you realise that you have the power to flee from it. Struggling to love? Start doing small acts of kindness. Find concrete ways to practice love. It may feel mechanical and even kind of fake at first, but it will change you.
See, the thing is, these sorts of prayers require some effort on our part, too. I tend to think that God just zaps me with His mighty finger and everything changes, but again, while He can certainly do that if He chooses to, most of the time He works through human effort. It’s much less glamorous to my fairytale-inclined mind, but it ensures that we are being transformed, not just given some special power ups that can run out after a period of time.
Faith in action. That’s essentially what obedience is. And it brings about greater faith. So pray – pray for strength, pray for greater resolve, pray for love and patience; but beware of hiding behind those prayers in wait for a magic bolt of lightning. If you know what you are to do, don’t stop and say, “Hold on, let me pray about that.” Just do it.