“Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17) has been the yearlong theme for a group that meets monthly. Last month I shared a few thoughts on “praying without pitfalls.”
Distractions: When I constantly lose my focus in prayer. With prayer come distractions. Not only do our minds race from one thought to another with impeccable speed, these thoughts often center on matters that are undone, unsolved, or uncomfortable. Adding to this, we have a formidable enemy whose strong intent is to keep Christ followers from praying. Many suggest having a piece of paper nearby to jot down these wandering to-do thoughts so as to refocus on prayer. This is helpful. May I suggest another option? Try praying that very distraction, as minor as you think it may be. Pray it. I’ve often found that these seeming “rabbit trails” were the very paths of concern God wanted me to take in my communing with him. These times reveal more of myself to me. He asks questions such as, “What is it about that task or chore that draws your concern away from me? or “Are you more worried with what others think than what I think?” Answering these questions isn’t easy, but in them I discover the gracious patience, acceptance, and guidance God offers.
Distortions: When I don’t have God’s perspective on prayer. Many are familiar with the acronym A-C-T-S for a guide to praying. One can start with Adoration, followed by Confession, and Thanksgiving, and concluding with Supplication (asking). The sequence of this guide is interesting. Adoring God for who he is and recognizing aspects of his character and attributes reminds us of his majesty. When reminded of our lack, we are led to Confession. We acknowledge the chasm that exists between us and God, knowing that sin is anything that gets in the way of our knowing or expressing a reconciled relationship between us and God or us with one another. Anything. Then oftentimes a sudden jump is made to Thanksgiving as we list those blessings from God. Here I wonder if a tighter connection is meant between these two. After confession we receive complete forgiveness, so perhaps high on the gratitude list should be the acknowledgement of God’s giving his son and thoughts about what was entailed in that. All of his many blessings pale in the light of this gift. God knows we are needy people and he delights in giving good gifts to his children, so he wants us to pray and ask. Thanksgiving reminds us that God is the giver of everything and the one on whom we are completely dependent. Giving thanks to him reveals a dependent heart.
Perhaps the most frequented element of prayer, and sometimes the only part we pray, is Supplication, the asking for things. Sometimes we can dutifully pray the Adoration—Confession—Thanksgiving components in order to approach our supplications guilt-free. Perhaps it’s our selfish nature, our culture, or how we have learned to pray, but if we believe prayer to be primarily a way to receive what we ask for, God simply becomes our own personal Santa Claus. We climb up on his lap, hand him our wish list of wants, and expect him to fill the list. If God’s answer is not what we asked for or expected, prayer is deemed unworthy of our time, energy, or emotion. We become people more concerned with how God is serving us than how we are serving him.
I challenge my students to spend time in prayer, specifically focusing on Adoration, Confession, and Thanksgiving, without addressing Supplication. Reflections from these times are eye opening. Some discovered their lack in knowing how to adore God. Others find that their relationship with God has been based on what He gives them. Any one-sided conversation that is focused on asking for things reveals a friendship based on receiving. When more attention is focused on the A, C, and T, there is a heightened affirmation of the truth of God’s presence, power, care, and involvement. Subsequently, supplications become fewer and less pressing. Let this periodic exercise impact your regular prayer life.
Disillusionment: When God doesn’t seem to answer. Prayer is not only concerned with the well-being of the one who prays but also with a desire for the will of God to be done and for glory and honor to be brought to his name. I can approach God in anger, in want, in frustration, or in praise. He is big enough to take it all, and I am changed as I leave that time with God in prayer. Praying indicates I am genuinely convinced of his wisdom, love, goodness, and power. To pray without ceasing is a humbling process, and can be a particularly long one.
My husband and I were married for almost thirty years when his mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Norm became a Christian as an adult and is the only Christian in his family, so far. Sometimes this created difficult family situations. Seemingly, as our relationship with Christ grew, so did his family’s resentment. The most difficult relationship existed between my mother-in-law and me. Criticisms and demeaning remarks became an expected part of our visits to their home. I often asked God why he would give me a mother-in-law who didn’t care about me. I tried letting her comments and criticisms “roll off my back,” but to no avail. If anything, her remarks were like barbed hooks that tore at my heart.
For years I would take this to God in prayer. I prayed for her salvation, for the right heart attitude and words to say to her, and for the strength to love her. I also prayed for reminders of his love for me. There were times however, when prayer didn’t seem to work. Disappointment with her and disappointment in God made me wonder if my prayers for our relationship had fallen on deaf ears and into powerless hands. I grew tired of praying for her and would confess that I had no love for her. Nearly three decades of riding on this roller coaster of dutiful love for God, rationalized ambivalence, self-preservation, and hopelessness came to a strong corrective at the end of 2006.
My mother-in-law’s diagnosis of cancer required her to have frequent doctor’s appointments, which her husband faithfully attended with her. One morning as I sat in my prayer chair in our living room, reading my Bible, God redirected my attention to thoughts of my mother-in-law. With his gentle voice, he asked me to call my mother-in-law. At first I discounted it as something I must have been imagining. When I sensed the same request again, I refused with, “I am sitting here reading your Word. Wouldn’t you rather me do that?” His request came again. Reluctantly I got up out of my chair and walked all the way to the kitchen (all of twenty-three steps) to call her. I anticipated leaving a voice message.
She was almost out the door for her doctor’s appointment when her phone rang. To my surprise, she answered. After a brief greeting, she asked why I called. My answer was, “I just wanted to tell you that I love you.” I was not ready for her reply. “I love you, too.” That was it and that was enough. Words I never thought I would hear were said. Decades of sadness and regret were beginning to be redeemed. He had heard my prayer.
Two weeks before her death, her decline seemed particularly marked, as her physical body deteriorated from the cancer ravaging within her. She was able to respond only with nods of her head and a periodic wave of her hand. I made it a point to touch her, speak loudly into her ear, stroke her hand, and kiss her. On the evening of Easter 2007, my husband and children surrounded her and shared the gospel message with her. God had cleared the room of any disruption that could impair her ability to hear this message. Each of us played a part—reciting a psalm or a passage, telling her of the love of God and the reason for Easter. Our daughter, Cami, explained the gospel and invited her to respond by squeezing her hand. I don’t believe Cami had ever received a more meaningful, life-changing squeeze. Three days later, my mother-in-love was ushered into the presence of God, where she was able to see firsthand his glorious majesty. I cannot help but think that she must have been amazed to finally discover that what her son’s family had believed about God is actually true. Prayer has that effect: proving God is real.
Distractions, distortions, and disillusionment need not be obstacles in our pursuit of more intimate communication with God. Being alert and aware of these pitfalls can foster a deeper, more meaningful time as we pray without ceasing.