Prayer that Hurts

Like you, I pray lots of different prayers. Joyful prayer when a long-awaited request is granted. Pleading prayer when in a tight spot. Tearful prayer when the heart is broken.

pleading prayerAnd then there’s prayer for others when you care about them. When we care enough to hurt.

It’s the kind of prayer mentioned in one of Paul’s letters:

“Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.” -‭‭Colossians‬ ‭4:12‬ ‭ESV‬‬

That word struggling is the Greek word “agōnizomai” from which we get our word “agonize.” I picture Epaphras on his knees, tears streaming, imploring God on behalf of his friends at the Colossian church: “Would You strengthen them to stand mature and fully assured in Your will O God!”

I’ll be honest: it’s easy for me to agonize in prayer when it comes to my own needs. There are times I definitely shed tears over things that are troubling me, and I implore God to deliver me from circumstances that are beyond my control.

But to agonize for others? To shed tears over their well being? That doesn’t come naturally.

It’s happened at times for my wife and my children. There are times when I so want good for them that it churns me up on the inside. Maybe that’s a step toward agonizing prayer.

And occasionally it happens as I pray for the flock at church – I see the pull of culture and the dead ends people pursue as the Enemy lures them, and I pray fervently (maybe even agonizingly) for God’s deliverance from these clutches. On a few occasions I have said to God, “If you give me tears to cry for these people, I will cry them.” Maybe that’s a form of agonizing prayer.

I have to say that in my limited experience, agonizing prayer is draining. Maybe that’s why I don’t do it very often. Weeping and pleading make a withdrawal on my emotional tank. BUT – and this is huge – it makes a deposit in the spiritual tank of someone else.

As Epaphras did for his loved ones. As many others have done for me.

Just yesterday someone told me they had been praying for me “intensely” for the last 24 hours. What a gift!

Whenever I sense the Lord drawing me into fervent, even agonizing prayer for someone, my first thought is – I don’t know what to say. Here again Epaphras helps us – he prayed for two significant things:

That they would stand mature. The Greek word for “mature” has a number of senses: complete, finished, not lacking any moral quality. We can’t go wrong asking that others would grow in their moral conduct.

Pray against spiritual immaturity, self-centeredness, and idolatry. Our world is in desperate need of those who walk so closely with God that their lives radiate His purity, love and truth. Pray that for those you love.

That they would stand fully assured in all the will of God. Wouldn’t you love to be in the zone where you are fully confident you are in God’s will and favor, nothing can succeed against you, you have all the resources you need for whatever assignment God gives you?

Pray that for those you love. Pray that they would successfully navigate the minefield of the world’s distractions and stay firmly tied to God’s perfect will for them (Romans 12:2).

It is a great privilege to come before the sovereign God of the universe in prayer.

It’s a great privilege to ask God to do good in the lives of those we care about.

And, it’s a good thing to sometimes pray so hard it hurts.

Question: What experience have you had with agonizing prayer?

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Facing What is Overwhelming

A new year lies ahead – uncharted territory full of potential and pitfalls, opportunity and obstacles.

matterhorn-968_1920What do you do when you face an obstacle?

Depending on the size of the obstacle, we may become angry, frantic, and demanding. Or sometimes we get discouraged and give up. Either way we miss out on the opportunity.

It could be a financial debt that seems insurmountable. A client who asks too many questions. A son or daughter who can’t seem to make wise decisions.

Me? One of my biggest obstacles is my to-do list – every day I seem to have more things that need to be done than I have time to work on the list. And the resulting frustration can freeze me in my tracks, meaning I make no progress and possibly miss out on the greatest opportunities of the day.

Let me suggest a different way to approach our obstacles – actually, a different way to think about them. It’s found in one of King David’s Psalms.

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;

I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;

like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.

-Psalms 131:1-3

There are several helpful principles here, and I’m going to write them in the first person, in terms of what I choose to do, because that’s where I need to live with these truths.

1 – I set aside my pride. I need to not puff up my heart or my vision and think I can do more than I can. I can’t fix everything, and I certainly can’t fix things in the timeframe that I might like to. I must realize and embrace my limitations. I’m only human. Pride projects me into a false reality where I’m supposed to be Superman. By setting aside my pride, I open my eyes to see reality.

2 – I don’t fixate on what is beyond me.There are obstacles in my life that are too big for me. There are simply some circumstances I cannot change, or can’t change on the timeline I would like. I will need help with these – from another person, or from God Himself. I may need help with the task, or I may need help with my attitude. Admit these limitations, stop trying to change them myself, and move on.

3 – I calm my soul. Our souls are the “brustish,” animal-like part of us. The part that reacts by instinct rather than responding rationally. When we are overwhelmed by obstacles, our souls often become fearful, anxious, even angry. King David said he “calmed and quieted his soul, like a weaned child with its mother.” The contrast of a weaned child is a screaming, demanding infant – one that is hungry and wants its food NOW, maybe because it’s fearful the hunger is not going to be satisfied. A weaned child with its mother is calm and quiet, because he now trusts that he will be fed and have his needs met.

When my soul wails and demands relief from hunger or tension or fear RIGHT NOW, I need to remember that I can trust my heavenly Father to satisfy my need, to stay with me through the challenge, to help me face this obstacle in His perfect timing.

Letting go of what is beyond my ability frees me to do what is within my ability.

Next time you face something that’s bigger than you can handle, become aware if you are trying to force your way through, or if you are giving up. Consider a third alternative: that of letting go of what you can’t do, embracing God’s provision in your life, and pressing forward with what He has empowered you to do.

Question: What helps you trust the Lord when you are overwhelmed?

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Measuring Your Progress

Here we are a few weeks into the new year, and many of us are evaluating how we are doing as we seek to pursue new habits. How are you doing?

fingers-1850183_1920 (1)I think I have been using a false measurement of whether I am making progress in my personal habits. I tend to think that if I’m pursuing the “right” habits, resistance should lessen. That the struggles will diminish in intensity. That life will get easier.

After all, if I’m pursuing the right things, shouldn’t life go more “right”?

What I’m finding, after multiple decades, is that life doesn’t seem to get easier. And, confound it, my struggles seem to stay frustratingly consistent. But what is changing over time, albeit slowly, is how I respond to the struggles.

Christmas week this year was a good example. At several points, I found myself feeling very low, even though circumstantially everything was good. We enjoyed a visit with Sherri’s mom and sister, lots of relaxing time, and plenty of good Christmas food.

But my emotions were inexplicably drawn back to dark days of my childhood, when holidays were anything but merry. They were full of the angst of a depressed parent, holiday expectations disappointed, and a lot of loneliness.

When these past feelings are triggered, I tend to go into a downward spiral in the present. I withdraw and rehearse my pain inwardly, thinking that might make it go away.

But I experienced something different this year. While the pain felt intense, I sensed something different – God’s Presence with me. A key verse for me this year has been Psalm 46:1 –

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.

In the midst of the pain, I silently prayed, “God, I can’t make these feelings go away. I’m not sure if I should spend time sorting through them, or move on to something distracting, or exactly what I should do right now. But I know You are right here with me, and there is much more to my life than what I feel. I trust You to walk with me through this.

What happened on more than one occasion is that I felt a surge of internal strength to press forward in my day. To move toward a family member and connect in conversation. To go to God’s Word for more encouragement. To tackle a task.

Maybe your area of personal growth is not living past your feelings. Maybe for you it’s eating better, or serving others more, or watching your language.

Whatever area of growth you are pursuing, I encourage you to use the right measurement of growth: not that your struggle is becoming easier, but that your response to the struggle is maturing.

Then you can say with me:

I’m not what I want to be, but I’m not what I used to be.”

This kind of growth is best measured over the long term. You won’t see it in the first month of the new year. But I encourage you to look back over previous years, maybe pull out an old journal if you keep one and read a few entries. Don’t be frustrated when you encounter the same struggle, just be encouraged if you see yourself responding differently when it comes around again.

Question: what helps you see your progress over the long term?

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