Thursday, January 06, 2005

Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 3

If you're like me, you probably took the time during the Holiday season to watch the Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful Life. The story line of the movie has a significant pivot point when its hero, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, despondent over cash missing from the Building and Loan's account and certain that he's facing prison, goes to Martini's Tavern. There, George gets drunk and through desperate tears, sobs out a prayer. "I'm not a praying man," he confesses, but he asks God for help.

George's friends, Nick the bartender and Mr. Martini, are concerned to see him in such a state. They try to convince George to let someone take him home. George resists and starts to leave. "Please, Mr. Bailey," Martini pleads, "you don't look so good."

A guy standing at the bar wonders what Bailey this is. When told, "This is Mr. George Bailey," the guy, husband to a teacher George had rudely told off a short time before, decks George. Apparently convinced that the sock he received was God's answer to his prayers, George runs to a nearby bridge, preparing to drown himself.

An angel sent to help George during his crisis assured George that the slug wasn't God's answer to his prayers. Instead, the angel, Clarence, insists that he is God's answer. Through a good portion of the rest of the movie, George is unconvinced that Clarence is God's answer to his prayers or his problems. Or, George thinks that if he is the answer to prayers, Clarence is the sort of rotten answer he might expect in his miserable life.

Instead of accepting this answer to his prayer, George fights to get out of the situation in which the angel places him. At this, George proves to be just as helpless as he'd been when trying to find the missing money earlier in the evening.

In the first two installments of this series, I've said that even if you feel hesitant about making prayer a regular part of your life and even if you have doubts about prayer, you should go ahead and pray anyway.

But before plunging ahead to discuss prayer further, I need to tell you one thing and I need to warn you of another.

The thing to be told: Not all prayer is about asking God for things. More on that in a later post.

The thing of which I want to warn you: You won't always like God's answers to your prayers.

George Bailey didn't like it when Clarence showed up as God's answer to his prayers. He didn't like the way Clarence answered his prayers either.

But, as the fictional George Bailey learned, God's answers are usually better than the ones we want Him to give to our prayers.

Besides, if in faith and desperation we genuinely ask God to do His will and submit to His greater wisdom, we can hardly squawk when He does things differently than we expect.

I have learned that it can be dangerous to pray, especially to pray, "Your will be done."

The last thing I ever wanted to be was a pastor. I was intent on a career in politics from the time I was a little boy. But after I fell in love with Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, back when I was in my mid-twenties, I prayed, "God, Your will be done."

I haven't always meant it, mind you. But I've wanted to mean it. When God hears from imperfect people (like me) and they say that they want to want what God wants for their lives, God considers their intentions and then says, "Okay. If you want My will for your life, here it is."

I didn't want to be a preacher. But God made me a preacher. I love it.

I didn't want to live in a small town. But on my seminary internship, in spite of my pleading with God, I ended up in a small town. We loved it.

I didn't want to live in a rural area. But for six years, my family and I had corn, soybeans, and the church grave yard as our closest neighbors. We loved it. In fact, we loved it so much that I would often pray, "Lord, let us stay here for the rest of our lives."

Then one day, at home for lunch, our telephone rang. It was someone from southern Ohio, asking me if I'd be interested in starting a new congregation in the Cincinnati area. We've been here for fourteen years now.

I can confidently tell you that if you will begin the adventure of regular prayer, you won't always like the answers you get.

You may be familiar with the story of a man named Jonah in the Old Testament portion of the Bible. One day, God told Jonah to go to a city called Nineveh and to tell its residents that God was totally disgusted with their nastiness and sin. Because of it, God wanted Jonah to say, God would soon destroy the city.

Jonah was resistant to this directive from God. Why? As it develops, for two reasons. One is easy to imagine: Jonah hated the Ninevites. He didn't want to have anything to do with them.

But there was a second reason for Jonah's unwillingness to go to Nineveh. It comes out after God finally forces him to go to the city and spread this message about God's displeasure. The result was incredible! Not knowing whether God would forgive or change His mind about them, the Ninevites genuinely rejected all their evils and asked God for forgiveness. God changed His mind and Nineveh was spared.

This irked Jonah. He hated the Ninevites. He hated seeing them have a relationship with God and changing their lives for the better. We're told:

...this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, ‘O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ (Jonah 4:1-3)

Jonah was disappointed because God is merciful and kind and willing to forgive. He hadn't wanted to go to Nineveh for fear the Ninevites would turn from their sins and get to live.
Seeing how things turned out, Jonah prays: "Just kill me," he tells God.

So, how do you suppose the God Who takes us at our word when we claim to be praying submissively to Him responded to Jonah's prayer? He let Jonah live and observe Nineveh as it thrived and grew, now sound of heart and soul.

As the book ends, Jonah is sullen. But the God Who was patient and slow to anger with Nineveh, exhibited these same traits toward His reluctant preacher. That's just the way God is, it seems. And I say that from personal experience!

So, if you really are intent on praying, be prepared to get answers you don't want.

[Also see:

Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 1

Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 2]

No comments: