Thursday, February 7, 2008

Persistence in prayer

This is a blog that has been brewing for a while. Sometimes we wonder, "why doesn't God answer my prayers RIGHT NOW? I need him NOW, not later!" While I don't imagine that I have the answer to this question, I do want to share what I've learned.

The story people usually point to is the death of Lazarus in John 11--Jesus could have shown up before Lazarus died, but instead he waited. And John is even good enough to tell you why he waited--so that we may believe (v 15), see God's glory (v 40), and know that God sent Jesus (v 42).

The problem I have with this story is that if you're Lazarus, it's no fun being dead. And to be honest, his sisters probably weren't praying for Lazarus to be raised. Martha had faith that Lazarus would be raised when the ressurection came, but she had given up for the time being. So it's more a story about God's timing vs our timing, than about persistence in prayer.

The story that struck me recently was Jonah. We all know he was in the belly of the whale for three days, but do you know what he was doing down there? Yup, praying. So why didn't God have the whale/fish spit him out immediately?

I've heard some people say that Jonah's heart was so hard that it took him three days to start praying. Somehow I doubt that--I have a feeling he started sending up prayers as soon as he was thrown in the sea. And there is support for that from the grammar--the verb tense of "prayed" in 1:17 is imperfect, which means it was continuous or unfinished....I tend to think of it as continuous!

I think there were a couple of reasons God waited. First, so that Jonah could realize how he got himself in this mess to begin with. Now, not all of our situations are due to our own sin like Jonah's was, but our situations do have a history.

Secondly, I think it helped Jonah realize that his only salvation was God, and that he didn't deserve it. Jonah knew he had done wrong; 2:4 shows that he knew he was banished, and he still looked to the "holy temple."

There are times when I think we think (how's that for convoluted) that we DESERVE something from God, yet in all honesty, we're sinners and deserve nothing. It's kind of like at the end of Jonah--God gave him a vine to shelter him and it made him happy, but he didn't thank God, and was angry when God took it away. I know I'm tempted to give God a list of reasons of why he should give me what I want, but really the only good reason is because God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love (Jonah 4:2). It's not about me; it's all about God.

But wait, there's more! Jonah 2 has two more reasons. Verse 8 says, "Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs." Wow. That's convicting. So I guess when I'm waiting on God, I better examine for logs in my eye--is there something I'm putting in front of God in my own life? Is there something God's asked me to do (like giving a message to someone (cough, Ninevah, cough)) that I haven't done? The "worthless idols" is "lying vanities" in the King James--am I being too self absorbed and vain?

The last element in Jonah's prayer is thanksgiving: "But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving, I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD.” I don't think this was Henry and Harmony's "and thank you for this day and for this morning" kind of thanksgiving; rather it was a SACRIFICE of thanksgiving. Really turning your heart over to God and giving him thanks for the circumstance, even when it's ugly and definitely not what we want. It's giving thanks in the hard times, in all circumstances.

So while hanging out in the belly of a whale at the bottom of the sea for three days and nights is not my idea of fun, I do think God uses that time to grow our faith--to show us the bigger picture of our circumstance, to help us realize that God is really our only salvation and there is nothing we can do to deserve his mercy, to give us a chance to clean our junk, and to show us what sacrificial thanksgiving looks like. None of those are "fun" lessons at the time, but discipline shows us that God loves us and cultivates wisdom.

Man, that was a novel! But it was good for me to work through that. Thanks if you made it all the way through ;)

Lord, thank you that you do answer prayer, that you are slow to anger and abounding in love. Thanks for the example of Jonah, and help me to do what you ask of me without having to spend time in a stinky whale belly. Thank you that you discipline your children whom you love, and help us to accept it and grow from it.


Jen said...

The other thing I love about the length of time Jonah spent in the belly of the whale was the whole 3 day refernce to Jesus being raised after 3 days. It's long enough that a normal person would give up, thinking they're "fish food." But, God can do ANYTHING. Cough Jonah up on dry land, raise Jesus from the dead, raise up praise in our dead hearts, bring life to our withering bones...He's so great that way!
Good post!

mexicanmasala said...

You're absolutely right. I believe, as cliche as it sounds, everything God has in store for us has a reason or purpose. I've realized recently that our most devastating experiences help us to connect with others in similar situations later on in life. Even my own hardships have helped me see needs for certain ministries in our church, so God's own clock has us growing even though it doesn't feel like it.

Lynn said...


This is an excellent post. Oh, how I wish I had understood this as a young woman. I sure would have done a ton more praying and a lot less complaining.