Sleeping When We Ought to be Praying

Jonah was on the run from God. God had given him a mission that grated against Jonah’s prejudices. Jonah hated Assyrians; God called Jonah to preach to the Assyrians in their capital city of Ninevah. Jonah ran to the port of Joppa and boarded a ship headed for Tarshish (most likely Spain, on the opposite end of the Mediterranean Sea).

Jonah did not hide his plan. He told the crew members he was running away from his God. When a great storm threatened the ship, the crew members prayed to their respective gods for deliverance. They wanted all to pray, and were distressed when they discovered that Jonah was sleeping:

“The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spares us a thought so that we do not perish” (Jonah 1:6 NRSV).

Later, as the storm raged with greater intensity, the sailors drew lots among themselves to determine if one of them was the cause of their misfortune. When Jonah’s lot was drawn, he confessed to them that he was a Hebrew who worshiped “the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (verse 9). His confession disturbed them more because they remembered that he was running from God.
When they asked what they should do to him, Jonah told them to throw him into the sea and that the storm would end. The sailors apparently rejected his idea at first, for they began instead to row harder in their attempt to reach land. When the storm grew even stronger, they reluctantly accepted Jonah’s request. Then, the pagan sailors prayed fervently to Jonah’s God,

“Please, O LORD, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you” (verse 14).

Throughout the book of Jonah, pagans pray to God for forgiveness while the prophet Jonah resists God’s direction. In this first chapter, the sailors first urge God’s reluctant prophet to wake up and pray, then express their fear of shedding innocent blood (Jonah’s, in the event his actions had not caused the storm) in their own prayer to the prophet’s God. Their actions should have been a “wake-up call” (forgive the pun) for Jonah. Why were unbelievers urging him to pray rather than receiving that exhortation from him? Why was their sensitivity to God’s will more well developed than his own? Why was Jonah sleeping when he should have been praying? The answer to the last question may be inferred rather easily. Jonah had already decided that he did not want to follow guidance and had set out with determination to follow his own path. Jonah’s crisis warns modern believers in God and Jesus to evaluate our decisions and actions carefully with God’s will as it is revealed in Scripture. If we want to be sources of spiritual light for our world, we must live ethically and morally. If we fall short in that regard, like Jonah we need to wake up and pray to our God for forgiveness.

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The Impact of Emotion on Prayer

Environment and emotions sometimes shape our prayers as much as a desire to please God. At a gathering of charged-up believers, our prayers may resound with joy and assurance of victory. When a child dies or another interview fails to land a job after months of unemployment, bitterness and anger may creep into our prayers. At times, like the father of a boy in Luke 9 who wished Jesus would heal his son, we can only pray, “We believe. Forgive our unbelief.” Anxiety over failing loved ones, fear that we will not meet a “critical” deadline at work, or shock over a loved one’s sudden stroke also jolt the content and mood of our prayers. As I have reviewed biblical prayers in recent years, I learned that this impact of context on prayer did not begin with us. Heroes of faith like David, Jeremiah, Elijah, and Paul struggled as do we to choose a direction for ministry, to live righteously, and to maintain courage when others fell away.

Lord, give us strength to move forward when doubts threaten to overcome. Heal our hurts; help us to see beyond our selfish desires to discover your will for us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Prayer and Mission

Prayer is a catalyst for mission. Prayer reminds us of God’s power to rescue. As our prayer requests extend beyond our own needs, we realize that others need spiritual healing as well as physical healing. We pray, as Jesus suggested, for God to send workers to accomplish the mission. And, at times, God answers that we should look in the mirror to discover the workers needed for the mission.

Fasting and prayer preceded the church in Antioch sending Paul and Barnabas to evangelize in what are now Turkey and Greece (Acts 13). When imprisoned in Philippi, Paul and Silas sang and prayed to God immediately before an earthquake liberated them and prompted a jailer to believe in Christ and, with his family, be baptized immediately (Acts 16:31-33).

Christians today sometimes define mission as painting houses or working at soup kitchens on winter nights. Those acts indeed open hearts to the message of Jesus, but that message must still be spoken or written clearly to encourage obedience. Prayer and the ministry of the Word, just in Acts 6, remain priorities for Christian evangelists and church leaders.

Lord of the spiritual harvest, Open our eyes to see the need around us. Open our hearts that we may care as you care. Open our ears that we may hear your call through the gospel to teach others. Open our mouths that we may speak truth. Open our hands that we may release what impedes our obedience and that we may reach for what will accomplish what you desire. Open doors that we may walk through them into the places where we are needed most. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Praying for Relief

My life has been packed with travel, learning, teaching, and prayer in recent weeks. I have spoken to groups in Georgia, Tennessee, and Washington (the state). I’ve had a physical fitness test within three weeks of oral surgery (I do not recommend that anyone else try that). During one of our trips, my wife and I learned that my mother had had a stroke. I have learned more about humility and self-denial; I have marveled at how much less time I seem to have. I’ve read the prayers of Jeremiah again as well. His frustration, fear, and anger are obvious as he prays. The prophet served God faithfully, but continued to suffer. His pain, and the apostle Paul’s reflection on how God denied his petition for relief from a “thorn in the flesh,” help me to keep my pain and fear in perspective. Stories of abject suffering in other nations and violence in the United States open my eyes to blessings that I enjoy despite disappointment. Internationally, locally, and personally, it is time to call for fire, to request urgently God’s assistance, to pray fervently for rescue and for healing.

O God, our refuge and defense, we pray for courage and discernment in the midst of busy lives. Even as violence and conflict increase, opponents of your teachings scorn your calls for forgiveness and peace. They laugh at the concept of ethical and moral standards. Help us to recognize the blessings you give us, and to navigate successfully the labyrinth of moral choices that confront us. May we cherish those key relationships that give our lives meaning and substance. When we believe we stand alone, remind us of the love that surrounds and nourishes us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Moving from Prayer from Action

Nehemiah’s prayers give us insight on moving from prayer to action. His despair when he receives devastating news about the plight of Jews who have returned from captivity to a wrecked Jerusalem causes him to weep. Then he prays. In his prayer in Nehemiah 1, he includes the following:

1. Praise for God – “O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands” (Nehemiah 1:8).

2. Confession of sins that he, his family, and his nation have committed – “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you” (Nehemiah 1:6). Sometimes we resist the concept of collective guilt, but Nehemiah groups himself with others in his nation in confessing sin while praying on others’ behalf.

3. A reminder to God of God’s promises to forgive his people when they repent and obey his commands. Note reminding God in our prayers also reminds us what God has promised and what God has done. Nehemiah prays, “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return tome and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people great the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my name” (Nehemiah 1:8-9). Nehemiah’s prayer reveals that he knows the story of God’s relationship with his people – he has read (or heard) the Book! He also reminds God that “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand” (verse 10). the saving God continues to care for those whom he has rescued.

4. He prays specifically that God will grant him success when he pleads his nation’s case before the king of Persia – “Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man” (verse 11).

The second chapter of Nehemiah reveals that when the king asks Nehemiah what is troubling him, Nehemiah seizes the opportunity (after a lightning-quick silent prayer) and explains the wretched situation of his people. He then unveils a plan for his returning to help his people that establishes how long he will be gone, what supplies he will need, and requests security forces and letters of introduction. The king grants the request of this prepared civil servant. When God answered yes to Nehemiah’s prayer for help, Nehemiah was ready to act.

Nehemiah’s prayers and actions give us a template for moving from prayer to action. The template includes knowing God’s Word and his will, humility that allows confession, specific prayer, and preparing so that one can act quickly when God says yes.

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A Post-Labor Day Prayer About Work

“A man can do nothing better than eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This to, I see is from the hand of God” (Ecclesiastes 2:24).

Have you considered your work as a way of serving, even praising, God? Several biblical passages address how work functions as service to God. The writer of Ecclesiastes attributed the ability to find satisfaction in one’s work to God. The apostle Paul counseled workers, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men;, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23-24). He spoke primarily to slaves in that passage, but his thought applies to all who work for a living, especially those who are employed by another. The apostle prefaced those remarks by noting that the worker should work hard at all times, not just when being watched by the employer. Work should be done with “sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord” (Colossians 3:22).

How does this relate to calling for fire in prayer? Sometimes we do not find satisfaction in our work. One may work for a “toxic” supervisor, or be “under-employed” at a task that does not challenge his or her abilities. Many today search for meaningful employment; some have searched so long that they have given up hope. All these need to pray – for sustaining hope, for courage in addressing problems, for opportunity to work. Thank God for the opportunity to work, and pray that you will glorify him through your service. Pray for those who cannot work because of illness or injury, and for those who have not found work yet.

O God, thank you for giving us strength and skill so that we may work. That work helps us provide food, shelter, and clothing for our families. We pray also for employers, that they may listen, that they may care, that they may encourage. Remind us that when we work at honorable occupations, we praise you, who created us with this potential. We pray for those who suffer financially or emotionally because they have no work. Grant them relief from their pain, and return them to work they will enjoy. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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A Prayer for an Unjust Nation Threatened by Terror

He prayed while his contemporaries trusted in rituals and practiced a syncretistic religion that mixed elements of nature religion with nationalism and the worship of God. He prayed while a hostile nation sent its armies to eradicate cities and demoralize populations with sickening brutality. He prayed when he himself had announced that God was judging his people for their unfaithfulness.

The prophet Micah concludes his prophecy with a prayer. He recognizes God’s care and love for his people even as the nation staggers under the impact of military attack. He believes that God will judge the enemies who are punishing his people. He praises the character and reliability of God. He remembers, when it would have been so easy to forget, that God keeps his promises.

He reminds the Lord and his people of God’s historic care, that God is the Shepherd for a flock that needs to feed once more in fertile fields. He prays,

“Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock that belongs to you, which lives alone in a forest in the midst of a garden land; let them feed in Bashan and Gilead as in the days of old. As in the days when you came out of the land of Egypt, show us marvelous things” (Micah 7:14-15).

Micah prays for Judah and Israel, but he prays also for their enemies. He prays, as we might expect, that the enemy will know shame for their actions, and that they will fear God. He prays that they will repent, that trembling, they will recognize the reality of Israel’s God, and in fear begin to worship him. To say that our God is awesome is to confess that it is frightening to be in his presence. Micah’s description of the enemies’ repentance describes their dread as they approach the Lord in reverence. As Hebrews 10:31 notes, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” What Micah and the writer of Hebrews both understood was the holiness of God, a holiness to which he calls his people in both the Old and New Testaments. Micah prays,

“The nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might; they shall lay their hands on their mouths; their ears shall be deaf; they shall lick dust like a snake, like the crawling things of the earth; hey shall come trembling out of their fortresses; they shall turn in dread to the Lord our God, and they shall stand in fear of you” (Micah 7:16-17).

Micah prays to God the Judge, but he also calls upon God as Savior. God abhors unrighteousness, but he also forgives in compassion. There is consequence for rebellion against God, but God will pardon. He has made promises to his people; God keeps his promises even when his people do not. God sees hope for the most disobedient. Horrible acts of genocide, commandeering of property, and religious persecution terrified Micah’s contemporaries when they heard about the enemy’s committing them. Micah prays with confidence that God will judge that evil, but that he will do so in a way that turns the hearts of the enemy towards obedience to God. Micah prays in a time when it seemed there was no hope for the recovery of true worship, justice, or fair treatment of the poor among God’s people, when seemingly barbaric enemies threatened their existence, and prays with hope. God will once again show compassion. He will cast out all sin, but he will show faithfulness to his people.

Micah calls for fire. He calls for justice against brutal enemies. He cries out earlier in his prophecy against unfair business practices and excessive reliance on ritual (Micah 2:1-3; 6:8). He deplores the plight of Israel as Assyrian armies advance. He prays that God will guide his people once more; he prays that God’s judgment will convert the nations; he prays that God will forgive:

“Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. He will again have compassion upon us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and unswerving loyalty to Abraham, as you have sworn to our ancestors from the days of old” (Micah 7:18-20).

May we pray, as Micah prayed, that worshipers of God will practice justice and compassion that is consistent with the character of the God we profess to worship. May we pray, as Micah prayed, that the most barbaric terrorist will learn to fear God in a way that will teach them to love God and to love other people as they love themselves.

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