Sunday, November 25, 2012
UGW 7-8: About Prayer and Finding God's Will
7. But what about the verses that talk about how God knows what we need before we ask, like Matthew 6:8 and Matthew 6:32? Doesn’t this show that we don’t really need to pray for His care, because He’ll care for us anyway, since He knows our needs?
God knows what we need, and He can read our thoughts. (All the more reason to make sure that we set our minds on things above and not on impure, ungodly things.) But once again, it doesn’t say that He responds to our thoughts or that He gives us what we need just because He knows that we need it. We can choose to live apart from God and in self-sufficiency. We can choose to live life sitting back, putting our feet up and saying, “Ok, God, bring on the blessings. . . Look at how well He takes care of me!” Even though we are doing nothing to draw near to Him.
I think (even when we choose self-sufficiency) God does still care for us by sustaining our lives, because our days won’t end until He gives the word. And He sends rain and sunshine for the ungodly as well as the godly. But life could be so much more if we lived in prayer, obedience, and wisdom. If we were driven to pursue Him, instead of just settling for His basic care. Just because He knows our needs doesn’t mean that we will automatically be given abundant life - that we will be truly blessed in the ways that matter - apart from a life of obedience, submission, and abiding in Him.
Matthew 6:8 is not telling us that we don’t need to pray. It’s telling us that we are not to be like the pagans who babble on and on to God. They hoped that their many words would gain God’s attention. We don’t pray to notify God of all our needs, because He knows them before we ask. And we don’t pray to get God’s attention or blessings (because He’s always attentive to our prayers), but He doesn’t owe us blessings because of our “great, lengthy” prayers. We pray to acknowledge that He is God and we are not, to build and maintain our relationship with Him, to turn our concerns over to Him, to invite Him to take action in our lives, to listen to Him, and to get His Will done.
This does not tell us that because God knows our needs, we don’t have to ask. Saying “before you ask” implies that we ask. And immediately following verse 8 is verse 9, which says, “This, then , is how you should pray . . .” So prayer is important, even if God can read our minds.
And Matthew 6:25-32 tells us not to worry about our lives and the things we need. “The pagans run after these things, and your Heavenly Father knows that you need them.” (Verse 32) But, once again, it does not tell us that because He knows what we need, we don’t have to ask. It tells us not to spend our energy chasing after these things, and not to worry that we won’t have what we need. For they will be given to us . . . as we seek His kingdom and righteousness.
“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Verse 33).
We need to be spending our energy chasing after God. And on top of prayer, we need to seek His righteousness and His kingdom if we want to be able to experience the kind of abundant life that He wants to give us.
Shortly after Matthew 6, comes the Ask, Seek, and Knock section, (7:7-11) which again shows the importance of prayer. And shortly before it is the Lord’s Prayer, where He teaches us to pray that God meets our daily needs. (6:11). So prayer really, really does matter!
8. If praying for God’s Will is necessary, then do I have to know the specifics of what to ask for? How do we pray so that His Will gets done?
I think that it’s okay to ask for certain things and to make specific requests, but I also think that God doesn’t always need us to know exactly what to ask for. Because it’s not always about how we want Him to act or answer. God knows the best course of action, so we don’t have to have the details all ironed out before we pray. But we do need to pray. We need to share our concerns with Him and give them over to Him, to be transparent and authentic with Him, to confess our sins, to honestly share our wants and needs, to be sensitive to the Spirit, and to ask for His providence, His wisdom, and His guidance. And we should be asking Him to help us know what to pray - so that when He does impress upon our hearts a specific prayer request, we can hear Him and obey.
Prayer needs to be less about seeking exactly what we want or think we need, and more about seeking Him and being receptive to Him! And as we do this (and remain in the Word), we’ll be guided along in how to “get His Will done” and what to pray for. In fact, sometimes – when I have no idea how to pray about a situation – all I can do is pray this, “Guide and provide, Lord. Just guide and provide.” And then I leave it up to Him. I prayed this a lot during the house hunting process.
(And something that I am just starting to do is to ask Him in the morning, “Is there anything that You want me to know, do, or pray?” And then I try to listen for what He wants to tell me. I have spent way too many years doing all the talking and requesting, and I need to start listening more.)
I’ve heard people say that it doesn’t matter to God what we choose in life, as long as it glorifies Him, and that we don’t need to seek His opinion or His Will on all of our decisions. I agree that we don’t need to run to Him about every decision, like whether we should have the turkey or roast beef sandwich for lunch.
But I do think that if something is important to us, then it’s important to God. And the more of an impact a decision has on our lives, on other people’s lives, and on His kingdom, the more of an opinion God has on it. And we would be wise to seek His advice and opinion on these major decisions, like who we marry, where we live, the jobs we take, etc.
And the more significant the decision, the more likely it is that we will have to spend more time in prayer and more time waiting for God to reveal the next step. Large decisions should not be rushed into. But they should not cause us to panic and sweat, either. As long as we are bringing the issue to Him in prayer, abiding in Him, and living in obedience to His Word, He will clearly reveal the next step when it is time.
[Once again, we need to be willing to be obedient when He makes His Will clear. It might have felt good and godly to search for it, but sometimes we get scared when we are finally called to action. Resist the temptation to walk away from the next step. Pray for strength and boldness. And then, step out in faith, knowing that if God set it up and called you to it, He’ll provide all you need to accomplish whatever He’s asking you to do. And we’ll know what the next step is and the right timing when these three keys match, when they all say the same thing: guidance from inside of us (the leading of the Holy Spirit, our consciences, etc.), indications from the outside (open doors, confirmation from others, etc.), and confirmation from God’s Word. If any of these are not clear or say something different, wait and pray some more.]
I caused myself so much stress and confusion believing that I might miss “His Will” when we were trying to find a house to buy. At the very least, I was obedient to the command to “Wait,” but I waited so badly, panicked that I’d “do it wrong” and that He wouldn’t get through to me. (And even then, I only waited because I had no choice, because we couldn’t afford anything that came our way. Thank you, Lord, that I had no choice.)
But after seeing how He answered, I realize now that when He finally does “remember” and reveal the next step, there is no doubt that it’s from God. The door opens so obviously and completely that you can’t help but know it’s from Him. His fingerprints will be all over it. I caused myself so much unnecessary heartache! I didn’t need to be so anxious along the way, because as long as I was tied to Him in prayer and His Word and abiding in Him, He would have come through loud and clear!
(And it’s in the process of waiting for Him that a lot of growth takes place. Don’t fight the waiting! Learn from it and use it to draw nearer to Him!)
And so, the next question becomes, How can I recognize His guidance when He is revealing the next step? When we were house hunting, I had really wanted the next step to show up in neon lights. But that obviously won’t happen. And then I found a book that gave me some really good advice on how to know when God shows “the next step.” And I really have to thank Gigi Tchividjian here. Through her book, A Woman’s Quest for Serenity, she helped me understand how to discern God’s guidance, when so many other things were making it hard to hear His leading. (If you can find her book, it is well worth reading.)
Though He won’t give us a neon sign, I’m learning that He has given us other “keys” to help us find the next step in His plan for us. (Gigi calls them “lights,” and they are what I based these “keys” on.) To boil it all down, God guides us in three different ways: guidance from the inside, indications from the outside, and confirmation from God’s Word.
1. Guidance from the inside would be what our conscience tells us, what our heart tells us, and, most importantly, what the Holy Spirit tells us. This would be the impressions or convictions that we have from the Holy Spirit about what He wants us to do or what the next step is. Sometimes it coincides with what we want to do, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it makes sense, and sometimes it confuses us even more. Sometimes it speaks to the current concern or situation that we are praying about, and sometimes it hits us out of the blue, completely unrelated to anything we were thinking about. But we need to be deliberate about being receptive to the Holy Spirit, about actively listening for Him to speak to us. And we need to expect that He will.
2. Indications from the outside would be open doors or circumstances falling into place that seem to be saying “this is the way you should walk.” Maybe it’s about an issue you are praying about, or maybe it’s God interrupting your plans with something new that He wants you to do. It could be a need that comes to your attention or a fork-in-the-road that calls you to make a choice. It could be a call to move forward, or it could be a call to take a step backward. And these indications could also come from other people. It could be impressions that they have had about you, or it could be wise advice from godly people.
(But as we consider “open doors” here, remember that not all open doors are from God. Satan would love nothing more than to get us out of God’s perfect Will for us by dangling enticing offers before us. With every open door, we need to seek God’s wisdom, be discerning, and be willing to obey whatever God calls us to do in that situation. Maybe it is an open door from God, or maybe it’s just a test or an opportunity to practice doing those things.)
3. And confirmation from God’s Word is just what it sounds like. It’s when God leads us, through His Word, in the right path. Sometimes, after praying for guidance, the Spirit leads us to a passage that speaks directly to our problems. And sometimes, we find God’s message to us as we go about our normal Bible reading. We should be regularly reading God’s Word - immersing ourselves in it - so that we can know it as a whole, and not just pulling out the verses that we want when we want them.
While we do our regular reading, we should always be alert for any passage that speaks to us, because there is so much more to glean from Scripture than just the answer to a particular problem or prayer request. In the course of reading God’s Word (even if we are looking for specific guidance in something else), we may be led to passages that speak to us about something we weren’t even considering. Such as about forgiveness or how we use our tongue or how we treat others, etc. It may be that God wants us to settle these areas before He guides us to the answer that we are looking for.
Guidance from God’s Word also means that we check the steps we want to take against His Word. He will never, NEVER, ask or tell us to do anything that violates a Biblical command that He has already revealed to us in His Word, no matter how strongly we feel that He wants us to do it.
Therefore, things like affairs, cheating, lying, harshness, premarital sex, jealousy, idol worship, running after wealth, gossiping, dabbling with the occult, contacting the dead, taking an ungodly job, spousal abuse, homosexuality, taking a life, etc., can never be God’s Will for us. Even if our inner convictions and the outside circumstances are telling us to do it, God’s Word says, “Don’t do these things!” And His Word is the Truth, The Measuring Stick. So to try to find permission in His Word to do these kinds of things would mean that we would have to twist what He has already clearly revealed as His Will in these (and many other) areas. (Hey, I’m just the messenger here. Read the Word for yourself and take it up with God if you think I am wrong.)
Those are the keys to discover God’s Will for us, the next step. And when all three of these “keys” say the same thing, we can confidently take the next step as it has been revealed. But if any one of them says something different, we need to wait. Wait and recheck Scriptures and pray some more until all the keys match. And in the meantime, we need to continue to live the life we have now, faithfully and obediently and for God’s glory, leaving the future and the timing up to God. And then, when the keys match and the timing is right, the doors will open smoothly in time. We are just responsible to do the next step as we best believe that God is leading us.
(But we need to be careful to resist the urge to be hasty, or to interpret subtle or ambiguous signs as saying what we want them to say. We should be cautious about interpreting any guidance that we get. And even more so when the decision is a significant one. Proceeding cautiously and wisely also involves asking God to and trusting God to close the door if we are not on the right path. And then, if He does shut the door or change our direction, we need to just trust Him and be willing to follow.)Now as far as smaller, everyday decisions? The less impact it has on our lives, on other’s lives, and on God’s kingdom, the less we need to spend time sweating over it in prayer. It’s not wrong to ask God’s guidance about the route we take home from work, if we should buy the blue dress or the green one, if we should go to the beach today or tomorrow. But we don’t need to dwell on them, either, feeling like we need to get God’s expressed direction in every decision we make. It’s just not possible to live life this way.
If we live wisely - abiding in Him and having learned to heed the Spirit’s nudges and “red flags” - then we can go forward in life, making decisions as we go, knowing that He will direct our feet as we walk and that He will send up “pause” signals as we need them. Because the Spirit lives in us. (But we need to learn to recognize the signals and to heed them.)
So for those non-huge, everyday kinds of decisions, I try to do a “Spirit check.” If there’s something that I’m not sure that I should say or do (and that isn’t violating any Biblical principles), I pause slightly to check-in with God. “Lord, is it okay if I . . .?” Or “Should I . . .?” And if I don’t feel any sense of unrest or “Don’t,” then I feel that it’s okay to go ahead with it. I trust that as long as I’m seeking to be obedient, to glorify Him, and to be sensitive to Him, He will close the door if and when it’s not right.
It’s kind of like a husband and a wife that are with a group of people. And as the wife starts to share a story about something that has happened in their family, she looks over at her husband to see what kind of look he is giving her. It’s either the “go ahead” look or “THE LOOK,” the one that says, “You better not go there!” This is what I try to do for the smaller decisions. I look to God, through the Holy Spirit’s guidance, to see if I’m getting the “go ahead” look or “THE LOOK.” And if I get “THE LOOK,” then I know that I need to either not do it or to spend some more time in prayer and in God’s Word over it.
And I do think that it’s important to make a habit of doing this - of seeking to be and learning to be receptive to the Spirit - because sometimes those “insignificant” decisions can have a significant impact on our lives. Maybe we end up going on vacation the same day that there’s a tornado. Maybe we choose the cutest dog, but it ends up being the meanest one in the bunch. Maybe we buy a car that ends up with serious problems. I believe that God is willing to offer His guidance in these “little” decisions if we seek it, but that He doesn’t necessarily offer His guidance if we would rather go ahead in our own wisdom.
Like with the Gibeonite deception, Joshua didn’t inquire of God. And I believe that if he did, it would have been revealed to him. And there is another instance with Joshua that shows me the importance of inquiring of God. Joshua 6 tells the story of the Israelites taking Jericho, with God’s miraculous help. But in Joshua 7, after Jericho, we read how Joshua makes a foolish decision in his own wisdom. He had sent men to spy on Ai. And when the men returned, they said that there were only a few people there and so Joshua should only have to send two or three thousand people to successfully take it.
So Joshua does this. And it probably seemed wise to him, a piece of cake compared to the battle that they just went through taking Jericho. Well, verses 4-5 tell us, “So about three thousand men went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, who killed about thirty-six of them. . . .” Now, this happened because of one man’s sin, when Achan took some of the things that were devoted to the Lord.
But what we don’t read in this story, in contrast to many of the other stories during Joshua’s reign, is that he “inquired of the Lord.” In this instance, he did not seek the Lord’s guidance about going after the city of Ai. I believe, once again, that God would have revealed Achan’s sin to Joshua and would have advised them not to go after Ai until the Achan situation was handled . . . if Joshua had inquired of the Lord.
It’s important to learn to inquire of the Lord and to learn to be sensitive to the Spirit’s leading. And the closer you walk with the Lord, the more likely you are to remember to inquire and to recognize the Spirit’s nudges along the way. And the more obedient you are, the more likely He is to nudge again in the future. We can deaden ourselves to His nudges by refusing to heed them and to obey.
Not too long ago, I felt a nudge by the Holy Spirit. Actually, it was more like a burning inside of me about something that I should say to someone. I was talking with a woman I never met before at a beach. She told me that she was a Christian but that she was in the beginning of getting a divorce from her husband. She was fed up that he didn’t do anything but sit on the couch, and he had no ambition in life to accomplish anything. And she told me about the kids and about how she felt bad for what a divorce would do to them.
And from inside of me came this burning desire to tell her four words: “It’s not too late!” Just four little words. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was the Holy Spirit telling me that I needed to say these words to her. I could tell that she didn’t really want a divorce, but she didn’t know what else to do. She wanted to be talked out of it, I could just tell.
And you know what I did? Nothing! I listened sympathetically and said that I hoped it worked out for her, but I never said what the Spirit knew she needed to hear: “It’s not too late.” I had convinced myself that it was my own wisdom talking and that it was not my place to comment on her divorce. And so I didn’t.
And this is one instance where I learned from my own mistake. I always felt bad about that, because I knew that I was supposed to say it. And so I did all that I could do: I prayed that God would nudge another person to tell her what I failed to say, someone who was bold enough and wise enough to obey. It is so important to learn to inquire of God and to learn to heed the Spirit’s nudges. This is how God gets His Will done on earth. By us and our obedience!