WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?
††††††††††† My mother was afraid of doctors and hated to go to one.
††††††††††† In fact, hated is not a strong enough word.
††††††††††† Once, when she was seriously ill -- after she and I had discussed it at length† --, I drove her to a hospital emergency room. At the entrance, she changed her mind again and refused to get out of the car. When I went inside to ask a nurse for help, Mama panicked, jumped out of the car and began running across the parking lot. I ran after her and when I caught up, she began to slap me, scratch my face and beat me with her purse. A hospital security guard saw the ruckus and ran to help the poor defenseless old lady being attacked by the ugly brute.
††††††††††† Fortunately the ER nurse arrived on the scene before he shot me. She escorted my mother, all sweetness and light by then,† inside to see the doctor.
††††††††††† Mama insisted that I wait at the car. Soon she emerged saying the doctor had examined her and told her she only had a bad cold. I drove her home.
††††††††††† The following day, a policeman appeared at my door. Since I did not have a telephone, the doctor had asked him to contact me because my mother was in immediate danger. Her "bad cold" was a virulent cancer which could kill her at any moment. I drove over to her house to discuss her illness with her again for at least the 40th time and I was amazed to find her attitude about accepting medical help had completely changed because of a story she'd heard the night before.
††††††††††† This is the story told to my mother by Sister Mary Kevin, who was then president of the Christian Nurses' Fellowship in Jacksonville:
God Will Save Me
††††††††††† It seems that there was a great flood and this man took refuge on the top of his house and prayed for God to save him.
††††††††††† Some people came floating by on an uprooted tree. "Grab hold of a branch. It's floating toward shore," they yelled.
††††††††††† "No. I'm not going to chance it. I'm praying for God to save me," he called back.
††††††††††† Soon two men in a rowboat bumped against the rooftop where the man prayed. "Climb in and we'll row you out," they said.
††††††††††† The man refused to get in the open boat. "God will save me," he said.
††††††††††† He spent the night on the rain swept roof praying for deliverance.
††††††††††† In the morning, a helicopter swooped in overhead and dangled a rope ladder down to the man. The pilot spoke over the loudspeaker, "Climb up the ladder and we'll fly you to dry land."
††††††††††† The flood victim looked at the swaying ladder and listened to the noise of the beating rotors and remained on his roof. "Go get somebody else," he yelled. "I'm praying for God to deliver me."
††††††††††† The torrent undermined the foundation of the house and swept it away. The praying man drowned.
††††††††††† In heaven, he questioned, "Lord, why didn't you save me when I prayed."
††††††††††† "I sent you a floating tree, a rowboat and a helicopter. What more did you expect!"
††††††††††† This story changed Mama's attitude about accepting help. She did allow herself to be treated. The chemotherapy and radiation treatments she feared so much did ease her pain before her death.
How do we recognize an answer to prayer?
††††††††††† I find that I often have the same trouble as that man on the rooftop; sometimes, I don't recognize an answer to my prayers even if one bites me on the leg.
††††††††††† I'm not alone.
††††††††††† Joe prayed for money to go to college next semester, yet every month when his Record of the Month club sent him a catalogue, he bought $25 or $30 worth of compact disks and still wondered why God did not answer his prayer for college money!
††††††††††† Could it be that God sent the cash, but Joe blew it?
††††††††††† When God does the unexpected, are we so dense that we refuse to give him credit? We sometimes limit God by building up our expectations for an answer to prayer that we want to come at a certain time and in a certain way so when it does not come according to our instructions to the Almighty, we think he has not answered us at all.
††††††††††† Francois de Fenelon, author of Christian Perfection, said: "As for myself, when I suffer I can see nothing but unlimited suffering before me; and when the time of consolation comes, my natural impulse is to dread accepting it, lest it be a mere delusion, which will make the renewed cross heavier".
††††††††††† In a letter to King Louis XIV's mistress, Madam de Maintenon, Archbishop Fenelon who was Court Chaplain, said:
† ††††††††† ††"It is most important never to anticipate. One of the weightiest rules of the spiritual life is to abide in the present moment, without looking beyond...
††††††††††† † "Let us then think only of the present, and not even permit our minds to wander with curiosity into the future. The future is not yet ours; perhaps it never will be. It is exposing ourselves to temptation to anticipate God and to prepare ourselves for things which He may not destine for us... Why should we desire to meet difficulties prematurely, when we have neither strength nor light as yet provided for them? Let us give heed to the present, which is pressing upon us; it is fidelity to the present which prepares us for fidelity in the future...
††††††††††† In other words, God is able to manage this bus without any back seat driver telling him how fast to go, which way to turn, when to stop or even where to fill up. He knows whether it's best to drive the expressway or the scenic route, to cross the bridge or take the tunnel, to barrel straight through the city or go around the beltway. Sit back and relax, he will get us where we need to be.
††††††††††† God is infinite. He is not limited. He can meet any specific† need of his people in a variety of ways.
Take food for instance:
††††††††††† When Moses lead Israel out of Egypt, they got hungry in the desert and† God sent them manna to eat, bread from heaven falling like dew each morning.
††††††††††† When Samson got hungry, God caused a swarm of bees to build a honeycomb inside the dried rib cage of a dead lion for him to eat.
††††††††††† When David's starving men were escaping from King Saul, David lead them to the Tabernacle and let them eat the consecrated bread from the altar, and years later Jesus commended him for his common sense in doing so (Mark 2:24-27).
††††††††††† When Elijha the Tishbite hid in the cave, he got hungry and God sent ravens flying in with bits of bread and meat in their beaks for him to eat.
††††††††††† Pretty impressive answers to prayers for food, aren't they.
††††††††††† But get this:
††††††††††† A few years back when my family was hungry and I prayed to the Lord to provide us with something to eat, guess what God sent?
††††††††††† Not manna, nor lions, nor bees, nor ravens -- He sent me to the United States Department of Agriculture Food Stamp Program.
††††††††††† One Sunday after church we were sitting down to a sparse lunch of hotdogs when a friend came to visit bringing his date. We only had enough bread to go with the children's hotdogs, adults had to split one between us, and we had no mustard or catsup. The young lady my friend had brought to visit us worked as a counselor in the Food Stamp program and she urged me to apply for stamps that next week.
††††††††††† I was furious with God.
††††††††††† I had prayed for daily bread and I expected him to answer with a better job, a cash gift, a flock of ravens -- something special. Certainly not Food Stamps!
††††††††††† As I complained, long and loud, to the Management, a thought entered my mind:
††††††††††† Ravens, indeed! John, just who do you think you are, the president of the Audubon Society? Have you ever knowingly seen a raven in your whole life? Could you tell a raven from a great blue heron if one lit on your shoulder? You prayed for food and here is a source of food. God has promised to provide for your belly; nowhere does He promise to provide for your vanity!
††††††††††† You see, I had prayed, but I did not want the answer God sent. As I had prayed for food, I'd also imagined how I'd like it served. I anticipated a pleasant answer, one that would allow me not only to eat, but to eat in a dignified style to which I wanted to become accustomed.
††††††††††† The only way to learn humility is to be humiliated.
The Lord had much more to teach me about that subject.
††††††††††† Virtually all my adult life I have earned well below the income set by the U.S. government as the poverty level. A tiny bit of my situation came about by deliberate choices I made, some of it came through circumstances, much of it came through bad management on my part.
††††††††††† To support my habit as a Christian writer I have worked a number of low-paying jobs to supplement my income and give me time to write. I have dug graves, guided tours, worked out of a day labor pool, raised mosquitoes for test purposes, cleaned up toxic waste dumps, written obituaries... etc.
††††††††††† These endeavors have produced a subsistence, but usually adequate, income.
††††††††††† When I arrived at the Food Stamp office for my appointment, the counselor (naturally, the one I'd meet Sunday worked out of a different office) felt suspicious that I was a rich guy trying to sneak into the program. She demanded proof of my income. And since that income was so erratic, she required that I report to her office often with a calendar showing where I had worked, what I'd earned, and how I spent it.
††††††††††† The indignity I felt at this requirement galled me. Would I be in that office if my family didn't desperately need the help? Would anyone? But, oddly enough, this requirement proved to be a great blessing in helping me recognize answers to my prayers.
††††††††††† I searched the house for a calendar. The only one I could find was a free mail-out from Kellog's Frosted Flakes cereal. A bright picture of Tony The Tiger decorated each page.
††††††††††† Beneath Tony's smiling face, I kept a my record of how many hours and where I worked each day and how much I got paid.
††††††††††† For months I faced the humiliation of taking Tony in and having a suspicious councilor examine and question every entry. I hated that. Hated! Hated. Hated it.
††††††††††† God thought it was good for my disposition.
I hate to admit it, but it was.
††††††††††† You see, I also used the Tony The Tiger calendar to jot down various things I prayed for each day.
††††††††††† Before long, I began to jot down various answers to prayer which I saw come about.
††††††††††† Then I began to draw a red line between the prayer and its answer.
††††††††††† The result amazed me.
††††††††††† Red lines criss-crossed my days.
††††††††††† My prayers were being answered all the time.
††††††††††† But I had not realized it before because I had not kept any record!
††††††††††† Now, I keep a daily journal which serves to remind me of God's dealings with me day by day. It reveals that he answers many more prayers than I'd give him credit for otherwise.
††††††††††† You see, the heart is deceitful above all things. We pray for something and it comes to past and we say, "That's nice; I sort of hoped that would happen".
††††††††††† We tend to forget what we have prayed for, to figure that certain things would have happened anyhow and chalk them up to coincidence. In the midst of immediate annoyances, we loose sight of long-term prayers. A single burr in my toe assumes more importance than a whole field full of flowers. In my mind the present aggravation seems more "real" than all of God's past and present blessings. When I don't see the good I've prayed for happen immediately, my mind naturally leaps to the conclusion, "Ah ha, just as I suspected. Prayer does no good".
††††††††††† On the other hand, when good things do happen, I figure they were my natural due -- forgetting that I had prayed for this very thing!
††††††††††† Either way, I neglect to recognize or give God credit for what he is doing for me right now.
††††††††††† That's why I find keeping a daily record of my prayers and problems is such a help. I can flip back to last month or last year and see God in actions that in the pressure of the immediate, I have not recognized.
††††††††††† A constant theme of the Psalms is that we should remember and recount God's goodness to us. The psalmists constantly harp (or should it be psaltery) on this theme; Psalm 111 gives a good example:
††††††††††† Praise the Lord.
††††††††††† I will extol the Lord with all my heart
††††††††††† † in the council of the upright and in the assembly.
††††††††††† Great are the works of the Lord;
††††††††††† † they are pondered by all who delight in them.
††††††††††† Glorious and majestic are his deeds,
††††††††††† † and his righteousness endures forever.
††††††††††† He has caused his wonders to be remembered;
††††††††††† † The Lord is gracious and compassionate.
††††††††††† He provides food for those who fear him;
††††††††††† † He remembers his covenant forever...
Praying for what I already have
††††††††††† I find that a lot of times I pray to get things I already have.
††††††††††† Perhaps a spirit of dissatisfaction rules our age. Perhaps plain old greed often motivates me. But I find that I am often discontent with my lot in life and want God to step in and change it for something I consider better.
††††††††††† In other words, what I call praying might better be termed "verbalized coveting".
††††††††††† For instance, I pray to own a home and I get frustrated with God when I can't buy one. What's wrong with the place we rent now? Nothing really, but I want to own one. Did Jesus own a home? No, but I want a one.
††††††††††† You see, Lord, Bob and Betty are Christians and they bought a new home in Mandarin.
††††††††††† What is that to thee, Follow thou me.
††††††††††† But I want security.
††††††††††† What is more secure than walking in God's will?
††††††††††† Nothing. But still I covet things. I own a car, a Cadillac 20 years old. It's a perfectly adequate car. It gets me wherever I need to go. But I want a giant raven to swoop in bearing a new car in its beak. A Thunderbird would be nice -- er, for the car that is, not for the messenger bird.
††††††††††† When we find ourselves getting greedy in our prayers,† the message we need is not about the Gospel promises of answered prayer but the message of John the Baptist to the soldiers: "Be content with your wages!" After all, godliness with contentment is great gain.
††††††††††† Most of us seldom feel content with what we have. As my grandfather used to say when he heard us kids gripe, "There's some folks who'd complain if you was to hang 'em with a brand new rope."
††††††††††† And St. Paul warns: "People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs."I Timothy 6:9-10
††††††††††† The apostle James made this observation:
††††††††††† "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures."
-- James 4:1-3 NIV
The PRAYER behind the prayer
††††††††††† I sometimes wonder if God doesn't look behind our specific prayer for such-and-such and grant us the underlying desire that motivates us to ask for what we think will make us happy?
††††††††††† Here's an example:
††††††††††† In the year 383, a young man named Aurelius ran away from his Christian mother's home in Carthage and sailed to the Sin City of the day, Rome.
††††††††††† He intended to get out from under her thumb. "The allurements of Rome drew me thither," he said. "They enticed me to another mode of life, to taste of the earth."
††††††††††† Her son's running away devastated the poor mother. She had faithfully prayed for his conversion for years, now he was hurrying headlong to overt sin and degradation.
††††††††††† The son later wrote about† his mother's anguish on the night he sailed away, "My mother shockingly lamented my departure... She clung wildly to me... The floods of my mother's tears would not be dried from her eyes... She was mad with grief. With complaints and lamentation she filled God's ears".
††††††††††† Why did God ignore† this godly woman's urgent prayers that night?
††††††††††† In spite of her prayers, her son slipped aboard the ship and sailed.
††††††††††† Everything she feared happened to her son in Rome. He moved in with his girlfriend with no intention of marriage. He fell in with a bad crowd. He was exposed to the race tracks and the gladiatorial games. He said he became "filled full of the most execrable defilements".
††††††††††† But something else happened to him in Italy: he meet a godly Christian man, Ambrose, who influenced Aurelius Augustinus, the future St. Augustine, to come to Christ and be converted! St. Augustine felt that God had lead him to Rome for this very reason. He felt that his voyage to Rome was the answer to his mother's deepest prayers.
††††††††††† In his Confessions he wrote of that night he sailed and she cried:
††††††††††† "She begged you, my God, with tears so plentiful, that you would stop my sailing, but deeply planning and hearing afar the real core of her longing, You disregarded the prayer of the moment, in order to make me what she always prayed that I should be... You, God, took no notice of her urgent prayers that night because you were tearing me away by my own desires precisely in order to put an end to those same desires... She did not know what joy You were about to build for her out of my absence. That is why she wept and wailed!"
††††††††††† Even people noted for their piety and prayer life like Augustine's mother, Monica, find that their prayers of the moment do not always receive an immediate answer.
Is "No" a valid answer to prayer?
††††††††††† In his play Antony and Cleopatra William Shakespeare said:
††††††††††† "We, ignorant of ourselves, beg often our own harms, which the wise powers deny us for our good: so find we profit by the losing of our prayers".
††††††††††† Once when questioned by newspaper reporters† about his golf game, evangelist Billy Graham said, "God answers my prayers everywhere except on the golf course!" In his book Billy Graham Answers Your Questions, he said, "'No' is certainly an answer of love on the part of our Heavenly Father when we ask Him for things which are not really for our good or for His glory."
††††††††††† As the father of six children I have seen scads of Christmas lists petitioning me to give a variety of things. When the children were little, the lists would include general desires: teddy bear, wagon, train set, doll. But as they grow and become more exposed to the spirit of the age, their lists become more sophisticated. Last year, Patricia, my ten-year old, presented me with a list of 86 items; she had cut out toy catalogue pictures of each thing and included a note as to color, size, brand, price and which stores sold each thing!
††††††††††† She prays exactly like I do!
††††††††††† And here, being an earthly† father myself helps me understand a little about how My Heavenly Father handles the lists I fax to him by prayer. Yes, I can afford to give a Daisy Air Rifle -- but I'm not about to!
††††††††††† You see, while the character† of God does include such big sounding attributes as omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence, he also has one we tent to forget about:
††††††††††† God has common sense.
††††††††††† Of course he denies some of your requests. You would too if you understood the implications of what you are asking for!
You have been reading Chapter Twelve of the book Why Donít I Get What I Pray For? by John W. Cowart †(IVP, 1993)
Click here for Chapter Thirteen