Why do we pray? How should prayer play a part in our life and our calling as Christians?
When I think of prayer I often think that it is a private, between me and God alone, act. But is it that simple? s it more or less than that and what is the purpose of it?
A woman by the name of Zora Neale Hurston, an author from the 1930s who wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, said of prayer
Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness, and an attempt to avoid, by trickery, the rules of the game as laid down… I do not choose to admit weakness… I accept the challenge of responsibility… Life, as it is, does not frighten me, since I have made my peace with the universe as I find it, and bow to its laws. The ever-sleepless sea in its bed, crying out ‘how long?’ to Time: million formed and never motionless flame; the contemplation of these two aspects alone, affords me sufficient food for ten spans of my expected lifetime… It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such. However… I would not by word or deed, attempt to deprive another of the consolation it affords.”
To the world looking in I’ve often wondered if this is what prayer looks like. A wish list given to some invisible friend… or even just talking to ourself in an attempt to distract our minds from pain and fate…
Now if we are being honest… have you ever felt like prayer was nothing more than a wish? …I mean there’s reasons for why Ms. Hurston came to this conclusion, painful deep reasons. I will be honest…there are plenty of times in my own prayer journey I have felt like I was going through the motions, offering up wishes, praying for a miracle that would defy the laws of nature.
The Bible has a great deal to say about prayer: there’s Hagar at the well crying out as her and her son are dying, there’s Daniel in the Lion’s Den punished because he defied authority and continued praying, there are multiple accounts of healing and provision, stories of children and adults being raised from the dead, and then there is Jesus praying for us, or him weeping praying that God take the burden of the cross from him. There is no shortage of passages to discuss the many ways and reasons to pray.
So when we read today’s passage you might wonder, of all the ones out there, why chose this one. Let’s read together,
Joshua 7:1-12 (NIV)
7 But the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things[a]; Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri,[b] the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel.
2 Now Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is near Beth Aven to the east of Bethel, and told them, “Go up and spy out the region.” So the men went up and spied out Ai.
3 When they returned to Joshua, they said, “Not all the army will have to go up against Ai. Send two or three thousand men to take it and do not weary the whole army, for only a few people live there.” 4 So about three thousand went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, 5 who killed about thirty-six of them. They chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries and struck them down on the slopes. At this the hearts of the people melted in fear and became like water.
6 Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the Lord, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads. 7 And Joshua said, “Alas, Sovereign Lord, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan! 8 Pardon your servant, Lord. What can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies? 9 The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. What then will you do for your own great name?”
10 The Lord said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? 11 Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. 12 That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.
Here’s the short synopsis with a little background.
Joshua sent out spies who, coming off of a BIG victory, underestimated the enemy and overestimated their own ability. They did not seek God in prayer first but rushed in under their own ability and 36 men died. Joshua fell on his face praying and mourning. He began to pray, questioning God as to why they had been abandoned. God’s response – shut up and stand up. Joshua was told the sin in his own camp was to blame and that the time was not for praying but for action. There was a man in camp who had hidden spoils from the last victory, items that were commanded to be destroyed, and God told Joshua to put his own camp in order.
As for the story of prayer through this passage, it goes something like this –
They didn’t bother to pray they simply acted. When things went badly they prayed and God said stop praying and act. Scripture is never confusing, is it?
Lessons on prayer
When I was very young my dad started a family prayer journal. The purpose of this journal was to show us how God takes care of us and how prayers are answered. It was filled with kid requests for bikes, bunk beds, and even a player piano.
I don’t remember the prayers that weren’t answered, but only the ones that were. I remember every time I sat down at our player piano, acquired at a garage sale, I believed in the power of prayer.
But it was the prayer requests that weren’t written in that journal that stuck with me the most. We didn’t have much. My dad was in graduate school in Dallas, I was the oldest of four very young children and my mom stayed home to care for us. I remember the Sundays we would walk out to the car to be surprised by bags of food or clothes sitting in the backseat after church, or the day we’d open our front door and groceries were sitting there, or the Christmas that someone adopted us and our tree had so many presents underneath. What I remember was filling loved and taken care of by people who loved God.
At that time in my life prayers were wishes for clothes and food, for pianos and toys.
But it wasn’t a Santa Clause list, it was a slow building of trust between myself and God as He used the actions of believing adults to meet real needs. It was the beginning steps of my faith.
That prayer journal didn’t just have a list of children’s wishes. There were three columns beside each prayer – yes, maybe, and no. Dates were written down when the answers were given. We learned that God doesn’t always say yes, and often the answer is not yet. We learned contentment in those answers as we prayed together as a family. I can’t tell you if we continued the prayer journal for a week or a few years, but the lessons from it stuck.
Fast forward through my life and I saw people healed, on the mission field I shared Christ with others in a language I did not know and they understood, I saw miracles happen right in front of me and I saw healing denied. I witnessed people’s most basic needs provided for. I saw God working, saying yes and … not yet.
And then tragedy hit my own family.
Our daughter was diagnosed with cancer at 6 months old and I KNEW without a doubt that God would give her the healing I had seen him give others. After all, I had done my time for him, I attended seminary, had served on the mission field, and we were working towards being full-time missionaries. This would be one more experience to add to our prayer journal of answered prayers. Oh, I believed in complete healing. I knew that my faith was strong enough. I knew even when they took her back for surgery to remove her eye that they would do their last check to find the tumor had simply vanished.
I’d forgotten that sometimes the answer can’t be checked with a yes, no, not yet. Sometimes the answer is “not in that way.”
I’d been so focused on the miraculous groceries and bags of clothing given to us by others I’d forgotten the one story of my dad’s.
Dad didn’t have the money for school or to take care of us and he prayed for God’s help. That week, while cleaning pools for one of his jobs, he was attacked by a dog. He ran, jumped a fence, and was caught midair in his thigh. The owner paid him enough for the ER, to cover his tuition for the semester, and to care for us.
I’d forgotten that sometimes how God answers isn’t how we want him to.
I believed my 6-month-old daughter would be healed up until the moment they called me back and said the removal of the tumor along with her eye was a success. In that moment I collapsed. I couldn’t see that my daughter was healed because she wasn’t healed in the way I demanded of God.
For the next year, I walked around in a daze, feeling utterly forsaken and abandoned. Others came alongside me and prayed. I didn’t turn them away but I wouldn’t join in.
It was the faithfulness of this community that helped me see that God had not forsaken me or my daughter. It was the unwillingness of God to let go of us (no matter how much I pushed) as well as those who believed in him and loved us.
Prayer Connects Us
Prayer connects us. It connects us to one another and it connects us to God. It is a place where we cannot be dishonest. God sees our heart, I could not go to God and hide my pain and anger, I had to be honest with him and myself in order to heal.
In the same way Achan, the man from Joshua’s camp, could not hide his disobedience. We cannot hide who we are with God. Prayer is the one place in all of life that we can be 100% authentic, even when we try to lie about how we feel or where we are at in our belief it is impossible to do so.
The Israelites did not go to God in prayer first. Having just come off of some amazing victories they overestimated their own ability. In the same way, having just experienced God’s miraculous power to heal and answer prayer I believed the strength of my own faith was what was necessary to save my daughter. Instead, God used years of research and the skilled hands of doctors to save her life.
When the Israelites experienced tragedy Joshua cried out to God “why did you bring us here, how am I supposed to protect your name in light of this tragedy?” And God told him to get up and act.
There is a time for prayer, and there is a time for action.
That’s why today I chose this passage. Prayer should always be the first response, relying on our own strength and flawed hearts is not the option. We grow arrogant from past victories and underestimate what we are up against. Prayer is a means by which we come together in unity with one another, seek God’s guidance, and hold nothing back.
One week ago from right now tragedy struck our brothers and sisters in Christ at First Baptist Church in Southerland Springs. Both politicians and the rest of us responded with “thoughts and prayers,” and after what follows every new tragedy as of late… there was a mix of responses, many harsh that prayers are no longer needed. Comments like “if prayer did anything they’d still be alive” began to flood social media.
Offering thoughts and prayers is important. It is the first step, it’s a cry of sadness and a declaration that we stand in unity with our brothers and sisters.
Malcolm X said that “Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.”
“Thoughts and prayers” are that sadness. It’s where we sit in the moment. It’s how we empathize and connect to one another. But do we really understand the power of God if we stop there?
One of my favorite quotes is from Annie Dillard. She wrote in Teaching A Stone To Talk
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
Prayer is powerful. It connects us in an intimate relationship to God and to one another. But even God told Joshua, now is not the time to be on your face. Get up and act!
We find similar instructions in the New Testament.
James 2:14-19 (NIV)
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
Would my family still be here if as a child our church family had not physically fed and clothed us?
Probably but I would not be the same person.
Would I be here today had God and others given up on me when I’d given up on God?
It took people willing to follow God, to be obedient and act in order for my faith journey to bring me to today. I’m certain we all have stories that had someone else not acted we would not be here.
How is God calling you to act?
If you don’t know how God is calling on you to act, seek him out in prayer. Be honest and raw with him and willing to listen and obey when you are called to action. Because he will call you to action.
In the Heidelberg Catechism, the answer to 107 in the Lord’s Prayer is that we “protect our neighbor from harm AS MUCH AS WE CAN.”
Pay attention and ask God to reveal to you what it means to protect our neighbors from harm AS MUCH AS WE CAN. When he answers you obey because prayer is more than a wish… it’s more than talking to yourself. It is a conversation with your creator… listen carefully when he speaks.