Okay so it’s Thanksgiving weekend. Which means football. Which means U.Va. plays Virginia Tech.
Which means I’m devoting this Friday Prayer space to my team.
Virginia fans will tell you that our beloved Wahoos have not won the annual contest in the last twelve years, and that our record this year (2-9) has not exactly positioned our team as a threat. Alert fans, though, will point to that heady season between 1895 and 1904 (a glorious stretch where we beat the Hokies every single year) as proof that we have winning in our genes.
If you’re not the type to pray about what coaching legend Vince Dooley’s wife Barbara calls “bawl games,” feel free to quit reading now. No hard feelings. Seriously.
But if you like the idea of doing all you can for your team, feel free to join me:
U.Va. Football has suffered for more than a little while; may this be the year that you restore us and make our team strong, firm, and steadfast. Put your law in our players’ hearts so that their feet will not slip, and command your angels to guard them in all their ways. May they be on their guard, stand firm in the faith, be men of courage, and be strong. (1 Peter 5:10, Psalm 37:31, Psalm 91:11, and 1 Corinthians 16:13).
I know, I know.
Some of you are saying it’s not fair to pray for one team over another. I get that. Plus, I have two Hokie sons-in-law, and I really should show them some love. And so, in the interest of keeping things on the level, here’s a Friday Prayer for the other guys:
You are the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort. If the Tech folks feel sad, or even devastated, after tomorrow’s game, may your unfailing love be their comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3, Psalm 119:76)
Happy Thanksgiving, Y’all! (And #GoHoos!)
(Note: This post is the last in a four-part series on praying, trusting, and waiting. Please know, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, how grateful I am for you. May you and your families be satisfied with the goodness of God.)
I marked another birthday last month, and my friend Annabelle gave me a sign:
Annabelle’s always up for fun. I’m thinking she meant the message as a party prompt, like: “Let’s have cake because it’s Tuesday.” Which is not such a bad way to live.
To me, though, the sign felt like more than a sign. It felt like a Sign. As in, it brought me face to face with the question that’s dogged me throughout this entire blog series: Is there really such a thing as the “unbroken enjoyment” of waiting? Put another way, when we feel like God’s answers are long in coming (or when we aren’t sure we’re on board with what he seems to be allowing, and maybe it even hurts) do we still have good reason to celebrate?
The answer, I think, is yes.
I’m not quite there yet, but I know some folks who are. Folks like Katherine Wolf, a stunning beauty who was just 26 years old when she suffered a massive stroke that left her unable to speak, swallow, walk, or care for her infant son. As Katherine relearned how to live, she and her husband Jay were forced to reexamine everything they believed about God. Was he truly good? Had he made a mistake? And would they still be able to look at their lives and thank God for what he had given, for what he had allowed to be taken away, and for what he had allowed to remain?
If you’ve not yet read the Wolfs’ book, Hope Heals, treat yourself to an early Christmas present and buy it here. Or watch a trailer about their story here. I can’t begin to articulate how God led this precious couple through the gap between life’s expectations and its reality (and I would hate to even try, since they tell their tale with such raw and exquisite beauty), but I will tell you this: Katherine says that pain served as her teacher, bringing her closer to Christ in a way that went beyond anything she could have imagined. For that, she was unabashedly grateful. And Jay agrees: “The call to give thanks, not at the end, but in the midst, began to reverberate inside of us.”
Giving thanks in the midst. That’s where I want to be.
And that’s basically where Andrew Murray (whose book, Waiting on God, helped launch this blog series) winds up. We may think we are just waiting for the Lord to bless us (i.e., to meet our needs and grant our desires), but the way Murray sees it, God has a higher purpose in mind: We want the gifts, but “He, the Giver, longs to give us Himself and to satisfy the soul with His goodness.”
Heady stuff. And, for those who have not yet experienced that kind of satisfaction, potentially hard to accept.
And honestly? I might be tempted to think that this whole “satisfied with God” thing is reserved for extra-holy people (people like Katherine Wolf and Andrew Murray and a handful of other “varsity” Christians you sometimes read about) except for one thing. I spent much of 2016 interviewing parents for my upcoming book, Praying the Scriptures for Your Adult Children. These folks are “normal” Christians, people just like you and me. People who prayed for their kids, took them to church, and tried to do all the “right” things in the parenting books.
But life didn’t turn out like they expected. Instead of picket-fence perfect (or even picket-fence close), these parents found themselves praying for adult children struggling with everything from getting through college to getting a job…from finding a marriage partner to navigating their way through a divorce…from battling addictions and mental health issues to surviving health crises like Katherine Wolf did.
Would these folks say they were satisfied? Would they say they had a reason to “celebrate”?
Amazingly (and almost beyond belief), they would. While none of them would wish their stories on anyone, virtually all of them told me some version of the same thing: Their challenges forced them to take their eyes off of the outcomes, because the outcomes were not always there. But the yearning for something good – something that would satisfy their deepest longings – still was. And the more they pressed in, the more they realized that their desire was not for an outcome at all.
Their desire, for themselves and for their children, was simply for Jesus.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Maybe you’ll be cooking a turkey and looking out at your picket-fence yard, where your picket-fence husband (or wife!) is playing football with your picket-fence kids.
Or maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll be looking at things like loneliness, disappointment, broken relationships, and shattered dreams. Maybe you’ll be wondering where God is, or why he’s taking so long to show up. Maybe you’ll be wondering what you have to be thankful for, or what on earth you can celebrate.
If that’s you (and I’ve been there, so I get it), then can I just encourage you to take a step back and ask yourself the same question I’ve asked myself, time and again: Are you trusting in an outcome, or are you trusting in the Lord? Do you want what God gives, or do you want him? Are you willing to celebrate…not because you have hard stuff, but because God is with you in the midst of it?
God never said he would keep us from experiencing pain, or from having to walk through hard places. Instead, he said he would walk through them with us. And when we face the death of a dream or the loss of something precious, we can do so with thanksgiving, knowing that God is in control and that he has the power to resurrect whatever it is that we have had to relinquish, making it wonderful and new in his time.
Ephesians 3:20 says that God can do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” This year, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, let’s do so knowing that our Heavenly Father is at work and that, no matter what circumstances or relationships look like right now, we can trust him to do more than we ask. Let’s thank him because he loves us in our questions, he has gone before us in our pain, and he offers us the satisfying and immeasurable gift of his presence.
Let’s celebrate. In everything.
Thanksgiving is next week! And whether your heart is in a grateful place or you feel like you need a little Holy Spirit help to get there, here’s a Friday Prayer for yourself or for someone you love:
Help _____ to rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances, for this is your will for us in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
Blessed are those who mourn.
That promise, from Matthew 5:4, has never been one of my Bible favorites. The second half of the verse is a little more upbeat – for they will be comforted – but, if I’m being honest, I gotta say that I’d just as soon skip the whole thing. No mourning, no need for comfort. Done.
But if you’ve been keeping up with this blog series about waiting on God, you knew I’d get around to mourning, eventually. And last week I promised to tackle one of the thornier questions that can attach itself to the waiting process: What do we do with the grief, or even the anger, that can box us into a corner when our prayers seem to go unanswered, or when the outcome doesn’t look like we expected (or wanted) it to?
The short answer is to remember how much God loves you. Go ahead and take your hurts to him – tell him just how you feel – and then let him hold you. Mourn, and be comforted. If that’s all the blog you can process today, that’s enough.
If you’ve got time to dig a little deeper, I’d like you to meet my guy Asaph. He’s the fella who wrote Psalm 73. He sees all of the arrogant God-mockers getting healthy, rich, and popular, while he feels like he is being “punished every morning,” and he is shaking his head. He’s grieved, and he’s bitter. He’s mourning, and he’s mad.
Not a fun place for a believer to be.
In the end, though, Asaph realizes that he has it all backwards. The bad guys are on slippery ground. Their destiny is destruction; his future is secure. Asaph has the blessing of God’s guidance, the certainty of his love, and the promise of his presence. And that’s all he needs. “Whom have I in heaven but you?” he asks. “And earth has nothing I desire besides you.”
There was a time when I would have read a statement like that and thought to myself, “Yeah, right. God’s presence is nice and all…but I would have rather had the pony.”
Lately, though, as I’ve wrestled with the problem of pain and the questions that come with things like unmet longings and unanswered prayers, I’ve begun to appreciate the blessing of God’s nearness. Here’s why:
I was raised on verses like Romans 8:28 (which says that God works in all things for our good), Jeremiah 29:11 (his plan is to prosper us and to give us hope), and Job 42:2 (no purpose of his can be thwarted), and I struggled over the fact that I felt sad when things didn’t turn out like I wanted them to, or when God seemed to be silent in the face of my prayers. If I truly believed that God was working for good, that his plan was for hope, and that his purpose would prevail, then I had no business being anything but grateful. Even if I didn’t understand what God was up to, I felt like I should be excited about it.
But I wasn’t.
And because I wasn’t, I felt like I should apologize to God. I figured that, since he already knew my heart, I could just go ahead and be honest. So here’s what I wrote in my prayer journal (and I’m sharing this partly so that those of you who think that you need to be all holy and eloquent when you talk to God will maybe feel a little bit better about just letting it rip):
“God,” I said, “I am sorry to be so spiritually lame. I really am trying to trust you. And I don’t mean to be sad. I know all your promises about how good and powerful you are, and about how much you love me, and I guess if I honestly believed these things – ”
“It’s okay.” (Have you ever been interrupted by God? Because that’s what I think happened to me. There I was, telling him how lame I was, and he just cut right in.)
“It’s okay,” I sensed God say. “Go ahead and grieve. Your sadness is real. But it’s not a bad thing. Bring it to me, and let me comfort you.”
Wow. Talk about a game-changer. There I was, trying to push my pain into a manhole and put the cover on, and God said not to. He wanted me to come to him the way that I wanted my children, when they were younger, to bring me their skinned knees and fevers, so I could hug them and bandage their hurts. Or the way that I want them to now, with their worries and fears, so that I can pray and let them know they’re not alone. And I realized that day, as I basically climbed into God’s lap and let the tears come, that I was just like Asaph. I had it all backwards.
I thought that disappointment and anger were bad things. Things to be avoided. Things that didn’t have a legitimate place in the life of a “real” Christian. (And just as a sidebar, if we allow these things to shape our identity, dictate our perspective, or become our life’s focus, I think they are bad.) But if we can learn to see them as tools in God’s hands, we will discover that our grief and our questions are actually blessings. In drawing us into God’s presence, they are the cords that he uses to bind up our broken hearts (Isaiah 61:1), to let us know how much we are loved, and to show us that even in mourning, we are blessed.
Next week, in the final post in this series, I will introduce you to a couple of folks who have lived this stuff, and who express it so much better than I can. I realized (when I saw my friend Michelle’s organic turkey in a bag in her driveway) that Thanksgiving is almost upon us. And my hope is that, together, we can celebrate the holiday from a place of genuine gratitude, a place where waiting on God (and trusting him, even when we aren’t sure what he is doing) becomes something we can really enjoy.
Like Asaph, I want us to be able to bring all of our questions and complaints before God and find our joy not in his answers, but in his nearness.
This month, we’re exploring what it means to discover the blessedness of waiting on God, of learning to put our trust in him instead of in the outcomes or answers we expect.
I love the promise Psalm 90 offers: That we can be satisfied not with God’s gifts or the things he provides, but simply with the warmth of his love. Let’s make this one our Friday prayer, either for ourselves or for someone whose heart longs to be filled:
Satisfy _____ in the morning with your unfailing love; let _____ sing for joy and be glad all his/her days. (Psalm 90:14)
(Note: This post is part 2 of a 4-part series on praying, trusting, and discovering the “unbroken enjoyment” of waiting on God. If you missed last week’s post, click here.)
When Robbie and I got married, we put Psalm 84:11 on the front of our wedding program: For the Lord God is a sun and shield: the Lord bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.
We loved that verse. We felt like God had blessed us with incredible favor already, and since we were technically “blameless” (the stain of our sin having been washed clean by the blood of Christ), we looked forward to a lifetime of more “good things” from our Heavenly Father.
That was 30-plus years ago.
In the past three decades, we’ve seen more good things than we could ever have imagined. But we’ve also seen more heartache, disappointment, and prayers that didn’t get answered (at least not in the way we would have liked). Given the perspective of time, some of these losses are easy to understand (e.g., my failed audition as a radio DJ), but some of them are much harder. Why, for instance, did God “withhold” the miracle we prayed for, when my sweet father was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 60?
Why didn’t we get the house we so desperately wanted to buy? Why did my dear friend’s marriage fall apart? Why didn’t God protect us from making that bad investment? Why didn’t my child get into that school…make that team…get invited to that birthday party? Why do I sometimes feel (like it says at the end of Psalm 88) like “darkness is my closest friend”?
I know you share those questions. We all have them. And when we ask God for something that we know is a really good thing – like the salvation of a loved one, or freedom from a crippling addiction – and he stays silent, that can be confusing. Frustrating. Faith-shaking, even.
I won’t pretend to have all the answers. But in my own journey (which has been shaped and supported by authors whose brains are much bigger than mine), I’ve found a few anchors that have helped to keep my faith in place. Maybe one of these mooring hooks will help you, too:
Andrew Murray (whose classic, Waiting on God, served as the backdrop to last week’s post) says that in “every true prayer, there are two hearts in exercise. The one is your heart, with its little, dark, human thoughts of what you need and God can do. The other is God’s great heart, with its infinite, its divine purposes of blessing.”
I get the two-hearts thing. I know God has the power to move any mountain he wants to, so when I don’t get what I want in prayer (either for myself or for a loved one), I figure the problem can be traced to one of two things: Either I was wrong (in that what I wanted was not, actually, a good thing at that time), or God was (because it was good, and he didn’t deliver). Given those two choices – the desires of my little, dark, human heart, or those of God’s great, divine, purposes-of-blessing heart – I know which one I’d better pick.
Jennifer Kennedy Dean builds on this theme in her study, Live a Praying Life (which, incidentally, is hands-down my favorite Bible study on prayer):
She says that God wants us to grow in things like tenacity and perseverance, and that when it looks like God is moving slowly (or not at all), he is “putting pieces together that you had not thought of.”
I get that, too. God rarely does things in the way, or on the timetable, that I would. That should come as no surprise, given verses like Isaiah 55:8 (which says that God’s ways are not our ways), but I spend more time than I care to admit trying to figure out what he’s up to. I know his plans are good, and I know he loves me…but sometimes, the stuff he does looks an awful lot like a whoopsie.
Dean has been there. But, in looking at the lives of folks who’ve gone through more than a few of those tricky places (guys like Joseph, who thought he was supposed to be a ruler but wound up being sold as a slave), she warns us not to mistake God’s will for his ways, or confuse what he is doing with how he is doing it. We only see part of the picture. And, she writes, “We cannot control God or tell him how to accomplish his plan.” That one may seem obvious, but trust me: When you have as many good ideas for God as I think I do, it can be hard to just sit back and wait. It can be tough to pipe down. And during those seasons when you spend the whole night weeping, it can be a stretch to believe the Psalm 30:5 promise that joy comes in the morning.
Because morning can seem like a long way off.
So what do we do? Where do we turn, when we feel like God has left us hanging, or that whatever he is doing is so mysterious, or is taking so long, that he might as well be doing nothing? How do the unexpected outcomes and disappointments of our lives (as well as God’s apparent silence in the face of these things) square with the promise on our wedding program, that “no good thing will he withhold”?
Again, I don’t have all the answers. But, more than 30 years after Robbie and I walked down that aisle, I finally noticed that our wedding psalm doesn’t end with verse 11. There’s more. Psalm 84:12 (the last verse in the psalm) says this: “Lord Almighty, blessed is the one who trusts in you.”
And that, I think, is the key.
It’s not “Blessed is the one who trusts in the good things you give.” Or, “Blessed is the one who trusts in your favor.” It’s “Blessed is the one who trusts in you.”
And what I am finding out is that, when I pray, I often get it backwards. My trust is in the wrong place. Instead of trusting in God, I am trusting in an outcome. Instead of looking for him, I am looking for the blessings he provides. Instead of desiring the Giver, I am consumed with desire for the gift.
And when I don’t get what I want, I am sad.
I’ll deal with that next week – with what we do with the grief and anger that sometimes accompany unexpected or unwanted outcomes – but since this post is already too long, I’ll just leave you with some of the questions I am pondering this week:
If all we have is Jesus, is that enough?
Are we willing to explore the blessedness (the “unbroken enjoyment of waiting”) that comes with putting our trust in God?
And, at the end of the day, are we willing to settle for the gifts…or do we want to press in and behold the Giver?
This month’s posts and Friday prayers are designed to help us discover the “unbroken enjoyment” of waiting on God as we learn to trust him in the sometimes unexpected (or unwanted) circumstances of our lives.
Psalm 40 offers a beautiful picture of how God hears us, rescues us, and gives us a firm place to stand. Here’s how the first few verses in this psalm can be used as a prayer for yourself, or for someone you love:
I am waiting patiently for your help. Turn to me and hear my cry.
Lift me out of the pit of despair, the mud and mire of life. Set my feet on solid ground and steady me as I walk.
Give me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise – and may all who see what you have done be amazed and put their trust in you. (Psalm 40:1-3, NLT)
In his classic work, Waiting on God, Andrew Murray says that waiting “gives a higher value and a new power to our prayer and worship” because it links us to God and gives us the “unbroken enjoyment” of his goodness.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I would ever put “waiting” in the same sentence as “unbroken enjoyment.” Not even on the same page. But thanks to one of those cosmic collisions that happens between life and learning, I am starting to believe that Murray might be on to something.
The “life” part of the collision is an unsettling mix of unmet longings and disappointing circumstances, the things I see and experience in the lives of those I hold dear. The dating relationship that was “supposed” to lead to marriage but didn’t. The promotion at work that never materialized. The deal that has not yet closed. The “deferred” notice on the med school application. The gap between homesick and happy for college students. The desire to have a baby (and the heartache that grows with each negative pregnancy test).
Those are the unexpected outcomes – and the unanswered prayers – that can make a person wonder about verses like Isaiah 49:23, which is where God says, “Those who hope in me will not be disappointed.”
The “learning” part is the light that is piercing the darkness. Thanks to resources like Murray’s book, as well as a Bible study I am doing right now on the Psalms (click here to see the teachings offered through Galilee Church), I’m cobbling together an understanding of verses like Proverbs 13:12 (“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life”), and I want to invite you to join me.
Over the next three weeks, I am going to write about what happens when hope is deferred:
What are we supposed to do when our prayers are not answered in the way that we expect – or when they seem to be not answered at all?
How can we handle the grief, or the anger, that can slip in through the door of disillusionment and wrap itself around our hearts?
Is the “unbroken enjoyment of God’s goodness” really an option for believers today? And if so, how do we get there?
Waiting is hard. Murray says that the word patience is actually derived from the Latin word for suffering. That, unfortunately, makes sense. And it might explain why the Bible offers this little pump-up nugget: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage” (Psalm 27:14 ESV).
“Be strong and take courage” are words you might expect to hear at the outset of some adventure, some challenging or difficult enterprise that will tap (and maybe even exhaust) your deepest reserves. And if you don’t want to slog through that mire with me, I get it. Just check back in December, when I promise to post something more fun (an update, perhaps, to the Posture Brace or maybe even the Christmas Sweater).
But if you want to come along for the ride, I’ll leave you with the promise of good things to come: A rescue, a firm footing, and a new song:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God. (Psalm 40:1-3)
And PS, for those who might want their own copy of Waiting on God: You can download the 1896 version for FREE by clicking here, or order the updated version ($5.99, and with language that is easier to follow but still needs maybe a 600 on the SAT Verbal) here.
Early voting has begun. I’m doing laundry to be sure my Election Day Outfit is clean, and I’m also tapping into the Book of Common Prayer, which offers a pretty fab petition we can use in the days ahead.
Here it is, if you want to turn it into your own Friday Prayer:
Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our power and privileges:
Guide the people of the United States in the election of officials and representatives that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
You know how it is when you learn a new vocabulary word and then you suddenly start start hearing it all the time? It’s that way for me with songs. I don’t listen to a whole lot of music, and so when I hear the same song twice in two days, I notice.
Which is what happened to me this week with the new (I guess it’s new?) single, Ain’t My Fault. I first heard it performed live by a group of adorable, fresh-faced college students at a concert last weekend. And then, yesterday, I heard the recorded version by the actual artist (a Swedish gal named Zara Larsson) during my workout class.
Here are the lyrics (in case you are like me and you are a “Billboard Hot 100” ignoramus):
It ain’t my fault you keep turning me on
It ain’t my fault you got, got me so gone
It ain’t my fault I’m not leaving alone
It ain’t my fault you keep turning me on…
No I can’t be responsible
If I get you in trouble now
See you’re too irresistible
Yeah that’s for sure
There’s more, but you get the idea. And when I heard the song for the second time (and yes, I was trying to figure out the lyrics while everyone else was perfecting their squats), I thought to myself, “What the heck?”
What the heck is wrong with us? We can’t be responsible?
Can you imagine what a prosecutor would do with that line of defense in, say, a sexual assault case? Or even a theft? “That diamond necklace was just too irresistible…”
Even more than that, though, I feel like this song (which is of course very upbeat and catchy and actually a little bit irresistible) typifies so much of what is upside down in our culture. A friend of mine, who is mom to three young adult men, tells her sons that a woman should be able to walk, stark naked, through a fraternity or a bar, and be safe. She wants her boys to have enough self-control to respect every woman, no matter how she acts or looks.
As a mom to three young adult daughters, I take a similar-but-opposite tack: “Don’t you dare walk through a fraternity or a bar lookin’ like that.” I want my girls to demonstrate the exact same measure of self-control and not disrespect the young men in their world by trying to attract their attention in an inappropriate way.
In both cases, for our sons and our daughters (and for that matter, for us), it comes down a willingness to be responsible. To exercise self-control. Because words like “It ain’t my fault you keep turning me on” are baloney. We all have eyes; we can look away. We all have feet; we can walk out.
Back when I wrote Praying the Scriptures for Your Children, I devoted an entire chapter to stories and prayers about self-control, diligence, and self-discipline in our kids. Back then, the need for self-control centered around things like swiping erasers from the first-grade supply closet, or even falling out of your chair at the dinner table (something our kids managed to do with astonishing regularity). Now (and I am not telling you anything you don’t already know) the need – in my kids’ lives, and in mine – is much more serious. Like, I wish my biggest self-control issue was needing to stay in my chair.
If you, your child, or someone you love struggles with personal responsibility (or if you’ve maybe heard “It’s not my fault” one too many times), here are three of my favorite prayer verses from that long-ago chapter. They worked for the stolen erasers and, thanks be to God, they are just as powerful for our lives today:
May _____ make every effort to add to faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge, and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. (2 Peter 1:5-7)
Do not give ______ a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline. (2 Timothy 1:7)
May your grace, which offers salvation, also teach _____ to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live a self-controlled, upright, and godly life. (Titus 2:11-12)