I bet that you’re on a prayer journey too. Even if you don’t believe in a Supreme Being who guides the universe, it’s too tempting not to send out a test prayer, feeling for the possibility. Like leaving cookies out for Santa when you are starting to doubt his existence, prayers can become a “just in case” safeguard to keep your bases covered.
Miracles and Disappointments
Well, although I wished for Santa, I never really believed in him because that wasn’t one of my family’s traditions. And I definitely never left him cookies. But I had more confidence in the concept of God, because even as a child, I had seen him intervene and step into real life. I knew that God healed because he had healed my mother of a kidney disorder and my brother of intussusception. I had seen him provide food from miracle sources when we were desperately poor.
And yet I knew he wasn’t a genie in a bottle that you could rub for a wish. I had tried that with my own birth defect. Praying fervently before bedtime that my ear would be a normal shape. Waking up every morning after, quickly deflated to find my ear as it was, still folded and shriveled. Wondering if God really loved me after all or if I had somehow failed to work the system of gaining God’s favor.
Living Life Under God
And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek himHebrews 11:6
You see this verse about coming to God frees us or imprisons us depending on how we read it. And I was reading it through a lens of achievement – I had to have enough faith. I had to be pleasing to God. When you look to answered prayer as the measure of your faith, the proof that you please God, the work is all done by you. And then who is really controlling the universe? You? Or God?
I was living what Skye Jethani would call LIFE UNDER GOD. “The LIFE UNDER GOD posture sees God in simple cause-and-effect terms – we obey his commands and he blesses our lives, our families, our nation. Our primary role is to determine what he approves (or disapproves) and work vigilantly to remain within those boundaries.”1 Sounds like my earlier comparison – God as a genie in a bottle. But in reality, God doesn’t answer to us, and we’ll be quickly disillusioned if we think he does.
So what is this verse about then? I have a different lens through which I read it now, but more about that later.
The Child on a Prayer Journey
As I said, as a child I did believe in God. But I did not believe that he loved me. I prayed to him, but my prayers were often whiny requests or deals to be made. Two legit prayers I prayed as a child, and that God really answered, serve as perfect examples.
Both these embarrassing prayers reveal my obsession with the opposite sex. And my desire to be loved.
For real, this is prayer number one: “God please let there be someone out there for me to marry! If you have someone, then please let me only fall in love once. But if there isn’t, I want lots of boyfriends.” My definition of “falling in love” being love that was reciprocated. I had plenty of “crushes.”
Prayer number two involved one of my many crushes. We’ll call him John.
I was anxious to stay on God’s good side so that ruled out dating anyone who wasn’t evidencing Christian faith. So I set out to pray diligently for John’s salvation. I was whiny about it. And persistent. I am not anything if not persistent.
And my answer didn’t come in any evidence I witnessed. It actually came in one of those extraordinary encounters where God settles an answer so firmly in your heart that you look around to see if anyone else heard it. “John will be saved.” Just like that. Case closed. I never saw him after that, but I’m pretty sure I’ll see him in heaven.
Fast forward about sixteen years, and I’ve married my darling. Who answered all the items on the checklist I prayed to God. And I’ve the sweetest trio of tiny dependents. And I get all bent out of shape about another verse in the Bible.
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” John 10:27, NIV.John 10:27
My personal translation read: “If you’re a real Christian, then you should be hearing God tell you what to do. You’re probably not a real Christian. You don’t belong to Jesus. You’re gonna go to hell. You’d better get with it, and get something from God ASAP! Then you’ll be saved.”
It’s the same LIFE UNDER GOD idea. I do things, God does things. We’re all good, and I have a ticket to heaven. Then I can focus on something else.
Revisiting Hebrews 11:6, it reads, “anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
So I began what I thought was “earnestly seeking him.” With whining in prayer about not hearing his voice. With promises to obey if only he’d show me what to do (hopefully nothing too hard!). With reading my Bible and crying out for words from him.
I ignored the part of the verse about God’s “rewards” because I didn’t understand that. Surely there weren’t “rewards” for following Christ, but paid wages. My just deserts. I could have told you this was wrong thinking, but my prayer journey proved I was still stuck here.
And in all my badgering God to enable me to hear his voice, he was speaking to me over and over a message that I couldn’t accept. “I love you.”
Seriously, this is what it would come down to again and again, and I wasn’t hearing it. I would “pooh, pooh” those who would use this to encourage me. Because I didn’t think that it was what God would say. I was looking for a big mission with which I could impress God, ensuring my salvation. But I kept getting what I thought was this useless bit about God loving me which didn’t involve any directions or great things to accomplish.
I knew God loved me. Because it was in the Bible. “For God so loved the world”. Wasn’t that his part of the contract? Wasn’t he obligated to love me because I was a human? Good grief! Everyone knows God loves them! Where’s the divine revelation in that?
I’m happy to say that God did finally break through with his words of love to my foolishly, and unnecessarily, impoverished heart! When you can understand that God loves you personally, not because he has to, but because he likes you and wants you and chooses you, that sheds an entirely different light on who he is and who you are! When I felt God’s love, it was something overwhelming and absolutely contagious! It flipped my whole life-system upside down! Now my heart felt healed. Now I wanted everyone else to understand how generous God’s love is!
A New Lens – How the Gospel Changes Prayer
In a Bible study guide by Ruth Chou Simons that I’m currently working through, she explains the transformation I felt like this. “When we see our identity without the lens of the gospel grace, our default posture is striving. When we apply the grace lens, an entirely new identity eclipses the old, because grace changes everything.”
And it changed how I read these verses.
“Without faith it is impossible to please God” Now I see that there is nothing I can do to make God love me. What pleases him is when I just believe and trust him.
“(B)ecause anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists” Throwing up Santa-Clause-requests-that-I- hope-will-be-heard are not prayers that rest in faith. Those are prayers that rely on chance, and although God sometimes very graciously answers them, these aren’t the prayers that win his favor. Faith is the opposite of this. Faith is a resting place where we know what we cannot see, without needing proof, that God is, in fact, real, and he is, in fact, good, because we just know it. Here our hearts can be at peace.
And believing that God exists, negates us believing that we are God or that we pull the strings. I am not the one who decides how and when God will answer my prayers. But I can trust that he hears me, sees me, and has me in mind as he pursues what will bring healing and wholeness to me and the entire planet. This faith comes not from wishful hoping, but from tested experience where God has been faithful and has done what only he can do.
“he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” I didn’t believe in those rewards before. I believed in contractual obligations of safety and completely missed that the blessings are not what we receive but who we receive. Instead of seeking him, I had been seeking separate blessings that I thought could satisfy me.
When it came to John 10:27 – “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” – I was complicating something that was meant to be simple. I needed to simply believe that I was God’s sheep. That he could speak to me if he had something to say and that I would be able to hear him. God is perfectly capable of communicating with me.
Yes, being a sheep of Jesus requires listening and following. But these are both achieved by staying close to him. Before, I had wanted a receipt to prove I was his so that I could turn my attention elsewhere. But that is missing the whole point – there is no better place for my attention.
Prayer Empowered by Grace
Nowadays my prayers aren’t as whiny and demanding, and that’s because I trust in God’s love. I still ask God for many things, but I am able to actually entrust them to him. I’m able to leave the burdens of my life at his feet after I’ve brought them. These are usually my prayers for myself.
And then there are prayers that are more like wrestling. I bring them up time and again, knowing that he loves to wrestle with me and that these prayers are as dear to him as they are to me. It’s not that he’s not involved, but he’s doing something deeper. He’s strengthening my faith muscles in the wrestling. These are incession prayers, praying for the needs of others. These are prayers that he will answer in his timing, but he wants to co-labor with me in seeing them fulfilled.
What I’ve Learned on the Journey So Far
So I hope I can encourage you by what I’ve learned on my prayer journey.
- Grace changes everything. It provides the power to pray with faith and hope.
- We can’t trick God into answering our prayers or even liking us, because…
- God loved each of us so devotedly that he chose to die in our place so that we could receive his life. John 3:16
- In order to be a sheep, you just have to watch and listen to the shepherd. Likewise, in order to be a child of God, you just need to believe who he has revealed himself to be in the Bible. You need to depend on him for your salvation and trust his Holy Spirit to move you nearer to him.
- God is not obligated to answer prayers in the way we think is best, because..
- God is God. And we are not.
- Faith is not believing God for a certain answer, but believing God, in his wisdom and goodness, will provide the best answer.
Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.Soren Kierkegaard
Grace for Salvation
Let me encourage you, that if you are not sure if God loves you, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a saved Christian. Believing that Jesus took your sins and died in your place, putting your trust in his substitution is what salvation requires. Realizing that you have been bought with a price, and you now live for God.
Sometimes it takes a while for this to move from just our heads to our hearts. It did for me. I truly knew and believed in Christ’s substitutionary death, but I thought there was more required. I believe I was saved before I really understood what that salvation meant. The cross is the core truth we need to understand. It is vital to our Christian faith. We never move past the gospel; it is key to how the Christian is renewed every day.
I recently watched an instagram reel by Mike Donehey explaining that he himself didn’t have a transforming encounter like Saul’s experience when he was changed to Paul.3 Instead he first came to know Jesus as his Savior, then later as his Lord, and now as his Treasure. I’d have to say it’s been the same for me.
A Prayer for You, Dear Reader
In closing let me pray this for us: “Lord, increase our faith. Help us to see who you truly are and be captivated by your love. Give us a devotion to you and a generous love for others. Renew our minds to view everything through the lens of the gospel of grace. Fill us with your Holy Spirit and let us become like your son, Jesus. Father, you are so good to us! Thank you for rescuing us. Amen.”
Intrigued my this part of my prayer journey? Read more in Following God, Finding Home.
Blessings to you, fellow traveler, on your prayer journey.
- Jethani, Skye. With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God. Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2011. p7.
- Chou Simons, Ruth. When Strivings Cease. Study Guide. HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., 2021. p111.
- @mikedonehey “Yeshua (Friend Of Sinners)” Instagram video. January 10, 2023. Accessed February 10, 2023 //instagram.com/reel/CnQBl_iBOtO/?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=