I was convinced that I fell in love for the first time in the summer of ‘95. She was strong, sexy, kind, and hung up on her ex-boyfriend. Perhaps I was once attracted to women with more issues than a magazine rack. My mom can probably attest to the truth in that statement. Melissa never reciprocated my affections, but she did convince me to change from briefs to boxer briefs. In hindsight, this undergarment recommendation was far more beneficial to my well-being than her love would have been.
Melissa and I worked together for the University custodial department. We had deep and meaningful conversations while washing carpets and cleaning toilets. I recall one conversation in particular. Melissa had trouble sleeping. Her ex-boyfriend had moved on to another and didn’t want anything to do with her. That caused her stress and anxiety. She couldn’t relax and suffered from insomnia. I spoke with her that day about prayer and how when I pray before I go to bed, it helps calm my spirit and releases some anxiety. That night, after working a shift at Walmart, I prayed that God would help Melissa overcome her anxiety and give her a good night’s sleep.
My faith journey has endured several peaks and valleys, as is the case with everyone. College was definitely a time of mountaintop experiences, when my faith in God and my conviction in the effectiveness of prayer was at its highest.
That next morning, as Melissa and I were gathering our cleaning supplies, I exclaimed without an inkling of doubt, “You slept well last night, didn’t you!”
Surprised with my absolute assurance, Melissa inquired as to how I knew.
I answered her by simply saying, “I prayed for you.”
This of course sparked a week-long discussion about God’s will and the power of prayer. Discussions where Melissa brought up numerous situations where God doesn’t answer prayers—prayers she so earnestly wanted God to answer as well as questions as to why God would give a flying rats behind about her self-imposed restless nights or not care about suffering victims of abuse or starving children in the Sudan.
As I reflect on that day, I realize that I used to bring everything—and I mean everything—to God in prayer. Furthermore, I was convinced God was listening and that God cared.
Last week, my mom reminded me of a time when I was young and we were visiting the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska. We were so excited for our day, but unfortunately God decided to rain on our parade. Convinced that God and I went way back and God would surely grant my wishes, I proceeded to step inside the ape exhibit, fall to my knees, and pray. I asked God to break up the clouds and postpone this rain storm for another day—a day when other kids wanted to enjoy the zoo, but not us. After an intense prayer session—I’m sure I was sweating drops of blood—I stepped out into the rain, held my hands out, and waited for the rain to stop—which it did. I simply looked up at the sky and shook my head in affirmation. Of course God answered my prayer. We went way back.
Today, a restful night for a neurotic 21-year-old and a sunny day at the zoo seem to be ridiculous prayer requests. To me, it’s like bothering God to help the Vikings defeat the Packers this Sunday night. We all know God’s a hockey fan anyway, right?
That’s where I’ve come. I pray for important things like my mother’s health, for my friend to find a job, or my kids to become functional adults who adore Jesus. I figure why bother God with the mundane or the things I can take care of myself. If I need some sleep, I drink a beer, take a hot shower, and go to sleep. If it rains, I reschedule my trip to the zoo. What happened to my faith in God’s providence for all things as well as my conviction in the strength of our relationship?
After Joshua and the Israelite army defeated the town of Ai, all the kings west of the Jordan came together to wage war against Joshua and Israel. However, the people of Gibeon decided that a different approach was necessary in order to live, and I have to say, they were brilliant. They decided to dress up in worn old clothes and patched up sandals. They loaded up their donkeys with worn-out sacks and old wineskins that were cracked and mended. All the bread in their food supply was dry and moldy. They then went to make a treaty with Joshua telling him they decided to travel from a distant country after hearing about their fame and the power of their God.
If you recall, God commanded Joshua and the Israelites to kill and destroy all the people in the Promised Land. Therefore, one could conclude that anyone from a distant country could be spared. After inquiring of these people, they showed Joshua their moldy bread, old wineskins, and shabby clothes. Apparently—and to the relief of the Gibeonites—the Israelites ate their moldy bread, but didn’t pray about it, so Joshua let them live and made a treaty of peace with them (Joshua 9).
It seemed obvious to Joshua and the Israelites. These people had shabby clothes and moldy bread. “Why should we pray in this situation? It’s common sense.” Joshua decided to make a treaty with these “obvious” foreigners without praying to God about them first. This was a mistake. Apparently, God wants us to pray about the big stuff, the small stuff, the obvious stuff, the mundane stuff, and the annoying stuff.
I’m reminded of a parable Jesus told his disciples in order to illustrate the importance of persistent prayer. Basically, a widow kept bothering a corrupt judge until he finally caved and gave her what she needed. Jesus pointed out that if this corrupt judge—who didn’t care about anything—gave the widow what she needed because of her persistence, how much more would God—who is just and compassionate—give us what we need when we are persistent (Luke 18:1-8).
Obviously, God doesn’t always give us what we want or think we need. If this were the case, there would be 31 Super Bowl champions every year (that’s 31 because MY God would never help the Packers win), no one would be sick, everyone would have well-disciplined kids and super awesome spouses, and we’d all be millionaires. This fact doesn’t mean, however, that God wants us to give up or just pray about those things we feel are suited for God and take care of the “minor” issues ourselves. We’ve been discussing this topic—for what seem like forever—in my men’s Bible study group every Friday morning. As we continue to mull over these difficult issues surrounding prayer, I’ve found some understanding in these words of Dallas Willard from page 242 of The Divine Conspiracy: “Prayer is never just asking, nor is it merely a matter of asking for what I want. God is not a cosmic butler or fix-it man, and the aim of the universe is not to fulfill my desires and needs. On the other hand, I am to pray for what concerns me…”
Prayer still confuses me, and ten years from now when my men’s study group is working through page 250 of The Divine Conspiracy, I’m sure the muddied waters won’t be any clearer. One thing I have concluded is God wants to walk with me and talk with me, and by conversing with God, the two of us can begin to understand one another. I can begin to understand God’s will for my life and God will understand my needs, passions, and concerns. Through this intimacy, I hope I can make sense as to why people I love suffer or people who don’t deserve it thrive. So even if everything in life seems as meaningless to me as it does to the Teacher who wrote Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes 12:8), I will follow the Teacher’s lead and continue to fear God, walk with God, and “in EVERY situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present [my] requests to God.” Because when I do, God promises me “peace” that will “transcend all understanding” (Philippians 4:6-7).
And that’s pretty cool!
 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 242.