August 20, 2010
Katherine Britton, Crosswalk.com News & Culture Editor
"But when you ask him, be sure that you really expect him to answer, for a doubtful mind is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind." - James 1:6
When a friend called me with "news" recently, I anticipated hearing about a promotion at work or a ring on her finger. The true story left me speechless.
"I'll pray for you" has become such a Christian catchphrase. We use it to comfort the hurting, encourage the downtrodden, advise the undecided, and otherwise tell people "I'll be thinking of you" in a holy manner. But when we pray, "Lord, please help Jenny move on after the breakup," do we really expect God to show up? Or do we anticipate that the natural measure of time will be what helps Jenny, not expecting a supernatural show?
This phone call chased away natural explanation. My friend was calling about permanent change that defied any temporal remediation. Excitedly, she told me that her father had finally met Jesus.
I just listened for a moment as she rejoiced and sang about her news. This was nothing short of miraculous - her father had never pretended to embrace faith of any kind. Her father is Jewish by birth, but the Christmas tree twinkled in their house just like it does in many non-Christian households. He didn't accept his wife's invitations to church or see his children's coming to faith as a motivation for spiritual exploration. Despite attempts by other men in his life to talk about faith in Christ, he remained resolutely independent for more than 20 years. Then… one day it just clicked. And the angels rejoiced.
During those years of unbelief, my friend and her mother practiced what could be called "expectant prayer." For two decades, they prayed for a unified family with a spiritual future. Their journey required a years of believing that "nothing is impossible with God" (Luke 1:37) and not losing faith. They "really expected God to answer" even if they didn't know when and couldn't see any difference. And so they prayed - for 20 years.
When my friend and I first met seven years ago, one of our first conversations considered God's sovereignty paired with our prayers. My beliefs at the time bordered on hyper-Calvinism, and my prayers leaned towards "your will be done" because… well, God's will was going to be done no matter what. My prayer life edged toward determinism more than faith. My new friend, on the other hand, fervently believed that "the prayers of a righteous man are powerful and effective" (James 5:16). She didn't know what the answer for her father would be - or if she would ever know for sure before heaven - but she knew her prayers would play a role in the answer. She didn't have to know how. She just prayed expectantly.
As I share my friend's news with you today, I'm reminded of the father in Mark 9 whose son was possessed by an evil spirit. The man had watched his son struggle against the spirit's dominion since his infancy. He must have been close to giving up hope. But he scrapped together whatever faith he had left and took the boy to the disciples. His heart weighed so heavily that he begged for relief from the creator of the world with the phrase, "If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us." What a desperate plea! Jesus recognized the man's flagging faith and did take pity, encouraging the man to believe that miracles were possible. The man's response has always stirred me: "I do believe - help me overcome my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24) And Jesus healed his son.
I don't think this father possessed unwavering, strong faith. I do think he possessed the mustard seed, however, and that was enough to move a mountain (Matthew 17:20). Likewise, I can't imagine praying for 20 years without once doubting that your prayer will be answered the way you hope. But clinging to our prayers with a mustard seed of faith will never be without effect.
Intersecting Faith & Life: Our prayers may not have visible effects here on earth. That cancer patient we prayed for may not win the battle against his illness. We may not know exactly how God will use or answer our prayers, but He is using them nonetheless. May the Lord give us the faith to keep praying - expectantly - that we will not be shaken.