For the last forty years, my prayer time has started with the Psalms. And for forty years they have alternately given me hope and then pulled that rug of hope from beneath me. They make great promises, but when I pray them with honest self-reflection, the promises fade away.
Look at the hopeful assurances offered:
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear. (Ps. 27:3)
The Lord preserves the simple. When I was brought low, he saved me. (Ps. 116:6)
The Lord is my Shephard; I shall not want. (Ps. 23:1)
The problem is simple: these promises seem reserved for Saint Francis, not me:
The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. (Ps. 18:20)
Give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit! (Ps. 17:1)
If I have repaid my friend with evil … let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it, and let him trample my life to the ground. [YIKES!!] (Ps. 7:4-5)
When I try to pray phrases like, “I have trusted in the Lord without wavering,” the words dribble out of my mouth and splatter on the floor.
I recently met with three friends to discuss a Saturday event we were hosting. I thought a previous decision was a spiritual mistake, and I pleaded that we reconsider. Not only did I plead, I urged and pushed, and then I rammed my point home with a metaphorical baseball bat.
My counsel, intensity, and insistence backed them into a corner. And it all backfired.
I’ve always pictured my flesh driving me to obviously unhealthy action: greed, power-lust, sexual immorality, oppression, and that third helping of Moose Tracks ice cream.
But even when my flesh fights for good things, it always corrupts. And then it destroys. My flesh may resist that unneeded extra dessert, but then it gloats, I thank you God that I’m not like all my gluttonous friends.
Beware whenever our flesh agrees with the Spirit. It’s a smiling crocodile.
I was ten years old the first time I heard God speak. It was autumn, a new school year had just begun, and a new fad was spreading among my adolescent classmates.
I was raised in a conservative Christian church where Sunday school teachers taught us the Ten Commandments. The teachers were vague about adultery, and I wasn’t concerned. They were also unclear about coveting, and I felt safe.
They made up for their ambiguity when it came to cussing. Instead of an elusive “Don’t take the name of the Lord in vain,” they precisely taught, “Don’t swear.” And when they said, “Don’t swear,” they meant, “Don’t cuss.”
For us, cussing was a sin on the order of mass genocide.
One day while playing school-yard tag, I tagged my girlfriend, Diane, and she shouted, “Shit!” I felt a shockwave race through my body, as though I’d been hit in the gut with a sledgehammer. Forty-five years later, I still feel that visceral punch, and I can exactly picture the playground gate where Diane cussed. I gasped for air but nothing came.
Looking back, it seems silly that a cuss word could cause such a shock, but it did. I expected God to cast down a lightning bolt and burn Diane to ash. The thought almost paralyzed me.
But not quite. I leaped back seven feet in case the bolt went wide.
Last week’s ideal plan didn’t translate itself into reality. Instead, life happened. While on an errand, I met a man and we talked for two hours; a friend called to say her father is dying and I went to visit him; and our water main sprung a leak, drenching the basement.
I’m traveling west for a retreat, so last week was filled with dozens of tasks to get ready. I use a planning app that helps me prioritize action items for each day. And then (hopefully) I complete all the items. But last week I failed utterly.
At the end of that “life-is-full-of-surprises” week, a well-known Christian blogger sent an email describing how “elite” entrepreneurs and executives accomplish their goals by eliminating the competing distractions. I thought, “Distraction-free life-management? Sign me up!”
And then I paused: How does it leave room for God?
I recently feel a need for action, practically (selling our house, helping a ministry I support, promoting my book) and humanly (a friend in divorce proceedings and other friends with health or financial woes). A season of doing has descended on me.
But where should I best invest myself?
There is no shortage of advice. Recently, resources I used to like for their insights have transformed themselves into Giant-Task-Lists. Books, blogs, and conversations bombard me with action-items, strategies, and plans:
Last May, an author sent me 26 emails (twenty-six!!) urging me to sign up for his “Three Principles for Successfully Building a Tribe.”
A friend told me of his Four-Step action plan to make a church more mission minded.
A house-stager made a Two-Page list of exactly what to do to make our house “Pop.”
And in one week, a blogger I used to like offered: (a) Six Steps to Becoming Happy, (b) Five Keys for Achievement, (c) Seven Steps to Getting Unstuck, and (d) Eight Secrets to Escape Exhaustion. (My escape from exhaustion began when I quit reading his blog).
Despite the verbal bombardment of tips and techniques for doing, God has also been speaking in a quieter voice, with a single thought that seems more invitational than edict. It’s this:
The Life of God begins to work in me at the moment of my inability.
My grandfather was a missionary in China from 1917 to 1936. He once told me of some early Pentecostal missionaries to China. They decided it was unnecessary to study Chinese before traveling because they “spoke in tongues.” But when they disembarked in Hong Kong, their abysmal language skills made them a laughing stock.
My grandfather (who was also a Pentecostal missionary) said to me,
“They refused to be of the world, which was good, but they completely forgot that they still must live in the world.”
Discouraged but determined, they took language classes. One man learned quickly, so they paid for him to study the advanced art of Chinese oratory. He would be their primary preacher.
After months of preparation, the missionaries organized their inaugural evangelistic event in a local town square. They shook their tambourines, sang several songs, and soon a crowd gathered. Their confident preacher began to speak.
To hear a foreigner speak such grand rhetorical Chinese was a novelty, and the crowd grew, but soon the yawns began, hecklers laughed, and the crowd shrunk. A less fluent missionary stood up and urged the crowd to listen. He bumbled his way through his own conversion history, and he stumbled through his story of hearing God for the first time. The crowd listened in silence.
Those missionaries traced their first convert to that botched-up-Chinese testimony.
“After learning to be in the world,” my grandfather reflected, “they forgot not to trust in it.”
Humanity was designed to hear God. It’s in our DNA. So why is his voice so rare? Scripture says, “God speaks in many and diverse ways, but nobody notices (Job 33:14). We miss his voice because he’s not a paint-by-number God. He speaks in ways we don’t expect.
We often hear well-meaning people describe conversations with God in ways that mislead. Their exchanges with God sound like dialogues written by Oscar Wilde:
I asked God: What should I do with my life?
God answered: Are you willing to take a risk?
I replied: Yes, but I don’t know what to do.
God said: Move to Timbuktu.
When people tell these stories, we think, I never hear God so clearly.
Let me tell you a secret: neither do they. At least almost never. Those stories are usually shorthand summaries of hours spent reading Scripture, reflecting, praying, getting Godly nudges, and recognizing God’s voice in circumstances and through friends.
Because God speaks through his infinitely imaginative, artistic mix of methods and moments.