This past Sunday at WBC, the Adult Discipleship Seminar and the Incline prayer gathering teamed up to kick off “Growing through Groaning,” a 4-week series on prayer. After a break this Sunday for the Spring Missions Conference, this series will resume Sunday, March 17, as Rohan Johnson leads a study from James 4.
Our first study, from Psalm 102, a psalm prayed in the midst of some traumatic trial, raised some timeless questions when we face groaning trials and seek God in prayer. How intense should we be in asking God to incline His ear to us and answer our prayer? What hinders us from praying so passionately? How real can we be with God in our distress? What might He think if we verbalize the feelings the psalmist had in his plight – “you have taken me up and thrown me down” (102:10)? If God is sovereign, does my prayer matter to Him? Will God show up for His people if they don’t pray? What sort of answers to our prayers can we expect from God? What is God’s “big picture” purpose for our lives as we groan in prayer through trials?
A few takeaways on prayer from our discussion of Psalm 102:
- Prayer is not optional. It is a command for us every moment of life (Luke 18:1; 1 Thess 5:17). Without prayer, our Christian life is powerless. We should seek God relentlessly with the importunity of the psalmist in 102:1-2, much like the persistent widow in Luke 18:1-8. Jesus wants His Father’s house to be a house of prayer for all nations (Mark 11:17).
- God wants to hear us in our groaning. He is not only Sovereign over our lives, He also loves to arise and show pity to us in our groaning, and to appear in His glory to show regard for our prayers (Psalm 102:13, 16-17). God’s lordship is a loving sovereignty. He wants to respond to us. His sovereignty and our human agency in prayer work hand-in-hand in this Psalm! There is no conflict or contradiction in affirming both of these wonderful, complementary biblical truths.
- God wants to build us up through our groaning by His responses to our groaning prayers (102:16-17). This might mean He answers with a lesson of strength to continue through a trial rather than removing the trial. It might also mean that He comes and sets His people free from what is oppressing them (102:20). Either way, we can rest assured that when we pray honestly and earnestly, God hears and responds to meet the need He knows we most need to have met. That need may be a deeper appreciation of His grace, His power, His faithfulness, His justice, His mercy, His patience. It also may be to change us, whether to humble us or to reassure us of His love for us. When God’s people call upon Him, He answers them (Psalm 99:6, 8).
- The purpose of growing through groaning is that we become more conformed to the image of Christ. We read Romans 8:18-29 during our discussion to remind ourselves that as the whole creation is groaning, so are we, longing for the revealing of the sons of God in the day of Christ’s return. Until then, God is using all things to work toward making those who love Him more and more like His Son.
- God wants us to remember and remind one another of His faithfulness in giving us His answers to our prayers – not always what we expect or may have thought we wanted, but always what is wise and best for us at the time. These memories of His answers to our prayers should become an enduring testimonial to the next generation, and a source of our corporate praise leading us to greater worship of Him (102:18-22, 28)
- The eternality and immutability (unchanging-ness) of God can sustain us in the face of our mortality. These attributes also remind us of our purpose to pass on a legacy of prayer-driven worship to the next generation (102:18, 23-28).
- But what I will remember most about our first Sunday in this series on prayer are the testimonies shared by several in the room when asked what was the most memorable answer to prayer God has given them. To one who had received a cancer diagnosis, the promises of God came to mind: “I am with you always”; “I do not change” (Matt 28:20; Malachi 3:6). To another grieved by the intrauterine death of their third child, the promise of hope in seeing him in heaven - “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me” (2 Sam 12:23). For another, God’s answer did involve the provision of a material need, a place to stay when in a foreign country, indicating God’s heart for those who are strangers in another land. And yet another shared how prayer helped move someone with PTSD to seek the help they needed.
When Diana returned home Sunday night from her visits to Jonathan and Therese, we talked about Psalm 102. She reminded me of the answer God had given her when we lost our first child through miscarriage. She was searching for understanding of our great loss. How could God let this happen? The answer came after a time of weeping – “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:8-9). In His sovereignty this was the comfort and safety we needed at that time.
These are precious memories not to be lost, but to be remembered and recorded, for praise and worship to God. When thus celebrated, these divine answers speak to the next generation, telling them that God is faithful, that He really does hear our prayers, that He inclines toward us, and that He responds to prayer. That response is given however God in His sovereignty deems best to build us up, and to show His loving regard for our groaning.
Philippians 4:6-7 tells us, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” In effect, we are to let God know our requests in prayer. What He promises as an answer is a peace beyond our understanding that can actually guard our hearts against the distractions that plague our prayer life, as well as carry us through the times of groaning. This peace and protection are an essential aspect of the building project God is continually fulfilling among His people. And every one of the testimonies you gave last Sunday was evidence of the loving, faithful, gentle peace of God, which is the ultimate answer to prayer in Christ Jesus – “He himself is our peace” (Eph 2:14).
So let’s take our groanings to God in prayer. Prayer is not a religious ritual that can be reduced to a formula. Rather, it is a spiritual battle to seek intimacy and dependency with God, when everything else around us and even in us conspires against getting real and getting closer to God. Let’s wrestle in prayer like Epaphras, and see how God answers us not as a vending machine, but as the Master Architect of our souls, our church, our world, and our destiny.