Sunday, February 20, 2011

Asking for Prayer...but Not Really

We hadn't really talked in a long time, but his first words spoke of needed prayer--for him, his wife, his children.

I try only to use the word "prayed" when telling others of my prayers for them, mainly because I'm afraid I will forget to pray if I change the verb tense to "will pray"...and I don't want my prayer life to be a forgotten lie.

This time, though, I said I "would pray", and afterwards, I couldn't get his request off my mind. For a solid week, I prayed. Any time during the day when their names and faces would come to mind, I asked the Lord to love, to protect, to guide. Even at night, I would awaken in darkness, sleep interrupted, to immediately think of their situation--and again, I would pray.

A few days later when we spoke, I gave what I thought were God's suggestions to the dilemma, and my heart sunk at his reply. It was clear that even before I began to pray for hope and a second chance, his heart had already made the decision against it.

The request for prayer was more an attempt to seek affirmation for his decision than for God to heal human hearts of brokenness. In my own heart, I felt hurt, angry, and used.

This past week, I finally ran across someone in Scripture who can relate!


This young man spent the majority of his life prophesying to the commoners, elite, priests, and kings, most of whom didn't want to listen. His life was threatened more than once. He was ostracized, banned from the temple as a troublemaker, thrown in a muddy well, almost starved to death, imprisoned....

After spending a few weeks studying only the end of his life, I'm feeling his exhaustion, his frustration, his sorrow...his loneliness. The end is coming. He knows it. Yet, no one will listen.

When Judah's very last king comes to the throne, it sounds like the same old story for poor Jeremiah: "But neither he [Zedekiah] nor his servants nor the people of the land listened to the words of the LORD which He spoke through Jeremiah the prophet" (Jer. 37:2).

And then Israel's very last king asks for prayer.

"Yet King Zedekiah sent Jeremiah the prophet, saying, 'Please pray to the LORD our God on our behalf'" (Jer. 37:3).

Scripture doesn't say that he prayed for Zedekiah or for Israel. Then again, it doesn't say he didn't pray either, so that's one of those topics for scholars to debate.

What we do know, however, is that the prayer request really wasn't a request for God to change Zedekiah's heart...but for God to change His heart and mind.

A few verses later, Jeremiah is beaten, imprisoned, and left in the dungeon (all based on a not-so-friendly misunderstanding with some officials). "Many" days later when King Zedekiah sends for Jeremiah, he "secretly" asks, "'Is there a word from the LORD?'" (Jer. 37:17).

In other words, "Is there anything new that you can tell me besides that doom and gloom nonsense where Jerusalem is destroyed, Babylon wins, and I wind up dead? Come on, Jeremiah. I asked you to pray! God speaks directly to you! Don't you have some pull with Him? Can't you make God change His mind? Can't you tell me what I want to hear?"

I envision a bruised Jeremiah, maybe with broken or fractured bones, surely with the shadowed remains of a black eye or two. He's exhausted. He's emaciated by starvation. And then, the King has him dragged up from his cell and whispers, "'Is there a word from the LORD?'"

Jeremiah's response seems more than a little hysterical, showing how outdone he is with a king who asks for prayers...but who is only willing for God to change His own holy mind, not this fleshly hardened heart: "And Jeremiah said, 'There is!' Then he said, 'You will be given into the hand of the king of Babylon!'" (Jer. 37:17).

Imagine Jeremiah jumping up with a shout. Hear his urgency.

I'm not sure if Jeremiah prayed, but I expect he did.

I'm not sure if Jeremiah hoped against hope that his prayer would result in Zedekiah softening his heart to heed God's warning...but it's possible. Even in the last days, he kept repeating the same words of prophetic warning, showing me that Jeremiah's heart held out hope until the end.

There's a lesson here about praying--and it's not that everything you pray for is going to happen the way you want it to. It's not that people aren't going to take advantage of your willingness to pray for them, hoping that you'll change God's mind and not their own.

No, the lesson is that no matter what, we still must pray for others. When someone asks for prayer, even if we doubt their sincerity, we still must "pray without ceasing" (1 Thes. 5:17).

Who knows when an insincere prayer request will lead to a sincere change of heart in another. But even if that never happens, the change, then, may be in your own heart and in my own heart as we draw close to the Father and are faithful to pray.

Photo "Praying Mantis" from Flik'r.

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