So, I’m currently beginning to read through “Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us” by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun. I’m preparing to participate in an upcoming session of The Academy for Spiritual Formation for the next two years, so one of the things that I am reading through is this handbook. It is not required reading, but I am starting to wade into some deeper waters.
A phrase stuck out to me today while reading. On page 18, Pastor Calhoun states:
“Jesus doesn’t grant requests like a genie in a bottle. He works with people, allowing their desires to draw him into the core conversations of life. For Jesus, requests for water, healing, rest, vindication, approval, status and so on all engage soul hungers. Misguided, self-destructive, true or addictive desperations and desires opened doors to relationship”
Pastor Calhoun goes on (I’m paraphrasing) to state that as we watch Jesus in ministry with people who make such deep requests requests we see Jesus delve into God-sized issues. These issues are generally resolved with Jesus leading people either to see the true nature of their desires or to a spiritual-practice that might help get at the core of requests. Speaking directly to the reader earlier on the same page Pastor Calhoun writes “Jesus knew you wouldn’t get well if you didn’t want the responsibility that came with wellness.”
I find all of this to be incredibly fascinating because I deal with people’s requests to God on a regular basis. Nearly every week of the year we lift up the “Prayers of the People” during our church service. Sometimes, especially on major holidays when things are a bit busy, we might use a Bidding Prayer to lift up all concerns at once through a communal prayer (which is usually the Lord’s Prayer), but generally we have an opportunity to lift up to God a word or two about a prayer request. Sometimes it is just a name and sometimes people lift up a situation, but there are often a lot of requests that cover everything from lifting up families in grief, to people fighting cancer, to life-victories like a loved one’s graduation from high school, to…well, pretty much anything! People lift up a lot of things in prayer and I am often happy to lift them up.
One of the reasons I am happy to lift up the prayers is that I generally am not placed in a place where I have to pass judgment on any of the requests. If Mrs. Doe wants to lift up her unmarried daughter Jane, it really is neither may place to tell her if her request is right or wrong nor is it generally my place to answer her prayer. Such matters often fall to God. These prayer requests often fall on Divine Shoulders, but not always.
Let me explain what I mean. When I was just out of college I came home to my town and the church I attended as a teenager. I loved attending Trinity United Methodist Church on Grand Island. Sitting in the pew every Sunday a plate was passed where we were invited to write down our prayer concerns. Almost every Sunday I put a slip of paper in the plate. The slip almost always said the exact same thing. It requested prayers for God to help the unemployed.
I lifted up that prayer request to God weekly and the pastor faithfully prayed for the under-employed and unemployed (kudos for expanding the prayer request into multiple areas of need). I walked out of church feeling God’s blessing on my shoulders, but do you know who had to place each of my job applications into the hands of the potential employers? I was the only one who could begin the process of having my prayer answered. To be certain, there were moments when I felt divine grace helping me to get out of my bed and try again, but there were also moments where the answer to my prayer required my participation.
Some part of me is led to thought when I read Pastor Calhoun’s words “Jesus knew you wouldn’t get well if you didn’t want the responsibility that came with wellness.” If I wanted to get well after college, if I wanted to pay my own bills, if I wanted to buy my own food, or if I simply wanted to be able to sit tall in church knowing that I wasn’t just using up heat and space (which I thought at the time and now thoroughly shake my head at now–that’s why the church is a public building and not a private chapel!), then I needed to take the responsibility that came with my wellness.
I think back through the scriptures and ponder a lot of the places where Jesus brings wellness into the lives of people. Jesus heals a Gerasene in Mark 5 and the man begs to go with Jesus, but the Gerasene is not called to go with Jesus. The Gerasene is given wellness, but that wellness seemingly comes with a cost. The Gerasene is sent to Decapolis where he tells people about Jesus. His blessing comes with the responsibility of wellness. He is called into his own ministry–no more tombstones and graves for the Gerasene.
In John 9, Jesus heals a blind man and being able to see immediately complicates the life of this formerly blind man and seemingly his whole family. Jesus heals and there comes a cost with that wellness. Was the formerly blind man willing to live up to the responsibility of wellness? When they interact later, the man worships Jesus, so it seems that the man was indeed willing to accept the challenges that came along with wellness.
I pursued my own wellness even as I lifted up my prayers and I was fortunate and blessed enough to find a place to work, but so often the prayers I hear lifted up both in church and in private come with a high responsibility if there is to be wellness. A few areas I see this to be true are listed below…
- Right-relationship: People often want others to repent of their actions and ask me to pray that their friend, spouse, neighbor, family member, etc., will change in a powerful way. Right-relationship often requires that both parties be willing to flex, bend, be humble, forgive, etc. It is common to pray for others to change. It is not wrong to ask God to be in a relationship, but it often requires personal commitment to the process of making the relationship right before healing can take place.
- Finances: People want the world to be a place of sunshine and roses. I know this is true because I am just as guilty as the next person. I would love to have a car without rust, without creaky noises, and without the high number of miles that my car currently holds. The terrible van still runs as of this blog post. In fact, in honesty, the fact that it still runs relatively-reliably may make it a bit self-absorbed and ungrateful to nickname it the terrible van.People would love to see a world where they have lots of money and they often ask why God cannot just give them a fortune. I truly believe the answer is often that people cannot have a fortune because they honestly do not need it. I also believe a lot of us have fortunes that we do not recognize because we do not see all that we have in our lives.I also believe that there are times when some of us would have fortunes if we were wise with the money we received. There’s a responsibility to look, to see, and to recognize when we are blessed. This may seem strange, but Netflix is not a spiritual gift. Christians are called to seek after the gifts of the Spirit and sometimes the nice things of the world do have a temporal cost that we have to accept if we desire them. I am not casting judgment on Netflix, but I do believe the actual value of the service compared to other temporal needs is worth thought.
- Forgiveness: This one hurts… People pray that someone else will forgive them. Sometimes forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Sometimes forgiveness can only be offered responsibly if precautions are first put in place. If someone were to hurt my daughter I might bring myself to forgive them, but you had better believe that my forgiveness does not mean that I will automatically leave them alone with my daughter.In all honesty, there have been times in my own ministry where people have hurt me deeply simply because they are angry at God. I forgive them as I understand that they are not always capable of understanding their actions or even capable of asking for forgiveness, but that does not always mean that I want to spend time extra time around them waiting for another round of abuse.Can I always avoid such individuals? Of course not. Will I treat them poorly? I hope not. Will I go out of my way to spend more time with them so they can keep hurting me? Not unless I am led by the Spirit–Jesus is their Savior, not me. Sometimes they need to work out their anger with God before they can come to a place of resolution and restitution. I have heard it said before “We are called to love our neighbors. Loving someone does not always mean that we have to like them.”
The same concept (having to work through the reason why pain was caused before forgiveness can be truly and completely extended) often holds true when we want others to forgive us. We may pray that others will forgive us, but occasionally that forgiveness does not come with an automatic pass back into the life of the person we have hurt. In extreme cases, this might even lead to a divorce in a marriage or estrangement with a loved one or family member.
If this is the first time you have considered this idea, feel free to talk with me or (even better) to a profesionally trained counselor about it in private. I may even be able to recommend a counselor to help you work through this if you live locally. It is not weakness or failure to seek help when you are struggling. If anything, admitting your limitations is a sign of strength.
- Wellness: I’m typing this blog-post while walking at my treadmill desk in my church office. Why? I prayed to God to help me to live a healthier life so that I could help my daughters grow up. My wife and I scraped through half a year without mileage reimbursement checks while going through multiple car repairs (see the terrible van comments above) and paying down a child’s surgery bills so that I might be able to get a piece of equipment that could help me to live a healthier life. The responsibility for my wellness rests partially and often heavily on my own shoulders.
Pastor Calhoun is right–God does not act like a genie every time we pray. I know passages like these challenge me to not only teach more deeply on prayer in my own ministry, but also to go deeper in how I support both my own prayer requests and the prayer requests of others. I hope you think more deeply about your own prayers as a result of these reflections. May your own requests draw you deeper into your relationship with Jesus.