Meet With God And Seek Him Everyday

Good communication doesn’t just happen. Simply talking with the one you love doesn’t automatically bloom into great communication. It is an art form that is developed over time, and has some intentionality to it. It also varies from relationship to relationship. Likewise, just reading your Bible doesn’t automatically produce a deep relationship with God. There needs to be a method applied to your time with God that helps cultivate and grow that relationship.

There are many methods, but they all have basically the same principles. You need to read the scriptures, figure out what they are saying, apply it to your life, and act on what God shows you. One of these methods is summarized in the acronym SOAP.

Scripture - Systematically and routinely reading the Bible.
Observation - Observing and interpreting what the scripture means.
Application - Answering the question, “What does this mean to me today?”
Prayer - Talk to God about what you need to do in response to the scripture and then do what he shows you.

 

Scripture

The first part of SOAP is to read your Bible, and thus, the first step is to get a good Bible. Picking out a Bible can be a daunting task. There are as many different kinds of Bibles as there are cereals (and I’m always amazed at how many different ways they can make puffed wheat). The reason there are so many different kinds of Bibles is because none of us still speak the original languages they were written in and we don’t live in the same culture. So folks a lot smarter than you and I needed to translate it in an understandable way. For instance, here is a word for word translation directly from the Greek version of John 3:16. “So for loved God the world that Son his only begotten he gave that whosoever believeth in him not should perish but have life everlasting.[1]” Sounds a little choppy doesn’t it? This is where the expert translators come in to help it make a little more sense to us today.

There are two different basic kinds of translations. The first is Formal Equivalence. It is a method of translation that attempts to give a word-for-word, clause-for-clause, and sentence-for-sentence rendering of the original text without sacrificing readability. This would include translations like the King James and New American Standard Versions. Thus John 3:16 in the NASB[2] reads, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.“ Pretty close to the original, but uses language like “begotten” that we really don’t use today.
The second is Dynamic Equivalence. In this version, the translators aim for a rendering that allows the Scripture to have the same aural and emotional impact on the modern reader as it did on the ancient listener in the original language. This would include translations like the New International Version and the New Living Translation. John 3:16 in the NLT[3] reads, "For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” Same basic wording but it reflects words and concepts we are familiar with today.

There is a third category that really isn’t a translation but a paraphrase. A paraphrase is a Bible in which someone takes scripture and puts it in his own words. The concern isn’t so much translating what the original Greek was saying as it is to give what the author’s interpretation of that scripture is. Common paraphrase Bibles would be the Message and the Living Bible. John 3:16 in the Message reads, "This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.” This is very easy to understand and holds the same basic thought as the translations. However, it interprets the meaning of the passage rather than simply translating it.[4]

It is important to note that no translation or paraphrase will ever be perfect. In the process of translating words, phrases, and ideas from one language into another, inevitably there will be syntax, figures of speech, and styles of expression that don't translate readily. And so, there is no one particular Bible that is better than all the rest. You may read a paraphrase to get a general overview of the Bible, use a dynamic translation in your day to day study of the scriptures, and go to a formal equivalence Bible when you want to focus in on a particular verse.

The point is not that you have the best Bible, but that you are using the Bible to hear from God in the first place. Whatever Bible you choose will depend greatly on where you are in your walk with God and to what detail you will be studying the Bible. We’ll talk more about this in the next chapter. For now, remember that different Bibles have different strengths. You probably want to start with a middle of the road Bible in terms of readability and translation, such as the New International Version or the New Living Translation, and then build from there as needed.

In 2006, my wife and I were asked to join a panel that would answer some questions of mothers with preschoolers.[5] One of those questions was “What are some practical ways you have kept your marriage alive while your kids were young?” Independently, my wife and I came up with the same answer: we put our kids to bed at 7:00 pm. You should have seen the jaws drop. Many of these young moms had trouble connecting with their spouse because they had barely any waking time with just the two of them. The idea of an hour or more of alone time every evening with their spouse seemed like a fairy tale. “How do you do it?” they asked. My wife and I explained it was a value of ours to have time to ourselves and that commitment, coupled with the young age of our kids, moved us to go through the difficult process of training our kids to go to bed at 7:00 pm.

The point isn’t that kids need to go to bed sooner; it is that good communication needs a regular time and space. Every evening my wife and I meet on the couch. We catch up, talk through any issues that may have arisen that day, and watch a little TV. This may be an hour or it may be three, but it is fairly consistent. It is a big part of how we can raise four young children and still be connected.

If we are going to love God we need that same space and commitment. There needs to be a regular time and place where we meet with God to talk to him and hear from him. The key word is regular. It doesn’t have to be a huge chunk of time, but it should be regular. Like exercise, a little spread over a week is better than a marathon once a week. At first, if you can only afford 2 hours, do twenty minutes for six days rather than trying to do it all at once. Communication works best when it is consistent and regular.

There are as many ways to study the Bible as there are to communicate. You can peruse the text at normal reading speed and enjoy the full scope of the story, study the individual books of the Bible, focus your attention chapter by chapter, carefully study individual paragraphs and sentences, or search for the meaning of specific words and phrases. Many people start with reading the Bible systematically–all sixty-six books–chapter by chapter, verse by verse, and word by word. At a very moderate rate, the entire Bible can be read in about seventy hours—about fifty-two hours for the Old Testament and eighteen hours for the New Testament. Divided over an entire year, those seventy hours equate to one hour and twenty minutes per week, or sixteen minutes per day if you were to read five days a week—or only eleven-and-a-half minutes per day if you establish the habit of reading your Bible every day.[6] A good resource is a One Year Bible which actually divides the Bible up into 365 daily readings. Another great option is a Chronological One Year Bible which divides up the scriptures into 365 readings and puts them into chronological order. This makes it easier to see how everything fits together.

If you have already read through the scriptures, then you may want to slow down and read the Bible devotionally. Devotional Bible Study is the process of reflecting on a particular chapter or a few verses of Scripture and making a personal application. You select a particular book or section of scripture and take a little more time to focus on the details. The depth of those details depends on the time and interest of the person doing the studying. The basic idea is to take the scriptures in smaller chunks and see what life God breathes into it for that day.

You can also read topically. In this kind of Bible study, you settle on one idea or topic and study everything the Bible has to say about it. For example, to study the concept of “grace,” you would use a concordance to find every passage in the Bible where the word “grace” appears and then read the surrounding verses to develop and deepen your understanding.
What matters isn’t how you study the Bible, but that you are regularly spending the time to hear from and respond to God. God wants to speak to you. He desires nothing more than to hear from you and communicate His love and dedication to you. In order to grow in that love and hear His voice you must apply the basic rules of every relationship. You need to have regular concentrated time with Him. It may seem inconvenient and it may seem hard, but the rewards are worth it. Divorce is inconvenient and hard. A healthy 20 plus year marriage doesn’t just happen. It takes work, commitment, and great communication. To love God will require nothing less.

 

Observation

I’m a big fan of Sir Arthur Doyle’s detective series about Sherlock Holmes. His ability to see what others miss never ceases to amaze me. The greatest detectives of that time, Scotland Yard, would go in one direction while Holmes would solve the case going the opposite direction. What was amazing was that Sherlock Holmes didn’t have any special powers. He just applied the basic principles of observation and interpretation.
As a young Christian I was similarly amazed at what my pastor would get out of a particular scripture on Sunday morning. I could read the same scripture and completely miss what he got out of it. Yet, once he was done explaining it, I totally saw what he had seen. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen so much anymore. It’s not just because I went to seminary or that I have gotten more spiritual, it’s because I have learned the observation and interpretation tricks of the trade.

Communication is no good unless you understand the meaning of the words being communicated. I remember my frustration with my oldest child the first few times I asked her to clean her room. I came back fifteen minutes later and nothing was done. “Why haven’t you done what I asked you to do?” I asked. “Clean up these toys now!“ Twenty minutes later I would return and there she would be, playing with a few toys picked up, but the room was still a mess. After a few of these incidents, it began to dawn on me that she had never picked up her room before and perhaps she might not know what it means to clean her room. The next time I told her that she needed to clean her room, I helped her do it. I explained that she needed to get everything off the floor and into the spot it belonged. I then showed her how to start in a corner and work her way across the room until it was all clear and put away. After that, when I asked her to clean her room she was able to do it right the first time (though her attitude still needed some improvement).

It’s not enough to just read the Bible. Just like it wasn’t enough for my daughter to simply hear the words, “clean up your room.” We must learn the art of observation and interpretation so that we know the meaning behind the words. We must apply the techniques and skill required to understand what those words mean. Then, and only then, can we possibly begin to understand what God is saying to us.

Like the detective Sherlock Holmes, observation is about seeing what is right there before you. It’s asking the right kinds of questions and letting the obvious speak for itself. The questions are the basic Who, What, When, Where, and How. Questions like . . .
· Who wrote this?
· Who are the people involved?
· What are the important words in this verse?
· What is the underlining point or principle?
· What is the subject and verb?
· What incident provoked this response?
· What did the character do right? Wrong?
· What motivated him?
· What were the character’s moral strengths and weaknesses?
· When did this event take place?
· Where did this happen?
· Where did they come from and where are they going?
· Where did things go wrong or go right?
· How did the events unfold?
· How did those involved respond?
· How is God involved?

These are only examples of the kinds of questions you can ask. The point is that you go through the Who, What, When, Where, and How questions to better see what is right before you. Let me give you an example. Let’s say my morning reading included 2 Timothy Chapter 3. In that reading I was really drawn to verses 16 and 17: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.”

After reading this verse a few times, I asked the Who, What, When, Where, and How questions and made the following observations:
· Who
o Paul wrote this book to Timothy, a young man he was mentoring[7]
o God uses scripture to teach me
· What
o All scripture is inspired by God, even the hard parts and genealogies
o Scripture is used for 4 things
§ Teach us what is true
§ Make us realize what’s wrong with our lives
§ Corrects us when we are wrong
§ Teaches us to do what is right
o God wants me to be equipped and prepared
§ For the specific reason to do good works
· When
o 2 Timothy was written somewhere between AD 64-67[8]
· Where
o Paul wrote this letter from prison in Rome[9]
· How
o Good works happen when a believer is prepared and equipped by the scriptures

This exercise took less than five minutes. It’s not about making a huge list, but seeing what is right in front of you. It is important to note that observations from person to person will be different. It’s not about getting the right answer (though you want to be as accurate as possible), it is about seeing what God wants to communicate to you. This is why a Sunday morning sermon can never replace personal study. What you get on Sunday is what the speaker believes God wants to say to the whole church, not what he specifically wants to say to you.

The second part of observation is interpretation. This is where you open your mind to what the text means. Specifically, what did it mean to the original audience. In the movie Back to the Future, the scientist, Doc Brown, is trying to help Marty travel back into the future. He turns to him and asks if there is some climatic anomaly in the future which changes the weather. He gets this idea because of Marty’s continual use of the word “cool.” It is a common term today, but it is one that had a more narrow meaning in the 1950’s. This instance is similar to how the times and cultures of the Bible were different than they are now. We must understand what the words and thoughts meant then before we can accurately apply them to our lives today. There are two parts to interpretation: context and comparison.

Context refers to that which goes before and that which goes after the scripture you are studying. For instance, we could extract the following quote from Psalm 53:1 “There is no God.” But when we consider the entire verse, the meaning becomes plain: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” This is a common error of cults. They take one passage or idea from scripture and lift it out of its context. In this way, many cults make the scriptures mean something they were never intended to mean. Much like the media will lift a harmless comment out of an interview and make the quote mean something it was never intended to mean.

The ultimate context of any verse you are studying is the entire Bible itself. That brings us to the idea of Comparison, which is when we compare scripture to other scripture. The Bible says, “All Scripture is inspired by God, [10]” which means the ideas and principles of any one part of scripture should line up with the ideas and principles of the other parts of scripture. If the meaning you get out of one passage is at odds with what is in the rest of the Bible, there is something wrong with that meaning.

There is an old joke about a woman who goes to see a lawyer about getting a divorce. The lawyer asks the woman “Do you have grounds for a divorce?” The woman replies, I own two acres of an orchard in the foothills.” The lawyer follows up by asking, “Does your husband beat you up?” She replies, “I’m up a half an hour earlier than him every morning.” In frustration the lawyer finally asks, “Why do you want a divorce?” The woman replies, “I can’t communicate with the man!”

Does this seem familiar at all? Communication can be a tricky thing especially when it is not clarified. There is a communication technique I use with couples in pastoral counseling. I have one person reflect back what they just heard the other say. It is a simple but very effective tool. It allows the person who just shared their feelings to know that the other person heard what they were saying and understood it. Many times a person thinks they have heard and understood what someone was saying and only after relational disaster strikes do they find that what they heard and what the person meant are two different things. This is why for communication to be effective there must be a process that clarifies that the communication is clear.

God communicates to you through the scriptures. He desires to reveal himself to you. The observation part of SOAP allows us to clarify that communication in order to make sure that we understood what God meant. You hear God more clearly because you take the time to check your understanding with the context, the historical understanding of the scriptures, as well as God’s Spirit. It is not fundamentally an academic process. It is a relational process that helps you hear clearly what God is saying.

The minute you begin to equate the success of following after Jesus to how much Bible study you do is the minute you stop looking like Jesus and more like the religious leaders of his day who looked good on the outside but whose hearts were really not connected to God.[11] Remember, the ultimate goal is to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind.

 

Application

Two men decide to read their Bibles. The first man decides to go to seminary and learn to read it in the original languages it was written. He becomes fluent in Biblical Greek and Hebrew and can cite large portions of the text. He even writes some books on the historical background and culture of the first century church.
The second man starts to read his Bible but at a very slow pace. He often starts reading it and is side tracked with a particular thought or idea that he turns over in his mind all day long. Sometimes he is so moved by a passage that he doesn’t read his Bible for days but reflects on what that passage means and what he needs to do in response. This man often struggles with the meaning or relevance of parts of the Bible, but tries his best to follow what he does understand.

One day, both men receive word that they have cancer. The first man is devastated, and goes into a deep depression that overshadows his life. The second man is also saddened, but he also has hope. He has hope that God can use this for good like so many other things God has done in his life. In the storm of life, he has genuine peace.

Does this story sound familiar? In the book of Matthew, Jesus tells a similar story "Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won't collapse because it is built on bedrock. But anyone who hears my teaching and ignores it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash. [12]"

The difference between both men in both stories is application. It is not enough to simply know the scriptures; you must act on what you know. When you open your heart to what the text means to you and start to personalize the truths you uncover in Scripture, you’ve begun the process of application. It is the “so what” part of the SOAPing method. First you read the Scriptures, then you Observe and interpret its meaning, and thirdly you Apply it to your personal life.

Application is basically asking and answering the question, “How does this scripture apply to me?” and then acting on that insight. Sometimes it can be a challenge to see how a particular passage applies to the 21st century, let alone in your personal life. That’s where some revealing questions can be a big help. Let me introduce you to SPACE PETS. No I’m not talking about little furry space creatures that will guide you through your time with God, but a list of questions that will help reveal a personal application. The questions are:

Is there a…?
Sin to confess?— The more you know about God, the more you realize how much of a problem sin is. There is so much more to it than the Ten Commandments. Much of scripture reveals those places of sin in our life we haven’t even considered yet.

Promise to claim?—God’s Word is filled with promises. Some are unique to a certain person or time period, but many apply directly to you and me. We can rely on these promises because God is always true to his word. Just make sure to read the context so you know if the promise applies to you and if so, is there a condition to the promise.

Attitude to change?—Much of the problems in the Bible have little to do with what people are doing as much as the attitude they are doing it with. At the heart of 1 Corinthians 13 is the idea that you can do incredible things for God, but if you don’t have a heart of love it’s all for nothing.

Command to obey?—There are many clear cut commands in the Bible. It doesn’t take much to figure out what God is saying in these. In fact, if all you did was apply what was clearly commanded in the Bible, you would accomplish over 90% of what Jesus was about (This includes the commands of love and justice, not just the do commands).

Example to follow?—Much of the Bible is biographical in nature because it’s about God’s relationship with mankind. Sometimes it is hard to find the application in someone else’s story. This question points to the heart of what the character was experiencing, why they made the choice they did, and how they related to God in the story. Once you figure out the lesson or principle behind the story, you can take that lesson or principle and apply it to your own life.

Prayer to pray?—Knowing what to pray other than “God help me with this” and “would you please bless me with that” can be hard to figure out. The Bible is packed with prayers of all kinds. Studying the scripture closely for prayers can really expand and enrich your prayer life.

Error to avoid?—One of the unique aspects of the Bible is that even its heroes make mistakes (apart from Jesus that is). We can easily hear God’s caution to us in their stories by observing what they did wrong or what was wrong with their thinking. When reflecting on a passage, it’s helpful to ask what error in their belief system led this character to make such a bad choice? Or was there a mistake in how they viewed God that led to disaster?

Truth to believe?—Psychologists tell us that if you want to change a person’s actions you must change the belief that led to that action. God wants to transform our lives and he does that by the renewing of our mind.[13] He wants to replace the lies we have been conditioned to believe with his truth that can revolutionize our soul.

Something to thank God for?—God has blessed us in so many ways. It is easy to take God for granted. Like any relationship, your relationship grows stronger with God the more you learn to appreciate it.

 

There is nothing special about the SPACE PETS questions. They are just a tool to help you apply the truth God reveals to you. Remember, walking in the dust of Jesus is not about learning a list of facts or going through a certain check list to get your merit award. It is about being transformed into the image of Jesus. A disciple wants to think like his master, act like his master, and respond to life like his master. At first, your spiritual muscles will be weak. You will not be able to do what the master does. God’s grace will meet you right there. But that doesn’t keep you from trying, because like lifting weights, after time you will develop those spiritual muscles and become more and more capable of doing and being what the master does and is.
If you want to maximize this process, it is a good idea to think about journaling. I know for some, the thought of writing is right up there with getting a tooth pulled. The fact remains though that unless you have a photographic memory, you are more likely to remember what God shows you if you write it down. You don’t have to write a book, just a few notes that you can go back to at a later date. These notes will serve as a history of what God has been doing in your life, a reminder of what you have committed yourself to, and perhaps you can use it as a resource to help others in their journey. Without them, you are dependent on your memory, and that can be a tricky business. Another advantage of writing your thoughts down is that you can identify patterns or themes that continually arise in your life. This is hard to do if you can’t go back and reflect on the details of your spiritual journey over the last few months or so.

There are many ways to journal. You can write out the scripture in detail and all your notes around it or just write the reference and a few notes concerning it. The style you choose will most likely reflect your own personality and preference. I would like to give you an example of how you might use the SOAP method and a journal. It is just an example. You might include more detail, less detail, or do it a completely different way. What matters is that you find what works for your relationship. What will increase the quality of communication between you and God?

The following represents a journal entry for one day with only 15 minutes available.

Romans 12:1-2
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don't copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God's will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.[14]

SOAP JOURNAL
April 5, 2007
Scripture
Today’s reading Romans 12
Scripture reflection Romans 12:1-2

Observation
These verses apply to all Christians
God wants my “body“
? I think this means all of me.
*Look this word up later in a Bible Dictionary
My ultimate act of worship is to give God myself
I need to be careful not to establish my values by the world’s standards
God wants to transform me
God transforms us by changing the way we think
I can know God’s will if I am transformed
I miss God’s will if I copy the behaviors and customs of society
God’s will is pleasing and perfect

Application
I have to admit I do have some of the desires of this world. Sure would be nice to have some of the same toys the neighbors have, but I can’t let that become my focus. I need to remember I would much rather genuinely experience God than go water skiing.

God you say here that I can know your will if I let you transform me. I want to know your will. I want to hear your voice.

Prayer
God I have let some of the values of this world take hold in my heart. I often think more about how I can get more stuff than how I can get more of you. Forgive me for being so consumed with material things. Continue to grow me to be more like Jesus. I want to take delight in being your son. Help these words take root in my heart today, that I might go about the details of this day in worship to you. Be with me today and show me how I might serve you in my meetings at work, my play with my kids tonight, and loving my wife this evening.

Your ever growing son, Joel

 

Time or temperament may not lend itself to journaling at first. You may have to grow into it. However, it is a tool that has a tremendous payoff. Just using the simple format illustrated above can help you organize your time with God, keep track of where you are in your reading, show the insights you are getting from God’s Word, and serve as a reminder of how God has answered your prayers.

 

Prayer

Marjorie Hatcher was a poor widow of two teenage boys who lived in East Los Angeles. You could often find her on bended knees praying beside her open apartment window during the hot summer months. On one such hot summer evening, the neighbor boys, Germaine and Thomas Jackson, were hanging out on the escape balcony above her. They were listening as she thanked God for his provision for the rent and prayed that God would provide food for her two girls as they once again found themselves penniless at the end of the month. These two mischievous neighbor boys decided to play a little prank on her. They raided their refrigerator and cupboards and put together a box of food. That evening, under the cover of darkness, they snuck down the fire escape and placed the box just inside the open window. Then they scurried back up to their apartment as they patted each other on the back.

A few days later, the Jackson boys’ mother was surprised that she didn’t have to drag them out of bed and prod them along to get them ready for church. They seemed all too eager to go. What she didn’t know was that they couldn’t wait to hear Miss Hatcher share about her glorious “miracle”. Sure enough, as it was the custom at their little Baptist church, Marjorie proudly stood up as the preacher asked if anyone wanted to share about what God had done in their life that week. Marjorie shared about how she had earnestly been praying for God’s provision and how God miraculously had sent her a box of food that would last the rest of the month.
Germaine and Thomas could not hold it in any longer and bust out laughing. “What’s so funny?” Marjorie asked them. “God didn’t answer your prayer,” they replied through fits of laughter. “We snuck down and put the box of food there,” they mocked. “We answered your prayer not God.” To this Marjorie Hatcher coolly replied, “Well you two devils might have delivered it, but it was the Lord who sent it.[15]”

People are drawn to prayer because they know that God’s power flows primarily to people who pray. This is one of the main reasons the last part of the SOAP method is prayer. After reading and reflecting on the scriptures and hearing what God is saying to you, there needs to be a process to receive God’s transforming power to actually do or become what he has shown you. However, as Marjorie’s story suggests, prayer is not a three step, cut and dry practice where we pray and God automatically answers in a predictable supernatural way. It has many different facets to it. If you don’t understand the tensions and principles of prayer, it is easy to get frustrated and quit.

For many years on Sunday evenings you could find my wife and I curled up on the couch with a box of tissue watching the latest episode of Extreme Home Makeover. One of the reasons we like the show is that it really lived up to its title of “extreme”. It was fun to see folks who would be grateful for a simple house furnished with their old furniture walk into a mini-mansion that is tailored not only to their needs but also to their deepest desires. God is a lot like the show. He not only wants to answer our prayers, he desires to do it in a way that knocks our socks off.

Jesus taught us to call God, Father, actually Papa. He made a point to emphasize that we are God’s kids and like any father, he likes giving good gifts[16]. In fact, as God’s kids, we are in line to inherit his kingdom[17]. If God will not withhold his heavenly kingdom from us, why would he withhold earthly blessings from us?
We often think that God doesn’t believe in dessert. What function does dessert serve? There rarely is any nutritional value in dessert. It’s just empty calories that provides very little benefit to the body and usually is the cause for what ails us. We often look at God and think that he is only interested giving us what we absolutely need. If it is excessive and doesn’t have some benefit, God is not interested. But the Bible paints a much different picture of God.

The Bible is filled with stories of how God blesses people with immense wealth, great wisdom, huge families, awesome power, and tremendous fame. When God acts he doesn’t just meet the minimum standard, he goes to the extreme to make his power known and his kids enormously blessed. God takes delight in not just providing the sustenance his kids need but the dessert that they delight in. He is an extreme prayer–answering God. He doesn’t just want to answer your prayers; he wants to give you gifts that will take you by surprise. He wants to overwhelm you with just how much he loves and cares about you.

There is an old saying in the military that “there are no atheists in battle[18].” In tense and overwhelming circumstances, both the religious and irreligious pray. There seems to be an innate belief in humans that God answers prayer. We reach out to God hoping his love for us will compel him to act. However, we often find ourselves backing down from this simple act of faith when things aren’t so desperate. We try to do things on our own power, despite the deep belief inside of us, because of doubt of what we can’t see or control.
It is well and good to believe God loves us and wants to help us, but the question remains, “Is he able to do so?” A quick survey of God’s power demonstrated throughout the ages shows a resounding “yes” to this question. God has shown his power over nature by parting the sea, blocking out the sun, calming storms, making water flow from solid rock, and even making a donkey speak. His power has been experienced in the circumstances of life as he has reunited families, made a king of a humble shepherd boy, protected his people from genocide, provided food for the hungry, and built his church on the backs of a ragtag bunch of nobodies.
God has even shown the power to touch the human heart. He has humbled the proud, moved the wealthy to sell all and serve the poor, inspired the weak to continue on, and moved countless people throughout history to serve the needs of others over their own needs. The God who created the universe and has raised the dead to life has shown himself to be more than able to answer any prayer we might offer up.

In light of these historical facts, a secondary question might be, “Is he still able or willing to do today what he has done in the past?” To this question God declares, “I am the Lord, I do not change![19]” This principle is also affirmed in Jesus who “is the same yesterday, today, and forever.[20]” God is able to do today what he has done throughout history and he wants us to pray with the absolute conviction that he can and will answer our prayers with that same power.

When my oldest daughter was about 6 years old, she and I were having some one-on-one time at one of California’s major theme parks. She had a few dollars burning a hole in her pocket and decided the best use of her money was to play one of the many carnival games and win a huge prize. I affirmed that she had the freedom to spend her money anyway she liked, but that the game was set up for her to lose and might not be the best use of her hard earned cash. She looked at me as if I were crazy and announced that she wouldn’t lose. “Look honey,” I pointed out, “everyone who is trying is failing.” To this she replied, “But daddy, if you really want something and believe you can do it, God will help you do it.” On one hand, I admired her faith, but on the other hand, I had a pit in my stomach concerning the lesson she was about to learn.

In C.S. Lewis’ series of books entitled The Chronicles of Narnia, the one central figure that shows up in all seven books is the Lion, Aslan. Lewis wrote Aslan’s character to be analogous to Jesus. Throughout the series, it is often repeated that Aslan is "not a tame Lion." This is because despite his gentle and loving nature, he is powerful and can be dangerous. Likewise, a fundamental principle of prayer is that God is not tame. He is not predictable and he cannot be manipulated to answer our prayers on our terms. There is no spiritual secret formula that if followed exactly will result in your every prayer being answered exactly as you want it. God is not a cosmic Santa Claus whose role is to fulfill our wish list, no matter how well intentioned the list maybe.
Many people have tried to manipulate and corner God but it never works. Moses thought he just needed to remind God that he did not have the natural ability to do what God asked him to do and was resoundly rebuked. Job tried to manipulate God by complaining how the wicked seemed to prosper while he, a faithful follower of God, suffered. God responded by giving a brief example of his divine résumé and asking Job what he had to offer. The Israelites often found themselves conquered by foreign countries because they believed no matter what they did, God had to protect them to prove that he was the one true God and the gods of their enemies were false. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day rejected him partly because of their belief that the Messiah had to be a conquering hero and not a suffering servant. In each of these cases, people had assumptions about what God would and would not do. In each case, they found that God’s ways are not our ways.

We often approach God as if there is a formula he has to follow. Like a genie in a lamp, if we summon him in the right way or we act a certain way, he must respond. The fact is, God is going to do what God is going to do. If he says he will do something, then he will do it. However, he has made no commitments to working life out as you or I think it should go. God’s goal is to make us like Jesus, not make life work. His plan often contains some very hard and painful life situations. God’s ways are different than mankind’s.
Another key principle of prayer is that God doesn’t leave a single prayer unanswered. However, he just doesn’t answer “yes” to every prayer. One of the frustrating things about prayer is that it seems like we are just talking to the wall. Not just because God is unseen, but because often our prayers seem to be unheard. We pour our hearts out, try to be faithful to what God is showing us, and there doesn’t seem to be any change in the circumstances. In fact, sometimes the situation gets worse. Not only does it feel like God is not listening to our prayers but that he has abandoned us all together.

Part of this frustration is that few understand the previous principle. God is not tame. You can’t put him in a box. Another part of the frustration is the expectation that if God wants to do good, and is able to do good, then he should do the good thing I am asking of him. The problem with this line of thinking is that God measures good differently than we do. He is not looking to make our lives a “happily-ever-after” fairytale, but to grow us into the image of his son. If you look at the life of our master you see that his life was blessed. However, it wasn’t easy. Ultimately, Jesus suffered and died, and it wasn’t because his prayer life was lacking.
With the view that God’s ultimate goal is transformation, not happiness, there are four general answers that God gives our prayers. If the request is wrong, God says “No.”. Like my kids, who are always surprised I won’t let them have a snack thirty minutes before dinner, we often come to God with requests that a loving father just can’t and shouldn’t say yes to. Often our requests are well packaged in the wrapping of spirituality but at the core, they are about getting what we want, how we want it, and when we want it. A loving father, whose ultimate goal is our transformation into the image of Jesus, says no to these requests. It’s not that he doesn’t care about these requests; it’s just that he loves us too much to indulge them.

Sometimes the timing of the request is wrong and God says, “Not Now”. If you’re anything like me this is usually not much better than no. I remember a time when we were on a family vacation when I was a kid. Like most kids I was continually asking my dad, “How much longer till we get there.” Finally frustrated with my pestering my dad took his foot off the gas pedal, went five miles an hour slower, and said, “A little longer now son”. Needless to say I didn’t ask again. God’s delays, which can similarly seem frustrating, are not necessarily denials. Often they are an opportunity for God to do a work in us before doing a work for us. He could be growing our faith to see if we will stick with our request. He could be growing our character to develop patience, trust, or submission. Or sometimes he is waiting for the request to change; to see if we truly seek his will in the situation rather than our own. Whatever the reason, God slows us down to do a work in us that pays bigger dividends than if he instantly answered the request. He is a loving father.

Sometimes the request isn’t wrong but we are. At these times God says “Grow”. The Bible says, “You don't have what you want because you don't ask God for it.[21]” Often when problems arise, we do everything but pray. We agonize over the situation, make a plan to change it, we might even ask others to pray, but we don’t take it before God ourselves. We wonder why God doesn’t intervene and the truth is we haven’t asked him to.
Another reason is that we have unconfessed sin. We talk to God about everything except the one thing he desires to change in us the most. When our relationship with God is severed, so is the line of communication. Matthew writes about how broken relationships can come in the way of our prayers. Before going to God with our requests, we need to do our part in restoring a damaged relationship with others.[22]” Also, our lack of caring for the poor and disadvantaged can hinder our prayers. God says, “Those who shut their ears to the cries of the poor will be ignored in their own time of need.[23]” When we don’t extend love and compassion to others, God may turn a deaf ear to us. In each of these cases we need to let God do a work of transformation in us before our prayers can be effective.

If the request is right, the timing is right, and we are right with God, he then says, “Yes”. This is the heart of a healthy prayer life. It is not so much about convincing God to answer your prayers as it is laying a hold of God’s highest willingness or plans for your life. I spent many years frustrated with my prayer life because I approached it as a time to give God my list of desires and then hope really hard he would respond. I have come to learn that prayer is more about communication between me and a loving father–a benevolent, caring, powerful, and almighty father. Prayer is a conversation between you and God, with the goal being to clearly hear from him what he would have you do, when he would have you do it, and what he wants to do in you. From there you’re just a hop, skip, and a jump from answered prayer because you are laying a hold of God’s willingness rather than your own plans and desires.

[1] Interlinear Transliterated Bible
[2] NASB = New American Standard Bible
[3] NLT=New Living Translation
[4] For example “everlasting life” is interpreted as a “whole and lasting life.”
[5] MOPS – Mothers Of Preschoolers
[6] How to Study The Bible and Enjoy It, by Skip Heitzig, page 9
[7] I got this from 2 Timothy 2:1&2
[8] I got this from the book introduction in my Bible
[9] I got this from the book introduction in my Bible
[10] 2 Timothy 3:16
[11] Matthew 23:27
[12] Matthew 7:24-27 New Living Translation
[13] Romans 12:2
[14] New Living Translation
[15] This is a fictional story
[16] Matthew 7:9-11
[17] Galatians 4:7
[18] The origins of this saying are attributed to an unnamed chaplain in World War II
[19] Malachi 3:6
[20] Hebrews 13:8
[21] James 4:2 New Living Translation
[22] Matthew 5:23-24
[23] Proverbs 21:13 New Living Translation