Monday, 17 March 2014

Great expectations?

In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation. Psalm 5:3.

Not everyone is at their best in the morning. They take time to surface from sleep and get going. So the Psalmist’s words won’t sound immediately appealing - “Prayer? That’s the last thing I feel like doing when I get out of bed!”

Well, the Bible doesn’t suggest that morning is the only time to pray; of course not. But there is a lot to be said for starting the day focussed on God, even if only for a few minutes. It helps you get the coming hours into perspective: all that wonderful potential just waiting to be turned into reality!

But even though the psalmist mentions “morning” twice in this one verse, it’s the last word that catches my attention - “I wait in expectation.”  It challenges me with a question: When I pray, never mind what time of day or night, do I really expect God to answer? Or am I praying simply because I have been told I should, rather like brushing my teeth or getting my breakfast? Suppose we were writing this psalm, would we, in all honesty, have to write, “I lay my requests before you, then I forget all about you and get on with the daily routine”?

The call to be expectant is regular in the Bible. But it does of course create a problem: how can you stay expectant day after day and week after week? There are people and situations I have been praying for regularly for many years, and so far nothing (so far as I know) has happened. You may very well be the same. Let’s be realistic: you can’t “magic up” feelings of expectation by will-power alone.

I’m not sure I know the answer to the problem - I’d be glad to hear from anyone who can throw light on it. But here’s a suggestion that might just help a bit. 

Suppose we divide our prayers into two broad categories. First, there are the very specific prayers - for a healing, for someone’s conversion, for some special need. I think that often in these cases it’s our duty (and our joy) to keep plugging away, so to speak. A moment ago I said there are situations where nothing has changed after years of prayer - but then I felt I had to add the words so far as I know. Nothing is happening that I can see; but that doesn’t mean nothing is happening. So have the faith to keep “knocking on heaven’s door”! (Remember Matthew 7:7-8.)

The second category of prayer is, if you like, more routine: “Lord, help me to keep close to you today... Give me an opportunity to share my faith... Help me to befriend Mary at work who’s going through a rough time... Help me to forgive Jack who said something hurtful last week... Help me to set a quiet example to my workmates without seeming self-righteous...” Perhaps it’s this kind of praying where we should be eagerly expectant. The most ordinary circumstances of daily life can throw up real opportunities to make known the love of God. Well, let’s look for those opportunities then!

A little footnote... If ever we feel guilty about our lack of expectancy in prayer, there is, I believe, a wonderful New Testament story to encourage us. Go to Acts 12...

Peter has been put in prison for preaching Jesus; he is chained to two soldiers. But, Luke tells us, “the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (verse 5). God sends an angel to deliver him from prison. He turns up at the house where they’re all praying, and knocks on the door. A servant girl goes to the door, but she’s so thrilled and excited that she forgets the little matter of actually opening it and letting him in. She runs back to the people praying: “Peter’s at the door!” And how do they reply? “Wonderful! Praise God! Thank you, Lord, for answering our prayer!” Er, no... “You’re out of your mind,” they tell her.

How does this slightly comical story help us? Well, it reminds us that even in those heady days of the early church the first followers of Jesus could be just as bad as us today. They prayed! They prayed “earnestly”! But did they expect God to answer their prayer? No!

I’m not suggesting we should follow their example, or allow it to make us complacent. But the fact is that God used these rather flaky Christians to change the world. Well, if he could use them, why not us too?

Keep praying! Keep expecting! God is at work, even when we can’t see it.

Lord God, please help me as I pray, today and every day, to maintain that buzz of expectancy over the little, routine things. Amen.

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