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          8 A of Prayer

     The passages below are taken from Lee and Leslie Strobel’s book “Surviving a Spiritual Mismatch in Marriage,” published in 2002 by Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 

     Years ago I developed a prayer process that I call “The Eight A’s of Prayer.” I’ve found in my own life that these eight action oriented words---Avoid, Approach, Adore, Acknowledge, Admit, Ask, Align, and Act---help me keep balanced as I converse with God. You might want to consider whether this format might be helpful with your prayer life as you commit to praying consistently, specifically and fervently.

 

#1: AVOID WHATEVER WILL HINDER YOUR PRAYERS

     For our prayer life to be meaningful, we must avoid what Bill Hybels calls “prayer busters.” These are the obstacles we create between us and God that can impede our prayer life.

     In his classic book Too Busy Not to Pray, Hybels lists unconfessed sin as one of the big culprits in disrupting our communication with God. “Your iniquities have separated you from your God,” says Isaiah 59:2 (NIV) “Your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.” Said Hybels: “If you’re tolerating sin in your life, don’t waste your breath praying unless it’s a prayer of confession.”1

     The Bible also says that unresolved relational conflict--- including rifts between marriage partners---can thwart our prayer life. The apostle Peter specifically warned husbands that their prayers will be hindered if they fail to be considerate to their wives and treat them with respect.2

     God is so serious about having us deal with fractured relationships that the Bible says we should stop in our tracks on the way to church, turn around, and seek reconciliation with those we are in conflict with. Only after doing what we can to repair the relational rift should we then come to church.3

     Because living in a mismatched marriage can generate conflict between you and your spouse, it is important to take whatever steps you can to resolve strife before you pray. This might mean apologizing for unfair words that you hurled at him in anger or initiating a frank discussion about the tension in your marriage. Romans 12:18 (NIV) says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

     Of course, we can’t control our partner’s response to our peacemaking initiatives. Hybels offers this good advice:

     

      Sometimes. . . the other person would rather continue the warfare than accept your apology. If this happens, look deep into your heart. Have you sincerely tried to restore the relationship, or are you holding something back? Do you really want restoration, or would you rather blame the other person and let the rupture continue? If your attempts have been wholehearted and honest, God will not let the broken relationship stand in the way of your prayers. But if your reconciliation attempts have been halfhearted and self-serving, try again---this time for real.4

 

     Other things that can put static in our connection with God include selfishness (James 4:3: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures”) and uncaring attitudes toward the needy (Proverbs 21:13: “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered”).5 When I detect these shortcomings in my life, I take steps to rectify them as soon as I can.

     “Motives are crucial to prayer because prayer is totally based on the relationship between God and us,” said Leith Anderson in his book Praying to the God You Can Trust.

    

     Relationships mean everything to God . . . He delights when we are on good terms with Him and is deeply disappointed when we are on bad terms. What all of this means is that God answers our prayers more on the basis of our relationship with Him than on the depth of our desire to have our prayers answered.6

 

     Even our motives concerning our unbelieving spouse can be selfish under the surface. We pray for his or her salvation, but is our primary desire merely to have someone to go to church functions with? We pray for God to save a non-Christian boyfriend, but is our underlying motive that we just want to get God’s clearance to marry him? These questions can be convicting to ask---but important to deal with.

 

#2: APPROACH GOD WITH THE RIGHT ATTITUDE

     Then I want to make sure I approach God both in faith and in humility. Hebrews 11:6(NIV) tells us, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

     Faith is more than just believing something and hoping against hope that it’s true. In the TV show Friends, Phoebe once told her pals that a stray cat was actually her reincarnated mother who had committed suicide. Not wanting to offend her, the others went along. But as much as Phoebe may have had faith that the cat was her mom, that didn’t make it true.

     Christianity isn’t true because we believe it; it’s true and we believe it. Our faith is anchored to the absolute truth of Scripture and the resurrection of Jesus. So when we approach God, we do so with a confident assurance that what the Bible teaches is true. R. A. Torrey said that it is by studying the Bible, especially God’s promises to us, that we learn the will of God.

     “We cannot believe by just trying to make ourselves believe. Such belief as that is not faith but credulity; it is ‘make believe,’” he said. “The great warrant for intelligent faith is God’s Word. As Paul puts it in Romans 10:17(NIV), “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.”7

            And we should always approach God with a sense of humility. When Larry King went on a personal quest to understand prayer, Rabbi Marvin Hier advised him that the best prayers never contain ego. Interestingly, he said a famous rabbi had studied the difference between two names for God, Adonoi and Elohim, and found that Jews only used the name Adonoi in prayer. He explained:

 

     This is because Elohim defines God as the creator of the cosmos, of the vast universe. . . and when we think of such a God, he’s far from us. He is distant. That is the God that man thinks of when man is in the mode of being a conqueror. . . successful in his career. When man looks at God from that vantage point, hell always find him at the end of the galaxy.

     To find the God named Adonoi you must be willing to be defeated, willing to surrender, to know you cannot be a conqueror all your life. . . A man must know how to say “I surrender” before an all-powerful creator. In that moment of defeat. . . he meets God not in the distant ends of the galaxy, but he meets God as a friend, as a confidant, as someone whose shoulder he can lean upon.8

 

     So when we pray, it should not be from the perspective of someone arrogantly demanding what we think should be ours. Instead, we should come as individuals who recognize our brokenness before the Lord and who respectfully and unpretentiously present our requests to him, as a child sits at the feet of a generous and loving father.

     As Christians, we know that God is always near us. In fact, he is closer than any individual, because the Holy Spirit actually dwells inside of us. And we can approach our Savior as a friend who cares about us, who wants the best for us, and who delights in talking with us. “You are my friends,” Jesus said in John 15:14, “if you do what I command.”

    

#3:ADORE GOD FOR WHO HE IS

     After ridding myself of “prayer busters” and making sure I have the right attitude, I begin my prayer with a time of expressing my adoration of God. I worship him for who he is, for what he has done, and for what he will do in the future. Hebrews 12:28 tells us to praise God “with reverence and awe.” Adds Psalm 100:2: “Worship the Lord with gladness.”

     Praising God is not only appropriate because he deserves it, but also because it helps recalibrate us. It positions us appropriately as creatures who are fully dependent on our Creator. And it sets the tone for the rest of the prayer.

     This is where real creativity can flow. We might write a poem to God, sing him a song, meditate on one of his attributes (his holiness, power, goodness, or mercy, for instance), read a psalm, paint a picture, admire his creation of nature---anything to highlight his glory and give him honor.

     What we are doing is blessing God. That concept sounded odd to me when I was a new Christian. I knew how God had blessed me, but how in the world could I bless him? Yet King David knew it was possible for us to bless the Lord. “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth,’”9 he said. “Bless the LORD, 0 my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name.”10

     When I did some research I found that one meaning of the word bless is “to bend the knee”---and that is what David was doing. He was coming before the Lord with humility to praise him.

     For us to bless God, it means that we call God’s greatness into our minds and then, in response to that, we choose to worship and glorify and adore and exalt and revere him. In sum, we honor God as God. “Sing to the Lord, bless his name,” said David. “Tell of his salvation from day to day.”11

 

#4: ACKNOWLEDGE GOD’S GOODNESS TO YOU

     It’s also important to acknowledge God’s goodness---in other words, to thank him for all he has done for us. I don’t want to be like the nine lepers who were healed by Jesus but who failed to take the time to come back to thank him. I want to be like the one who went out of his way to express his heartfelt appreciation for Jesus’ kindness and mercy.12 Says 1 Thessalonians 5:16—17(NIV): “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

     Christian ethicist William Law once speculated about who are the greatest Christians. This was his conclusion: “It is not he who prays most or fasts most, it is not he who lives most, but it is he who is always thankful to God, who receives everything as an instance of God’s goodness and has a heart always ready to praise God for it.”13

     When we stop to offer our thanks to God, it reminds us that all we have comes from his provision. This has the effect of keeping us humble and safeguarding us from worshiping our material possessions as idols. Deuteronomy 8:17—18(NIV) says, “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.”

     I often think of how Jesus never gave up on a hard-hearted and hardheaded atheist, but kept reaching out with his gift of forgiveness and eternal life. That keeps me grateful to him. “And give thanks, with joy, to the Father, who has made you fit to have your share of what God has reserved for his people in the kingdom of light,” says Colossians 1:12(NIV).14

     Leslie said there were times when the issue of my salvation loomed in her mind and she felt discouraged because she saw little progress in my spiritual journey. “That topic dominated my prayers so much that it crowded out my thankfulness for the many ways God had blessed me,” she recalled. “At one point I stopped, took a deep breath, stepped back, and considered the incredible ways God had been good to me. I actually made a list of the things I was thankful for. It was a great reminder of God’s faithfulness---and it did wonders for readjusting my perspective.”

 

#5: ADMIT YOUR WRONGDOING TO GOD

     You give your twelve-year-old son permission to go bowling with some friends. While he’s gone, however, a neighbor stops by and mentions she saw him going into that PG—13 movie that you had forbidden him to see.

     Later you are preparing dinner when your son comes bounding through the back door and opens the refrigerator in a search for a pre-dinner snack. You decide not to tip your hand.

     “So, how was bowling?” you ask casually.

     “Urn . . . well, good. It was fine. We had to wait a while to get a lane. But we had a good time.”

     “Did you beat Jimmy this time?”

     “Uh . . . I beat him one game out of three. He’s pretty good, you know.”

     Now, what’s the Number One thing you want from your son at this point? You just want him to admit that he went to the movie! You want him to confess that he has deceived you. You just want him to come clean. The longer he denies the truth, the deeper the hole he is digging for himself.

     And that is how God feels toward us. He already knows what we have done wrong! It is no secret to him. When we obfuscate and spin, when we duck and dodge, when we rationalize and split hairs, when we pretend everything’s fine when it isn’t, he’s just waiting and waiting and waiting for us to ‘fess up. Until then, we are simply lying to him once more by feigning that all’s well.

     Just as there’s going to be a problem between you and your son until he confesses his wrongdoing, there are going to be difficulties in your relationship with God as long as you cover up the truth by claiming everything’s fine when he already knows it isn’t.

     “While unconfessed sin will not break our union with God, it will break our communion with God,” said Hank Hanegraaff, author of The Prayer of Jesus.15 In other words, failing to admit our wrongdoing won’t sever our connection to God but it definitely will introduce static into our line. Said Hanegraaff:

 

The concept of confession carries the acknowledgement that we stand guilty before God's bar of justice. There’s no place for self-righteousness before God. We can only develop intimacy with the Lord through prayer when we confess our need for forgiveness and contritely seek His pardon. The apostle John sums it up beautifully when he writes, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 NIV)16

 

            Confessing our sins doesn’t mean vague generalities like, “Well, God, you know I haven’t been exactly perfect.” Instead, it’s the time for painful specificity. It’s when we spell out in agonizing detail how we’ve fallen short of God’s standards. I’ve been short-tempered and unfair with my spouse. I’ve been criticizing him for not acting like a Christian even though he isn’t one. I’ve let my prayer requests to my friends become gripe sessions about him. I’ve been trying to manipulate him to come to church with me. I’ve been jealous of other women whose husbands are Christians.

     “I can remember many times when I would begin confessing how I had made mistakes in our relationship,” Leslie said to me recently. “As I began doing that, the Holy Spirit would bring into my mind other sins that I had swept under the carpet and wasn’t even aware I had committed. It felt so liberating to get those out into the open, to admit them, and to realize that God has wiped my slate clean. I hadn’t even been aware of how those sins had been weighing me down.”

 

#6: ASK FOR WHAT YOU NEED FROM GOD

     Once we have recalibrated our spirit by worshiping God, paid him tribute for his goodness toward us, and cleared the air by confessing our sins, then it’s finally the appropriate time to bring our requests to God.

     “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us,” says 1 John 5:14—15(NIV). “And if we know that he hears us---whatever we ask---we know that we have what we asked of him.”

     We should not shrink back in bringing our requests to our heavenly Father. Jesus told us to ask for our “daily bread,”17 which theologian Martin Chemnitz said “encompasses all things belonging to and necessary for the sustenance of this body and life.”18 And for an unequally yoked spouse, the center of the prayer bull’s-eye is asking for God to draw her partner to himself. This is where we can pray consistently, fervently, and specifically for ourselves, our spouse, and our marriage, as we detailed earlier in this chapter.

     Leslie will tell you how emotionally difficult it can be to ask God to move in someone’s heart and yet not see immediate or dramatic results. But God’s timing is not our own, and salvation issues are complicated because of the individual’s free will. Yet no time spent in prayer is wasted. Inevitably, there is a difference inside the one who prays.

     “Something happened when I would pray for you,” Leslie told me. “First of all, it was hard for me to stay mad at you when I was lifting you to the Lord. I might be stewing over something you did, but after praying for you my heart would be softened and I’d want to continue to do what I could to make up. Also, it kept your salvation at the forefront of my mind. That made me more alert to opportunities for getting into a spiritual conversation. Finally, praying for you brought me comfort. It reminded me I wasn’t alone. My heavenly Father was listening, he cared, and he would soothe my anxieties and fears.”

     It’s true that prayer changes us. It’s the mechanism by which we deepen our relationship with God. We may ask God to give us something because we think we need it, when in God’s wisdom he knows that the very act of praying gives us what we really need. We emerge more dependent on him, more in love with him, more in tune with his Spirit, more committed to his ways, and more tender to his leadings.

 

#7: ALIGN YOURSELF WITH GOD’S WILL

     After we finish expressing what we wanted to say to God, we typically end by saying “Amen.” But what does that word really signify? In effect, it means, “May it be so in accordance with the will of God.”19 That is, we want to tell God that ultimately we want what he wants. He knows best, he wants the best for us, and so we tell him that regardless of what we have asked of him, everything is contingent on it being consistent with his will. In fact, remember what the apostle John said: “If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”20.

     Think about Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, shortly before he faced the torture of the cross. “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me,” he said. That was a

genuine expression of his heart. But then he also stressed: “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”21

     “We would be in deep trouble if God gave us everything for which we asked,” Hanegraaff said. “The truth is we don’t know what’s best for us.”22 But we can rest assured that our all knowing heavenly Father does.

     We also can be confident that we are squarely within the will of God when we pray for our unsaved spouse. The Bible says that God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth”23 and he is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”24 At the same time, however, he abides by the spiritual decisions of each person.

     Actually, the whole tenor of our prayer from the outset should be that we want to align ourselves with God’s will. But as we end our side of the conversation with God by declaring “Amen,” that’s a good time to affirm that it’s God’s will, not our own, that we want to prevail.

     That doesn’t end our conversation with God, however. He very well might have something he wants to communicate to us in return. That’s why this final “A” is so vital.

 

#8: ACT ON GOD’S LEADINGS IN YOUR LIFE

    Communication with God was never intended to be a one-way conversation. After we talk to God about what’s on our heart and mind, we need to allow him an opportunity to speak to us. He can do that through a variety of ways---through the Bible, through Christian friends, and by giving us an inner impression that is hard to define. “He speaks certain general truths that are true for all time, and he speaks certain specifics that are true for me in my life at this moment,” Cal Thomas told Larry King in his interview.25

     Consequently, I like to pause at the end of my prayer time and invite God to speak to me. When James Dobson of Focus on the Family does this, he says to God, “Lord, I need to know what you want me to do, and I’m listening. Please speak to me through my friends, books, magazines, and circumstances.” There are people who like to follow up their daily talk with God by scheduling some time when their mind is a little less active than usual. They may wash the car, mow the lawn, or wash the dishes to let their mental rpm slow down so God’s voice might be more evident.

     Most of the time, I don’t hear anything as I quiet myself and listen for God. That’s okay. The important thing is that I made myself receptive to him. When I do sense God communicating to me, however, it is important to distinguish between his voice and my own motivations and desires. We are warned by 1 Thessalonians 5:21(NIV): “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”26

     It is like when you are first getting to know a new friend and he calls you on the phone. You might not recognize his voice at first. After a while, though, you become familiar with how he sounds, and as soon as he starts talking you know who he is. Similarly, you learn over time to distinguish God’s voice from the background noise of your mind. “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me,” Jesus said in John 10:27(NIV).

     God won’t ever ask us to do something contrary to Scripture. And he’s consistent; he won’t give conflicting orders to two Christians, so it’s a good idea to bounce everything off of a mature brother or sister in Christ. One test is to ask whether following this particular leading will accrue to your glory or to God’s. If it’s primarily yours, it’s probably a product of your imagination!

     Many times God will use the Bible to communicate what he wants us to do. The Holy Spirit may illuminate a verse in such a way that it seems to leap off the page to you. Or we may feel especially convicted or encouraged by a passage. Leslie and I can identify key turning points in our lives when God used a specific verse of the Bible to redirect us in a certain way.

     “I can remember many times when God gave me distinct impressions when I was praying for your salvation,” Leslie said to me. “Sometimes I sensed God wanted me to apologize to you for pushing too hard. Other times I felt that he wanted me to take a stand about something or encourage you in your journey. Most of all, though, the Holy Spirit would reassure me that I’m his child and that he was there for me. That was very meaningful to me.”

     When you commit to listening for God’s voice and following him at all costs, watch out! Amazing things can happen. As God told the prophet Jeremiah: “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”27 Was that promise also meant for us? All I know is that when Leslie and I have endeavored to follow God wherever he leads, inexplicable things happen.

          . . .

 

STORMING THE THRONE OF GRACE

     You have prayed for your partner. You have pleaded with God. You have listened for his leadings. And so far you have seen very little impact. Your spouse is still sour toward church, skeptical of the Bible, and cynical about “organized religion.” You want to throw up your hands in frustration and quit.

     I could tell you story after story of people who reached that point and then---without warning---their spouse suddenly took a huge step forward in his spiritual journey or even received Christ.

     Once Leslie was feeling as if her prayers had been bouncing off the gates of heaven. Then she and I got into a big argument and I said some nasty things to her. “Please,” she prayed, “soften Lee’s heart, God.” Even as she said those words, she wondered if her prayers were really making a difference.

     Then, out of the blue, I strolled into the kitchen, put my arms around her, and said, “Leslie, I’m sorry. I was wrong. It suddenly occurred to me that I’ve been harsh toward you lately. Will you forgive me?” That virtually instantaneous answer to prayer seemed like God’s way of reaffirming to Leslie that he’s listening. It was enough to keep her going for a long time.

     Even so, we have to be honest by saying there are also lots of stories where that never happened. There are spouses who will choose to reject God to the end.

     “I did everything I was supposed to do,” said Karen, whose husband, Rich, passed away from a heart attack in 1999. “I loved God, I loved Rich, and I prayed that he would open his life to the Lord. As far as I know, he never did. I like to think that he may have reached out to God in those last seconds before he died. But even if he didn’t, those years of praying were worth it. They cemented me to God, they developed my perseverance and character, and they brought me peace and strength.”

     Pray because God wants you to. Pray because God will use that experience to transform your heart. Pray because God is faithful in ways we can’t begin to understand. Pray because you can’t not pray.

     “Storm the throne of grace,” said John Wesley, “and persevere therein . . . and mercy will come down.”28 (168-181)

 

Notes

1. Bill Hybels, Too Busy Not to Pray (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1988), 90.

2. 1 Peter 3:7 (NIV)

3. Matthew 5:23—24. See also: Romans 12:18(NIV)

4. Bill Hybels, Too Busy Not to Pray, 92.

5. Bill Hybels, Too Busy Not to Pray, 84—95.

6. Leith Anderson, Praying to the God You Can Trust (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1996, 1998), 143.

7. R. A. Torrey, The Power of Prayer (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 124.

8. Larry King, Powerful Prayers, 23—24.

9. Psalm 34:1 RSV.

10. Psalm 103:1 RSV

11. Psalm 96:2 RSV

12. See: Luke 17:11—19(NIV)

13. Quoted in: Mark Water, ed., The New Encyclopedia of Christian Quotations (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 449.

14. TEV.

15. Hank Hanegraaff, The Prayer of Jesus (Nashville: Word, 2001), 24.

16. Ibid.

17. Matthew 6:11(NIV)

18. Martin Chemnitz, The Lord’s Prayer (St. Louis: Concordia, 1999), 57.

19. Hank Hanegraaff, The Prayer of Jesus, 46.

20. 1 John 5:14 (emphasis added).

21. Matthew 26:39(NIV)

22. Hank Hanegraaff, The Prayer of Jesus, 47.

23. 1 Timothy 2:4(NIV)

24. 2 Peter 3:9(NIV)

25. Larry King, Powerful Prayers, 18.

26. NASB.

27. Jeremiah 33:3(NIV)

28. Quoted in: Mark Water, ed., The New Encyclopedia of Christian Quotations, 777.

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