First published 5 February 2010
Here’s something I started to learn in my last big gap between jobs. It has since been reinforced, but I think it will be many years before it finally sinks in.
I can’t remember how many months I had been without paid work. It could have been three or four. I was starting to feel very anxious every day. I knew it was not right to worry so much, but the daily decisions over what to do to market myself and generate leads were starting to overwhelm me. I was worrying that the money was going to run out in a few months, and then we would have to sell the car, then sell the house, etc.
I was praying specifically at the time for myself, that the Lord would help me to trust completely in Him, that He would enable me not to worry. I prayed that I would just be able to focus on each day’s requirements, and that my mind would be settled regarding the future. But the Lord denied me that peace.
In our church we have small groups, called housegroups, where we meet midweek every other week to study the Bible, pray and encourage each other. For some reason normally, even in these groups, I have found people are reticent to share things for prayer about themselves that are close to their heart. They deflect, asking for prayer for their neighbour’s son who fell off his bike, or their work colleague whose wife had an affair. Sometimes these concerns are genuine, and it’s certainly right to pray for them. But I know, confessing for myself, that sometimes these prayer requests are designed to deflect away from asking for anything for ourselves. I don’t know why! Perhaps we don’t like people getting to know us too deeply. Perhaps we like people to thing our lives are a bit more together than they really are.
But for a while the housegroup I attend we managed to buck that trend. I won’t say that we all completely opened up to each other, but there has certainly been more sharing of more personal and sensitive stuff. During this time, I shared my anxiety about the job situation. I said that most of the time I cover up the fact that I am worried. I am blessed with the ability to appear calm even when I am pretty stressed! And the group prayed for me, amongst others, in the meeting, and continued to pray specifically in their own personal prayer times.
A couple of weeks later I remarked to someone that I had been blessed with a remarkable peace about my work and financial situation. Nothing else had changed. I was still out of work. There were no more prospects. I was still facing financial ruin in a matter of months. But I had been able to put the worries of the future out of mind and focus on the day’s requirements each day.
And I traced this peace back to the specific prayers of the members of my housegroup. Praise God for answered prayer!… BUT…
… I had been praying the same for myself for weeks before. Why did God answer the prayers of other people for me positively, but not my own?
Some Christians would mistakenly assume that it has something to do with my faith. Perhaps I didn’t pray with faith, but my friends did. I have always marveled that people jump to that conclusion so quickly. It is really quite uncharitable, and not warranted.
The conclusion I came to was that God often is pleased to use the prayers of others for us, rather than our own prayers, for several reasons. Here are two:
First, so that we don’t start to think it is our prayers that are effective in getting God’s action. If God answered all our own prayers for ourselves, we might start to use prayer as a kind of magic spell, under our control and for our own use. We have to realize that when we pray we are asking the Almighty God to act on our behalf. It is His power that is effective in answered prayer. Another way of putting it is to say that we should not talk about the “power of prayer”, but the power of God in graciously acting in response to prayer. Prayer is not powerful. God is. (In fact, isn’t it the very weakness of prayer that displays the power of God when He answers!)
Second, so that we are encouraged to bond as a community and care for each other. As we share our burdens, God uses the church community to bring us grace and help. God has arranged things so that, as Christians, we are called into a new community – the church. We relate to God directly, through Christ, as individuals, yes. But God’s will is that those individuals knit together to form a new community.
The apostle Peter said, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God… Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.” (1 Peter 1:9-10)
Paul says, “you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household.” (Eph 2:19) He refers to Christians as a “building [that] is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.” (Eph 2:21) In Ephesians 4, he speaks of the church as the “body of Christ” (v12), and explains how this works, “speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (vv15-16).
God works through the church, not normally through individual Christians. We need each other.
I have to say that I have never neglected going to church for any significant period of my life, although there have been times when I have contributed more in terms of service and ministry. But this experience made me realize that I had never really appreciated how much I need the church. Sometimes we Christians spend much of our time complaining about our local church, looking down on our brothers and sisters, criticizing the pastor, getting fed up with the musicians, and so on. But we need each other. God has ordained it so that we cannot grow without each other.
There is much more that can be said on this. However, I will simply refer you to a chapter in Tim Chester’s book, You Can Change, that I found helpful on these points about the place of the church in our growth as Christians.
From learning these things, I have made a couple of practical changes that I thought I would share with you. First, I now try to make sure that I pray for others more than I pray for myself. And I tend to ask people more what I can pray for them. Second, I see writing these blog posts as more important, because in them I can, with God’s blessing, help to build up the church. So I will continue blogging my reflections as much as I can, with the prayer that each post will do just that, for the glory and praise of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.