I've heard it said that if you have a small, skeptical view of what God can or actually will do in your life (or in the world, through you) that's fine – He will allow you to live life that way. But consequently, you will have an equally small experience of God.
I've struggled with understanding prayer for as long as I can remember. Does it make any difference? Does it change God's mind? Isn't God going to "accomplish his purposes with or without me?" I've let these questions and my lack of answers rob me of the joy of praying earnestly in faith, not to mention being anything close to a "prayer warrior."
Despite the fact that at times it feels like a lost cause, over the years I have continued to wrestle with prayer and search for a more satisfying understanding. This journey has been long and has had its twists and turns; I've let my search drop off many times. Often I have picked it up again with renewed vigor – sometimes with progress to show for it, sometimes not. Today, when I ask myself how God wants me to "raise the bar," I once again feel convicted about prayer. I've allowed my prayer life to be choked out by distractions and lack of conviction. My actions show that I have once again forgotten all that God has already taught me and brought me through.
Almost two years ago I attended a "prayer and healing service" for Jim, a family friend whose body was being absolutely obliterated by cancer. Scores of his family and friends came. The service was open to anyone for healing but over half the attendees were there just to support Jim. Leaders of the ministry prayed boldly over him, ordering the cancer to leave his body and thanking God ahead of time for the healing they knew and expected would come. It was very powerful, but I felt uneasy about the certainty of their prayers. I talked to them afterwards, wondering, did I just lack faith? A month later Jim died.
A few months later I met with a long-time mentor named Stephanie on a visit to Missouri. We were discussing my spiritual life, my growth, marriage, etc., and in all of this she repeatedly emphasized the necessity of prayer for making any kind of impact. Of course I went into sharing all my hang-ups on prayer, how I don't understand it, how I'm not sure I have faith in its influence and so on. She looked right at me and said, "Melissa, you have to stop waiting until you figure it all out and just DO IT!" Her words cut to my heart, and something clicked in me.
I started praying, a lot (for me, anyway!). The more I prayed, the more I realized my NEED for prayer. The more I prayed, the more I heard God. God was putting many people in my path, he was laying burdens on my heart – I knew I needed to pray! And furthermore, I wanted to. I had some incredible experiences with prayer, from basic provision and opportunities, to God prompting me to pray for specific and serious needs I couldn't have known about.
Like many idyllic spiritual seasons or "mountaintops", the intensity of my feelings accompanying this one eventually waned. This is what I wrote in my journal (about a year ago):
"If a month ago I was on a spiritual mountaintop, I am now back to ground level. I feel like I have lost something, which may be true, but just because my feelings change, it doesn't mean my actions and commitment to prayer should. It's a lot harder to focus on spiritual things when you're not on a spiritual buzz, but that's life. I know that at the very least, this time was given to me by God to show me more what things should be like. He showed me my desperate need for prayer, and even though I don't feel it to the same extent now, I know it's still true and something I need to strive for. And I will also still strive to be always in that place where I feel a deep need for and attachment to God. Not just on mountaintops, but during all seasons of my life."
It was really good for me to read over that again – to be reminded of what God has already taught me. For some reason it seems that I need to learn the same lessons over and over again. Just a few months ago, as I was speaking with another mentor (whom I had only recently met), she looked at me, much like Stephanie did, and said, "I think God wants to you to stop worrying about talking with other people so much and start talking to him." Once again the words of a mentor spoke directly to my heart, and I knew God was speaking through her. Not only was it exactly what I needed to hear, but truly, she didn't have much information about my prayer life to know on her own that what she was saying to me was so true.
Even though I have learned a lot about the nature of prayer through reading God's Word, there are still times it completely confounds me. But what I need to do is act on the simple knowledge God has already given me: He wants me to pray and intercede for others, and He works (somehow!) when His people pray. I don't want a mediocre experience of God. I don't want to keep my expectations (or "the bar"!) low because of skepticism. I don't want a small experience of God – I want to experience him in big ways. So I want to set the bar high, to move forward in faith, and to respond to what God has so clearly called me to: an ever-deepening prayer life that recognizes the incredible power of communication with Him.