Praying like Asaph

It’s deeply humbling to walk alongside those who are suffering, especially when we glimpse their hearts as we hear them pray.

Something that regularly strikes me though, is that often, as we suffer, our prayers become ‘pressure-prayers’. We cry out to God, asking him to change the circumstances that afflict us: ‘Please Lord, remove the false accusation I’m facing at work, solve the difficulty in church, help my teenage children not to be so unreasonable and heal my sick loved-one’.

Undoubtedly, seeking deliverance through pressure-prayers is valuable and necessary. It’s not strange to want pain to go away. We see the Lord Jesus praying for deliverance shortly before his crucifixion – ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me’ (Luke 22:42). However, when we pray like this, David Powlison asks, ‘have we misrepresented our glorious, loving and present heavenly Father?’1. In our suffering, do we drift towards the antithesis of 2 Corinthians 4:18, and fix our eyes on what is seen and temporary, rather than what is unseen and eternal?

God can and does powerfully intervene to change our circumstances. Yet, sometimes he doesn’t because he’s using them to deepen our faith (James 1:1-12). But when circumstances don’t change, we can start to doubt God, asking, ‘Does he really hear me? Does he really care? Is he really all-powerful?’

Psalm 77 doesn’t give a reason for the obvious despair the writer, Asaph, feels, but he is clearly suffering significant pressure (v1-4). Weakened by his struggles, he questions God (v7-9). ’Is God angry with me? Why aren’t you doing anything about my situation, God?’ In the night, reflecting on the pressure he faces (v5) he believes the lie that God doesn’t love him and his promises have failed (v8). And this is sometimes where we stop praying.

But Asaph doesn’t stop. He looks beyond the seen and temporary, to the unseen and eternal.

How can we follow Asaph’s example and keep praying when it appears God isn’t answering?

  1. He repents, turning away from himself and towards the living God
  2. He renews his mind by committing to re-focus on God’s goodness
  3. He remembers God’s past acts of deliverance
  4. He re-orientates his understanding of his circumstances into the wider context of God’s majesty, power and strength

Praying like that isn’t just for Asaph. We, too, can pray with more wisdom and discernment when we re-focus our prayer requests to be ‘pressure-prayers-plus’. Yes, keep praying for the pressure to be removed. But also include the desires that grip our hearts and our propensity to turn away from God. Include repentance of our demands to remove the pressure at all costs. Confess the lies we have believed about him. Commit to remember who God is, what he has done, will do and is doing through this pressure.

When our prayers include confession and the spiritual realities of our heart, we draw closer in relationship to God and his will for us.

‘Lord, I pray that the difficult meeting I have later will resolve the conflict. But Lord, you know my tendency to speak harshly when I’m frustrated. In your strength and to glorify you, help me to show patience and self-control, even if they speak angrily to me. I’m sorry I’ve doubted your sovereignty. Help me to remember that you are powerful and active. Even when I feel you are not’.

God changes us as we begin to know and love Jesus more. It is often slow, but it does happen and pressure-prayers-plus frequently result in tangible answers.

How wonderful it is when we didn’t lash out in anger, even though tempted. When we show practical love to someone we once couldn’t. How beautiful when we begin to see our pressured circumstances in the spiritual dimension. As we see God mightily renewing our minds and moulding the desires of our heart, to conform to his will.

Pressure-prayers-plus reflect more faithfully Jesus’ perfect plea on the Mount of Olives, ‘yet not my will, but yours be done.’ (Luke 22:42). How magnificently these prayers reveal the promises of God; that he is faithful, powerful and active in the detail of our lives. He cares.  He is with us. He hears. He answers. He enables us to say ‘we are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed’ (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).

What a wonderful representation of our glorious, loving and present heavenly Father.

1A question posed by David Powlison in ‘Modelling grace through prayer requests’ (CCEF Podcast) 12 August 2009.