Lately I have felt a fresh invitation from God to pray, and I am not the only one. It seems like every time I turn around someone I know is sharing how they have been stirred to pray again. There are a thousand things to trip over when it comes to becoming a person of prayer. Here are three lessons from Mary and Martha in John 11.
1. The Stress of Urgency
In John 11 we find this incredible story that connects powerfully to our experiences when we pray. The main characters are a trio of siblings (Mary, Martha, and Lazarus), Jesus, and His friends the disciples. Lazarus becomes ill, and his sisters send word to Jesus to come help. Sounds kind of like a prayer, eh? But check out Jesus’ response:
"But when Jesus heard about it he said, “Lazarus’s sickness will not end in death. No, it happened for the glory of God so that the Son of God will receive glory from this.” So although Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, he stayed where he was for the next two days. Finally, he said to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.” (vs 4-6)
Mary and Martha feel the immediacy of the situation, but Jesus delays. I'm sure nobody reading this has ever prayed for something but had to wait or thought no one was listening...pause to let the sarcasm sink in... Ok, all of us have experienced that. Now let’s talk about it.
My wife Erin and I have three sons. The older two, Mason & Liam, think they know how to tell time. Their sense of time is comical, actually. For example, on our regular family trip three-hundred and fifty miles south to see family, they will ask the age old question, “Are we there yet?” The problem is they ask it twenty minutes into the trip that takes more like seven or eight hours. I usually say, “Guys, it’s going to take all day. We will have lunch in a few hours, and then drive a few more hours after that before we get there.” They acknowledge me and act like they are satisfied with my answer. About twenty minutes later I inevitably hear, “Are we there yet?”
We can be just like that with God. This isn’t anything new you haven't heard. We know we are impatient. Maybe we even know how completely lost we are in God's timing. Like my boys, we don’t truly understand God’s timing. We pretend to sometimes, but we just don’t. Be honest, we don't really want to. What we want is for God to follow our timing.
I believe God wants to release the gift of long-suffering prayer again in this generation. One definition of “long-suffering” is: “having or showing patience in spite of troubles, especially those caused by other people.” If that doesn’t describe a person of prayer, I’m not sure what does! Truly, we must become more open to the idea of contending for something we may never see in our lifetime. This mindset for prayer is content to simply keep asking and keep trusting God.
Some of us are about to begin praying for things that we will contend for for the rest of our lives.
2. The Fear of Neglect
Another reason why we fail to prioritize prayer is the fear of neglect. We tell ourselves, “If we stop asking God for things, we won’t get hurt if he doesn’t deliver.” Jumping back into John 11, we find out that Jesus did indeed delay going to see his friend Lazarus. In fact, Lazarus dies. For Mary and Martha, this was the final blow to their hopes that Jesus could help them.
"When Martha got word that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him. But Mary stayed in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died."" (vs 20-21)
Martha sees God's absence, but Jesus knows God's will. Ever pound on the floor, crying and angry at God for not answering your prayer? I know some of you feel neglected, but the truth is that God sometimes has better for us than what we would ask for. We think that not receiving what we prayed for is the answer to the cosmic question, “Does God really care about us?” But just as Mary and Martha are about to see, Jesus often has a better thought and a better answer than what we are asking for.
"But when Jesus heard about it he said, “Lazarus’s sickness will not end in death. No, it happened for the glory of God so that the Son of God will receive glory from this." (Vs 4)
God receiving glory is no selfish, self-centered thing. No, when God receives glory through our story all becomes more truly right with the world. Jesus could have urgently traveled to Lazarus and healed him just in time, but then we would only know Jesus power to restore health. Instead, Jesus chose to delay and ultimately show His power over death. In many ways, this story is a foreshadowing of Jesus' ultimate reason for coming to earth: to conquer death and restore us as God's sons and daughters.
3. The Pain of Disappointment
The sisters still don’t know what Jesus has planned. All they know is that Jesus was too late, and that their brother is dead. Their prayers went unanswered and God failed them. Then Jesus does what he tends to do best: the unexpected.
“Roll the stone aside,” Jesus told them. But Martha, the dead man’s sister, protested, “Lord, he has been dead for four days. The smell will be terrible.” (vs 39)
Martha sees a corpse, but Jesus brings new life. You can feel Martha’s heart ache as she basically pleads, "Jesus, just let what's dead stay buried!" Have you ever felt that way before? Something you prayed for didn’t come through, but God won’t leave it alone. All you want is to bury the dead, bury your feelings, and move on, but God isn’t done.
Are you willing to let Jesus open up the tombs where your dead prayers are?
If you let Jesus roll the stone away, he will bring life to things that you thought were completely dead.
“Then Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. You always hear me, but I said it out loud for the sake of all these people standing here, so that they will believe you sent me.” Then Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound in grave clothes, his face wrapped in a head cloth. Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him go!” John 11:41-44