Recently, over coffee with a friend, I learned of another friend who had suffered a heartbreaking personal tragedy. Not only was she suffering physically, but emotionally and spiritually, her grief was intense. I felt a stab of lament for her and assured my friend that yes, I would pray for our mutual friend.
It was such an easy thing to say. I wasn’t close to this woman; “friend” was actually quite a generous term–we were more like “acquaintances.” Lifting up a prayer for her was an almost automatic response. She had a need, and I knew God was big enough to fill it. It was the least I could do.
What I was not prepared for, however, was how God was going to use that prayer.
The next morning, as I finished up my devotional and Bible study, I settled in to pray. I lifted up this woman, asking for God to meet her in her grief, provide for her needs, and strengthen her faith through this difficult time. I was just getting ready to move on to the next item on my prayer list, when I got the strangest–and strongest–nudging on my heart:
I paused. Call her? Call her? Surely, God, I’m hearing You wrong. First of all, I hate calling people. Hardcore introvert here! Secondly, I barely even know her. She is hurting. She is mourning. I am the last person she probably wants to talk to right now.
And yet the nudging on my heart continued. After I’d finished praying. After I’d closed my Bible. After I’d gone about my business, taken my kids to school, started the laundry, sat down to work on my word count…
I’d love to be able to tell you I obeyed with a joyful heart. But, the truth is, I grumbled as I dialed her number. The entire situation felt awkward and uncomfortable. What could *I* possibly do to help her during this time? Her personal situation was so far out of my hands; it felt presumptuous to even think my words would do anything to ease her pain. I just knew she would be nothing but annoyed by my intrusion.
But, when she answered her phone, it was not irritation I heard in her voice. It was gratitude. When I asked her how she was doing, she began to cry. She just wanted to talk about it, she said, but she didn’t know how. So I let her talk.
I wasn’t family. I wasn’t even her best friend. But, in that moment, I was what she needed most–an ear to listen, a heart with which to commiserate, a filter through which to process her pain. Before making the phone call, I didn’t know what I could possibly do to help.
But God did. And that phone call wasn’t just about strengthening her faith–it was about refining my own.
Through that phone call, my involvement in the situation went from a momentary “Oh, that’s too bad” pinprick of sorrow, followed by a minute or two of prayer, to full-blown investment. Hearing her cries, I could feel her anguish through the telephone–and it became my anguish too. My heart went from hurting for her to actually breaking. I was troubled, upset, and mournful not for anything that happened to me–but because of the affliction and torment suffocating this soul on the other end of the telephone.
After praying with her and volunteering to bring her a meal the next day, I got off the phone, feeling utterly defeated. This was not an act of obedience I was glad I had done. It certainly didn’t make me feel better or righteous in any way. Emotionally, I would have been better off ignoring that nudging. If I had, I wouldn’t be battling the overwhelming grief I was feeling in that moment.
No, the obedience wasn’t fun. But it was necessary.
In the book Praying: Does It Make Any Difference?, Philip Yancey writes that “praying can be a risky enterprise.” Sometimes, the simple act of praying for others can convict us to do something for them we wouldn’t normally do. In other words, he says, sometimes we ask God for things we should be doing ourselves.
That was certainly the case with this woman. In my prayers, I had asked God to meet her needs and strengthen her faith; in His response, He charged me with being His voice for her ears. No, I couldn’t meet her every need. I couldn’t heal her. I couldn’t lessen her loss.
But I could listen. I could offer my presence–His presence–for a moment to allow her to talk and grieve and process.
Doing so, however, required action on my part. It required a willingness to get involved in a way that sacrificed more than a two or three minute prayer. Yes, prayer is absolutely important and it does make a difference, but truly praying for someone means being willing to bring action into our words when God calls for it. Sometimes that’s messy and it’s almost always uncomfortable; we may be forced to do things or say things way outside our zone. Worse yet, it may cause us to empathize with another person’s pain in such a way that it causes us immense pain. It’s so much easier to close that door, hold the world’s problems at distance, and offer up a few words for God to do something instead.
But we are called to be “Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20). Our faith is more than mere words, even words as powerful and sincere as prayer. Our true faith lies in the ever-present tension between prayer and action, between knowing the difference between when it’s God’s turn to move and when it’s our own. Because prayer is never a one-sided thing; it is a chat between a Father and His children. It is not just a series of questions directed at an All-Mighty God, but a receiving and reaction to the response given by a God who desires a relationship with us and charges us with furthering His kingdom here on earth.
Prayer is risky.
Obedient prayer, though, is also the richest of all rewards.