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Cultivating the Spirit through the Life of Prayer: Prayer as Conflict

July 29, 2007

Genesis 32:22-31

Last Sunday, we started a new sermon series entitled Cultivating the Spirit through the Life of Prayer. We talked about how God wants to use us as good fertile soil so that He can implant His Word in our hearts and we can become productive for Him. For several weeks, we are going to consider how prayer cultivates our very spirit.

Today, we come to the topic of prayer as conflict. If you do not believe the Lord has a sense of humor, let me tell you a story. It is as if God said to me, “Kirk, if you are going to preach about prayer as conflict, I am going to put you in a situation that forces you to experience that first-hand.”

Just before I left for vacation last week, I had an annual physical examination, one of those stem-to-stern examinations we love so much. During the exam, I told my wonderful physician, Dr. Clary, that recently I had been carrying a railroad tie with another fellow who stumbled, causing it to hit my left ribcage. My side was sore, so Dr. Clary arranged for me to have an X-ray immediately. Fortunately, he found nothing broken, but the X-ray revealed something unusual in my right lung. He told me, “Kirk, you have something weird going on in your right lung.” That is not exactly what he said. He was much more technical than that. His explanation boiled down to the fact that something weird was going on in my right lung. Of course, my children commented, “Why should your right lung be any different from the rest of you? You are weird all over.” Even though Dr. Clary said I did not have much to worry about, I did worry. I tried not to worry, but almost all of us worry when we discover something unusual in an X-ray.

On Wednesday after we returned from vacation, I had a CT Scan, which went well. That afternoon when I was considering a topic for Prayer Service, I decided to preach about the gift of breath. I had been thinking about that, pondering on it, so I made a few notes. Then about a quarter to five, Dr. Clary called and said, “The best thing for us to do is to get a needle biopsy and find out what is going on with this place in your right lung.” He scheduled the procedure for Thursday morning. I did not even mention his call at Prayer Service because I had not been able to tell my children and the staff this news yet. All during the message about how important it is for us to receive this gift of breath, I was thinking about having the needle biopsy the next day. After I went home that night, Clare and I quickly got word out to all of our children. The best I could do with the staff was to send an e-mail, which I did. I also sent a note to the chair and vice-chair of the deacons.

Early Thursday morning, I walked into the Outpatient Center at the hospital. A wonderful fellow who always speaks to me, Jim, greeted me early Thursday morning, saying, “Kirk, I really hope your procedure goes well.” I realized that he knew that I was there as a patient and not as my customary role of pastor. I go to the hospital a lot early in the morning. At the Outpatient Center, the woman behind the desk said, “It is so odd to see you on this side of the wall as the patient. I am accustomed to seeing you here to visit other folks.” After waiting a few moments, a man named Donell came to put me in the right room. As we passed the nurses’ station, all the nurses spoke to me and one said, “We are used to seeing you here, but not like this.”

Donell took me into a room. Two weeks ago, I wrote a column in the newsletter on triskaidekaphobia, the fear of the number thirteen. Guess which room I got – Room 13. I remembered that in the Jewish tradition, thirteen is a lucky number. I claimed that and went right in for my prep. They say that a good sermon ought to be something similar to a hospital gown, long enough to cover the subject but brief enough to make it interesting. My hospital gown was neither. That gown was an exercise in great humility. Once I was dressed and ready, someone rolled me to the area where I was to have the biopsy. A man named Anthony explained the procedure to me, saying, “We are going to stick a needle into this lesion.” I protested, “Anthony, we are not calling this a lesion. We are calling it a cloudy weird place. We are not calling it a lesion.” He said, “OK, the cloudy weird place.”

A nurse who came in asked 1001 questions. One question was, “Do you snore?” Clare just rolled her eyes at that one. I told the nurse that snoring was a sign of a man with a clear conscience. I stretched out, and the anesthesiologist knocked me out so that the doctor could stick a need through my back and into my lung. A fine Jewish physician performed this biopsy. He knew me from when I read this year’s Christmas story for the congregation of Temple B’Nai Israel. I remember waking up and seeing Clare and a good-looking nurse. All the nurses in the recovery area should be good-looking. Nothing is worse than waking up from a procedure like this and having an ugly nurse. I have been through that. This nurse was kind.

Once I started coming around, a doctor came in and told me, “The pathology report is incomplete, but we have done some preliminary work. Everything looks good.” Clare and I spent the better part of the day at the hospital. A nurse offered me an egg salad sandwich, but you know how much I like egg salad. I do not like it at all. On the way home, Clare and I stopped at a famous establishment noted for its great cheeseburgers. We got several, went home, and ate them on our back porch. Afterwards, I took a long nap. Dr. Clary called at the end of the day and said, “There is no bad news. It is all good news. This is some sort of old scarred area.”

I was so grateful to hear that news. Can you believe that the Lord gave me this sermon topic for the very Sunday after I had that experience? I commend Philip Yancey’s book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? This sermon series, Cultivating the Spirit through the Life of Prayer, derives much of the information from that book.

Last week, I talked about how God tills into our spirit humility. Today, we come to this issue of prayer as conflict. Think of that topic in the cultivating process as uprooting the briars, digging out the rocks that are so much a part of our spirit, those things that interfere with our being the good soil God wants us to be.

You might think that prayer as conflict sounds a little irreverent. You might think that even more as we continue this series, but Philip Yancey reminded me that this conflict is a part of our great tradition of prayer. From the earliest pages of the Bible, people have been going toe-to-toe with God. Abraham bargained with God, asking, “How many righteous people would it take for You to spare Sodom? 100?” God answered, “I will spare it for 100.” “How about fifty?” “Yes, I would spare the city for fifty.” Abraham continued to whittle the Almighty God down to ten people. It is a puzzle why Abraham stopped there. Perhaps the number of people in Lot’s family equaled ten, and he was concerned about his nephew and his family. Abraham clearly bargained with God by arguing with Him. Consider Moses, standing barefooted on holy ground after God had appeared to him in the bush that was burning but not consumed. God had a job for him. Eighty-year-old Moses argued with God, saying, “I am not going to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let my people go. I am not the right person for the job. I cannot even make a straight sentence. I am a man of halting speech. I stutter. Find someone else, God.” God, of course, would have none of it.

In the Christian tradition, prayer as conflict is certainly a part of the fabric of our faith. We do not recognize it very often. Nelson Mandela said that when he was in prison, a pastor came to pray with him. This pastor reminded the Lord that some of His subjects were downtrodden. He prayed, “It is as if You are not paying attention. Unless You take more initiative in freeing the black man, we are going to have to take matters into our own hands.” It sounds irreverent, I know. It is certainly prayer as conflict. Sojourner Truth, an ex-slave, was in distress because her son fell ill. She prayed, “Oh, God, you know how distressed I am. I have told you repeatedly. Help my son. If You were in trouble and I could help, God, I would help You. I will never give You any peace until You help me.”

Prayer as conflict may indeed sound irreverent. I hear people say, “We should never question God.” I just do not find any evidence for that in the Bible. Great people of the Bible often questioned God. They were often in conflict with God in the life of prayer. In fact, maybe those who were willing to stand toe-to-toe with God are the ones He chose to lead His people. He knew that they were honest with Him.

I have had some experience with this honesty with God, especially in my young adult years. I went to seminary with a chip on my shoulder. I had not been there long before I became disgusted. I stood in the middle of Seminary Village one cold winter night, raised my fist to heaven, and shouted to God, “I will never be a…preacher!” You see where that got me. Here I am.

Clare and I wanted to have children, but doctors told us that we could never have children. She became pregnant but after three months had a miscarriage. We realized that anybody could have a miscarriage. We accepted that. The doctors again told us we were not going to have children, not by natural childbirth. We would have to adopt, they said. Clare became pregnant again, this time carrying the child until she felt life. Again, she miscarried. My wife was so distraught; all she could do was cry. I was so mad, so angry, that I went out in the woods and lamented, “God, I don’t understand this. People around the world have children like rats, but we cannot have children.” I did not see anything or hear anything, but I sure got a message: “Kirk, how do you expect to be a father until you learn to hurt?” I have had my bouts with God.

A Hospice chaplain entered the room of a dying man who was distraught. He said to the chaplain, “You know, all night long I fussed at God. I told Him that I did not understand. I questioned why He was doing this to me, why I should have a terminal illness and have to leave my family. I was hard on God. Now, I am afraid I have lost my salvation because I had said these things.” The chaplain revealed, “Do you know what you did all night long? You prayed. You were honest, and God welcomes your prayers, even prayers of conflict.”

Prayers of conflict can take many forms. Sometimes it is as if God is chasing us. He is in hot pursuit. One poet described God as the “hound of heaven” that will track us down until He catches us. Sometimes this conflict with God is like playing an intense game of hide-and-seek. In numerous places in the book of Psalms, David prayed, “I am worn out calling for God…My throat is parched…My eyes fail, searching for my God…O God, why do you hide yourself?”

Occasionally, this conflict with God is like a lover’s quarrel. Clare and I fuss at each other a good bit because I am so hardheaded, stubborn, strong-willed. The Lord knew that I needed an equal, so He gave me Clare. I have learned that in marriage, the issue is not how to avoid conflict. The issue is how to resolve it. I have learned that resolving the conflict results in a deeper love and a stronger marriage. I have learned that giving in to Clare is the better part of wisdom. Our relationship to God is at times the same way.

Now and then, this conflict with God is like wrestling, as in the story of Jacob, one of the most conniving people in the Bible. In this case, if you want God to be a God of justice, you are going to be disappointed. You find that Jacob duped his brother, deceived his father, and conspired with his mother. This was one dysfunctional family! After taking his brother’s birthright, stealing his brother’s blessing, receiving an irrevocable blessing from Isaac, Jacob went into the wilderness near Bethel where he spent the night. Instead of having nightmares like a man with a guilty conscience, Jacob had a beautiful dream of heaven, with angels descending on a ladder or stairway. I bet he snored if snoring is a sign of a clear conscience. His bad deeds did not seem to phase his conscience one bit. In the dream, God Himself said to Jacob, “I am going to bless you, Jacob. I will be with you wherever you go.” I know that we reap what we sow. I know that honesty is the best policy. The story of Jacob, however, seems to contradict that. It seems as if the person who was so scheming turns out pretty well. For the next twenty years, he had a good life with Laban, who was both his uncle and father-in-law. Then he returned to the land of Canaan, the Land of Promise, as a wealthy man with a large family. You wonder if Jacob was ever going to get his comeuppance.

Jacob sent his family across a barrier, the River Jabbok, but he stopped to spend the night. That night was so different from the one he had spent at Bethel. A stranger came out of the darkness, seized him, and took him to the mat. They wrestled all night. For a while, it appeared as if Jacob might get the upper hand. Maybe Jacob’s unseen adversary was simply trying to lead him to believe he really could win. As dawn approached, this unseen opponent said, “Let me go.” Jacob refused, holding on and believing he had the victory. With that refusal, his enemy knocked Jacob’s hip out of joint. Then Jacob held onto his adversary, not as a victor but as a drowning man who clutches a rescuer. Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.” His opponent said, “What is your name?” “Jacob is my name.” Providing a name to an opponent is like throwing up a white flag, surrendering. This unseen enemy said, “Your name is no longer Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God” (Genesis 32:28). Getting up the next day, Jacob knew he had been in a battle. With a new name and a changed heart, he walked away limping.

I was a bit restless Wednesday night. I engaged in a little conflictual praying. I bargained a little bit and argued a little bit. I might have wrestled a little bit, too. I have been in a fight with God so many times before, and I have been defeated. Through the years, I have learned that it is best to yield to God. Jesus provides a great model for that in the Garden of Gethsemane where he perspired, wept, prayed, and finally surrendered, “Not my will but Thy will be done.” I like the way the hymn words it, “My stubborn will subdue.” God welcomes prayers as conflict. God is going to win. What is odd is that we win, too. The only way to find victory is through defeat, surrender. When we surrender to Him, we find victory.

I do not want to discourage you when prayer is conflictual. I want to encourage you. We see this pattern in the Bible. It has certainly been a part of my life. It has been a part of my life this week. When Dr. Clary called me and said, “Kirk, I have no bad news. It is all good news,” of course, I was relieved. I learned once again that the way to real victory is through surrender.

Have you surrendered your life to the Lord Jesus Christ? Have you asked him to be your Savior? If not, we invite you to do that because it is the only way you can know victory in your life. You may have other decisions to make. If that is the case, we invite you to make them as we stand and sing a wonderful hymn of invitation that is so appropriate, “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.” You respond as God leads.

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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