I have this recurring dream. Actually, more like a recurring nightmare. In it I’m frantically running away, running away from an army of shadows. As I look closer at the dark mass chasing me I see the faces of people I recognize, people I care about, people I know, and I am terrified. In my sleeping thoughts I’m terrified that this shadow of collective relationships will catch-up with me and tear me apart – and the shadow gets closer with each episode because I feel myself weighed down by the knowledge of expectations and recognition that I not only don’t come close to, but nowhere near the person I am expected to be.
Then I wake up. I wake up to a dreadful feeling of self-doubt mixed with fear, mixed with guilt, mixed with worry, mixed with different insecurities and swirling of negative thoughts in my head. I feel paralyzed by this for a moment, sometimes more than a moment, then I do something I’ve been doing as a child, not so much out of wisdom but out of childlike dependency and vulnerable desperation, I say, “Jesus please help me. Please remind me of Your love.”
I share this recurring nightmare and admission of my mistakes because I want to use them as real examples of things I struggle with. While my writing and insights have sort of given me a reputation for being wise, I’ll be the first person to say that I’m not as wise as I should be, because if I was, I’d not be sharing insights from mistakes (which are practically how I learn most things) but from a reservoir of prudence. When I talk about my thoughts on relationships, I talk about someone who made relationship mistakes and now knows what not to do because of the pain it caused. When I talk about business, I talk from the perspective from someone who has lost money. When I talk about God, I talk about it from the perspective of someone who was raised to follow certain principles and failed, but now see their worth. But what I do have, is something you have to: access to God by simply calling to Him. This means we are all on the same level because there is no level. We are all loved by God, and we are all being invited to take whoever we are with whatever we have, good and bad, and keep offering yourself to Him.
I am grateful that my parents taught me how to pray, and times after my disturbing dreams, I value this discipline even more. The Bible says to train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it. I learned to pray my heart out to God, even when I’m in the wrong, especially when I’m in the wrong, and I have not departed from running to Him, even as, I must admit, I have many times departed from wise principles. I see now that the point of this verse is not to train as perfect a child as possible (this is impossible as there are no perfect parents, as there are no perfect people to begin with, and imperfect ingredients cannot produce perfect results so why expect the offspring to be perfect?), but to train them in the one thing imperfect people can do well, and that is to relentlessly take our points of need as triggers to run to the safety of a perfect God and let Him transform us.
As I write this I am reminded of my friend’s engagement dinner. It was a nice intimate event, nothing crazy lavish, but full of the people that mattered to the couple. During the dinner the mother of the bride, who knows her very very well (of course, she’s her mother), joked a little about her daughter’s colorful past and “100 boyfriends”. It was funny but also a little awkward because the jokes were true. Not exactly the things you want to remember on your engagement party. But then the mother of the would-be groom, gently said, “I have been praying for the spouse of my son since he was very young. You are God’s answer to my prayers.” I remember the hair on my arms standing and my heart inside me melting. I remember seeing the wet eyes of the people around the room, especially on the faces of the people who knew her best. I remember the face of the bride-to-be and how beautifully overwhelmed she looked. Even as one person joked about her embarrassing past, another did not simply accept her, but embraced her as God’s answer to a years-long prayer request. It was probably one of the most powerful messages I have ever heard, definitely one of the most unforgettable, because it was an amazing example of God’s redemptive love, a love so powerful that it not only enables us to live with the failings of others but to embrace them with their failings as God’s answers.
How can this be? Doesn’t God want to give us His best? How can this woman say that God’s answer to her prayers is a person who has a past that was actually quite scandalous? God does want us to have his best, and many times that best doesn’t look like our imagination of what’s best.
At the end of the dinner I went up to the groom’s mother to let her know how much what she said touched me. She responded as if what she had said was the most normal thing in the world. It was nothing special. It was something very natural to her. She said that she went to church and that’s how God loves us. I believe she had learned to pray for God’s will not what she thought would be great, but God’s will. She did not pray for an “awesome wife” for her son. She prayed for God’s will for her son and her son’s spouse. Those are two different things. One is a prayer asking God to fulfill a request. The other is a prayer surrendering to His purpose.
Now, more than year later, as I am once again moved by that wonderful woman’s application of God’s love. I am moved to repentance at the selfishness of my own prayers and the pride obvious from my requests. I, too many times don’t pray for God’s purpose but for God to answer my agenda, my desire, my need, my worry, my concern, and my thoughts. I am not communicating with God because I am caught up in myself, and that prevents me from seeing His answers in disguise. I miss His loving hand in my heartbreaks because He is reminding me He alone can satisfy. I miss His love in my lack because I forget that He loves me so much that He remains even when I have nothing. I miss His love in my fear because I forget that He has prepared a greater place for me in His presence that is better than my current situation. I miss His answers, His regular, consistent, daily, incredible answers to my prayers because I am looking for an answer I want to hear that fits my worldview, which has been tainted by the concerns of the world. And as I miss His answered prayers in disguise I miss His invitation to enjoy love as He enjoys love, and to change my heart to make its prayer more like His, a prayer that looks more like this:
After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed:
1 “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. 2 For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. 3 Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. 4 I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began…
… 20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me
– from John 17
I’ve read this chapter many times but it never jumped out at me like it did tonight. Over and over Jesus requests not for perfection, not for success, not for respect but that we would know God and know His purpose, which is to make us all one with Him. This was the prayer Jesus was lifting up as He was coming close to His death: “Father, fulfill Your purpose” and that purpose was to bring us to Him.
God’s ultimate purpose is to reconcile us to Him.
To be more like Christ means more than improved behavior. It means having a Christlike heartbeat that is more concerned with reconciliation than self-preservation or self-justification. In many ways my heart is very far from this. No wonder it’s so easy for me to feel entitled, to feel envious, or proud, or condemned, or lustful, or to do so many of the things I try not to do, because my heart, who I am, is unlike Christ. I cannot act like Christ if my heart remains unlike Christ’s. It’s simply not sustainable. I am living proof of that.
But even in my inner darkness I find a bright light that my shadows cannot overcome. It is an answered prayer in disguise that I now recognize. That in the challenges of my circumstances, in the adversities of life, and in the pressures of expectations I find a clear contrast between earth and eternity. For in my daily failures are new mercies, in my daily struggles I find unfailing grace, and in my failing plans I find eternal life, because I know more about my Father, His Son whom He sent, and His purpose to make me one with Him.
I have a recurring dream, actually, a recurring nightmare. I am scared to be ripped apart by the expectations I am bound to fail. What a blessing to be reminded that I need God, even more, what a blessing to be reminded that I am loved, and even more, what a blessing to know that as I draw close to the Father, despite who I really am, I am part of Christ’s answered prayer for all of us to be with one with Him.
This is the ultimate answered prayer in disguise: our greatest prayer, which is to be loved, is fulfilled when we find out that we are an answer to Christ’s own prayer when we know how much He loves us.
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
– from John 17