“I Want What God Wants – How Obedience Transforms Your Relationship With God” is available April 26. I’m sharing an excerpt from the chapter “Keep Praying.”
I’ve only been in one fight my life. I was in fifth grade and my brother and I would play basketball with our friends from the neighborhood. I can’t remember why I got into the fight, but I remember I lost. One of the kids got me down on the ground and once he was on top he started hitting me and I couldn’t get up. That was the day I decided I never wanted to fight again. I wasn’t a fighter, and almost 20 years later I’ve never stepped in the ring again, at least not for fistfights. My fights now are predominantly between my will and God, and I spend a lot of time getting up off the mat.
When your heart is invested, you’re going to spend certain seasons of life feeling like you and God are going 12 rounds in a heavyweight fight. There are times He could not feel closer. Your prayers are being answered, your life is successful, and God is blessing all around you, but there are also times when you feel abandoned and forgotten. There are times when you’re convinced God is punishing you. You will even battle moments wondering if God loves you. That’s when the prayers you were taught as a child won’t cut it. You must pray through.
It was April 16, 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” 13 days earlier he and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights started their nonviolent protests with coordinated marches and sit-ins to fight segregation and racial injustice in Birmingham Alabama. When Judge Jenkins ruled against “demonstrating” on April 10, it only took two days for King and his leaders to be arrested and jailed. While imprisoned, King wrote about the personal struggle of forgiving the police officers who had and were currently assaulting his followers outside the jail with their nightsticks, and calling them profane names. King wrote that he had to fast several days to find the supernatural strength to be able to forgive the offenders. On his own he could not compel himself to forgive, he needed God’s help.
There are moments in life when it’s not enough to pray, you have to pray through. If obedience was easy, everyone would do it, but when you’re faced with having to “turn the other cheek,” or “love your enemy,” the strength it requires to obey God is only found in the secret place of praying through. Mother Teresa said, “Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts.” It’s what David described in Psalm 62:8 when he wrote, “O my people, trust in him [God] at all time. Pour out your heart to him for God is our refuge.” Praying through is the process of pouring out your heart in confession to God, admitting your doubts and selfishness, and allowing God to fill you with “peace that passes all understanding” until the moment when you’re able to say, “I want what God wants more than I want what I want.”
GOD IS AN ARTIST
Growing up, I would wake up on Saturdays to my brother watching the Bob Ross painting show on PBS. If you’ve ever seen Bob Ross paint you know how he worked. For the first 25 minutes, his canvas looked like a mess. He would take different colors and paint abstract shapes that didn’t look like anything, but all of the sudden he would take a small brush or his finger, and with one little stroke, the painting would all come together. A green mess with one little addition would turn into a beautiful forest, or a gray blob became a breathtaking mountain, and you would see the picture crystal clear. I think God paints like Bob Ross. Very few times in my life have I been able to recognize the work in progress, and in the moment, the instruction of God seemed trivial or too difficult. My problem is I want to see the finished product before I agree to participate, but that’s not the way God works. If I agree to take the first step and trust him, by the time He is finished, He will produce something beautiful. It’s always obvious looking back, but frightening in the moment.
The Bible is filled with masterpieces, men and women whose canvas took a lifetime to complete. The first 80 years of Moses’s life, the only thing he had accomplished was killing a man, burying the body, and getting away with it. To an appraiser, Moses’s canvas looked more like dogs playing poker than the Mona Lisa, but God wasn’t finished. Joseph had to wait 22 years for his paint to dry. Betrayal and abandonment were just some of the almighty’s color choices, and at each fork in the road Joseph had to recommit to God’s path even when it wasn’t clear what He was up to.
Maybe that’s the reason I like Bible stories. I like them because I know how they end. I never read afraid of what’s currently happening because I already know the finished product. I forget these stories are real. They happened to real people. The same emotions I feel when I’m facing uncertainty and fear are the same emotions they felt. The doubt and anger that fill my heart filled their hearts too.
The Bible is filled with story after story of man’s struggle to trust and obey God. I used to think of the Bible as a story of good vs. evil, but oddly enough, you don’t find many appearances from the devil. Instead, you read a constant narrative of humanity trying to conquer individual will and desires to submit to God’s plans. The same is true for me. I spend much more time wrestling my will than I do the devil, but I’m not alone. Even as Jesus hung on the cross about to die, He didn’t curse Satan; He looked to heaven and asked God why he had forsaken Him. Even Jesus was uncertain of God’s plans in the middle of His obedience, at least, I know I’m not alone.
In full disclosure, I’m not a painter. I’m the guy who stares at paintings and acts like he understands the meaning behind them, but once I started thinking about God as a painter and my life as a canvas my perspective changed. I began to reread stories I had read a hundred times only, this time, I envisioned the artist moving his brush. What if every verse of hopelessness, darkness, and doubt is just God the artist using dark colors to add to his masterpiece? What if every verse of blessing and victory are bright colors being splashed onto the art?
In one of the greatest showdowns of will, Jesus knelt down to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane the night he was supposed to be arrested and killed. Jesus went away to pray, and as He began to pray, the knowledge of God’s plan, and his natural desires to want what’s best for him were so grueling he began to sweat blood. It was as if God, at that moment painting the greatest masterpiece ever, was brushing the top of the canvas with red paint and it began to drip slowly down. Three different times Jesus begged God to come up with a new plan, but God wasn’t going to budge on this one. I’m glad God didn’t change the plan that night. I’m glad he knows what’s best even when I try to convince him my plan is better.
I remember walking in the waiting room and seeing my dad and brother with puffy red eyes. They had already talked to the doctor before I arrived. After 22 months of surgery, chemo, and radiation, we had run out of options to keep my mom alive. We were down to two choices. One choice would prolong her life, but cause cancer to spread at an irrevocable pace, and the other guaranteed death sooner but ended her prolonged suffering. Dad pulled my brother and me into a side room and asked us what we wanted to do. It was our choice. No surprise, my brother and I disagreed. He wanted to extend her life to give us more time to pray for a miracle, and I wanted my mom to stop fighting for us. She died 12 days later, at 48 years old.
During those 22 months, I spent hours on the road and in airplanes traveling back and forth to visit, but more time was spent inside my head. I was lucky growing up. Except for a grandfather dying at a young age, I didn’t have to deal with death or divorce in my family. Things had changed. Questions about healing, cancer, God’s sovereignty and will dominated my thoughts. I never experienced the “angry, yell at the sky” phase, but I did wonder about God’s will. If I wanted my mom to live, but God was ready for her to die, did I really want her to live? Did I want what God wanted if it meant I didn’t get what I wanted?
I think that’s why God lets me face pain and trials, it’s the vice grip that conforms me to his will. Even Jesus learned through pain, “Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered.” (Hebrews 5:8) Like Job, during the good times, I make the mistake of believing God and I want the same things, as long as those things are my blessing and happiness. It’s during the trials that I come face to face with my beliefs about God. Is God still good if my current circumstances aren’t? Does prayer still work if my prayers aren’t answered? Pain and trials remind me again that life’s circumstances aren’t my gauge and prayer isn’t as much about outcomes as the honest dialogue.
MY GETHSEMANE EXPERIENCE
My dad already shared his experience with Norah and the concerns about the size of her head, but let me share mine. Hearing the doctors explain their concern that Norah had Hydrocephalus, a birth defect where the spinal canal and backbone don’t close before birth, allowing spinal fluid to get to the brain and causes serious brain damage, was terrifying. We immediately called the children’s hospital and set up an MRI for the next day, but in the meantime, anyone who has ever dealt with medical tests knows the hardest part is waiting. For the next 24 hours, our minds raced to every possible scenario. I had prepared myself for the worst and began to think through how raising a special needs child would change our lives. After we had put the girls to bed, I snuck away to spend some time praying. I wanted to plead with God to heal my daughter if there were any problems. As I begin to pray, I struggled to find the words. It wasn’t because I didn’t know what I wanted, but every time I started praying for God to protect or heal Norah it didn’t feel right. I started and stopped several times not having any peace. My problem was I wanted Norah to be ok, but I couldn’t shake the thought God might be up to something bigger. I didn’t want to pray for something I wanted if it wasn’t what God wanted.
The Bible plainly tells us to pray and ask for what we want. There is nothing wrong with praying for God to heal family members or friends, but in those moments, I struggled to pray for healing. I began to tell God, “I want what you want more than I want what I want. I don’t know what that looks like or what it all means, but I want what you want.” I only found real peace telling God I was ok with His way. If that meant brain damage for my daughter, then, by the grace of God, we would manage.
The next day Andrea and I were taking Norah to the hospital, and I told her what happened the night before. I told her I struggled to pray for Norah because the only thing that brought me peace was wanting what God wanted. Andrea began to cry and told me the same thing happened to her. We’re not better or nobler than anyone else, but we have come to terms with the fact that God is directly connected to the things that bring our lives the most joy and the most pain. He is always working for our good even when it doesn’t feel like it, and the last thing I need is to get what I want. I want what He wants, even if it hurts for a while.
He’s painting a masterpiece with my life. The total number of my days is a canvas, and the master artist is doing what He does best. He may let me see a glimpse of His work occasionally, but I won’t get to see the final product until it’s finished. When I’m able to see it, I will be reminded that no one paints a better picture than God. His work is flawless, his timing is impeccable, and He is always working for my good.
You’ve probably heard the song “It Is Well.” It’s lyrics penetrate to the deepest part of any believer, “Whatever my lot thou hath taught me to say, it is well, it is well, with my soul.” Like most beautiful art that connects with us deeply, it came from a dark time in the writer, Horatio Spafford’s life. Spafford lost all of his family’s money in 1871. He had been a successful lawyer and decided to invest his money into a large amount of real estate in the Chicago area. The Great Chicago Fire in 1871 moved through his investments and destroyed the real estate leaving his family with very little. He decided to get away from Chicago and travel with his family to Europe, but just before they were supposed to leave he had to stay back to settle some business matters, so he sent his wife and four daughters ahead of him. While crossing the Atlantic, their boat hit another boat, and it sank killing all four daughters. Spafford’s wife sent a telegram back to her husband that just said: “Saved alone…” Spafford and his wife would later go on to have three more children. His son Horatio Jr. died at the age of 4 from scarlet fever. As Spafford got on a boat to go and meet his wife in Europe, the story goes that his boat came to the spot in the ocean where his daughters had been killed and at that spot Spafford wrote the words to that famous hymn.
There may be no greater act of obedience in life than choosing to stay faithful to a God whose plans for us include great darkness, pain, and tragedy. Choosing to trust when all signs seem to point towards abandoning our faith and pursuing our own way, is the ultimate act of submission only learned in the valley.
There is a unique passage of scripture in 2 Samuel 18 that has always peaked my curiosity. It’s a reminder for me that life will be filled with ups and downs, peaks and valleys, and seasons of wandering and wondering. It reads, “…more men died because of the forest than were killed by the sword.”
It wasn’t a forest but it was a garden, and that night in Gethsemane Jesus faced a faith dilemma not unlike what you and I face. We have a heavenly father who understands the battle of wills. “This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do…” (Hebrews 4:15) I can make you a promise. If Jesus had to pray through, you will too. It’s the only way to find the secret stash of peace it takes to trust God another day.
As I finished my talk to a group of pastors and spouses one morning, a woman approached me and said, “I don’t know about praying the prayer ‘I want what God wants! Honestly, I’m not sure I’m there yet.” I know her story. A toddler daughter taken so early in life due to a crushing disease left a huge scar on her heart, and the idea of total surrender was still too difficult though many years had passed. Perhaps you know how she feels. Perhaps trusting God is more difficult given the miles and experiences traveled. I get that. So I said to my friend, “maybe, for now, you can just pray—‘Lord, help me to want what you want!” My friend thought for a moment and said, “I can do that.”
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