By Steve Vander Molen
When most of us think about prayer for people’s needs, our minds leap to something we want God to do or change. We immediately see the yawning gap between what they are and should be or what they have and what they need, or what they have done and ought to do.
We envision prayer as the bridge between what is and what (in our minds at least) ought to be.
Acts 12: 1-17 via Eugene H. Peterson’s The Message tells the story this way:
That’s when King Herod got it into his head to go after some of the church members. He murdered James, John’s brother. When he saw how much it raised his popularity ratings with the Jews, he arrested Peter—all this during Passover Week, mind you—and had him thrown in jail, putting four squads of four soldiers each to guard him. He was planning a public lynching after Passover.
All the time that Peter was under heavy guard in the jailhouse, the church prayed for him most strenuously.
Then the time came for Herod to bring him out for the kill. That night, even though shackled to two soldiers, one on either side, Peter slept like a baby. And there were guards at the door keeping their eyes on the place. Herod was taking no chances!
Suddenly there was an angel at his side and light flooding the room. The angel shook Peter and got him up: “Hurry!” The handcuffs fell off his wrists. The angel said, “Get dressed. Put on your shoes.” Peter did it. Then, “Grab your coat and let’s get out of here.” Peter followed him, but didn’t believe it was really an angel—he thought he was dreaming.
Past the first guard and then the second, they came to the iron gate that led into the city. It swung open before them on its own, and they were out on the street, free as the breeze. At the first intersection the angel left him, going his own way. That’s when Peter realized it was no dream. “I can’t believe this really happened! The Master sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s vicious little production and the spectacle the Jewish mob was looking forward to.”
Still shaking his head, amazed, he went to Mary’s house, the Mary who was John Mark’s mother. The house was packed with praying friends. When he knocked on it—the door to the courtyard, a young woman named Rhoda came to see who it was. But when she recognized his voice—Peter’s voice!—she was so excited and eager to tell everyone Peter was there that she forgot to open the door and left him standing in the street.
But they wouldn’t believe her, dismissing her, dismissing her report. “You’re crazy,” they said. She stuck by her story, insisting. They still wouldn’t believe her and said, “It must be his angel.” All this time poor Peter was standing out in the street, knocking away.
Finally they opened up and saw him—and went wild! Peter put his hands up and calmed them down. He described how the Master had gotten him out of jail, then said, “Tell James and the brothers what’s happened.” He left them and went off to another place.
This text has taught me that my prayers are often limited to my preconceptions of what I want and what I think God will do. I can’t help but wonder what it would take to really convince me that with God, all things are possible. Not even several days of fervent prayer convinced these Christians. I am so much like them. I guess I’m not really surprised at their reaction (or lack of it) because I am no different.
Do you share this problem too? Are your prayers limited to the careful confines of what you think God can do? Or are your prayers filled with telling God what we think needs to be done?
There are times when we are so preoccupied with praying for an answer that we can’t recognize it when it comes. That was the problem in Acts 12. The Lord interrupted their prayer time for Peter with Peter himself, and they weren’t ready for that. But Peter kept knocking until they let him in. And once they saw that it was him, they were amazed. In answer to our problem-oriented prayers, the Lord gives a person-centered answer.
Many years ago, I organized an evangelistic rally. As a detail-oriented person, I planned carefully for the event. When the evening finally arrived, I was rather anxious. Were bleachers really a good idea for elderly people? Was the lighting too bright in the gym? Were all the members of my congregation who committed to the event arriving on time? What was the turn out going to be? The band was quite loud and much edgier than I anticipated. Would that turn people off? As I kept talking with various people and helpers, my 9-year-old son kept tugging on the side of my shorts. This is not a good time to interrupt me, I told him. I have a lot going on, in case you haven’t noticed. But he kept tugging at my shorts.
Finally, I turned, exasperated, and asked him, “What is it, Matt?”
He responded, “Dad, I just accepted Jesus into my heart.”
Who has God brought to knock at your gate today, waiting to be recognized?
Steve Vander Molen is director of Journey (Continuing Education) at Western Theological Seminary in Holland Michigan. He’s also the father of Rebecca Koerselman, and according to her, the best pastor ever. Thanks, Dad!