Some of my most fond memories growing up were the summer and winter vacations I spent in Chicago with my grandparents. I was born there but my parents moved to Southern California when I was little. My parents divorced when I was 6 and then after my mom died when I was 9, the Chicago treks turned into twice a year – most of the summer and a week during Christmas break.
My grandmother would take me on many shopping trips downtown, with the late summer trips geared for the purpose of buying school clothes. But one trip stood out above the rest. This one particular summer, just before my junior year, during a school clothes purchase trip, I saw this beautiful white winter coat. It was unlike anything I had ever seen: pulled white wool with these classy puffed out sleeves and very fashion forward for the early 1980s. I was not particularly a fashionista at the time, but I knew I would look good in that coat. And it was thin enough to be useful in California.
Well, my grandmother being the pragmatic person she was presented me with a choice. I could get the coat but that would significantly cut into my school clothes purchases. She was right and her wisdom won out. As much as I loved the coat and wanted it, I had to be practical and get what I needed. After all, I didn’t really need the coat but man I sure did want it. It was a desire.
When I went back for the winter break the day after Christmans, of course one of the first things I did was to open my birthday and Christmas gifts. As I opened one rather large box, my eyes began to light up. Could it be? Yes! My grandmother had brought the coat that I wanted so much. I was giddy because a desire had been fulfilled. But more than just getting a coat, what I really loved about the gift was that my grandmother responded to something she knew would make my heart glad.
Well, that was over 30 years ago and the coat has been long gone. Though I did hang on to it well into my adulthood. But what stands out for me in this rather brief moment in my life, was my grandmother’s actions regarding the purchase. As much as I loved and wanted that coat, it meant far more to me that she desired to give me the desires of my heart.
I can’t help but make a correlation to prayer and petitioning God to move on our behalf, responding to requests that are presented before him. I often hear this dismissed under the rubric of selfishness and “me-ism”. Now Scripture is replete with commands on priority, that we seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness first. Paul provides much in the way of instruction and example, that the riches of God in Christ Jesus shine far greater than any of our earthly pursuits.
But there is so much evidence and commands in Scripture for us to pray so that God does intervene in our lives in tangible ways. Because the reality is we are human, live in a tangible world and pressed with internal and external longings, whether it be to add, subtract or change something. Prayer does and should change us but it’s not meant to stop there. Even Jesus said that when we come before the Father, to ask for what it is we desire with the expectation that if we ask for bread we should not expect rocks. James adds that we don’t receive because we don’t ask. The lesson there – we need to ask. He also provides a corrective to shaving away wrong motives.
I think too much of God and how he has revealed himself in Scripture to think that he does not want to give good things to his people. I believe he does. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s a genie or that we use him as an ATM or whatever other descriptives have been assigned to point to our selfishness. Yes, sometimes we are selfish, our motives not pure and sometimes we ask amiss. But sometimes we are responding to areas in our lives that have brought disparities and trouble. We want for God to heal, restore, or correct in tangible ways. This is why I’ve consistently learned to incorporate Romans 8:26-27 in my prayers for proper alignment.
Unanswered prayer is troubling because it makes us wonder if there is something wrong. Moreover, it can make us feel that God does not really care about us even though of course that is not the case. In my case, my growing mountain of unanswered prayers have produced much discouragement as desires continue to gnaw at my soul. I’m grateful that God has given me such a love for his word because his promises are what has kept me when I’ve felt kicked to the side and ignored.
Now prayer for strength and endurance is good and needed while we wait. Yes, God does put us through times of dryness to prune, purge and discipline. It is for the purpose of righteousness and bearing fruit. (Hebrews 12:7-11). He does this out of his goodness and it provokes us to turn to him and that produces growth. We need to check our motives.
But the coat incident reminds me that when there is a response in tangible ways, it makes the heart glad. It does make a difference when you receive something you desired that brings delight to the soul, when God has intervened in tangible ways. You can’t tell me there was a difference in Hannah’s demeanor when she cried in much grief over her life disparities and the song of praise belted from a grateful heart because her request had been granted (1 Samuel 1-2) The psalms portray how much our humanity is impacted in the face of trouble vs when God moves in tangible ways and how much delight an answered prayer brings.
I’m often confronted with instruction that anything I desire or want other than to follow Christ should not matter or that they portray a selfishness on my part. I admire people for whom it doesn’t and nothing else matter. Maybe I’m not there yet, or don’t love the Lord enough. Or maybe I’m just human…just like the people in the Bible. Like them and many others, there is a portrayal of petitioning people for the Lord to intervene in meaningful and tangible ways that point to his goodness and desires to give good things to his people. Should we expect to suffer? Yes. But we are also people afflicted with humanity and all the tensions that brings in the already-but-not-yet with groans for divine intervention.
So I’m praying, and waiting and wishing and remembering a white winter coat. For in that I can only hope that my heavenly Father responds in a similar way that makes my heart glad.