One of the saddest things I routinely encounter as a pastor is the reality that most people’s prayer lives hover somewhere between barely-hanging-on and utterly non-existent.
That is sad because God desires more for us, and that “more” can and will satisfy us. The prophet Isaiah said that the redeemed would be given “joy in my house of prayer” (Is 56:7). To enter into God’s presence routinely is joy. And it is also to touch upon his heart for the world, as Isaiah goes on to say in the same verse: the “house of prayer” is a “house of prayer for all nations…”
Gathered up into the Father’s presence, we are also touched with the Father’s heart for others. That is how it is designed to work.
The ancient church talked about the encounter with God as a communicatio idiomatum–a “communication of attributes” whereby we bring our selfish, wayward, broken-down humanity to God and he exchanges it for the “new humanity” made available in Jesus. His virtue enters us, and we become like him; among other ways, in his heart for people.
Inspiring thought, no doubt. But how do we begin to enter into it?
If you are like me, compassion does not come naturally for you. I know that for some, it does. My son Gabe is that way. He naturally and quite literally feels the pain of others. It distresses him in the center of who he is and his “heart goes out” to them. I’m not wired quite like that. I have to work at cultivating a compassionate heart, a heart that feels people’s pain and God’s ache for them. Like many of you do.
Prayer is one of the central ways that we do this, that we–whether we are “naturally” wired or not–enter into God’s deep heart for others (which, in truth, exceeds even the deepest “natural” compassions we humans feel). Through the ages, the great saints have always known this. That when we routinely and authentically come into the presence of God, it transforms us in our being so that we take on more of God’s character and likeness.
Prayer changes us. For others. We just need to make space for it. Absent the space, it likely won’t happen. So how do you do it?
For me, one of the prayer-pathways into God’s deep heart for others works something like this. I find my quiet place, and begin to “warm up” my soul to the presence of God, usually by reading a Psalm slowly and deliberately. As my heart begins to open up to God’s love and goodness, I think about the people or situations I am aware of where I desire God to move. I bring those people or situations into the light of the Lord, and I hold them lovingly and patiently in my heart right before his face.
Those two words are crucial. Lovingly. Patiently.
Too many of us rush through prayer. When we do that, we miss so much of what God wants to lead us into. But when we wait, the magic starts to happen.
I find that as I’m in that space, I begin to pray with a great deal of simplicity, clarity, and prophetic power. And, more often than not, I find that the Lord begins to touch my heart with an even more genuine “ache” for them, and even begins to show me things about (or for) those people that I would not have seen or known otherwise.
I recently was praying for a grieving family in our church, in just the way I have described. As I held them in my heart before the Lord, the Holy Spirit unfolded a really brilliant image for me of each member of the family being led by Jesus through their various stages of mourning and remembrance until each and every one of them was ready to move forward. His kindness and patience in the image was so palpable that I began to weep for them as I prayed. I could feel his heart. I decided to write out the image and share it with them. It turned out to be a “word aptly spoken”, helping them exactly where and how it needed to help them.
The funny thing was how easily it came. No struggle or striving. Just them, before Him. Patiently. And lovingly. And something happened. I saw his love for them. And it broke me.
This is one of the ways in which prayer is both discipline and grace. There is a part for us to play, no doubt. WE must bring OURSELVES before him. He won’t do it for us (though his grace already-always enables it). But once there, as we begin to lean into his character and love, we find ourselves caught up in something. I tend to think that we are getting caught up in the Divine intercession for humanity. The Spirit of the Son who intercedes for us before Father begins to groan in and through us for others, to see their tattered humanity gathered up in reconciling, healing love. It’s a beautiful thing.
You can do this anywhere, really. Early in the morning, before the scramble of the day is upon you. Or at your lunch break, in a quiet place. Or when the babies are down for a nap. Or at the end of the day when all is quiet. You just have to DO it. Get yourself there. And watch what happens. Grace will come into the world. And into you, too.