The With-God Life: The Nature of Prayer

Let me revive my series of lectionary reflections long enough to share what I wrote this morning for the daily devotions our church emails out to members.

I love the Lord, because he has heard
    my voice and my supplications.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
    therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me;
    the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
    I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
    “O Lord, I pray, save my life!” (Ps 116:1-4)

What a timely text: what our Bible calls a psalm of “Thanksgiving for Recovery from Illness”! It’s not clear what ailment the psalmist suffered from, but it must have been terrifying — leaving him feeling like an animal ensnared in a deadly trap. It’s a sensation that victims of severe cases of COVID-19 know well; survivors describe feeling desperate, as their lungs simply can’t take in enough oxygen. If I were that distressed, what else could I do but call on God?

We’ll get to God’s answer to such prayers, but the psalmist buries that lede. If the title didn’t tell us that the psalmist recovered from his illness, we wouldn’t know it from the first four verses. The psalmist loves his Lord not because God has healed him, but “because he has heard my voice and my supplications.”

Moritz Calisch, “Young Italian Lady Praying” (1850) – Wikimedia

We might take this for granted, but pause to think how amazing it is that God hears our voices. No, not just hears — as if our prayers are part of the background noise that comes with omniscience. God actively listens. God “inclines his ear” to us.

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,” asks another psalmist, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (8:3-4). Given the seemingly infinite expanse of creation, how can it be possible that the Creator would care for a single human being? What is her distress, her anguish that God should listen to her?

But the majestic God of creation is also the intimate God of prayer, who loves us as much as the closest confidant to whom we whisper our fears and doubts.

Now, God does answer this prayer of the psalmist and save him from illness. Perhaps God even worked a miracle in freeing him from “the snares of death.” But that’s not usually how our listening God answers our anguished prayers.

At a time when there are countless prayers for healing and protection being offered around the world, it’s important to remember something that a pastor friend once told me: We can not only pray to God, but we can serve as God’s answer to prayer.

How does God answer a COVID victim’s prayer to “save my life”? Perhaps by miraculous means, but far more often through the skill and compassion of nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, lab technicians, EMTs, and other healthcare workers whom God has called and gifted to heal the sick.

How does God answer our prayers to stop the spread of this disease? Perhaps by miraculous means, but mostly through the expertise and ingenuity of scientists and researchers already working on treatments and vaccines. And through the stay-at-home, shelter-in-place, inactivity of ordinary people whom God has commanded to love their neighbors as ourselves.

So let us pray, to a tenderhearted God who inclines his ear, for recovery from illness. But let us also serve, as the answers to prayer that we can be.

<<Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24