Book Review – A Praying Life

Six years ago, my college pastor lent me a book to read. I read the first two chapters and was blown away by its message. Unfortunately, for reasons that I can no longer remember, I never finished it and ended up returning it to him, unread. Still, the short chapters I had read left an impact on me, as I always remembered the encouragement to pray like a child talks with their parents. Fast-forward to one month ago, after I had attempted to read a couple books that I just couldn’t get into. As I looked over my bookcase, I saw A Praying Life by Paul Miller sitting on the shelf. I had picked it up at our church’s end of the year book sale in December, and there it was, just waiting to be read. In desperate need to start a book that I could finish, I dove into its pages. The past four to five weeks have been such sweet days as I have read, meditated, and prayed through nearly every page. Trying to narrow down what parts to share in this review was very hard, and in all reality I will probably have many more of Paul’s words weaved into future blog posts as it continues to spill into my every day life. But for the saking of trying to summarize, here are just two of the areas where I was convicted, humbled, and impacted.

Helplessness
Early on, Paul talks about the pride of our self-reliance that blinds us to our desperate need for God. We do not pray because we think we can handle things on our own. He gives examples ranging from simple things, like praying for parking spaces, to more serious ones, like praying as we discipline and instruct our children. As long as we feel in control of our circumstances and confident in our ability to manage the hand we have been dealt, we are unlikely to pray. This is because prayer is an act of humility, an acknowledgement that we need God for any and all things. The part that struck me the most was when Paul gave multiple examples of how Jesus frequently referenced his total dependence on the Father. He said things like, “The Son can do nothing of His own accord,” (John 5:19), “I can do nothing on my own,” (John 5:30) and “I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me,” (John 8:28). Jesus was literally the most dependent person to walk the planet, as He never did anything a part from the Father, and He calls His children to that same kind of helpless dependency on Him. In John 15:5 He said, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” Do I believe that? Do I live like I can’t accomplish a single thing apart from Jesus? Am I aware of my own insufficiency? The answers to those questions is often a pride-filled no. My biggest prayer right now is that God would humble my heart and open my eyes to my helpless state apart from Him in each and every moment of every day.

“Prayer is an expression of who we are… We are a living incompleteness. We are a gap, an emptiness that calls for fulfillment.” 
 – Thomas Merton

The Problem with Cynicism
The second point that convicted me was Paul’s section on cynicism. He talked about how so many Christians “stand at the edge of cynicism” because we have been wounded and are weary. Often instead seeing a beautiful tapestry of God’s story being woven throughout our lives we see a tangled, ratted up mess of unanswered prayers or situations that didn’t go as we had hoped. How does one continue to have faith that prayer works when your grandfather died an unbeliever, despite the fact that you and so many others prayed for him, despite the fact that you sat on the couch as a little girl with tears rolling down your cheeks begging him to except that salvation that was available to him in Christ, but his heart remained hard until his last day? How does one continue to hope when so many people you have prayed for and love are choosing paths of destruction despite the fact that they have heard the gospel of grace more times than you can count? These are just some of the real questions that I have had to battle with deep in my soul. I am hardly so bold as to voice these fears on a regular basis, but when I look at the practical realities of my perspectives in the day-t0-day, the open wound cannot be denied. The reality is, I have allowed cynicism to creep into my heart and make me wonder if my prayers mean anything at all. I never doubt that God has a plan, I just doubt that I’m a necessary part of that plan. Needless to say, I needed Paul’s words to remind me of where I need to set my eyes. He said, “Both the child and the cynic walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The cynic focuses on the darkness; the child focuses on the Shephard.”

Cynicism gives a false sense of knowing what’s really going on. It masquerades as truth, as a heightened awareness that is too “realistic” to hope. It destroys intimacy, fuels bitterness, and quenches our spirits. It makes everything feel phony. But prayer, as an act of faith, is different. In fact, “it is just the opposite [of cynicism]. It engages evil. It doesn’t take no for an answer. The Psalmists were in God’s face, hoping, dreaming, asking. Prayer is feisty.” Beyond that, as we commune with God and bring our burdens and broken hearts to him, when prayers do go unanswered or answered in a way that brings us deep anguish, we can still trust and hope and believe. The more time we spend with God, the more we will walk aware of His goodness and faithfulness. We will know Him, and to know Him is to find perfect peace. God can handle all our struggles a whole lot better than we can. Every time we engage with the fallenness of this world, people, or ourselves we are reminded that Heaven is not here… yet. Grappling with the brokenness that sin causes leads us to ask with our mouths and in our souls, “Our Father who is in Heaven… may Your kingdom come.”

This book has affected me in the depths of my heart and mind, and I do not think that it is too much to say that it will leave a permanent impact on the rest of my life. Paul invites you into his world, shares transparently from his own times of prayer and wrestling with God, and speaks candidly with grace about what God’s Word has to say about walking and talking with Him. I can not speak highly enough of this book, and I encourage any of you who are wanting to grapple with the nitty gritty aspects of prayer and faith to read it.

“Now Jesus opens his arms to his needy children and says, ‘Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). The criteria for coming to Jesus is weariness. Come overwhelmed with life. Come with your wandering mind. Come messy.”

 

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Jillian Michaels and Eggs for Breakfast

For a couple months now I have been one foot in, one foot out in regards to healthy eating and exercise. I would put together meal plans and make promises to work out at least X number of minutes at the beginning of the week, but I almost always failed to follow through. One excuse or another always led to me not making time enough to exercise consistently or to prep healthy meals which then led to less than stellar eating choices. I reached the point three weeks ago when I saw that pattern, recognized my lack of desire and discipline in doing what I knew was best, and just started praying. I knew that my body needed nutrient-dense nourishment to fuel it and that exercise would be really beneficial in helping me achieve my weight loss goals and be energized. I just didn’t want to do it. To put it plainly, I wanted all the benefits of healthful living without living a healthy life. Over the course of the first two weeks I noticed a subtle shift in my mentality. I was being more conscientious about what I was eating; I was moving more. Last weekend, I knew it was finally time to start doing the acts of obedience in prayerful, expectant hope that God would do the heart-work I needed to follow through. Again, I made a meal plan. Again, I set a goal to work out 5 days out of the week doing my Jillian Michaels DVD for at least 25 minutes each day. Part of me wondered if this was going to be like so many other times, but a louder part of me knew that it wasn’t because this time it was God-inspired and I was tapping into grace.

One week into sticking to “the plan” without much difficulty, I am amazed at how much better I feel! My energy levels are through the roof. I had been needing daily naps before, and literally over night I can’t fall asleep to take a nap, even if I wanted to. The quality of my sleep has improved and I have more energy on less hours of sleep then I was needing before. I have been able to get up at 5 in the morning the past few days, wide-eyed and bushy tailed. Ok, maybe it was more groggy-eyed and bushy-bunned, but the point is that I was able to get up without being tempted to go back to sleep 😉 It has almost seemed to good to be true. I’m not saying there haven’t been any difficult moments, but I certainly haven’t felt like a deprived dieter. It is like my senses were in a haze, and now they are clear and sharp. As I have reflected on this, a couple thoughts came to mind:

  1. Prayer MUST be a prerequisite as well as a continual reality for any goals I set. Apart from grace, goal-setting is just a work of the Law. In order to tap into the wellspring of grace that is given to every believer, I must pray. I will be writing a book review on it later this week so I don’t want to say too much, but A Praying Life by Paul Miller has reminded me of my great need for continual, daily communion with my Abba Father in prayer. I am helpless, cynical, and ineffective apart from Him. I need Him to give me goals, and I need Him to achieve those goals.
  2. God deserves all the glory. I can not even count the number of times this week I either thought or said, “Look at this! Look at what God is doing. He is changing everything. This can’t be me, because I have seen so often the discouraging results of doing things in my own strength! This has to be all Him, I have proven myself to be utterly helpless apart from His aide.” It is truly marvelous that God answers His people’s prayers and changes us from the inside out. Pessimism can often blind me to the many works that God is doing in my life, but in times like these I am overwhelmingly aware that He is in every aspect of my days. Only He can transform my desires. I can know what the “right” thing to do is, but I can’t make myself want to do it. God is the only doctor with access to do surgery on my heart. He is not a stingy giver, and if I ask He WILL give according to His good will and lovingkindess. I can count on His character.
  3. Truths about my physical body communicate deeper realities about my soul. I cannot acknowledge the spirited awakening I have experienced in recent days without acknowledging the physical sluggishness I had previously fallen into. My habits of giving into laziness and poor eating had had a negative effect on how I felt, and it was only once I abandoned those bad patterns that I have begun to be rejuvenated.  This reality has led me to ponder what other habits I have let into my life that have dulled me on a spiritual level. My actions are either feeding my soul, invigorating it with inspiration or they are starving my soul, deadening and dulling it. Patrick and I have begun to converse together about what habits we need to change and what ones we would like to put into practice for this season, in order that we might experience the fullest life that there is for us, in Christ, while we are here on earth.

There is a vulnerability to acknowledging these kind of moments so early. I am very aware that one week is a very short time. Anybody can do almost anything for one week! But I wanted to note that these are the things that God has taught me this week, because I know that He has so much more coming down the line. Also, because I know God is in it, I am not afraid of failure. Through His grace, I have confident faith that He will complete the work that He has started, both in this small area and on my heart as a whole! He isn’t finished with me yet, thank Jesus.

Preaching to my Own Heart – Die to Self

 “Knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.”
(Romans 6:6-7)

The greatest story ever told is one of death and resurrection. Jesus came to earth to live a perfect life, die on the cross for His people’s sins, and be raised again on the third day. This story – this dramatic, painful, astonishing story – is the same one that your Heavenly Father is retelling in your life over and over again, every single day. He does this because there is no greater story to be written! You were joined to Christ in His death in order to be reborn into new life; you were freed to love purely, genuinely, and sacrificially for the first time. At that moment, your death and rebirth were ultimate, an awakening of your whole soul. Today, your call to die is compressed into the smaller moments, playing out in a micro-gospel as you imitate Jesus and take up His cross. Truly, the greatest joys and blessings are waiting for you on the other side of your own daily death. So when your husband asks you to help him with that task that is inconvenient or ill-timed, you die. When your baby is fussy and cranky, only soothed by her mama’s arms, and that wasn’t in “the plan” for your afternoon, you die. When a friend calls as your running out the door, in need of serious prayer and encouragement, you die. But be encouraged that on the other side of that laying down of your own pleasures, wants, and desires is the taking up of the abundant, grace-infused  life. Your God is there on that path, and He will guide, comfort, and sustain you to live the death He died for you first.

Praise Song of the Day: Jesus I My Cross Have Taken 

To learn a little bit more about the “Preaching to My Own Heart” series, check out this post.

Preaching to My Own Heart – Peace

“The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:5b-7)

Do you want to be filled with peace today? Then remember that God is near. He walks before you continually; you are surrounded by His presence. Anxiousness will only invade your heart when you take your eyes off of your Heavenly Father and forget that He is intimately involved in every detail of your life. “What does an unused prayer look like? Anxiety. Instead of connecting with God, our spirits fly around like severed power lines, destroying everything they touch. Anxiety wants to be God but lacks God’s wisdom, power, or knowledge,” (Paul Miller, A Praying Life). You cannot will yourself to have peace. Peace is the sense of calm that comes over a heart that is resting in the promises of God. He desires you to draw close to Him, to ask for what is on your heart, to cast your burdens on His infinitely broad shoulders. Remember the great things He has done for you so far. Like the old hymn says: count your blessings, name them one by one. Let each memory of the goodness of God mold your heart until all your fears are overwhelmed by the gratitude rooted in remembrance of all that He has already done. Our God is called Faithful and True. He is steadfast, deserving of all your trust and affections. Have confidence in Him. Believe Him. Your peace depends on it.

Let the mighty tide of His everlasting love
cover the rocks of my sin and care;
Then let my spirit float above those things
which had else wrecked my life.
{Valley of Vision}

Praise Song of the Day: It is Well with My Soul

To learn a little bit more about the “Preaching to My Own Heart” series, check out this post.