“When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now” C.S.Lewis
Back in May was a post recently where I mentioned that I was going to be looking at three key words that apply to the example of prayer that Jesus gives us in the New Testament. I’ll do ‘Lonely’ later this week and you can find ‘Lengthy’ here. Now for ‘Lingering’.
‘Lengthy’ is Less Unnatural When We Learn to Linger in Hope
‘Remaining, persisting, lasting’ – some of the words to describe the word ‘Lingering’.
‘Lingering’ is the word that describes the mentality in us that leads to ‘lengthy’, effective, satisfying prayer – a willingness to hang around before the waiting has even started: planning to wait; expecting to wait; wanting to wait. Lingering equals not rushing away because we think something might happen. Football supporters leave the stadium early before the final whistle out of protest towards their team who are losing, but also because they don’t expect anything to get better.
Matthew records a crucial moment when Jesus expresses disappointment to Peter that he (and the other hard core guys) couldn’t keep watch (in prayer) for even an hour (Matthew 26:40) and rushed away into the comfort of sleep…because they didn’t expect anything better to happen.
It seems to me that this aspect of Jesus’ example in prayer, (where length of time progresses via a lifestyle of lingering hope), comes both naturally and unnaturally to us, ebbing and flowing as life meanders, sometimes lurches, through different seasons. Much like a concerted January effort to attend fitness classes to get healthier, through into February and March, there is often a waning in us in prayer when it comes to consistency. We need to find a way of breaking free from this element of our nature that doesn’t truly hope in God because joining a Health Club, paying monthly direct debits, but not going, is a total waste. If we’re doing the same work-out a year from now, how have we got stronger?
We’re All At Different Stages
We’re all at different stages, so ‘lengthy’ and ‘lingering’ are really relative terms. You may not spend any time in prayer at the minute, in which case changing your life to spend 15 minutes a day is a spectacular victory and step forward in your fight for spiritual discipline. You have to start somewhere. You might think that Jesus was harsh in expecting His disciples to pray for an hour, but, remember, this was bread and butter for these guys – they were his hard-core, spiritual students for years. Their failure to pray for an hour was like a Marine Company struggling to do a set of 20 push-ups for their Commanding Officer.
What if He leaves us to sleep?
I have heard it said that many young people seem to burn for Jesus in their teens and twenties but then seem to fizzle out into their 30s and 40s, heading ultimately, to another statistic of mediocrity beyond. We all find consistency difficult, especially building muscle in prayer, but there is never any progress without consistency, in anything. Habits form in time and, if there is a very real possibility of spiritual dullness ahead, isn’t this our best wake-up call? Jesus went back to the disciples twice to wake them to enable them to pray, but the third time He left them sleeping. This isn’t Jesus being soft; it’s Jesus being cruel to be kind. (Restoration lay ahead in John 21).
The opposite of a praying disciple, (or a praying church), is a sleeping disciple – a Marine who doesn’t exercise or fight. This is the worst case scenario.
Worth of the Wait
We ‘linger longer’ in prayer when:
1) Spiritual pleasures have been awakened in us (through lengthy waiting) and we therefore have an experience of the ‘worth of the wait’ when He speaks, draws near and confides in us (Psalm 25:14). This blows my mind.
2) This leads to there being an expectation, a hope, in the wait – that we will hear Him speak – which leads to more lingering. He nurtures our confidence in Him. The snowball rolls, muscle builds, strength increases.
It might be that building 15 minutes into your life is your target victory at the minute. But it might be that an hour is where you should be aiming. For others, more than an hour a day is what the Lord is expecting. Whatever the case, we need to be getting stronger in our fight. Don’t think that we’re not in one.
I once heard David Shearman encourage early-morning devotionals by making the point that ‘throwing the duvet off becomes that bit easier when we start to hear Him speak to us’. I’ll always remember this.
I don’t know about you, but one of the deadliest distractions to my life of vibrant lengthy, lingering prayer is the thing in my hand at this very moment that I’m using to write this article – the iPhone – through which the world of social media crashes into my mind and, sometimes, my heart.
If you think about the amount of lengthy, lingering time you spend checking emails, on Facebook or Twitter, or the BBC Sports App – or whatever – in the hope of something good happening, it’s not that we don’t know how to linger in lengthy times on things, it’s that we do in the wrong places because we buy the lie that we’ll be more satisfied in those things that keep us company. Why can’t people sit in a coffee shop and drink a coffee without needing something to look at in their hand? Because we’re lonely. But He’s never not with us, right…? Never not wanting to speak or break His Kingdom out around you, right…?
Jesus lingered in lengthy prayer because He learnt to hope, really hope, in the Father. He cut short other noble things as He prioritised and made space for that to be possible. And he voluntarily lingered there and became lonely, entering into lonely places where the anaesthetics of other distractions would not be found.
Next, I’ll try to convince you that, while corporate prayer is essential, there is something uniquely important about personal prayer.