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               If Only God Would Answer

                     Chapter One
                      Step by Step

      (Category: Books About Prayer.  This first chapter shows how to break
down big prayer goals into more tangible steps.)       
      Tim and Yoland began their romance quite precariously---and got worse as
 they went along.  I remember seeing them in the evening, outside the school
 where Tim and I worked, carrying on intricate arguments in the dark, their
 gestures a mixture of pleading and accusation.  But they ended up rushing into
 marriage anyway, their emotional instability and unresolved conflict trailing
 after them like noisy tin cans tied to a car headed off to the honeymoon.
      Several years and two children later Tim and Yoland had settled down in a
 community near mine.  Yoland began to pour out her sorrows to me and to a
 friend in church who had known her.  The sorrows were considerable.  Tim was
 treating her like dirt--whenever he happened to show up at the house.  He'd
 turned his back on God, and grimly set about to pursue the pleasures of the
 world: other women.  At one time he'd moved in with one. 
      My friend tried to help Yoland build up her self-esteem--but Tim's erratic
 behavior kept her on an emotional roller coaster.  He was fairly considerate as
 a father; the two boys loved him.  And on those occasions when he'd show a
 little kindness to Yoland, she'd fervently hope and pray that things were
 changing.  But the next day Tim would become verbally abusive again and head
 off to his girlfriend.
      Tragically, Yoland found her marriage unendurable and yet the alternative
 of living alone seemed even worse.  She constantly sobbed out her stories of
 yet another cruel disappointment, but she could not bring herself to divorce
 this man.  Yoland believed that there would not be another.
      So she kept flailing her prayers against this no-win situation, begging
 God to change her husband.  If only Tim's heart were touched somehow,
 everything would be different; they would have a home again.  She prayed and
 hoped--and was crushed, year after year.
      There are many people like Yoland who find their prayer life locked into
 an intractable problem.  There are no solutions in sight; only a miracle can
 change things.  And so they desperately keep butting their petitions against
 the obstacle.
      (Book About Prayer.  First Principle.)
      Let's look at an alternative to this kind of frustration.  First an
 important principle: our prayers about such problems seem to run into a brick
 wall so often because we tend to focus exclusively on the final, complete
 solution.  That is, we only pray about the long-term, end result, not the means
 to that end.  We may aim specifically, but we're pointing a long way off.
      We want Uncle Charlie, who shows no interest in religion, to become a
 born-again believer.
      We want that family in which constant fighting between Mom and Dad is
 emotionally maiming the children to become a model Christian home.
      We want the loved one dying of cancer to rebound to perfect health.
      We want the addict to lose all desire for that pernicious drug.
      We want the compulsive adulterer to return to his wife and kids.
      These goals are certainly commendable.  But we must recognize that we're
 aiming at the end of the road.  It will help immensely if we break our request
 down into smaller, shorter-term petitions.  Dramatic events are usually the
 accumulated result of many smaller occurrences.  It helps to focus on the first
 thing that needs to happen.  What is the first step toward that distant goal?
      Let's take the unbelieving, uninterested relative.  What would move him
 from square one to square two?   An awareness of some spiritual value?
 Admiration for the beauties of nature?   Think about Uncle Charlie and his
 interests; pray about what might be his most likely first step toward God.
 Then think about the means of encouraging that initial response.  Is there a
 book that might interest him?  A person he could meet?
      Too often religious thinking follows a black or white, all or nothing,
 pattern.  Agnostic Charlie is dwelling in utter darkness and must make a
 quantum leap to the light where his actions and beliefs will all be pure.  We
 don't think much about the progression from one to the other. 
      God's Spirit is certainly capable of transforming people dramatically.
 But most of us take longer, meandering walks into the light.  And even when
 some miraculous encounter with God does occur, people have often taken quite a
 few steps to get to that point.
      "Established" Christians, however, often find it very hard to affirm
 anything less than the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  We
 feel we compromise the faith if we commend belief or behavior that's not quite
 up to standard.  And so we're not very good at nurturing those hesitant,
 awkward first steps of faith.  In fact, sometimes our zealous rigidity in
 seeking that complete transformation becomes an obstacle in the way of those
 groping toward God.  They see no way to ever reach our lofty goal.  Why even
      Vague talk about God as a Spirit may appear a pathetic watering down of
 biblical truth to the orthodox believer, but it may be a great revelation for
 someone who's never before given the Almighty a thought.  We may criticize
 parents who just watch TV at home every night, but that may indicate real
 progress for those who used to leave the kids to go out drinking.
      What about people like Tim, the husband caught in chronic adultery?  Of
 course we want him back home having worship every night with the wife and
 kids.  But what's the first nudge that can get him off his present track?  What
 could happen to him that might suggest how infinitely valuable his family is?
      What my church friend and I tried to do was to get Yoland focused on her
 own next step: how could she start to grow in this situation?   We encouraged
 her to aim more of her prayers at God's love and acceptance; establishing a
 consistent devotional life.  Only as she became emotionally stronger could she
 have a significant influence over her husband.  In some ways Yoland had
 become an enabler of Tim's unfaithfulness by keeping her home and heart open
 to him---in the same way that the families of problem drinkers become
 co-alcoholics by cleaning up after them and carrying them home and making
 excuses at work. 
      But by aiming at her own first steps forward, at immediate goals, Yoland
 could experience a much healthier and more answerable prayer life.  We
 noticed that when she responded and got serious about her own relationship with
 God, her emotional roller coaster did even out a bit; she wasn't quite so
 vulnerable.  Small steps yes.  The miracle hasn't happened yet.  But the
 important thing is that Yoland is walking instead of just waiting.

        (Book About Prayer Principle: Solution Centered)

      When I first descended toward Osaka, the red and white stream of traffic
 on the dark plain below stretched out beyond even the broad horizon we could
 see from our DC-10.  Several times I thought we'd come to the end, surely there
 couldn't be any more--at this speed.  But as we flew on and on, the lighted
 buildings beneath kept forming an endless constellation.
      Later, riding from the airport to our apartments, I stared at the grey
 nondescript buildings--like any city's I guessed.  But I imagined all the
 people that must live and move and have their being in that place.  I was
 supposed to be a missionary there and help spread the good Word.  But somehow
 this target metropolis seemed very depressing; I felt rather helpless.
      That first impression deepened the following day while rushing through
 train stations on the way to the English School where I would teach.  All these
 people flooding by with blank commuter faces.  Trains disgorging multitudes
 every minute into the sea of dark business suits, dark eyes, dark hair.  I
 wondered how many of those eyes ever glanced heavenward.
      My prayers those first few nights in Japan seemed terribly frail in the
 face of this overwhelming problem: a deeply secular culture effortlessly
 drowning out our squeaky little voices about God. 
      But then I got into my first Bible class and our forbidding environment
 suddenly changed.  I wasn't dealing with "the Japanese people" anymore; I was
 introducing myself to six human beings with faces and names and varying degrees
 of interest in the gospel.  My initial efforts at communicating the faith were
 certainly awkward and experimental, but they were steps toward Junko and Kioji
 and Kenji.
      Now my petitions could take good aim.  I could pray about those students
 and their questions and what might turn on the next light for them.  I didn't
 feel overwhelmed or powerless any more. 
      When I only looked at this great task of evangelizing Japan, I could only
 think of enormous difficulties and my prayer remained a nervous gesture in the
 dark.  But when that long-term goal was broken down into six people today, I
 started to think and pray in terms of solutions.  How to reach Junko.  What to
 say to Kioji.  I was looking at the steps and not just at the end of the road.
      Concentrating on steps helps us to become solution-centered as opposed to
 problem-centered.  When we just throw out a shotgun prayer at some big problem,
 it remains a big problem.  When we break it down into component parts and pray
 about the first one, we naturally begin to focus on specific remedies.
      God is evidently a solution-centered Being--even though He has no end of
 things to moan about in regard to life on this planet.  The whole Bible could
 very easily have been one long divine gripe session: There they go
 again...stealing, raping, fighting.  But Scripture, all of Scripture, builds to
 one climax: the coming of Jesus and God's ultimate solution on Golgotha.  All
 the epistles explain and amplify and glorify that solution.  Paul, the
 preeminent church builder who faced all kinds of problems in various
 congregations, couldn't stop writing about the solution.  It spills out
 everywhere in his letters, no matter what topic he's discussing.
      So, if God is solution-centered, it makes sense to petition Him in a
 solution-centered manner.  We're more on His wave length that way, and it's a
 much healthier wave length to begin with.  We aim more at where we want to go
 than at what we want to avoid.  God desires to reinforce healthy attitudes and
 discourage negative, obsessive ones.  That's something to think about the next
 time you address some chronic misfortune. 
      (Book About Prayer Principle: aim where you want to go.)

      One morning while I was attempting to make granola in the kitchen, one of
 my fellow-teachers at the school shuffled in, sank down on a chair, and very
 hesitantly began to share her despair.  Sonya was the new kid in Japan, full of
 a wide-eyed innocence I thought had been eradicated from the earth.  I had
 noticed her the first day of school, trembling in the hallway and taking a deep
 breath before entering the English class she taught.  Now her vulnerability
 extended openly across her face.  Anyone else sitting there so pale and
 doe-eyed, staring down at Little Orphan Annie hands, would have to be faking
 it.  But I knew this girl's frailty went to the bone.
      Sonya said she didn't think she could ever be a missionary.  The task of
 trying to communicate the gospel to people for whom God was a mystifying
 stranger had overwhelmed her.  Most of us had experienced quite a jolt when we
 realized that the Christian cliches we'd grown up with were falling on deaf
 ears.  Our students hadn't a clue as to what all these wonderful expressions
 meant.  We had to do some serious digging, both in Scripture and in our own
      But for Sonya this proved devastating.  She didn't think she knew Christ
      So there we sat in the kitchen with soggy grey lumps of would-be granola
 all over the table.  Sonya had enough difficulty just relating to her peers,
 how could she function as a missionary teacher before skeptical young
 professionals?  There seemed no way to get there from her.
      It was difficult to know how to pray--staring at this formidable problem.
 But fortunately I had recently become excited about a certain method of
 devotional Bible study.  It presented itself as a first step, and we began to
 look at a solution.
      If Sonya could just experience God teaching her, speaking to her
 individually, if she could just get a few insights from the Word, maybe she
 could become a teacher to others.  We talked a long time.  Sonya ended up
 agreeing to try to develop a meaningful quiet time and promised to start
 writing down what she learned each day.
      I began praying that God would make His Word come alive in her hands,
 sparking new insights, creating new abilities.  After a few days Sonya shared
 something exciting she'd seen in Jesus' forgiveness of the woman taken in
 adultery.  I thought her cheeks rosier than usual.  Her eyes flickered a bit.
      Sonya kept learning--and sharing, morning by morning, step by step.  Soon
 she was helping a few Japanese friends who had hang-ups about the church.  The
 girl was taking off.  Her devotional life blossomed and she even began wielding
 the Word in Bible classes to great effect.
      Then her emotionally disturbed sister flew in for a visit.  Their
 relationship had been difficult because of traumas in the home (the principle
 reason for Sonya's vulnerability).  But now Sonya became the healer.  She could
 reach out instead of just try to protect herself.  As she shared what she'd
 been learning with her sister, the girl saw the good news as if for the first
 time, and told Sonya: "I want what you guys have."  Little Orphan Annie had
 struck it rich.

    Book About Prayer Principle: We will see God much more active in our lives
when we learn to pray Step by Step.