…she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
When I was young (and I know I’m really dating myself here), nothing was more exciting in the six weeks or so leading up to Christmas than receiving the Sears and Montgomery Wards catalogs in the mail. For those of you who don’t remember or weren’t around back then, Sears and Wards were the Amazon of their day. My sister and I would leaf through the catalogs, circling the toys we wanted, and miracle of miracles, some of them (too many, actually-my grandmother spoiled us) showed up under the tree on Christmas Day.
Sometimes I think I have a Sears catalog approach to my prayer life. I pull out the catalog of my life, circle those things– like good health for my family or me, more prestige or respect from my colleagues in my field, or even an opportunity for our school or ministry to grow– then expect God to deliver these things under the tree of my life a few weeks later. Sure, He might wait as much as a month in order to help me build patience, but I expect my requests in fairly short order. At times, aren’t we all guilty of treating God more like Santa or a genie than a truly loving Father, who also happens to be sovereign over the universe?
As I was contemplating the Christmas story this past weekend, the passage above hit me hard. Mary and Joseph were on mission in Bethlehem, charged with the most important mission of all time: delivering the Savior of mankind into the world. This was the climactic moment in human history. Doesn’t it seem pretty absurd that they couldn’t find a hotel room? Do you think at some point, exhausted after a long trip with a very pregnant wife, now in the throes of labor, Joseph might have thought, “Come on, Lord! Are you being serious right now? It’s a HOTEL room! Surely you can open one door to us, get us inside someone’s house or something. We are actually doing this in a barn?” I can’t imagine at some point these thoughts didn’t run through Joseph’s head. Similar thoughts run through mine quite often. How about you?
I mean, maybe God didn’t let you win lottery that time you bought the ticket when the total reached $100 million, but you didn’t really expect that one, right? But, what about your dad, or your kid, the one who is really sick and may die if they don’t get better? What about the job that is literally sucking the life out of you, and that you’ve prayed to God to remove you from for years? What about the ministry you support, or volunteer or work for, the one that really needs those funds or that thing, or initiative, or person, and it seems like God is not showing up? What’s happening there?
One really great reason to study Scripture is that it’s such an encouragement in these moments, when it seems like we’re dialing and not only does it seem like nobody’s answering, but the mailbox is full so we can’t even leave a message? In the Bible I read, in those cases where there is no doubt that God was actively at work in people’s lives, doing amazing things only God can do, people either had to wait a really, really, really long time to hear from God, or He never actually gave what they asked for in the way they asked it.
Take, for example, Mary and Joseph, asking for a hotel room. Or the poor Syrophoenician woman who prayed to be free of her bleeding for years, to be clean again so people would come near her, and touch her. Or Paul (Paul, for Pete’s sake), who prayed repeatedly for the thorn in his flesh to be removed. Or Jacob wrestling with the angel all night before receiving the blessing. How many nights do you think the aging Abraham laid in bed, an old woman by his side, wondering when that baby would show? How many nights did David, hunkering in a cold cave, terrified that Saul and his army would come barging in any moment to kill him, wonder what that long-ago anointing from Samuel was all about?
One of the many, many things the late Tim Keller said that always resonated with me is “God perfectly answers our prayers in exactly the way we would have prayed them if we knew everything God knows.” God works on a million different planes or levels; if we’re lucky, we may be working on one. In a physical world that assaults us for our attention, yelling and screaming at us every day, it’s pretty hard for us not to see the physical, material fulfillment of what we’re asking for as the main point: the room, the healing, the baby, the blessing, the throne. The Product. But God is almost always more concerned with what He’s doing in us, or through us. The Process. Sometimes it’s to show His power and glory. Sometimes it’s to make our desires more fervent and to see our need more clearly, increasing our appreciation for God’s mercy. God may be using the wait to refine us, to form and shape our thinking. As theologian William Willimon says, “This is often the way God loves us: with gifts we thought we didn’t need, which transform us into people we don’t necessarily want to be.”
Perhaps part of the reason Mary and Joseph couldn’t find a hotel room when it seemed like the obvious “God answer” for one to miraculously open up was that God wanted to take them one more baby step toward continual surrender to God’s plan for their child’s life. Just as we must learn to surrender the lives of our own kids.
Before my friend and student Will was born, his mom and dad got a diagnosis that Will would be different from other kids. The sonogram showed he had no hands or feet. So many of us prayed for a miracle. I know for me that meant that, somehow, Will would be born with hands and feet. But, he wasn’t. My prayers, as I intended, weren’t answered that day.
And, yet, two weeks ago, as my now-16-year-old friend Will was addressing his classmates as they sent him off to the World Abilitysports Games in Thailand, I realized God was doing so much more than I could imagine all those years ago. Will set two personal records, won three medals in track, and is now in the running (so to speak) for the Paralympic Games. He has spoken and competed all over the country, and done things kids his age don’t get to do.
Will encouraged his classmates to trust in God and believe He is at work in their lives. “If I could have hands and feet now I wouldn’t,” he said, “because then I wouldn’t have all the opportunities to glorify God that I have had.” I instantly teared up, hiding my eyes from the highschoolers gathered in the gym that day, thinking about how my prayers and my faith is so very limited, so very small. Sixteen years old, and a faith and trust in Jesus like that. When I grow up, I want to be my friend Will.
Praying, then waiting expectantly on the Lord, no matter when or how He answers, positions us to surrender ourselves to supernatural strength, the power of God’s love. The essence of our faith, indeed the true secret of life, is that surrender.
Christ burst into the world 2,000 years ago to show us ultimate love, and only surrender to that love transforms our lives and gives us the capacity to love others the ways they were meant to be loved. And, the answer to the prayer that is slow in coming or that arrives clothed differently than we expected is one of God’s greatest means of inclining our hearts in that direction, pressing us into love that transforms us and makes us world-changers.