Have you ever uttered a half-hearted prayer? I know I have. Many times. And isn’t it all the more shocking when it’s these prayers that I see God answer? It takes me by surprise, as if God only listened to my prayers periodically, or only when I was 100% earnest and focused in what I was saying—as if I didn’t appeal to him on the basis of his Son and not my own performance, even my performance in prayer.
My most recent half-hearted prayer was to grow in thankfulness. A thoughtful Bible study leader encouraged me to choose one of the ‘put on’ qualities in Colossians 3:12-17 and make it the focus of my prayers that week. I complied and asked God to give me a thankful heart. But it was a bit of a token effort. I felt like I was going through the motions more than anything else, without really expecting anything to come of it. And to be honest, by this point I would have forgotten that I had ever even prayed those prayers had I not noticed a curious change in attitude that prompted me to reflect on the cause.
For one thing, I noticed myself being grateful for the past actions of others. They’d served me in far more costly ways than I realized at the time. It was only now that I was being called upon in turn to serve others in the same kind of ways that I realized the cost.
Who knew that it was actually pretty exhausting to have guests stay with you for days on end? 19-year-old me certainly never considered that when I went to stay with my best friend’s family for two weeks in America. Lucky them, I thought, to have me visit all the way from Scotland! It’s taken the experience of living abroad myself to see that however lovely and considerate the guest, it still takes a real shift in the pace of life to have people stay in your home: cooking more (and nicer) meals… doing more laundry… giving up time to take visitors out and about… remembering to shut the bathroom door… Yet my friend’s family had welcomed me so warmly and never once let me feel like I was an inconvenience. I can only hope to be such a gracious host myself.
For another thing, it occurred to me that I had never properly thanked my husband and family for paying for our wedding. As a naïve graduate, yet to enter full-time work, I hadn’t yet grasped how much that the money they’d given reflected their hard work, effort and conscientious saving. Now, I’m not yet being called upon to fund my child’s wedding (I don’t even have any children) but for the first time the cost of their generosity dawned on me—the things they’d given up or gone without for my benefit.
So here I was, being thankful for the loving actions of others, the weight of which I’d never felt before. Yes, it had taken some age and experience to have this perspective of thankfulness. At 25, it was the first time I’ve tangibly felt the promised blessings of age and the arrogance of youth starting to flee! But actually, age and experience are no guarantee of a thankful heart. The years can embitter souls as much as grow them in thankfulness. Really, I had to credit this change to the work of God’s Spirit on my heart, overriding my apathy.
I don’t know why I was surprised that God answered a prayer for my sanctification. After all, that is God’s will for all his people (1 Thess 4:3). A prayer for my sanctification is exactly the kind of prayer he would delight to answer, even if it meant walking me through seasons of life that I didn’t particularly enjoy.
God is far more committed to my sanctification than I am. And I’m so glad that he is, or else I would surely stagnate in spiritual sluggishness, with no hope of holiness.
So watch what you pray for. In spite of our shortcomings, weaknesses and half-heartedness, our gracious God is in the business of answering prayer and shaping us into the image of his Son.