Sometimes you know in advance that you're wasting your time. For instance, you're weeding your flower garden. You could use some help and it's been a while since you and the mister have really talked.
So, in you go. There he is, parked on the front edge of the couch. It's the fourth quarter. His favorite team trails by six, but they are driving. Only six minutes and twenty-five seconds remain. His whole demeanor communicates tension.
A bit of advice: Forget it. Come back in thirty minutes. If they win, you might have a chance. If they lose, you don't want him in your flower garden, anyway.
Have you ever been on your knees when a disconcerting thought flutters through your mind? "You're just wasting your time. You've already prayed about this before. Nothing has happened. Do you think you really make a difference by praying?"
I must confess that this has happened to me. And it's not only prayer that raises the time-wasting question.
The Lord talks about three things in Matthew 6--giving, fasting and praying-- that might make those who don't know Him well wonder if they are squandering time.
The Bible says explicitly in each case that God will reward the person who does these things with the right attitude.
Some people make a living talking about how God will pour down a snowstorm of money if you just send them your greenbacks. We've all been turned off by that. But does giving really make a difference? Can I dare to give and expect God to meet my needs? Jesus speaks to our attitude in giving and the results of that generosity. "‘When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing . . . . Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you'" (Matthew 6:3-4).
Paul knew firsthand the power of giving and he counseled the Corinthians, "He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion" (2 Corinthians 9:10-11).
Am I wasting my money?
The Lord says when we give with the right attitude God will reward us. Our reward isn't always more cash. I suspect the Lord knows how to reward us in the way we need it the most. And money isn't always our greatest need.
He also talks about fasting.
Can I be candid? I'm not crazy about doing without food. Once I complained about the huge quantity of delicious goodies the French feed you when you go to preach a weekend for them. They seem to be constantly either in church or eating. After my gripes, though, I was invited to participate in three prayer-and-fasting conferences in nine months. No more complaints!
I guess the question is "What good does it do?" Is fasting just a legalistic way of trying to manipulate God? Is it a time waster? Who wants to suffer for nothing? Or does fasting really count for something? What does the Lord say?
Once again, He talks about attitude (Matthew 6:16-18). Don't put on a long face so that everyone will know what a saintly fellow you are. "Oh, what a spiritual brother. A three-day fast! I wish I were a spiritual giant like him." No, we shouldn't make an announcement in the church bulletin or put on our famine face when we fast.
But the Lord has some good news for us when we do it right. "Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you" (v. 18).
I'm not sure I understand it, but something happens when I do without food for a time. I'm much more thankful for my meals afterward. I think about those who don't have enough to eat and I pray for them.
But it also seems that I'm saying to God, "Lord, I want You more than I want food. I need Your help so much that I'm doing without just to set my heart aside to seek You." Actually, I suspect that fasting is more for our benefit than God's. It's a part of humbling ourselves to seek the Lord (2 Chronicles 7:14). It seems to be a weapon that has an impact in spiritual warfare.
Fasting isn't always about food, either. My son went on a media fast and for a time didn't watch television, movies, etc. It's important to combine time seeking the Lord with these moments of doing without. I've also found that it's easier when I'm fasting with others. That is not always possible but it unites people when they set themselves apart to seek the Lord.
And finally, back to the original question. Does it really make any difference if I pray?
Is all this talk of the importance of prayer just something that John Wesley and other radicals like him dreamed up to make it harder on their followers? Jesus weighed in on the subject, "When you pray . . . your Father . . . will reward you" (Matthew 6:5-6). If prayer changes things, I suppose that not praying often leaves situations as they are or allows them to worsen.
Paul agreed, "I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance" (Philippians 1:19).
Once again, humility is in order. The Lord knows that giving, fasting and praying can turn us into spiritual heroes to those who don't do these things very often. But if we're full of ourselves we are wasting our time. Eugene Peterson poignantly sums up this idea in The Message: "The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They're full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don't fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply" (Matthew 6:7-9).
We need to incorporate these spiritual disciplines into our life. Do giving, fasting and praying make any difference? God says they do.
When you do them, you'll probably have more luck with Him than you will with your husband.