A few months ago I had something of an epiphany. I realised that one reason why many of my prayers weren’t being answered was that I was probably praying for the wrong things. My prayers would go something like this: ‘Lord, I’m having a tough time in this situation. Please make it better.’
I’m sure you’ve prayed prayers like that, too. Perhaps you’ve been having a tough time with your boss at work, and you’ve been praying your boss would stop giving you such a hard time. Or maybe you’ve recently lost your job, and you’ve been praying that you’ll quickly find another position. Or maybe you’re not really getting much out of the preaching in church, and you’ve been praying that your pastor would preach better sermons. Or perhaps you’ve got a friend who’s still not converted, and you’ve been praying that God would really speak to her.
Lord, change my situation
But one day I realised that there aren’t many prayers like that in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament. Take Acts 4 as an example. The believers are having a tough time with the temple authorities, who have commanded them not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. The believers get together to pray. But they don’t pray, ‘Lord, please stop these people from carrying out their threats.’ Instead they simply pray, ‘Enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness’ (Acts 4:29).
In other words, New Testament Christians seem to pray ‘Lord, change me’, much more often than they pray, ‘Lord, change my situation’.
We see it in Paul’s prayers, too. He says to the Philippians: ‘This is my prayer, that your love may abound more and more’ (1:9). To the Colossians, it’s, ‘We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will’ (1:9). To the Thessalonians, ‘We constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling’ (2 Thess. 1:11).
I’m not saying it’s wrong to pray that your boss would ease off, or that your friend would be converted, or that your pastor would preach better. Those are good things to pray for! But I am saying that we shouldn’t assume that the answer to our problems always lays outside of our self. God may well be bringing difficulty into our lives precisely because he knows that ‘suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope’ (Rom. 5:3‑4). I shouldn’t assume that God wants to fix everyone else. Perhaps he wants to fix me.
Lord, send someone
I think this misunderstanding about prayer comes from a misunderstanding about God. We’d probably never admit it, but many of us think that when God answers prayer he works some kind of providential miracle in someone else’s life. So we’re praying that our friend would be converted, and we have this ideal scenario in our mind whereby their colleague at work, or their new next-door neighbour turns out to be a godly, evangelistically-minded Christian who testifies to the grace of God and leads them to Christ.
But perhaps that godly, evangelistically-minded Christian is you. Perhaps God doesn’t want to send someone else. Perhaps he’s already sent someone, but that someone doesn’t realise they could be an instrument in the Redeemer’s hands. So here we are, praying, perhaps for years, ‘Lord, send someone’, and the Lord is answering, ‘I already have!’
Lord, change me
It’s worth just pausing for a moment, and running your recent prayers through your mind. What is it you ask for? Is it ‘Lord, change my situation’, or is it ‘Lord, change me’?
If your prayers are often, ‘Lord, change my situation’, can I encourage you to also pray ‘Lord, change me’? I suggest that for two reasons.
First, you don’t know whether God wants to change your situation. We often assume that if we’re suffering or struggling then God will want to change that, but life isn’t that simple. Remember Paul’s prayers that the thorn in his flesh would be removed (2 Cor. 12:7). God did not answer that prayer. Instead of changing Paul’s situation, he changed Paul, and Paul learned that God’s power was made perfect in his weakness.
But whilst we don’t know whether or not God wants to change our situations, we do know that he wants to change us. We know he wants us to grow more like Christ, and to display the fruit of the Spirit. So if we’re praying for more patience towards our boss, or more love towards our unconverted friend, or more kindness to our needy neighbour, then we know that we’re definitely praying for something that God himself wants. Such prayers are powerful prayers! Jesus said, ‘You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it’ (John 14:14). As John reflected on this much later in life, he said, ‘This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us’ (1 John 5:14). Prayers that ask God to change us for the better are prayers that God will hear and God will do.
The second reason why ‘Lord, change me’ prayers are worthwhile is because they match the way the Holy Spirit loves to work. One of the most wonderful things about the Holy Spirit is that most of his work is done in people. In fact, it’s hard to think of anything the Holy Spirit does that isn’t in people.
So whilst we often ask God to work at stuff around us, God the Holy Spirit much prefers to work in us, and through us. He loves to change us for the better, so that we might become an answer to our own prayers. So perhaps he’ll first work in us, developing wisdom and patience in our hearts, and then work through us, so that we can respond constructively to our boss’s impatience, and be a shining light for Christ in our office or factory. Or perhaps he’ll work in us by stirring up zeal for the lost and love for a neighbour, and then work through us by helping us to testify what is now in our heart.
Discovering that the Holy Spirit loves to work in us and through us is both an enormous challenge and a great joy. It’s an enormous challenge because it means I can’t hide behind my weaknesses and pray that God would send someone else. After all, the Spirit helps us in our weakness (Rom. 8:26), and God chose the weak things of this world to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1:27). But it’s also a great joy because seeing God at work in my life reminds me every believer is loved, valued, and useful in Christ’s service.
So Lord, if you want to change my circumstances, please do. But more than that: Lord, change me.