I'm no expert on prayer. Sometimes, my prayer looks like a formal process: Bible in front of me, my head bowed, eyes closed. I have a structure, an order I follow. Occasionally, I pray the Lord's prayer with slight modifications.
Sometimes, it looks like the pages of a child's coloring book--colors outside the lines, erratic strokes, mismatched colors. A whisper before I make a phone call. A request for forgiveness after I judge someone for liking Jason Statham movies. An exasperated "God, please!" when I'm watching the Steelers play. (Being totally serious.)
I know that sometimes God waits to answer my prayers.
I know that sometimes God says no. Like how he has said no to my numerous requests to win the lottery despite my insistence that I'll be responsible. Then again, maybe it's a "Let's wait and see." Fingers crossed.
For all the waiting and all the no's I seem to get, I also know this: sometimes God gives us exactly what we ask for.
Several years ago, I wrote down a prayer in my journal. I was a sophomore in college, and I was all excitement and idealism and bravado and naiveté. Here's what I wrote down:
God, take me through the fire.
At that time, I believed that nothing worth having in life would come easy, so in order to have the best life possible, I wanted God to shake me up and make it hard. I resonated with what John F. Kennedy said decades ago: "Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger men." That made sense to me. The best things in life shouldn't come easy. So I prayed for refinement by fire.
What an idiot.
And I wrote it down, thereby providing documented evidence of my silly prayer. I couldn't even take it back or claim, "I never said that!" (Because sometimes God falls for that, right?)
Let me be clear. I wasn't an idiot for believing that life shouldn't be easy. I was an idiot because God sometimes grants us exactly what we pray for. And in this case, he did.
When the fire came, it stayed.
It stayed almost every single day for the last eight years.
In the midst of that fire, it's been easy to forget that I asked for this.
I have a friend who told me a similar story. She had prayed months ago that God would remove someone from her life if it wasn't right, if there was something better, because she didn't think she could do it herself. Later, when that person left, she was devastated. In the aftermath, in the midst of brokenness and questions, her prayer came back to her.
She remembered that she had asked for this--not so much the pain, but the "something better." The beauty and power of God's grace is that it sometimes does something for us we wouldn't have had the courage to do ourselves.
That prayer I wrote down eight years ago has become both a face-palm inducer (Why did you ask for this, moron? Pray for lots of money and beach houses from now on!) and a source of quiet hope. Hope that God is doing something. That my suffering isn't senseless. That ultimately, I need that fire.
Our U.S. Forest Service has been managing the tension of fire for years. Every year, wildfires break out in forests all over the country. While most of us watch these fires on our TV screens with fear and concern, the prevailing philosophy experts and scientists have adopted says to let the fires run their course. While we should do our best to protect homes and valuable infrastructures, the fires ultimately are good for the landscapes they seem to be ravaging.
A short-sighted perspective sees only scorched earth, smoldering ash where trees and green grass used to grow. Land that has been burned by fire won't see significant regrowth for decades. Anyone with a mind to develop buildings in or around the affected area faces significant challenges.
A longer, more patient view, though, helps one understand that fire makes forests healthier and more resilient. According to the 1995 Wildland Fire Policy, forest fire is a "critical natural process." After a fire initially moves through and burns dry brush and excess timber, that forest, left with its strong trees, then provides less fuel and thereby less destruction when subsequent fires move through again.
When I prayed for fire as a headstrong, naive nineteen-year-old undergrad student, I had no idea what I was asking for. I was an unsuspecting, overgrown forest full of pride and immaturity.
Dry as dust.
Ripe for fire.
My vices in need of being burned into a coat of ash.
And that fire came. With smoke all around me, I had the hardest time finding hope. Seeing a plan. But as the fire has moved through the different parts of my life and my heart, as the haze has thinned, as the ground has begun to cool, I see more and more the beautiful, mysterious, painful grace that took my silly prayer and used it to do more in my life than I knew I was requesting.
So be careful when you pray. You might just get what you ask for. And more.