Prayer and Obedience: A Warning from Jeremiah.

Ever find yourself in difficult or troubling circumstances, struggling to identify a solution that resolves the situation with no detrimental impact on your life? Or face a consequential decision with a variety of options that lead in dramatically different directions, and will forever alter the course of your life?

Most of us encounter such circumstances and confront such decisions more than once in life. Some of us probably feel like we do so with regularity, facing one harrowing situation after another while navigating a relentless current of difficult decisions.

Such events can be a source of considerable stress and anxiety, and be emotionally draining. Which, in turn, can make us inclined to take the trail of least resistance. Pursue the path most comfortable and least disruptive. Reject any option or situation that defies common sense. Embrace the logical. Avoid unreasonable risk.

That perspective, however, can cloud our understanding of God’s view, His plans for us, and the direction He wants us to take. It can prevent us from considering the possibility that God’s agenda is in direct conflict with our own agenda. And it often convinces us that God’s desires for us align nicely with our own desires. While we may pray for God’s guidance and ask Him to reveal His will to us, in our hearts we already know what we are going to do.

The prophet Jeremiah confronted this religious mindset with the Judean people just after their governor was assassinated (see Jeremiah 41). They feared remaining in Judea; afraid it would put their lives at risk with the Babylonian king. Instead they believed it was safer to escape to Egypt. They approached Jeremiah for clarity, asking him to beseech the Lord. “Pray that the Lord your God will show us what to do and where to go” (Jeremiah 42:3, NLT).

Jeremiah agreed to their request. “I will pray to the Lord your God, as you have asked, and I will tell you everything he says. I will hide nothing from you” (Jeremiah 42:4, NLT).

However, something in Jeremiah’s response, perhaps his tone, must have suggested he had doubts about their sincerity. To alleviate those doubts they told him, “May the Lord your God be a faithful witness against us if we refuse to obey whatever he tells us to do. Whether we like it or not, we will obey the Lord our God to whom we are sending you with our plea”(Jeremiah 42:5-6, NLT).

They must have known that Jeremiah believed they had already made up their minds as to what they would do; that they were simply going through the motions of seeking God’s guidance. So they insisted they would obey God’s will ‘whether they liked it or not.’

Ten days later Jeremiah returned to the Judean people and informed them of God’s response. “Stay here in this land … Do not fear the king of Babylon … For I am with you and will save you and rescue you from his power” (Jeremiah 42:10-11, NLT). God made clear He would protect His people if they remained in the land, despite the power of the Babylonian king and his presumed anger at the Judean people.

Sensing that they would ignore God’s guidance, Jeremiah added, “If you are determined to go to Egypt and live there, the very war and famine you fear will catch up to you, and you will die there. That is the fate awaiting every one of you who insists on going to live in Egypt” (Jeremiah 42:15b-16, NLT).

Jeremiah then revealed a disturbing truth. The Judean people were inauthentic in asking God for guidance. “You were not being honest when you sent me to pray to the Lord your God for you. You said, ‘Just tell us what the Lord our God says, and we will do it.’ And today I have told you exactly what he said, but you will not obey the Lord your God … So you can be sure that you will die from war, famine, and disease in Egypt, where you insist on going” (Jeremiah 42:20-22, NLT).

We all face an ‘Egypt’ decision at some point in our lives. A situation that leaves us worried, afraid, and overwhelmed. And like the Judeans, we may be convinced we know God’s will. We may be sure He will lead us down the least risky path. That the decision He wants us to make is the one that makes the most sense, appears safest, and yields the greatest blessing for us.

So we pray. We solicit His guidance. We ask that His will be done. And we assure Him that we will do whatever He asks; that we will obey Him whether we like it or not.

But are we just being religious? Are we just going through the spiritual motions of prayer, saying what we know what God wants to hear? Will we go down the risky path if God leads us there? Will we put our safety, comfort, freedom, and lives at risk if obedience requires it? Or are we like the Judeans, insisting we will follow God but having no intention of doing so?

The consequences of ‘pretend prayer’ are severe. For the Judeans they faced the very pain, suffering, and death they had hoped to avoid by going to Egypt. We, too, risk God’s punishment and the withdrawal of His presence when we refuse to obey Him – whether we like it or not.

Take time this week to examine your prayer life. What big decision or challenging circumstance have you recently brought before the Lord? Are you willing to do whatever God says? Go wherever He leads? Obey Him whether you like the direction or not? If so, He will answer your prayer. But be prepared for the unexpected answer – which might be difficult to digest.

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