1 John 5: 14b …if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.
This past week was an exciting one for our family and many of our friends. Personally, it was a chance to check off something from my bucket list – go watch the NCAA D1 Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. This venue has an historic past (i.e. coach Bill Bowerman, record holder Steve Prefontaine). Adding to the meaning of this year’s event, Hayward Field (standing since 1919) is being torn down and being rebuilt over the next two years. But most exciting for us, our son Nathaniel had qualified to compete in the Decathlon at this year’s event. To say we were excited, would be an understatement.
Nathaniel’s event, however, did not go as expected, and certainly not how anyone had hoped for. He did not make his opening clearance in the high jump (a height that he normally clears without any problem) which in decathlon means 0 points, which effectively takes away any chance of making the goal of top 8 and scoring points for the team. Nathaniel’s dream became a nightmare very early in the competition. As parents, all my wife and I could offer were two arms to embrace him.
When I was young, I watched Wide World of Sports which played every Saturday. It opened with music, a montage of sporting clips, and the words: “The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.”. Watching the NCAA championships was incredible: we saw record performances, but we also witnessed some very painful failures. We witnessed Nathaniel’s meet roommate, senior Brian Barraza, run one of the gutsiest 3000m Steeplechase races ever, leading from the gun to the final lap. But on that last lap he clipped a barrier and came crashing to the track hitting his shoulder and the side of his head. He tried to get up but appeared to be concussed. He finished the race in 9th. The man next to me had tears in his eyes and said: “I don’t even know him”. Sports can be cruel. Victory and defeat can be a matter of milliseconds or millimetres.
These misfortunes led to some conversations with friends who attended the meet. Does God care if we win or lose, and how does he feel about praying for the win? I get annoyed when I watch movies where teams pray for victory over their adversaries. “Lord, would you grant these boys a victory over our enemy”. But that same prayer is going on in the other locker room as well! So how does God decide who wins? Does he decide based on the quantity of prayers for each team, or maybe it’s the quality of prayers? Don’t get me wrong, I am not against prayer in the locker room, in fact I love it when God is still invited in, but my challenge is what is being prayed. Praying for victory is what Paul might refer to as “milk” rather than “solid food” (1 Corinthians 3:2). There is no ambiguity in how we are to pray – we are to pray for “God’s will” to be done. Jesus made it clear in “The Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:9-13), and the New Testament is filled with examples of our need to pray in “His Will” (1 John 5:14, Romans 1:10 etc.). But praying in this way is tough. As family & friends, we wanted nothing more than Nathaniel to be standing on the podium at the end of the Decathlon. After all, he worked hard for that, and he’s using the talents God has given him. But what if God has a greater purpose in his defeat than his victory? What if God has character development in mind, and he can be glorified in a loss? If we, as believers, can wrap our heads around this concept and surrender our wants and exchange them for God’s desires (his Will), then we truly understand the purpose of prayer.