Have you ever wrestled with God in prayer? I remember just a few such seasons, times of personal heart-rending prayer.
Way back in junior high, I lay awake one night for what seemed like hours, crying and praying for my classmates to respond to Jesus, to join our school Bible study group, to be active in church. During a drought at camp, we prayed and sang Scripture songs asking God for water—and we got it! One desperate, prayerful summer my uncle and grandpa both sickened, then died.
In 2011, our son Elijah accidentally jabbed a pencil into his spleen; an ordinary homeschool day became an unforgettable near-tragedy. I begged God to save him, to save his spleen. I dedicated my son to God anew. My husband and I wrestled with God, trusting our son to His hands. The next day, we brought him home from the hospital, my best birthday present ever. Later he went to Ouachita Hills Academy. I sent up more earnest prayer as he faced challenges and temptations.
What about you? Do life's trials drive you to your knees, or just to Facebook? I believe prayer will reveal God's solutions to every trial and disturbing situation we face, including divisive doctrinal schisms and factions in the church. Prayer can lead to renewed hearts so we are not part of the problems we pray over.
I am often rebuked by a favorite hymn: “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer! Oh what peace we often forfeit! Oh what needless pain we bear! All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer” (emphasis supplied).
Jeremiah 17:9 tells us “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” So how can we know what to pray for, how to face an omniscient God? We must have our deceit torn out and our hearts torn in conviction of sin. Are we willing? What does this level of prayer look like?
God instructs us in Joel 2:12,13:
“Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning; And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.”
Joel gives an earnest call for Israel's repentance and reformation: just what we Laodiceans need. He gives us a picture of thorough contrition, repentance, intercession, and the hope of God's forgiveness and mercy. As I studied, it appeared Joel is also foreshadowing Jesus' last 24 hours.
But Jesus was not the first to depict heart-rending prayer. In my study, I reviewed many precious stories: A pair of struggling twins, a stolen birthright and a wrestling with God in repentance for sin (Genesis 25-32); A mother praying to have a son (1 Samuel 1); A mother praying for her miracle son who had just died (2 Kings 4).
Remember a king praying for forgiveness after adultery and murder (Psalm 51), another king rending his robes and praying for Israel's reformation (2 Kings 22:11-20) and a captive man of royal breeding praying for his people's salvation and restoration (Daniel 9)?
Elijah also prayed with this same intensity, long before his public ministry began. In Prophets and Kings chapter nine, “Elijah the Tishbite,” I found this fascinating account:
“As Elijah saw Israel going deeper and deeper into idolatry, his soul was distressed and his indignation aroused.... Unbelief was fast separating the chosen nation from the Source of their strength. Viewing this apostasy from his mountain retreat, Elijah was overwhelmed with sorrow. In anguish of soul he besought God to arrest the once-favored people in their wicked course, to visit them with judgments, if need be, that they might be led to see in its true light their departure from Heaven. He longed to see them brought to repentance before they should go to such lengths in evil-doing as to provoke the Lord to destroy them utterly. Elijah's prayer was answered...The time had come when God must speak to them by means of judgments...The apostate tribes...were to be shown the folly of trusting...Baal for temporal blessings...To Elijah was entrusted the mission of delivering to Ahab Heaven's message of judgment. He did not seek to be the Lord's messenger; the word of the Lord came to him. And jealous for the honor of God's cause, he did not hesitate to obey the divine summons...” (Prophets and Kings, pp. 120-121).
I believe Elijah's heart-rending prayer was the foundation of his successes for God. This story is especially precious to me as I consider how God might use our son Elijah for a similar purpose today. First, our prayers must intensify.
Ultimately, we remember the praying Man in Gethsemane, His heart-rending final cry at the cross and a temple curtain torn from top to bottom. Who can forget the subsequent blood and water issuing from His rent heart (Matthew 26, 27 et al)? I often pray, seeking my way and will; Jesus prayed seeking God's will. The difference is truly heart-rending.
We considered the heart; now consider the garments. Why does Joel prohibit rending or tearing garments? Was this a common practice? Yes. Aaron, the high priest, whose two drunken sons have just been slain by God is forbidden, along with his two surviving priest sons, to show mourning, either by uncovering their heads or rending their clothes (Lev. 10:6). A rich man now desolate rends his mantle, and worships God (Job 1:20). A rebel king hears God's judgments and rends his clothes. He puts on sackcloth, and fasts, finally repentant (1 Kings 21:27).
Later, Israel is besieged and starving. That distraught king rends his clothes (2 Kings 6:30). A high priest at an illegal trial hears his Prisoner promise to come again in the clouds of heaven. He rends his robe (Matthew 26:65). But priests were forbidden to rend their robes since back in Aaron's day, remember?
Caiaphas' rent robe explains Joel's prohibition:
“Conviction mingled with passion led Caiaphas to do as he did. He was furious with himself for believing Christ's words, and instead of rending his heart under a deep sense of truth, and confession that Jesus was the Messiah, he rent his priestly robes in determined resistance. This act was deeply significant. Little did Caiaphas realize its meaning. In this act...the high priest had condemned himself. By the law of God he was disqualified for the priesthood. He had pronounced upon himself the death sentence....Everything worn by the priest was to be whole and without blemish. By those beautiful official garments was represented the character of the great antitype, Jesus Christ...Nothing but perfection could properly represent the sacredness of the heavenly service. Finite man might rend his own heart by showing a contrite and humble spirit. This God would discern. But no rent must be made in the priestly robes, for this would mar the representation of heavenly things,” (The Desire of Ages, pp. 708-709).
Yes, there is “A time to rend,” (Ecclesiastes 3:7). Yet in Isaiah 58 we see that fasting, afflicting of soul, and wearing of sackcloth were mere hypocrisy. This dissimulation never convinces our God, who “looketh on the heart,” (1 Samuel 16:7). Similarly, the New Testament contrasts the praying Pharisee and publican in Luke 18:10-14. The Pharisee “prayed with himself,” and disdained the publican, who looked down and smote upon his breast, saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Only the publican went home justified, “for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”
Ellen White wrote that the Isaiah 58 worshippers,
“while mourning and lamenting, retain all their objectionable traits of character. Their hearts are not humbled, nor cleansed from spiritual defilement. They have not received the softening showers of the grace of God. They are destitute of the Holy Spirit...They manifest no repentance...” (MS 48, 1900, emphases mine).
She writes further,
“The outward signs of fasting and prayer, without a broken and contrite spirit, are of no value in God's sight. The inward work of grace is needed. Humiliation of soul is essential
....Ministers and people need the work of purification in their souls, that God's judgments may be turned away from them. God is waiting, waiting for humiliation and repentance. He will receive all who will turn unto him with their whole heart,” (MS 33, 1903).
Psalm 34:18 explains: “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.” So, shall we say a rent heart = a broken heart = a contrite spirit = being justified = declared righteous? We must have this inward experience; the external proofs will follow.
Daniel's prayer can be ours:
“Daniel knew that the appointed time for Israel's captivity was nearly ended; but he did not feel that because God had promised to deliver them, they themselves had no part to act. With fasting and contrition he sought the Lord, confessing his own sins and the sins of the people,” (RH Feb. 9, 1897).
Now recall Jesus' last hours. He told His disciples,
“My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death...” Then He prayed, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” An angel came to strengthen Him. “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground,” Lk 22:42-44.
Jesus' rent heart, his hematohidrosis, joined symbol and reality as He pleaded with His Father and gave His life for us. John 19:32-35 completes the picture; Christ shed blood and water from His pierced side.
But did Christ, the antitypical high priest, rend His garments? Joel foretold He wouldn't. He would be the Perfect Example of contrition, repentance and intercession for sinners. John 19:23-24 reveals four soldiers casting lots for his seamless robe and other garments. Then came the heart-rending cry of prayer and victory: “It is finished; Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Immediately, something was rent: it was the temple curtain before the most holy place. Jewish apostasy and hypocrisy had torn the nation from Christ.
Ellen White writes,
“How different was the true High Priest from the false and corrupted Caiaphas. Christ mourned for the transgression of every human being. He bore even the guiltiness of Caiaphas, knowing the hypocrisy that dwelt in his soul, while for pretense he rent his robe. Christ did not rend His robe, but His soul was rent. His garment of human flesh was rent as He hung on the cross, the sin-bearer of the race. By His suffering and death a new and living way was opened,” (RH June 12, 1900, emphasis mine).
It is time for God's elect to employ heart-rending prayer. It's time for us to forsake the facade. Gossiping and ranting to others, posting “truth-filled” comments online may impress others, but God sees the heart of the problem: our hearts are wicked, too.
Let us imitate the heart-rending repentance and intercession of Moses, Elijah, Daniel and Jesus. Let us forsake our own sin first (Matthew 7:1-5), and then God can use us for a greater work. He can transform our homes, our churches and our Seventh-day Adventist leadership.
Will you pray with me?
Holly Joers is a lifelong SDA who was raised in Southern California and now is blessed to live in rural Arkansas with her husband Skip and son Elijah. She is a church pianist and is addicted to Bible study, gardening and bargain-hunting, among other things.