When I was a child, my family attended a small country church. You’ve seen dozens like it. This white-framed wooden building was surrounded by a cemetery. I guess the congregation wanted to be as close as possible to the resurrection of the dead.
The thing I remember most about the church, though, was not its cemetery but its prayer life. These people prayed all the time. I don’t mean the type of prayer meetings we see in our churches today, but an entire congregation broken and weeping as people took their requests before the Lord.
This thing called prayer has always confused me. Sometimes I pray, and God moves heaven and earth on my behalf. At other times, prayer feels as though I’m tossing bricks skyward. My petitions don’t travel far before they come crashing down. And I realize many of you have prayed for years without feeling as though God hears you.
Over the past few months, God has been teaching me that our prayers end up in one of two places. The first is the Red Sea. Think back to Exodus, when Moses was bringing the Israelites out of the Promised Land. There in the wilderness, he encountered an insurmountable problem. I believe this experience shows us the Bible’s first Baptists. How do we know they were Baptists? Simple. They whined and complained that they would have been better off if Moses had left them to die in Egypt.
Moses, already a wise leader, told his crabby crew to wait and see what great things God would do. And you know the rest of the story. God parted the Red Sea, and Moses and the grumpy Baptists—excuse me, Israelites—crossed in safety.
Red Sea prayers end with God changing the external. As a missionary, I’ve often witnessed the results of prayers like these. For example, our ministry has never asked for money. Instead, we pray and leave our requests at God’s doorstep. One day we needed $5,000. My wife and I were in the back of our office praying when we heard someone at the front door yelling, “I’m a delivery boy from God!”
We ran up to check out the commotion, and there on the ground was a plain, unmarked envelope. We opened it to find the exact amount of money we needed. Our prayers ended in the Red Sea, where God moved external circumstances to meet our needs.
But not all prayers are answered this way. King David didn’t get the answer he wanted when his son became ill. For seven days he prayed and asked God to heal the infant boy, but his son died anyway. And when Paul asked God to remove the thorn in the flesh, He didn’t do that, either.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, in Matthew 26, Jesus asked God if it would be possible to remove the cross. This is the only time in Scripture we see Jesus repeat a prayer. Three times, He asked His Heavenly Father if He had an alternate plan. But God didn’t give Him one.
All these prayers ended up not in the Red Sea but in Gethsemane. A Red Sea prayer changes external circumstances. A Gethsemane prayer changes… you. Instead of changing the external, a Gethsemane prayer changes the internal.
The Gethsemane prayer changed King David. He rose from his prayer to worship God. The Gethsemane prayer also changed Paul. He realized the thorn in his flesh was meant to keep him humble. And of course, the Gethsemane prayer changed Jesus. Each time He prayed, He moved from “Let this cup be removed” to “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done.”
All prayers end in one of two places: the Red Sea, where God does an incredible thing and changes the external; or Gethsemane, where He changes the internal.
Jesus says in Luke 9:23 that we must deny ourselves, take up our cross daily and follow Him. Unless you pass through Gethsemane, you can’t reach the cross.
Which is the greater prayer: Red Sea or Gethsemane? I believe the Gethsemane prayer has more power because a changed life changes lives.
Not long ago, I took one more step in learning to pray like our Lord. Our prayers begin with surrender when we go to our knees. But they also end with surrender when we tell our heavenly Father, “Thy will be done.“
When I pray, I don’t know whether God will take my prayer to the Red Sea, where I can stand by and watch His glory, or to Gethsemane, where His glory is revealed in me. But I do know what I desire most: His kingdom come, His will be done. And since He is with me, He can take my prayers—and me—wherever He thinks best.