For the past several years I have been encouraging people to pray with anticipation, not expectation. There are lots of dynamics that play into these two words but let me try to explain what I mean.
Sometimes when we pray and bring our requests to the Lord, we do so using very exacting, narrow, specific terms; we create a very small box within which we expect Him to respond. Then we wait for Him to answer in a way that will fulfill our expectation. And when He chooses not to respond within those parameters, we conclude (wrongly but, nonetheless, very strongly) that He doesn’t care, wasn’t there or didn’t want to answer (for a myriad of what seem to us to be obvious reasons: I’m not worthy, I prayed incorrectly, I am not reading my Bible enough, etc.). Sadly, when we focus so hard on a single point, we often miss an entire world of things going on around us. (Ask any teenage boy who goes to a dance with hundreds of other young people – but sees that one special girl for the first time – not likely he will remember much of what went on at the dance other than every move she made). When I pray knowing exactly what I want and that is all I am willing to look for, I may totally miss what the Lord does around me to answer my need. If, instead, I were to express my struggles of the moment, even confess the ways I am tempted to try and meet those challenges on my own, and simply ask the Lord to help (in the spirit of Peter’s prayer in Matthew 14: “Lord, save me!”) then look around with anticipation to see how He might choose to answer, I might be amazed more often.
A personal illustration, if I may. Fourteen years ago I reached a very critical point in my life. I was physically exhausted, emotionally drained, and full of anger – I was so burned out that I literally despaired of life. At the insistence of my wife, I went to see Rudy Gervais (presently a co-worker) to see what could be done. He encouraged me to embrace my brokenness, allow the Lord to use my pain to expose the origins the issues in my life and then invite Jesus into those areas. When I did that, the Lord Jesus Christ revealed Himself to me in a visual and audible way over the next few weeks and it changed my life. The truth He spoke to my heart and the healing He brought to my spirit in those days were amazing. I literally cannot describe what it was like (because it was Him dealing uniquely with me, the Jim Groves He created in my mother’s womb). After those couple of weeks, I thought I had entered a new level of my relationship with Him and my expectation was that He would continue to reveal Himself to me in the same way. And He never did again.
There was a period where this was very distressing to me. What had I done wrong? Did He not love me as much anymore? Why is He far from me? What is He trying to teach me? And I prayed all the more fervently that He would meet my “need” to sense His presence and power by showing Himself to me as He had before. Nothing. Or so I thought. Then the Spirit brought clarity to my mind. Those few weeks had served two purposes: to bring significant healing to my life and to show me that the Lord Jesus can reveal Himself to anyone, anywhere, anyway He desires. (That has been tremendously important in my present ministry and I thank the Lord for it.) And those purposes had been completed.
So I have changed the way I pray. There are days when I am overwhelmed – on the way to the office – and I tell Him. I also confess that I am tempted to deal with that struggle in wrong ways (“If I just kept driving, I could be in northern Georgia by early afternoon”). Then I simply ask Him to help and I make the right turns to get to the office. But I keep my ears and eyes open in anticipation because I know He is with me and He is faithful so who knows how He might respond. And I have discovered that those are most often the days He does a mighty work in the office in a client’s life and quietly says to my spirit, “See, I am here and I am powerful. Did you see what I did here today? I am glad you were not looking in the wrong spot to see Me.” Ah, yes, Lord. Thank you for answering my prayer.