stories of our life together on the road home
My Seven-Word Prayer
When I was a kid, I ended every day with the same prayer. It wasn’t a prayer taught in Sunday School or one discussed in a sermon. I made it up, and it stuck with me. No one knew this prayer I prayed each night as I tucked into my bed. I didn’t speak these words to anyone but God. It never varied. It was only seven words. Each night, I prayed:
These four things – contentment, health, safety, and life – were my top concerns, even as a young kid. I was an anxious child, fearful something bad was going to happen. I was fortunate to grow up in a home where I was taught about God from the very beginning. I knew He was powerful and in charge, so I knew to take my requests to Him.
My view of God was an odd juxtaposition. On one hand, He was incredibly powerful, which was why I knew I could take my needs to Him. He could make anything happen. He could protect me and provide for me. But on the other hand, His power made me fear Him. I was afraid that if I didn’t say the exact right words just the right way, He might not answer my prayer. It was as if I thought there was a loophole that God was eager to find. I approached Him like a genie in a bottle. Here are my wishes – I mean, prayers. I must choose them carefully. I made sure every area was covered. Once I found what I deemed a rock-solid prayer, I didn’t deviate from it. It wasn’t the healthiest view of God, but it was mine.
Looking back at my seven-word prayer, the deep fears of my young heart rise to the surface.
Keep me happy. Oh yes, happiness – my drug of choice. A chasing after the wind, as Solomon put it. But chase it I do. I despise discomfort and will do everything to avoid it. Case in point – I requested my epidural before I was induced with my third child. Pain? No thank you. Pleasure? I’ll take a double dose, please. Beyond my aversion to physical discomfort, I also avoided the melancholy end of the emotional spectrum. Give me all the rainbows and none of the rain. God, keep me happy.
Keep me healthy. I was also desperately afraid of sickness. More than the discomfort of it, there was an underlying fear that I could not handle it. It would do me in. Some people tolerate illness quietly. I, on the other hand, moan and groan. It is pleasant for no one. I was also a hypochondriac by nature, so medical maladies were never far from my mind. If something ached, my imagination created the worst-case scenario. With so many possibilities of all that could break down, a daily prayer for health seemed appropriate. God, keep me healthy.
Keep me safe. With my dramatic imagination, I could dream up nearly anything. Unfortunately, that created a canvas filled to the edges with my worries. I’m not exactly sure what I was wanting to be kept safe from, but safety was an ever-present prayer request of mine. My cautious nature kept me from taking much risk, but it also exaggerated the perceived risk surrounding me. No amount of risk avoidance, or home security systems, could guarantee me the security that God could. God, keep me safe.
Keep me alive. This one may seem odd at first glance, but after my two-year old cousin died when I was five, I became acutely aware that death is real. More importantly, I learned that death could happen to anyone. If my toddler cousin could die, so could I. Young age doesn’t protect you. Only God can. God, keep me alive.
I cannot recall when I stopped praying my seven-word prayer. In some ways, if I’m honest, I haven’t stopped praying for these things. Of course, my words have become more refined, but the crux of the requests remain much the same. When I pray for resolution to a relational conflict, I am requesting happiness to be restored. When I pray for clear medical test results, I am praying for health. When I pray for safe travels, I am seeking safety. When I pray for my future, I am praying that God keeps me alive.
As I reflect on my personal prayer requests, it becomes clear that they are not actually four different requests. There is really only one prayer, only one request. In the end, everything boils down to those first two words of my childhood prayer:
Isn’t this really our only personal request of God? When we pray for our struggles, our needs, and our circumstances, we are simply praying to be taken care of. To be sustained. To be kept.
Over the years, I have prayed compulsively, trying to choose just the right words. In my reverence for God, I would approach His throne with polite petitions full of “pleases” and platitudes. If my prayer was packaged in just the right way, perhaps it would yield the result for which I hoped.
Yet, after a miscarriage led to mental angst and a subsequent messy relational rift, I found myself too tired to pray many words. I didn’t have the capacity to come up with a foolproof list of prayer requests. I only had one-word prayers like, “Help!” Sometimes, I had no words at all. In my lowest moments, my prayers came in the form of tears or groans. Just like we are told in the book of Romans, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”
What I learned in the valley of desperation is that God is not looking for loopholes. Prayer has most changed my view of God Himself. I once thought He was waiting for me to pray just the right prayer in just the right way before He would answer it. He was waiting for me to get my stuff together before He would reward me with an answered petition. I thought He might get frustrated with me if I prayed for something trivial or irritated if I hadn’t prayed recently. But my most desperate prayers have shown me that God wants to hear my prayers – even when they are not worded well or don’t cover all the bases. The Spirit is interceding on our behalf.
Hebrews tells us that we can “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Notice we approach the throne of grace. Not the throne of performance, or the throne of perfectly worded prayers. When we bring our concerns to God, we can be confident that mercy will await us.
When life knocked me off my feet, I was too jarred to pray anything eloquent. I was too weak to try to impress the God of the universe with my words. I was given the gift of being humbled – of being desperate – and it was then that my view of God came into focus. My vision had been hazy, believing prayer to be performative and transactional. When my pleas weren’t pretty, I found a gentle God, full of compassion and unconditional delight in me, despite my despondency. It was in this place that “Keep me happy, healthy, safe, and alive” evolved into a continual prayer, rhythmic as my breath, silently prayed but lovingly heard by a gracious God:
A PRAYER TO BE KEPT
There are so many needs, so many worries, so many requests.
You know them each, and I can tell you one by one.
But not even I know all the needs, all the things to pray.
The relational struggle.
The health concern.
The upcoming deadline.
The parenting dilemma.
The uncertainty of a decision.
The unrest in the world.
The unrest in my mind.
The needs of those I know.
The needs of those I don’t.
But, in the end, this is all I can pray:
Jillian Timberlake is a writer, speaker, and Modern Kintsugi artist. She is the author of two books, Streams of Gold: Finding the Beauty in Broken Pieces and Gold & Clay: Exploring the Pieces of Your Own Story. She has been married to her husband, Travis, for 16 years. They attend Sojourn East with their three children. Jillian enjoys reading, traveling, and sipping on a good cup of coffee.