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Thanksgiving-Filled Prayer During the COVID-19 Storm

Jacob Hantla March 17, 2020

What have your prayers looked like this last week? Your life has likely been drastically affected by the new SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19 that it causes. There is rarely a minute in my day where I am not thinking about it. My son’s life (and my own) are particularly at risk; we have significant decisions to make about David’s bone marrow transplant; I’m making decisions about our church’s worship service and other gatherings; my wife and I are fielding a barrage of text messages and emails with questions about the disease; many food items and articles of daily living are sold out; flying for work is dangerous and always delayed; there are no sports; and if I almost forget for a second, seemingly every news story, tweet, and notification my devices put in front of my face are about COVID-19. I suspect that even if your particular challenges are different, you have been unable to go long this last week without thinking about this pandemic. 

How has this affected your prayers? You can anticipate that the next few weeks will be more of the same, but perhaps we will start having people we love sickened by the disease. Maybe you will be infected. It’s possible that somebody you know will die. You may believe with your mind that God is in control, but it may feel like your life is out of control. How will your prayers be affected?

James 1:2-6 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind

One thing is for sure. Like I wrote in my last post, no matter what happens around you, trust the Lord. This trustworthy Lord commands you (James 1:5) amid trials to pray to Him, asking for wisdom without doubting. You might feel like the wind-tossed wave of the sea described in James 1:5. God means for trials to sanctify you (James 1:2-4). As we face trials, we must pray; particularly, we must pray for wisdom. In the roughest of difficulties, we can be steadfastly anchored by faith through prayer in our generous and trustworthy God. 

First off, in your trial, is honoring God through growth in holiness your goal? It is God’s. Align your goals with His.

In your trial, are you praying? We must be. And we must pray for wisdom. There are countless decisions that you must make. How will you love your neighbor (staying away from them, shopping for them, providing for them)? How will you respond to your government’s direction? Will you go to work? Where will you get food? In all of this, you must first and most acknowledge the Lord. The first question must not be, “What should I do?” But it must be a statement of acknowledgment of the Lord’s good and trustworthy sovereignty at work, “God, You have placed this decision before me. I need your wisdom. What would you have me do, and how should I do it to most honor you?”

Proverbs 3:5-7 Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes, fear the Lord,  and turn away from evil.

The question consistently on the news and perhaps in your home is, “What should we do about the coronavirus?” Answer: In all your ways, acknowledge Him. So as you stay home to protect the vulnerable, acknowledge Him. As you plan for how to buy toilet paper or water or food, acknowledge Him. If you have symptoms, acknowledge Him. As you get tested, acknowledge Him. As you protect yourself and your neighbor by staying away from public gatherings, acknowledge Him. As you see your 401(k) evaporate, acknowledge Him. As you see your loved one fall ill, acknowledge Him. As you enjoy time off work or a good meal or a breath of fresh air, acknowledge Him. In all things, acknowledge Him. As you pray, acknowledge Him. One of the best ways to follow this plan to “acknowledge God” is to give Him thanks while you ask for His help.

Philippians 4:5b-7 The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

We must pray. And our prayers must first be characterized by thanksgiving. When you acknowledge the Lord, your heart’s disposition will be set aright, moving from anxiety and dissatisfaction toward peace. God is no less in control during famine than the feast. My natural inclination–the natural inclination of all of mankind–is to grumble and be anxious when things get hard. The Christian, rather, is to seek comfort in the Lord’s nearness. And pray.

If you are like me, my natural tendency when praying is to tell God all the things I think I need. But what God directs us to first—before you ask for anything— is to say thanks. I used to treat this like a formality, acting a bit like I was supposed to be polite when talking to God. I likened it to interpersonal situations where often if you are going to try to ask somebody for something hard, you should first be really nice to them, buttering them up to get a better response. No, we are to ask with thanksgiving because when we are tempted to anxiety, we do not see things in their proper perspective. We are more tempted to be aware of what we think we need than to see what God has already provided and to trust Him to future provision.

The peace that we so desperately want cannot be found through preparing, reading the news, perfect infection control measures, ignoring the danger, or anything other than thanksgiving-filled prayer. Does this mean that we should not ask God for things? No. The opposite is true. You are commanded in Philippians 4:6 and elsewhere (Isa 55:6, Mat 6:8-13, Mat 7:7, Jam 5:13, cf. Ps 86:7) to pray to God in your time of need, asking Him for what you need. But ask with thanksgiving. Thankfulness-saturated requests made to God in prayer are the Holy Spirit’s means of bringing you the true peace your heart craves.

How thankful have you been this week? When you run out of toilet paper and the first ten stores you check don’t have any, and you begin to pray, is your request thanksgiving-filled? Or is it panic-stricken and frustrated?. Do you ask your loving Father who loves to give His children good gifts (Mat 7:11) in a way that remembers His past faithfulness? Consider how God has provided toilet paper for you day after day, year after year and how it has likely never been something for which you’ve given thanks.  And best of all, the greatest problem facing you and me is not lack of food, a plummeting stock market, paucity of toilet paper, or even sickness and death. Our sin, which separated us from God and earned us eternal death—all of it: past, present, and future—has been done away with. We have been reconciled to Him by His death (Col 1:21-22, 1 Pet 3:18). No matter what suffering we could undergo in this life—for the sake of the gospel or just as a result of living in this fallen world—isn’t worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed in us (Rom 8:18-21, 2 Cor 4:16-18).

We have so much for which to be thankful: The sun that rose this morning (Mat 5:45), the rain and food it provides (Mat 5:45, Mat 6:11, Act 14;17), sleep (Ps 127:2) and the fact that you awoke from it this morning (Ps 3:5), and countless other gifts (James 1:17). But best of all, God has given us Himself (1 Pet 3:18, Isa 7:14, Isa 9:6, etc.). You will never fully be able to enumerate the things we have to be thankful for. You will never overdo the thankfulness. So pray. Ask God for what you need. And do so with thankful hearts looking back to God’s provision for you in the past (best exemplified at the cross) and looking forward to how your God will use the situation you find yourself in for His glory. And trust that God truly does hear your prayer, that He does really care, and that He really can and will provide what is best, many-times precisely what you ask.

Let COVID-19 drive us all to pray, and pray with thanksgiving. And God will use those prayers, giving us what we need. God has not promised that He will provide you with a long life. He might use COVID-19 to end your life (and that should not make you anxious but rather make you excited, because then you would be with Christ, Phil 1:23). You or your loved one may get sick. But He knows what we need, and His purposes are good and right. And whether He brings you through this or brings you to Himself through this, we should run to Him in faith-filled prayer with thanksgiving. And then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

You might be very familiar with these passages and their content. But let me challenge you (and myself) now. There is a significant difference between knowing the truth and doing the truth. I may know that I should pray with thanksgiving and faith. But that is far different from actually doing it. I might know that God is trustworthy, but that is far different than actually trusting Him. COVID-19 maybe incredibly sanctifying for the church, especially in the area of prayer with thanksgiving and faith.

(For more on fighting the sin of anxiety and a fuller exposition of Phil 4:5-7, please listen to my sermon on that text which I preached in 2018, entitled “The Only Way to True Peace Free from Anxiety”. I taught with the perspective afforded by five and a half years of fighting my son’s leukemia in mind. Little did I know that I would promptly begin to daily put this into more daily use than I could have imagined, shortly after this falling ill with life-threatening Burkett lymphoma. I saw God keep His promise to guard my heart in peace in response to thanksgiving-filled prayer. I’m excited to grow still more with all of you as we walk together faithfully through this COVID-19 trial and whatever else may lay ahead until the Lord calls us home).

Lord willing, I hope to continue my blog series in the upcoming days and weeks, following this tentative outline:

  1. Trust God
  2. Pray with thanksgiving and faith
  3. Don’t be foolish
  4. Love your neighbor
  5. Balance appropriately your thoughts (and reading/watching)
  6. Submit to authorities 
  7. Remember your finitude 
  8. Think about heaven
  9. Speak of your gospel confidence and hope
  10. Don’t grow weary