Category  |  Prayer

Rescuing Villains

The comic book hero is as popular as ever. In 2017 alone, six superhero movies accounted for more than $4 billion (US) in box office sales. But why are people so drawn to big action flicks?

Maybe it’s because, in part, such stories resemble God’s Big Story. There’s a hero, a villain, a people in need of rescue, and plenty of riveting action.

In this story, the biggest villain is Satan, the enemy of our souls. But there are lots of “little” villains as well. In the book of Daniel, for example, one is Nebuchadnezzar, the tyrannical king of much of the known world, who decided to kill anyone who didn’t worship his colossal statue (Daniel 3:1–6). When three courageous Jewish officials refused (vv. 12–18), God dramatically rescued them from a blazing furnace (vv. 24–27).

But in a surprising twist, we see this villain’s heart begin to change. In response to this spectacular event, Nebuchadnezzar said, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego” (v. 28).

But then he threatened to kill anyone who defied God (v. 29), not yet understanding that God didn’t need his help. Nebuchadnezzar would learn more about God (and himself) in chapter 4—but that’s another story.

What we see in Nebuchadnezzar is not just a villain, but someone on a spiritual journey. In God’s story of redemption, our Hero, Jesus, reaches out to everyone needing rescue—including the villains among us.

Clear Communication

While traveling in Asia, my iPad (containing my reading material and many work documents) suddenly died, a condition described as “the black screen of death.” Seeking help, I found a computer shop and encountered another problem—I don’t speak Chinese and the shop’s technician didn’t speak English. The solution? He pulled up a software program in which he typed in Chinese, but I could read it in English. The process reversed as I responded in English and he read in Chinese. The software allowed us to communicate clearly, even in different languages.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m unable to communicate and express my heart when I pray to my heavenly Father—and I’m not alone. Many of us struggle sometimes with prayer. But the apostle Paul wrote, “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” (Romans 8:26–27).

How amazing is the gift of the Holy Spirit! Better than any computer program, He clearly communicates my thoughts and desires in harmony with the Father’s purposes. The work of the Spirit makes prayer work!

Abby’s Prayer

When Abby was a sophomore in high school, she and her mom heard a news story about a young man who’d been critically injured in a plane accident—an accident that took the lives of his father and stepmother. Although they didn’t know this person, Abby’s mom said, “We just need to pray for him and his family.” And they did.

Fast forward a few years, and one day Abby walked into a class at her university. A male student offered her the seat next to him. That student was Austin Hatch, the plane crash victim Abby had prayed for. Soon they were dating, and in 2018 they were married.

“It’s crazy to think that I was praying for my future husband,” Abby said in an interview shortly before they were married.

It can be easy to limit our prayers to our own personal needs and for those closest to us, without taking the time to pray for others. However, Paul, writing to the Christians at Ephesus, told them to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kind of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and keep praying for all the Lord’s people” (Ephesians 6:18). Also, 1 Timothy 2:1 tells us to pray “for all people,” especially those in authority.

Let’s intercede for others—even people we don’t know. It’s one of the ways we can “carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).

Praying the Distance

Kevin wiped a tear from his eye as he held out a slip of paper for my wife, Cari, to read. He knew Cari and I were praying for our daughter to return to faith in Jesus. “This note was found in my mother’s Bible after her death, and I hope it encourages you,” he said. At the top of the note were the words, “For my son, Kevin.” Below them was a prayer for his salvation.

“I carry this with me in my own Bible today,” Kevin explained. “My mother prayed for my salvation for over thirty-five years. I was far away from God, and I’m a believer now.” He looked intently at us and smiled through his tears: “Never give up praying for your daughter—no matter how long it takes.”

His words of encouragement made me think of the introduction to a story Jesus told about prayer in the Gospel of Luke. Luke begins with the words, “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1, italics added).

In the story, Jesus contrasts an “unjust judge” (v. 6) who answers a request merely because he doesn’t want to be further bothered, with a perfect heavenly Father who cares deeply for us and wants us to come to Him. We can be encouraged whenever we pray to know that God hears and welcomes our prayers.

Praying and Growing

When my friend David’s wife developed Alzheimer’s disease, the changes it brought to his life made him bitter. He needed to retire early to care for her; and as the disease progressed, she required increasingly more care.

“I was so angry at God,” he told me. “But the more I prayed about it, the more He showed me my heart and how I had been selfish for most of our marriage.” Tears welled in his eyes as he confessed, “She’s been sick ten years, but God has helped me see things differently. Now, everything I do out of love for her, I also do for Jesus. Caring for her has become the greatest privilege of my life.”

 Sometimes God answers our prayers not by giving us what we want but by challenging us to change. When the prophet Jonah was angry because God spared the wicked city of Nineveh from destruction, God caused a plant to shade him from the hot sun (Jonah 4:6). Then He made it wither. When Jonah complained, God answered, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” (vv. 7–9). Jonah, focused only on himself, insisted it was. But God challenged him to think about others and have compassion.

God sometimes uses our prayers in unexpected ways to help us learn and grow. It’s a change we can welcome with open hearts because He wants to transform us with His love.

The Battle

As artillery rounds fell around him with an earth-shaking whoomp, the young soldier prayed fervently, “Lord, if you get me through this, I’ll go to that Bible school Mom wanted me to.” God honored his focused prayer. My dad survived World War II, went to Moody Bible Institute, and invested his life in ministry.

Another warrior endured a different kind of crisis that drove him to God, but his problems arose when he avoided combat. As King David’s troops fought the Ammonites, David was back at his palace casting more than just a glance at another man’s wife (see 2 Samuel 11). In Psalm 39, David chronicles the painful process of restoration from the terrible sin that resulted. “The turmoil within me grew worse,” he wrote. “The more I thought about it, the hotter I got” (vv. 2–3 nlt).

David’s broken spirit caused him to reflect: “Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is” (v. 4). Amid his renewed focus, David didn’t despair. He had nowhere else to turn. “But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you” (v. 7). David would survive this personal battle and go on to serve God.

What motivates our prayer life doesn’t matter as much as the focus of our prayer. God is our source of hope. He wants us to share our heart with Him. 

Good Works Prepared

When a burly stranger approached my wife and me on a street abroad, we shrunk back in fear. Our holiday had been going badly; we had been yelled at, cheated, and extorted from several times. Were we going to be shaken down again? To our surprise, the man just wanted to show us where to get the best view of his city. Then he gave us a chocolate bar, smiled, and left. That little gesture made our day—and saved the whole trip. It made us grateful—both to the man and to God for cheering us up.

What had made the man reach out to two strangers? Had he gone around with a chocolate bar the entire day, looking to bless someone with it?

It’s amazing how the smallest action can bring the biggest smile—and possibly, direct someone to God. The Bible stresses the importance of doing good works (James 2:17, 24). If that sounds challenging, we have the assurance that God not only enables us to do these works, but has even “prepared [them] in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

Perhaps God has arranged for us to “bump into” someone who needs a word of encouragement today or has given us an opportunity to offer someone a helping hand. All we have to do is respond in obedience.

It’s Good to Ask

My father has always had a directional sense I’ve envied. He’s just instinctively known where north, south, east, and west were. It’s like he was born with that sense. And he’s always been right. Until the night he wasn’t.

That was the night my father got lost. He and my mother attended an event in an unfamiliar town and left after dark. He was convinced he knew the way back to the highway, but he didn’t. He got turned around, then confused, and ultimately frustrated. My mother reassured him, “I know it’s hard, but ask your phone for directions. It’s okay.”

For the first time in his life that I’m aware of, my seventy-six-year-old father asked for directions. From his phone.

The psalmist was a man with a wealth of life experience. But the psalms reveal moments when it appears David felt lost spiritually and emotionally. Psalm 143 contains one of those times. The great king’s heart was dismayed (v. 4). He was in trouble (v. 11). So he paused and prayed, “Show the way I should go” (v. 8). And far from counting on a phone, the psalmist cried out to the Lord, “for to you I entrust my life” (v. 8).

If “the man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) felt lost from time to time, it’s a given we too will need to turn to God for His direction.

When God Says No

When I was conscripted into the military at age 18, as all young Singaporean men are, I prayed desperately for an easy posting. A clerk or driver, perhaps. Not being particularly strong, I hoped to be spared the rigors of combat training. But one evening as I read my Bible, one verse leaped off the page: “My grace is sufficient for you . . .” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

My heart dropped—but it shouldn’t have. God had answered my prayers. Even if I received a difficult assignment, He would provide for me.

So I ended up as an armored infantryman, doing things I didn’t always enjoy. Looking back now, I’m grateful God didn’t give me what I wanted. The training and experience toughened me physically and mentally and gave me confidence to enter adulthood.

In Isaiah 25:1–5, after prophesying Israel’s punishment and subsequent deliverance from her enemies, the prophet praises God for His plans. All these “wonderful things,” Isaiah notes, had been “planned long ago” (v. 1), yet they included some arduous times.

It can be hard to hear God saying no, and even harder to understand when we’re praying for something good—like someone’s deliverance from a crisis. That’s when we need to hold on to the truth of God’s good plans. We may not understand why, but we can keep trusting in His love, goodness, and faithfulness.

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