The Power of Prayerful Pondering

Jan 12, 2023 | INSIGHTS

One night in the mid-1960s, Jackie Pullinger, a classical musician, had a dream: “I saw a vision of a woman holding her arms out beseechingly as on a refugee poster. I wondered what she wanted – she looked desperate for something . . . Then words moved past, like a television credit: WHAT CAN YOU GIVE US?”

A series of dreams and vivid experiences followed, and Jackie concluded that the Lord was calling her to Hong Kong. But at this point, she found herself at a crossroads and facing a major problem: after applying to every missionary group she could think of, as well as to church organisations and the Hong Kong government, all doors closed in her face. Quite simply, no one else believed that she had heard from God or confirmed the call to go so far from home. “You’re too young, you’re too inexperienced, you have the wrong qualifications,” she was told.

By any normal reckoning, one has sympathy with the agencies involved: we have all seen people claiming to be led by the Lord when in reality there may have been any number of other factors at work. No discredit then to them for ‘failing’ to recognise the call of God on Jackie’s life.

At this point, no-one would have blamed Jackie either for bowing out under the weight of so many discouragements. After all she was a young single woman with no apparent spiritual or social qualifications to go and help people in such great  need.

This is the point beyond which only the obstinate or those who are truly convinced that they have heard from the Lord persevere.

We will hear more of Jackie’s story further on; the theme we will be focusing on in this article is the whole process of pondering that must be done when the road ahead forks, and we either do not know which route to take, or the way that we want to go seems impossible.

You may well have been in such a place, many times even. As we have explored in our revised article on Triangulating, these are the times when we must press deeply into God’s heart, and do our best to take ‘soundings’ from multiple directions in order to determine the best way forward.

So much that is of God requires careful pondering. It would be nice to think of it as a reflective and thoughtful process, a gentle and calm sifting of possibilities. And occasionally, it is. But as we explore the use of the word enthumeomai (‘to ponder’) in the New Testament, we will see that it can often have a much more vigorous and intense edge to it.

Even just to pause, stand, look and ask ‘Which way, Lord? Should we try it this way or that?’ can demand every ounce of our mental and spiritual energy. (Jer. 6:16) Precious, indeed then to remind ourselves that the Lord is walking this journey with us, and eager for us to discover His way ahead.

When Joseph found himself obliged to ponder

Right at the start of the gospel story, having become aware of his fiancée’s apparent infidelity, we find Joseph ‘pondering’ what to do.

As on many occasions in Scripture, our English translations barely hint at the depths the Greek word is pointing to; enthumeomai indicates that Joseph was actually experiencing considerable agitation as he grappled with the weighty decision he found himself so unexpectedly obliged to make. (Matt. 1:19-20)

The conclusion he reached – to break off the engagement quietly – owed nothing to any vindictiveness or desire to disgrace Mary publicly, but rather to an awareness that he, as a righteous man, could not possibly proceed to join himself to Mary in the light of her ostensible faithlessness toward both himself and Yahweh.

How often it can feel, though, as if the Lord is not hearing us when we are going through our times of greatest shaking and uncertainty, when we cry out with the psalmist in our desperation, ‘Hear my cry, O Lord!’ it takes faith at such times to remind ourselves that Heaven is noting that we are seeking Him with all our hearts.

It was only after he reached this painful decision that God intervened. He had heard Joseph’s anguish and weighty deliberations, and, ever kind as well as strategic, sent an angel in a dream to reassure him that it was right to take Mary as his wife, for the child growing within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and would save many from their sins. This, for Joseph was the equivalent of the announcement Gabriel brought to Mary – and what a timely intervention it was. (Matt. 1:20-25)

After the Magi had inadvertently aroused Herod’s paranoia, and caused him to give the order to slay all children in Bethlehem under the age of two, God sent another angel to Joseph. On this occasion, too, the encounter occurred in the form of a dream, telling him both what to do (to take Mary and Jesus and to flee to Egypt), and why.

To his credit, Joseph didn’t wait around to see what would happen, but immediately obeyed this radical command. (Matt. 2:13-14) We know nothing of whether Joseph received a warm welcome when he reached Egypt, or whether the holy family sojourned there as outcasts. What we do know is that, sometime later, the Lord sent him another angelic visitation to summon the family back to Israel because ‘those who were seeking the life of the child are now dead’ – and that this faithful man once more set out immediately.

Joseph’s faith in this reassuring word must have been put sharply to the test when he reached the land of Israel and discovered that, so far from everything being ‘back to normal’ Herod’s equally murderous son had succeeded to his father’s throne. With fear flooding into their hearts, the young parents must have sought the Lord fervently as they pondered what to do next. Had the king’s murderous decree been formally reversed? Or would Jesus’ life still be in danger because his details had been recorded in the census as having been born in Bethlehem during the time that Herod had prescribed?

All pondering is a weighty matter, because it requires us to lay a number of different possibilities alongside one another, appraising and judging them, and then waiting until we have confidence in what it is that the Lord is showing us to do about them. To be sure there are many occasions when we are able to honour and serve the Lord in whichever choice we make about a situation, but some decisions require us to ponder further, or even to lay down all that makes sense to us in order to fulfil His perfect will. At these times, and especially when the stakes are particularly high, it is important that we do all we can not to permit fear and tension to shut out His still small voice – even when what He appears to be saying or doing appear confusing or surprising.

Many of us will have wondered whether we have heard God aright when, believing we have been called and guided by Him to a particular task, circumstances arise that appear to contradict the word we have received. It was at just such a critical juncture that the Lord showed Joseph in yet another dream that it really wasn’t safe for the family to remain in Judea, and that he should instead return north to Galilee.

All factors work together to outwork God’s perfect will, and we can see that even Joseph’s fear was used by God to cause him to seek the Lord in this way. Whether we reach the right conclusions peacefully, or as the result of much painful seeking and tossing, may we not allow fear to keep us from acting on His unexpected leadings. (Matt. 2:19-23)

I am told that the Greek is emphatic in Romans 8:14, that it is those – and only those – who are led and moved by the impulses of the Holy Spirit who are the children of God. It is only fair, then, to suggest that this should not be looked upon as a purely one-way process of God intervening for us. Rather, He expects us to show ourselves willing to set aside a considerable amount of time and effort to seek Him – something that calls for much emotional and mental effort as well as spiritual involvement.

If you, or people you know and care about, are currently in need of God’s grace for some particular situation, or are at a crossroads, gird up your loins and press in to seek the Lord. May He keep you alert as you ponder possibilities to discern where His still small voice is leading.

Thank God for those who ponder!

It is a great treat when the Lord gives very clear guidance, whether by words of scripture, dreams, angels or some other means, and tells us to “do this,” or to “put more effort into this and less into that”. One word from Him is truly worth any number of our own bright ideas. I wrote The Still Small Voice in the firm conviction that the Lord delights to make matters clear to us as we wait on Him. More often than not, however, His leading comes not as a neatly packaged and presented parcel, but requires us to grapple, mull and ponder as we seek Him for understanding concerning some issue, before the peace of the Lord settles deeply on us to instruct or reassure us.

We will be familiar with the story of the dilemma Peter faced as he pondered a deeply disturbing vision appearing to suggest that he should overturn the law of Moses concerning His uniquely special purposes for Israel. So must Abraham have felt when Yahweh asked him to slay his son – even though we know that the Lord is adamantly opposed to child sacrifice! No wonder Peter’s initial response was an emphatic and outraged yelp: “By no means, Lord!! (Acts 10:14 ESV)

Have we not said something similar ourselves when the Lord asks us to do something difficult or that does not in the least appeal to us? We come across this word enthumeomai again in Acts 10:19 to describe Peter’s pondering, and recognise that the painful connotations that it can include. He does not in the least mind us reasoning together with Him, He invites us to do even, but surely we cannot ultimately say both “No,” and “Lord” in the same sentence!

The word of the Lord to Joseph to return to Israel took him so far, but there came a point at which he needed to wait and seek again. God does not normally give us once-and-for-all words, but they will be enough to get us heading in the right direction for the time being. In other words, we should not suppose that just because God has spoken to us on a matter that that is all He has to say about it. Rather will we find one revelation paving the way for further ones.

It was when Cornelius’ servants arrived from Caesarea, and after the Lord had told him not to be afraid to go with them, that Peter began to glimpse the staggering implications of all that he was being shown. So far from being something entirely unprecedented, Peter’s vision was actually the next step in a long series of revelations that God had made, the first glimmerings of which root all the way back to His promise to Abraham. (Gen. 26:4) God’s desire to reveal Himself to the Gentiles was something that Isaiah had beautifully glimpsed when he declared concerning the mission of God’s special servant,

‘It is too small a thing for you to be My servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that My salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.’ (Is. 49:6)

Peter had been present when Jesus had ministered to various Gentiles, and now he began to understand the full extent to which his people’s unique relationship with Yahweh was to be expanded to include all peoples everywhere. It was a crucial outworking of the work of the Cross, for the salvation of the world, and in the history of the Church – and it all began because a Roman centurion had developed the habit of praying regularly. It was to this prayerful man that the Lord sent an angel with very specific instructions to send for a man called Peter. Meanwhile, the Lord was equally at work ‘at the other end,’ in Joppa, where Peter was temporarily staying. It was because Peter too, was not neglecting the practice of prayer that he was in the right place to receive the all-important vision. (Acts 10:1-10f)

We can imagine that Jackie Pullinger continued in prayer despite so many doors refusing to open to her. Or did she wonder if she had not got the whole vision entirely wrong, or at least the timescale for seeing it fulfilled? Those who are humble truly value the counsel of others and are willing to abide by it; it is the proud who push on regardless of what others think. Even Jesus submitted Himself to the instruction of His parents, including performing a miracle before His ‘hour’ had come. (Jn. 2:4; cf Lk. 2:51)

When some idea or vision truly is of God, the humble will know the call of the Holy Spirit compelling – driving them, even – to go to where He is sending them, be that the wilderness as it was for Jesus, or back to Jerusalem as Paul experienced to the great discomfort of his fellow leaders in Ephesus. Or indeed to Hong Kong for Jackie! (Cf. Mk. 2:12; Acts 20:22)

While we must always be alert to the possibility of the ‘Butcher’ (the enemy) driving us beyond the ways and boundaries God has determined for us, the Lord is persistent, and even insistent in His calling, even when that means we find ourselves at odds with others who mean a very great deal to us.

Something that can help greatly in the process of such radical pondering is the principle Paul sets out in Corinthians: that ‘what we sow does not come to life until it dies’. (1 Cor. 15:36) Jesus had spoken of this already in the poignant metaphor of a grain of wheat needing to fall into the ground and die before it can produce many seeds. (Jn. 12:24) Study the history of many of the ministries that God has greatly used – most even – and you will find that before they thrived and flourished, the Lord allowed them to go through a time of death, when hopes and dreams appeared to fail and fall into the ground.

Study the history of many of the ministries that God has greatly used – most even – and you will find that before they thrived and flourished, the Lord allowed them to go through a time of death, when hopes and dreams appeared to fail and fall into the ground. Jackie had actually reached the point of relinquishing her vision when the Lord prompted the vicar of the church she was helping at to encourage her not to be put off by all the cautions and caveats she had received, but to go to Hong Kong in faith as the Lord was leading her.

With just enough money to pay for a one-way ticket on the cheapest boat she could find, Jackie set off in 1966. There could be no turning back. Even then she did not have it easy. Rather like both Josephs in Scripture before her, she immediately found herself not fulfilling some great vision but struggling to get past Hong Kong immigration, who did not want to allow her in. Who can tell what battles had to be won in the heavenly places as she pressed through these closed gates en route to the place where she would turn so many hearts to Christ?

Jackie began by taking a job teaching at a primary school in the Walled City: at that time a slum of unimaginable danger and squalor. What happened next is history – His story. Jackie’s persistent pondering and searching was destined to influence the lives of tens of thousands and to utterly revolutionise many as a result of the astonishing and miraculous ministry that the Lord entrusted her with.

Praise God that she did not allow the reservations and lack of understanding of others to hold her back, but instead had the courage of her convictions. It is wonderful to think of all who have been saved from sin and addiction through her determined perseverance!

Lord God, we praise You for all those who have prayed and pondered and set out to follow Your leading. We pray today for all who have received genuine callings from You, to be willing to persevere, whatever the obstacles and oppressions that they face. Strengthen their resolve as they ponder – then send them the favour of Your provision and deliverances we pray. We give you most especially now . . . and . . .

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