And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Matthew 6:7
Once, while swimming in the ocean, I shouted an exceedingly short but extremely earnest prayer. Susan and I had gone to the beach in New England, where the ocean water is usually bone chilling. On this particular day, the tide was unusually calm, allowing a huge tidal pool to develop and making the water shallow for what seemed to be half a mile. As a result, this was the closest thing to warm ocean water we had experienced during our years in New England.
I was thoroughly enjoying myself and beckoning Susan to come out deeper and deeper with me. She resisted. “There might be jellyfish or stingrays if we go out too deep.”
I kept saying, “Jellyfish and stingrays don’t come this far north, and it’s not deep at all.”
“But it’s too far from shore. I don’t want to go any further out,” she pleaded.
I implored her to come further.
Finally, while we were only about ten feet from each other, I said, “Oh come on. Don’t be a ninny.”
Just then, Susan pointed directly over my shoulder and gasped, “Jim, look!”
I turned around, glanced into the clear ocean water and saw a school of sharks swimming directly toward me.
The face of a shark is menacing, obviously designed to evoke fear. Sharks not only have huge teeth but an ugly expression. The moment I saw those sharks I completely forgot my wife was there with me. In that moment, I erupted forth with one of the most sincere prayers I have ever prayed — “God, help!”
I plunged into the water and began swimming frantically for shore, leaving Susan behind to fend for herself. I expected steel, vise-like jaws to clamp down on my lower extremities at any moment. Instead, I heard the faint sounds of Susan’s voice calling to me in the distance, “Jim. Jim… Stand up. Try walking.”
I raised my head above the surf and could see Susan turned toward me already halfway back to shore. Embarrassed by my failure as husband and swimmer, I stood up, looked around, laughed, and proceeded walking through the waves toward the beach.
I share this story because I have prayed many prayers over the years but few have been more sincere or heartfelt than that simple short prayer, “God, help!”
Does a short prayer like this count with God? Yes, it does. It is not necessary for all of our prayers to encompass a complete formula for prayer.
Imagine if I had seen the sharks and began my prayer with praise, adoration and thanksgiving: “Heavenly Father, I just want to take this time to recognize your greatness. You are the creator and ruler of the universe… You have created the birds of the air and the fish of the sea… We bow now in your presence to thank you for this warm ocean water…” My prayer would not have been sincere. In fact, it would have been a bit crazy. While facing a school of sharks, it was appropriate for me to express what was on my heart.
However, if all I prayed were “God, help” prayers, then my prayer life would not be healthy. If my prayer life is not healthy, then my relationship with God is not healthy. If my relationship with God is not what it should be, all of my other relationships suffer as a result. There are many people who come to God only for help. Even then, God doesn’t often get the credit when help arrives.
The story is told of a carpenter who, while working on the roof of a high-rise building, loses his footing. As he is sliding down the roof to a certain death, he cries out, “God, help.” Just then, his pants leg catches on a nail and his life is miraculously spared. Seeing that he is safe, the carpenter mumbles: “Never mind, God. My pants got caught on a nail.”
Some of us seem to think that God exists to do our bidding, as needed. Sometimes, when we’ve needed Him most, we can’t see His hand in saving us.