1 Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. 2 And when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God’s camp!” So he called the name of that place Mahanaim. 3 And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, 4 instructing them, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now. 5 I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male servants, and female servants. I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.’”6 And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” 7 Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. He divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, 8 thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.” 9 And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’10 I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. 11 Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. 12 But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’” 13 So he stayed there that night, and from what he had with him he took a present for his brother Esau, 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty milking camels and their calves, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 These he handed over to his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, “Pass on ahead of me and put a space between drove and drove.” 17 He instructed the first, “When Esau my brother meets you and asks you, ‘To whom do you belong? Where are you going? And whose are these ahead of you?’ 18 then you shall say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a present sent to my lord Esau. And moreover, he is behind us.’” 19 He likewise instructed the second and the third and all who followed the droves, “You shall say the same thing to Esau when you find him, 20 and you shall say, ‘Moreover, your servant Jacob is behind us.’” For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.” 21 So the present passed on ahead of him, and he himself stayed that night in the camp. 22 The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had.
I would like for us to consider the prayer of distress, that prayer that arises in moments of great fear, danger, and uncertainty. Dan Crawford has told the amazing story of Cindy Hartman and the power of prayer when she found herself in a dangerous situation.
An Associated Press article showed a yes answer for Cindy Hartman’s prayer when she encountered a pistol-toting burglar in her home. Hartman, of Conway, Arkansas, said the burglar confronted her when she came in to answer the phone. He ripped the cord out of the wall and ordered her into a cramped bedroom closet. Then she dropped to her knees.
“I asked if I could pray for him,” she said.
Hartman said the man apologized, used a shirt to wipe his fingerprints
from the gun, and he even dropped to his knees to join Hartman in prayer. Then he yelled to a woman in a pickup truck, “We’ve got to unload all of this and return it. This is a Christian family. We can’t do this to them.”
Fascinating. This is not to say, of course, that every prayer of distress results in the alleviation of danger. Sometimes it does not. But every prayer is heard and every prayer of distress is vitally important for the child of God.
Herbert Lockyer has concluded that “[e]xclusive of the Psalms, which form a prayer-book on their own, the Bible records no fewer than 650 definite prayers, of which no less than 450 have recorded answers.” The Bible is a prayer-saturated book. So should our lives be as well. And, in times of danger and fear, the prayer of distress is a powerful source of comfort but, more than that, a powerful statement about who we are as God’s children and who God is as our God.
Jacob prays a prayer of distress in Genesis 32 and, in so doing, offers us a model for how to pray as well.
The prayer of distress is strengthened by the pedigree of obedience.
Let us set the scene. Jacob is between a rock and a hard place. Behind him is uncle Laban. While they concluded their relationship with an agreement, there are bad memories back there and there is no going back. But in front of Jacob lies another frightening prospect: Esau. Jacob has not seen Esau since fleeing and Esau has not seen Jacob since promising to kill him. But Esau is in Jacob’s path, so face him he must. Thus, in the first eight verses of Genesis 32, Jacob sends a messenger on ahead to tell Esau that he is returning and that he has been richly blessed.
1 Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. 2 And when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God’s camp!” So he called the name of that place Mahanaim. 3 And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, 4 instructing them, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now. 5 I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male servants, and female servants. I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.’” 6 And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” 7 Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. He divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, 8 thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.”
The messenger returns with the news that Esau is coming and has 400 men with him. Jacob, panicked, decides to divide his large caravan in two, theorizing that if Esau kills one half of them, perhaps the other half can escape. This gives us a glimpse into his mindset: he expects to die.
I ask you: what would you do? Bitter Laban is behind you. Angry Esau and 400 men are ahead of you. What would you do? Our text shows us what Jacob did: he prayed. He prayed the prayer of distress. The first thing we note about this prayer is that it is bolstered by a pedigree of obedience.
9 And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’
Yes, it is true, this is a formulaic articulation of the covenant: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But, for Jacob, it is also a statement that he stands in the covenant relationship that both his father and grandfather had. In other words, though, as we have seen, his ancestors have been far from perfect, they nonetheless sought the Lord and stood in His ways. The covenant continued through them. So, because of his ancestor’s obedience and, more so, as we will see, because of the faithfulness of God, Jacob dares to pray.
A pedigree of obedience and a history of godly men and women can bolster the prayers of the current generation. Parents, grandparents, I ask you this: would you say that your lives and your relationships with God, as lived out before your children and grandchildren, tend to bolster or discourage them in their prayers? Can your children and grandchildren look at you and honestly say, “O God, the God of my mom and dad and grandparents who have walked with you…” Can they say, “O God, I have seen you at work in the lives of those who came before me. I have seen You at work in the way that You have walked with and blessed my parents and grandparents and those before them…” Can they say this?
Let me ask us all: will those who come after us be better pray-ers because of the example of our own relationships with God? If our children or grandchildren or great grandchildren looked at our lives right now, would they feel empowered and emboldened to pray? Are our lives driving our children to the Lord God in a spirit of prayer and trust? Or is the opposite happening? Are our lives discouraging a vital life of prayer and worship in our children.
I will remind you that Paul makes this exact same connection in 2 Timothy 1 when he says to Timothy:
5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Lois, Eunice, and Timothy. Pedigrees of obedience. Lineages of relationship with the Lord God of heaven and earth. Our prayers are between us and God, it is true, but they are informed and encouraged or discouraged by the examples of those who should be leading us to Jesus. Parents, grandparents: do not make your children and grandchildren crawl over a bad example to pray! Let your lives lead them naturally to want to call out to God because they have spent a lifetime seeing what a healthy relationship with God looks like through your lives.
The prayer of distress adores God in the midst of fear and regardless of the outcome.
In the second part of the prayer, Jacob does something very interesting and very moving:
10 I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed
this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.
Jacob adores God! Jacob worships God! Again, Laban is behind, Esau is ahead, danger is all around him, and Jacob adores God. How does he do so? By:
- acknowledging his own unworthiness;
- acknowledging that “the least” of God’s deeds are still too great for him;
- acknowledging the “steadfast love” of God;
- acknowledging that God is “faithful”;
- acknowledging that God has been with him and has blessed him.
I am increasingly convinced that the great weakness of the modern church is our prayerlessness and that the great weakness of our prayers is a lack of adoration and awe. In other words, we do not pray as we should and when we do pray we tend to jump over adoration straight into petition. “God, give me…God, do this for me…etc.”
I will ask you here and now—and I will plead with you to be honest in answering: when is the last time you got on your knees and adored God: who He is, what He has done, what He is doing, what He is going to do?
If you say, “Pastor, the whole world is falling apart! I am scared. I cannot sleep. I am frightened. My prayers are filled with cries of help!” then I will say this to you: Jacob was surrounded by danger and fear as well. He thought he and his family were about to die. Yet Jacob took time to praise God!
What did Jonah, in the belly of the great fish, do. Jonah 2 tells us:
1 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying, “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. 3 For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. 4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ 5 The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head 6 at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. 7 When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. 8 Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. 9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” 10 And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.
Unbelievable! Joseph, in the gut of the whale, decides to have church!
Church, I challenge you this week: turn off talk radio, get off social media, and spend this entire week reading about the greatness of God then adoring him in prayer! Praise him! Trust me, this is the medicine we need: a high view of the greatness of God!
Adore the God who is ever in control! Praise His wondrous name!
The prayer of distress is honest and does not posture.
There is an attribute of this prayer that we dare not miss: it is refreshingly honest.
11 Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children.
Notice that this prayer:
- names the problem with specificity;
- admits fear before the danger with radical honesty.
God does not want your posturing and flowery words! In Matthew 6, Jesus positively unloads on fake, plastic, flowery prayers:
5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Think of Jacob’s words: “for I fear him.” There it is. “I am afraid.” He does not dress it up or put perfume on it or use King James English in an attempt to make it sound holy. He just says it: “God, I am afraid.”
He adores God, then he is honest. There is a connection between these two realities: the higher the view we have of God the less need we have to posture, because we know He sees our hearts. To adore God is to humble ourselves and one mark of humility is simple speech and honesty.
Notice too that the prayer of distress is not ashamed to admit fear. There is no shame in experiencing fear and admitting it. However, when fear is placed after adoration it is kept from becoming disproportionate, from lapsing into despair. Once we praise God our fear can be seen for what it is and kept from spilling the banks of our own hearts and minds.
In our current situation, then, we would say that there is no shame or sin in feeling the fear of the moment. There is, however, in allowing fear to spread like a cancer because one will not recognize the sovereignty of God. This is why our prayers must not leapfrog adoration to get to petition. This is why we must worship before we ask. Adoration and praise is not “buttering God up” for our petition. God is not insecure. He does not need to be manipulated. Rather, adoration helps us to see our own petitions rightly and keeps us from seeing our burdens as being bigger than they should be.
Are you afraid? Then worship God and tell Him you are. He knows already! But in adoring then confessing you will be aligning yourself to see reality with more accuracy and with less anxiety.
The prayer of distress trusts in God’s promise.
Ultimately, of course, the prayer of distress is a prayer of trust. Note how Jacob ends his prayer:
12 But you said, “I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.”
Jacob quotes God to God. He acknowledges God’s word and, in so doing, he allows himself to rest in God’s will. To grasp the divine promise is to rest in the divine will! When we know the word of God, the promise of God, and the character of God, we can then trust in the will of God, the decision of God, the answer of God.
Three times in Gethsemane Christ rests in the will of the Father. We read this in Matthew 26:
39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
42 Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”
44 So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again.”
This is what it is to trust. I ask you: if it was God’s will to call you home in the midst of this pandemic, would He be right to do so? Could we trust in that? Please understand: I am not calling for disregard and irresponsibility. We should take precautions, wear masks, social distance, and listen to the doctors and scientists. Their knowledge is from God, as is your own brain. But if, after having done all of that, God chose to call you home, would He be right to do that? Would your life have been a waste? Would God’s answer to your fears be cruel or be righteous?
To trust in the promise of God is to set the backdrop for radical belief in the perfect will of God, even if God’s will is not what you would have asked for or imagined. Jacob knew the word. Jacob knew the promise. Therefore Jacob could rest in the will.
In Calvin Miller’s The Divine Symphony, he wrote:
“God,” I cried, “I need You,
Can You hear me? Are You there?”
The great glass throne seemed empty,
There was no one in His chair.
I waited in His absence.
Finally on my bloody knees
I laid my doubting obscene head
On His high-gilded guillotine,
And meekly said, “I trust!”
Yes, the prayer of distress—“God I need You, Can you hear me? Are you there?”—must ever conclude with the meek “I trust!”
I ask you, will you do that?
Part of trusting in the divine will is in learning to mute the world’s panic. I am not speaking of deliberate ignorance or of putting our heads in the sand. We need to know what is happening. But my fear is that Christians in America are having their hearts and minds shaped more by the shrill and hyperbolic news cycle than by the rock-solid verities and comforts of God’s own Word. Perhaps it is time to turn it off, to get off social media, to silence the pundits. Perhaps it is time to go into an intentional season of deliberate reflection on God’s character and God’s ways. Perhaps it is time for less news ingestion and more praise expression.
I believe it is. We have been thrown off-kilter by a world that cannot see the greatness of God. Should it not rather be the case that the world stands in awe of a church that is calm, collected, faithful, at peace, and joyful? We are to be salt and light. We have a King! We know His name! and He is ever faithful to His people. Rejoice!
 Dan R. Crawford, The Prayer-Shaped Disciple. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), p.33-34.
 Dan R. Crawford, The Prayer-Shaped Disciple. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), p.104.
 Calvin Miller, The Divine Symphony (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2000), p.110.