Have you ever thought a little critically and maybe uncharitably about someone else’s prayers? It’s hard to admit, but there have been times when I’ve scoffed a little when someone prays, “Lord, please be with them.”
My theological mind immediately sends out an alert. “Um, don’t you know about the omnipresence of God?” And then the critical and uncharitable part of my flesh secretly scoffs, “What a generalized prayer. What these people needed was more specific and targeted prayers that focused on their exact situation and struggles!”
Thankfully, my God renews his mercies every day and has gently convicted me over the years of this ungracious and unkind reflex of my flesh. But lately I’ve come to realize there’s more dimension to this prayer than I had thought. Many of us might grasp for these words out of a kind of desperation, hampered by a stilted prayer vocabulary, but I think these words are much richer than we have imagined. Let’s examine the phrase and the meaning behind it.
One of the first places we see this language of God being with someone is in Genesis 21. Abimelech declares to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do.” Abimelech wasn’t making a kind of geographical observation. He was admitting to Abraham that God was prospering him, that God was for him. God was on Abraham’s side. Abimelech recognized the effects of the covenant God had made with Abraham in Genesis 15.
This language is repeated to Isaac and Jacob. In Genesis 26:24 the Lord says to Isaac, “I am the God of Abraham your father. Fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham’s sake.” The same effects of the covenant are stated – blessing and multiplication. In Genesis 28:15 God declares to Jacob, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Again, we see that God being with someone is so much more than geography.
Let’s fast forward to Joshua. Moses has died without entering the promised land. Joshua has been picked as his successor. What does God tell him? Joshua 1:9 says, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” This is covenantal language friends. God being with someone is an expression of his steadfast commitment, a promise of his everlasting faithfulness.
This covenantal language becomes even more beautiful and powerful through the words of the poets. David tells us in Psalm 18 what it means for our God to be with us, for the Lord to be on our side:
“I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies…In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.” Psalm 18:1-3, 6
And how does our covenant God respond to David’s cries for help? David goes on to speak of the whole earth reeling and rocking in response to the Lord’s coming. (v. 7) He bows the heavens and comes down (v. 9), he rides on a cherub (v. 10), he thunders from heaven (v. 13) and sends out his arrows. (v. 14) The foundations of the world are laid bare. (v. 15) The Lord acts powerfully on behalf of his people.
In Genesis 21, Abimelech acknowledged that God was on Abraham’s side. This picture of what it means for God to be with us is repeated in Psalm 118:
“Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me free. The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? The Lord is on my side as my helper; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.” Psalm 118:5-6
The Lord is on our side. God is for us. I hope that drives you straight to Romans 8 where we find ourselves awestruck by the grace of God. What was hidden in shadow in Genesis comes to a glorious climax through Christ:
“What shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Romans 8:31-32
This is what it really means for God to be with us. I am going to start praying these words more often, being aware of their deeper meaning, and I hope you will too, because they sit atop a glorious mountain of covenantal truth.