“I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” Frederick Douglass
“Lift with your legs.”
Every weeknight, for a year, that’s the phrase I heard.
At the start of the shift: “Lift with your legs.”
After break time: “Lift with your legs.”
As I slept: “Lift with your legs.”
I worked as a part-time loader for a national shipping company and let’s just say workplace safety was important to them. We had group stretch before the shift, a safety briefing every night, and safety officers roaming the facility at all times.
“Lift with your legs.”
I resented it. As someone who grew up lifting hay bales, fence posts, and firewood with some regularity, I thought I knew something about working safely. I’d never torn a muscle, strained my back, or lost a limb.
So, I ignored the advice.
And, while you may have been expecting something different, I never had an accident at that job.
Nor at my next job, also one in which lifting heavy objects featured heavily.
“Lift with your legs” was advice for sissies. Or so I thought.
That is until about a year ago. Reaching for something small, I felt a twinge in my back. When I went to straighten up, the twinge became a stab as my lower back protested every movement.
Hot baths, a massage, lots of stretches, and about a week later I felt fine again.
The experience taught me a lasting lesson, however:
LIFT WITH YOUR LEGS!
See, I had made it 33 years ignoring that sound advice. And it hadn’t hurt me at any point along the way. But the cumulative effect of my idiocy was to make me more vulnerable to injury for the rest of my life.
If it was just my back, I’d shrug and move on, knowing that every body breaks down eventually. However, I see the same idiocy at work in my approach to spiritual things.
And that’s terrifying.
Prayer is a place where this is especially true.
Too often, I pray with just my head, engaged mentally. Or I pray with just my heart, engaged emotionally.
But, more and more, I am convinced that what I need is a spiritual safety officer standing over my shoulder reminding me: “pray with your legs.”
If you’re like me, you’ve heard that we should “carry our burdens to God in prayer and leave them there.”
Yes. That’s all well and good, but what if God wants us to do something about them?
One of the most fascinating examples of this occurs in Matthew 9 & 10. At the end of Matthew 9, Jesus calls his disciples’ attention to the gospel need of the world around them. He uses the metaphor of harvest and harvest laborers:
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
As a teenager, I took part in a 9:38 challenge. Every day, at 9:38 AM and PM, we prayed for the Lord to send laborers into the harvest. That challenge took seriously the need for disciples today to obey Jesus’ command to pray every bit as much as the original 12.
But what I somehow missed (not for lack of teaching by my pastors or parents) was that the end of chapter 9 is followed immediately by chapter 10. And in chapter 10 of Matthew, we read this:
And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction…These twelve Jesus sent out…
Do you see what I missed? The 12 who prayed for laborers to be sent out were the very ones sent out. They became, in essence, the answer to their own prayer!
That story is fascinating because of the lesson it teaches. We know God wants the Kingdom to grow and we know that Jesus told us to go. We feel the impact of the reality that there are still so many who have not heard the gospel.
And we pray out of that knowledge and that feeling. I’m afraid, though, that like young, foolish me ignoring the injunction to “lift with your legs,” we ignore the clear message of Kingdom prayer in the New Testament: pray with your legs. We pray for the harvest, we feel the need of the harvest, but we have no intention of joining in the harvest.
When we do the work of prayer with our heads and our hearts, but not with our legs, we set ourselves up for spiritual injury. Our souls begin to curve inwards, to atrophy, and to shrink. By not connecting what we pray with what we do, we eventually get to the point where anything can debilitate us: a sin over which we have no victory, a circumstance that causes us to shake our fist at God, and slight at church that causes us to leave.
It doesn’t matter how much knowledge we can cram into a prayer. It doesn’t matter how much feeling echoes through our words in prayer. If we don’t intend to do anything in response to God’s movement, we will be spiritual cripples eventually.
But if we take our knowledge and our feeling and then we engage our legs in what we pray, we’ll find ourselves equipped for a long, healthy spiritual life.
Our prayers have plenty of head and heart: let’s give them legs. Let’s pray for laborers to be sent and then let’s gladly go as the Lord sends us to be the answer to those prayers.
Let’s ask him to expand the Kingdom and then get out and start sharing the gospel with coworkers, and inviting widowed neighbors over for dinner, and giving sacrificially so a fellow disciple can move overseas. Let’s be the kind of people who give up hobbies, comfort, homes, possessions, and whatever else may be required to go take the gospel to those who’ve never heard.
The quote that appears at the top of this post is from Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. A slave, Douglass prayed for freedom for twenty years, but as he said: “received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
Douglass’s freedom required him to take action with his legs. His legs were the instrument that God used to answer his prayers.
As we pray for the harvest, I’m convinced ours will be as well.