What Michael Phelps Can Teach Us About Prayer: Pushing Through

After Michael Phelps received his eighth gold metal in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games someone asked him what made the difference. What separated him from all the other swimmers? He said that after all the other swimmers were done with practice and got out of the pool, he remained.

Michael Phelps just stayed in the pool.

When the last splash of water hit the pavement from the drip of a lesson done, this Olympian pushed harder. He took one more lap, one more backstroke and dreamed once more of a greater story. Many times, I’m sure he was alone.

Dreams for something bigger and better will include some isolation. To push along when you feel alone is not easy. Doing the hard thing over and over again separates great from good. And what we do in our places when no one is watching prepares us for when millions are.

Perseverance and longevity are not just physical strength lessons. They are the price we pay for spiritual maturity. George Muller was the Michael Phelps of prayer. He just kept praying when everyone else gave up.

I began reading Muller’s journals in the midst of a deep born hunger for prayer about three years ago. His was the only lesson I could not grasp. The term “pushing through” felt rough and hard. I wondered why we ever needed to pray more than once for something. If God really heard and we had as much faith as we could muster at the time and dotted all the right i’s, why did we have to play it on repeat? If we really believed we would receive, didn’t asking for it again negate that faith?

In the midst of these questions, I was finding myself praying for things which did not seem to bring fruit fast enough for me. As my prayer life was strengthened through long times of listening, adoration and targeted Scriptural prayers, my mind still wondered about the practice of “praying through.” I knew that, too often, I would give up too soon.

When my daughter was facing a possible serious medical procedure at a very young age, the Lord directed me to the first chapter of James. My faith was faltering because I wasn’t seeing results from my prayer the way I wanted to. A friend of my husband even felt moved to drive three hours to our home and prayer over her. That day I had very little faith to agree. I missed a great opportunity to believe in agreement with a man I barely knew because my worry trumped my faith. When our deepest concerns for those we love the most come head to head with our prayer life, we find our default faith. Sometimes the fear of losing what we love masks the love He wants to fill us with. (This is why hard days need friends. When you can’t see past your feelings, ask someone to believe for you). I’m so thankful that friend believed.

In that season something directed me to the book of James because verse four was for me.

“Let perseverance finish it’s work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

Just that portion and that portion alone in the midst of this known section on trial made my heart burn within. God was not finished yet. I was pulling out early. I needed to get back in the pool.

But it was more than wrestling in prayer for one thing. It always is.

Praying through is about answering the same question we wake up to every day:

“Do you believe?”

And I’ve found out that there is a faith only found in the process of praying through. Coming to Him over and over again about the same thing provides a depth to our prayer life that we need and don’t even recognize. It’s not a begging. It’s not a fight against God. There is a wrestling within ourselves, our death to self. To busyness about the wrong things – always. But there is also an opening up over time. A listening. A sensitivity to the request….”teach me, Lord, how to pray.”

It means I haven’t figured it all out and that’s okay. It means He wants to draw us to Himself instead of a formula.

George Muller prayed for twenty years for a lost friend to be saved. What did he say in year ten that he hadn’t said by year eight? I don’t know. But that man gave his heart to the Lord as Muller was dying. To pray for that long means he found a contentment in the asking. He found contentment in the One he was asking. His persevering prayer became a conversation.

This is where our talking meets up with listening and we adjust the need. We grow up in Him as we allow the Teacher to walk us through the asking.

Some days we just say, “I trust you.”

Other days we say, “Help me believe.”

And, finally, other days He does the speaking. “Just rest. I’ve got this.”

No matter the need, the circumstance or the prayer, perseverance seems to be the ticket. How many people have quit just short of a breakthrough?

I’m still praying for people I’ve been praying over for years. My prayers have changed. And so have I. And I just bet there are about a million people out there today in the same place. Waiting, hoping, still waiting. Possibly tempted to get out of the pool and wonder if any of the work, the time, the faith is worth it all? Perhaps other people would say it’s foolish. To believe for such big things only God could do. To get up early and get on my knees again. To go above for others when it doesn’t seem to matter. To serve behind the scenes or give generously when the world says to hold tight.

Faith won’t always make sense.

But I’m writing this today for myself and everyone else out there who just knows in your gut that God always comes through.

Whether it’s been two days or twenty years, it’s worth it to believe. For that dream. That healing. That restoration.

God is still in the business of redemption. He is the God who answers prayer. Don’t quit. Don’t give up. Get back in the pool.

Get back in the pool

One more lap. One more prayer. Today. Because I’m walking my spirit into hope.

“..suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” Rom. 5:3-4