“Her only way out is on a boat.” That’s what a daughter told rescuers in North Fort Myers about her mother, whose home was swamped by five feet of water. “We don’t know when the water’s going to go down. We don’t know how they’re going to leave, their cars are totaled,” she said.
This is just one of the stories emerging from Florida, which was hit by the fifth-largest hurricane ever to strike the US when Hurricane Ian came ashore Wednesday afternoon. Emergency crews are working to rescue trapped residents from flooded homes; President Biden warned that there may be “substantial loss of life” in the state. About 2.6 million customers are still without power this morning.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said, “The impacts of this storm are historic, and the damage that was done has been historic.” An insurance expert warned that the hurricane could cost $30 billion in losses, which would be “one of the most severe loss events in US history.” One Florida Gulf Coast resident said she’s lived in the area for nearly thirty years and had not seen damage this extensive. “This is the first time that I’ve ever lost everything,” she said.
Now Ian has reached hurricane strength again and is expected to make landfall in South Carolina today. More devastation is still to come.
As horrific as these days have been, on a numeric level they could have been even worse. The Tampa Bay region was the largest metropolitan area in the potential path of the storm. Earlier this week, the hurricane was on a trajectory to make a direct hit on the city.
Then the storm turned.
“Thank goodness for the Tocobagans”
Residents around the Tampa Bay region were urged to evacuate Tuesday as they prepared for what was predicted to be their first direct hurricane hit since October 25, 1921. In the century since, their area has grown from a few hundred thousand people to more than three million today.
Many live in low-lying neighborhoods that are highly susceptible to storm surges and flooding. A 2015 report concluded that Tampa Bay is the most vulnerable place in the US to storm surge from a hurricane. A National Weather Service meteorologist called such a disaster “our worst-case scenario for the Tampa Bay area.”
Then, Tuesday evening the hurricane shifted east, sparing Tampa Bay a direct hit. Why?
Here’s one explanation: according to local legend, blessings from Native Americans who once called the region home have largely protected it from major storms for centuries. The legend includes the many sacred burial mounds built by the Tocobagan tribe, which some believe were meant as guardians against invaders, including hurricanes.
When Hurricane Irma weakened before it struck the area in 2017, a local historian said, “I wasn’t a believer before, but I am now. Thank goodness for the Tocobagans is all I have to say.”
However, another resident said, “I don’t know if I believe that legend. I do believe in the power of God.”
Five ways to pray effectively
Those of us who “believe in the power of God” know that praying for God’s power is essential to experiencing his best. We are told to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), remembering the warning, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). Prayer does not earn God’s favor—it positions us to receive what his grace intends to give.
But, for what exactly are we to pray?
Let’s consider this paradoxical principle: Pray to God as if you were God. I know that sounds a bit heretical, but let me explain. If I were God, this is how I would want you to pray to me for the victims of Hurricane Ian and for anyone else in need of intercession today:
Be specific. No one, not even God, can answer generic prayers that have no answers. “Be with us,” for example, is not only unnecessary since Jesus promised he would be with us “always” (Matthew 28:20)—it is also impossible to quantify. If you wouldn’t know when God answered your prayer, your prayer is not specific enough.
Be bold. He is God, and “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). So “let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). Charles Spurgeon noted: “Thy sigh is able to move the heart of Jehovah; thy whisper can incline his ear unto thee; thy prayer can stay his hand; thy faith can move his arm.”
Be honest. God already knows your heart (1 John 3:20) and invites you to “reason together” with him (Isaiah 1:18); the Hebrew is literally translated as “argue it out.” If Jesus could ask “why,” so can you (Matthew 27:46). If Paul could plead for God to remove his “thorn in the flesh,” so can you (2 Corinthians 12:8). When you don’t have faith, you can pray for the faith to have faith (Mark 9:24).
Be persistent. Jesus taught us to “ask, and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7). The Greek says literally, “Ask and keep on asking.” It’s not that persistent prayer changes God—it positions us to be changed by God. Right now, you and I are thinking about God. When we pray, we connect with him. And no one who truly experiences God can be the same.
Be childlike. One of the reasons Jesus called us to “become like children” (Matthew 18:3) is that children often trust their parents more than their parents trust their Father. Ask your hard questions, but know that your fallen and finite mind cannot by definition understand the supernatural mind of God (Isaiah 55:9). Ask for what you want but trust your Lord for what is best.
“The will to win is wasted”
Whenever and for whomever you pray, look for ways the Lord wants to use you to answer your prayers.
God is “able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20, my emphasis). We are the hands and feet of Jesus, the body by which he continues his earthly ministry today (1 Corinthians 12:27). He touched hurting bodies with his hands; today he touches them with ours. He spoke to people needing God’s word with his voice; today he speaks to them with ours.
The bestselling author James Clear noted, “The will to win is wasted if it is directed toward trivial affairs.”
Toward what “affairs” will you direct your prayers and your actions today?
NOTE: For more biblical encouragement throughout the day, follow me on Twitter at @jimdenison.