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Prayer Like Incense: From Our Lips to God’s Nostrils

Jan 06, 2018 03:45PM ● By Bonnie Lyn Smith

I received an unexpected jolt from the past recently: a note sent with love but no action. One of the moments in life when someone who left emotional trauma and wreckage in a choice that devastated my family years ago didn’t want to do the repair work required for restoration of relationship. (How’s that for alliteration?) She wanted to slip back in as if nothing had happened.

I felt the love. I believe it was genuine. And with everything in me, I wanted to respond—but I knew in doing so, no matter how much I missed this person, I was merely perpetuating a myth that it was okay to damage me. I would be letting that person rewrite my history. I would be laying out a welcome mat for more dysfunction and unhealthy interaction. Until she took action, words were not enough.

But I had my weak moments…the ones when I wanted to pretend we could move on and find trust again without the necessary discussion and action. I missed what I feel is genuine love from—and giving to—this person. I had to take this to some godly counsel to make sure I was not responding in anger, bitterness, fear, or other emotion. I asked my (nuclear) family members independently as well as some additional counsel. Hands-down, everyone offered the same perspective:

Lip service is not repair. Action must happen.

They validated the genuine love felt between both parties on opposite sides of the wall; they even encouraged me to treasure it in my heart for now, storing it in a safe place where God would help me hold it. But it was not time to jump back in. I couldn’t be the one taking initiative, or it would refuel the flames of broken, unhealthy exchange that were long-established patterns.

This struggle fell at a time when I was studying Chapter 8 of the book of Revelation.

Revelation 8:4, ESV

...and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.

Along the lines of Revelation 8:4 was this verse from the Old Testament about incense:

Psalm 141:2, ESV

Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!

I’ve always been fascinated by the incense I have seen in Catholic or High Church masses. It seems powerfully symbolic to me, and I am a huge fan of experiential worship. So when I read these verses, I thought about how prayers are action. They are not passive.

We may feel, at times, that our prayers offered up to God are a lame way of helping victims of a hurricane, that car accident victim being rushed past us in an ambulance, a friend’s surgery, or our own tremendous angst.

We are do-ers, and we often discount that taking a burden to God is very effective. If we aren’t the one on the accident scene, rushing to offer aid in a disaster-ravaged nation, or handing the food out, we wrongly assume that our whispered intercession is second-best.

Don’t get me wrong. Being the hands and feet of Jesus in a concrete way is very necessary and essential. But so are our prayers. If we are believers in Christ, all good that we do is through Him. We are not good apart from Him.

John 15:5, ESV 

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

So, when we send our prayers, no matter how short, with a sincere heart to our Father in heaven, they are like incense rising, a pleasing aroma to Him, like the burnt offerings of worship to the LORD in the Old Testament.

Exodus 29:25, ESV

Then you shall take them from their hands and burn them on the altar on top of the burnt offering, as a pleasing aroma before the LORD. It is a food offering to the LORD.

Our prayers are not just lip service; they are action, if we wholeheartedly offer them. 

Here’s why:

1) They are conversation with a God who is listening.

1 John 5:14, ESV

And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.

2) They are for our needs but also for others, and in interceding for others, we are blessed as well.

Ephesians 6:18, ESV

Praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints…

3) They effect change.

John 14:13-14, ESV

Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

4) They build relationship and are powerful.

James 5:16, ESV

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

5) They bring glory to God.

John 14:13-14, ESV

Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

6) They are an exchange: ask, and be given.

James 1:5, ESV

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

7) They are an ongoing action.

1 Thessalonians 5:17, ESV

Pray without ceasing….

8) They bring peace.

Philippians 4:6-7, ESV

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

As the incense of our prayers reaches God’s nostrils, He hears and responds to us.

We should know that we are doing His kingdom work when we act on promptings from the Holy Spirit to lift up prayers for others (and ourselves).

Our prayers are worship.

If you are in a situation as stalled as my own, and in this moment you feel you cannot take any action, take heart: You actually can.

You can pray for:

  • The situation
  • The person
  • Healing
  • God’s wisdom and discernment to be given to you
  • Repair
  • Unity
  • Understanding
  • Compassion
  • Grace
  • Change

We are not passive in Christ. We can worship Him with the incense of our prayers, and in so doing, we can trust there will be a response.

Try taking your impossible situations to Him, placing them on His altar, offering them in full surrender. He loves to make all things new. He will take the aroma of the trust we offer in prayer and create, transform, renew, refresh, restore—and breathe fresh hope and promise back to us.


Author Bonnie Lyn Smith writes about mental health advocacy, special education, faith in the valleys of life, drawing healthy boundaries, relational healing, renewing our minds, walking with a Holy God, and much ado about grace. Join the conversation at Espressos of Faith.

She is the author of Not Just on Sundays: Seeking God’s Purpose in Each New Day and the founder and editor-in-chief of Ground Truth Press, a book publishing company.
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