If there is one thing which the Lord has hammered into my sin-thick skull continually over the past couple years, it is the desperate need for real prayer. I put the qualifier “real” in there because I am often guilty of saying or thinking a stream of words which hardly qualifies as prayer. I am guilty of, among other things, acting as if I am praying and yet have an unbelieving heart, not trusting that the Lord can or will actually do what I ask.
I was thinking more on this recently in the context of praying for revival in my church. Now, to clear out the silly baggage which the word “revival” carries, I want to clarify that I do not mean the sort of revival where a few dozen people come and mundanely sit under an open tent on a hot summer night and listen to a fiery preacher who gets everyone all emotional. No, I mean that I pray for the sort of earth-shaking revival in which the Holy Spirit produces a glowing, molten, fiery faith in the hearts of the Church; a revival out of which pours repentance, confession, and worship; a revival which produces a life-sacrificing zeal for the glory of Jesus Christ among the nations. That’s the sort of revival I pray for.
Ironically, and sadly, I have sometimes relegated prayer to a second-class use of my time in pursuing revival. This is nothing particularly new. I confess to making the same sort of blunder in every aspect of my ministry and personal life: I begin to feel as if the time spent on my knees is not “real work”, and that I must commit more time to DOING if there is to be anything accomplished.
God forgive me!
Here are the facts:
- A change of heart and increase of faith is what we’re after.
- Only God can change hearts, and only God can enable faith. (cf. Ezek 36:26, Phil 2:13, Hebrews 12:2)
- Therefore, our primary WORK is to rely upon God and ask Him to do that which we cannot.
It is, sadly, somewhat revolutionary to our thinking oftentimes to frame prayer as a form of work. In our minds, prayer is something outside the realm of work; something you do before you work; how you follow up on work. It is rarely seen as “work” in and of itself.
This is silly.
Prayer is the hardest and most effective work to which we can set our hands. Why? Because of who is accomplishing the work THROUGH prayer. Dear friends, you can work yourself to the bone for decades and produce a massive body of accomplishment, and it would not even begin to measure up to what our Heavenly Father could accomplish in the blink of an eye. As a Pastor, I can work myself to death, literally, and deprive myself of sleep, food (ha! yea right), and free time, but I am nothing short of useless on my own.
However, we associate “work” with tangible things, and we FEEL as though we must DO something in order to be productive**. The ONLY reason that prayer is not equated with work in our minds in that we have ceased believing that prayer actually accomplishes anything. We don’t believe that God hears prayers and then DOES tangible things in response. We don’t truly believe that prayer is more than just talking.
So then, what are we to do?
- Pray that God would give you faith to believe what His Word says about prayer. Pray that He will enable you to honestly and simply believe that if you ask Him to provide/work/save, He will. Pray for patience in the moment of uncertainty, when faith is difficult.
- Wrestle your heart and mind into submission, so that doubt and unbelief does not fester and flourish there. Take every thought captive, and point it towards believing that prayer works.
- And, to use the modern colloquialism: DO WORK in prayer. Don’t halfheartedly say a few words and expect God to do great things. Don’t rush through a prayer to “make sure I get some prayer time in” or so that you can say you prayed about something without lying. Don’t come to God with a list of wants and fail to say anything to Him other than “Give me…I need…I’d like…Can you…?” Be focused. Be earnest. Be wholly committed to prayer. Pray for the joy of being in the presence of Christ. Pray in rejoicing. Pray in sorrow. Pray in the dull moments. Pray in the overwhelming moments.
- In short: BELIEVE that God will give what you ask. PRAY and pour out your worship and requests to God. EXPECT God to act.
Now, let me offer a needed word regarding the fact that we have all had prayers go unanswered (or so we felt). Why is it that our prayers seem ineffective sometimes? Why is it that we may not receive “…whatever we ask for in [Jesus’] name”? Here are several reasons:
- Doubt and unbelief. — “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” (James 1:6-8) I fully believe that there are times when God is willing and ready to give us what we ask for in prayer, but because we pray faithlessly, He withholds the answer. If you pray and do not expect God to answer, why should He? If you pray, and then make plans on how you’re going to go about accomplishing whatever you just asked the Lord for, then you “must not suppose that [you] will receive anything from the Lord…”!
- Sinful hearts. — “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (James 4:3). When our hearts are praying out of sinfulness, we should not think we will have prayers answered. If we are living in a habitual lifestyle of rejecting Christ, why should we expect Him to hear us when we go begging at His holy table? James 5:16 encourages us to always confess our sins as we are praying. If your hands are clutched tightly around sinful things, how will you receive what you ask of the Lord?
- Ungodly relationships. — 1 Peter 3:7 encourages men to treat their wives with respect and honor “…so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” That means that if a man is treating his wife (or girlfriend, or friend that is a girl) improperly or poorly, your prayers will be hindered. Matthew 5:23-24 says that a making offerings to the Lord should not happen until you attempt to be reconciled to a friend or brother who has something against you. If you have a broken, bitter relationship with someone, that has the potential to hinder your offerings of prayers to God.
Dear friends, keep yourselves from these things.
Commit yourselves to spending the time doing the real work of prayer.
TRUST that God works, believe that He will act, PRAY, and expect it to be done.
And may the Lord bless you with great encouragements to your faith as He answers your prayers.
**This is not an excuse to be slothful and lazy. The helpful puritan illustration was of a sailing ship. The sailors can set the sails and prepare the ship, but they cannot make the wind blow. In the same way, you can work hard to prepare yourself and others for God to work, but only He can actually accomplish the work.