Why We Pray
August 30, 2007
A quarter-century ago, when we were living in the Los Angeles area, I attended an all-day seminar on prayer led by Warren Wiersbe. Those who know Dr. Wiersbe will not be surprised when I say that it was an extremely profitable day. I still remember his first words. He looked at us for a moment as if he was thinking about how to begin, and then he said, “All of us know we need to pray more than we do.”
With that one sentence he had us. It was simple, true and undeniable. We all feel the need for a deeper, more meaningful prayer life.
Sometimes we need instruction in the “how-tos” of prayer.
Sometimes we need encouragement.
As I was preparing this sermon, I happened upon an article by Welsh pastor Geoff Thomas about the 2007 Bala Ministers Conference held each year in June in the little market town of Bala in northern Wales. After reviewing the various sermons he heard, Thomas focuses on the morning prayer times. That alone is noteworthy since prayer meetings at most conferences tend to be rather lightly attended. But that is not the case at Bala (a conference that owes much to the influence of the late Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones). I found myself drawn to his description of what happens when the pastors come together to pray:
These are men who live close to God and so can pray with the energies of their souls and can pour themselves out before God. These preachers do not need to be directed or exhorted to intercede. They pray. I love to allow their spirit of intercession to wash over me, purifying and strengthening my own desires for God, kindling in me a desire to pray. When you hear a man who really is in prayer, then you know it. You know at once that he is holding communion with God. I cannot say how you know, but you do know. You feel it. You are arrested and gripped by real prayer… . Some of us will pray with our earnestness, but then one man will pray and you know here is someone wrestling with God, who knows God intimately, whose soul is pouring out wondrous intercessions and uttering urgent petitions and when he finishes we are renewed and refreshed. That is the wonderful reality.
What happens when pastors pray together like that?
They have come out from that time of prayer into a different world for a while by the help of the Spirit of God, from the shadowlands into the real world, the kingdom of God. They know that they are no longer on their own; Christ is with them and beside them and he is truly helping and hearing them. What extraordinary fluency, freedom and earnestness men can have while they pray. I am not talking about hysterics, or shouting – God forbid – maybe tears, certainly emotion, but in it all the religious affections, exercised with purity and a love for the Saviour in God’s presence, lead one’s brethren to the throne of grace to find mercy and grace to help us in our time of need.
That is quite extraordinary, I think, because most of our prayer meetings bear no resemblance to what he describes. But I can think back to times here and there where I have been in such a meeting and have experienced the presence of God in an unusual way. I have been changed, not as I have prayed, but as I have listened to someone pray who is full of the Holy Spirit. When God grants that sort of freedom in prayer, those who listen are themselves changed and set free by the Lord.
It is against that hopeful background that we find in our text both instruction and encouragement. In Romans 15:30-33 we come to Paul’s prayer request. Not his prayer—his prayer request. This is Paul the great apostle asking the Roman Christians (whom he had never met) to pray for him. If we study his words, we will find instruction (how to pray) and encouragement (why we should pray).
I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company. May the God of peace be with you all. Amen (Romans 15:30-33).
Two things strike me as I ponder his words. First, notice how personal he is. Six times in verses 30-32 he uses the words “I, me, my.” Second, notice how honest he is. He speaks openly about the “unbelievers” in Judea. The word literally means “disobedient.” He is referring to Jews who had heard the gospel and not only rejected it, but had become hostile against it. They followed Paul wherever he went, harassing him, accusing him, doing all they could to stir up the Gentiles against him. Often their tactics were quite successful. No doubt Paul had come to a crisis moment and felt that his ability to minister was in jeopardy. Rather than pretend he was doing fine, he bares his soul and begs for help from his friends.
As we look at this request from the standpoint of the 21st century, three lasting truths emerge.
I. Prayer Involves Agony.
When Paul says “strive together with me,” he uses a Greek word from which we get the English word “agony.” Join me in my agony. What a thought that is. Prayer is agony. But someone says, “I thought prayer was supposed to be fun.” Who told you that? The Bible nowhere calls prayer “fun.” Prayer isn’t fun; it’s hard work. And true prayer is agony of the soul. Prayer is wrestling with God, it is striving in the realm of the spirit, it is spiritual warfare against principalities and powers and the forces of evil all around us.
When was the last time you agonized in prayer?
When was the last time you wrestled in prayer?
When was the last time you shed tears in prayer?
You’ll discover what agony means when you have a sick child in the middle of the night with a rising fever and you can’t get the doctor on the phone. You’ll learn about agony in prayer when your marriage is on the ropes. You’ll know how to agonize in prayer when a loved one is wheeled away for life-saving surgery. Sooner or later, we all learn to agonize in prayer.
This week Time magazine carried a major report on the private letters of Mother Teresa. The letters, which cover sixty years of her ministry in India, reveal a side of her faith that had been hidden from the world. It turns out that she lived in a kind of spiritual darkness for most of those years, sometimes even doubting the existence of God. Some people have pounced on this as evidence of some major spiritual flaw in her life because of the apparent disconnect between her public life and her private struggles. In thinking about this, I am surprised only that she suffered such darkness for such a long period of time and yet continued to her work with the Sisters of Charity in the slums of Calcutta. Her letters reveal a more or less continual “dark night of the soul” that can only be called “agony.” I for one do not think less of her because of her struggles. Her case may be extreme but it is not entirely unique.
Stories like Mother Teresa’s remind us that things are seldom as they appear on the surface. No one gets a free pass through life, though it is true that some people do seem to suffer less and others much more, both inwardly and outwardly. Everyone struggles sometime, and some people struggle more than we think. If we could crawl inside the head of our favorite spiritual leaders, we might be surprised by what we find. Romans 7 is still true. Even the most notable Christians have times of doubt, fear, frustration, anger, uncertainty and discouragement. That’s not all we would find—and we wouldn’t find those things all the time. We would also find faith, determination, commitment, love, zeal, compassion, and a whole host of other virtues. Mother Teresa’s letters and Paul’s prayer request remind us that our heroes often don’t have an easy time of it.
Let us take to heart the admonition that things aren’t always as they seem to be, and that true prayer (and all other parts of the Christian life) will often be a great struggle to us.
II. Prayer Promotes Unity.
Paul says, “Join me in my struggle as you pray for me.” Though they were hundreds of miles away from Paul, they became one with him through their prayers. Distance doesn’t matter when we are on our knees. We can be anywhere in the world and yet in the realm of the spirit through prayer, we can be joined with brothers and sisters thousands of miles away. By prayer I can influence the world. I can touch Thailand, Denmark, Monaco, Turkey, the Seychelles, Paraguay, and even some remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Without leaving my home, my prayers go up to God and then descend in the form of answers from heaven to saints around the world. And so by prayer I can join the spiritual battle as the gospel goes forth in remote jungles and crowded cities. Most of those places I will never visit in person, but through prayer I become a participant in God’s work around the world.
There is another, more personal side to all of this. In the last two years God has led us in a new direction. After almost 27 years as a pastor, I now lead Keep Believing Ministries. And after spending all our time in large cities (Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago), we now live in Tupelo, Mississippi. As a result we rarely see most of the people who support our ministry, and I’m using the word “support” in the broadest sense of standing with us and encouraging us. In the pastorate you grow accustomed to seeing the same faces every Sunday, and you look forward to greeting your congregation, hugging them, laughing with them, chatting with them, praying with them, and sometimes weeping with them. Because of the nature of our ministry, we don’t have that privilege any more. Marlene and I have often talked about how much it means now to know that someone is praying for us. I have a friend in Texas who emails me and says, “I pray for you guys every day.” That blows me away. I haven’t seen Mike but maybe once in the last 25 years, and he prays for us every day.
Just as I wrote those words, I saw the face of Janet Kerns who is one of the program directors at Cannon Beach Conference Center in Oregon. When we saw her last week, she welcomed us with a hug, told us about all the people who were coming, and then with infectious enthusiasm she said, “How good is that?” That’s what came to my mind when I thought about Mike in Texas praying for us every day even though we haven’t seen him in years.
How good is that? It is very good indeed. We are learning in a new way to depend on the Lord and to find strength in the prayers of God’s people on our behalf. Prayer builds unity because it joins hearts together in the greatest cause of all—the global cause of Jesus Christ.
III. Prayer Advances Ministry.
He asked for deliverance from his foes. Then he prayed that his ministry to the poor saints in Jerusalem might be acceptable. Then he prayed that one day he might come to Rome, meet the saints face to face, and be refreshed by his fellowship with them. Paul understood that the church advances on its knees.
Most of us have seen those signs that say, “Prayer Changes Things.” I have heard that explained this way. Prayer changes things, and the thing it changes most is us. In one sense, that’s a true statement. Prayer humbles us, stretches us, shapes us, encourages us, challenges us, deepens us, and leads us along the pathway of spiritual growth. But there is more to the story than this. Look closely at what Paul says:
If you pray for me …
I will be delivered from spiritual opposition.
I will be welcomed by the saints in Jerusalem.
I will be able to visit you in Rome.
That’s very specific. Paul asks for prayer because he knows that God is sovereign over his enemies, that if people pray, his enemies may be restrained and the opposition removed. Prayer quite literally influences the human will of other people in ways that we can’t see and could never bring about on our own. Prayer causes things to happen that would not otherwise happen. Paul truly believes that their prayers will open the door for him to come to Rome.
Some people talk about answered prayer as if it were nothing but a “coincidence.” This week I read about a Christian leader who remarked, “The more I pray, the more ’coincidences’ happen to me.”
Don’t pass over the little phrase “so that” in verse 32. Several years ago a good friend explained to me the importance of that phrase. “When I pray,” he said, “I always try to include the phrase ‘so that.’ I heard a guest preacher mention that in a sermon several years ago, and I’ve been doing it ever since.” He went on to say that he has been praying a particular “so that” prayer for me. I can’t remember all the details of the prayer, but I do remember the three “so that’s”:
So that I would be strong in the Word of God,
So that I would be faithful to the end,
So that God would be greatly glorified through my life.
Needless to say, I was touched by his faithfulness in praying that way for me. Later I thought about it and realized how entirely biblical it is. Consider how many times Paul prayed “so that” prayers:
“So that you may overflow with hope” (Romans 15:13).
“So that you may know him better” (Ephesians 1:17).
“So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:17).
“So that you may be able to discern what is best” (Philippians 1:10).
“So that you may have great endurance and patience” (Colossians 1:11).
“So that you will be blameless and holy” (1 Thessalonians 3:13).
“So that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you” (2 Thessalonians 1:12).
And we find it again in verse 32. The “so that” principle is a tonic for a boring prayer life. Many times our prayers are good but aimless. We ask God to “bless” someone or to “strengthen” someone, but we have no particular end in view. When you add “so that” to your petitions, it forces you to ask yourself, “What do I really want God to do in this person’s life?” And if you don’t have a reason for praying a particular prayer, perhaps it’s not worth praying in the first place.
I find the “so that” principle very challenging and encouraging because it focuses my wandering mind and causes me to think about why I want God to “bless” Marlene or Josh and Leah or Mark and Vanessa or Nick or any of my friends and acquaintances. Here’s an example: “Lord, please help Josh and Leah to feel at home in China so that they make friends with the Chinese students and have opportunities to talk about their faith.” That’s much deeper than “Lord, please bless Josh and Leah.” It’s amazing how “so that” can transform an ordinary prayer into a powerful petition to our Heavenly Father.
The power of the church lies not in money, plans, buildings, preachers, programs, or anything else that comes from the hand of man. Our only true power is the power of prayer. When we pray, God moves from heaven. When we pray, things happen that would not otherwise happen. By prayer all things are possible. If we want to see the church move forward and the kingdom of darkness vanquished, we must pray and pray and pray. We have no other secret. If prayer won’t do it, there is no Plan B.
Do not neglect the enormous, world-changing power God has placed in your hands. Your prayers can shape history and influence the course of events. By prayer you can help missionaries in distant lands, restrain the work of evildoers, promote the spread of the gospel, influence your children to serve the Lord, and your prayers can be a link in the chain that God uses to bring people to Jesus.
Great doors are open before us—Pray!
Great challenges face us—Pray!
Great needs rise in our path—Pray!
All things are possible when we begin to pray. So Lord, do whatever it takes, but please, O Lord, teach us to pray. Amen.