God has, in his wisdom, decided that he will only give certain benefits and blessings through intercessory prayer. It is not, of course, that God can’t work without our prayers. Still less is it true that we change God’s mind through our prayers (even though it might seem so, including in some passages in the Bible).
God has his eternal purposes which will work out whether we pray or not. But within those great purposes, at any stage, there is, to put it simply, a Plan A and a Plan B. Plan A is the means God wants to use to fulfil his purposes, a way of blessing and protection (even if sometimes in midst of difficulty or pain). Then there is plan B where God overrules human disobedience and failure and still fulfils his ultimate purposes, but the human beings concerned at this stage (including people in need and the church) miss out on the blessings and protections of Plan A. Often, Plan A is only brought about through intercessory prayer.
Jesus himself spent much time in prayer. Luke tells us that he “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16), and at times “spent the night praying to God” (Luke 6:12). He also got up “very early in the morning, while it was still dark … and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35). If Jesus needed to pray like that, who so we think we are to neglect prayer?
Jesus also challenged his followers to:
Persevere in prayer
He said: “”Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matt 7:7-8). Translated literally he said: Keep on asking …. keep on seeking …. keep on knocking.” We need to persist in prayer. In Luke 18:1-8 he told the story of the persistent widow who nagged an uncaring judge so much that he granted her justice so she wouldn’t keep coming to him and wear him out. He told them this story “to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (verse 1).
The Psalmist is a good example of persistence in prayer:
- He urges God to look at the problem: just “gets it off his chest” without making specific petition. “See how your enemies are astir, how your foes rear their heads. With cunning they conspire against your people; they plot against those you cherish. Come, they say, let us destroy them as a nation, that the name of Israel be remembered no more” (Psa. 83:2-4).
- He urges God to listen to his prayer: this intensifies the passion of his prayer: “Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray” (Psa. 5:1-2).
- He urges God to have mercy: again a passionate prayer: “O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy” (Psa. 130:1-4).
- He urges God to remember: his love, faithfulness, covenant, word and promises and so to honour them.
- He affirms faith in God: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging” (Psa. 46:1 -3); “Remember the people you purchased of old, the tribe of your inheritance, whom you redeemed— Mount Zion, where you dwelt” …. Remember how the enemy has mocked you, O LORD, how foolish people have reviled your name …. Have regard for your covenant, because haunts of violence fill the dark places of the land” (Psa. 74:2,18-21).
- He urges God to judge: i.e. the destruction of the devil’s power; the frustration of evil deeds, words and intentions.
- He urges God to vindicate his (God’s) name, holiness, sovereignty, power and his people: “Awake, and rise to my defence! Contend for me, my God and Lord. Vindicate me in your righteousness, O LORD my God; do not let them gloat over me. Do not let them think, Aha, just what we wanted! or say, We have swallowed him up” (Psa. 35:23-25); “Help us, O God our Saviour, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake. Why should the nations say, Where is their God?” (79:9-10).
Fast and pray
Jesus encouraged fasting (Matt 6:16-17) and the early church fasted (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23. Fasting is not earning an answer – answers are a matter of God’s undeserved grace. But it shows an earnestness in prayer and heightens spiritual sensitivity.
Plead the sacrifice of Christ
In Revelation 12:11 the saints who are accused by Satan “overcame him by the blood of the Lamb” i.e. they pleaded the victory and forgiveness of the Cross. As we noted, answers to prayer are a matter of God’s undeserved grace. God answers our prayers because Jesus died for our forgiveness and to make us acceptable to (justified before) God. We can come boldly – though reverently – in prayer to God because we consciously do so on the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus.
Listen to what several men of God have said about prayer:
“The future of the Christian work which is now being carried on with such intensity does not depend upon curtailment or re-organisation. It depends upon whether the Spirit of God can persuade us to take up the work of prayer.” (O. Hallesby).
“Men may spurn our appeals, reject our message, oppose our arguments, despise our persons – but they are helpless against our prayers,” (Sidlow Baxter).
“The one concern of the devil is to keep Christians from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks at our wisdom, but trembles when we pray.” (Samuel Chadwick).
In other words, as we consider serving God, it will be to no avail unless we pray.
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction