Raise your hand if you understand how prayer works. Now look at your hands. If one of them is raised, I’d very much like to meet you, because I have a few questions for you. I just don’t get it. I know it does work; I have some ideas about why God has asked us to pray; but I haven’t the foggiest how it actually works.
How is it possible that I can pray day after day for something—something God has commanded us to pray for in scripture, and something that I know He wants even more than I do—and yet, after years of praying, my very godly request still hasn’t been fulfilled? And yet sometimes, I can pray for something once…just breathing out a prayer…and it happens! The arithmetic just doesn’t add up. The system doesn’t work. It makes no logical sense.
I’ve been reading lately about some of our Christian brothers and sisters in a part of the world where becoming a Christian is dangerous, and where leading others to Christ is, if not always a death-wish, at least a prison-wish, an ostracism-wish, a disowned-by-your-family-and-everyone-you-know wish. Yet, even with all the very real threat hanging over their heads, they’re seeing spectacular things happen. Hundreds, thousands of people are turning to Jesus. Entire communities are leaving their old religious system and becoming Christians. And then those very new Christians are turning around and venturing into new places, hostile places and reproducing what they’ve experienced at home.
And how do they do it? You guessed it: prayer.
They pray and fast weekly for their friends and neighbours who don’t know Jesus. They gather monthly (if not several times a month) to pray ALL NIGHT, interceding for people in their communities. They gather every day at midday to pray as churches or ministry teams. They pray on their own for hours each morning. They regularly have family devotionals and prayer time.
Why? Firstly, because Jesus asked us to. But perhaps more practically, because it’s working! They’ve seen what happens when they pray. They know that God is at work when they pray. So they pray more. And God works more. It’s all very dramatic and obvious what’s happening in those dangerous places, and perhaps the results are more obvious because the risk is greater and the pray-ers are more willing to take that risk because, when you weigh it all together, the payoff is astonishing.
I don’t know how prayer works, but it is clearly part of God’s equation. Which makes me wonder…should we be taking a leaf out of their book? We want God to do amazing things like that here in the UK as well as around the world. We want him to push back our very Western brand of darkness—the apathy, skepticism, materialism and self-satisfaction that blind people to the light that Christ has to offer. Is what we might consider an extreme commitment to prayer the key to seeing God move in larger-than-life ways?
I’m going to stick my neck out and say no. It’s not following a particular pattern of prayer that enables miraculous things to happen. Our brothers and sisters in dangerous places don’t wake up in the morning and start ticking “morning devotion with family”, “midday prayer meeting” and “fast for two meals” off their daily to-do lists. They wake up in the morning hungry for God and desperate to see his love poured out on their friends who don’t yet know him. That passion drives them to prayer, to fasting, to bold evangelism, to selfless devotion to discipleship and mentoring. The supernatural element of prayer is undeniable—we’ve all seen prayer work in ways we can’t fully explain or understand. But following a prescribed pattern of prayer that “works there so it must work here too” won’t necessarily produce the same results in every situation.
What we need is a hunger for God and a desperation to see his love poured out on those who don’t know him. That passion will drive some of us to wildly committed prayer and fasting. It will drive others of us to give generously, even sacrificially, out of our abundance. It will drive still others to teach and encourage and spur God’s people on toward greater and deeper commitment to Christ. And still others it will drive to leave what is familiar and go to the next village or the next hemisphere to boldly share Christ’s love.
Our brothers and sisters in dangerous places don’t sit around praying all day. With the rest of their day they risk life and limb to share Christ with religious leaders, to bring the gospel to villages and towns where Jesus isn’t known, to encourage believers in far-flung and isolated places, to smuggle Bibles across hostile borders. Their passion for God fuels their prayers, and their prayers provide the shield and the power for their bold movements in spiritually hostile places.
So whether or not we ever find out how prayer works, let’s do it, and do it boldly and passionately. God uses it in ways we don’t understand to do amazing and miraculous things. But let’s also cultivate the kind of hunger for him that can only be satisfied by an all-night prayer meeting or a three-hour devotional. Let’s care so much about those who don’t know him that bold evangelism is the only appropriate course of action. That’s when our prayers grow hands and feet, and that’s when things start changing.