Persevering in prayer
‘Today if they don’t get what they want in a couple of weeks, they just give up’, said a senior Christian recently. What lies behind our current lack of persistence in prayer?
One reason seems to be fear of vain repetition, which Jesus warned against in Matthew 6:7: ‘When you pray, do not use vain repetition as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words’.
Jesus is teaching conciseness and warning against ‘babbling’ (NIV) and ‘heaping up empty phrases’ (ESV), but he is certainly not opposing determined persistence.
Jesus himself prayed all night (Luke 6:12), taught his followers ‘that they should always pray and not grow weary’ (Luke 18:1), and in Gethsemane repeated the same prayer three times.
We remember also that on Mount Carmel Elijah repeated his prayer for rain seven times before the answer was given. Clearly there is Spirit-inspired prayer which is persistent, determined, repetitive and even lengthy, yet which is pleasing to God and far from vain repetition.
Nobody familiar with the prayer life of George Müller of Bristol would accuse him of vain repetition. Many thousands of his prayers were answered the very same day, as he relied entirely upon God every day to provide for the 10,000 children he took into his care.
Yet listen to what he says about persistent, repetitive prayer: ‘I asked once a thing of God, which I knew to be according to his mind, and, though I brought it day by day and generally many times a day before him, in such assurance as to be able to thank him hundreds of times for the answer before it was received, yet I had to wait three years and ten months before the blessing was given to me.
‘At another time I had to wait eleven and a half years. I brought the matter about twenty thousand times before God, and invariably in the fullest assurance of faith, and yet eleven and a half years passed before the answer was given’.
As a young Christian, Müller set himself to pray for the conversion of five friends. Three of them were saved within a few years. Years later he said concerning the last two, ‘Next November it will be thirty-six years since I began to pray for their conversion. But I hope in God, I pray on, and look yet for the answer’. One of these men was saved before Müller’s death and the other after his death.
Here is massive encouragement for those of us who have persevered in prayer for years for God to visit our nation in revival or for the conversion of unsaved loved ones.
There are only a limited number of ways of expressing our deepest longings as we persist, so we mustn’t let the devil deceive us into fearing we are guilty of vain repetition!
Another reason for lack of persistence in prayer is the cost of such prayer. Serious intercessory prayer is hard, emotionally draining work. ‘During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears’ (Hebrews 5:7).
See how the word ‘earnestly’ in used in Scripture in connection with prayer. In Gethsemane Jesus didn’t become fully reconciled to his Father’s will until in extreme anguish ‘he prayed more earnestly’ and sweated blood (Luke 22:44).
And Luke uses the very same word in Acts 12:5. This shows that it wasn’t just Jesus who exerted extreme effort in prayer, but also the early believers who prayed through the night for Peter’s release from prison — ‘the church was earnestly praying to God for him’.
Jacob famously wrestled with the Lord through the night and refused to let go until he received the blessing he so much needed.
Paul also told the Colossians that Epaphras ‘is always wrestling in prayer for you’ (Colossians 4:12). It is clear that effective intercessory prayer often involves persevering intensity and costly sacrifice.
Such costly perseverance is perhaps so far away from our weekly church prayer meeting that we can hardly relate to it. Yet what kind of response do these familiar words from Isaiah 62:6-7 require from us — ‘You who call on the Lord, give yourselves no rest, and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth’?
These words surely require the same response as Jesus’ parables of the friend at midnight and the importunate widow with the unjust judge.
In both instances, Jesus is teaching determination to persevere in prayer, despite seemingly impossible difficulties; and refusal to take no for an answer.
What do our 21st century evangelical and reformed churches know of such persevering, wrestling prayer? And, until we do experience something of this, what reasons have we to expect that God will rend the heavens and come down among us in revival power?
Restoring passionate urgency and costly perseverance to the prayer-life of our churches will not be easy. It is counter-culture to where many of our churches are today. Dr Jim Packer warns that, ‘within evangelicalism a quietist stream of thought about communion with God flows steadily’.
To illustrate his point, he quotes from O. Hallesby’s book Prayer, ‘to pray is to let Jesus come into our hearts’.
In contrast Packer urges that, ‘biblical Christian experience, whatever else it is, is active battling throughout; inwardly against the flesh, outwardly against the world, and in both against the devil. Awareness and acceptance of the fight … is in itself a gauge of spiritual authenticity and vitality’.
Our need, then, is not quietist, passive prayer but to hear again God’s call to arms — to become again prayer warriors; to feel again the urgency of the hour and the desperate plight of the millions around us who are perishing without hope.
However, to be able to respond to this urgent challenge, we will need something far more powerful than mere human resolve. We must agree together in our church fellowships to seek the help of the Holy Spirit both to revive passionate, believing, persevering prayer, and to take seriously Jesus’ exhortation to ‘always pray and not give up’.
With God’s enabling grace we won’t capitulate to our ‘instant’ culture nor succumb to our natural weakness to lose heart and give up. But rather, ‘You need to persevere, so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised’, for ‘At the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up’ (Hebrews 10:36; Galatians 6:9).
As he lay dying, Dr Adoniram Judson of Burma heard of a remarkable answer to his prayers and gave this testimony, ‘I never prayed sincerely and earnestly for anything but it came; at some time — no matter how distant the day — somehow; in some shape, probably the last I should have devised, it came’.