Otherwise, or why we must pray2
For seven years I was on staff at a church that was passionately committed to corporate intercessory prayer. Ann and I typically would spend a minimum of six hours every week in corporate prayer meetings. On multiple occasions throughout the course of a year, the entire church would voluntarily commit to add fasting to our prayer. It wasn’t uncommon for us to go on three-day, five-day, even fourteen-day (and for some twenty-one day) water fasts. It wasn’t easy, but it was incredibly rewarding and we witnessed God move in powerful, life-changing, church-changing ways.
Both from what I read in God’s Word and what I experienced during those seven years I’ve come to the conclusion that we cannot expect to move forward as a church or to experience the richness of blessings that God wants to pour out upon us if we do not come to him and humbly yet persistently ask him in prayer.
I’m encouraged by the truth I read in Isaiah 30:18-19. Although it applied most directly to the nation of Israel during the time of the Old Covenant, the principle is still relevant:
“Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him. . . . He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry. As soon as he hears it, he answers you.”
But why does the Lord “wait” to be “gracious” to us? If he is really gracious and kind and wants to bless us, well, in the words of the Nike commercial: “Just do it!” If God longs to show us mercy and pour out his power, why does he wait until he hears “the sound of your cry” in prayer? Why must he first “hear” it before he blesses us?
I will answer those questions in a moment, but for now what you need to know is that God orchestrates it this way in order that he might be glorified in the most visible and public way. We read in Proverbs 15:8 that “the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is his delight.” Why is it his delight? Why does it draw attention to his greatness? How does it glorify him? It is because more than anything else prayer highlights the depths of our poverty and helplessness and magnifies the riches and resources of God’s gracious supply.
What I want to do for just a moment is explain why prayer is such an urgent matter for the church. I want you to be gripped sincerely and deeply and even painfully with the realization that we simply must pray!
But why? Why is this a matter of such urgency? Why do I insist on the absolute necessity of Bridgeway being a praying church, a church where our first instinct at every moment of every day is to run boldly to the throne of grace? I’ll tell you why.
(1) We must pray because otherwise God will not be glorified. Here is how Jesus put it: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13).
(2) We must pray because otherwise you and I will not experience the fullness of joy that Jesus lived, died, and rose again to give us. Again, Jesus declared: “Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:24).
(3) We must pray because otherwise we will go without. I could conceivably read to you this one passage out of the book of James and then stop, having said everything that needs to be said. But I won’t. Still, here is what James said: “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2b). Never be deceived into thinking that God will give you apart from prayer what he has promised to give you only through prayer.
(4) We must pray because otherwise the gospel will not succeed. Here is how Paul put it in his second letter to the Thessalonians. He made this request of them: “Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored” (2 Thess. 3:1). He made a similar request of the church in Colossae: “At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ” (Col. 4:3a).
(5) We must pray because otherwise when we do attempt to preach the gospel we are more likely to bring confusion to people rather than clarity. I only read to you Colossians 4:3. Here is the complete request that Paul made of them: “At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison – that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Col. 4:3-4).
(6) We must pray because otherwise we will remain enslaved to fear and cowardice and fail to preach the gospel at all. It is nothing short of shocking that Paul made this request of the church in Ephesus: “[Pray also] for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak” (Eph. 6:19-20).
(7) We must pray because otherwise the lost will not be converted to Christ. In speaking of his Jewish kinsmen, Paul said: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1).
(8) We must pray because otherwise the church will experience hardship and face obstacles that hinder the fulfillment of our calling as God’s people. This is what Paul had in view when he said, “I urge that supplications, prayer, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
(9) We must pray because otherwise the sick will not be healed. James said it several ways in the fifth chapter of his letter. “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray” (James 5:13a). “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14). And again, “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16).
(10) We must pray because otherwise the demonized and oppressed will not be set free. At the conclusion of Paul’s discussion of our battle with demonic forces, he exhorted the church to pray “at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18). When Jesus finally delivered a young boy of a demon, he explained to his disciples that “this kind (of demon) cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29).
That’s only 10 brief examples of why we must pray. I could go on with another 20 or 30 if I had the time.
The necessity of prayer, the urgency of prayer, is stated with perfect clarity by Jesus in Luke 11:9-10. There he says,
“And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10).
Let’s turn that around and look at it from a slightly negative point of view. Jesus is saying, If you don’t ask, it won’t be given to you, and if you don’t seek, you won’t find it, and if you don’t knock, it won’t be opened. Do you believe that? If so, you understand now the urgency of corporate intercession if Bridgeway or any other local church is ever to attain the goals God has given us to pursue.
But how can we be so confident, so sure, so certain that God will hear our prayers and provide us with what we need in response to them? We can know, because immediately following what Jesus just said about asking, seeking, and knocking, he said this:
“What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13)
Every problem in prayer is traceable to a misconception about God. When you understand the depths of God’s goodness, prayer becomes easy and exciting.