Perseverance in Prayer
In the year 587 BC, the city of Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians after an 18 month siege. Once they controlled the city, the Babylonians deported most of the leading citizens to exile in Babylon and set up military control over the southern kingdom of Judah. There were resistance fighters who carried on the war hoping to overthrow the new rulers and the foreign governor who had been left behind to assure compliance. The Babylonian military official at this time was Gedaliah, and soon after the siege he and a party of his men were ambushed by Jewish guerrilla fighters and they were killed.
Of course, this was against God's will because through the prophet Jeremiah God had told the Jews to comply with their new rulers. After the plot was discovered by Jewish civilian leaders, they became afraid of the retaliation by the Babylonians and so began planning an escape to Egypt. Before they escaped they went to seek counsel from the prophet Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 42 we pick up their story, which will raise the question that I want to discuss with you in this Mini Book.
Then all the commanders of the forces, Johanan the son of Kareah, Jezaniah the son of Hoshaiah, and all the people both small and great approached and said to Jeremiah the prophet, "Please let our petition come before you, and pray for us to the Lord your God, that is for all this remnant; because we are left but a few out of many, as your own eyes now see us, that the Lord your God may tell us the way in which we should walk and the thing that we should do." Then Jeremiah the prophet said to them, "I have heard you. Behold, I am going to pray to the Lord your God in accordance with your words; and it will come about that the whole message which the Lord will answer you I will tell you. I will not keep back a word from you." Then they said to Jeremiah, "May the Lord be a true and faithful witness against us, if we do not act in accordance with the whole message with which the Lord your God will send you to us. Whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, we will listen to the voice of the Lord our God to whom we are sending you, in order that it may go well with us when we listen to the voice of the Lord our God." Now it came about at the end of ten days that the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah.
- Jeremiah 42:1-7
As for Jeremiah's answer, he said not to go, to remain in Judah and God would protect them. The Jews refused and many of them sought the protection of Egypt. Eventually, the Babylonians returned to defeat the Pharaoh and the rebel Jews in Egypt.
There is a good lesson here about being careful in obeying God's word and trusting in His strength - but the verse I want to highlight is verse 7 - Ten days later the Lord gave His reply to Jeremiah.
Isn't it amazing that even though Jeremiah was a good and faithful servant of God, even though he was an experienced prophet, even though God knew the answer – Jeremiah had to wait 10 full days for a word of prophecy! Seems to me that God could have just as well revealed the message to Jeremiah on day 1 as day 10 – yet He chose to make Jeremiah persevere in prayer.
We find ourselves in similar positions today, asking God over and over again for certain answers, certain things to happen, but He make us persevere in prayer. He encourages us to keep praying a long time before an answer comes.
I believe there are several good reasons why He does this…
1. Waiting is good discipline
When our prayers are not answered right away it means we have to wait and waiting upon the Lord is a good spiritual exercise. Note what Isaiah says are the benefits of waiting upon the Lord:
Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel, "My way is hidden from the Lord, and justice due me escapes the notice of my God"? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable. He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.
- Isaiah 40:27-31
The person in this verse thinks that God does not hear his prayer, is unaware of his problems. He is tired of waiting, he is growing impatient. Isaiah explains what the discipline of waiting upon the Lord will do for him: waiting helps an individual grow strong and overcome his enemies (whoever or whatever they are).
Isaiah reminds this tired and impatient person that God is not like him: He does not get tired or impatient when things don't happen right away. As Christians, we don't depend on exercise or yoga to create spiritual poise or a calm and trusting exterior – it's waiting upon the Lord that builds these things for us. When our petitions are not immediately answered and we experience a period of prolonged prayer, let's remember that time spent waiting upon the Lord is never wasted.
2. We may not be ready to understand God's will yet
I used to have my own "formula" to successful and fast acting prayer:
- Believe God can do it (pray believing)
- Ask clearly and specifically
- Ask in Jesus' name
- Be ready to receive NO as an answer
This was like a "safe" combination, if I could get all these little ducks in a row it would be like buying something from a vending machine: you make the right selection, put in the right change, bingo you get your candy! Of course these things are correct, you must ask believing and put your needs before God coming before Him in Jesus' name; however, one element I did not consider in those days was if God thought I was ready or the time was ready yet.
Abraham and Sarah desired and prayed for a child most of their married life but their prayer was answered only when she was 90 years old! Both she and Abraham were not ready in matters of faith when they first began to ask. The fact that she had a child at 90 years of age served God's purpose better than if she had had one at 19. She could have at 19, but the birth at 19 would not have created the glory that it did when she had a child at 90.
Paul the Apostle desired in his prayers and strategy to go to Asia to preach the gospel. God prevented (blocked) it, limited it, thwarted his plans, and refused his prayers in this thing. Paul didn't realize that by going west he would establish the church in the dominant culture of the future. Because Christianity went west instead of east, it became the largest organized religion in history.
When we pray and say that we are ready to accept God's will, we must be ready that it be radically different than our own. It is important to persevere in prayer because if we do, God will not simply answer the prayer, He will reveal His will to us - this is much more important.
3. Perseverance in prayer reveals the quality of our faith
James says, "I will show you my faith by my works" in James 2:18. When we read this we usually think of good works as those things done to help others in a holy and dedicated lifestyle. But "prayer" is also a work of faith.
- To direct our words to Christ - this is faith.
- To believe that He hears, He answers - this is faith.
- To continue to do so over and over again, to wait patiently for an answer - this is showing that our faith is sincere.
This is a work of faith. That we pray to God in Jesus' name shows that we believe the right things in the right way. That we continue to do so, that we persevere in it is a way of showing that our belief is not only accurate but that it is strong, and real, and goes deeper than just our lips.
Sometimes God leaves us in prayer for a long time because the testing and shaping of our faith is more important than the answering of our prayer. A good example of this is Paul's constant prayer to God to remove "a thorn in the flesh" that he was suffering from (II Corinthians 12:7). We never find out what the thorn was, and until that moment Paul says that God had not answered his prayer. However, Paul's persistent prayer had helped him grow in faith to the point where he was ready to suffer with his thorn regardless of God's answer.
When we become bored repeating our prayers at meal times, or prayers during worship; when we become discouraged when our prayers are not answered the way we want, or not answered at all - we need to remember an important reason for persistent prayer. It is more important that we are a faithful people than a people where prayers are always answered, or quickly answered. Persevering in prayer may not always produce a satisfying answer but it is always a sign of a sincere faith. When Jesus returns it won't matter what we're praying about so long as He finds us persevering in it.
Practical Pointers in Persevering in Prayer
Prayer is like every other exercise, whether physical or spiritual. The more you do it, the better you get at it. If you're going to persevere, here are a few pointers to help your prayer life:
1. Focus on God, not on what you want
The most precious benefit of constant prayer is fellowship with the Lord. If your focus is only on the thing you want, then you're missing the whole point. Jesus says that God knows what you want and need before you even ask for it (Matthew 6:8).
The purpose of prayer is not to continually describe and request what you want; the purpose of prayer is to draw you closer to God, to know Him and His son Jesus Christ. Jesus says that if we seek His kingdom (His will in our lives) first, He will grant us everything we need. The great benefit of persevering in prayer is that we develop a relationship with God, not that we finally get what we want.
Remember that it's about:
2. Submission not repetition
Many think that the "thing" to be accomplished in persevering prayer is to repeat every day what it is that they want. Two times a day is better - morning, noon, and night is great. Jesus says, "...they suppose that they will be heard for their many words" (Matthew 6:7). This passage is speaking of those who thought their prayers were effective because they repeated them over and over, or they were very flowery and elaborate.
The goal of prayer is surrender, not repetition until you get what you want. In Luke 11:5, Jesus tells the parable of the person who wakes up his friend at midnight to borrow bread. The repeated knocks on the door in the middle of the night were a sign that this man had surrendered all his reserve and pride and was willing to lower himself to disturb his friend because his need was great.
There's no magic number of repetitions where we get what we ask for after asking for it 1,000 times. The exercise of constant prayer should enable us to give up our lives and surrender our wills to God as we lay ourselves open before Him. It's as if we open the portals of our hearts, minds, wills, emotions, memories, and imagination - for Him to enter and fill.
John Powell, in his book "Happiness is an Inside Job," says that God communes with us through all of these. Constant prayer sees us surrendering our lives bit by bit to God who will provide all the things we need - including the things we ask for, or the ability to live without the thing we ask for. Therefore, submission in prayer yields greater blessings than repetition in prayer.
3. Peaks and valleys
Be ready for mountain top experiences where the presence of the Lord is almost palpable, where His word is so rich and convicting, His will for your life so clear, that your time in prayer will leave you breathless. The only thing stopping you from continuing in the moment is your own weak flesh. These prayer times are separated by many hours of dry reading and times where you think you're only talking to yourself.
We should not be discouraged, even the Apostles who were physically with Jesus, spent many hours simply walking the dusty roads from town to town or rowing across the Sea of Galilee to their next stop. The time of uninterrupted fellowship in a glorious setting will come when Jesus returns, for even we must persevere in prayer and await those times the Holy Spirit fills us with insight and holy encouragement in the Lord.
The title of the Mini Book is, "Why Keep Praying?" because I assume all of us are already doing this on a regular basis. If you are not praying or only praying once in awhile, you are limiting your spiritual growth and the blessings that come with constant faithful prayer. There are a lot of things that come with hard work, talent, drive, and dedication -- but these things will not produce spiritual balance, or understanding of God's will, or a strong faith -- only constant prayer can give you these things. If these things are missing in your life, perhaps it is time to renew your prayer life before God.