Persistence and power in prayer

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Series: An edited adaptation of the book Prayer, Power, and Proclamation by C.L.Peppler published by Chrispy Publications in 2009 (ISBN 978-0-620-43583-3). Chap 2; part 6: 


Jesus taught that we should persist in prayer. Luke 18 records the parable of the persistent widow, and Luke 11 records the story of the man who woke his friend to ask him a favour and did not give up until the man granted his request. The idea expressed is one of asking, and continuing to ask.

Why do we need to ask more than once? Jesus stated that our heavenly Father “knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:8). It cannot be a case of having to ‘get through’ to God with persistent prayer. More likely, the need for persistent prayer is primarily a question of timing. We live in space and time, but God does not. From his perspective, the answer to prayer is immediately effective. From our perspective, there is often a time lapse between the request and the response, and between the response and the effect. In addition to this, God’s response to our prayer requests often affects others in very direct ways. These ‘others’ are also on a timeline, and so God often requires delayed gratification from us, because he considers their wellbeing as well as our own. It seems to me, therefore, that persistent prayer is also for our benefit. We need to continue asking in faith, so that our hope will not diminish as we wait for God’s response to actualise on our life timeline in harmony with the timelines of others.

Two Greek words express the difference between the eternal and the temporal aspects of time. Chronos indicates linear time. We get the word ‘chronological’ from this. The word describes how we usually understand time as a straight line moving in one direction. Kairos, on the other hand, describes what happens when all things come together in right alignment and synchronicity. The King James Version of the Bible often translates kairos as ‘in the fullness of time’.

Another benefit of persisting in prayer is that the experience of waiting, changes us. Søren Kierkegaard said: “prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” William McGill also identified another benefit when he wrote that “the value of consistent prayer is not that he will hear us, but that we will hear him.”

Prayer is a form of communication within both eternal and temporal time, but is it also a means of releasing power?

Power in prayer?

I often hear the expression ‘There is power in prayer’, but how can there be power in prayer if prayer is simply communing with God? God is certainly powerful, but how can the act of speaking to him have power in itself? Yet preachers often tell us that prayer ‘works’ (another expression which confounds me). Are powerful results of prayer simply evidence of God’s response to prayer, or does prayer itself have some supernatural efficacy? If it does, then how should we define prayer?

A woman from our local church organised a 24/7 prayer chain. The objective was to pray for a member of the congregation who had been in terrible physical distress for the last three years. Twenty-four people signed up for an hour of prayer each day for a week. They did not inform the afflicted subject that they were praying for her in this way. At the end of the week, she reported that she had experienced seven days of partial relief from the high levels of pain that she was used to experiencing. Although she relapsed the next week, with hindsight we can see that the 24/7 prayer initiative constituted a turning point. Just a few months later, she was once again living a relatively normal life. What happened? Let us consider the options:

1.             God wanted a couple of dozen people to ask him before he would respond. Surely this cannot be. God knows our condition even before we pray. In any event, people had been repeatedly asking him for mercy in this particular case. Perhaps God responds to the prayers of the many to impress upon us his omnipotence and our dependence both on him and each other. Perhaps, but this explanation does not satisfy me.

2.             It was just a coincidence. This could be the case, yet it seems unlikely because of the many other corroborating reports concerning the efficacy of prayer. In this case, the timing of her improvement was also significant.

3.             Somehow, power was released through the prayers of the many for the benefit of the one. This seems to be a reasonable explanation, yet it poses some real problems. Could the act of simply speaking to God release a power that somehow changes reality? If this is so, then is God, himself, essentially superfluous to the process?

4.   God made power available in response to the prayers of his people.

These questions are central to the whole concept of Prayer, Power, and Proclamation.

It is true that some texts do include a hint of the ‘power of prayer’ idea. James 5:16, for instance has, “confess your sins to each other pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” Even here, though, the implication could simply be that God is more likely to respond favourably to the requests of a righteous person than to someone unaligned to his will. The Amplified Bible actually translates the last part of this verse as “The earnest (heartfelt, continued) prayer of a righteous man makes tremendous power available.” In my opinion, this is the crux of the matter.

The scriptures are clear on the fact that God responds to prayer, and they even indicate that we often miss his best for us because we do not ask him. For instance, James 4:2 says, “You do not have, because you do not ask God.” Yet this is not an indication that the mere act of asking in prayer produces the desired results. The same text goes on, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” We ask God in prayer, but he determines whether he will grant our request. What determines God’s response is, divine purpose, timing (kairos), and our motivation.

If prayer is essentially communicating with God, then the prayer itself is not ‘powerful’. God is powerful, and he often acts powerfully when we ask him to in prayer.  We confuse the response with the request when we say that there is power in prayer. Even more seriously, we confuse the object with the method. God is the one to whom we pray (object), and prayer is the method of communicating with him.

There is no power in prayer, but prayer precedes power. Jesus said, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:13)


Stewardship/sonship

Although most people acknowledge prayer as communicating with God, there is often a subtle, and as I have shown, sometimes not so subtle, insinuation that it is somehow more than this. The contention is that in some way or other God needs us to pray before he can do what he needs to do. Does God only act in the affairs of his kingdom when Christians ask him to? The only self-imposed restriction on God’s action that I can find in the Bible is the statement in Amos 3:7 that, “Surely the Sovereign LORD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” He doesn’t need us to ask him to act, but he does warn or advise us of his impending actions.

What I do find in scripture, however, are the recurring themes of ‘stewardship’ and ‘sonship’. God expects us to act as good managers of his resources (stewardship), and as responsible children of The Most High (sonship). In order to grow in both of these aspects, we need to be involved in the affairs of God’s kingdom. We also require a degree of discretion and the power to give effect to the choices we make. I believe that as children of God, we have both authority and access to spiritual power. We come to God in prayer, and he instructs us in the exercise of our privileges. He also imparts power to us so that we can give effect to the prayerful choices we make. Of course, our prayer requests do not limit God, and he often intervenes uninvited in human affairs. It seems, however, that he prefers to wait, and then respond to our prayers, because this involves us in the exercise of his dominion and gives us the opportunity to grow.

The Lord Jesus modelled this dynamic. He had all authority in heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18), and he possessed the power of the Holy Spirit to fullest measure (John 3:34), yet he stated that he only did and said what his father instructed (John 8:28-29).

Prayer is a privilege we enjoy as sons and daughters of Almighty God. He responds to requests made in the name of Jesus. He also graciously allows us to grow as responsible heirs by granting us both authority and spiritual power.
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