Prayer That Works
By Jill Briscoe
Ever since I was a little girl in war-torn England, sitting on a three-legged stool in front of my house waiting for the bombs to fall, I have wanted my prayers to work. I remember praying, "Oh, God, please stop the war." He didn't, and I remember feeling very disappointed with Him. Maybe you have prayed that God would stop the conflict raging around you or in your own life, and he hasn't, and you feel disappointed with Him too. Maybe you feel like your prayers didn’t work.
You may wonder what the words prayer and work are doing in the same sentence. Surely that sounds like an oxymoron! Do you know what an oxymoron is? It's when you put two seemingly contradictory words together, like jumbo shrimp, civil war or child safe! Prayer and work seem to be opposite concepts. Yet I have discovered that prayer that doesn't work, doesn't work! It takes work to step out of time into eternity, and work to learn the art of leaving things undone so that the greater thing can be done.
Prayer that works isn't merely a matter of personality or gift, although some people have a propensity for praying or have the gift of prayer (and this gift is something that worries the devil very much). Prayer itself is a gracious gift of God in the sense that He made it possible for us to walk right into His presence and talk to Him as our Father. Every child of God has that right and privilege.
But if Satan has his way, the first thing to go in our devotional life will be our devotional life! As the little couplet says, "The devil trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon his knees." He will do anything to stop us praying Sometimes he doesn’t have to do anything at all, however, because we assist him by doing away with our prayer life all on our own.
When God Doesn't Seem to Answer
Often, one of the reasons we stop praying is that we're disappointed with the whole concept of prayer. When we urgently request something from God and He doesn't come through for us, we feel hurt and even betrayed that our prayers have not been answered. That's what happened to me when I was small.
I remember that first urgent attempt to call on the Almighty. The need arose when I became aware that someone was trying to kill me! The Second World War was in full swing and I had the misfortune to live in Liverpool, a dangerous place. Ships supplying us with food from our allies brought their precious cargo to this seaport, making it a target for the enemy. I was very young, but I was aware that there was a God in heaven, and somewhere deep down in my heart I knew He was perfectly capable of stopping wars and conflicts. I decided one day that I would ask Him to stop these terrible airplanes from dropping bombs all over my life.
That night the air raids were particularly vicious. While we were huddled in our underground shelter like little moles, I confidently asked God to intervene. The answer came immediately: The bomb dropped far too near for comfort, damaging the back of our house and sending us running for shelter. What went wrong? I asked myself furiously, trying in my six-year-old mind to make sense out this nonsense. Had God not heard? Had I said my prayer with the wrong words or in the wrong way? Then came the unwelcome thought: Perhaps God didn't hear me because He was too busy doing other things like keeping the stars in place. And last came the worst thought: Maybe He couldn't help me because he couldn't help me. He wasn't big enough or strong enough.
Well, one way or another my fervent request had been ignored, and a huge sense of betrayal gripped me. Somewhere deep down in my six-year-old heart I determined not to try again. Not a few adults have faced similar dilemmas. At the first disappointment they quit without finding out what is happening and what makes prayer work.
If this is the case, the first thing we should do is pray about this. In fact, we should pray about anything that hinders our prayer life. You might want to stop this moment and ask the Lord to identify whatever has caused you to stop talking to Him. Then, when you have an inkling of what the blockage has been, talk to Him about it.
Master the Art of Leaving Things Undone
The first thing you need to learn as you begin to pray prayers that work is to master the art of leaving things undone. Many of us suffer from "Martha syndrome." Martha was a woman who loved Jesus very much, but her "much serving" distracted her from focusing on Him (Luke 10:40, NKJV). It's hard to leave the urgent thing to attend to one's soul, but the Lord calls us to just such a duty. You have to learn to do it in the middle of the muddle! Martha had good reasons not to sit at Jesus' feet, but those reasons were not enough for the Lord. He said to her, "Martha, Martha,… you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:4142, NJ V). Many of us can get so excited about the work of the Lord that we forget the Lord of the work as someone has so aptly said.
Simply Get Started
But where do we start when we meet with God? One of the reasons some people avoid personal devotions is a fear of incompetence. Whatever shall we say when we enter His throne room? They wonder. Maybe we've always had a problem talking to important people. How do you address the King of kings and Lord of lords? The first thing to do is find a place and time for such an important conversation. Prayer must be planned. There is a sense in which prayer can be engaged in all day long. But time must also be put aside in order to visit with the King, and so plans should be made.
May I suggest that you take your calendar at the start of the week and pencil in time with the Lord every day. To see that appointment there in black and white sometimes helps you to keep it.
Finding a place can be more of a challenge. When I had young children, it was almost impossible to find a quiet spot. In desperation one day, I took the kids out of their playpen and climbed inside! This became a lifesaver for me, and in the busy days after I'd discovered this safe haven, the children learned to leave me alone. They decided that Mommy was a whole lot nicer when she got out than when she got in!
Learn to Be Still
But I still haven't addressed the problem of what to do when you actually get everything in order and are ready to pray. For instance, what do you do about wandering thoughts?
Let me give you an illustration. We have a cute grandchild, Stephen, who learned at an early age to avoid his mother's eyes when she wanted to talk to him. This necessitated his mom catching up with him and capturing him in her arms. She then turned him around and, taking his little face in a firm grip, got down on his level. Then she said gently, "Look at me, Stephen!" Stephen's eyes rolled to the left, then to the right, then right up to the top of his head until only the whites could be seen! Judy kept at it, holding his little face until, slightly dizzy with all that eye rolling, Stephen finally focused his eyes on his mother's face, and then she could tell him what she wanted him to hear. The first thing she said was, “I love you, Stephen." Then she told him what she needed to tell him.”
When you begin to pray, imagine that you are Stephen! Think about God, your heavenly Father, taking your face lovingly in his hands and holding you firmly right there in front of Him saying to you, "Look at me, Stephen.” Stay still until you focus. In other words, be still and know that He is God (Ps. 46:10). When your thoughts are settled it’s a good idea to start every time in God’s presence with a period of silent prayer.
Try to form a habit of meeting with God without an agenda. So many of us have to teach or care for others that it is hard to come to God without thinking about them. Oh, we think, this Scripture would be excellent for Mrs. Smith. But God has things to say to us as well as to Mrs. Smith. We need to listen to God’s voice without thinking of others and what would be good for them. First, God wants to tell us what is good for us. Listening to God is an important part of prayer. Try settling down to spend time quietly. Before you even begin to get down to the work of prayer, see if you can hear a thought, enjoy the stillness, or receive a new idea God wants you to think about.
In prayer, you have passive parts and active parts. Yet even the passive parts take work for some of us! It takes a huge effort to stop and be still, especially if we are active by nature. In the book of Hebrews, for example, the Lord says, “Make every effort to enter that rest” (Heb. 4:11, NIV). Here Paul puts two words together that do not appear to belong together at all, effort and rest. That sounds like another oxymoron. I am a very active person. It takes a big effort on my part to be quiet and still, but I must work at resting if I am to have any power in my prayer life. It is only after quieting our spirit that we will know what to pray and how to pray.
Look at Those Who Pray Well
There are many ways of learning about prayer. One way is to look at the lives of people who seem to have gotten a handle on it. Who prays prayers that work?
It is said that James, the brother of our Lord Jesus Christ, had a nickname that was given to Him by the early church. He was called “camel knees"! The obvious inference is that James's knees resembled those of a camel because he was always kneeling! Hearing this caused me to wonder what my nickname might be!
We're going to take a close look at a prophet named Elijah. James pointed out that "Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops" (Jas. 5: 17-18, NIV). Now there is a prayer that worked!
What sort of person do you need to be in order to be effective in your prayer life?
You Have to Learn to Be Passionate in Your Praying.
Elijah "prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain" (Jas. 5:17, NIV). Elijah's heart was in his work. Many times we kneel to pray and we really don't care if God hears and answers us or not. Fervency is a condition of the heart that is developed through our growing relationship with God. As we grow to love Him, we find ourselves caring about the things He cares about. Prayer turns our thoughts away from our selfish concerns because we are putting ourselves into the presence of a selfless Being, and a little of that rubs off.
You Need to Be a Persistent Pray-er if I You Are to See Your Prayers Work.
Elijah prayed continually about the work of God. He climbed a mountain and got to work. He set himself to watch and pray until the rain came (I Kings 18:42-46). Most of us give up far too soon when we are praying. We hit an obstacle such as unanswered prayer and stop dead in our tracks. When Elijah set himself to pray on the top of Mount Carmel, you get the impression that he settled down until the answer came. God likes us to be persistent. Jesus told a story about a woman who persistently asked a judge to grant her request (Luke 18:1-8). And Jesus commended the persistent, blind beggar (Luke 18:35-43). He wants us to go on asking until it's the right time to get an answer. Persistence takes your prayer life into a whole new orbit. "Are any among you suffering? They should keep on praying about it," James tells us (Jas. 5:13).
Pray When Trouble Troubles You
There should be no excuse for any of us. It's not as if we have nothing to pray about! God has allowed enough trouble in all of our lives to keep us on our knees. And yet for some this could be the sticking point. It's hard to pray when trouble troubles us. Yet James sets his remarks about prayer in the context of trouble. "Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray," he says (Jas. 5:13, NIV). We should, but do we? It has been my experience that my prayer life seizes up as soon as trouble pokes its ugly head into my life. But in the end I look back and recognize that without the trouble there would have been very little praying at all. If we are desperate enough, trouble forces us to spend time with God.
When we first came to live in America, our children were thrilled with the music programs in the public schools. All of them wanted to play an instrument. “I want to play the drums," seven-year-old Pete announced! I was aghast and hastily signed him up for clarinet! This was a serious mistake. The net result of all this was that he never practiced because he didn't want to play the clarinet; he wanted to play the drums. One day he came whistling into the room carrying his clarinet. "Pray for me, Mom," he said. "It's tryouts at school for band, and I want first chair clarinet!"
"I can't pray that for you, Pete. You haven't practiced in months."
"If I'd practiced, I wouldn't need you to pray," he retorted! Many of us are like Pete.We never practice prayer, but, when urgent business arises, we expect to know exactly what to say and how to say it. Trouble gives us the grand opportunity to practice for the concert.
What sort of trouble was James talking about? All sorts. Little troubles and big ones. He mentions relational troubles: "Confess your sins to each other" (Jas. 5:16); and he deals with sin troubles "Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins" (v. 20, NIV). Is any among you hurting? Has your spouse left you? Has someone mistreated you at work? Have you been passed over or gotten the bad part of a deal? Is there someone out there friendless, loveless, childless, cashless, jobless, powerless, clueless? "Is anyone in trouble? He should pray!"
Trouble is a great growth hormone. It takes us from being spiritual dwarfs to spiritual giants – if we respond rightly to it, that is. A few years ago, our family moved into crisis mode. I listened to myself praying. I was shocked. I heard myself like an unbeliever. I was praying panic prayers, indulging in angry tirades, and using bargaining language. "Where is my prayer life just when I need it the most?" I asked God. Hard on the heels of that thought came the realization that this trouble was going to do wonders for my prayer life! And it has. Trouble can, in fact, jump-start our prayer life. If we respond to divinely permitted trouble instead of reacting against it, we will find that the situation does two things for us. It will show us that our devotional life isn't working, and it will show us how to work on making it work!
God is such a God of grace. Sometimes He must feel very like the father whose son was in college and who only got in touch when he wanted money! Does the Lord hear From you and me only when we want something? The amazing thing about the Lord is His patient love. He will hear us out whenever we get around to approaching Him.
So when trouble comes, don't resist it as if it is an enemy; rather, welcome it as a friend. Let it drive you to your knees. Think about it. If trials persist, it just may be that you will persist in prayer. Looking back, I can see how constant pressure kept me in the Lord's presence, and for that I am grateful.
Never be afraid to ask God for the stars, but when God says no or wait, be willing to say, "thy will be done," and ask the Lord for strength to live well in difficult circumstances. As we try to discover the secrets of prayer that works, it is my prayer that we will find our prayer life revolutionized.