In 1949, on the island of Lewis, off the west coast of Scotland, the leaders of the local presbytery of the Free Kirk of Scotland grew so worried about the way things were going that they issued a proclamation to be read in all their congregations lamenting “the low state of vital religion . . . throughout the land,” declaring, “The Most High has a controversy with the nation,” and calling on everyone to pray that God would call the nation to repentance. In one parish on the island, the parish of Barvas, the message took root with a pair of sisters in their eighties. The sisters encouraged their pastor to pray together with the elders and deacons, and promised that they would pray twice a week from ten at night until three in the morning. So the minister and lay leaders prayed twice a week in a barn—no word on whether they stayed up until three AM—and the sisters prayed in their home; they did this faithfully for several months, in which nothing happened.
During this time, a request was sent to an evangelist named Duncan Campbell, asking him to come to Lewis; he declined, because he was scheduled to speak elsewhere. God had other ideas, however, and his commitments were cancelled, freeing him up to go to Lewis. The result was a spiritual explosion, as revival swept the island, transforming it by the power of the Holy Spirit. Where once the jail was full and the churches nearly empty, the situation reversed itself—the churches were full to overflowing, while the jail was shut up for lack of use, because there was no crime. It was a remarkable time, and over the years, many have praised Campbell for it; but as he himself said more than once, it wasn’t his preaching that brought revival. Indeed, many who came to Christ during that time never heard him or anyone preach; there were stories of people waking up out of a sound sleep under the conviction of God, dropping to their knees by the side of the bed and praying, and of farmers working out in the fields suddenly feeling their hearts moved by the Holy Spirit. No, this was no pre-planned preacher-driven event; rather, the roots of that revival were to be found in the faithful, persistent, believing prayer of those two sisters, and of those who prayed with them; they were certain God would answer them, and refused to stop until he did.
That is stubborn prayer. It’s the approach to prayer which Jesus tried to develop in his disciples, and it’s part of what Paul is talking about in our readings this morning. It’s the spirit we see in Jacob when he wrestled with God at Peniel—he was clearly out of his weight class, but he would not let go until God blessed him. He hung on for dear life, through his exhaustion, through the pain in his dislocated hip, through the screaming ache in his muscles . . . through it all, he hung on until he had nothing left but determination; and as the night was ending, God blessed him. We don’t often think of Jacob as a model for anything, but in this, he is; he’s a model for us in prayer.
That may seem strange to us, because we aren’t taught that way; and some might be wondering, “Isn’t that selfish? If God tells us ‘no,’ are we allowed to just badger him until he gives in and gives us what we want?” Certainly, that could be true, if we’re praying selfishly; but remember what we’ve been saying about kingdom-centered prayer. First, it’s focused on God, and arises out of a desire to advance the work of his kingdom on this earth; such prayer leads us out of selfishness, not into it. Second, it’s driven by a longing to stand in the presence of God; as we talked about last week, the fundamental request of kingdom-centered prayer is “God, let me see your face. Teach me to live my life in the full awareness of your presence.”
Now, let’s think about that for a minute. What does it mean to be in someone’s presence? Most particularly, what does it mean to be in the presence of someone you love? If you’re sitting with someone, stop and think about that for a minute. It means you know they’re with you; it means that it doesn’t take any effort to talk to them; it means you hear them when they talk to you; it means you’re open to them, available to them, and they’re open and available to you. It means that even when you’re not talking to them or specifically thinking about them, you know they’re with you, and so they’re involved in some way in what you’re doing; their presence connects them to you. Even if you aren’t having a conversation, conversation is always possible, and comes naturally; and even your silence can be its own form of communion.
That’s what our life with God is supposed to look like; that, I believe, is what it means to pray without ceasing, as Paul commands us in 1 Thessalonians 5. That’s what it means to pray at all times in the Spirit, as he says here. It’s not a matter of talking all the time, by any means; the silence and the listening are as important for us as the times when we talk. The key, rather, is to be in what we might call a spirit of prayer, by the Spirit of God, such that we are aware of and attentive to God when he speaks, and that conversation with God flows naturally out of whatever we’re doing—that whenever we have something to say, whether something that’s bothering us or something that gives us joy or a question that’s puzzling us, it’s perfectly natural for us to turn and say it to God, just as we would to anyone else to whom we’re close.
As you can probably guess from this, I don’t agree with those who say that it’s un-spiritual to pray for your own wants and needs. In fact, I’m always kind of surprised to run into that attitude, though I shouldn’t be—it’s common enough. In my last church, I had an elder sit in my office and argue that position, angrily and at great length; he firmly believed that if you could do anything about a problem, you shouldn’t be praying about it, because it was your responsibility to get out there and fix it yourself. He then argued, further, that if you had created the problem, you had no right to ask God to help you fix it, because it was on your shoulders. I bit my tongue and didn’t point him to the numerous psalms in which David and other psalmists do exactly that. When he told me that God helps those who help themselves, though, I did remind him that that isn’t Bible, it’s Ben Franklin. (All I got in return was a blank look.) That elder was an extreme example (as he tended to be, actually), but there are a lot of people who think that way. I don’t, though, and for good reason: I don’t because Paul doesn’t.
Look at Ephesians 6:18: “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” Then in Philippians 4:6, Paul says, “Don’t be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Notice: when? “on all occasions”; we might also say, “at all times.” About what? “Everything.” And then look at those words: “prayers . . . petitions . . . requests”; those are words about asking for things. They’re words about telling God what we need and what we want and expecting him to provide for us; they insist to us that God wants us to do that, and indeed that he expects us to do so.
Why isn’t that selfish? Well, in the first place, what’s the foundation for our requests? Our relationship with God. We don’t go to him just as someone who can give us stuff and demand that he do so; this is not just another consumer transaction. Rather, we talk to him as someone who loves us and whom we love in return, and we tell him what’s on our heart, including our needs and our desires, because he cares about us and he wants us to tell him. We don’t just ask in order to get what we want—we also ask in order to deepen our relationship with God. When we approach him in that way, it’s not a demand for services, it’s an expression of our dependence on him, and an act of trust. It’s an act of trust that he can in fact give us what we ask for, and that he does actually want to give us good things. That can be hard, because there are times when trusting him is hard, and times when we don’t want to admit we need him; but in all circumstances, whether good, bad, or whatever, we are called to do so, and asking God to meet our needs is an important discipline in learning to do so. I think for most people, refusing to ask isn’t really about being more spiritual—that’s just a cover; I think it’s really a matter of pride.
In the second place, people who ask of God selfishly do so in a spirit of entitlement; they believe they deserve to get what they want, and regard it as nothing more than their due. By contrast, Paul tells us to pray in a spirit of thanksgiving, which connects back to the command, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” This doesn’t mean simply to thank God in advance for the things he will do for us, or even to thank him for the things he has already done, though both are important; rather, this is to be our basic attitude in prayer, and in all of life. This too is a recognition that we are completely dependent on God, that everything comes to us as his gift; this is the truth that James captured when he said, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” Because of this, because of God’s goodness and generosity to us—yes, Paul assures us, even in the midst of our suffering—gratitude is to be our fundamental response to life.
Thus, whatever our circumstances, in a grateful spirit, we are to bring all our requests—our wants, our needs, our concerns, the deepest desires of our hearts—all the things which lie at the roots of our anxieties and fears, as well as those anxieties and fears themselves and everything to which they give rise—into the presence of God, trusting that he’ll take care of us. We don’t do this because he doesn’t know what we want, or need, or fear; we don’t pray for his sake, we pray for ours. We do this as a formal, deliberate acknowledgement of our dependence on him, and to give us the assurance that he knows what we want, what we need, because we have told him. Perhaps most importantly of all, we lay our requests at God’s feet because doing so draws us closer to him, and focuses our minds and our hearts on him; and so doing, it involves us in and connects us to the work he is doing in and around us.
Third, if our prayer is truly kingdom-centered, then it keeps us aware of the bigger picture, which we see in Ephesians 6; we understand that we don’t just pray that God would bless us, or that he would bless others, so that we and they would be happy and fulfilled and healed and free from pain and could go on to enjoy our lives. Rather, we pray for our needs and the needs of others in part because each of us is involved, individually and as part of the church, in the great struggle which is the inbreaking of the kingdom of God into this world. The kingdom is resisted, both openly and subtly, by the forces of the prince of the powers of this present darkness, and so Paul tells us that we need to be armored up and armed to deal with that resistance; and the foundation of that is prayer. We pray for our needs and wants, and for the needs and wants of others, so that we might be strengthened, and so that opportunities for the enemy to undermine us or weaken us would be closed off. And because the enemy is always looking for ways to do that, and the spiritual struggle we face is continuous, so too we must pray continuously. Ultimately, as we do so, we find that it trains us to depend on God, and to use the gifts that he’s given us not on our own initiative, but on his; and it prepares us, as the Rev. Tim Keller put it, “to have our hard hearts melted,” to have the barriers in our lives torn down, “to have the glory of God break through,” so that we may see his glory in our lives.
This isn’t something you can learn how to do by having someone tell you, or by reading a book; the most I can do, or anyone can do, is point you in that direction and invite you to do it. We can only really learn this by doing it—by asking God to teach us to live in the awareness of his presence, so that we learn to be in prayer throughout everything we do, and by setting aside time just to pray, for focused conversation with him. We can only learn to trust him with the things that are on our hearts by trusting him, by praying about them whenever they weigh on us; we can only learn to listen by listening. That’s why stubborn prayer is so important—it’s not about wearing God down, breaking down his resistance; it’s about wearing our egos down, breaking down our resistance. It’s not so much about storming the gates of heaven as it is about letting heaven storm us.