Prayer: The Power That Wields The Weapon
In recent years the key discovery I have made regarding prayer is this: in order to sustain a heart for prayer, and a movement of prayer in a church or city, you have to think and talk about something besides prayer first. More specifically, there are two prerequisite lessons we must learn.
The first thing I’ve found that I need to think and talk about is war. All aspects of the Christian life are war, and there will be no peace until Jesus comes. I don’t think it’s possible for people to even know what prayer is until they know that life is war. The stakes are higher than in the Persian Gulf or in consultations between Bush and Gorbachev.
The second thing I have to think and talk about—before I can get to first base in creating an atmosphere for prayer or having the strength to sustain prayer—is the sovereignty of God. Until we grasp the sovereignty of God, we don’t know if we’ll win the war.
If you’re not sure you’re going to win the war, you can’t sustain the strength to pray day and night the way Jesus calls us to pray. You can’t pray long without hope, and You can’t have hope without grasping the sovereignty of God.
Lesson #1: Recognizing that Life is War
When the apostle Paul came to the end of his life, he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). Life is war just to maintain faith and get to heaven.
Satan tries to create unbelief by targeting faith. Paul makes that very clear in 1 Thessalonians 3:5: “I wrote to you because I couldn’t stand waiting to find out about your faith, lest the tempter had tempted you and all that we had done be in vain.”
If you take a further step, you come to Paul’s statements about his own life and ministry in the midst of warfare: “I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air; but I pummel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I should find myself disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:26). That’s the language of a soldier talking about the danger and discipline of mortal conflict.
We move on another step when we read Paul’s description of his ministry in 2 Cor. 10:3: “Though we live in the world, we are not carrying on a worldly war; for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly, but have divine power.” So ministry is war. Fighting for faith in my heart is war. Fighting for the souls of other people is war.
A Peacetime Casualness in the Church
If you were asked, “What’s the most crucial text on warfare?,” Ephesians 6:10-20 would need to be a leading candidate. Verses 12 and 13 declare, “We are not contending against flesh and blood; we are contending against principalities and powers and the world rulers of this present darkness, and the spiritual forces in the heavenly places. Therefore, put on the whole armor of God, that you might be able to withstand and stand.” The list of armor then follows.
The problem is that most Christians don’t really believe that life is war and that our invisible enemy is awesome. How, then, are you ever going to get them to pray? They’ll say they believe these truths, but watch their lives. There is a peacetime casualness in the church about spiritual things. There are no bombs falling in their lives, no bullets whizzing overhead, no mines to avoid, no roars on the horizon; all is well in America, the Disneyland of the universe. So why pray? In wartime newspapers carry stories of how the troops are doing.
In wartime families get together, talk about their sons and daughters on the front lines, and pray with wrenching concern for their safety. In wartime people are alert, armed, and vigilant. In wartime people spend their money so differently than in peacetime. There’s an austerity and simplicity of life, not because such things are so valuable in themselves, but because there’s something grand about a cause greater than paneling your den.
Everybody is touched in wartime; everyone cuts back. Perhaps, for example, you’ve heard Ralph Winter’s description of the transformation of the Queen Mary during the Second World War. This luxury liner became a troop carrier. Where three once slept, they slept fifteen. Where a table was once set with fifteen items per diner, tin plates appeared. Everything changes in wartime.
But most people simply don’t believe that we’re in a war worse than World War II, worse than any imaginable nuclear holocaust. In this war the casualties don’t just lose an arm, a leg, or a life; they lose everything forever in hell. If only we believed that life is war, how different things would be!
Prayer as an Instrument of War
The connection between prayer and war is not left to our guesswork. Ephesians 6:17 says, “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God, with all prayer, praying on every occasion in the spirit, keeping awake with all perseverance.”
It doesn’t take any exegetical ability at all to see that prayer is the power that wields the weapons of warfare. Take the sword of the spirit praying! Prayer is not a civilian device; it is a weapon of war.
Another text, John 15:16, says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain so that whatever you ask of the Father, he may give it to you.”
Why is the Father going to answer the prayers offered in Jesus’ name? Because Jesus has given a mission to go bear fruit. Or turn it around: Why did Jesus give us a mission to go bear fruit that would remain? So we might enjoy getting answers to our prayers.
So what is prayer for? For war and wartime, not for civilian life. The primary reason prayer malfunctions in the hands of believers is their insistence on trying to take a wartime walkie-talkie and turn it into a domestic intercom. A tool made for tanks and trenches won’t work when you install it in your yacht or the lake cabin or the second, third, or fourth car.
This is what I believe has happened. God sent His Son into the world on a mission. The Son comes to us and says, “My Father wants me to extend my mission to you. It’s dangerous, but you can’t lose; the mission will succeed. He’s given me these transmitters here. Each one is tuned to the general’s frequency. As long as you stay in battle, fighting His war in His ways, you will always have free access by the transmitter to the general. Go use them, and I’ll do whatever you ask for the war cause.”
But what have millions of Americans done? They have stopped believing in war. To them life is peace, not war. There’s no urgency, no watching, no vigilance, no strategic planning—just easy, peacetime prosperity. They take the walkie-talkie, trying to install it in domestic and luxurious places, and it won’t work. They’re not getting any signals, and they can’t figure out why.
If we’re going to mobilize a movement of prayer in our churches and cities, if we’re going to sustain a heart for prayer, we must truly believe that life is war. We must get out of the peacetime mentality that is drummed into our minds all day long by television, radio, newspapers, and magazines.
These all say, “Don’t believe what you hear about war; pad your lifestyle.” But this is a false message of “peace, peace” when there is no peace. Until we feel the desperation of a bombing raid and the thrill of a new offensive against the forces of darkness, we will not pray the way we should.
Lesson #2: Embracing the Sovereignty of God
When I talk about “sovereignty,” I mean God’s right and power to save unbelieving sinners by bringing them to faith. Why is embracing the sovereignty of God crucial to a heart for prayer and a prayer movement? First, until you embrace the sovereignty of God, you cannot consistently pray for God to convert unbelieving sinners. Second, if you don’t embrace the sovereignty of God, then you cannot be sure the cause of Christ will triumph. Let’s look more closely at each of these issues.
Praying for the Conversion of Sinners
Notice the apostle Paul’s comment about Israel in Romans 10:1: “My heart’s desire and prayer to God is that they might be SAVED!” Paul isn’t asking God to just toy with them or influence them a little here or there. Instead, he’s crying out, “SAVE THEM, GOD!” You can’t pray like that if you do not believe in the sovereignty of God.
But a lot of people do not believe in the sovereignty of God. Many say that God has no right to intrude on the soul of a human being or his self-determining autonomy. I believe that such people cannot pray consistently for the salvation of sinners. Why not? Consider the Biblical promises of the new covenant. I take each of these and pray:
“O God, take out of their heart the heart of stone and put in the heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:9).
“Lord, circumcise their hearts, that they might love You” (Deuteronomy 30:6).
“Father, put a new spirit within them and cause them to walk in Your statutes” (Ezekiel 36:29).
“Lord, grant them to repent and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25).
“Lord, do what You did for Lydia: open their hearts to believe the truth” (Acts 16:14).
Do you pray like that? If you believe in the sovereignty of God, you can. If you don’t believe in the sovereignty of God, you cannot—you’d be contradicting your own theology. If you don’t believe in the sovereignty of God, you are saying that an individual has the absolute sovereign right to determine his own destiny, and thus, to determine who (if anybody) will inhabit the kingdom of heaven. But it simply isn’t Biblical to give man that right.
How, then, do those who reject the sovereignty of God pray? One well-known writer on prayer says, “What you pray is to ask God to cause a specific person to begin to question who they can really trust in life.” My question is, “Why is it right for God to get inside a person’s mind to cause him to ask a question that he wouldn’t otherwise have asked, and wrong for God to get into his mind and give an answer that he wouldn’t otherwise have given—namely, that Jesus is the answer?”
In another example, this same writer says, “What we ought to pray is that God will plant in the hearts of these people an inner unrest together with a longing to know the truth.” I say, “Amen!” But how strong a longing should you pray for God to put in a person’s heart? There are two kinds of longing God could create: one that’s strong enough to embrace Jesus, and one that’s not strong enough to embrace Jesus. For which do you pray? Do you pray for effectual longings or ineffectual longings?
Calvinists talk about irresistable grace. But grace is resisted all over the place! The question is: can God overcome it? He did for me, and He did for you. How did you get saved? Did God not overcome your rebellion and resistance?
In Romans 9:16 Paul affirms, “It depends not upon man’s will, or upon his exertion, but upon God’s mercy.” And so he prays, in Romans 10:1, “O my God, I love my kinsmen according to the flesh. If I had the choice, I would go to hell for them. Would You save them?”
I think that means: “Would You overcome the hardness of heart that has come upon Israel? Overcome it!” Paul later says, in chapter 11, that someday it will be overcome when the fullness of the Gentiles comes in. Ungodliness will then be banished from Jacob by the sovereign God.
So, as you pray for sinners, I encourage you to pray, “God, take out their heart of stone. God, circumcise their hearts so that they’ll love You. God, put Your spirit in them and cause them to walk in Your statutes. God, grant them repentance that they might come to the knowledge of the truth. God, open their hearts, like You did Lydia’s, to believe the gospel.” When you believe in the sovereignty of God, when you believe that God has the right and the power to move upon the heart of a dead sinner and bring him or her to life, then you will be able to pray.
Anticipating Victory in Warfare
There’s a second reason that the sovereignty of God must be embraced before we can pray: we can’t be sure we’re going to win the war unless God is sovereign.
England’s first missionary endeavor was born at a time when men and women believed the sovereignty of God. They had an absolutely indomitable hope in the conquest of this world for Christ.
They believed Psalm 86:8: “All nations thou hast made shall come and bow down before Thee, O Lord, and shall glorify thy name.” They believed Genesis 12:3: “In thee all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” They believed Psalm 2:8: “I will give thee the nations for Thine inheritance”; and Psalm 22:27: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; all the families of the nations shall worship before Thee.”
They also believed Psalm 47:9: “The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham.” They believed Psalm 65:2, 66:4, 86:9, and 102:15. And they took seriously the oath that God took in Numbers 14:21: “As I live, and as this world shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord…” Because they believed in the sovereignty of God, they could look upon the Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist millions, and believe that Christ would triumph.
A hundred and fifty years before William Carey’s day, a man lived and thrived in this milieu. His name was John Eliot. He came to New England in 1631, when he was 27 years old.
The following year he became a pastor in Roxbury, just outside Boston. Something happened to him which has happened to more and more of us. According to Cotton Mather, who told his story, there were 20 tribes of Indians surrounding Boston. (Mather uses the term nations of Indians in order to tie in with the Biblical descriptions for peoples.)
John Eliot could not resist for long the implications of his theology. If the Bible is inerrant, and God is sovereign, then one who gives his life to taking the message of God to these nations has good hope to believe this sovereign God will open a door for the gospel and fill the church.
When Eliot was 40 years old, he started learning Algonquin, a language with words that are 23 letters long. He deciphered the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, translating the Bible and Richard Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted. By the time he was 84, there were Indian churches all over the area, many led by Indian pastors trained in an Indian Bible Institute, all of which vanished shortly thereafter because of wars.
Near the end of his life, Eliot said, “Prayers and pains through faith in Jesus can do anything.” Why? Because nothing is too hard for a sovereign God who hears our prayers.
I tell you this story because I cannot sustain in my own heart the will to pray, nor beget or sustain a movement of prayer in my church unless I have hope we will win, that the cause of Christ will triumph in the end, “that all the nations are going to come and bow down before Thee, O Lord, and glorify Thy name.”
Tutored in this tradition of hope in the sovereignty of God were William Carey, Adoniram Judson, David Brainerd, Alexander Duff, John Paton, and a whole stream of other luminaries in those days. The modern missionary movement, as we know it today, did not emerge in a theological vacuum. It emerged amidst a great realization of the sovereignty of God and put this realization at the center of life.
Without this awareness, the confidence and the boldness of prayer begin to vanish. What’s left is a kind of vestige we sometimes call the prayer meeting, which is too often small-minded because it doesn’t grasp that life is war and that God is sovereign.
God’s Purpose for Prayer
God’s purpose in the universe is to banish all unbelief from His kingdom and to fill it with worshipers from every tongue, tribe and nation. So what’s the place of prayer in the accomplishment of this purpose?
We have to walk carefully, lest we, like others, overstate the case. Prayer is not THE work of missions. I believe THE work of missions is the proclamation of the gospel. As Paul says in Romans 10:17, faith comes by hearing. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation.
So the word of God is the weapon by which God will gather His children to His light. That means the global purposes of God depend on his word. If the preaching of the word aborts, all God’s purposes abort. But that cannot happen since God is sovereign.
Once you’ve made clear that the word is the weapon that will penetrate the darkness of the peoples, gather the children of light, and get victory over the world, then you must ask, without exaggeration, about the awesome place of prayer. If God’s work depends upon His word, then His word depends upon the prayers of His people.
If we don’t succeed in earnest, global, persevering prayer, God’s purposes abort. But whether you pray or not is not ultimately in your control. God will get prayer done; He reigns! He makes salvation contingent upon faith, and He rules over faith. He makes missions contingent upon His word, and He rules over His word. He makes the success of His word dependent on prayer, and He rules over whether we pray. If we don’t pray, God doesn’t fail; He will pass us by and get His prayers in another land.