This article is part of a series reflecting on the hidden hours that lay the foundation for a public ministry. Read part 1.
If you want to make anyone involved in ministry feel guilty, just raise the topic of prayer. To really rub salt in the wound, compare their prayer life to Paul’s. We’ve all taught the theory of prayer and yet, for some reason, we are incapable of putting it into practice. In this article, I want to share four helpful thoughts about prayer. You will learn a little about prayer itself, but I hope these thoughts will also spur you on to lay prayer as the rightful foundation of all your public labour in the Lord.
Jesus was the master pray-er who gifted us instruction on prayer, as well as his model prayer. But there is also much to learn from Jesus when we pay attention to the timing of his prayers within the larger story of his ministry. As Jesus’ ministry grew and the demands of the crowds increased, he purposely withdrew to a quiet place to pray (Mark 1:35). Even though he was perfectly sufficient to meet all the crowds’ needs, he refused to have his agenda set by their desires. Likewise, in Gethsemane when his heart was wrecked with anguish and sorrow at what lay ahead, Jesus again withdrew to pray. I have no doubt that Jesus was as tired as his disciples, yet his distress brought him back to his Father (Mark 14:33-36). In both the business of a growing ministry and the personal distress of what lay ahead, Jesus prayed, asking God to strengthen him for the task at hand. No wonder the apostles followed this pattern as their ministry grew and they too faced persecution (Acts 6:4, 7:56, 12:5).
The notion of trusting God can sometimes feel like a Zen mindset we must acquire or a mantra to be repeated when things don’t go our way. However, the story of King Hezekiah in Isaiah 36-37 reminds us that the one who trusts God will be justified. When the Assyrian king Sennacherib surrounded the city walls and issued his death threat to Hezekiah, Hezekiah’s first instinct was to lay the letter before the Lord in the temple and pray. Realizing that none of his own strength or strategies would win the day, he threw himself upon God by praying first. That night, the angel of the Lord swept through the Assyrian army and killed 185,000 soldiers, showing that God can accomplish more while Hezekiah slept than Israel could have done in years of battle against the Assyrians.
Hezekiah’s urge to pray first highlights how often we leave prayer until last. We say to ourselves, “I’ll sort it out first and then I’ll pray, because I only need some help from God”. This is as true in our personal lives as it is in ministry. We seek to press on as far as we can on our own and then ask God to cover the gaps. We devise a strategy to reach our suburb, train Bible study leaders or come up with a vision for growth, and then we’ll pray. In the end, we treat prayer as the final gloss on our own decisions and relegate God to the one who rubber stamps our plans. We declare the sovereignty of God in preaching and yet demonstrate a strategy where success falls on our shoulders. The desperation of Hezekiah’s situation brought him immediately before the Lord. Do we need desperate situations in our ministry before we too express our humble, concrete trust in God?
Hezekiah’s story, however, does not provide the blueprint for all prayer in ministry. Think of Nehemiah, whose reliant prayers of trust in God were on par with Hezekiah’s (Neh 1:5-11). Yet the answer to Nehemiah’s prayers turned out to be hard work: Nehemiah prayed first, but then organized, strategized and drenched himself with sweat as he painstakingly placed brick upon brick, building the wall around Jerusalem. The Apostle Paul also prayed earnestly for God’s name to be glorified among the Gentiles (Rom 15:23-33) and then poured himself out like a drink offering in service of the God to whom he prayed (Phil 2:17).
Our challenge in ministry is not to work less and pray more; it is to pray first so that all of our efforts in ministry become an overflow of our persistent prayers that God would be glorified, that his will would be done and that his people would be sanctified through and through (1 Thess 5:23).
Finally, prayer has a particular relationship with Bible teaching. Without the Spirit’s help, we, nor those we teach, will not understand the spiritual realities of the Scriptures (1 Cor 2:6-16). So as we prepare to explain the Bible, the natural complement is to pray that God’s Spirit would reveal the treasures rooted in God’s living and active word. One of the most helpful suggestions I received as a young preacher was to pray through my sermon before delivering it. I learned to take my message line by line, asking God to help me say each portion helpfully and to allow the truths to challenge the hearts of my listeners. Nowadays, in the process of preparation before I’ve written a sermon to pray through, I simply pray through the passage at hand, asking that God would use his living and active word as the sufficient means to teach, rebuke, correct and train my church in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16).
After years of preaching, I’ve only recently been reminded of how limited we are in our preparation: we simply cannot predict who will be there on a Sunday, nor can we know the secret struggles in their hearts. We can’t know what may distract their minds, or how the devil will seek to snatch away the seed sown in their hearts (Luke 8:12). Praying for the effectiveness of Bible teaching should surely go deeper than a perfunctory introduction to a sermon and a post-sermon ‘summary’ in the form of a prayer. Since Bible teaching is a thoroughly spiritual task (isn’t all ministry?), we should engage in the spiritual battle in prayer even as we prepare the words to say.
Recently I have been thoroughly challenged by Peter’s exhortation to be “self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Pet 4:7). So many of my prayers are prayed ‘on the run’ while doing other menial tasks. The example of Christ and the apostles, the reminder from Hezekiah to pray first, and a biblical understanding of prayer as an essential complement to teaching have given me fresh motivation to reclaim that discipline of stopping everything in order to simply step into the throne room of God with my praise and petitions.