THE POWER OF PRAYER
Journey back with me to 1989. It was one of the most significant periods of the twentieth century. In a matter of weeks the world changed in an unbelievable way. Nations were transformed, other nations came into existence, governments that had been entrenched in power for decades collapsed, millions of people who had known only oppression were set free, the whole world order changed. I’m talking, of course, about the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Those of us who remember the Cold War also remember the sense of relief and disbelief we experienced in watching the speed and for the most part peaceful way in which this powerful yet tyrannical system crumbled before the eyes of the world.
One of the most important and symbolic events during that time, and one that proved to be a catalyst for change in other communist countries, took place in Leipzig of the former East Germany. You may recall the prayer meetings that took place every Monday evening in that city. Four different churches hosted the prayer meetings. The congregations would sing traditional Lutheran hymns. The pastors spoke to the people and then led their congregations in rounds of prayer.
Over time the size of the crowds at these prayer meetings began to swell. Political dissidents and ordinary citizens joined the faithful Christians in these churches. When the meetings concluded the people would walk through the dark streets of the city, holding candles and carrying banners. It was a rather benign form of protest, but soon the secret police started surrounding the churches and sometimes would rough up the marchers.
The communist hierarchy debated how to handle the situation. Should they ignore it, hoping it would eventually die out as people lost their enthusiasm. Should they crack down hard, similar to how the communist authorities of Czechoslovakia, under the strong thumb of the Soviet Union, crushed the protests in 1968 and as happened in Hungary in 1956? As they contemplated what to do, the crowds kept growing week by week. I remember watching this unfold on the news. Before long there were 15,000 people at the prayer meetings and in the streets. Then there were 50,000. Soon it became 150,000. And finally 500,000 – almost the entire population of Leipzig.
Then came the evening of October 9th. Everyone knew this would be the biggest crowd yet. And everyone expected some kind of confrontation, for they knew the communist authorities could not just let this continue. In fact, police and army units moved into the streets with instructions from then East German leader Erich Honecker to shoot the demonstrators, to shoot their fellow citizens. The Lutheran bishop of Leipzig warned of a pending massacre. Emergency rooms at the hospitals were cleared out and made ready for the many casualties they anticipated.
And yet, for some reason the violent and bloody clash that everyone expected didn’t take place. It’s not entirely certain why. Egon Krenz, who briefly ruled after Honecker, claimed he rescinded the order to shoot the demonstrators. Some have speculated that Mikhail Gorbachev, who was still the leader of the Soviet Union, telephoned Honecker and warned him not to kill the demonstrators. Others claimed that the police and army units were either intimidated or won over by the huge crowds, which obviously included some of their own friends and family members.
At the human level it is not entirely clear what happened. But at a deeper level everyone agrees that it was the prayer meetings that kindled the process of momentous change. From that moment on there was no way the communist system could continue. The New Republic magazine reported, “Whether or not prayers really move mountains, they certainly mobilized the population of Leipzig.”
It is not an exaggeration to say that the key to what happened that night in Leipzig and the monumental changes that resulted from it – which were not limited to Leipzig or East Germany but spread to other East bloc countries – was prayer. The world changed because people courageously prayed. They persevered in prayer week after week. And God worked through their prayers.
That should not surprise us, for Scripture speaks clearly of the power of prayer. We would probably all have to admit that we do not pray as much as we should. But why? Why do we think we really should pray more? Is it because that is what good Christians do? Or do we pray out of legalistic duty? Or do we pray as a way of staying on God’s good side? It’s for none of these reasons.
Why should we pray? The fact is prayer is a wonderful gift God has given us, and there are several purposes to prayer, several reasons why we pray. One is to enhance the sense of intimacy and deepen the relationship we with have with our Heavenly Father as we abide in His presence and communicate with Him in prayer.
Another purpose of prayer is to help us discern God’s guidance in our lives. If we are facing an important decision, we should pray confident that God will guide us. God may do that simply in our own thinking, or through circumstances, directly through His word, or through the wise counsel of others.
A third purpose of prayer is that as we take our requests to God and thank God for His answers it helps us realize our sense of dependency on God and we also grow in our awareness of God’s care and faithfulness to us, that God is the source of every good gift.
But there is another aspect of prayer, and this is what I want to focus on today is that prayer releases God’s power to accomplish His purposes. It’s not that God is holding out on us or that as we pray we have to somehow try to persuade God to act, for God longs to release His power to bring about His good purposes in our lives, in the church, and in the world. But prayer is the means by which God often releases His power.
The all-powerful God, if He wanted, could do anything He desires apart from us; He doesn’t need our prayers to act. But God has chosen to limit the expression or use of His power in at least some areas of life by connecting His power with our prayers. By the means of prayer God has invited us to play a role in His work. What an honor and joy for us that God would give us the privilege of making a difference in this world and in the lives of others as through our prayers He releases His power to bring about His will.
We see a clear example of God releasing His power through prayer in our text for today, which is Exodus 17:8-15. The Israelites are journeying through the desert under the leadership of Moses. They have escaped from Egypt, but now they encounter a new enemy. The text reads like this:
The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.”
So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up – one on one side, one on the other – so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.
Then the Lord, said to Moses, “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.
Moses built an altar and called it The Lord is my Banner. He said, “For hands were lifted up to the throne of the Lord. The Lord will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation.”
This amazing story is not about some kind of magic power Moses had so that whenever he simply held up his hands the Israelites prevailed. The meaning is clearly that Moses was holding up his hands in prayer to God. That’s why toward the end of this passage in celebrating the victory it stated, “For hands were lifted up to the throne of the Lord.” As Moses raised his hands he was calling out to God above to release His power and win the victory for the Israelites. Moses knew that victory was not dependent on the strength or ability of the Israelite soldiers but on God and so as he lifted his hands he was beseeching God to win the battle for them.
There are several important lessons for us in this account in addition to what I just mentioned – that God releases His power as we pray, and I should add, as we pray in accordance with His will. For one thing, we must guard ourselves against the attitude of seeing prayer only as a last resort. Sometimes we fall for that lie, don’t we? How many times when faced with overwhelming circumstances have you said, or have heard someone else say, “Well, I guess we’ve done all we can. There’s nothing left to do now but pray”? In other words, we have tried everything we could think of, we have done everything we could do in our own power to no avail. Since nothing else worked, since we’re out of ideas and out of strength, we may as well pray. After all, it couldn’t hurt.
It’s not that we shouldn’t do what we can, for we have our role to play as well. But what would happen if we prayed first rather than as a last resort? What would happen if every time we are faced with a challenging situation we first prayed, asking for God’s intervention and guidance? Maybe we would be spared a lot of discouragement and wasted effort.
For when did Moses pray? He didn’t wait until after the battle started, and then when he saw things weren’t going too well for the Israelites decide that he’d better pray since nothing else was working. No, the day before the battle Moses told Joshua his plan – that Joshua should choose some men to fight and that he would pray. So from the beginning Moses was praying.
That should be our strategy as well. The moment a problem arises, or even before it arises but we see it coming, we pray. We give the situation to God and ask Him to release His power to bring about His will. And then we don’t have to worry or fret about what might happen, and we don’t have to wear ourselves out trying the wrong approach.
For example, we all know that adolescence can by a trying time for our children. They are faced with new temptations. Peer pressure is so strong. They can easily get in with the wrong crowd. They are beginning to develop a sense of independence, which is important, but they don’t always live out that independence in the best way, for their growth in wisdom has not yet matched their growth in independence. When is the time to pray for our children regarding this crucial and vulnerable time? Not when problems begin, but long before they ever hit adolescence. Already God can be working in their lives, helping them lay a strong foundation for themselves that can assist them in navigating the turbulent years of adolescence successfully. So we must begin praying early, not simply as a last resort.
Another important lesson for us from this passage is that some things simply will not happen apart from prayer. And that knowledge should inspire us to pray. The Israelites were winning only when Moses held up his hands in prayer. In other words, apart from Moses’ prayer, the Israelites would have lost the battle. They could not win apart from prayer. God waits for us to pray before He intervenes and at least sometimes God will not act until we pray. Harry Emerson Fosdick, a well-known preacher of several generations ago, made this observation:
We may well consider in how many ways God’s will depends upon man’s cooperation. God Himself cannot do some things unless men think. He never blazons His truth on His sky that men may find it without seeking. Only when men gird the loins of their mind and undiscourageably give themselves to intellectual toil, will God reveal to them the truth even about the physical world. And God Himself cannot do some things unless men work. Will a man say that when God wants bridges and tunnels…and cathedrals built, He will do the work Himself? That is an absurd and idle fatalism. God stores the hills with marble, but He never built a Parthenon; He fills the mountain with ore, but He never made a needle or a locomotive. Only when men work can some things be done….Now if God has left some things contingent on man’s thinkingand working, why may He not have left some things contingent on man’s praying? The testimony of the great souls is a clear affirmation of this: Some things never without thinking; some things never without working; some things never without praying.
I wonder what victories have never been won, what accomplishments have never come to pass, what fruit has never been borne, what pain has never been averted because no one prayed. Prayer is God’s gift to us by which God brings about His purposes. We should never underestimate the power, the effectiveness, or the necessity of prayer.
One more lesson for us from this account is that sometimes we must persevere in prayer. The answers may not come instantly or easily. The battle with the Amalekites went on all day, and Moses did not stop praying until sunset when the Israelites prevailed. As the day wore on Moses’ hands grew weary and he could not continue holding them up. So Aaron and Hur placed a rock under Moses so he could sit and then they held up Moses’ hands so he could keep on praying to God above.
Sometimes we need to persevere in prayer for a period of time, and we may become weary; we get tired of praying. Again, the reason we must persevere is not that we must try to persuade God to do something He really is not all that inclined to do, but if we pray long enough maybe we can wear God down and He will give in. Rather it’s that like the Israelites facing the Amalekites; we too are in a battle. The passage of Scripture that describes this most fully is Eph. 6:10-18. There Paul gives these instructions:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Then Paul goes on to list the various components of our spiritual armor to help us fight this spiritual battle: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and so on. And he closes this section on the spiritual battle we are in with these words: “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”
We are in a spiritual battle for Satan seeks to thwart God’s good purposes for our lives so that we might become discouraged in our faith and so that our witness for God is diminished. So when we pray, we are engaging in battle, for prayer is one of the weapons God has given us for this spiritual warfare. And like the Amalekites, the evil one doesn’t give up easily. So we need to persevere in prayer. As Paul said in this passage on spiritual warfare, we need to “be alert and always keep on praying.” As we do that, God will work through our prayers to defeat the enemy and bring about His good purposes. But we need to beware of giving up too easily, just because we don’t see our desired answer immediately. Some prayers require perseverance.
Paul encouraged us in this passage to pray not only for ourselves, but to “keep on praying for all the saints.” Because this is a command in Scripture, this is part of God’s will for our lives. God wants to use us to make a difference in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ, to help them win the battles they are facing, and one way we do that is through prayer. We need to be a congregation that actively and regularly prays for one another.
One person who personally experienced the power of people praying for her is the Russian poet Irina Ruskanskaya. Like the East Germans in Leipzig, she knew well the horrors of political oppression. In fact, she faced the full wrath of the communist system before its fall. Because her writings celebrated Christian faith and human rights rather than the communist regime of the Soviet Union, she was targeted by the police and arrested. She was sentenced to seven years hard labor and seven years internal exile.
All during that time she refused to compromise or back away from her convictions, even though the prison authorities tried to kill her through cold and starvation. Much of the time she was held in solitary confinement. But while there, alone in an ice-cold cell, she sensed something she never did before. In fact, she had this same sensation many times. After her release in 1986, which came about largely because of the outcry from Christians and human rights groups in the West, she discovered that other Christian prisoners had experienced this same phenomenon. She described this experience in one of her poems:
Believe me, it was often thus:
In solitary cells, on winter nights
A sudden sense of joy and warmth
And a resounding note of love.
And then, unsleeping, I would know
A-huddled by an icy wall:
Someone is thinking of me now,
Petitioning the Lord for me. My dear ones, thank you all
Who did not falter, who believed in us!
In the most fearful prison hour
We probably would not have passed
Through everything – from end to end,
Our heads held high - unbowed –
Without your valiant hearts
To light our path.
Alone in her cell, Ruskanskaya often had the sense that others were thinking of her and praying for her, as other prisoners experienced as well, and that encouraged her to press on. But what’s interesting is it was only after her release that she learned that thousands of Christians from around the world had heard of her plight and were praying for her. It was not that when she entered prison she already knew that Christians around the world would be praying for her, and then in prison she had some emotional experiences she attributed to the prayers of others. No, she had no idea that people around the world would be praying for her. Yet even though she didn’t know that in any objective way, still she experienced the reality and the power of their prayers thousands of miles away locked in a freezing Russian gulag, and that encouraged her to persevere.
God works through our prayers. This story of Moses is a dramatic example. Probably in our own lives we have never experienced anything quite so obvious as the Israelites winning when Moses held up his hands in prayer but losing when he lowered his hands. But we must remember that the Israelites had just come out of 430 years of being surrounded by the polytheistic Egyptians. That was their model of religious practice. They had just emerged from many generations of slavery. They had no written Scriptures to teach them about God or about prayer. Probably some stories of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had been passed down to them but essentially they were starting from scratch in the walk of faith.
That’s why God had Moses raise his hands in prayer. In one sense that wasn’t necessary for there is no one and only correct position of prayer. But if Moses would have simply bowed his head in prayer, the Israelites would have looked up at him and thought he was sleeping. But by seeing Moses raise his hands they could see that he was praying, and they could make the connection between Moses’ prayers and their victory. So God gave them this powerful, easily observed example of how He works through prayer so that in the days and months and years ahead, as they journeyed and encountered other challenges, they would know they had a God who both heard and worked through their prayers. They could be confident that the God who led them out of Egypt would continue to lead them on their way.
And we can have that same confidence. But the degree to which we experience God’s intervention in our lives and in the lives of others will at least in part be determined by our prayers. So let’s make the most of this wonderful gift God has given us so that we can experience the life God longs to give us, and so we can make a difference in the lives of others and in the world.