On hearing news this week of a friend’s grim prognosis, Jacqui’s instinctive reaction was to say that we must pray hard for them.
Of course, she’s right – that the proper response for any Christian, to mobilise the power of prayer. But it struck me at the time – I wonder what praying hard actually means?
Does it mean screwing up our eyes, gritting our teeth and clinching our hands to express our determination? We may even raise our voices and follow the example of some Celtic saints by standing in some very cold water. No one can doubt our commitment to the task.
Such a practice is recorded in scripture at Mount Carmel but not by Elijah. It was his opponents, the prophets of Baal, who showed the intensity of their prayers by shouting and frenzied dancing (they were not English).
Shout louder!’ the prophet taunts. ‘Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or travelling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.’ (1 Kings 18:27).
These failing prophets even went as far as to slash themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. (verse 28).
Such devotion to prayer, however, doesn’t work if you are praying to the wrong god.
Repetition, however, does have a certain appeal. If we can keep on praying the same request, carefully avoiding hesitation and deviation, then surely God is going to answer our request – even if we are bordering on nagging the Almighty.
Furthermore eloquence can also give our intercession that much-needed boost.
Such an approach to prayer does seem attractive. Except that Jesus speaks against it, not the practice as such but the motive behind repetitive prayer.
In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus speaks against prayer as a performance. “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matthew 6:7)
Maybe the Message Translation goes a bit too far in its paraphrase (but it does have a point): “The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense.”
So in order to give our prayers that extra Oomph! how about fasting? Certainly something I myself have done over the years, to give weight to my intercession. Except I’m not sure that this is the purpose of fasting.
But (I hear you say) what about Mark 9:29? There Jesus singles out the importance of fasting as he responds to his failing disciples. “And he said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.”
I use the language of the 17th century Authorised (or King James) translation for the simple reason that modern translations are agreed: Jesus did not mention fasting at all.
Here is an example of the early church improving on what Jesus taught by adding the words ‘and fasting’ to the original text. They too were looking at ways to pray even harder, to give our intercessions that extra weight. Somehow just speaking to God as we would speak to our own fathers doesn’t seem quite enough.
Except that this is what Jesus taught.
The picture he wants us to have in our minds when we pray is when we ask our parent for something we need. “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’ (Luke 11:13).
It was Hudson Taylor in serving God in 19th Century China who was given the alarming news from his hospital in Ningbo: “The last bag of rice is disappearing rapidly!” They needed to pray hard.
“I am taking my children with me and I notice it is not difficult to remember that they need breakfast in the morning, dinner at midday and supper at night. Indeed I could not forget them if I tried. And I find it impossible to think that our heavenly Father is less tender and mindful of His children than I, a poor earthly father, am of mine. No, He will not forget us.”
And as Taylor anticipated, God responded remarkably (and somewhat typically, at the last minute).
For what gives our prayer weight is not found within us but in God himself. We are given the privilege of praying in Jesus’ name – and that is all we need.
For as pastor Kenneth L. Wilson concluded: “To pray in Jesus’ name means to pray in his spirit, in his compassion, in his love, in his outrage, in his concern. In other words, it means to pray a prayer that Jesus himself might pray.”
So we pray for our friend in Christ’s name. It is his name alone which makes our prayer effective, nothing else. That’s all we need do.