When I first considered writing an article on the subject of earnest prayer, my first impulse was to say no. After all, this is an area where I struggle, as do many pastors whom I know well. What godly person can honestly examine their own heart and say, “I cry out to God sufficiently. I throw myself upon God’s mercy as much as anyone should. I talk to the God of the universe plenty”? I certainly cannot say it of myself!
I thought to mitigate my concerns by beginning in the spirit of confession: by far my most consistent impulse as a minister is to enter the study and immediately set myself to reading the text of Scripture and planning the best method of attack when I work on a sermon. Far too often I hate to admit that my first impulse is not to seek the face of God and beg him to feed me and his people once again. Truthfully, I am often well into sermon preparation on a Monday morning before I begin to sense that I have hit a logjam of sorts. Only then do I consider how prayerless I have been – how task oriented I tend to be. On my worst days I come to believe that earnest, needy, serious prayer is optional.
Our Lord, however, doesn’t make private prayer optional for any Christian, let alone any minister. Jesus doesn’t just command private prayer for his saints, he assumes it. “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matt. 6:6). Why does he assume we will pray in private? In part because he knows for a fact that we need God, and we need all he can provide.
We see the practice of earnest prayer in Scripture. The first time in Scripture that we see “earnest prayer” is actually in the Greek rendering of Jonah 3:8. In a moment of desperation the people of Nineveh “call out mightily to God” (ESV). The word for mightily in the Septuagint is the word for “earnestly.” They didn’t just call out, they called out “earnestly.” They called out “mightily.”
Later, in Acts 12:5 Luke tells us that “Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.” In both of these Scriptural instances, these people are in truly dire straits, completely helpless on their own.
Earnest prayer is serious, eager, intense prayer. It truly takes no special excess spirituality or even an especially sanctified person to pray earnestly. After all, if Ninevites can do it, surely we can! In fact, the real secret to earnest prayer isn’t a glowing halo or a righteous disposition; the real secret is weakness and need. The more we sense how unsanctified and unspiritual we are, the greater will be our need, and the more earnest our cry.
Among other things, prayer is our declaration of inability. Every single thing we bring to God is something in prayer we are saying is outside of our power – something we don’t have the resources to take care of. The more we believe the answer to our prayer rests in God alone, the more we believe that we are in need, the more powerless we will really feel ourselves to be; as a consequence the more serious and earnest our prayers will be.
Sometimes I wonder… when our people hear us in the pulpit, do they hear a confident, educated proclaimer of information? Or do they hear a weak person who sounds more like Paul who ministered in weakness and meekness (see 2 Cor. 2)? Do they hear a man who even needs anything from God? Paul said, “On my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.” Prayer is how we put this sort of public boasting fully into practice. Prayer is a display of all the ways we are weak and needy. The pastoral prayer each week is literally the minister stepping into the pulpit and saying out loud all of the things that we as pastors cannot do for this church.
The question of how a pastor prays in the pulpit isn’t necessarily a reflection of how he prays in private. After all, it is entirely possible for a person to bring well-crafted, even earnestly delivered prayers in the pulpit and yet it turns out that is the only place where his prayers are earnest and familiar. It is quite certainly one thing for someone to talk to God in the pulpit and yet know what it was to have what John Knox termed an “intimate conversation” with God.
J.I. Packer reminds us, “Prayer is a means to energy…Spiritual alertness, vigor, and confidence are the regular spin-offs from earnest prayer on any subject. The Puritans spoke of prayer as oiling the wheels of the soul” (Knowing Christianity, 128). Earnest private prayer that is fed by a deep sense of need becomes the fuel for the public prayers of a minister. In fact, in some ways it becomes the means of sustaining us.