I grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where crawfish boils are commonplace every Spring. I never had to learn how to boil crawfish myself, because there was always a supremely skilled Cajun chef around to satisfy our hunger. In 2007, however, I became the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Cookeville, Tennessee. I quickly realized that if I didn’t learn how to boil crawfish, I would likely not get to eat them. So I began learning this culinary art, and bought the necessary equipment—including a pot that boils two forty-pound sacks of crawfish at a time. Lifting a basket full of that many crawfish out of the water to pour them onto the dinner table was always a cumbersome and awkward exercise, until one of my parishioners turned a 2×4 into a steel-reinforced wooden basket-lifting stick, nicely decorated in LSU purple and gold. Now two people could lift and carry the basket without any trouble, and another could pour the crawfish out for the ravenous crowds. By means of a tool, a difficult task was accomplished with ease.
Every day we use tools to accomplish tasks that would be impossible otherwise. Indeed, we are reliant on our tools. God, of course, needs no tools—for nothing is too difficult for Him (see Jer. 32:17). Yet the Bible makes clear that He still chooses to use means to accomplish His sovereign purposes. God especially works by and through the prayers of His people to bring to pass what He has ordained from before the foundation of the world.
This simple truth is, at the same time, regularly underappreciated and underutilized. Indeed, it is easy to forget that prayer itself is ministry. We struggle to live daily as if it really is true that God uses our prayers to change circumstances in the lives of people and institutions according to His will. We often act as if James were wrong when he wrote, “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2), and “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (5:16). If we are called to be ministers of the gospel, it tends to be easier to devote ourselves to the ministry of the Word than to prayer (cf. Acts 6:4).
The Example of Paul
Throughout the Bible, the efficacy and the instrumentality of prayer is presupposed, taught, and modeled. Paul spoke of prayer as an instrument of great power: “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Cor. 1:11); “I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ…” (Phil. 1:19).
God sends His blessings, both temporal and eternal, through the prayers of God’s people. Thus Paul was a man of prayer, as evidence by his many prayers and reports of praying within his letters (i.e., “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for [the Jews] is that they may be saved,” Rom. 10:1). The apostle also greatly desired the prayers of the saints for himself and for his ministry of the word to the lost and the found: “Brothers, pray for us” (1 Thess. 5:25); “Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored…” (2 Thess. 3:1); “…and [pray] also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel…” (Eph. 6:19).
The Example of Jesus
Paul’s confidence in the power of prayer was in imitation of his Savior, who told Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). Jesus’ intercession for Peter ensured that Peter’s faith would not fail, and that he would turn again after denying his Lord three times. As our great High Priest, Jesus interceded for us in John 17, and He continues to live to plead for us (Heb. 7:25).
But Jesus’ praying is not merely a function of His priestly ministry, but also of His prophetic ministry. It was in relation to the ministry of Elijah the prophet that James drew his conclusion of the power of prayer. Likewise, it was Samuel the prophet who declared to the people of God who had foolishly asked for a king like all the other nations, “Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you…” (1 Sam. 12:25). Before Elijah and Samuel, the upheld arms of Moses the prophet (presumably raised in dependent prayer to God) were the means God used to cause Israel to prevail over the Amalekites (Exod. 17:11, 12). So Jesus, our great Prophet, is even now at the right hand of God interceding for us. In the same way, those engaged in ministry are, like Epaphras, to labor earnestly in prayer for the saints (Col. 4:12), particularly in regard to the response of God’s people to the preached Word.
Instruction from Church History
Our spiritual forefathers have written eloquently of the ministry of prayer. In his book On Christian Doctrine, Augustine exhorts us to the ministry of prayer as foundational to the ministry of the Word:
Our Christian orator, while he says what is just, and holy, and good (and he ought never to say anything else), does all he can to be heard with intelligence, with pleasure, and with obedience; and he need not doubt that if he succeed in this object, and so far as he succeeds, he will succeed more by piety in prayer than by gifts of oratory; and so he ought to pray for himself, and for those he is about to address, before he attempts to speak. And when the hour is come that he must speak, he ought, before he opens his mouth, to lift up his thirsty soul to God, to drink in what he is about to pour forth, and to be himself filled with what he is about to distribute. For, as in regard to every matter of faith and love there are many things that may be said, and many ways of saying them, who knows what it is expedient at a given moment for us to say, or to be heard saying, except God who knows the hearts of all? And who can make us say what we ought, and in the way we ought, except Him in whose hand both we and our speeches are?
The 19th-century American Presbyterian theologian James Henley Thornwell sounds a similar note:
[The minister] must be a man of prayer. The Holy Spirit alone can give saving efficacy to the truths of the Gospel, and the Holy Spirit is ordinarily bestowed in answer to prayer. A Minister should live upon his knees; he should bear his people as his own children to a throne of grace, and his sermons ought to be carried from the closet to the desk. He must lay the state of his people before God; he must plead with God for them and leave them in God’s hands. And oh, what a precious privilege is this! (Collected Writings, Vol. 4, 572).
Francis James Grimke, a 19th– and 20th-century American Presbyterian pastor, expresses it thus:
[Preaching and teaching] should be preceded by earnest prayer for the presence of the Holy Spirit to make effective what may be said or done. The more deeply we impress ourselves with the importance of having the Spirit present, and the more earnestly we seek his presence, the greater will be the success of the meeting, the more beneficial or helpful will it be to those present. It should be preceded by much prayer (Meditations on Preaching, 107).
David Irving has recently exhorted ministers to engage in the work of prayer, and I encourage all who desire to become more faithful in prayer to listen to his lecture.
Whether you are called to vocational ministry or whether you are doing the work of ministry for which vocational ministers equip you, seek to make prayer more and more a part of how you spend your time serving other people. Far from being something wasted, the time spent speaking to God on behalf of others is imperative in the ministry among God’s people. May the Lord continue to use this great means of prayer to accomplish His sovereign will in the lives of His elect.