When a public tragedy strikes, it’s typical to hear people offer their “thoughts and prayers” to those affected. And just as quickly, there’s backlash criticising them, especially if they’re religious figures, for just offering “thoughts and prayers”. Why? Because many assume “prayer” is just a crutch for avoiding real action.
As believers, we know prayer is the most powerful force at our disposal — the chance to bring our requests to God Himself. As James 5:16 says, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Yet, it is easy for us to fall back on the same “thoughts and prayers” cliches Christians are sometimes accused of.
So how can we pray “effectively” and “fervently”? One way is by simply praying regularly and intentionally. We’ve all probably promised to pray for someone, a promise that’s just as quickly out of sight and out of mind.
It’s easy to pray intensely when we desperately need something from God, but this sort of prayer should characterise our daily prayers. When we commit to praying for something, whether that be an individual person, a political crisis or a country in need, we ought to pray regularly and intentionally.
Secondly, contrary to popular conception, genuine prayer often leads to action. It’s no accident that the apostle James also wrote that faith without works is dead. While prayer may be the only way many of us can impact, say, the crisis in Afghanistan, the Lord may very well put opportunities in our path to become financially or otherwise practically involved with the situations that we are praying for.
When we consistently pray for an individual, it will be difficult to say “no” to an opportunity to otherwise minister to them. In fact, the act of prayer should prompt us to take a deeper interest in their life and their needs.
In asking God to meet the needs of various believers or mission fields, we should also seek opportunities to contribute to those needs ourselves wherever possible. When various geopolitical crises have passed out of the news cycle, we can still pray — and that persistent prayer often means we’ll stay informed about a situation and possible ways that we can help.
Finally, truly fervent prayer is persistent. Much like the widowed woman in Jesus’ parable that refused to stop pestering the judge, believers know that their prayers must be persistent and unceasing, even when it seems that God is delaying an answer or the eventual answer is not the one that we want. Even when we feel like Habakuk, crying out “How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?”
We pray because we know there is no other answer to the suffering, pain and injustice of the world and our communities. We pray because we must, because there is often no other way to cope with the pain that we see each day in our communities and on our TV screens.
When we pray persistently, we choose to believe that our God hears and somehow, will answer all our requests in a way that is best for us. This is not a cop-out or a way to avoid responsibility; it is an act of brave, defiant faith in a world that tells us we are helpless.
But in the throes of despair, this is sometimes hard to remember and believe, which is why we should continually remind ourselves and other believers of this truth. I’m sure we will only know in eternity the impact that the prayers of many saints throughout all of history had not just on our own lives, but on the very course of history itself. As theologian Jacques Ellul wrote, “Prayer holds together the shattered fragments of creation.”
In 1 Thessalonians 5:16, Scripture, we are told to “pray without ceasing”. Laying our requests, cares and burdens down at the Lord’s feet is truly one of the most powerful and meaningful things we can do. However, our prayers should not just be half-hearted, empty words but should be persistent, intentional and accompanied by action wherever possible.
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