Why We Pray
I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company. May the God of peace be with you all. Amen (Romans 15:30-33).
Rather than pretend he was doing fine, Paul bares his soul and begs for help from his friends. As we look at this request from the standpoint of the 21st century, three lasting truths emerge.
I. Prayer Involves Agony.
When Paul says “strive together with me,” he uses a Greek word from which we get the English word “agony.” Join me in my agony. What a thought that is. Prayer is agony. But someone says, “I thought prayer was supposed to be fun.” Who told you that? The Bible nowhere calls prayer “fun.” Prayer isn’t fun; it’s hard work. And true prayer is agony of the soul. Prayer is wrestling with God, it is striving in the realm of the spirit, it is spiritual warfare against principalities and powers and the forces of evil all around us.
When was the last time you agonized in prayer?
When was the last time you wrestled in prayer?
When was the last time you shed tears in prayer?
You’ll discover what agony means when you have a sick child in the middle of the night with a rising fever and you can’t get the doctor on the phone. You’ll learn about agony in prayer when your marriage is on the ropes. You’ll know how to agonize in prayer when a loved one is wheeled away for life-saving surgery. Sooner or later, we all learn to agonize in prayer.
No one gets a free pass through life, though it is true that some people do seem to suffer less and others much more, both inwardly and outwardly. Everyone struggles sometime, and some people struggle more than we think. If we could crawl inside the head of our favorite spiritual leaders, we might be surprised by what we find. Romans 7 is still true. Even the most notable Christians have times of doubt, fear, frustration, anger, uncertainty and discouragement. That’s not all we would find—and we wouldn’t find those things all the time. We would also find faith, determination, commitment, love, zeal, compassion, and a whole host of other virtues. Mother Teresa’s letters and Paul’s prayer request remind us that our heroes often don’t have an easy time of it.
Let us take to heart the admonition that things aren’t always as they seem to be, and that true prayer (and all other parts of the Christian life) will often be a great struggle to us.
II. Prayer Promotes Unity.
Paul says, “Join me in my struggle as you pray for me.” Though they were hundreds of miles away from Paul, they became one with him through their prayers. Distance doesn’t matter when we are on our knees. We can be anywhere in the world and yet in the realm of the spirit through prayer, we can be joined with brothers and sisters thousands of miles away. By prayer I can influence the world. Without leaving my home, my prayers go up to God and then descend in the form of answers from heaven to saints around the world. And so by prayer I can join the spiritual battle as the gospel goes forth in remote jungles and crowded cities. Most of those places I will never visit in person, but through prayer I become a participant in God’s work around the world.
III. Prayer Advances Ministry.
He asked for deliverance from his foes. Then he prayed that his ministry to the poor saints in Jerusalem might be acceptable. Then he prayed that one day he might come to Rome, meet the saints face to face, and be refreshed by his fellowship with them. Paul understood that the church advances on its knees.
Most of us have seen those signs that say, “Prayer Changes Things.” I have heard that explained this way. Prayer changes things, and the thing it changes most is us. In one sense, that’s a true statement. Prayer humbles us, stretches us, shapes us, encourages us, challenges us, deepens us, and leads us along the pathway of spiritual growth. But there is more to the story than this. Look closely at what Paul says:
If you pray for me …
I will be delivered from spiritual opposition.
I will be welcomed by the saints in Jerusalem.
I will be able to visit you in Rome.
That’s very specific. Paul asks for prayer because he knows that God is sovereign over his enemies, that if people pray, his enemies may be restrained and the opposition removed. Prayer quite literally influences the human will of other people in ways that we can’t see and could never bring about on our own. Prayer causes things to happen that would not otherwise happen. Paul truly believes that their prayers will open the door for him to come to Rome.
Some people talk about answered prayer as if it were nothing but a “coincidence.” This week I read about a Christian leader who remarked, “The more I pray, the more ’coincidences’ happen to me.”
Don’t pass over the little phrase “so that” in verse 32. Several years ago a good friend explained to me the importance of that phrase. “When I pray,” he said, “I always try to include the phrase ‘so that.’ I heard a guest preacher mention that in a sermon several years ago, and I’ve been doing it ever since.” He went on to say that he has been praying a particular “so that” prayer for me. I can’t remember all the details of the prayer, but I do remember the three “so that’s”:
So that I would be strong in the Word of God,
So that I would be faithful to the end,
So that God would be greatly glorified through my life.
Needless to say, I was touched by his faithfulness in praying that way for me. Later I thought about it and realized how entirely biblical it is. Consider how many times Paul prayed “so that” prayers:
“So that you may overflow with hope” (Romans 15:13).
“So that you may know him better” (Ephesians 1:17).
“So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:17).
“So that you may be able to discern what is best” (Philippians 1:10).
“So that you may have great endurance and patience” (Colossians 1:11).
“So that you will be blameless and holy” (1 Thessalonians 3:13).
“So that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you” (2 Thessalonians 1:12).
And we find it again in verse 32. The “so that” principle is a tonic for a boring prayer life. Many times our prayers are good but aimless. We ask God to “bless” someone or to “strengthen” someone, but we have no particular end in view. When you add “so that” to your petitions, it forces you to ask yourself, “What do I really want God to do in this person’s life?” And if you don’t have a reason for praying a particular prayer, perhaps it’s not worth praying in the first place.
I find the “so that” principle very challenging and encouraging because it focuses my wandering mind and causes me to think about why I want God to “bless” Marlene or Josh and Leah or Mark and Vanessa or Nick or any of my friends and acquaintances. Here’s an example: “Lord, please help Josh and Leah to feel at home in China so that they make friends with the Chinese students and have opportunities to talk about their faith.” That’s much deeper than “Lord, please bless Josh and Leah.” It’s amazing how “so that” can transform an ordinary prayer into a powerful petition to our Heavenly Father.
The power of the church lies not in money, plans, buildings, preachers, programs, or anything else that comes from the hand of man. Our only true power is the power of prayer. When we pray, God moves from heaven. When we pray, things happen that would not otherwise happen. By prayer all things are possible. If we want to see the church move forward and the kingdom of darkness vanquished, we must pray and pray and pray. We have no other secret. If prayer won’t do it, there is no Plan B.
Do not neglect the enormous, world-changing power God has placed in your hands. Your prayers can shape history and influence the course of events. By prayer you can help missionaries in distant lands, restrain the work of evildoers, promote the spread of the gospel, influence your children to serve the Lord, and your prayers can be a link in the chain that God uses to bring people to Jesus.
Great doors are open before us—Pray!
Great challenges face us—Pray!
Great needs rise in our path—Pray!
All things are possible when we begin to pray. So Lord, do whatever it takes, but please, O Lord, teach us to pray. Amen.