The Power of Prayer

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Luke 8:1-8

Our Lord tried to impress on us our great need for prayer more than any other. He taught ten times more about what to pray and how to pray than how to preach.

Of all the things that Christians do, prayer is the most important, but it is often the least practiced. Today we begin the first of three special programs on prayer, featuring Words of Hope’s broadcast minister David Bast and former broadcast minister Bill Brownson. Here is David with some opening thoughts on the subject of why Christians should pray and do pray.

Recently I read an interview with the great historian and writer William Manchester. Manchester is the author of 18 books. Among them: “Death of a President, an Account of the JFK Assassination” and the popular biography of Douglas MacArthur, “American Caesar.” For the past 20 years, Manchester has been working on a biographical trilogy of the life of Winston Churchill. The first two volumes of “The Last Lion” have sold hundreds of thousands of copies in hard cover and fans are eagerly awaiting the final installment, but it’s not going to be. Manchester, now 79 years old and widowed, has suffered two strokes. He can no longer concentrate on his work or think clearly enough to write. In an interview with “The New York Times” with the unfinished manuscript of his book lying in front of him, Manchester talked about the terrible frustration of having lost his ability to complete his life’s work. The interview ended with this poignant statement, “My wife is gone and I can no longer write. If I believed in the power of prayer, I would pray every day that he carry me away.”

How sad it is when people come to the end of their lives without the strength and hope that comes from having a relationship with God. I’m reminded of a statement by theologian James Denney, “The decay of the natural man is the most melancholy spectacle in the world, for it is the end of everything.” If only William Manchester and so many others like him did know the power of prayer and even more importantly, if they only knew the power and the grace and the love of the Lord to whom we as Christians pray.

Jesus said a lot about prayer. As Bill Brownson remarked at the open of this program, Christ talked more about how to pray than he did about how to preach. Listen to one of the parables Jesus told to his followers to help them understand an important truth about prayer. Luke says that Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said:

In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.”

For a while he refused but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice so that she may not wear me out by continually coming. And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says, ‘And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night. Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you he will quickly grant justice to them, and yet when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:2-8, nrsv).

This story has a very simple point: pray, keep on praying, and never give up. God rewards persistence in prayer. God will answer. God will act in response to his peoples’ cries. We’ve all been puzzled at one time or another by the Lord’s painful silence, by his strange inaction. We pray desperately and nothing happens, or we get the opposite of what we pleaded for. Why does that happen? Jesus deliberately used a shocking analogy in this parable of the pleading widow, comparing God to an unjust, indifferent judge who didn’t want to be bothered by the woman’s pleas for justice.

Why would Jesus suggest that our kind and loving heavenly father is like that? For two reasons: first, because that is exactly how God often seems to behave which is why people like William Manchester give up on him or claim they simply can’t believe either in prayer or in God himself. It does sometimes seem as if the heavens are brass and our prayers only bounce off them and echo back to us from empty space. But if that seems to be happening to us, we need to pray all the more. Jesus’ parable, Luke explains, is about our need to pray always and not to lose heart.

Second, and more importantly, Jesus tells this parable to teach us something about how God disciplines us in the school of faith. The key to the lesson is found in Jesus’ favorite argument, the “how much more” argument that he uses here. If even a worthless human judge finally gives in to the widow’s pleas, how much more God will answer the desperate cries of his children for justice, for salvation, for deliverance from evil. Will he keep putting them off, asks Jesus. I tell you he will see that they get justice and quickly. So here’s the Lord’s own promise which guarantees the power of prayer. Not necessarily the power to get everything we ask for but something even better, the power to hear from God, and to know that as we pray, we are connecting with the living Creator of the universe.

We have to keep on praying and believing. God’s idea of quickly doesn’t always agree with ours. You know, he measures time differently than we do. Thus the need for faith, and thus Jesus final probing question, “But when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” I can’t speak for you and I can’t speak for William Manchester, but I can speak for myself. I’m determined that in my case at least insofar as I’m able, he will find faith. I will go on believing and praying in spite of my weakness, in spite of my doubts, in spite of my frequent stumbles and falls.

Bill Brownson, Words of Hope’s president and broadcast minister emeritus, now joins us as he and David talk about prayer and what Bill has learned from a life-time of studying, teaching about, and most importantly, practicing the discipline and gift of prayer.

Dave Bast: You are a preacher, you’ve been called to do that many, many years ago, and have spent your life engaged in the ministry of the gospel, sharing the good news about Jesus Christ, and doing that via radio for a good part of your active ministry. But it seems to me that increasingly in your later years, prayer has become a focus of your life and of your ministry. What drew you into this in such a serious way?

Bill Brownson: I was thinking about what happened when I became a Christian. I was led to Christ by a high school friend who asked me under a street light one night what I thought it meant to be a Christian. I had a very hazy idea about that, stumbled around for an answer, then he explained the gospel to me and I received Christ as my Savior. And at that time I can’t remember any delay between that experience of coming to know Christ and the sense that I was to spend the rest of my life sharing this with other people. My friend who counseled me about the living of a Christian life told me on that first night that if I was going to be a healthy, growing Christian I would need to spend time each day in the scriptures and in prayer. I’ve always been grateful for my friend’s counsel.

I discovered in the years that followed, sometimes by my failures and wanderings, how right he was that my Christian life tended to sag or to move ahead depending upon the place that prayer and the scriptures had in my life. So I learned early, sometimes through bitter and sad experience, that prayer is an absolute essential for the life of a Christian as the hymn writer says, “The Christian’s vital breath, the Christian’s native air.” And it is that. Not because it’s a discipline that we have to practice, though it is that, but prayer is what it is because God is who he is. And prayer opens the way for our communion, our interaction with God and the inflow of his life and blessing and power to us.

Dave Bast: So you really have a very definite moment, not only when you were converted, but when you can remember first beginning to really pray.

Bill Brownson: Yes, at least I remember when it was first impressed on me that this was something so vital. As I said, I had many struggles when I was in college keeping up a life of prayer and many defeats. When I would fail and wander I would confess to the Lord and commit myself afresh to give prayer the place it should have. Then I would fall down again, and I learned that if I don’t recommit myself, I don’t survive well in the Christian race.

Dave Bast: So it did take a while to grow into this.

Bill Brownson: It still does, but happily, wonderfully, it gets better. And I want to pray now more than I ever did before, and it’s not a burden to keep at it. It’s a joy and it’s work, but it’s also enormously fulfilling.

Dave Bast: You know, it strikes me. In one way it is so simple. It is so obvious because we struggle with things in our life, especially in our Christian life. We fight against sins and they keep coming back. And maybe we slip and fall. And all the while we’re not giving the attention to prayer that we ought to give. And then we wonder, why doesn’t this work? Why doesn’t this Christian life work? Why don’t I overcome this, that or the other thing? Or why doesn’t God answer me? Or why doesn’t God give me the finances I need? And we’re ignoring this means that he’s provided to come to him, not necessarily that we’ll get the quick answers that we’re looking for, but we’ll get something even better.

Bill Brownson: Yes. And one of the things that happened with me as I was learning how to pray was coming to realize that prayer for me was more than a kind of a survival kit, more than a means just to keep myself afloat spiritually. One of the real awakenings in my life came when I realized through some things that I read and through the Bible that my prayers meant something to God. When I missed my prayer time I was missing an appointment with God, and just as Jesus says, “the Father seeks those who will worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). He seeks for the response of our hearts, a big part of which is prayer. I believe he misses it when it isn’t there, just like he missed the nine lepers that didn’t come back to say thanks.

Dave Bast: Yes, so when we fail, we’re really “standing God up” in a way. It’s unthinkable that you would do that to an important person who gave you an appointment to see them.

Bill Brownson: That’s right. And so then I had an experience in the midst of these struggles where I talked to an older believer. I told him about how I was not succeeding in keeping up in my prayers and he said to me, “Well, Bill, when that happens, don’t sweat it, just wait til the desire comes back.” And I know he meant well, but that was some of the worst advice I ever got because when I just let it go and waited, often I’d wait a long time.

And then I began to read passages in scripture like this:

I will praise you, O Lord, as long as I live. I will sing praise to my God while I have my being. Every day I’ll bless you. I’ll praise your name forever and ever.

I began to see that praise to God and prayer to God in the Bible is not left at the mercy of one’s moods. Rather, people set their hearts, “I’m going to do this no matter what because God is worthy, because he’s great and greatly to be praised.”

Dave Bast: So there’s bad advice that can be given as well as good advice. And certainly don’t just leave it up to your whims.

Bill Brownson: Yes, and then the wonderful thing is, the more we respond to this call, the more we set our hearts to praise God, and the more we pray, the more prayer becomes real and priceless to us. I have a kind of a principle that I’ve observed in life, and I talk about and preach about a lot, and that is that as we pray, so we live. Whatever most occupies your praying, whatever you pray about with the greatest passion and persistence, will shape your life. It’s like: everybody, whatever your master passion is shapes you, so if your master passion is to make money, that will mold everything else in your life. If your master passion is to climb the ladder to success and power, then family, friends, conscience, everything else will be subject to that. If your great desire is to honor God, to praise him, and as you begin to translate that into life, you find that your life moves along with it. So your praying, as Jesus taught us to pray, “Father, let your name be hallowed, let your kingdom come, let your will be done,” the more you pray for those things, the more you find your life being drawn along.

Dave Bast: So you’re really saying that we need to pray in a sense, at least in the beginning, whether we feel like it or not. I can imagine someone thinking, “Well, if you don’t pray from the heart, it doesn’t do any good. That’s not real prayer anyway, so I might as well not bother to go through an exercise where I’m just repeating words, but without denying that we need to pray from the heart. You’re suggesting, are you, that maybe we do need to begin by seeing prayer as exercise just as physical exercise doesn’t depend on our moods? You do it whether you want to or not or feel like it or not, so with prayer?

Bill Brownson: Yes. There’s a good analogy there because when you begin physical exercise, often you’re stiff, you’re sore, you don’t feel like doing this, but then as you get into it, your body loosens up and then you actually begin to enjoy it. The puritans had a way of talking about prayer. One puritan writer said that when he starts to pray, often he feels like his heart is a huge, heavy stone and he’s struggling to try to lift it up to God. But as he prays, as he calls on God, suddenly the heavy burden gets lighter and it becomes a bird that soars into the sky. That’s the way it is. Often you begin the disciplines of the Christian life because you know this is God’s calling. He’s worthy but your heart is not quite in it yet, but as you lift your heart to God and open your life to him, then wonderful things happen.