I think that prayer is one of the most natural of things for us to do. When we are placed in a stressful situation, we want to call out to someone for prayer.
A number of years ago, I was sitting in the backyard of a hardcore atheist. As we were discussing matters of religion, a skunk emerged from the darkness. The skunk came right up to us and basically rubbed up against our legs and spent some time under the table between us. I know that I was praying hard. While he denies praying, I believe deep down there must have been something close to a prayer. Thankfully, neither one of us were sprayed.
Prayer is natural but that doesn’t mean that there is no place for growth. We can become more intentional in our prayer life. We can learn from biblical examples about how to be more effective at prayer. One example you may not have thought of is Nehemiah but I see a very helpful pattern in his experience.
Who was Nehemiah and what was his context? Israel had split into Israel and Judah. Israel was conquered by the Assyrians and were exiled. Later Judah was conquered by the Babylonians and also exiled. Eventually the Persians conquered the Babylonians and they allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. Nehemiah was a Jew who happened to have an influential post in the Persian court. It was in this context that we get a glimpse of Nehemiah’s prayer life and have the opportunity to learn from him.
The first stage of prayer begins long before getting on your knees. It is about being aware of a situation requiring prayer. In the case of Nehemiah, some people came from Judah to the Persian city where Nehemiah lived. Nehemiah questioned them to discover how things were going. There was a curiosity about his fellow Jews, a desire to know their welfare. But it didn’t end with curiosity. When Nehemiah found out how bad things were, he began to weep. His heart was broken about the suffering of his people.
This is our first stage as well. There are many ways for us to find out about the needs around us. Being in community should include sharing what is happening with each other. It may include sharing with the congregation or a few trusted friends. We should be in contact with Christians of other congregations as well. Technology allows us to be aware of what is happening all over the world as it happens. There is an abundance of needs, not just for Christians but for everyone. Like Nehemiah, it must go beyond information. Are there things that break our heart? Are we moved by the needs of the people in our congregation and beyond? It can feel overwhelming but we need more than just calm detachment. The Bible calls us to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. The word “compassion” means to suffer with and “sympathy” means to feel with. We need to be aware of the needs around us and we need to be moved by what we discover. Moved in our hearts and moved to prayer.
Pray to God
This is what we think of as the heart of prayer but it is only one stage. Even so, what prayer looks like might surprise us. If you ask the average person what prayer is they would likely say “asking God for stuff.” That is part of it but that is not the only part.
Nehemiah begins his prayer by praising God. This is not meant to get God in a good mood so that he will be more generous. This is about positioning ourselves in our proper place and encountering God from that perspective. Nehemiah also has a time of repentance. There is no reason to think that Nehemiah was particularly sinful and yet he explicitly includes himself. This is a consistent them in the Bible. Even if we don’t feel personally responsible, it is good for us to repent along side our people. Then Nehemiah reminds God of his promises. It is unlikely that God had forgotten those promises. It is really Nehemiah that is reminding himself so that he could pray in faith. Then Nehemiah prays for the matter at hand.
This is a great model for us to use in our personal and corporate prayers. How must God feel when the majority of our prayers are just requests? Why not have a prayer-time without asking God for things and just spending time with him? Not that asking God for things is wrong. He is our Father and just as parents want to know the needs of their children, God wants to hear from us.
Be Involved in the Answer
The moment we say amen is when most of us think the work is done. Saying amen is like hitting send on the email. Nothing more can be done after that. But this is wrong.
Nehemiah prayed a passionate prayer to God but he didn’t just leave it there. He got up from is prayer and went and spoke to the king. In fact his prayer request was not that God would raise someone else to make a difference, he prayed that God would give himself success. Nehemiah was fully prepared to be a part of the answer to the prayer.
There is a seemingly spiritual attitude of just leaving things in God’s hands. It sounds good but it is not quite right. We are not called to leave everything in God’s hands, we are called to leave the success in God’s hands.
I can’t just lock myself in my office and spend the whole week praying that if people are to be comforted or to be fed from God’s Word that this would happen purely by the power of the Spirit apart from human activity. I need to visit people, prepare Bible studies and write sermons. The ultimate success is in God’s hands but I have to accomplish the part God has given to me.
This is not just for pastors. You may see needs in our congregation or our community. You may have a heart for the homeless or for young people or for shut-ins. You may even spend significant amounts of prayer on those needs. But do you ever pray about how God can use you to meet those needs? When you say amen is your job done or is it only just beginning. This is not unspiritual, it is actually biblical. God rarely answers prayers purely in the spiritual realm. Most often, God uses people like you and me to answer the prayers of those who are in need.
We don’t often talk about Nehemiah. He doesn’t get the same notice as Moses, David, Peter or John. But there is something in his story that is directly applicable to our Christian experience. Too often we have settled for a one stage prayer, that is bowing our heads and blurting out a request. The Bible offers a three stage prayer model. Begin by being aware and moved by the needs around us. Respond in prayer, not just as a request but as real communication with a living God. Then be prepared to be a part of the answer, make yourself available to God. This fuller model of prayer is both more biblical and more effective.