Desperate for God
by Rev. David Drum
Here is the main point, right upfront: Prayer is a Christian’s lifeline. Prayer is the way we cling to Jesus, and Jesus is our Savior. Picture yourself having made that out-of-towner-during-a-monsoon-mistake and having driven into a swollen riverbed. The water couldn’t be that deep, you thought, but now you’re standing on top of your car, about to get washed away. The rescue squad throws you a life preserver, and you catch it and are pulled to shore. Question: how tightly do you cling to the life preserver? Jesus is that life preserver, and prayer shows us how closely we’re clinging to him. I don’t think most of us are there yet when it comes to prayer. And I am completely convinced that it’s where we need to be.
Charles Spurgeon is considered by many to be the greatest preacher in the history of Christianity. I just learned why this last month. During every service, he had 300-400 people in the basement of the church, praying for him and the congregation instead of participating themselves. When he felt like he wasn’t communicating, he’d stomp on the floor a little harder, and the people would pray with even greater intensity. Spurgeon believed in the power of prayer-and the powerlessness of the preacher.
The disciples once asked Jesus, “Lord, is now the time when you’re going to establish your kingdom?” (Acts 1:6). They had learned that Jesus would have to be the power source if anything significant was going to happen. Notice the question: it isn’t, “Lord, here’s our ten-step plan to evangelize Jerusalem; whaddaya think?” Rather, the question asks when Jesus is going to establish the kingdom. Second, they had learned that what had already been accomplished was not yet all that God intended to do. In fact, though they had a nice little church of 120 in merely three years, they saw what had happened as merely the appetizer, the prelude to the real deal. And finally, they had learned to have a childlike urgency to their request. “Are we there yet? How about now as a good time to establish the kingdom?” Oh, that we would learn those same lessons.
Jesus promised the disciples that they would receive the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ power source, and that his power would be sufficient for them to be his witnesses all the way to the ends of the earth. He told them to wait in Jerusalem, and then he left. Imagine things for the disciples. Jesus is now gone. He’s not coming back, at least not anytime soon. They’re waiting on the Holy Spirit, but they don’t know exactly what they were waiting for, or when they would receive it. All they knew is that something they needed, they didn’t yet have.
What kept them from just going off on their own power and talking about Jesus to others? What kept them from drafting plans and getting organized? What kept them from fighting with each other, all the personality conflicts coming to the surface once again? What kept someone from saying too soon, “I think this is it. I think we have the Spirit now”? The answer to all these questions: Acts 1:14. They all joined together constantly in prayer. Please go get a highlighter and mark that verse in neon pink. It may be one of the most important verses in the New Testament. They all joined together constantly in prayer. Why did Pentecost happen when it did? Because they all joined together constantly in prayer. Why were 3000 people saved, successfully assimilated as new members into a congregation of 120 on Pentecost?!! Because they all joined together constantly in prayer.
You can tell a lot about what a group really values by how they spend their time. These guys were desperate for Jesus. When they gathered together, they spent their time talking to God, not just to each other. We talk to each other when we think we have the answers, but we talk to God when we think He does. Where do you think their focus was? Jesus was their Savior, their life preserver. They weren’t going anywhere without him. And that’s really all the Holy Spirit does-he connects us to Jesus. Why are we here today, the product of a church that’s still growing after 2000 years? Because they all joined together constantly in prayer.
Prayer, as Ole Hallesby says, is born of helplessness; “The spirit of prayer is the spirit of helplessness”. Jesus said, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Those who believe him pray. Michael Green, an Anglican theologian and author, hit me with these words: “God will not allow us to succeed apart from prayer, or we’ll believe that we can succeed without Him.” And Robert Bakke said, “Without prayer, we cannot. Without prayer, God won’t.”
Jim Cymbala, in his book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, which is an absolute must-read, describes his own experiences as pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle. Do you know one of his great advantages when he became their pastor? He didn’t have a clue what he was doing. That was the advantage. He had received no training as a pastor. The congregation had less than twenty people in it. The first Sunday the offering was $85 (this was only a few years ago), and the mortgage bill due that week was $232. So you know what he did? He learned to pray. And so did his congregation. A few Sundays later with things completely bleak and desperate, Jim just broke down in the pulpit a few minutes into the sermon, saying, “If we don’t see God help us, I just don’t know…”. He stopped and did nothing but cry out to God.
Here’s my confession, my problem: I’ve never been that desperate. I’ve got training to fall back on, skills and gifts that God has given me to rely on. I’ve always got a plan, it seems. Did you know that according to the author of Natural Church Development, the growth and health of a church is inversely proportional to the formal educational training of the pastor? The more years of formal study the pastor has, the less healthy and growing the church tends to be. Why? Here’s my guess: because the power is God’s. God isn’t interested in sharing His glory with anyone, least of all the pastor.
How about our congregations? Could they be categorized as praying churches? Pastor Cymbala told his congregation once, “From today on, (our weekly) prayer meeting will be the barometer of our church. What happens on Tuesday night will be the gauge by which we will judge success or failure, because that will be the measure by which God blesses us. If we call upon the Lord, He has promised in His Word to answer, to bring the unsaved to Himself, to pour out His Spirit among us. If we don’t call upon the Lord, He has promised nothing – nothing at all. It’s as simple as that.” Martin Luther said, “I have so much to do today, and the stakes are so high, I simply cannot make it unless I start with three hours of prayer.” Billy Graham, in preparing for a crusade in a city, would ask not how the facilities were coming along, or the musicians, or the publicity, or anything else, but simply, “How many pray-ers do we have?” Jesus prayed before everything He did (Hebrews 5:7). Before his baptism (Luke 3:21), before being tempted (Luke 4:1), all night before choosing the disciples (Luke 6:12), before preaching (Mark 1:35), before teaching and healing (Luke 5:16), before walking on the water (Mark 6:46), before the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28), before raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11), before his betrayal (Luke 22:44), and while hanging on the cross (Matthew 27:46; Luke 23:34, 46). And he was the Son of God! Do you know what he’s doing right now? He’s still praying (Hebrews 7:25). He lives to intercede for us. We don’t just pray to a prayer-hearing God, but to a praying God!
A Sunday School teacher once asked his first-graders, “Now tell me the truth, do you pray before you eat your meals?” One student said, “No, I don’t need to. My Mom’s already a good cook.” That’s our problem. I know it’s mine. We’ve got enough skills, enough people, enough resources, to get by. We aren’t desperate enough. We don’t think we need prayer. The disciples didn’t have a plan, they didn’t have any experience, they didn’t have a fancy education, they didn’t even have the New Testament. So they prayed. Not just by themselves, but Acts 1:14 says they prayed together constantly. When they got together with other Christians, the chief thing they did was pray! As Cymbala puts it, they had this instinct: when in trouble, pray. When intimidated, pray. When challenged, pray. When persecuted, pray. The Hebrew word for calling upon God literally means “to cry out, to implore aid.” Spurgeon said, “The best style of prayer is that which cannot be called anything else but a cry.”
A guest minister at the Brooklyn Tabernacle once said, “You can tell how popular a church is by who shows up on Sunday mornings. You can tell how popular the pastor is by who shows up on Sunday nights. But you can tell how popular Jesus is by who shows up at the prayer meetings.” So, by that standard, who’s the most popular in your church? Oh, I know there are other times and other ways to pray than together in a prayer meeting, or in pairs up by the altar. But do we? Do we pray at other times and in other ways, showing by our prayer lives an absolute unquenchable thirst, an insatiable hunger, a desperation for God. Praying on the run all day long is not quite the same as a dedicated time of prayer. If I were to say to my wife, while running out the door, “Val, I was thinking about our vacation this summer. What do you think about San Diego? Would you like to go there? Well, I think that’s what I’ll do. Nice to talk to you. Hope you can make it, too.” Do you think she’d be blessed? That’s how much of my prayer life goes. I lay out my agenda. And then I move on to the next activity, hoping God will join me in what I planned to do anyway. Does my prayer life show me clinging to Jesus like my life depended on it? Does yours? Do we expect God to intervene, to show us our next steps, to save us, daily, hourly?
I know I can’t convince anyone of his or her need to pray. Shoot, I’ve had hundreds of people through the years try to convince me through books and sermons and Bible studies, and it didn’t work-not really. Here’s what has changed things for me recently. Bob Bakke said, “You need a conversion experience to get this thing called prayer. Ah, I get it now. This whole thing is about Him.” God is the giver of all good gifts, including prayer. Nobody will pray for long if they’re doing it because they ought to. We have to be driven to pray; we need to be converted to where we see Jesus as our Savior, not just from hell, but from countless pitfalls and self-reliance during every day, every hour, converted to where we cling to him like our lives depended on it. We can’t do that for ourselves-only God can do that for us. And God can do that for us.
I’ve committed to pray until that conversion fully happens. I’m going to pray until Jesus changes my heart and makes prayer the cornerstone of my life. I’m going to pray until I can’t stop praying, and I invite you to join me.
Rev. David Drum is Senior Pastor at Community of Hope Lutheran Church in Tucson, AZ.