Praying Through the Problems

August 25th, 2011
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Released from prison and walking back through the streets of Jerusalem, John and Peter realized they were in trouble. Although they were free for the moment, the stern warning from the authorities to cease and desist their teaching was a tangible threat over their heads. They were now on a watch list and would not be traveling incognito. They might have felt a bit singled out. They had been following Jesus’ instructions to the letter and it constantly landed them in trouble.

We all face more difficulty in life than we hope for or feel prepared to handle. Relationships are complicated and painful. Money concerns are intense. Friends betray us. Health issues come out of nowhere to consume us with pain and fear. Some problems are completely beyond our control and resources. The question is, “Where do you go when your problem is huge?”

Peter and John showed the way: “On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them” (Acts 4:23). They knew exactly where to run, to the community of Christians they knew intimately— to people who would understand, stand by them, and pray for them. Note the phrase “went back.” The relationships were firmly established before the crisis arrived.

I’ve spent a lifetime watching people in crisis. It is a difficult part of a pastor’s ministry work, being present when terrible things happen to good people. Time and again I’ve observed that individuals who have Christian friends, are connected to the church, and have a team of mature believers who will pray for them do far better than those who don’t. The time when you lose your job, receive a diagnosis of cancer, suffer the death of a family member, or face a natural disaster is not the best moment to start shopping around for someone who will pray for you.

Consider an uncomfortable thought: if you get slammed this week with the biggest problem of your life so far, who will pray for you? Who are your godly friends? Who will understand? Who will pray earnestly and consistently on your behalf? Blessed are those who have praying Christian friends.

When asked to pray, the friends of Peter and John knew precisely what to do. The praying had started in earnest before the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and their prayer lives had only deepened. They were experienced veterans of prayer.

Luke records that after they heard what had happened to Peter and John “they raised their voices together in prayer to God.” I like the oneness and solidarity suggested by the word together. Did one person speak? Did they take turns? However the praying occurred, they were in it together.

“Sovereign Lord, . . . you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David” (4:24-25). Their prayer begins with a humble acknowledgement of God’s magnificence rather than a litany of requests. They knew him well.

“You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: ‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.’ Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” (Acts 4:25-28)

Their prayer was an acknowledgment that God was behind the events of history and even turned the nightmarish crucifixion of Jesus into something good. He used the actions of Herod and Pilate to accomplish human salvation through Jesus’ death on the cross. If he could do that, he could handle Peter and John’s persecution. Their own words bolstered their faith: he had done it before and could do it again.

Then they asked, “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (Acts 4:29-30).

It is striking that the believers didn’t pray for the problem to evaporate. I would have been inclined to ask God to zap the Sanhedrin or at least exempt the Christians from further persecution. But, instead of asking to be excused from difficulty, they requested the ability to speak boldly despite the intimidation. They prayed for God to perform healing and other miracles. They wanted to show God’s powers and to perform persuasive acts of compassion and kindness. They were not vindictive. They didn’t seek retribution. They prayed for God to spectacularly triumph over opposition with expressions of love.

Jesus had taught this principle—praying for our enemies. This passage shows how closely aligned the believers had become with him.

Like those Christians, start your prayers by acknowledging God’s sovereignty, not by asking for favors. This is just common sense. Imagine yourself barging into the headquarters of a powerful world leader, marching down the carpeted aisle right up to the desk and, without a word of greeting, demanding an array of goods and services. You wouldn’t stalk into your boss’s office and say, “Give me more money!” You’d begin with thoughtful and genuine dialogue. In the same way, remember with respect who God is and what he has already done for you. Ask for the gift of strength more than an instant solution to your issue. It isn’t wrong to ask for the problem to be lifted, but it is much more important to realize and request that God enable us to face difficulties with faith.

Peter and John picked the right people to pray—people aligned with the will of God so the results were quick and powerful. “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (Acts 4:31). Was it an earthquake, a supernatural event caused by the Spirit, or just a descriptive way of communicating the presence and power of God? We don’t know for certain, but it is apparent something extraordinary again happened.

They were filled to the brim with the Holy Spirit. With supernatural joy and intense purpose, they were able to speak the message of Jesus boldly, exuding courage, confidence, and hope. It was the answer to prayers granted.

Would a movement of confidence and boldness have been possible without their fervent prayers? I think it’s doubtful. Picture yourself in the same time period and circumstances. Your leaders have been threatened, you’ve seen your Teacher tortured to death. Would that put you in the frame of mind to witness? To preach on the street corners? To share freely with others the joy of the Christian life? No, something otherworldly happened, something the Holy Spirit orchestrated, organized, and implemented.

It was a great day at the house in Jerusalem, which—before the crucifixion and resurrection—had been just a pleasant home where people came for dinner now and again. Now it was an unofficial headquarters where the work of God was accomplished. The day began with a problem that looked insurmountable, and it brought people together. The Christians turned solemnly and trustingly to prayer and were not surprised by God’s immediate and forceful response. The results were spectacular. But the problem didn’t go away. In fact, this group would soon see their security deteriorate and their lives threatened.

This raises questions for me. When Christians face crushing problems, what are we supposed to do? Do we ask God for a miracle to fix the matter? Can God really heal Stage 4 cancer? Can God actually reconcile a marriage when one partner has broken trust through infidelity? Can God truly turn the outcome of an election or a war? Because, if he can, why doesn’t he? If he can’t, what’s the point in believing in God?

Acts 4:24 reminds us that God is sovereign. He created the world, revealed himself to humans in the Bible, and is the God of history. He can do anything, but he created an ordered universe with laws of science that were his idea. Miracles are exceptions, not the norm. We pray for miracles and sometimes God says yes; sometimes he says no. But God is always the sovereign boss, and we trust him to give the right answer whether we like that answer or not. When God chooses to perform a miracle and solve our problem, we are deeply grateful. When God says no, we must be faithful and pray that he will give us the strength to make it through, make him look good, and be bold in our words for Jesus.

The great lesson from the prayer meeting is that God does not guarantee to make all our problems disappear. What God does is turn our human problems into supernatural victory through Jesus Christ.

 

Leith Anderson is the president of the National Association of Evangelicals and senior pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, MN. This article is excerpted and adapted from Leith's book The Jesus Revolution.

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