Saint John Chrysostom wrote this about the power of prayer:
“Prayer is an all-efficient panoply, a treasure undiminished, a mine which is never exhausted, a sky unobscured by the clouds, a heaven unruffled by the storm. It is the root, the fountain, the mother of a thousand blessings. . . . The potency of prayer hath subdued the strength of fire, it hath bridled the rage of lions, hushed anarchy to rest; extinguished wars, appeased the elements, expelled demons, burst the chains of death, expanded the gates of heaven, assuaged diseases, repelled frauds, rescued cities from destruction, stayed the sun in its course, and arrested the progress of the thunderbolt.”(1)
Who can read that and not be tempted to exclaim, “Is that mere rhetoric?” No, not so. Each of the instances referred to by Chrysostom is drawn right out of the Scriptures.
In all of its expressions, whether halting and short or flowing in beautiful, well-structured phrases, prayer is simply a conversation with God. If we turn prayer into a monologue or use it as a way to showcase our gift with words or as a venue for informing or instructing others who may be listening, we defeat the very purpose of prayer. The Bible makes it clear that prayer is intended as the line of connection from the heart of the praying person directly to the heart of God. Jesus himself practiced a lifestyle of prayer and urged his disciples to imitate him by making it part of their daily existence. His prayers represented prayer at its best and most sincere.
I marvel at the impact of praying with a hurting person. I have prayed many times with someone who has claimed to be a skeptic and is living in a manner that supports that claim, only to finish my prayer and open my eyes to see tears in his eyes. Although prayer remains a mystery to all of us but especially to one who lives apart from God, I have observed again and again that even the hardened heart retains a longing for the possibility of communicating with God.
Prayer can accomplish amazing things, reaching into hearts in a way that all the correct answers to questions that are honestly asked sometimes cannot do. Conversely, more certainly than anything else, sustained prayer that seems to bring nothing in response can result in a sense of futility with life and an erosion of faith. Like the myth of Sisyphus, who repeatedly rolled a huge rock up a mountain only to watch it roll down again, unanswered prayer may well be where most of those who have lost their faith began that journey into unbelief.
It is not my intention to deny the great disappointments of unanswered prayer or even to attempt to provide answers to why our prayers are not answered. Rather, I want us to take a good, hard look at what God intends prayer to be.
The most definitive passage on prayer is what is often called the Lord’s Prayer or, as some scholars like to call it, the Disciples’ Prayer. The highly significant first words carry the weight of all of prayer: “Our Father in heaven.” This is a uniquely Christian utterance. In these two words alone—”Our Father”—we recognize, at least implicitly, two truths: the nearness of God as heavenly Father, and the sovereignty of God as the one who controls everything. As soon as you cry out in prayer, “Heavenly Father,” you are recognizing his presence in your life.
And on the heels of the Lord’s Prayer and as his conclusion to it, Jesus tells us that God will give the Holy Spirit, his indwelling presence, to those who ask for it. That is the whole point of the prayer. It is not spoken in the form of a question—it ends with an exclamation point. God will give the gift of the indwelling presence of the holy God to any who ask for it—this is an absolute certainty! You can count on it!
Sadly, we hear so little of this today. We have turned prayer into a means to our ends and seldom wait on God’s response long enough to think about what he wants for us in that very moment. By reducing the evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to one particular gift, we have robbed people of the Holy Presence that prompts us in prayer, prays for us when we don’t have the words to pray for ourselves, and comforts us in our times of need.
The paramount need today is the indwelling presence of God. In this incredible twist, the indwelling presence of God, the Holy Spirit, makes God both the enabler of our prayers and the provider of answers to those prayers. More than anything else, this is what prayer is about—training one’s hungers and longings to correspond with God’s will for us—and it is what the Christian faith is all about. Paul reminds us of this numerous times. Jesus talks of the prompting from within and the provision that comes from without, which is the work of the Holy Spirit within us and the provision of God from without.
Ravi Zacharias is founder and chairman of the board of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.
Excerpted from Has Christianity Failed You? by RAVI ZACHARIAS. Copyright © 2010 by Ravi Zacharias. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com
(1) Quoted in Leonard Ravenhill, Why Revival Tarries (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1959), 156.