Ravi Zacharias was the 2008 Honorary Chairman of the National Day of Prayer. He delivered the following keynote address at The Cannon House in Washington, DC, on May 1, 2008.
It’s really been a full morning, beginning with being with the President as he gave us a challenge and then led in prayer, and then on to the Pentagon, where I’ve just spoken to our officers, and now here. I got an email yesterday from somebody on the other end of the world saying, “I was just noticing where you’re speaking tomorrow. Are you nervous?” I wrote back and said, “If I weren’t, I would be even more.”
What a distinct honor it is for me to be here and speak to you on this occasion on the theme of prayer and calling the nation to prayer.
There’s a small species of bird called a Manx shearwater. I’m not much of a student of birds; that’s not one of the “ologies” I specialized in, but a man I greatly respect, the famed John R. W. Stott, has spent many, many years just in bird watching and actually written a book on it. Recently he sent me that book and on the front page, he said, “With a prayer that you, too, would get interested in these kinds of things.” He’s a great expositor; one of the most respected evangelical scholars on the globe today. Writing about the Manx shearwater, which is a bird of the open ocean, he gives us a remarkable fact. It is this: There are about four to five hundred-thousand pairs in the world today, more than half of which make their home in two little islands in the southwest of Wales. They only come on land for one purpose: to lay their solitary egg, which generally is laid at the bottom end of a rabbit’s burrow, and then they nurture that egg and then they’re off to the open again.
Those studying that species wanted to find out how much they would be thrown off their own instinct if they were placed elsewhere. So in 1952, they took one of these little birds and placed her in Cambridge, England, about 250 miles away. Within seven hours, she had flown back to the island in the southwest of Wales. Next year they took one and freed that bird over Logan Airport in Boston, nearly 3,000 miles away. After twelve days of flying nearly 250 miles a day, that bird was back in the southwest of Wales.
The Instinct of Prayer
That homing instinct is an incredible feature of the creaturely world. And may I suggest to you, that instinct to prayer is planted within your soul and mine.
I was born and raised in a home in India, where I was really a skeptic for the first seventeen years of my life. My parents belonged to an Anglican church. I’ve often said I memorized the Anglican prayer book because I wanted to time when the service would end. I could tell you precisely when there were seven minutes left to go, so that I could get out of there and get onto the cricket field, which was my primary passion. And yet, when the organic chemistry exams were about to begin, or the math exams were about to begin, it was, “Oh my God, would you please help me? Dear God, I bend my knee before you this morning.” As someone has said, as long as there are math tests in schools, there will always be prayer in schools as well. It’s the instinct of the human heart. And may I suggest to you, it’s almost like breathing. You don’t even have to be taught to breathe. There are times in your life where, with all of your skepticism, you will say, “Dear God, if you are there, if you are listening”—it is because your soul is reaching to some power greater than yourself when you suddenly realize your own finitude.
May I give to you a couple of examples of this? Many, many years ago, two of my colleagues and I were doing a lectureship in Budapest. Hungary has produced, per capita, more Nobel laureates than any other nation in the world. We were sitting around a table with about seven or eight men and women—one was the most renowned particle physicist of his time, there was a member of Parliament, and a couple of other very well-known people in the country. They had come to ask their questions about God. We were in this beautiful ballroom by ourselves at the center table, with chandeliers decorating the walls. It was about one in the morning and we were getting exhausted. Any question you could think of, from philosophy, from historiography, from science, all of this, we were dealing with that, but now we were worn out. And I had to give a couple of lectures the next day.
I said, “Do you folks mind if I bring this evening to a close and pray for the nation?” They were kind of taken aback. Very seldom has anyone said No to that request and so I prayed. I prayed for the land, for the healing of the land, for all the tragedies they had witnessed, for its young people, for these distinguished members around the table. When I opened my eyes, I wasn’t expecting to see what I did. There were tears running down every one of their faces—tears running down, and they were trying to wipe them away. We hugged them and went on our way to the hotel.
The next day, they all drove over one and a half hours to wherever I was speaking, and one of the men said to me, “Can I see you for a moment?” He said, “I’m a businessman. I’ve never believed in God. Last night, I never went back to my room. I walked the streets of Budapest, and I just want you to know I committed my life to God last night. I never, ever thought that day would come. I don’t think it was the arguments; I really don’t think it was any attempt at the questions we made. It was the hunger of the soul that said, ‘I’ve missed this. I’ve missed talking to God himself.’ And something happened during that prayer.”
I was sharing at the Pentagon that the well-known speaker from Korea, Billy Kim, often tells the story during the Korean War, how in the middle of the heat of that battle, one of the soldiers was ordered out of his trenches to go and rescue his fallen mates. He looked at his watch, ducked for cover, and didn’t obey the command. The officer thought it had been done and he moved on. But he came back a little later, saw him still there, and really scolded him. He said, “I’ve ordered you to leave this. Go and rescue your mates.” The soldier said, “All right, sir.” He looked at his watch and again ducked for cover. The third time, when he was discovered again not obeying and just trembling and shaking, he looked at his watch one more time, ran out of the shell hole, and rescued most of his fallen comrades.
That night, one of them looked at him all wearied and said, “What was the problem with you—looking at your watch every time you were commanded?” He said, “Well, I want you to know I don’t believe in God, but my mother, how dearly she believes in God. And she told me what hour of every day she was going to be praying for me. Under the cover of her prayers, I was not fearful at all and was willing to take on anything.”
I’ve spoken to our troops in Doha Qatar and at Ramstein prayed with our wounded. In many of the bases I have been, at the end of each meeting there’s a line up of some of the finest young men and women in the world, armed with some of the finest weaponry, asking if you’ll just put your hand on their shoulder and pray for them. They want that power that is greater than what the military might alone can bring.
The famed John Chrysostom, writing in the 400s, said this,
“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, burst the chains of death, expanded the gates of heaven, subdued evil instincts, assuaged diseases, repelled frauds, rescued cities from destruction, stayed the sun in its course, and arrested the progress of the thunderbolt. Prayer is an all-sufficient 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, and the mother of a thousand blessings.”
This was a great man who spoke those words sixteen hundred years ago, and at the end of it, he actually adds a postscript: “Is that mere rhetoric? No, heaven knows no such cunning.”
Prayer Recognizes the Sovereignty of God
What does prayer recognize? What does prayer really do? The first thing is this: prayer implicitly and explicitly recognizes the sovereignty of God over your life. You are not completely sovereign over yourself: there’s a sovereign power that arranges the threads, that brings these threads together if you will but respond to his nod.
I remember years ago, before I wrote my book The Grand Weaver, looking at God’s purposes in individual lives. I was visiting a place where saris were made in India in the great city of Varanasi and watching rather surprisingly that it just took two people to do it: an older man sitting above a platform and his son sitting two steps below, spools of thread all around the older one. The man would pull these threads together and nod and the son would just move the shuttle from right to left or left to right at the nod of the father. A few days later, when you’d come back, you’d see a magnificent sari being woven. You’d recognize all along, the design was already in the mind of the father; the son was just responding to the nod and seeing those threads and the design coming together.
Who would imagine in 1931, when a young British politician was on a lecture tour of the United States, that he nearly lost his life. He was crossing a broad avenue in New York, was hit by a car, hurled into the air, and in his own biographical words, said, “I should have been smashed into oblivion.” He came landing with a thud on the pavement, but was rescued, restored, and went back to England. I’m referring to the famed Winston Churchill. What would the world be like today without the courage, the rhetorical power, the insight, and the unfailing strength of a man like that? Our whole world would have looked different in history. But in the hand of God, the threads of God were being woven.
I think of our own great former president Abraham Lincoln—probably one of the greatest minds who has ever lived. A most splendid speech, his second inaugural address is barely 700 words. Critics hailed it as a speech without parallel and probably never to be equaled. Less than 700 words and fourteen times he refers to God and his power, his providence, his sovereignty over the affairs of human beings. That speech ends with words so beautifully, “With malice toward none, with charity for all”—and listen to this line—“with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us…finish the work.”
We hear all that’s wrong with America today. I don’t even listen much to the news anymore. It depresses me: all the criticism, all the self flagellation. As one who’s come from abroad and made this now my home, I want you to know, many times when I come back from a long journey—and I travel over 200 days a year—I come back home, put my suitcase down, and my wife will tell you I get on my knees and kiss the kitchen floor and thank God that I’m home again. This is a nation that’s been blessed of God, empowered for such great tasks, and there are thousands and millions who come to its shores to find that kind of succor and hope and the opportunity to succeed and succeed again even when you have failed in several attempts.
So I thank God that He’s been sovereign; that’s He’s given us the opportunity to live in a land such as this. Even this gathering is a tribute to God’s sovereignty and God’s grace. You didn’t ask where you were going to be born, and barring any type of insidious motive, you will not choose when and where you will die. Those are the sovereign acts of God. The most important things, the very DNA in your body, is a gift of God.
And we are reminded that we are created equal. You know what? Naturalism would never say that. Pantheism would never say that. It’s only the Holy Scriptures that will tell you that you are created in the image of God.
This questioner came to Jesus and asked him a wonderful question: “Is it all right to pay taxes to Caesar?” It’s one question I wish Jesus had answered differently. It’d be wonderful if he’d said, “No, just don’t.” When April 15th comes, how wonderful to leverage some transcendent motive and deny the law of the land in the process at the same time. Jesus said to him, “Do you have a coin? Whose image is on this?” He said, “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.” The disingenuiness of the questioner was revealed instantly. He should have had a follow-up question. He should have said, “What belongs to God?” You know what Jesus would have said? “Whose image is on you?”
Whose image is on you? And so that homing instinct comes as we recognize again and again, and we cry out to God, “heavenly Father.”
Prayer Is a Reminder That God Is Near
The second thing is a recognition and reminder that God is near to us. You know, He doesn’t tell you that you have to bow in a certain way, you have to have a certain attire, you have to face in a certain direction—none of this. Soldiers cry out to God in a shell hole. People cry out to God in a cancer ward. The greatest powers, leaders in the world, will cry out right behind the most powerful desks that are given to them, and they will cry out to God. We all come the same way and God is near.
Remember the great poem penned by Francis Thompson, “The Hound of Heaven”?
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways;
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter…
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
And that magnificent poem, one of the greatest pieces of poetry ever written by this man, ends with the words,
‘Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.’
Thompson, when he penned that, didn’t realize how much the hound of heaven was close to him because Thompson was a failure in life. He was a drug addict; he lived off opium. Rejected from Oxford University three times in his applications, kicked out from his home, he lived in two places. With a dirty raincoat wrapped around him, he’d sell shoelaces and pencils to buy his drugs in the place for the losers and the lost in Charing Cross in London. He’d go to Charing Cross, buy his drugs, at the end of the day, go with his dirty raincoat wrapped around and sleep by the River Thames. He’d pick up newspapers from the dustbins of London and write letters to the editor. The editor would say, “A greater than a Milton is among us, but there’s no return address.”
One day, he picked up the Scriptures and was reading the book of Genesis. And then he penned these words:
O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air—
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumour of thee there?
Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars!—
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.
The angels keep their ancient places;—
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.
But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry;—and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.
Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry,—clinging Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!
He is near you right now. You can call him Holy Father. I came to know Christ on a bed of suicide when I was seventeen—desolate, desperate. My father just finished telling me I’d be a total failure in life. I was a born failure, he said. Somebody brought a Bible to my bedside. I’m so thankful to my heavenly Father that my dad lived long enough to write a letter to me—my dad died fairly early—and said, “Will you ever forgive me and the things I said?” And yet, in the dark night of the soul, I found the heavenly Father to be closer than I’d ever realized.
He is near to our nation if we’d call on Him. He is near the seats of power; He is near the academy. He’s beside you. He’s a sovereign God, but He’s a God who’s near.
In Prayer God Reveals Your Heart
Thirdly, what happens in prayer? He reveals your own heart to you. He shows you your own heart. When I left India, I was told by many from a different worldview, “Going to America? You know, they are all messed up morally. We are superior, morally, to the West.” Some of the boys in 9/11 said the same thing. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We’re all messed up. We do everything behind closed doors there, send it under the rug. The human heart is depraved everywhere. We only do it in more sophisticated ways in some parts of the world. The human heart is as lost in India as it is lost in America. It’s as lost in Africa as it is lost in Asia. The human heart, you have to see it for what it is, and only through God’s eyes can you see it.
Jacob got on his knees and said, “God, I’m not going to let you go unless you bless me.” God said, “What is your name?” That’s an odd question for an omniscient being to ask. Jacob could have probably said, “Excuse me, I thought you knew my name.” But God knew what He was asking because years before, when Jacob lied and cheated his brother of his inheritance, he then looked at his blind father who asked him for his name, and he lied and he gave him the wrong name. Now he was in front of an all-seeing father, and God says, “What is your name?” When he referred to himself by the right name, God says, “Now I’m going to make a great people out of you because you’ve recognized who you are.” If America recognizes a heart needs healing, He will make of us an even greater nation than He has made us hitherto.
Please forgive me if this illustration is a bit sensitive. I don’t say it with any ill intent. Three years ago, I was with the Archbishop of Canterbury. He’d taken five of us to the Middle East to talk to the leaders of all factions to bring together some kind of semblance of peace, some discussion. There were many of those appointments I chose not to go to because of our nation’s caution on whom to see and not to see.
But the last day, I saw one of the leaders of Hamas, one of the four founders. I went there for one reason; I had one question for him. He gave us a great meal, told us of eighteen years he’d served in prison, some of his children had been lost in suicide bombings, and this and that. And I had a question. I said, “Sheik, I may never see you again and forgive me if I’m asking you the wrong question. Please tell me, what do you think of suicide bombing and sending your children out like that?” I didn’t like his answer. I couldn’t say much. The room was full of smoke.
After he finished his answer, I said, “Sheik, you and I may never see each other again, so I want you to hear me. A little distance from here is a mountain upon which Abraham went 5,000 years ago to offer his son. You may say the son was one; I may say it’s another. Let’s not argue about that. He took his son up there. And as the axe was about to fall, God said, ‘Stop.’” I said, “Do you know what God said after that?” He shook his head. I said, “God said, ‘I myself will provide.’” He nodded his head. I said, “Very close to where you and I are sitting, Sheik, is a hill. Two thousand years ago, God kept that promise and brought his own Son and the axe did not stop this time. He sacrificed his own Son.”
I said, “Sheik, I just want you to hear this. Until you and I receive the Son God has provided, we’ll be offering our own sons and daughters on the battlefields of this world for many of the wrong reasons.”
It was quiet. We walked out and the Archbishop just put his arm around me. As I was about to get into the SUV, the Sheik came over and he just patted me on my face. He kissed me on both sides. He was a strong man; he pulled me to him. He said, “You’re a good man. I hope I will see you again someday.” That’s all he said.
God’s provided his Son. And he wants us to see our own hearts. If we don’t recognize it, we will brandish a false sense of hubris that will only end up in self-destruction. A sovereign God, a near God, a God who discloses the heart, and lastly, a God who fashions you as you pray into the dream that He has in mind for you.
In Prayer God Reveals His Dream for You
C. S. Lewis, in his brilliant book Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer, said the skeptic accuses him of imagining prayer. Lewis writes of ”the haunting fear that there is no-one listening, and that what we call prayer is soliloquy: someone talking to himself.” So he responded with a poem by an unknown author:
“They tell me Lord, that when I pray,
Only one voice is heard;
That I’m dreaming,
You’re not there,
This whole thing is absurd.
Maybe they’re right, Lord,
Maybe they’re right.
Maybe there’s only one voice that’s heard.
But if there’s only one voice that’s heard,
Lord, it’s not mine, it’s your voice.
I’m not dreaming; you are the dreamer.
And I am your dream.”1
You’re the dream of God. He fashions you into his dream. May I just say, if you can see the dream of your life through his eyes, what a difference!
F. W. Boreham’s mother says she was a young woman when she was visiting Canterbury Cathedral and a man offered to show her around. But she was waiting for a dinner appointment and kept turning him down, turning him down, turning him down. Finally, an hour late, the friend arrived and as she left, the man gave her his card and said, “I’m sorry I didn’t get to show you Canterbury Cathedral. If ever I’m here around some other time, and you’re here, I’ll show it to you.” She didn’t even look at the card. Late that night as she was getting dressed for bed, she opened her purse and she noticed the name on the card. It said Charles Dickens. She could have seen Canterbury Cathedral through his eyes. Never did.
Of all the stories I’ve told after thirty years of traveling, this one is nearest to my heart, probably the most moving to me. In 1971, I preached in Vietnam. I was in my mid twenties; my interpreter was seventeen years old. His name was Hien Pham. We covered the length and breadth of the country. The American troops carried us around or we went by motorbike. How our lives were rescued, I don’t know. But we came back safely. A revival broke out in the country through the preaching of these two young men.
Hien was my interpreter. In the city Natrang, I held him close, embraced him, and said, “Goodbye, Hien. I’ll probably never see you again.” I flew to Saigon and on back where I was living at that time in Toronto.
Seventeen years later, my phone rang. I was in Vancouver speaking and the phone rang at 11:00 p.m. The man said, “Brother Ravi.” There’s only one person who called me with that intonation that way. I said, “Hien, is that you?” he said, “Yes.” I said, “Oh my word! Where are you?” He said, “California.” I said, “What are you doing here?” He said, “Have you got a few minutes?” I said, “Yes.”
He said, “After Vietnam fell, I was imprisoned by the Viet Cong because I’d worked with the Americans, worked with people like you. They put me behind bars, they took away all English from me, took away my Bible from me, tried to knock faith out of me. I was only allowed to read Marx and Engels in French and Vietnamese. After about a year in there, so worn out, I said, ‘Maybe you don’t exist, God. I’m giving up all hope. I don’t believe in you. Tomorrow when I wake up, I’m not going to pray.’”
That morning, he was assigned to clean the latrines. He said, “Brother Ravi, it’s the dirtiest place on earth you’d want to be. I bound a handkerchief around my mouth cleaning the wet floor, and I saw a little bin with dirty pieces of paper, with human excrement in it. But something told me as I looked there, there was one paper, a piece of paper with English.” He said, “I hadn’t read English for so long. I washed it off, put it in my hip pocket, waited for everybody to go to bed, to sleep. Lights were out.
I took out my flashlight under my mosquito net. I flashed it. On the right hand corner it said, Romans chapter 8.” He said, “I started reading and cried. ‘Oh, my dear Lord, you didn’t leave me one day without you.’ ‘For all things work together for good to them that love God; to those that are called according to his purpose. For who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Neither things present, nor things to come, nor life nor death.’”
Hien said, “Next morning I went back to the commanding officer. I said, ‘Do you mind if I clean the latrines again today?’” He went there every day. He found another page from the New Testament. The commanding officer had been given a Bible a long time ago. He was tearing out a page every day using it as toilet paper. Hien was washing it and using it for his devotions every day.
I said, “Where are you now?” He said, “I’m at Berkeley doing my business degree.” I said, “I can’t believe this, Hien.” He said, “I’m in America.”
I said, “How did that happen?” He said, “I was released and I built a boat with 52 others. Four days before my release, before our escape, four Viet Cong came armed to the teeth and grabbed me and said, ‘Are you trying to escape?’ I lied and said, ‘No.’ They said, ‘Are you telling us the truth?’” He said, “Yes.”
They let him go. He got on his knees, and said, “God, I lied. I’m running my own life. I lied. If you really want me to tell them the truth, let them come back again.” He said, “I sincerely hoped that prayer would never be answered. Hours before we left, the four of them came with their machine guns, grabbed me by the collar, rammed me against the wall. ‘You’re lying, aren’t you?’”
Hien said, “Yes, I’m escaping with 52 others. Are you going to imprison me again?” They said, “No. we want to go with you.’”
“Brother Ravi, if it weren’t for them we would never have made it. They knew how to navigate the ocean on that boat, get us safely to Thailand. I was then listed as a United Nations refugee. I’m here in America now doing my business degree.”
He runs a financial planning company now in California. He came and visited us, wanted me to officiate at his wedding, and he looked at my kids and said, “Don’t ever think God is far away from you. That intimate relationship is the greatest thrill of anyone’s life, for He seeks such to have fellowship with Him.”
May God bless our nation and may God call us to prayer. May the greatest days be ahead. And Shirley [Dobson], thank you so much for you and your team, for all that you do to call us to prayer. May God be honored and thank you for having me. God bless you.
1Ravi Zacharias cites a different version of the poem that Lewis quotes in Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer. The original author is unknown for this version as well.
Ravi Zacharias is founder and president of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.