Prayer in Mission—the Essential Ingredient

Drawing on Romans 15:30–32, David Harley reminds us that in the busyness of mission work, we cannot do without prayer. As the passage teaches, the need for prayer is urgent and there is a symbiotic relationship between those who are engaged in prayer and those who are engaged in the work.


David Harley

Having lived in Africa, Asia and Europe, David and his wife, Rosemary, have expertise and experience in a variety of areas within Christian work, including that of Christian witness to people of other faiths. David has served as Principal at All Nations Christian College (1985 to 1993) and as General Director of OMF International (2001 to 2006). He studied at Cambridge University and holds doctorates in missiology from Columbia University in the USA and the University of Utrecht in Holland. He is the author of several books including Preparing to Serve and Missionary Training . Since his retirement, David has continued to minister through speaking and preaching around the world.

 

Prayer in Mission—the Essential Ingredient

Mission Round Table Vol. 16 No. 2 (May-August 2021): 29-32

The leaders of a mission were planning to spend a weekend away praying together for the Lord’s blessing and guidance for the future direction of their ministry. One member of the leadership team argued that they did not have time for the luxury of a team retreat. The task was urgent. People were dying without Christ and there was no time to lose. I admire his enthusiasm and passion to share the good news, but I cannot agree with his sentiment. Yet how often, in our desire to share the gospel, do we neglect to spend sufficient time listening to the One we are seeking to serve? We are eager to spend all our energy in ministry, but sometimes forget that Jesus said: “apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Those of us who serve in cross-cultural mission are deeply grateful to those who pray for us, though I wonder how far we realise how much depends on their prayers. When we get to heaven, we may discover that more was achieved for the kingdom of God by those who stayed at home and prayed than by those of us who went overseas and preached.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul makes it very clear that he recognised that the effectiveness of his ministry depended on the prayers of others. He appeals to his readers to pray for him and for his anticipated ministry in Rome and Spain:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea and that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favourably received by the Lord’s people there, so that I may come to you with joy, by God’s will, and in your company be refreshed (Romans 15:30–32 NIV).

The urgency of prayer

Paul writes: “I urge you.” This is a cry for help. He desperately needs his friends in Rome to pray for him. The success of his ministry, to a large measure, would be determined by the earnestness of their prayers. He wants them to be engaged with him in a great struggle, a spiritual war. Paul is well aware of the dangers and challenges ahead and he knows he cannot succeed without the prayerful support of other believers.

Paul’s sense of urgency springs from his conviction of the greatness of the task in which he is engaged. By the grace of God, he has understood the mystery of God’s eternal plan, that from the very beginning God wished to bless every nation and make his salvation available to all who would respond. Paul recognises he has been given the responsibility of carrying the name of Jesus before the Gentiles and their kings and the people of Israel (Acts 9:15), and that, in so doing, he was obeying the command of Jesus to go and make disciples of all nations.

Jesus told his disciples to pray for the coming of his kingdom. This is how our prayers should start. This should be our opening request and desire—for God to be hallowed and worshipped on earth, for his kingdom to come and his will to be done in the whole world. With Paul, we long that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow. We recognise the urgency of the task, because he alone brings salvation and those who spurn that salvation face judgement.

Paul began his letter by telling the Christians in Rome that he was constantly praying for them and, not unreasonably, he trusts that they in turn will be praying for him. In almost all his letters, Paul reminds his readers of their responsibility to pray. “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayer” (Eph 6:18); “Pray for us” (Col 4:3); “Devote yourselves to prayer” (1 Cor 7:5); “By prayer and petition make your requests known to God” (Phil 4:6).

Paul bases his own instructions on the model Jesus provided in Matthew 6 and on his command that we should pray and not faint (Luke 11:1). Fervent, persistent, believing prayer is not an option for those who follow Jesus. It is an expectation incumbent upon them.

When Paul asked people to pray for him, he did so not only because he knew all Christians were commanded to pray. He did so because he expected those prayers would be answered and there would be results. From his early childhood, Paul had studied the Scriptures. He knew the story of Abraham praying for the people of Sodom (Gen 18); Moses interceding on behalf of the people of Israel (Exod 32:31–32); and Nehemiah pleading with God to forgive his sin and the sins of his nation (Neh 1). He was familiar with the Psalms, and so, aware of how often a psalm begins with intercession and ends with praise for answers given. He knew that Jesus promised God would do whatever we asked in his name (John 16:23). For Paul, prayer was so important because prayer was effective.

Victory, O Lord (Moses, supported by Aaron and Hur) by John Everett Millais, (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons. The work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

The motive for prayer

Paul provides two reasons why we should engage so seriously in prayer and intercession for others. He appeals to his readers “by our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 15:30). That is the authority that lies behind his request. Jesus expected his followers to pray (Matt 6:5, 7, 9). He commanded them to pray and to keep praying (Luke 11:2–4; 18:1–8; 21:36).

Secondly, Paul appeals to these Christians “by the love of the Spirit” (Rom 15:30). If the Holy Spirit dwells in their hearts, they will experience the love of God for others. Our natural tendency is to be self-centred, to love ourselves but to think only occasionally of others. The work of the Spirit is to change our loveless hearts and ingraft a love for others that does not come from our natural inclination. If we allow the Spirit to fill our hearts, we will pray for others because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ and we long for their work and witness to be effective. We will experience a deeper longing that those who have not heard about Jesus will hear and understand and come to faith. The genuineness of our Christian faith will be demonstrated by our concern for the salvation of others and our willingness to pray.

Paul is calling these Christians to a partnershipa partnership between those who go and those who pray. We may not always understand the mechanics of that partnership. But Paul is saying that those who pray have a vital part to play. A classic picture from the Old Testament is that of the partnership between Moses and Joshua in the battle between Israel and the Amalekites. Moses held his prayer meeting on the mountain with Aaron and Hur, while Joshua fought in the valley (Exod 17).

On occasion, we may unexpectedly be moved to pray for someone far away, only to discover subsequently that, at the very moment when we were motivated to pray, they were in particular need. Most of us are familiar with the story of Hudson Taylor’s mother, who prayed fervently for her wayward son and received assurance that her prayer had been answered, though he was far away at the time.

Such occurrences should encourage us to be more serious about the work of praying. At the same time, we should ask ourselves if there were other occasions when we failed to pray and our colleagues did not find help in time of need. When some have returned home prematurely from their ministry or failed to achieve expectations, there may have been numerous factors that impacted what happened. But we need to ask whether one of them was that those who said they would pray had failed to do so.

The struggle of prayer

We all know that prayer is a struggle. Paul asks his readers to fight with him in prayer, to join him in the struggle. The word he uses describes the action of a soldier in the midst of a battle who is using every nerve in his body and fighting to save his life. The Greek word is “to agonize.”  We might think of Jacob struggling with God at Bethel, but there is no indication that Paul here is speaking of us fighting with God, trying to persuade him to do what we want. It is more likely that he is thinking of the spiritual battle that we are in as we engage in prayer. He reminds us in Ephesians that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph 6:12). On the other hand, he may simply be referring to the struggle we have with ourselves, just to get down to the business of prayer and to align our wills with the will and purpose of God. Whatever thought is uppermost in Paul’s mind, it is clear that he did not think of prayer as something in which we can be engaged casually or half-heartedly. It was an activity demanding seriousness, earnestness, and persistence.

Prayer may be the simplest form of communication. A child can pray. We are taught to be like children when we pray. Sometimes, it may appear easy. Often, it is difficult. We do not know how to pray as we ought. We haven’t a clue what to say. We cannot concentrate. We are just too tired. Sometimes, we haven’t the faith to believe that our prayers are going beyond the ceiling. But Paul reminds us that we are not alone. Even when we lack the energy to pray or the ability to express our deepest feelings, the Holy Spirit takes those feeble, unexpressed prayers and translates them into effective intercession at the throne of grace (Rom 8:26–27).

The content of prayer

If we were to analyse the content of our own prayers, we might be surprised at how trivial and vague they often are. “Lord, make my cold better.” “Please, bless those missionaries in Timbuctoo.” I am not suggesting that God is not concerned with the smallest details of our lives, but sometimes we are so absorbed with our own relatively small problems that we forget the struggles that other Christians are engaged in or we are too lazy to take the trouble to find out what their needs really are. It is therefore instructive to see those things for which Paul requests prayer.

First, he prays for rescue from unbelievers. He is concerned that he will be able to continue his ministry and that he will be saved from those who would threaten his life or seek to prevent him from preaching. Paul knows he has many enemies among the Jews who rejected his message and that his life will be in danger when he goes to Jerusalem. In the book of Acts, when Paul is warned of the dangers he will face there, he declares: “I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13).

Jesus taught his disciples that they should expect opposition and persecution. That was the experience of the first disciples and it has been true of Christians in every subsequent generation. Stories abound in the annals of church history of those who travelled across the world to preach and faced constant dangers and threats to their lives. In 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, thousands of Chinese Christians and 188 Protestant missionaries and their children died because of their faith. According to figures released by Open Doors, in 2020, 260 million Christians across the world faced extreme levels of persecution.[1]

Even when missionaries do not face physical persecution, they sometimes struggle with antagonistic government officials who refuse visas, with local authorities who refuse planning permission for the building of new churches, or with customs officers who refuse to release vital equipment and supplies without a bribe. Paul was aware of the spiritual battle in which he was involved and he was well aware that the only way he could succeed in his ministry or even survive was through the ardent prayers of others.

Secondly, Paul asks for prayer that his ministry will be relevant and acceptable. He took great pains to explain the gospel in terms that people could understand. He worked hard to find illustrations—from daily life, from the market, from the Temple worship, from the army or from the sports arena—that would enable people to grasp the meaning of Christ’s death and what it meant to follow him. Whether he was speaking to Jews or Greeks, he wanted the gospel to make sense so they could respond and believe. What he was unwilling to do was to compromise the message of God’s grace by agreeing that Gentile believers should be required to keep the law of Moses.

In Romans 15, he expresses the hope that both his teaching and the financial gift he was bringing would be acceptable to the believers in Jerusalem. Paul knew there were a number of believers in Jerusalem who did not approve of the way he was sharing the gospel with Gentiles without encouraging them to take on the burden of Jewish traditions. If they gave him a warm welcome, it could be a good indication that they were beginning to understand the message of God’s grace to all people.

He Sent them out Two by Two by James Tissot. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, 14.6 x 24.8 cm. From Brooklyn Museum, https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/4517.

When Jesus sent the seventy into the villages around Galilee, he warned them that some people would accept them but others would not. When those who preach the gospel discover that neither they nor their message are acceptable, it is hard for them to know whether they should stay and persevere or “wipe the dust off their feet” and go somewhere else. When missionaries go to unreached people who have never heard the gospel before, we need to pray that they and their message will be well received. Similarly, when we support those engaged in disaster relief, medical work, or developmental projects, we need to pray they will be able to alleviate suffering and that their actions are not seen as a bribe to encourage conversion, but as a genuine expression of God’s love.

Thirdly, Paul asks for prayer that he may be able to have a joyful visit with the Christians in Rome and be spiritually refreshed by them. There were times in his life when he felt lonely, exhausted, and depressed. He once wrote to the church in Corinth: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:8–9). Like everyone else, he needed the encouragement and support of other Christians.

Missionaries can face tremendous pressure. They may work in isolated situations where they face many hardships but see little fruit from their labours. They may have little opportunity for fellowship and encouragement from other believers. When they go back to their own country for a home assignment or when they attend a conference with people working in similar ministries, they appreciate the opportunity to relax, rest, share, and pray with others.

There are times when the pressures missionaries face are increased because they simply do not take enough time to rest. They are so filled with zeal for the gospel that they are reluctant to take time off and try to be about the Lord’s work 24/7.  Christopher Ash’s excellent book, Zeal without Burnout, warns those engaged in fulltime ministry to avoid the mistake of thinking that they are God and the salvation of the world rests on their shoulders.[2] The Lord Jesus took time to rest and encouraged his disciples to do so (Mark 6:31). Paul looked forward with eager anticipation to a time of relaxation and mutual encouragement with the Christians in Rome. We are wise to follow their example.

Churches that send out missionaries have a serious responsibility in this regard. When they commission new workers, they are committing themselves not only to support them financially but also to pray for them fervently. They can only do so if they keep abreast of what they are doing and pray on a regular basis for their ministry. I know from experience how disheartening it can be to return from several years of arduous and discouraging ministry to be received by church members who clearly have not the least idea of what you have been doing or in what country you have been working! A friend of ours who had been working for many years in Ethiopia met with the mission council in the UK to discuss strategic developments of his ministry. He was amazed and disheartened to be asked by one member of the council how his work in Argentina was progressing!

I once attended a mission conference that was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The pastor of a vibrant, rapidly growing church spoke of the growing involvement of his church in cross-cultural mission. He said: “We have the resources, we have the personnel, we have the vision.” He then proceeded to tell the story of a young couple who had been sent out from that church a few years earlier. The couple had responded to the call to missionary service at the culmination of a week’s teaching on mission. Within a few weeks, they were sent out to another Asian country. They were given words of encouragement but no formal training or preparation. They struggled for two years but could not cope with the pressures and challenges they faced. Depressed and ashamed, they returned home to Malaysia to apologise to their church for their failure. As he recounted this sad story, the pastor commented that it was not the couple who had failed, but the church. They had not prepared them for the pressures and challenges they would face. They had not provided them with adequate emotional and practical support during those early years of ministry. Above all, they had not prayed.

The critical importance of prayer

When Paul was sent out as a missionary from Antioch, the elders of the church fasted and prayed for him. They laid hands on him and showed how they identified with the work to which God had called him. Throughout his ministry, Paul relied on their prayers and support and, having asked them to pray, he was eager to share with them the ways in which their prayers had been answered. At the end of his first missionary journey, he returned to Antioch and reported to the whole church all the things God had done and how he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles (Acts 14:27–28).

In his letters, Paul repeatedly asked Christians to pray for him, for his team of co-workers, and for their ministry. He asked the believers in Ephesus to pray that every time he opened his mouth, he would boldly declare the good news (Eph 6:19). When he wrote to the Christians in Colossae and in Thessalonica, he appealed to them to pray for him and the continuing spread of the gospel (Col 4:3–4; 2 Thess 3:1). Even before he had visited Rome and met the Christians there, he asked them to pray for earnest and persistent prayer support.

In these few verses we have been considering from Romans 15, Paul demonstrated the importance he gave to fervent intercessory prayer. He knew he could not succeed in his anticipated ministry without the prayerful support of the Christians in Rome. He knew that he was engaged in a titanic conflict, involving both human and spiritual foes, and he pleaded with the believers to support him in this struggle. He assumed that, like himself, they would be motivated by the command of Jesus and inspired by the working of the Spirit in their hearts. He asked for prayer specifically that he would be kept safe, that he and his ministry would be accepted, and that he would be spiritually refreshed. I trust that when we pray for those engaged in mission, our prayers will similarly be urgent, persistent, and specific.

______________________________

[1] Lindy Lowry, “The 10 Most Dangerous Places for Christians,” Open Doors USA, 15 January 2020, www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/stories/the-10-most-dangerous-place (accessed 13 July 2021).

[2] Christopher Ash, Zeal without Burnout:  Seven Keys to a Lifelong Ministry of Sustainable Sacrifice (n.p.: The Good Book Company, 2016).

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