Prayer and finishing the mission

A persistent and consistent prayer life propelled the gospel during the Protestant Reformation. A look at our prayer life today begs the question—is the protest over?

Pat Gustin, MA, retired from being director of the Institute of World Missions and resides in College Place, Washington, United States.

Editor’s Note: Prayer is the way God’s people, including Martin Luther, have accomplished their mission in all generations.

“From the secret place of prayer came the power that shook the world in the Great Reformation. There, with holy calmness, the servants of the Lord set their feet upon the rock of His promises. During the struggle at Augsburg, Luther ‘did not pass a day without devoting three hours at least to prayer, and they were hours selected from those the most favorable to study.’ In the privacy of his chamber he was heard to pour out his soul before God in words ‘full of adoration, fear, and hope, as when one speaks to a friend.’ . . .

“. . . The Protestant Reformers had built on Christ, and the gates of hell could not prevail against them.”1 We share the following article with the conviction that just as the Reformation was founded on prayer, so God’s work will be finished through prayer.

Before Jesus returned to heaven, He gave His followers one mission: Go into all the world—to make disciples of all peoples (Matt. 28:19) and then the end will come (Matt. 24:14). Today, two thousand years later, the Christian church faces the reality of an uncompleted mission.

What can we do now? How is it possible to reach more than seven billion people with the gospel, as Jesus had commanded us to do?

J. Hudson Taylor, the great pioneer missionary to China, summarized the challenge we face. “We are asked to do an impossible task . . .” Impossible? Yes, but he continued, “We work with Him who can do the impossible.”2

That’s it, isn’t it? The task is impossible. We will never accomplish it on our own, even with all our clever plans, wonderful productions, and sheer hard work. We need power that comes from the One who can accomplish the impossible. How do we get it?

At the foot of the mount of transfiguration, Jesus’ disciples faced a difficult situation, healing a demon-possessed boy. It proved to be impossible for them. Later, after Jesus had cast out the evil spirit, He reminded them that “This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29, ISV). Today, we need the power of God in an unprecedented way. This power becomes accessible only through prayer.

My prayer journey

Like other Christians, I grew up surrounded by prayer. I learned about prayer intellectually and experientially, beginning with the familiar definition, “Prayer is the opening of the heart to God as to a friend.”Wonderful! No one can have too many friends. I also learned that “prayer is the key in the hand of faith to unlock heaven’s storehouse.”4 Storehouses are where treasures are kept, and prayer provides access to heaven’s riches. Finally, I learned that “prayer is the breath of the soul.”5 Breath is natural and automatic. I’m never too tired or busy, preoccupied or frustrated, hurried, or hungry to breathe. I breathe day and night. This is life—no breath, no life. Together, these definitions became the foundation of my personal understanding of prayer.

To these basic definitions, I added the prayer experiences of others—particularly Bible stories. These amazing accounts increased my confidence in prayer. There was Moses, who prayed the Red Sea open; Joshua, who prayed the walls of Jericho down; David, who prayed a giant to defeat; Elijah, who prayed fire down from heaven; Elisha, who prayed iron to float; Esther, who prayed a disastrous decree into a glorious victory; Daniel, who prayed the mouths of hungry lions shut; Jesus, who prayed water into wine, demoniacs to sanity, and, after four days in a grave, Lazarus to life. Lastly, there were Peter, James, John, Paul, and hundreds of others who for centuries have prayed sinners into saints. What a weight of evidence to the power of prayer!

Through the years, I added my own experiences with prayer, starting with the search for a lost toy when I was a child. Later, I prayed for courage, comfort, and counsel. During my years in the mission field, I saw demons cast out, people healed, students converted, and overwhelming difficulties overcome in answer to prayer. Through all these experiences, I developed the conviction that prayer is real. It works! “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16, NIV).

Yet, there were times when I questioned prayer. Some of these questions grew out of the pain and the disappointment of unanswered prayer. Others came from facing seeming inconsistencies and apparent unfairness on the part of God. I faced intellectual and theological questions. What really happens when we pray? How do we reconcile prayer and free will with God’s sovereignty? Questions arose that I couldn’t answer, and prayer waned. I wrestled with the questions, but based on the weight of evidence, I ultimately came out believing. I was comforted by the story of the man who confessed, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24, NKJV).

Prayer and the mission of Jesus and His disciples

Jesus and His disciples modeled prayer for mission. In the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles, we discover that they prayed in secret and in public, alone and in groups. There was prayer for personal needs and intercessory prayer. Prayer permeated their lives and ministry. They prayed without ceasing.

In their personal prayers, these early missionaries prayed for wisdom, deliverance from enemies, and power to stand in all kinds of dangers and troubles. In their intercessory prayers, the list is even longer. In the churches they had established, they prayed for their new converts by name, as well as for their persecutors. They prayed for those who would someday believe (that includes us), and they prayed for the message to go rapidly. They prayed for God to open doors of opportunity in impossible situations. Over and over they prayed for the Holy Spirit and for miracles. Prayer was the most important thing they did.

Prayer and our mission

How does prayer relate to the activities in which leaders engage? Instead of facing demoniacs, angry mobs, crippled beggars, and poisonous snakes, today’s leaders face an endless chain of emails, nonstop committees, and the making of torturous decisions. We preach, administer, teach, lead—this describes our work. It’s how we use our spiritual gifts, and we are good at it.

So what, then, is the role of prayer in our mission?

During my early days as a teacher, leader, and pastor, I was inexperienced and unsure of myself and my undeveloped skills. Every assignment was a crisis. Prayer was not a luxury or an option. It was a basic survival skill. But then I saw something that truly helped me.

The movie The Spirit of Saint Louis tells the story of Charles Lindberg and the first trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. Charles is trying to teach a priest friend to fly. His friend is not good at it, yet the priest is not worried. He has a prayer for everything—for taking off, for navigating, for flying in fog, and, above all else, a prayer for landing. He asked Charles, “Don’t you pray?”

Charles replied, “You pray because you don’t know how to fly. I know how to fly.”

I’ve thought many times about this answer. Much of my early experience in prayer was simply for crisis management and emergencies. Now that I’ve “learned to fly,” do I need to pray less? When we can rely on our skills more, do we need God less?

The answer, we know, is obvious. Everyone needs to pray, even when we are doing things we are competent to do. Prayer was not intended just for emergency use. It is what empowers our work and makes it effective.

When faced with the challenges of ministry in a disbelieving world, what do we need most? First Corinthians 13 points to one thing—love. Is it possible that leaders lack love for those we are called to serve? Are we just doing a job—without compassion? If this is the case, we need renewal, but how does that happen? There is only one way—renewal by the Holy Spirit—for love is the first fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 3:22). No mission movement has been launched or survived without a renewal of compassion and spirituality.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, Christians scattered throughout Europe—Wales, Scotland, Germany, and Scandinavia—sensed the need for a deeper spiritual experience. But there were no structures in place to offer solutions; only a few concerned Christians. Among these was a man in Wales who began praying 30 to 60 minutes daily for renewal. He prayed alone and later was joined by two or three friends. For more than a year, they prayed daily for the Holy Spirit, and then He came in power on their entire area. Hundreds were converted. Dying churches came to life. People, driven by the Spirit and filled with compassion for the lost, volunteered to go and serve God wherever they were needed. Spirituality and compassion for the lost were reborn.

What would happen if for one year, prayer for renewal became the major focus of our work (as leaders) and our worship (as churches)? No matter how well-organized and doctrinally correct we are as individuals or as a church, only the Holy Spirit can make our best efforts effective. Missionary Hudson Taylor asked, “How often do we attempt work for God to the limit of our incompetency rather than to the limit of God’s omnipotency”?6 We can be eloquent and clever. We can be good leaders and organizers, but we cannot touch and transform people’s hearts. Only the Spirit can do that. “We need to look constantly to Jesus, realizing that it is His power that does the work. While we are to labor earnestly for the salvation of the lost, we must also take time for meditation, for prayer, and for the study of the word of God. Only the work accomplished with much prayer . . . will in the end prove to have been efficient for good.”7

Prayer and the great controversy

Because of the great controversy between Christ and Satan, prayer has become a vital necessity. It is a life-and-death matter because we are dealing with the supernatural. Satan is like a roaring lion (1Pet. 5:8). He knows he has but a short time (Rev. 12:12). We are not dealing with flesh and blood but with principalities and powers and the rulers of darkness (Eph. 6:12). We are no match for Satan. We need supernatural power and protection. We are in a war. Around the world, we are faced with challenges that can be met only by earnest prayer. “While engaging in our daily work, we should lift the soul to heaven in prayer. These silent petitions rise like incense before the throne of grace, and the enemy is baffled. The Christian whose heart is thus stayed upon God cannot be overcome.”By constant connection with God through prayer, the enemy becomes baffled—that’s exciting!

Prayer and the power of God

Those we are reaching for Christ need to see God’s power. They need to see that God is trustworthy. They need to see living models of faith and prayer. When setting up the China Inland Mission, Hudson Taylor chose to establish the mission on prayer and faith. He did not do this because he felt it was superior or more spiritual; he did it because he wanted the Chinese converts to see a living example of the power of God. Even today, we see power encounters in which the power of God and the power of evil come face to face. Through prayer, the power of God is unleashed.

Narinee was a first-year student at our secondary boarding school in North Thailand when we had a series of experiences with devil possession. One night, as the struggle between the power of darkness and the power of light raged in the room next to hers, she found strength and freedom from fear by praying and reading Psalms with another frightened student. Months later, she decided to be baptized. She told us that it was when she saw the power of God at work through prayer that she knew, without a doubt, that she wanted to follow and serve a powerful God whom she could always trust. Unbelievers need to see God’s power at work.

Prayer and evangelism

Another role prayer can have in mission is as a means of evangelism, an entering wedge. At a mission conference in a crime-ridden city, some students went out to witness on Sabbath afternoon. They went door to door and stopped people on the streets, asking whether there was anything for which the people needed prayer. The response was amazing. People opened their hearts and shared needs with these young people. As an initial point of contact, prayer draws people to a loving, prayer-hearing God who can heal shattered lives. It opens hearts. During my years in Thailand, I observed that many of our Buddhist students began praying long before they were ready to become Christians.

Praying for others

The majority of recorded prayers of Jesus and the early apostles were for other people. What would happen if a church took intercessory prayer seriously? In Operation World, Patrick Johnstone challenges the church to pray systematically for the people of the world. He recites a biblical story that deals directly with intercessory prayer. At the inauguration of Saul as king of Israel, the prophet Samuel concluded his farewell speech by making a promise: “As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you” (1 Sam. 12:23, NKJV).

Is praying for people so important that failure to do so would be considered a sin? The thought is sobering. Perhaps the underlying question is, “Do we believe in intercessory prayer?” I have struggled with this because I didn’t always understand how prayer works. After much struggle, I finally reached the point where I simply accept it by faith. We are commanded to do it. Jesus did it, and it works.

What would happen if leaders and believers around the world began interceding daily for unreached people in cities and countries all over the world? What would happen if we prayed regularly for the more than 50 percent of the world’s population who have never been introduced to Jesus in a meaningful way—the millions in China and India and in the Muslim world and the more than 50 megacities with more than five million inhabitants?

Prayer challenge

There are many ways an intercessory prayer ministry could happen. Believers in every church, from tiny mountain hamlets and jungle villages to the great cities of the world, can do two things: (1) Choose a specific people group or city anywhere in the world and intercede daily for a year. In the process, learn about the people group. Study it. Adopt it. (2) Organize prayer walks through the community where your church is located. Divide a city or town into prayer areas. Encourage members to commit to walking prayerfully through their area at least once a week, praying for the residents as they walk.

You may be thinking, We don’t do things like that! Stopping other activities to do “nothing but pray” may feel like a waste of time. But if we give more than intellectual assent to Scripture and the example of Jesus, we know that the most important thing we ever do is pray. “It is not the capabilities you now possess or ever will have that will give you success. It is that which the Lord can do for you. We need to have far less confidence in what man can do and far more confidence in what God can do for every believing soul.”9

The question I have to ask myself is simply, Do I believe in prayer? Really believe? Do I believe that “it is a part of God’s plan to grant us, in answer to the prayer of faith, that which He would not bestow did we not thus ask”?10

When the China Inland Mission was facing superhuman challenges to begin work in an unentered province in China, J. Hudson Taylor wrote to a discouraged missionary, “If you would enter that province, you must go forward on your knees.”11

Wherever we live and work, that is the role of prayer for each of us as we seek to finish God’s mission.

1 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 210.

2 Hudson Taylor, quoted in Rosalind Goforth, Goforth of China (n.p.: The Revival Library, 2013), 80.

3 Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Oakland, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1892), 93.

4 White, Steps to Christ, 94.

5 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915), 254.

6 Hudson Taylor, quoted in Goforth, Goforth of China, 102.

7 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Oakland, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), 362.

8 White, Gospel Workers, 254.

9 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900), 146.

10 White, The Great Controversy, 525.

11 Hudson Taylor, quoted in Goforth, Goforth of China, 80.

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Pat Gustin, MA, retired from being director of the Institute of World Missions and resides in College Place, Washington, United States.

October 2017

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