The Apostle James wrote that the “effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16; KJV). How then can we pray fervently? Is it a matter of generating a lot of emotion when we pray? No! We might have been able to manipulate our mothers with our emotional outbursts but not God. I don’t think that there is one verse in the Bible that suggests that God will respond to us simply because we are able to generate a lot of tears.
Esau had shed many tears because he had been deprived of his father Isaac’s blessing. However, the tears made no difference to the Lord because they weren’t accompanied by repentance and the genuine confession of his sins:
- See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind [repentance], though he sought the blessing with tears. (Hebrews 12:16-17)
Likewise, Judas Iscariot, who had betrayed Jesus and felt guilty for what he had done. With much emotion, he threw back the 30 pieces of silver to those who had bought his betrayal (Matthew 27:3-10) and hung himself. Even his guilt, desperation, and suicide failed to incline heaven in his direction (John 17:12). He had rejected Jesus’ Gospel and failed to humble himself before the Lord, by confessing his sins. Instead, he insisted on atoning for his sins on his own terms and on his own tree.
Meanwhile, Ahab was the worst of the kings of Israel:
- There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD… He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites. (1 Kings 21:25-26)
However, in desperation, the wicked King Ahab humbled himself before the Lord after a prophet had announced to him his impending death:
- When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly. Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: "Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son." (1 Kings 21:27-29)
The account does not mention either “confession” or “repentance.” However, his behavior before the Lord and the Lord’s response indicates that Ahab had been genuinely repentant. Besides, that fact that Ahab had “humbled himself” strongly suggests that he had confessed his sins to the Lord. Nevertheless, Ahab returned to his old shenanigans a few years later.
King Manasseh had even exceeded Ahab’s evil. However, in desperation, after he had been thrown into prison by the Babylonians, he cried out to God, who forgave him:
- In his distress he sought the favor of the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. And when he prayed to him, the LORD was moved by his entreaty and listened to his plea; so he brought him back to Jerusalem and to his kingdom. (2 Chronicles 33:12-13)
What made the difference in these two cases? In desperation, they humbled themselves – and this always entails a confession of sins. However, fervency in prayer does not always require an immediate threat to our lives. Instead, our fervency in prayer grows as we despair of ourselves.
It is most comforting to trust in ourselves and to have a high estimation of ourselves – our performance and ability to handle any situation. This is our natural default. Why? It is this self-confidence that gets us out of bed in the morning. It enables us to confront life and to take risks. Without it, we obsessively and painfully turn inward. Some psychologists even believe that a certain degree of self-delusion is necessary in order to nurture a high and empowering self-esteem.
However, we will never learn God-trust as long as we remain addicted to self-trust. As long as we feel that we can handle life, prayer will only feel like an unnecessary encumbrance – something that we have to perform out of duty. Consequently, it will feel like a burden, and we will find that we do it less-and-less.
The Apostle Paul admitted that he had to be shown that he could not trust in himself before he could truly trust in God:
- We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. (2 Corinthians 1:8-11)
God brought Paul to the limits of his ability to cope with life. In desperation, he had only one other hope – God. This is a lesson that I must repeatedly learn. When life is going well, I tend to feel good about myself and my abilities. However, He has shown me that my cockiness is merely setting the stage for my fall.
I used to be troubled by a verse that declared that the normal Christian is characterized by an intense love for God:
- In this [salvation] you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith--of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire--may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy. (1 Peter 1:6-8)
Did I love Him? Was I “filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy?” I didn’t think so, and painfully realized that, for some reason, I was spiritually deficient. Was God withholding Himself from me? Did He not like me as much as He did others? These questions tormented me.
However, as I endured years of suffering and despair of my own ability to shoulder the burden of this life called “Daniel,” I had no choice other than to trust in Him. Was I courageous? Long-suffering? No! There was simply no one else to whom I could turn. He was refining my faith by exposing and killing the former object of my faith – me - so that my hope would be exclusively invested in Him.
When all self-esteem was taken away, He became all that I truly had. Only He stood between me and psychological melt-down. Before, I had regarded Him as simply my Helper when things got tough. However, after life because unbearably tough, He became my Lover and Savior. Consequently, I can now better appreciate Peter’s description of our relationship with our Savior, as “filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” When we see that He is all we’ve got, we also see that He is all we need, as the Psalmist wrote:
- Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:25-26)
As God breaks us of ourselves, these verses become increasingly real for us. However, this cannot happen without a regular diet of suffering:
- Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12-13)
How are we to love Him and to be “overjoyed when his glory is revealed?” It will only happen after we despair of all other saviors, especially ourselves. It is only then that our hope will be centered squarely on our Messiah and on His return.
The Jews of Jabesh Gilead had been desperate. They had despaired of their ability to defend themselves against the Ammonite King Nahash. They were so desperate that they even offered themselves to him as slaves. However, this was not good enough for Nahash:
- But Nahash the Ammonite replied, "I will make a treaty with you only on the condition that I gouge out the right eye of every one of you and so bring disgrace on all Israel." (1 Samuel 11:2)
The reluctant Saul had been newly appointed King of Israel. The Jews of Jabesh Gilead sent their desperate plea to him. It was the longest of long-shots. However:
- When Saul heard their words, the Spirit of God came upon him in power, and he burned with anger. (1 Samuel 11:6)
Saul defeated the Ammonites, and the Jews were delivered. For forty years, they remained grateful to Saul, and when they had heard that he had been killed in battle by the Philistines, the men of Jabesh Gilead made a long and perilous journey to recover his body and to give Saul a proper burial.
We too need to learn gratefulness. However, we never will as long as we think that we are able to handle our own lives. We have to come to the point of utter despair, as had the Jews of Jabesh, for us to both learn gratitude and to regard prayer as our only lifeline. We have to learn that without our Savior, we can do nothing (John 15:5) – that we are helpless sheep without a shepherd. When we learn this, our prayers will take on a fervency, which they could never ordinarily have.
However, this doesn’t mean that God will not hear us until we reach a certain level of spiritual maturity. Even then, Scripture warns us that we don’t even know what to pray for. No matter! The Holy Spirit and can intercede for us:
- In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will. (Romans 8:26-27)
May His Holy Name be praised forever and ever!