The Bible is crystal clear on prayer. Along with Bible reading, it is the fundamental practice of the Christian life. Paul encourages us in his first letter to the Thessalonians to pray continuously (1 Thess 5:17) and we read in Acts that the first gathering of Christians was marked by the fact that, “they all joined together constantly in prayer” (Acts 1:14).
A great danger for all Christians is that we neglect our prayer life, or that we do not have a personal prayer life at all! My great, great uncle, Andrew Murray, wrote in his spiritual classic, The Prayer Life:
“The enemy uses all his power to lead the Christian and above all the minister, to neglect prayer. He knows that however admirable the sermon may be, however attractive the service, however faithful the pastoral visitation, none of these things can damage him or his kingdom if prayer is neglected. When the Church shuts herself up to the power of the inner chamber, and the soldiers of the Lord have received on their knees ‘power from on high’, then the powers of darkness will be shaken and souls will be delivered. In the Church, on the mission field, with the minister and his congregation, everything depends on the faithful exercise of the power of prayer.”
But there is an equal and opposite danger. And that is the Christian who does have an active prayer life, but who never turns their prayer into action.
The prophets of the Old Testament often castigated the people of Israel for upholding the ritual aspects of their faith (burnt offerings, prayer and fasting) but not doing anything practical to help the poor or support the marginalized (Is 1:11, Hos 6:6). And Jesus himself highlighted the hypocrisy of those who pray loudly in public to be seen and heard but do nothing to practically build God’s Kingdom (Matt 6:5). But it is the book of James that does the most in emphasizing the importance of transforming faith and prayer into action and works.
James does not tell us to do works instead of prayer. He values prayer highly, telling us that, “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (Jas 5:16). But what James stresses over and over is that, having prayed and meditated on God’s Word, we are to go out and do what it says! In James 1:22-25 he writes:
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.”
It is not always straightforward to discern what God wants us to do. Jesus himself spent nights in prayer communing with his Father and discerning the next step to take. Famously, in the garden of Gethsemane the night before his arrest he prayed and asked God to, “take this cup from me” (Mk 14:36). But on not getting a positive response, he handed himself over to be arrested and crucified.
What often keeps us from action is doubt or fear, in other words not being sure of the will of God in the circumstances we find ourselves in or being afraid to do what is asked of us. But how do we discern the mind of God if it is not in earnest prayer? So to act requires prayer, but having prayed, God requires of us to act! Whether we like the answer we get or not. We are, after all, his hands and feet in this world until he comes again to complete the work he started at creation and has sustained throughout history.
An essential element of turning prayer into action is to move beyond your own personal needs, fears and desires and to look to what God is doing in the world. “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2.5). Let me put it bluntly: wherever possible get over yourself! Look at the need in the world around you. Don’t just pray about your own needs but ask God whom and what you can pray for in terms of the needs of people around you. What is God calling you to do? What need can you meet? As your circle of concern expands and whom and what you pray for grows, so also your understanding and compassion for the world around you grows. Enlightened by Scripture and the conviction of the Holy Spirit, you also become aware of what God is asking of you in terms of how you need to act in the world, no matter how large or small the action.
So you may be asking what can I do? Share the gospel and your own personal testimony; support ministries that are sharing God’s Word in the world; speak out against injustice; support what is good and oppose what is bad; treat everyone you meet with love and compassion; or as the prophet of God, Micah wrote over two and a half thousand years ago:
“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Mic 6:8)