The power of prayer

Bible reading: 1 John 5 : 13 – 21.


Last week, 100 years ago, the First World War began. A war that took an incredible number of victims, over 9 Million, a war that led to another cruel World War 20 years later. 100 years ago in Germany the emperor (Kaiser) Wilhelm the Second of Prussia reigned. He could have prevented the war, if he had acted more courageously, but he let it go and his generals launched of the emperor Wilhelm, Philip Kiril Prinz von Prussia asked for forgiveness for his grand-grand father. This Philip of Prussia is pastor in Berlin and he spoke at a meeting in the Royal Albert Hall in London that was packed fort hat occasion. And do you know what he said there? “It is 100 year after 1914. Till June 1914 Europe was in calmness and order. The dynasties formed one family…My grand-grandfather was a believer. But I presume that He didn’t have the true friendship with Jesus. He didn’t hold the power of the Holy Spirit in esteem. Because, actually, he didn’t want the war, but he was not strong enough to resist his generals and the politicians who said that this war was useful and necessary…If he had been guided by the Holy Spirit, he should have said: ‘you may say what you want, but this war is wrong. And here I stand, and you generals go away..’ If he had done this, everything should have been better. That’s why I have on my heart to ask you forgiveness for all what my grand-grand father has done.” And after these words he burst out in tears.. It made a deep impression and the attendants in the Royal Albert Hall gave him an applause of two minutes.  (NRC, 28 July ’14, p. 11).


Freedom and courage

This story came to my mind while I was preparing a sermon about the passage that we have read. The focus is on verses 14 and 15. These two verses deal with the confidence that we have in approaching God. Now the word ‘confidence’ is important. In the meaning of the original word (parrhesia) you may hear two aspects: ‘freedom’ and ‘courage’. That’s exactly what it is. If you pray, the apostle says, you have a freedom to go to the Father, and you use that freedom. But if you do so, you also have confidence that He will hear you and that He will do what you ask. And if we really believe that –John says it even sharper: if we know that (vs. 15)- we have courage to act in accordance to that. If Emperor Wilhelm had done that, if he had sought Gods guidance honestly and sincerely, and if he had trusted that God should give him what he longed, he had acted more powerfully. Then he had gotten courage to say ‘no’ to his generals, who dragged Germany and Europe into the Great War.

Now we learn something very important about prayer. We all know what it means to pray and I guess most of us do it every day. Many times our prayer is asking, begging or beseeching. We come with our longing, with the needs of ourselves, our family, our friends and our city. We ask and we hope that God will intervene. That He not only will hear us, but also will answer us. Now the apostle says that, if you pray honestly, your prayer will be answered, or rather has been answered already and that you may have confidence to expect the outcome. And not only that, you also may take courage to act in accordance to that. Something happened already. Maybe not in the circumstances, but within ourselves at least. The British missionary to India, William Carey (± 1800), who lost his wife and several of his children on the mission field, said: ‘Expect great things from God and undertake great things for God.’ We should consider our prayers whether they are marked by ‘freedom’ and ‘courage’. The attitude of Emperor Wilhelm might be close to us. We pray and we do it often. But it doesn’t change our attitude and our expectations. The Anglican pastor J.C. Ryle (± 1850) says: often in our prayers we are like a tradesman who owns several ships and he sends his ships across the ocean for his trade. But after he has done it, he doesn’t expect them back. He doesn’t look forward to what they bring him. That is strange.

The question is not how long or how often we pray, what words we use, etc. But if our prayer is supported by freedom and courage. Actually the original word means that you have the fullest privilege to say what you have on your heart and that you know that you are heard. It is the right of a member of parliament. Do you believe that you have been given that privilege? That the access to God the Father is fully open?


Unanswered prayers.

Of course that leaves some burning questions. Immediately after you hear or read the words of verse 14 and 15 these questions arise. We have these questions when we hear Jesus’ words: pray and you will be given, seek and you will find. Knock and the door will opened for you.’ John says: ‘we know that we have what we asked of him.’ (vs. 15). You may translate: ‘we know that we already have received what we asked of him’. Of course there are many examples of people who prayed honestly and their prayers were not answered. Maybe you yourself have this experience. ‘I have prayed for my friend who suffers from depression and nothing changed.’ I have prayed that God gave me a good girlfriend or boyfriend, but so far my prayer is unanswered. There you stand with empty hands and thousand of questions and you hear these words of the apostle. The author Philip Yancey has written an interesting book about these questions ‘ Disappointed in God’ . He speaks about numerous situations of unanswered prayers and in some cases people lost their faith because they became disappointed in God.

What can I say? Of course I can say that the apostle adds something important in the text: ‘if we ask something according to his will’. So I can give you a quick solution for unanswered prayers. ‘These prayers were not according to his will.’ It is so simple as that. Emperor Wilhelm must have prayed. He was a Christian. But seemingly he didn’t pray according to God’s will. God’s will was different. Maybe God wanted to punish Europe and that is the reason for not answering Wilhelm’s prayer…’ If you say something like this, you make the Lord an unpredictable despot, who receives all the supplications of his subjects, but who simply does what He wants himself. That is not the way the apostle John describes the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That kind of thinking doesn’t bring us further. Because if we consider it like this, God carries on his sovereign deeds, yes, but we also can carry on our own deeds… Let me try to give you a better answer in 3 pastoral advises from John’s letter.

(1)   ‘Praying according to his will’ (vs. 14). What does it mean? When do you pray according to his will? I believe that you can say this: The Lord of heaven and earth longs to see his name sanctified, his will be done and his Kingdom coming. As the Lord Jesus told us to pray. It is the first and most important subject of our prayer. But now He waits for the prayers of his children to realize what He wants. He wants to include their prayers in his government. There is a hymn written by William Cowper (in 1773 – sorry to have too many examples from the 18th and 19th century this time!) “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform. He plants His footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.” God is a God of majesty, yes, but the poet adds: Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take. The clouds ye so much dread, are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head… His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour. The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.’ These are nice and comforting words, but we also need to say something else. Nee To-sheng (Watchman Nee) expressed it like this:  prayer is the rails on which God let come his loc. The locomotive is his power, his glory. He only is the owner of it, but He only wants to reveal it upon prayer. And it is true: honest prayer is a fruit of the Spirit. So He needs to give it Himself. So He commands prayer and He gives what He commands. It is a wonderful experience of God’s children. That there is an opening in prayer. That prayer isn’t just an activity but a longing to share your heart with God. When you are near to his heart, you are near to his will.

(2)   By praying we take part in the spiritual battle in the invisible world. In the book of Daniel (ch. 9, 10) we read that Daniel prayed and fasted during three weeks. He prayed about the future of his people and he was very concerned about it. What could he expect about his people still in exile? After three weeks an angel appeared to him, the angel Gabriel who comforted him. The angel said that the Word came to him and that he was sent away to him as soon as he began to pray. But that he had a delay because of the prince of Persia. For certain this is a kind of demonic power, the prince of darkness, holding the nation of Persia in his grip. For three weeks there was a severe confrontation, a battle in the spiritual realm. And while Daniel didn’t know exactly what was happening, his prayer was part of the invisible spiritual battle. His prayer mobilized the heavenly forces. It calls for the angels. We have to be sure that our prayer is important in the spiritual battle that is going on in the world, in Iraq and Syria, in Ukraine, but also in our own country, and in our city. From the beginning Daniel’s prayer was answered, but only later he heard and saw something that assured it. Praying also means waiting. To look forward for signs of God’s intervention, even if we have to wait for a long time. The tradesman waits for his ships to come back, but if they stay he will not forget them. The longer they stay away, the more he waits for them. ‘I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.’ Sings the poet of psalm 27.

(3)   Prayer, honest prayer is a sign of faith. If you see an oil lamp or a candle burning, you know: there is oxygen enough. If not, the candle should be extinguished. Prayer is like a burning candle. It cannot continue to burn without the oxygen of faith. Throughout his whole letter John has stressed this point. He does it in a sort of conclusion in verse 13. ‘I write these things to you who believe in the name (power) of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.’ Let me come back to the two aspects of confidence in verse 14: ‘freedom and courage’. Where can you find them if you miss them? Is it a matter of character, of psychology? No, it is very clear in John’s letter that is a matter of believing the Gospel rather. The Word of life that was with the Father has been revealed in human flesh. Christ, who shared the glory of the Father, has accepted human flesh and dwelled among us. We have seen his glory. He suffered and He died at the cross, He rose again from the death. He went back to represent us with the Father. That has been proclaimed to us and we should be sure of that. It has been evangelized so that we may believe and that we should share in his life. In Him is all truth and in Him we may be sure that we have eternal life (vs. 20). Jesus has made the bridge across this infinite deep gap between the Father and us. Now the Holy Spirit teaches us to pray. It means to use the bridge, to use the access to the Father to appeal to His great power and grace. You are ‘child at home’ with the Father because of Jesus Christ, who prepared the way. John is very concerned that the congregation uses that freedom, that privilege. It is part of the assurance of faith, of knowing God. John uses the word ‘knowing’ 6 times in this part. He stresses the thankfulness of being a child vs. 19 and 20). As you may say it to your parents, who have cared for you and loved you: ‘Thank you that I could be a child with you and that I always could trust you and come to you.’ Maybe you say it only on your day of wedding and your parents deserve to hear it a bit earlier…(!). But God longs to hear his children saying this.

In verses 16 and 17 we see that prayer isn’t just a private matter. It is a community matter! John is concerned that the community will be holy. And be sure: there is no perfect church, a church without the shadow of sin, of pain, of all kind of things that should not happen. And this is also true for the worldwide church that needs our prayers badly because of the suffering in which she is now. We need each other’s prayer. ‘Pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteousness is powerful and effective.’ (James 5)

If you understand that, you also may understand that the apostle mentions one situation about which we shouldn’t pray. He speaks about sin that leads to death. There are a lot of explanations of these verses. Does he speak about a special sin as has been taught for many years in the R.C. church: there are 7 capital sins. Special big sins that result in expulsion from the Christian community? Or does he speak about the sin against the Holy Spirit? (That is unforgivable according to Matth. 12:31; Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10). If we are afraid of that, we must be sure that we are not subjected to that sin. No the apostle deals with people who are slicing down the work of Christ, the false teachers, who said that Christ is a godly spark that illuminates every person, and that we should increase that spark by praying much and by a pure life. John is furious about them, because they affected the foundation of the congregation. They brought their own teaching in the place of God’s truth and this is idolatry. In doing that they cut off the navel cord by which they received life. They threatened the fellowship of the church. You cannot pray for the church and for those who disperse the church at the same time. That’s why Johns says that it makes no sense to pray for them.

Let me conclude with another example of somebody living in the first half of the 19th century. A politician in Great Britain, William Wilberforce. As a young member of Parliament he was outstanding in eloquence and in raised the attention in the debates with his opponents. But his family and friends made a strong pressure on him, that he should become a pastor. He hesitated for a certain period, but still felt that he should continue as a politician. He wanted to keep the Sunday as a day of rest and for prayer, but it was not easy. There was a high pressure to be ready for his opponents. Through his enduring prayer God began to show him that he should make a case in the Parliament for the abolishment of slavery. The opposition was great because of trade interests. There were several moments that he could hardly withstand the pressure of opposition. But by his prayer he gained new courage to stand again for the abolishment of slavery. In contrast with Emperor Wilhelm, he didn’t let it go with thousand of good excuses. And finally, after 26 years there was the day in 1833 on which the parliament accepted the law to abolish the great evil of human slavery. Three days later Wilberforce died. Wilberforce trusted God, used freedom and courage to hold on and we may be sure that he fulfilled Gods plan in that epoch. He is great example and encouragement for us in our place at university, in the institute, in our family to pray and to courageously for the glory of God. Amen.