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How to pray for America

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Matthew 9:35-38

It was 1945. Spencer January, a lifetime resident of Dallas, Texas, was a soldier in the U. S. Army’s 35th Infantry Division, 137th Infantry, Company I. They were pushing through the Rhineland region of West Germany toward the Elbe River to meet the Russian troops.

On March 9 the American troops were ordered to move into Ossenburg, Germany, where a factory that had once manufactured soap was now producing gun powder and other war products. As Spencer and the rest of Company I were cautiously making their way through a wooded area, word came that the company ahead of them had been hit hard and they were to replace it.

When his company arrived at the scene, Spencer was appalled at what met his eyes. Only a handful of badly wounded soldiers, hiding behind a stone house at the edge of the woods, had survived. Straight ahead a 200-yard stretch of open field, bordered on the far side by thick woods, was covered with the bodies of dead American soldiers.

Three nests of German machine guns had mounted the fierce assault. To try to cross that flat, open field meant suicide, yet there was no other road into the town. As the order was given to advance, Spencer prayed desperately, “God, you’ve got to do something.” Thinking of his wife and tiny son back home, he pleaded, “Please, do something.”

Their advance began. Just as the soldier at the front took his first step, something to the left caught their eye. A cloud, a fluffy white cloud, appeared out of nowhere and settled on the ground, completely obscuring the Germans’ line of fire.

Taking advantage of this miraculous turn of events, Spencer and his fellow soldiers bolted into the clearing and ran for their lives. Safe in the sheltering woods on the other side, his heart pounding in his ears, Spencer hid behind a tree and watched as the last American soldier raced to safety. He will never forget what happened next: the instant the last soldier scrambled to safety, the cloud vanished!

The Germans, thinking they still had the American soldiers pinned down behind that stone house, radioed its position to their artillery. Within minutes the house was blown to bits.

But that’s not the end of the story. Two weeks later a letter arrived from Spencer’s mother back in the States. “Son, what in the world was the matter on such and such a day,” she asked, pinpointing the very day and time that Spencer and Company I had faced such grave danger.

“You remember Sister Tankersley from our church? Well, she called me that morning and told me that the Lord had awakened her at 1:00 in the morning and said, ‘Spencer is in serious trouble. Get up now and pray for him.’ Sister Tankersley said she prayed for you until 6:00, when she had to go to work. She told me that the last thing she prayed before getting off her knees was, ‘God, whatever danger Spencer is in, just cover him with your cloud.’”

Andrew Murray said, “Most churches don’t know that God rules the world by the prayers of his saints.” John Wesley was even more specific: “God does nothing but in answer to prayer.” And E. M. Bounds claimed, “The church upon its knees would bring heaven upon the earth.”

The best way to know Christ is in prayer. We know any person best by spending time with him or her, talking together, listening to each other, being with each other. So it is with Jesus. The more time we spend together in prayer, the more we grow to know him and be like him.

This focus is especially urgent for this patriotic day, because the greatest gift you and I can give our nation is to pray for her. To pray for her leaders, her people, her spiritual life and God’s divine blessing.

So today we’ll look at the life of prayer, and focus that life on our nation and her needs this day.

See something

Our text finds us in the midst of the Galilean ministry of Jesus. Matthew tells us that he went “everywhere,” to all the villages in this northern part of the Holy Land. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, records the fact that there were no less than 204 such villages in the time of Jesus. Jesus goes to them all, teaching, preaching, healing. Touching their lives. And when he does, he sees something.

He sees that they’re “fainting”—the Greek word originally meant to be flayed or skinned. Here it means that they are distressed, hassled, worried. They’re “scattered”—cast down, wounded, lying around. Abandoned by their shepherds.

And seeing their enormous pain, their terrible need, he is moved with “compassion”—this is the strongest word in the Greek language meaning pity and tenderness to the depth of one’s being. They’re hurting, abandoned, lost, and he feels their pain and suffering. He sees their need.

And so he calls his disciples to pray.

The life of prayer begins with the need for prayer. If we don’t think we need to pray, we won’t.

Do you need God’s help with your marriage? Your kids? Your parents?

Do you need his guidance for your future? Your job? Your money?

Does our church need God’s power for our future? Our ministry? Our people? Or, are we self-sufficient enough that prayer is an activity we practice, not a relationship we need?

Does America need us to pray? Beneath the surface of our prosperity and blessing, is there a deep chasm of need and pain? In a country where half our marriages end in divorce, where suicides are higher than ever in our history, where teenage pregnancy is at an all-time high, were drug and alcohol abuse now starts in our elementary schools? Do we need to pray for our country?

Pray something

Jesus sees their crushing need, and so he says, “Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field” (v. 38). “Ask.” In the King James, “Pray ye therefore.”

And here we come to the problem of prayer. When there is so much to be done, so many needs to be met, why pray? Why not just go? They know what to do, and they have Jesus’ example of how to do it. Why pray?

I cannot speak for any of you, but I will confess to you that this has been a problem of mine for years. Why pray?

My problem looks like this: does my prayer convince God to do something he would not otherwise do? If so, then am I talking God into doing the right thing? Am I more good than he, and must convince him to do what is right? On the other hand, if my prayer does not change God and his work, then why pray?

I know that some say, “Prayer doesn’t change God, prayer changes me.” It’s true that prayer changes me, but what do we do when what needs changing is not us? A child to be healed? A lost person to be saved? A nation in need?

If I pray, do I convince God to do something good? If I don’t, why should I pray? Do you see the problem?

James said that we have not because we ask not (James 4.2). I think one of the chief reasons we don’t ask more urgently, pray more passionately, is that we’re not sure why we should. Why it matters. Why it changes things. And when we do pray, we’re not sure our praying really makes a significant difference.

We pray for rain, but do we bring our umbrellas? We pray for healing, but do we really believe it will happen?

A young man concerned about his preaching once asked Spurgeon why he was seeing so few respond to his sermons. Spurgeon asked, “Well, you don’t expect someone to come every time you preach, do you?” “No, of course not.” “That’s why they don’t,” Spurgeon concluded.

This is even more true of praying. The obvious problem of prayer is that the modern church does so little of it. The underlying problem is that we’re not sure why we should.

Here’s the answer which has helped me enormously: prayer doesn’t change God, it positions me to receive what he already wanted me to have. When we ask God to move, we give him permission to move. When we ask him to heal us, we admit that we need him to heal us and we want him to. Then he can.

Every parent here knows what it’s like to want to help your children more than they will let you. You can solve their math problems, or fix their toys, or help them decide where to go to school, but they must let you. Their request for help doesn’t change your heart, but theirs. Then you can give what you already wanted them to have.

This is why we pray: to know God. To know his heart, his mind, his Spirit. And to receive from him what he already wanted us to have. Not because our prayer earns God’s favor—it simply receives it. It receives what Almighty God, our heavenly Father, wants us to have.

If you agree that America needs God’s favor, God’s power, God’s help, then you must ask. Not to change God, but us.

Do something

Here’s the outcome: “He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness” (10:1). After they prayed, they received God’s power. His power to heal, to preach, to minister. Luke’s version tells us that they went through these towns, preaching the gospel, healing everywhere. They were given power which literally “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6 KJV). Power for ministry all across their nation. But the power to touch their nation came from the power of prayer.

I once heard Chuck Swindoll say at a Texas Baptist Evangelism Conference, “You can do great things for God after you pray. But you cannot do anything for God until you pray.” He’s right. When we pray we will receive God’s power. Power to work, to witness, to minister, to evangelize. Power to touch America. Power to touch the world.

Jonathan Edwards, the leader of one of America’s Great Awakenings, was asked the secret. He said, “Promote explicit agreement and visible union of God’s people in extraordinary prayer.” Andrew Murray explains why: “The man who mobilizes the Christian church to pray will make the greatest contribution to the world’s evangelization in history.”

Do you agree?

What’s your prayer life like today? How close are you to Jesus right now? How committed to the life of prayer, of communion with him? Is prayer an activity or a relationship for you?

Do you pray regularly for your country? For your president and other leaders, as Scripture commands us? For the salvation of our people?

And are you willing to be part of the answer to that prayer? By beginning where you are, with the people you know and the needs you can touch today? By helping hurting friends, and showing them Jesus’ love in yours? By telling them that God loves them?

Conclusion

We begin the life of prayer by deciding to make Christ our personal Lord and Savior. We ask him in prayer to forgive our mistakes and take charge of our life. I invite you to make that commitment right now.

Then we determine to enter into the life of prayer, more fully and intentionally than ever before. This is how we know Christ. This is how we make him known to our nation, by his power. I invite you to make this commitment with me today.

Take this moment with me, and tell Jesus that you want to know him better. That you want to practice the life of prayer even more earnestly. That you need his power for your life and your nation, right now. Pray for your president and your leaders. Pray for God to intercede for the needs of our people. Do what Jesus asks his disciples to do: “Pray ye therefore.” God is waiting to hear from you, right now.