"There has never been a spiritual awakening in any country or locality that did not begin in united prayer. " — A. T. Pierson
Just days before he was supposed to move to Kentucky and join our staff, Kyle Idleman was at home in his southern California home. He walked into the bedroom of his two-year-old daughter Morgan to wake her from a nap. He was singing, trying to awaken her as gently as possible, as he opened the door. To his horror, he saw that her five-foot-tall chest of drawers had fallen over and he could see no sign of Morgan. In a panic he lifted the chest of drawers and screamed for his wife. There lay Morgan, unconscious, black and blue, and Kyle could already see several large bumps raised up on her head. "We called 911," Kyle said. "It just rang and rang. It must have rung 20 times before I scooped Morgan up in my arms and sped to the hospital with my wife."
As Kyle's wife Desiree held Morgan, still unconscious, in the back seat, Kyle continued to try desperately to call 911. There was still no answer. "As the phone rang I listened as my wife prayed out loud for our daughter," Kyle said. "I finally hung up the phone and began praying with her."
At the hospital, they were bombarded with doctors and nurses. There was nerve damage, which at first they feared would be permanent. Kyle's dad, Ken Idleman, a long-time friend of mine, called us to tell us of the accident, and scores of people from California to Missouri to Kentucky began praying that Morgan would not be paralyzed. After a myriad of tests they decided the only serious nerve damage was in her left leg, which was still paralyzed. The doctors believed the nerve would heal itself and Morgan would be able to move the leg within six months, but they feared that in the meantime palsy would set in and cause long-term damage. Kyle said,
Every morning for the next several days my wife and I would go in a pray for her and then ask her to move her toes. She would stare at her toes and then smile at us and say, "they don't work!" And then one morning after we prayed we said, "Morgan move your toes." And she did. They moved — just a little. But they moved.
Kyle and his wife Desiree are thrilled that Morgan is doing well and seems to be suffering no permanent damage. Reflecting on the event, Kyle concluded, "The one and only time in my life I called 911 and no one answered. But God was there for us when we needed him the most."
The Psalmist wrote, "When I was in distress, I sought the Lord" (Psalm 77:2). Do you pray in times of trouble? When your teacher says, "There will be a pop quiz today," do you pray, "Oh, Lord, come quickly!"? When you discover a strange lump on your body, do you immediately pray, "Oh God, please don't let it be cancerous, and give me the strength to trust you"? When your employer says, "I'd like to meet with you tomorrow at 11:00," do you pray, "Lord, keep my job secure"? When you slip on an icy road, do you pray, "Lord, help me get this vehicle under control"? When you discover a chest of drawers has fallen on your child, do you pray, "Lord, help her, let her be okay, and keep us strong"?
James wrote, "Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray" (James 5:13). You might be thinking, That's not a problem! Doesn't everyone pray when they're in trouble? Not necessarily. A lot of people don't turn to the Lord even in the middle of a great crisis. Federal aviation inspectors say that when they listen to the final words of airline pilots just before a crash, they frequently hear profanity. The very last words recorded on tape and preserved in the black box are often not prayers but curses.
ARE YOU PREPARED TO PRAY WHEN TROUBLE STRIKES?
God expects you to call upon him when you're in trouble. You might say to your children, "If you have any trouble, stop and call me." You want them to rely on you when they're in trouble. Your heavenly Father wants you to rely on him when you're in a crisis. So why don't people instinctively pray when they're in trouble?
If you don't turn to God when tragedy strikes, it's probably one of two reasons: either you don't believe he can help so you just don't ask (as we discussed in Chapter Three), or you're not in the habit of going to him under normal circumstances, so when the pressure is on, you revert back to old habits.
REVERTING TO OLD HABITS
When faced with severe trouble people instinctively revert back to lifelong habits. That's why the recording caught the pilots cursing God instead of praying to him. That was their habit. Whether or not you pray in times of trouble will depend upon your daily routine. If you are not going to God on a daily basis for strength and guidance, it's not likely you will turn to him in a crisis. Like those pilots, you will revert to your habits when trouble strikes. If your routine is more characterized by cursing than praying, you'll be more likely to curse God than to pray to him even in the darkest hour.
A good basketball player will practice free throws over and over, shooting them exactly the same way. He hopes that he will develop such good habits that when the pressure is on, he can still perform correctly. He knows that in stressful situations, the body responds as it has been trained to respond. So does the mind and the spirit.
Luke 22:44 describes Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane just hours before the crucifixion: "And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground." In his darkest hour, he prayed. His prayer may have been more intense than normal, but it was natural for him to turn to his Father for help because that's what he was used to doing. The Bible says that during his busy days when the crowds were following him and everything was going well, "Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed" (Luke 5:16).
When our children were toddlers we developed a habit of reading a Bible story to them and praying with them before they went to sleep. We faithfully went through that routine every night. Sometimes it seemed like we were just going through the motions, but it was an acknowledgement that God was real to us and that prayer was a vital part of every day. When they grew older, we continued the habit, usually sitting down at the kitchen table late in the evening for a few minutes before they went off to bed. One of us would read a section of Scripture and then both boys would take turns praying aloud.
A few years later we went through one of those periods of teenage rebellion. I discovered that one of my sons had violated a family rule in a major way. I was angry. When I confronted him, he confessed and apologized. He could tell he had wounded me, and he broke down and wept. His tears broke my heart. I put my arms around him and held him like I did when he was a little child. He sobbed, "Dad, could we pray or something?" We knelt by the couch and prayed. It was a heartwarming, cleansing moment that bound us together. But it would have never happened — it would never have been so natural for my son to want to pray with me — if many years earlier we hadn't developed the sometimes perfunctory habit of praying every night together.
When you are daily going to God for strength and wisdom, you will more naturally turn to him when tragedy strikes.
DO YOU PRAY FOR OTHER CHRISTIANS IN TROUBLE?
The Bible commands us to "always keep on praying for all the saints" (Ephesians 6:18). You might go to God when you're in trouble, and you might pray for those close to you when they are in trouble. But those of us in American often overlook a large group of saints facing daily trouble: the persecuted Christians. The Hebrew writer urged, "Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering."
THE PERSECUTED CHURCH
Paul Marshall, in his book Their Blood Cries Out, exposed the tragic injustices being meted out against Christians in many different countries today. A summary of the book reads,
In Sudan Christians are enslaved. In Iran they are assassinated. In Cuba they are imprisoned. In China they are beaten to death. In more than 60 countries worldwide, Christians are harassed, abused, arrested, tortured or executed specifically because of their faith. 200,000,000 Christians throughout the world live in daily fear of secret police, vigilantes, or state repression or discrimination. These are not wild rumors. Nor are they simply Christians who, like many others, suffer from war or tyranny. Hundreds of millions of Christians are suffering simply because of what they believe.1
More than 150,000 Christians are killed every year for their faith.2 That's more than were being killed by the Roman empire in the first three centuries when we picture persecution being at its worst. The fact is that more Christians died for their faith in the last century that in the first 19 centuries combined.3
Christian musicians D.C. Talk recently published a revised version of the old Fox's Book of Martyrs. The book contains several modern-day accounts of the persecution and martyrdom many Christians have courageously endured in countries dominated by communists and Muslims. The book recounts the courageous story of Pastor Kim and his flock of 27 Christians in North Korea. They literally lived in hand-dug tunnels for a number of years, hiding from the hostile communist government. But as government officials built a road through the area, the underground community was discovered. The officials brought them out before a crowd of 30,000 in the village of Gok San for a public trial and execution. The Christians were told, "Deny Christ or die." When they refused, four children were seized from the group and prepared for hanging. With ropes tied around their tiny necks, the merciless officer again commanded the parents of the children to deny Christ. They told their children, "We will see you in heaven," and the children died quietly.
As if that were not barbaric enough, the officer then called for a steamroller and forced the Christians to lie down in its path. As the engine revved, the church members were given one last chance to recant. Again they refused.
Together the church members began to sing one of their hymns as the steamroller inched forward:
More love to Thee, O Christ! More love to Thee!
Thee alone I seek, more love to Thee!
Let sorrow do its work, more love to Thee
Then shall my latest breath whisper thy praise!
This be my parting breath, my heart shall raise,
More love, 0 Christ, to Thee!4
The North Korean press reported the execution as an effort to suppress superstition.5
Persecution of Christians is a fact of daily life, not only in North Korea, but in Cuba, Iran, Vietnam, China, Sudan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and many other countries around the world. We ought to be doing whatever we can to assist these brothers and sisters in Christ. We are commanded, "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy" (Proverbs 31:8-9). The Bible says,
Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, "But we knew nothing about this," does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done? (Proverbs 24:11-12)
Thankfully even some non-Christians like columnist Michael Horowitz have begun to petition the American government to open their eyes to the atrocities being conducted against Christians around the world. If these happenings are appalling even to those who do not share our faith, how much more should they break our hearts?
At the very least, we should be praying for the persecuted church. It's only natural that we pray for protection and freedom for those who are being persecuted. But is that all?
Acts 4 tells us that Peter and John were arrested and imprisoned for preaching that Jesus of Nazareth had risen from the dead. The next day they were released, but the religious leaders who arrested them warned them not to preach about Jesus again. Peter and John responded boldly, "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:19-20). Then they went to the Christian community and reported all that had been done to them and the threats against them. When the believers heard what had happened, "they raised their voices together in prayer to God" (Acts 4:24).
The early church sensed the pressure they were under, so they met to pray. You might imagine that they would pray for exemption from persecution. Instead, they prayed, "Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness" (Acts 4:29). They prayed, not for freedom or protection, but for boldness! The Bible says, "After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly" (Acts 4:31). They prayed for boldness and God gave them boldness! And he gave them the opportunity to use their courage to the glory of Jesus Christ.
So when you pray for the persecuted church, don't just pray that God will protect them. Pray that they will remain faithful and proclaim boldly the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
TROUBLE CHRISTIANS FACE IN AMERICA
Christians in America don't face arrest, imprisonment or death. We face lawsuits, labels, political correctness, loss of tax exemption, media gibes, and derision from the intellectual elite. For example, a developer in our city paid for an advertisement in a local newspaper. The ad promoted his new housing project and noted that it was "near Southeast Christian Church." An executive from the Fairness in Housing Commission called him insisting that he not repeat the advertisement because it was discriminatory against non-Christians. The developer was threatened with a lawsuit if he didn't comply.
We need to pray that God will give us the courage to face such opposition fearlessly. If our brothers and sisters in other countries can stand up for their faith when faced with nooses and steamrollers, surely we can refuse to cower when faced with lawsuits and letters to the editor.
One of the graduating seniors in our church was asked to have the benediction at the end of her baccalaureate service. She was warned it was to be an "inspirational moment" and she was cautioned not to pray. The ACLU tries to put the pressure on schools at graduation time, so attorneys of the public schools send out memos to principals saying things like, "If at all possible, please instruct your students not to pray. Instruct them to say something meaningful or read something inspirational. If they insist on having a time of prayer, make it a moment of silence." The ACLU is powerful because too many people cower to the opposition. We're terrified of legal entanglement. We fear the financial impact or the bad publicity such trouble can bring. Instead, we should be praying for the kind of boldness for which our brothers and sisters in other countries are famous.
Sometimes when I'm preparing a sermon, I'll be studying a Scripture or topic that brings to mind a "controversial" issue. I will sense the Holy Spirit leading me to deal with the issue from a biblical perspective. It might be the topic of abortion, homosexuality, divorce, women's role in the church, the exclusive claims of Christ as the only way to salvation, or any of the dozens of other controversial subjects. I'm often tempted to think, I don't want to appear anti-intellectual. I don't want the media ridiculing me. I don't want to make another pro-choice political candidate mad at me. I think I'll just avoid this topic. I'll skirt this issue. A voice in my head will whisper, Don't call it a perversion — call it a struggle. Don't tell them about divorce, tithing or abstinence — those are old-fashioned ideas. Don't call it sin — call it "morally challenged." You don't want to offend anybody.
But then I will remember that I'm commissioned in Scripture to preach the Word and to speak the truth in love, not just to say what itching ears want to hear. I remember what one ambassador for Christ said even from a prison cell,
Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. (Ephesians 6:19-20)
I hope you will pray for me, and for other Christians who have the opportunity to speak up for Christ, that we may be able to proclaim the Word of Christ boldly and clearly.
DO YOU PRAY FOR A NATION IN TROUBLE?
When your nation is in trouble, God's people need to pray.
God sent Jonah to warn the city of Ninevah of impending doom if they did not repent of their wickedness. Rather than scoff at the threat of judgment, the city in trouble prayed. The King of Ninevah sent out the following decree:
"Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish." (Jonah 3:7b-9)
Their prayers were heard. God did relent and with compassion forgave the city of Ninevah.
AMERICA'S PRAYER OF REPENTANCE
Former Governor of Kentucky, Brereton Jones, asked me to speak at the Governor's Prayer Breakfast during his final year in office in 1995. In my speech I mentioned that our nation has turned away from God. We have lost our spiritual bearings, I said, and we need to repent. I created a prayer we should pray as a nation. We should pray, I suggested, like this:
Oh, God, we know that your Word says, "Woe to those who call evil good," but that's exactly what we've done.
We have lost our spiritual equilibrium and inverted our values.
We confess that we have ridiculed the absolute truth of your Word and called it moral pluralism.
We have worshipped other gods and called it multiculturalism and New Age spirituality.
We have committed adultery and called it an affair.
We have endorsed perversion and called it an alternative lifestyle.
We have exploited the poor and called it the lottery.
We have neglected the needy and called it frugality.
We have rewarded laziness and called it welfare.
We have killed our unborn children and called it choice.
We have shot abortionists and called it justifiable.
We have neglected to discipline our children called it building self-esteem.
We have failed to execute justice speedily as your Word commands, and called it due process.
We have failed to love our neighbor who has a different color of skin and called it maintaining racial purity.
We have abused power and called it political savvy.
We have coveted our neighbor's possessions and called it ambition.
We have polluted the air with profanity and pornography and called it freedom of expression.
We have made the Lord's Day the biggest shopping and entertainment day of the week and called it free enterprise.
We have ridiculed the time-honored values of our parents and called it enlightenment.
Search us, O God, and know our hearts today. Try us and see if there be some wicked way in us, cleanse us of every sin and set us free. Though our sins be as scarlet, may they become white as snow. Though they be as crimson, may they be as wool.6
A few months later I printed the prayer in my weekly column of The Lookout magazine. My friend Joe Wright, pastor at Central Christian Church in Wichita, Kansas, read the prayer and was moved by it. He was scheduled to deliver the opening prayer before the Kansas House of Representatives two months later. On January 23, 1996, Joe Wright stood before those legislators and prayed that prayer! You may have heard about the controversy his prayer stirred that day. It infuriated several legislators and one member even stormed out of the hall in protest. Several gave speeches critical of the prayer, and one even called it a "message of intolerance." Joe's staff stopped counting how many phone calls they received after the first 6,500! All but a small handful of the calls were supportive. Since then the church has been contacted by people from every state and many foreign countries asking for a copy of the prayer. I understand the chaplain coordinator in the Nebraska legislature read the prayer the following month and stirred up some more controversy there! Paul Harvey also reported on the controversy and read the prayer on the air. He has since repeated the story, claiming it is one of the most requested readings he has ever had. The prayer has been widely circulated by e-mail. One of our elders recently sent it to me and said, "You need to read this prayer — it's great!"
Joe Wright and I have joked often about the publicity he has received for the prayer I wrote. But that's okay with me — I didn't have to take all those hits! And he deserves credit for having the boldness to actually pray the prayer in front of the legislature! I'm thankful that so many Americans have resonated with that prayer. I hope we don't just read it but really pray it and genuinely repent before God.
A HISTORY OF PRAYER
One of the reasons the United States has been so blessed by God is that in times of trouble, leaders and citizens of this nation have always turned to prayer.
The pilgrims barely survived the first winter in the new land. They prayed that God would provide and they made it through. When the first harvest came, they set aside a special time to thank God for his blessings.
George Washington knelt in the snow at Valley Forge and asked God for the resources so the revolutionary army could survive.
When the Constitutional Convention met in 1789, tempers flared and harsh words were spoken in the debate over how the new government should operate. After much argument, the members had come to a stalemate. But Benjamin Franklin, aged and ailing, made yet one more important contribution to the young nation — he asked for God's intervention. "God governs in the affairs of men," he said, addressing George Washington and the assembly. "And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?" Franklin then suggested beginning each session with prayer and that a member of the clergy be retained to lead them in their supplications. Not only did this bring the Convention back to an essential focus, but it also led to the establishment of a chaplaincy in the United States Congress that remains to this day.7
Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the greatest president of our country, said, "I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go. My own wisdom and that of those about me seemed insufficient for the day."
The events of September 11, 2001, were tragic, but they resulted in a brief spiritual revival in America. As Max Lucado said, "Some evil men sought to drive America to her knees that fateful day, but they did not know the God to whom we pray when we are on our knees." Americans flocked to churches the evening of September 11 and the days that followed, falling on their knees before God in prayer. The leaders of our nation openly called upon us to pray to God for America. For several months the song "God Bless America" was for all practical purposes our national anthem. It was sung at every public gathering alongside of the traditional "Star Spangled Banner," often with more zeal and enthusiasm.
THE FUTURE OF AMERICA: WITH GOD ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE
As we face an uncertain future with prospects of war and threat of more terrorism always looming, we would be wise to pray. We should pray, "Lord, help us to avoid war if possible, but to always have the courage to stand for what is right. Protect our sons and daughters and allow justice to prevail. Lord, help us to repent of our immorality, greed, and disrespect for life, and may our nation turn to you."
I hear some Christian people talking very pessimistically about America's future. "We're finished," they say. "We're a post-Christian nation now and God will judge us for our disobedience." I agree that God will judge us if we do not repent, but we don't know the future. Our God is an awesome God, and he promises to listen to the prayers of his people. Jesus said, "With God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26).
Who would have ever thought that communism would fall in the Soviet Union? One of the two most powerful nations in the world came unraveled. The Berlin Wall came tumbling down. What happened? Was it economic pressure? Did Gobachev underestimate the power of reformation? One factor that is often overlooked is the faithful prayers of persecuted Christians in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine and other communist countries.
Chuck Colson, in his book A Dance with Deception, tells about visiting some Soviet prisons in 1990 just prior to the collapse of communism. He met a physicist in prison named Alexander Goldovich, who had been arrested for trying to escape in a rowboat. Goldovich was given fifteen years of hard labor in a Siberian prison camp.
The KGB insisted on filming Colson's interview. But Colson said Goldovich still looked straight into the camera and fearlessly described his years of unjust torture in the prison camp. Colson said he couldn't help but admire the man's courage. Then he saw the source of his strength: Over in the corner, above the door, etched in the concrete, was a cross — a symbol of the spiritual power that had sustained him. It wasn't Gorbachev who changed the nation — it was men like Alexander Goldovich who were living righteous lives and praying for freedom.
Only time will tell whether America will return to her proud ways or continue to humble herself before God in times of trouble. The Bible says that the burden of proof rests on those of us who call ourselves God's children. It is our job to take the lead in prayer. God promised in his Word,
"If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land." (2 Chronicles 7:14)
Bob Russell is senior minister of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY.
1. Paul Marshall, Their Blood Cries Out: The Untold Story of Persecution of Christians in the Modern World (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1997), from a summary on the back of the book.
2. dc talk, Jesus Freaks (Tulsa, OK: Albury Publishing, 1999), inside cover.
3. U.S. House Resolution, Scripps-Howard News Service (28 September 1996).
4. Elizabeth P. Prentiss, "More Love to Thee." Music by William H. Doane. Public Domain.
5. dc talk, Jesus Freaks (Tulsa, OK: Albury Publishing, 1999), 124-25.
6. Bob Russell, "A Call for National Repentance," Lookout Magazine (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing), 5 November 1995.
7. "Franklin's Appeal for Prayer at the Constitutional Convention." Available form http://www.wallbuilders.com/resources/search/detail.php?ResourceID=19.