That’s In The Bible Somewhere…: The More People Praying, The More God Listens
I still remember vividly the circle that a group of us made around our friend Stephen so that we might pray for him as a group. It was 8-10 men of all ages and life stations. I was on the younger end of the spectrum and Steven was roughly in the middle of the scale for the group. He and his wife were in the process of divorcing at the time and one day as our support and study group held its regular meeting time together, Stephen lost it. The pain, isolation, uncertainty and grief of what he was going through simply caught up with him in that moment. Honestly, though we all knew what Stephen was dealing with, that unexpected release of emotions caught us all by surprise. For a moment, there was uncomfortable silence. Then, someone wisely suggested that we surround Stephen and pray for him and his family.
It was a holy moment and it was a natural thing for us to do. At the same time, it was a moment from my life, like similar prayer moments I am sure in your lives that illustrates and speaks to both very healthy ideas about what it really means to pray for one another. It is also these very types of moments that can lead to an unhealthy spiritual idea and yet another of those statements that people often say and where they assume there is Biblical precedent.
The saying that I am referring to and that is a part of the title of today’s sermon goes something like this, “he has got a lot of folks praying for him. I just know God will hear all of those prayers”. In my friend Stephen’s case, he had 8 or 10 of us surrounding him in his moment of utter sadness and need. We were all praying fervently for and with him. Surely, our shear number would have some extra sway with God. This is the way the old saying works and it is honestly what a lot of people believe. The more folks we have praying the more likely God is to listen.
And, yet, it is not Biblical. Again, this way of thinking is more connected to life in the twenty-first century than to the world of the New Testament or the teachings of the Gospels. In our world, bigger is better. The more money, the happier our lives. The more possessions, the more successful we are. The more people in an organization or behind a cause the more important the group is or the more certainty we can have that the cause is right.
Lest you think we are immune, the church falls into this trap on lots of levels too. The more successful someone is in life, work or financially, the more valuable and prepared they must be to lead us in some capacity as a church. The more people a church has, the better than church must be and it certainly must be blessed by and honoring God. After all, look at all of the buildings and people. It is a sure sign of God at work there. It is just like our statement for today articulates, the more people I have praying for me, the more I can have confidence God will listen.
That it is in the Bible, isn’t it? No, unfortunately it is not.
Now, let me be clear. Even though scripture never insinuates that bigger is either better or more spiritual, at the same time, scripture does not say that there is anything necessarily wrong with success or numbers. We all know that growth, even numerical growth or success, can be a sign of health or that we are on the right track.
Yet, at numerous points, scripture is clear that those with little in the way of possessions or power have just as much access to God as those with lots of things or lots of people praying for them. Our text for today is one of the better examples of this truth. The persistent widow which is the double description given to the women at the heart of our parable is the story of a woman with virtually no power. In that day and time to be a female in a male dominated world put you in a terribly vulnerable spot. Most women of the time, unfortunately, only found their power in the influence of their husband. Yet, this woman’s husband had died and so the only chance she had for some degree of standing and societal clout was gone. Yet, it is this poor, widow that continues to persist in her requests to the judge who ultimately gives her what she wants despite the fact that she is one single voice with no power.
Jesus offers her as an example and a model of faithful praying. In other words, part of what Jesus is saying through this story is that our prayers are not really about our power, prestige or how many people we have on our prayer team. Rather, at least in part, our prayers are more about our faithfulness and dedication to the act of praying while trusting that God hears us, listens to us and will be faithful in responding to us. And we can be sure that God does hear us even if we are someone like the persistent widow who everyone in our day to day lives ignores and dismisses.
Which leads us to this, if the persistent widow is an example of the danger of the statement “the more people praying, the more God listens”, then what is the real value of having others join us in our prayers? Said another way, if my friend Stephen facing the end of his marriage could have just as easily gained God’s attention alone, what was the value of the 8 to 10 of us who encircled him and prayed for him? What made us helpful and valuable?
I think a story from the writer Chuck Poole helps here. Poole tells the story of growing up by in the 1970s and being invited while in High School to join a Southern Gospel Quartet. Humorously, he says that they never hit the big time which is to say they never became popular enough to afford one of those twenty year old tour buses with their quartet’s name on the side! But, they did become popular enough to afford matching leisure suits to wear as their traveled from church to church. They were a strange shade of brown with floral patterned butterfly collar shirts – sort of UPS driver meets Hawaii Five-O. As they traveled to all of these little churches of all stripes and denominational persuasions, Poole says that he began to hear a term that was used regularly that both struck him and stuck with him. As these followers of Jesus talked about supporting one another in prayer, they spoke of “praying each other through”. That really, Poole would go on to say, is the power of what we do for each other when we pray for one another – what we do is we pray each other through. (Between the Gates, Charles E. Poole, Smyth and Helwys, 2006, 17-18)
Let me unpack this. On the one hand, we do this by providing solidarity, support and community to one another when we prayer for each other. In the spirit of the statement that prayer doesn’t so much change God as change us, the more people we have praying for us doesn’t change God either but it sure changes us. It lets us know we are not alone. It lets us know that others are thinking of us. It lets us know that we have the group of other people in our lives who have pledged to join us in our pain, challenges and heartaches by lifting us up to God in prayer. That was what we are saying to Stephen, we are here for you. We will pray with you.
On the other hand, we pray each other through as we verbalize for our friends what they are unable to say for ourselves in the midst of life’s hard places. This is in keeping with Romans 8:26 which was our passage for last week that speaks of the Holy Spirit praying to God for us when we know not what to pray ourselves.
So often, we are too sick to even pray, too overwhelmed with hurt to be able to utter a sound or we have a mind that is spinning in a thousand different directions in light of what has happened and that leaves us so dazed and confused that we can’t find the words. Again, this was what was happening in that moment almost 25 years ago now with my friend Stephen. He was so emotional, so upset, so conflicted that he could not get any words out. In that moment, we prayed with him and for him. We prayed him through.
No, numbers don’t mean a lot in the kingdom. It certainly isn’t Biblical that the more people we have on our prayer team the more God pays attention. But, there is power in knowing we have a host of friends and family in our corner to pray us through – then we know that we are not alone and then we know that even when we don’t have the words, others are and will pick up the task for us.
Finally, as we prayer each other through, we trust that God hears and that God answers in God’s timing and in God’s ways. We don’t know how it works and what form it always takes but we trust in the mystery that the Holy God of Heaven responds to our prayers and to the prayers of those who join us and circle around us just as we did all of those years ago for my friend Stephen. Amen.