Christians have always been a praying people. In truth, since the Spirit awakens us to God our Father and moves us to cry out to him (Rom 8:15-17), it is inconceivable that God’s children wouldn’t pray. Yet, as we pray, it is worth asking: From where does the power of prayer come?
To that question we could answer in a number of ways. James 5:19 says, “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (KJV). In comparison with a passage like Psalm 66:18, we might conclude that powerful prayer depends on the person: God hears and answers his choice servants, but ignores the pleas of men who regard sin in their heart.
Surely, there is some truth in that. But there is also error, if we think that our personal righteousness is the means by which God answers our prayer. Just a few verses before James speaks of “powerful” prayer, he says, “And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick.” In context, the righteous pray-er is the one who prays in faith. In other words, personal righteousness is the not the source of powerful prayer. Rather, powerful prayer comes from those who by faith confess their sins and plead for God’s mercy.
Prayer in the Bible
Throughout the Bible, effective prayer is portrayed less as righteous men twisting the arm of God, and more as believers petitioning God to be faithful to his Word. While it may sound strange to ask God to honor his Word, this is exactly how the Bible models prayer. God wants us to plead for God to be God in our midst. Why? Because when we do God gets the glory and we get the joy.
For instance, in Psalm 50, Asaph writes, “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” Here God gets the glory and the one praying gets the joy of being delivered. Likewise, the Psalmist regularly prays that God would lead, guide, pardon, and save “for his name’s sake” (23:3; 25:11; 31:3; 79:9; 106:8; 109:21). In other words, the model we have in Scripture is a plea for mercy on the basis of God’s goodness, not man’s.
The key to powerful prayer then is not the designated intercessor; it is the gracious and tender God to whom we pray. What encouraging news to sinners who need mercy. Powerful prayer depends not on the perfection of our righteousness, but on his gracious response to those who come to him in faith.
A Model Prayer
In Psalm 86 we find a model prayer for those coming to God pleading for mercy on the basis of God’s faithfulness. I would submit that the first seven verses show us the kind of prayer that God delights in and answers powerfully.
In verses 1-7 we find five petitions for mercy (v. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6-7) and five reasons why God should be merciful (each begins with ‘for’). If we look at how these five petitions relate to the statements of need, we see that David is not praying on the basis of his righteousness. The power of his prayer is seen in his confession of his need.
For instance, he asks Yahweh to “incline” his ear to him (v. 1). Why? Because he confesses his poverty and need. As a son of Israel, he knows that God defends the poor and provides for the needy. Therefore, he is not explaining his circumstances or excusing his decisions; he is simply praying on the basis of God’s character.
Next, in verses 2-4, David prays for God to preserve his life, extend grace, and gladden his soul. And to each petition, he gives a reason. Notice, in verse 2, he reminds God of his covenant commitment, and in verse 3-4, he highlights the earnestness and singularity with which David approaches God. In short, David’s confidence stems from his relationship with God; and thus the power of his prayer is not based upon his fine words or bargaining commitments; it is based upon his relationship with God.
In fact, the key to unlocking the power of prayer in this Psalm and in our lives is found in verse 5. In contrast to the five “for” statements given in verses, the ultimate reason David could pray with confidence rested is this: Yahweh is “good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you.”
For this reason David makes regular, earnest, audacious requests of God. Because he knows God is merciful and gracious, he prays boldly that God would manifest that mercy. Continuing in verses 6-7, David finishes his petitions with confidence that he will hear his prayers.
Praying with Power
In truth, the power of prayer is rooted in God himself. As the maker of heaven and earth, he has the power to create life from nothing (Rom 4:17), and he has sent his Spirit of adoption to lead his children to petition Him as our heavenly Father.
He invites us to pray, so that we might know his will and so that through our prayers, he would glorify his Son. For us who have been saved by Christ, this is not just good news; this is the greatest news—prayer glorifies God and increases our praise. It’s a wonder why we struggle to pray?! And a testimony to our increasing need to renew our minds about prayer.
May we be impelled to pray, not by our goodness, but his. And may the Spirit of Christ be pleased to awaken us more of God’s glory and joy in prayers offered in faith.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss