Prayer under Pressure

How do you pray when you are under pressure? More often? More intensely? For relief from your problems? Listen to the early church pray in Acts 4:23-31 and learn from them.

Begin your prayer with praise. Praise God that he is sovereign. Note that the disciples pray to a personal God who hears prayer. The term they use to address God reflects the truth that he is the sovereign master of all. The corresponding term is servant, used by the believers of themselves later in the prayer. That sovereignty is evident in his creating all things and also, then, ruling over them. This sovereign God has spoken by the Holy Spirit (note the close relationship between the Spirit and the Word) by the mouth of David. Dennis Johnson writes: “Several things about the prayer of these early Christians may strike us as unusual, in view of the Sanhedrin’s threats that provoked their prayer. Everything they said to God was shaped by what God had said to them in Scripture, those divine words brought to focus and fulfillment in Jesus. They mentioned the crisis only at th eend of their prayer, almost as an afterthought. Their petition was completely God-centered: they asked not for safety, but for the courage to persevere in their Christ-glorifying mission.” (Let’s Study Acts, p. 40).

Pray for the kingdom of the Anointed One. The prayer takes the words of Psalm 2 and prays them back to God. That passage spoke of the rebellion of the rulers against the Lord and his Anointed One. That came to fulfillment in the conspiracy of Herod, Pilate, and the peoples of Israel, resulting in the death of the Messiah. But note that as wicked as the successful plotting was, it accomplished what the power and will of God had determined beforehand. What had happened to the Messiah was now threatening his body on earth, his little kingdom. Would it be snuffed out?

For what do you pray? Pray for boldness! You can imagine other directions this prayer might have taken (Lord, stop the persecution. Don’t let the suffering destroy your church.). It is certainly not wrong to pray in those ways.

The pressure in this case is the threat of persecution, a warning at this point, but a very real threat considering how the Sanhedrin had treated their Lord. In many parts of the world, and increasingly in ours, that pressure of persecution is taking place. But the pressure of suffering includes not only overt persecution—it involves all the trials and tensions that come into the lives of those who live as aliens and strangers here, people who belong to the kingdom of heaven, but still live in this sin-cursed world.

Pray for boldness, that you may be willing to speak God’s Word as he has commanded his church to proclaim it. Pray for faithfulness in obedience, particularly for obedience in areas you are tempted to fail. Pray, knowing that you are the bondservants (v. 29) of the Sovereign. That gives authority to your message, conviction to your decisions.

The prayer for miraculous signs of healing showed that the early church understood the continuity of its work with that of the ministry of the Lord while he was on earth.

What happens when you pray like that? God hears and answers! This personal God not only hears prayer, he answers—that is truly comforting. As the believers prayed, the ground shook. Think of the earthquake that was part of the display of the presence of God at Sinai. Think of the words of the prophet in Haggai 2:6-9. The shaking in Acts reminded the church that what the prophet anticipated had come about in the person of the Messiah.

While Pentecost was a unique event, believers can be filled with the Spirit to a greater or lesser degree. Here is a prayer addressed to God the Father. The content of the prayer reflects on the work of God the Son. The response to the prayer is a personal one: the Father sends God the Holy Spirit to fill the believers. You see the presence of the Spirit, not only in the bold preaching that followed, but also in the sacrificial concern for one another. Where the Spirit is at work, lives change! Richard Gaffin writes: “Every time Jesus’ disciples pray, ‘Your kingdom come,’ we are asking for God, by his Spirit, according to his will (‘your will be done’), to establish, maintain, and expand his saving rule, not only worldwide and in others, but also and particularly in us. We are praying for the Spirit to be at work in us, so that our submission to God’s rule will be absolute and all-controlling. This is another way of praying, as we have seen in Ephesians 5:18, to be filled with the Spirit. That prayer, as Jesus teaches us here, we are privileged to pray again and again, and ‘our Father in heaven’ delights to hear and answer it, again and again.” (The Work of the Holy Spirit, p. 30).

How should you pray under pressure? Praise God, acknowledge his sovereign power, and plead for boldness to obey Him.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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