Monday, January 02, 2023

Anonymous Asks (230)

“What is the value of a prayer meeting?”

Over three years ago now, I wrote a post in answer to the question “Why should I pray if God already knows what will happen?” that dealt with the reasons a Christian ought to make his or her individual prayer life a high priority. If your question is actually a more general inquiry into the value of prayer, you will find several suggestions there which I won’t repeat here.

As to the value of corporate prayer, that’s a separate question well worth considering.

James writes, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” He goes on to cite Elijah as an example of this principle. God answered his prayers with great displays of miraculous power despite the fact that he was only one man with a host of powerful enemies. That’s individual prayer. When the necessary conditions are met (righteous behavior, for one), solo prayer works like nobody’s business. In Elijah’s case it worked so powerfully some might argue we need nothing else.

The Importance of Corporate Prayer

But Jesus spoke often of the importance of corporate prayer. He said, “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” In the same context, he said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” So by using the word “corporate”, I don’t mean the numbers need to be large. Two or three will do when they are serious about acting on Christ’s behalf. The value to God is in the expression of family unity, not in the multiplication of praying bodies. A roomful of Christians in prayerful agreement is a very powerful thing, as we find in what might have been the first church “prayer meeting” in Acts 4: “When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.”

The value of their prayer to God was twofold: (1) its unity, and (2) its expression of commitment to prioritize his purposes. The value to the believers was that they were empowered to do the work they desired to do on the Lord’s behalf, and received confirmation of God’s approval.

Does that happen in your church’s prayer meetings? I thought not. I’ve had much the same experience. These things took place in the first century before the written word of God was a complete thing, in a day when signs and wonders were taking place regularly. If we look for our buildings to quake during prayer meetings, we will probably be disappointed.

That doesn’t mean our modern prayer meetings are a waste of time (unless we are praying for signs and wonders), but it does mean that when we come together to pray, it matters to the Lord that we agree about what we are asking and that we are coming to him with his interests primarily in view.

God’s Interests and Our Interests

That last part is critical, and I’m not sure we always grasp it. God’s interests are not our interests. That’s easy to demonstrate. What’s by far the most common thing you hear requested in prayer meetings? Unless yours are wildly different than the ones I’ve attended all my life, the answer is simple. The vast majority of our prayer requests have to do with the physical healing of sick Christians.

On one level this makes sense. Someone in the congregation or someone related to a person in the congregation is always ill. Often half a dozen or more are ailing on any given Wednesday. Naturally, since we love them, they are going to be on our minds and in our prayers.

But here’s a question: What makes us think we are representing the Lord’s interests when we default to requesting the healing of the sick, rather than asking something else on their behalf? God’s interests may be quite different than our own.

The Downside of Healing

Hezekiah wanted to live. God had appointed him a time to die, and it didn’t suit him. We won’t blame Hezekiah too much for that; he had pre-Church Age understanding of what happens to good people when they die, and the prospect terrified him. So God graciously granted him a further fifteen years of life.

What did Hezekiah do with it? Showed off his storehouses to the envoys of Babylon out of pride or imprudence, we know not which. Was that in God’s interests? Fathered one of the most evil kings in Judah’s history. Was that in God’s interests? Demonstrated a nihilistic indifference to the fate of his children and grandchildren on a level with Louis XV of France. Was that in God’s interests?

In the end, all that happened was that God appointed him yet another time to die, as was inevitable. This time it happened. As it turns out, God’s expressed will for Hezekiah the first time was actually a better deal, both for Hezekiah and for his nation. God offered the king a chance to end his reign on a high note. Hezekiah begged off.

If we were in a prayer meeting for the equivalent of a sick Hezekiah, knowing what we know now, what might be a prayer we could offer for the king “in my name”? Definitely not another fifteen years of life. We’d say, “Let the will of the Lord be done”, wouldn’t we? Some of us might add, “and speedily!”

Mercy, Sin and Other Considerations

In fact, there are many reasons people get sick, and the answer we should be looking for from the Lord is not always healing, wisdom for the doctors, or relief from pain. Sometimes terminal illness is God’s mercy to a loved one. Life was not easy for my dad in his last few years, and it got much worse toward the end. A few weeks before my father went to be with the Lord, he told my brother, “I’m grateful for every day the Lord has given me, but I’m not asking him for any more.” Should his family have tried to overrule his wishes in prayer because we would rather have had him with us forever? I hope not. He was looking forward with eager anticipation to seeing the face of his Savior. Who could love him and deny him that?

Or take the example of a man or woman who is sick because of hidden sin in their lives. Ought we to pray for their healing? Well, sure, provided the necessary repentance takes place first. But does that consideration ever get spelled out when we pray together? Of course not. It would sound like the presumption of guilt.

Sometimes bad things happen to good people so that something better can result. The Lord Jesus is the ultimate example of this. If we had been in the sandals of his disciples, would we have spared him the pain of the cross and separation from his Father if our prayers could have accomplished it? Of course we would. Where God’s purposes were concerned, the disciples were as blind as bats. The Lord fully and accurately anticipated every moment of the horrors to come, but he was infinitely wiser than we are in appending the qualification “Not my will, but yours, be done” to the expression of his own most natural and reasonable desires. He reasoned that the Father’s intended outcome was more important than his present comfort.

How many of us can do likewise in our own hour of need?

The Difficulty of Agreement

My point is not to list all the ways in which sickness and even death may serve the purposes of an almighty and all-wise God. Rather, it is to point out how very, very difficult it is for any significant number of Christians to agree together in the case of sickness or other such events, where there is no obvious scripture to guide us and not enough information available about the specific case for us to intelligently determine the best way to pray. Some believers at a prayer meeting may be much more emotionally invested than others; wholly unable to think clearly. Others may be immature or untaught. Still others simply can’t get our heads around the idea that an outcome that causes so much grief and pain could ever serve God’s purposes better than one that doesn’t.

I don’t have all the answers here, but it seems as if one of two things needs to happen in such a case: Either (1) lay the matter out before the Lord in all its complexity and ask him to do what is right, since we don’t know; or (2) keep items we can’t agree about as matters for personal prayer, where we can each go home and pray in good conscience before God for the outcome that seems most desirable to us.

Perhaps we should consider limiting our expression of corporate desire to things about which scripture teaches we can enthusiastically agree together are always, unquestionably, God’s revealed will. For fearless presentation of the gospel. For faithful and accurate teaching from the Word. For the equipping of the saints for works of service. For worship in Spirit and truth. For the salvation of lost souls. For growing love for one another. For unity among the elders. For the meeting of genuine financial needs where we cannot hope to meet those needs ourselves. For the coming of the Lord Jesus.

What then is the value of a prayer meeting? Much, if we can agree and if we can keep the Lord’s perspective on our local situation. But if we cannot agree together about what we are asking the Lord to do, maybe not a great deal.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly. Prayer for the sick dominates the prayer meetings I have attended to the virtual exclusion of everything else. I would love to give a message on this but am convinced that it would be too painful, disruptive and misunderstood by most.

    Since scripture says we all will die, and since we are exhorted to count it all joy when we encounter various trials, I feel these type of prayers serve mainly to make the believers feel better themselves.

    After a study of prayer in the New Testament, I can find only one instance where physical health is mentioned in a prayer and even there it is wished the physical will rise to the level of the spiritual. (3 John 2, excepting James' prayer for the sick)

    Surely, we need to ask ourselves why, if the apostle's prayers focused on the spiritual and eternal, ours are focused on the temporal and physical.

  2. *it would be too painful, disruptive and misunderstood by most*

    I second that fear, Dave. I had second thoughts about publishing this post for the same reason. Now I'm glad I put the idea out there. Looking back on my late father's sermons, I see he at least once said something very similar. I'd love to be able to inquire how that went over.