Written in April 2001
AFTER TWENTY-FIVE YEARS
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING I HAVE DONE
In July I complete twenty-five happy years at my job in YFC. I thought I would share with you what I consider to be the most important thing that I have done during this period. I am not saying that I have done enough of it, but the little I have done has, I feel, been my most important activity. I am talking about prayer.
This is a case where my theology has challenged my natural inclination. I am an activist, and I don’t think I take to prayer naturally. After all these years I still have to work hard at disciplining myself to stop from busy activity in order to give time to prayer. Even after that, sometimes it may take me as long as 15 minutes to shift gears from the “activity mode” to the “prayer mode.” But my theology tells me this is the most important thing I do, so whether I feel like it or not, I have to do it.
Like all good theology the theology that tells me that prayer is so important is derived from the Bible. Let me mention a few points.
- James says, “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (Jas. 5:16).
- Samuel considered it a sin not to pray for the people of Israel (1 Sam. 12:23).
- The Gospels often record Jesus spending the whole night in prayer and mentions his praying prior to many of the important events in his ministry.
- Scholars tell us that Jesus would have followed the Jewish practice of praying three times a day. This of course is what Daniel did even though he risked his life by doing so (Dan. 6:10).
- In 10 of his 13 letters Paul mentions that he prays for the recipients. He tells his spiritual child Timothy that he prays for him night and day (2 Tim. 1:3).
- As the responsibilities of the apostles began to increase, the early church decided to separate them for the ministry of the word and prayer (Acts 6:4). That is the primary role of those who in today’s jargon would be called CEOs.
In recent times I have been reflecting much on the idea that prayer is one of the surest means of preventing burnout in the ministry. I have thought a lot about this as many have told me recently that the schedule I keep makes me a prime candidate for burnout. I suppose the jury is not in on this yet. Perhaps in 15 years from now I will be able to speak with more confidence on this issue. But I do believe that time spent daily lingering in the presence of God is a great antidote to burnout and other ill effects of stress and hard work. Here are some reasons for that belief.
- If spending a good time with God each day is a non-negotiable factor in our daily calendar, then this time could really help slow us down and heal that unhealthy restlessness and rushed attitude that often causes burnout. There are few things that help heal our restlessness as time spent lingering in the presence of God. If a fixed time has been set apart each day for prayer, then there is no point rushing through the exercise as we are going to spend that amount of time whether we rush or not. That time has been blocked out for prayer in our schedules. So we are forced to change gears from stressful rush to restful lingering in the presence of God.
- An hour or more spent each day in the presence of the almighty and sovereign Lord of the universe does wonders to our sense of security (Psa. 46:1-11), the lack of which is another common cause of burnout. With security comes “the peace of God which transcends all understanding” (Phil. 4:7) which is surely a wonderful treasure to live life with. When we do not have security in our tie with God, we will be restlessly running from activity to activity subconsciously hoping that our activity would fill the void in our lives. We are, in fact, afraid to stop and be silent before God. I once heard the Singaporean Dr. Robert Solomon say, “We are uncomfortable with silence because silence forces us to face God.” So we go on with our busy activity till we drive ourselves to the ground!
- The peace we just described is the result of presenting our requests to God (Phil. 4:6). When we spend time with God we are able to “cast all [our] anxiety on him because he cares for [us]” (1 Pet. 5:7). It was during a time of deep crisis in our ministry that I discovered the great release that comes from consciously handing over our burdens to God. I had difficulty going to sleep because I was overwhelmed by worry over the situation. I learned to confess my inability to bear these burdens alone and to place them upon God by a conscious act of release. And release was what I felt as a result of this.
- When we pray we open up our hearts to God. And if someone has hurt us, then we are going to grapple with God over that. This grappling gives God an opportunity to break through into our lives with his comfort. And that comfort enables us to overcome bitterness over people’s actions. What a heavy burden bitterness is for a person to bear! It will drag us down in our spiritual lives and make us prime candidates for burnout.
- If, during our time with God, a lot of time is spent in intercession, we have become conduits of love. When we pray for others love is flowing out of our lives. But this is not a love that drains us of our emotional strength. We are praying, which means that we are in touch with him who is the inexhaustible source of love. As love goes out through prayer, God’s love comes in, and the regular flow of love in and out of our lives makes us glow with the joy that love alone can produce.
So our time spent with God each day becomes the most refreshing thing that we do. Such freshness attacks those triggers of burnout that often accompany the stresses and strains of costly ministry.
Recently there has been a welcome rediscovery of the importance of corporate worship. I think the time is ripe for a return to emphasising the importance of our personal time alone with God.
I need to say two more things. Firstly, like Timothy, I have been blessed with a grandmother and mother who were women of faith (2 Tim. 1:5). As a child, seeing them praying first impressed on me the importance of prayer. May our generation also pass on such a legacy to the next!
Secondly, if my theology says that prayer is a vitally important activity for me, then it follows that your prayers for us are also a vital aspect of our ministry. Describing his imprisonment, Paul said, “I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance” (Phil. 1:19). So important are the prayers of the saints that they are placed alongside the help that the Spirit gives! Elsewhere Paul says, “…you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favour granted us in answer to the prayers of many.” With Paul I can say that the blessings God has given to us has been in answer to your prayers. Thank you!