31 Days of Prayer: Day Four – Why prayer without work is presumption

15-black-green-tech“We prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.” (Nehemiah 4:9)

Is it possible to value prayer too highly? No. Is it possible to pray too much? No. But…

What if our focus on prayer somehow leads us to neglect other kinds of action through which God might work?

The book of Nehemiah records God’s people embarking on their efforts to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem in 445 BC (after their return from exile). As governor of the people, Nehemiah bore a special responsibility for leading the work.

It was hard work, not least because of the opposition the Jews faced from nearby enemies. As chapter 4 opens, Sanballat the Horonite (possibly governor of Samaria) and Tobiah the Ammonite are ‘angry’ and ‘greatly enraged’ at the progress being made (4:1), so plot together to fight against Jerusalem (4:8).

Nehemiah has already marked himself out as a man of prayer (1:4-6, 2:4), but his response to the crisis in chapter 4 is massively important: “We prayed to our God AND posted a guard day and night to meet this threat” (emphasis added).

A friend once shared with me the old adage: “Prayer without work is presumption; work without prayer is atheism.” That seems to be the biblical pattern. Prayerful dependence on God is absolutely vital – but this is not the only thing God expects from us. For example, it’s the pattern of Paul’s ministry – he knew he was utterly dependent on God answering prayer for his life and ministry to bear any fruit (as we’ll see in a future reflection), but that didn’t stop him from doing everything in his power to work for the growth of the gospel. Prayer goes hand-in-hand with other kinds of action.

There will be times in life where all we can do is pray – maybe we’re too far removed from a situation to take other practical steps, or maybe ill health keeps us down. At times like that, remember that prayer is the single greatest action any of us can take. I’m convinced that the ‘little old ladies’ of the world – aka the ‘prayer warriors’ – are the driving force of more churches and ministries than we will ever know, this side of the new heavens and the new earth. Prayer is action, not a pious alternative to action.

At the same time, as we have opportunity, let’s join our prayers together with other kinds of action. It may be that our actions, feeble as they may be, are the answers to someone else’s prayers. “Prayer is never an acceptable substitute for obedience. The sovereign Lord accepts no offering from His creatures that is not accompanied by obedience. To pray for revival while ignoring or actually flouting the plain precept laid down in the Scriptures is to waste a lot of words and get nothing for our trouble.” (A.W. Tozer)

A Prayer
Gracious Father, thank you that you choose to hear my prayers, and that you work through the actions of sinful human beings like me. Please help me to be diligent in prayer for all things, but help me never to neglect the other kinds of actions that you would have me undertake. Help me to walk in obedience and faithfulness, and help me to toil and struggle with all your energy that you so powerfully work in me. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

2 thoughts on “31 Days of Prayer: Day Four – Why prayer without work is presumption

  1. I’m not really sure what you mean by prayer if you think it should never be an alternative to action. I don’t know about you, but I am doing stuff every day. As a mother, my whole life is activity. If I am praying for my children, I am also talking to them, advising them, doing stuff with them, helping them. I don’t think of prayer as an alternative to anything, I see prayer as communication with God. And if God isn’t telling me to do something, then what on earth am I doing anyway? I see so much stuff done in the name of God which isn’t godly at all and people wonder why God doesn’t hear their prayers. In my experience there is far too much action and too little waiting upon the Lord for direction.

    • Hi Anita, thanks for the comment. I think either you’ve missed the point of my post, or I’ve missed the point of your comment. I was definitely not saying that prayer is never an alternative to action. I tried to be specific by saying that sometimes (due to things like lack of time or illness) all we can do is pray. And as a father of three young children, I totally know what you mean (and my wife would even totally more know what you mean!) about the non-stop activity of having small children. However, the point of my post was that when we have opportunity, we should pray AND act in other ways as well, rather than thinking that prayer alone is all that’s required of us. I picked up on Nehemiah 4 as an example of that. Does that make sense?

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