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)
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.