Sometimes I pray hard. My prayers, especially when it’s just God and me alone on some country road, can be quite intense – voice filled with emotion and urgency as I plead with God to do His work in me and in our world. To me this feels good and right; like being part of a crowd roaring, rising to its feet, as their team’s halfback heads for the goal line—“Run, run, RUN!” Theologians call this “importunate” prayer. In this article I’ll call it “urgent asking”. It’s similar to the evangelistic prayer of John Knox many years back—“Give me Scotland or I die!” I like praying this way. It makes prayer more interesting. Not always, but often, it also feels powerful – like I’ve tapped into the Spirit and He’s egging me on. Together we’re scaling spiritual mountains or smashing down the gates of hell.
Are we? Does it matter if we put energy into our prayers—if we pray “hard”? Is intense prayer more effective than a laid-back approach toward intercession?
Is urgent asking prayer in the Bible?
The Bible is chock-full of this sort of prayer – just leaf through the Psalms. They’re packed with “help!” prayers (Ps. 5:1,2a: “Give ear to my words, O Lord, consider my sighing. Listen to my cry for help. . .”). In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles with God demanding His blessing. Moses begs God to spare Israel (Ex. 32:31,32). Hannah pleads with God for a son (1 Sam. 1:10). Epaphras “wrestles” in prayer for the Colossians that they may stand firm (Col. 4:12). Even in the book of Revelation, during the last days, the martyrs out of the tribulation cry out to God for justice as soon as possible (Rev. 6:10).
Why do people pray with such intensity?
Some people pray this way because they’re in pain or distress (Ps. 120:1). Pain brings urgency and intensity to their prayer style since they crave relief as soon as possible for themselves or for someone else. Others pray this way out of strong desire – Epraphras wrestles in prayer because he longs for the Colossians to stand firm in the Lord (Col. 4:2). Their spiritual success deeply matters to him.
Is urgent asking a useful approach to prayer?
I’m not suggesting that every request requires high intensity. Often we may choose to petition God in a less intense way more appropriate to the moment or to the subject of our request. And there is a place for low-key, pleasant chat with God just as we do with a friend relaxing on the front porch. Nevertheless, I believe that praying “hard” can be useful. Why?
First, urgent asking allows us to express our deepest emotions and desires to God.
This is crucial since God is meant to be our closest friend and best friends can share unguarded, raw emotions without having to carefully sanitize them.
Second, asking with this intensity is humbling.
It reinforces to us how deeply we rely on God; how desperate we are without Him.
Third, this intense focus on God also reinforces to us that He is the one who will get the glory for answered prayer.
It’s easy to take life’s blessings for granted or to take credit for producing them. Urgent asking, with its focus on God, makes us more likely to remember His role when the blessings come and give Him thanks and praise.
Fourth, this sort of prayer can energize and uplift our spirits.
There’s something invigorating about a whole-hearted, passionate interaction with God.
Fifth, it’s God Himself who often seems to fuel this passion in prayer.
Who would weep over the lost or hunger for righteousness unless the Spirit Himself was fueling this fire? E. M. Bounds says: “It is not an impulse of energy, not a mere earnestness of soul; it is an inwrought force, a faculty implanted and aroused by the Holy Spirit. Virtually, it is the intercession of the Spirit of God, in us;”1
Sixth, urgent asking often shows that we get it; that we see how important, how absolutely crucial certain spiritual needs are.
How can one pray casually for the eternal salvation of people we love, or nonchalantly about the holiness of family members?
Seventh, ironically, urgent asking can also open our ears to hear God’s voice
I say “ironically” because usually we do most of the talking when we pray this way. Yet, because we’re so focused on God we’re also more likely to hear His replies. He will talk back, comforting us, instructing us, and sometimes challenging us. We may, for instance, begin our prayers loudly asking for God to remove a problem and discover, down the road, that we’re now more concerned that God be glorified in the situation.
Eighth, urgent asking may prompt God to act in ways He might not otherwise act.
This is a mysterious aspect of prayer which I don’t claim to fully understand. The Bible implies that, at least some of the time, God’s response is conditioned by our prayers. When Elijah prayed “earnestly” that it would not rain it didn’t rain in Israel for three and half years (Jas. 5:17). I suspect that the “earnestly” part sometimes makes a difference since it shows God that our heart is well-prepared to receive His blessing — that we’re humbly focused on God, recognizing our need for His help, ready to give Him glory.
Does “earnestly” guarantee an answer? It doesn’t. Paul “pleaded” with the Lord three times to remove his thorn in the flesh and God said “No” (2 Cor. 12). Jesus, in great anguish, asked that, if possible, the cup of suffering be removed from Him in the Garden of Gethsemane and God said “No” (Matt. 26:39). Often God’s will in the matter differs from our own. We humans are usually more concerned with obtaining relief than we are with becoming like Christ. God, thankfully, has richer blessings in mind for us or those we love than mere comfort.
Finally, keep in mind that intensity is not the only important variable.
The state of our heart matters as well. Are we bringing the proper attitude to prayer – seeking God’s will over our own (1 John 5:14) and approaching Him with a pure heart (Isaiah 59:2)?
Many years ago, at my parents house, I stepped into room where a guest was staying overnight and was startled to see him kneeling on the floor his fingers intertwined, his arms stretched out before him. I didn’t heard a word come from his lips but his posture spoke volumes to me.
Here was a man doing business with God; doing it with passion and intensity. Half a century later I have no idea who that man was but I carry his heart with me. A passionate interaction with God, whether it’s urgent asking or worship, stirs my soul in a heavenward direction; gives me hope and a taste of glory.
Bounds, E. M. (1999). The necessity of prayer. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.