This was a response I wrote to a prompt for my church:
What does praying for missions look like in your life? What makes it difficult?
In my life, prayer for missions is sadly limited to the occasional remembrance of missionaries I support, requests for words to speak and opportunities to evangelize, and every once in awhile an emotional plea for God’s kingdom to come and for the nations to worship Christ.
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Biblically speaking, I recall Jesus’ explicit call to prayer in Matthew 9, Luke 10, John 4 (sort of) and elsewhere. He does not tell his disciples to pray that people may be saved in those contexts–rather he tells them to pray for the Father to send more laborers into his rich harvest. In one case, Jesus is actively ministering by preaching the gospel and healing the sick and when the multitudes gather around him, he is moved with compassion and tells the disciples to pray for the Father to send more laborers. In another, Jesus is sending his disciples out to work the harvest and he reminds them to ask the Father to send more laborers because the harvest is truly great, lest they think the job is easy. In the last passage, Jesus is being urged by his disciples to eat, but he objects, explaining that doing his Father’s will is his food and that the harvest is so plentiful there is plenty of “food” to go around.
Later, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see his disciples praying in like manner, first asking God to select another witness to the resurrection. Then when Peter and John are brought before the Sanhedrin and reprimanded for healing in Jesus’ name, they prayed for boldness to speak God’s word and for the Father to stretch out his hand to heal and perform signs in Jesus’ name. Paul in his letters to the growing church among the nations, writes of his prayers for them in Ephesians, Colossians and elsewhere, often asking that the Father would give them knowledge of the hope of the gospel and God’s mighty power at work in their lives.
In light of these examples, we can see several reasons why praying for missions is so difficult.
The harvest seems small.
The vastness and lostness of the crowds that came to Jesus moved him to prayer for mission. The satisfaction of doing the Father’s will sustained Jesus’ work among the Samaritans. In both cases, the disciples were probably surprised that God’s mission was so widely needed, both within their own tribe and especially outside of their tribe. Their own prejudices prevented them from realizing the vastness of God’s salvation (like Jonah). Even within Israel, they did not see the desperate need for more laborers to work the harvest–Jesus points it out in a moment of deep compassion.
I think if we honestly introspect our own lives, our prayers are hindered by a similar tribalism.
Have you seen how earnestly believers can pray for their unbelieving parents? Such earnestness is commendable, and it should be with similar fervor that we pray beyond our cultural borders and for the nations. We try preaching the gospel to friends and colleagues and after they hear it a few times without responding, we give up. We don’t realize that the harvest really is far greater than our immediate circle and that it takes an army of laborers to gather it in. Without such a wide vision, we have little impetus for fervent prayer for mission. We won’t ask the Father for more laborers if we feel like our job is done, the harvest has been reached and the rest is just tough soil. But if we saw the grandeur of the Father’s harvest throughout the entire planet, then we might tremble and beg him for more help.
We don’t know the hope of the gospel.
Although many people responded to the preaching of Christ in the early days of the church, it’s clear that many did not understand what was going on. The disciples spent 3 years with Jesus and did not grasp his mission until after his resurrection. Likewise, we find Ananias and Sapphira wanting to look good before the community by pretending that they sold their property, giving it all to the Lord’s mission, but of course, they end up dead for lying to God. We see how the Jews were wary of the Gentiles who were coming to faith, wanting them to convert to Judaism in addition to believing in Jesus for salvation. It took Peter’s experience with the Holy Spirit falling on Centurion Cornelius’ household to persuade them that God’s mission really was for all the nations and not only for Israel.
Since this was so even for the apostles, how true it must be for many of us who believe in Jesus today. This is likely why Paul earnestly and continually prays that we may know the glory of the hope of the gospel, that we would be strengthened to know God’s love and be filled with his mighty power. This is the basis for mission.
- How can we ask the Lord to send more laborers into the harvest unless we know that the Master really intends for his gospel to go to the ends of the earth?
- How can we passionately pray for the nations to believe in Jesus unless we know what his glorious promises are and that they never fail?
- Why would we pray passionately for the nations unless we knew of the everlasting global impact of the gospel and its implications for the redemption of the entire Universe?
- Why would we pray for more laborers unless we knew the love of Christ and how much love he is ready to pour out on the nations through his beloved people?
We feel powerless & scared.
Jesus told his disciples to wait until they received the Holy Spirit before witnessing. Even after they received the Spirit and accomplished mighty deeds in his name, the disciples feel fear and pray for boldness to proclaim the Word (Acts 4). Feeling fearful and weak is normal for believers and should in fact drive us to our knees to seek the mercy and power of God. For example, Paul boasts in his weaknesses because Jesus explains to him that His power is made perfect in Paul’s weakness (2 Corinthians 10).
Unfortunately most of the time our feelings of powerlessness and fear hinder our prayers instead of encouraging them. We do not ordinarily exercise the healing and authority that the apostles did. We do not normally see the massive revivals and conversions they did. We stutter and keep silent and try to do good and try to live well. Even so, our expectations of non-eventfulness coupled with the fear of being rejected by our peers can make us feel guilty and shameful. Our quick pleas for God’s grace seem to result in us doing nothing.
But what would happen if we realized the vastness and ripeness of God’s harvest? What would happen if we remembered the riches of the gospel of the glory of God? Wouldn’t our desperation and weakness drive us to cry out to the Father for more help, more laborers, more boldness, more power? The nations need it and Christ’s name is worthy of so much more glory than he is presently getting in the world.
We may be weak and scared, but Jesus’ promised Comforter is there to help. We don’t fully understand the gospel, but what we do understand is marvelous enough that it must be proclaimed. We cannot reach the entire harvest, but the fields God has given us are already so huge and so ripe, we need more laborers to work them!
So what should praying for missions look like in our lives?
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdom come,
They will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our debts
As we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory forever.