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Inspired to pray

Written by Jim Cymbala and published as a daily devotional on The Brooklyn Tabernacle website

“We don’t know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (Romans 8:26 NIV) Read Romans 8:26-27.

Although it’s crucial to understand the principles governing prayer, understanding alone won’t lead you to a breakthrough. In fact, prayerlessness often coexists with extensive Bible knowledge. Only the Holy Spirit can inspire us to pray effectually, and he uses various means to accomplish his purpose.

First of all, serious prayer is born out of a sense of need, out of the knowledge that we must ask God to intervene. The Spirit of God moves us toward prayer by using Scripture to show us two things: our human need and the Lord’s promise of provision. Breakthrough prayer isn’t born out of an “I should pray today” attitude but, instead, out of an “I must have God’s help” frame of mind. Many times I have heard sermons that convicted me to the point where I had to pray even though the message itself said nothing about asking and receiving from God. Self-satisfied believers cannot, by definition, experience the true spirit of prayer.

Like worship and hunger for God, the impulse to pray is often contagious. We catch it as we watch others presenting their needs at the throne of grace, pouring their souls out in prayer. Years ago I reached one of the lowest points in my spiritual life. I was so challenged by the ministry and so discouraged that I felt dangerously numb. The Lord seemed remote, too distant to help me, and I fell into a depressed, prayerless state. All of this happened while I was trying to pastor a church!

One Sunday during a time of prayer, I noticed a woman standing at the edge of the platform, sobbing quietly and then gradually raising her hands toward heaven. Her uplifted face, stained with tears, reflected the earnestness of her heart. In her, I saw my answer. The God she was imploring was the same one I needed to call on. I broke down in tears and began seeking the Lord again. God used that woman to encourage a pastor in spiritual trouble, though not one word ever passed between us. That night I found the strength to continue my journey.

This was not a case of emotional excess, but an example of how the act of prayer itself can inspire others. I never learned that woman’s name, but another one named Hannah, whose story is told in the Bible, has also provided motivation for my prayer life.

“Eli [the priest] answered [Hannah], ‘Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.’” (1 Samuel 1:17 NIV) Also read 1 Samuel 1:1-20.

Hannah could be called “the First Lady of Prayer” because she’s the first woman whose petition is recorded in Scripture. Her story is related in some detail, showing us how God uses deep human need as a springboard to accomplish his purposes. Whenever he does this, believers receive answers they can hardly believe.

Hannah lived in Israel during an era of great lawlessness, a time when no king ruled and “everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25). To make matters worse, she shared her husband, Elkanah, with an unpleasant woman named Peninnah, who was his second wife. Hannah’s inability to have children made her the constant brunt of Peninnah’s taunts.

Constantly tormented, with no offspring of her own, weeping and unable to eat, Hannah seemed mired in a hopeless situation. In the midst of her pain, she didn’t know what God was about to do. She had no idea that he was going to raise up a prophet who would lead his wayward people back to himself. Nor did she know that God would choose her, among all the women of Israel, to bear that child. God chose this heartbroken woman out of compassion and grace. And he used a remarkable method to bring about the birth of Hannah’s son, Samuel.

“Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on a chair by the doorpost of the Lord’s temple.  In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord. And she made a vow, saying, ‘O Lord Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life’ (1 Samuel 1:9-11).”

This prayer, one of the greatest in the Bible, not only changed Hannah’s life, but also altered the history of Israel. Scripture doesn’t say what finally drove Hannah to stand and pray that day, but it led to a breakthrough moment with God. This is the process the Lord often uses—working out his plans through weak human beings who feel compelled by their need to pray.

Incredibly, we have the same potential in prayer that Hannah did. Like Hannah, our “breaking point” can lead to a “breakthrough” if it spurs us to call on God. Hannah asked for a son, but God gave her much more. The long, depressing cycle that had continued year after year was broken in just a few moments spent with God. The same can be true for us today because we pray to the same God Hannah prayed to—an unchanging God.

This devotional was excerpted from Jim Cymbala’s book, Breakthrough Prayer.

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