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Watchful in Prayer

Dr. Mrs. Lilian Stanley

The Book of Nehemiah teaches us various aspects of watchfulness. As we near the endtime, I believe we need to learn about this spiritual discipline more than ever. Jesus kept on alerting his disciples not to be slack but to keep awake. Let’s learn about watchfulness in prayer from this Book.

The Book opens with a lament. Anybody who heard about the condition of Jerusalem would have said, “What to do?” and gone on with their business. But not Nehemiah, who was a man of prayer. He believed in the power of prayer. Information about Jerusalem walls woke him up to the fact, that prevailing prayer was the solution.

Here was a man who would go all the way for what’s important. He immediately set to work for the daunting task ahead. Thereafter he never slackened. He was ever on the alert mode especially with regard to prayer. Nehemiah had never seen Jerusalem before. He was born and brought up in Babylon. Whatever he heard about the glories of Jerusalem was hearsay. That kindled in him a passion for Jerusalem. That personal revival paved the path for national revival. Brimming with optimism he immediately set to work, the plan clearly laid out in a grid inside his head.

When Sanballat and Tobiah insulted him, he quickly sent ansms to God (Neh 4:1-5). When the duo along with the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people of Ashdod plotted to fight them, Nehemiah didn’t buckle but sent a telegraphic message to God to take care of that (4:79). When the work was more complicated than he expected, with civil unrest throwing up, he went on red alert and raised his voice to God (5:19). When the enemy said, “Their hands will get too weak for the work and it will not be completed” (6:9), Nehemiah quickly countered the absurdity of their claim with his S.O.S, “Now strengthen my hands, Lord” (v 9). When the enemies used the prophetess Noadiah, pretending to be an ally, to send a missile to destroy his morale, Nehemiah blasted it with an interceptor of his lightning prayer (6:14).

When the king asked him what he wanted, he did not list out his wants immediately but “prayed to the God of heaven,” before putting forth his answer to the king (2:4).

He prayed before rebuking his own people’s sins (13:29-31). His life was hanging by a thread but he never forgot to pray for himself (13:14,22,31). When everybody else is distracted, the leader must be doubly vigilant. So he was alert to pray. The ultimate result - his brain storm did not fizzle out! Nehemiah’s vigilant prayer brought the enemies to their knees.

Paul admonishes us to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people” (Eph 6:18). Why? Because we are not fighting against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph 6:12). Nehemiah perfectly understood this, that he was not fighting against Sanballat and Tobiah, but against satan. That was why, when his confidence was put to test, he needed to pray, more than anything.

Writing to the Colossian congregation. Paul again writes, “Devote yourself to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (4:2). After a strenuous day of ministry and severe flogging lands us in a prison cell, we would fall into an exhausted sleep. But Paul and Silas were alert in prayer (Acts 16:25). That shook the prison with a violent earthquake. We know what happened after that.

Do you know why we need to be alert in prayer? It is when we pray that satan gets agitated and comes to dance with us. When the Holy Spirit took Jesus to the wilderness to fast and pray, satan followed them to see what he could do about it. He stayed with Jesus all the forty days, disturbing Him and tempting Him. As a mortal, Jesus had to struggle for forty days weighing the options of walking the red carpet to climb the throne of the kingdoms of the world and climbing the calvary path to Golgotha to be crucified and buried before being exalted to the glorious throne. After a forty day struggle He could kick satan out of His way because of His alert prayer.

Jesus taught us to pray not to be led into temptation but to be delivered out of it. Temptations assault us from all angles. That’s why Jesus taught us that prayer. In one slack moment David was felled. A careless wandering sucked Samson into an abyss. Nehemiah was tempted to “come down” but he refused to “come down” (Neh 6:2,3).

In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus alerted His disciples to “watch and pray” lest they enter into temptation. “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mk 14:37,38).

What were the temptations that Nehemiah faced to give up on prayer?

The first was depression. From every corner of his ministry he was hearing the cry, ‘Not possible. Give up.’ Nehemiah would have faced the temptation to give up halfway through, because of the uphill task. It was his watchfulness in prayer that carried him through. His spirit was willing but his flesh was weak, now and then breaking down. The mammothness of the task made him weep and mourn (1:4). He was not fazed by obstacles but they led him to a “small beginning”. He planted a mustard seed. He never allowed the nagging monster of self - doubt to eat him away. Often when we see the hugeness of what we face, we feel it is too much for us. We don’t even consider praying for it. We shut shop. Only if we realize that it is satan who is singing the lullaby to our prayer life, we will wake up and take up the matter ‘to the Lord in prayer’. That is where we start. All other efforts will be as ineffective as a water pistol against a nuclear bomb.

Another temptation to lull our prayer life is fear. “I was very much afraid” says Nehemiah, because of the king, yet he prayed before the king (2:2-4). A black cloud descended on Daniel’s prayer life. Would he come out of it like sunshine? He did come out like a rainbow and sunshine. The threatening forces fell apart. He simply overpowered his opponents by prayer. If he had succumbed to the fearsome forces around him and stopped his praying, Babylon would have lost a chance to hear about the living God in a massive wave and Daniel himself would have withered and died in a foreign land. But his optimism and spirit never took a beating. “When Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened towards Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before”  (Dan  6:10). “So Daniel prospered” (v28).

May be you face problems at home or school or work spot. More problems are yet to come in the future for prayer. When fear jabs at your spirit be alert. The devil is trying to pour cold water on your prayer life. Wake up! Never give up. God understands our fears and wants us to know, no matter what happens in our life and ministry, He is with us. When we believe in His power fear has no hold on us.

Another temptation for Nehemiah to become slack in his prayer life was overwork. He was juggling too many problems at once - The wall to be built, the enemies to be tackled, internal problems to be settled, finance to be calculated... Head full of problems. Yet, he never forgot the power of prayer. His spirit touched the national psyche and people fasted and prayed (9:1). Only the one who is alert to pray can kindle a spirit of prayer in others.

The commonest cause that people give to relax their prayer schedule is that it is robbed by some other work. In our never-ending rush to get something or somewhere, it seems we don’t have time any more for this most basic Christian discipline. Often our day is packed with activities sans prayer. Beware! Soon we will learn to do everything, even God’s work without prayer. By the time we realize it, we will be far too gone to retrace our steps. Unless you are smart enough to recognise the shadow of satan falling on your works, you will be lulled into believing that even without prayer things will be as great as ever. You keep slogging not realizing there’s a hole in your bucket. It’s like walking on a treadmill; you work hard without moving forward.

Don’t accept overwork as unavoidable. First believe that it is avoidable and start out to find the solution. What work can you delegate? What work is not necessary? What work can be simplified? What work can be postponed? Fix your prayer time and be sure to unplug from the rest of the world. That’s what Jesus did. If over-work is making you too sleepy to pray, make it a point to get sufficient sleep in the night. Avoid long working hours in the night. Apportion time for prayer. Surprisingly, you will find that you finish your work earlier and simpler than expected. Power naps for 15-20 minutes help you recharge easily.

An important factor that deviates our attention in prayer is mental indiscipline. Sweeping this issue under the carpet is not a solution. Let’s address it.

The devil showed all the kingdoms of the world in a jiffy to Jesus. I suppose, as He was on His knees, the devil hijacked His mind to wander through the possibility of enjoying the world’s pleasure. He had to quickly arrest His thoughts and say an emphatic “No” to the devil. Was He not flesh and blood like us? Does not the devil do the same to us when we kneel down in earnest desire and alertness? Within a few moments our mind wanders .

What distracts our mind? It could be sexual thoughts, thoughts about exam and future, bank balance, business, tomorrow’s cooking or a pot pourri of other things. By the time we realize we are praying, a few minutes have been snatched away by satan. We may even doze off. The disciples were unable to keep watch with Jesus because of “sorrow” (Lk 22:45). Jesus was also steeped in sorrow but was alert in prayer (Mt 26:38).

What do we do then to be mentally alert in prayer? First, make it a special point of prayer. God alone can help us keep our thoughts under control. It is no easy job because we do not see God when we talk to Him. But God answers our prayers. Choose a time when you will be bright for prayer, when you are alone; though during busy hours you can make short prayers like Nehemiah. Praying aloud helps concentration (Heb 5:7). Having a prayer diary spread out before you, or the newspaper, focuses your mind on what you are doing. Having a prayer partner also helps.

Loading yourself heavily with food and drink will divert your blood to the alimentary system rather than the brain. So you’ll feel dull and drowsy. So avoid heavy food anytime. This is why fasting helps us to be alert in prayer. So, fast as often as you can.

It is when we are alert and sincere in prayer that God speaks to us and we hear God’s voice. “God put into my heart” says Nehemiah (7:5). Prayer is not a soliloquy but a two-way conversation if you are awake and alert. You will be quick to grasp the impressions that God makes in your mind. It gives us the ability to connect the dots and see the big picture.

What else makes us distracted in prayer? Mental and spiritual lassitude. Laziness makes us sluggish and inept. It dulls the brain. A busy person is sharp because of the rush of blood in his vessels. When your body tells you to lie down when you are neither tired nor sleepy, then refuse to listen to the voice of your body. When you feel like collapsing in the sofa and switch on the TV, instead kneel down for a few minutes of prayer. In the beginning your brain will refuse to cooperate but as you pick up brisk habits, your brain will start ticking in prayer. Nehemiah had not a single lazy bone in his body as we know. His activeness made him pray and his prayer made him active.

We are alert while cooking so the dish will not be burnt; while driving so we won’t cause an accident; while studying, so we will score high in the exams; in business dealings, so we won’t get cheated. But are we alert in our spiritual life, in prayer, so as not to face spiritual defeat?

Being alert in prayer doesn’t mean we are inert. Watch Nehemiah for the ways he balanced his spirituality with down-to-earth action. One example: He prayed to God and posted a guard (4:9).

Let’s revamp our prayer life and put the devil to shame. That’s half the battle won. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Be willing to pray and God will open the way. Let: Pray, pray, pray, become a steady drum beat inside you. It is an easy way to jump-start your day and keep you alert to pray the whole day.

Watch and pray!

 

 


   Address for Correspondence & Contributions:

Lilian Stanley
13 Church Colony
Vellore 632006, India
Tel: +91 9843511943
Email: lilianstanley@gmail.com

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