Learning from an Insane Prayer Life

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Two things have me thinking about my personal prayer life: “Insanity” and Elijah.

I just finished my seventh week of the max interval workout called “Insanity.” Every morning around 5:45, I head to my garage, roll out my mat, turn on my computer, and proceed to “dig deeper.”

My pastor friend Greg finished the program before I did, and sent me an email to instruct and inspire me, both physically and spiritually. He challenged me with this honest admission: “I wish I could pray 45 minutes a day for nine weeks straight. I’m working on that.”

Me too.

While Shaun T has been teaching me about switch kicks and plank punches, Elijah has been teaching me about faith and prayer. We’re currently studying 1 Kings at the church I pastor, and we are now looking at the prayer warrior Elijah.

Like Us and Not

Elijah’s life is dazzling. Ravens bring him food; God uses a widow to provide daily bread for him in Baal’s territory; Elijah prays and God raises the widow’s son from the dead. Elijah wins the showdown against the prophets of Baal at Carmel; he called down fire from heaven; and he struck down 450 false prophets. Plus, he was an athlete! He ran seventeen miles from Carmel down to Jezreel, outrunning horses and chariots.

Elijah was like Moses whom he later appeared with at the Transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1–7). Like Moses, Elijah went eastward for a season, after an initial confrontation. Like Moses, he lived on God’s abundant provision of bread, meat, and water (Exodus 16). Elijah was also like John the Baptist, whom he is associated with in the New Testament (Malachi 4:5; Luke 1:17). Elijah is a mega prophet, whose coming was to pave the way for the Messianic Age. In many ways, he is not like us.

Yet, in the New Testament James makes an extraordinary statement when he says that Elijah was a “man like us.” Us? Yes. While Elijah does hold a unique place in redemptive history, James focuses on the fact that every believer can have an effective prayer life like Elijah.

The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on earth. (James 5:16b–17)

The language James uses is the language Paul and Barnabas used in Lystra, when the people wanted to worship them as gods (Acts 14:15). “We also are men, of like nature with you.”

So Elijah is like us, and we should seek to be like him.

Elijah grew up in obscurity (like many of us). Yet, God chose him out of obscurity in order to confront apostasy publically.

Additionally, while I’m not a fan of the “Days of Elijah” song, I do think our days are a lot like his days. He lived in a day, like us, where people call evil “good” and good “evil.” Such evil is undergirded by twisted theology. Those under Ahab’s reign wanted a little bit of everything — a little goddess worship, a little Baal worship, a little Yahweh worship, and throw in some male cult prostitution. Exclusive worship of God was absent in most places. We live in a similar time, in which people worship a little bit of everything, but not the living God exclusively — a little God, a little horoscope, a little TBN, a little pop psychology, a few conspiracy theories, aliens, New Age, naturalism, and more.

The Drought Prayer

The context James describes is found in 1 Kings 17–18. Appearing out of nowhere, Elijah speaks to King Ahab boldly: “As the Lᴏʀᴅ, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.”

God proclaims his message through this hillbilly from Tishbe. Draught was coming because of the people’s idolatry.

Although the text in 1 Kings 17 never says Elijah prayed for a draught, we do find Elijah pictured in prayer in 1 Kings 18:42 for the draught to end. Other examples of his insane prayer life exist in the Kings narrative (including a prayer in the same chapter for God to raise a boy from the dead), but James focuses on the famine. Even though we don’t read of him praying, Douglas Moo is surely right in saying, “It is a legitimate inference to think that he prayed for its onset as well.”

I think the prayers of Eljiah preceded his proclamation to Ahab. Elijah had been before God in the prayer closet, prior to being before Ahab in the palace. Because he knew of the real King, before whom he stood, he did not fear standing before this mere mortal.

What do we learn from Elijah’s prayer for this draught? Surely, there are many lessons about faithfulness, persistency, and passion, but I want to underline one very important lesson. Elijah teaches us here to pray according to God’s word.

Elijah is simply claiming the promise of God’s word. Why a draught? It was because this came directly from Scripture.

Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; then the anger of the Lᴏʀᴅ will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land the Lᴏʀᴅ is giving you. (Deuteronomy 11:16–17)

Eljiah knew his Bible. He knew that the punishment for idolatry was famine. He could pray for a famine, and proclaim the certainty of the famine because God said it. Eljiah’s prayers were not rooted in his own imagination. He wasn’t asking God to perform neat tricks. He was boldly asking God to act on his own word.

Our Great Source of Hope

Therefore, Elijah is a model for us. We live in an evil day; we worship the Living God; and we can pray according to God’s word. Read, pray. Read, pray. Fill your prayers with the word of God, and cry out to the Father to act for the good of others and the glory of his name.

Elijah is like Moses. He is like John the Baptist. He is like us.

And . . . he is like Jesus.

Someone else knew what it was like to live on every word that proceeded out of the mouth of God (Matthew 4); who was called out of obscurity to confront unbelief (John 1:46); who cared for the widow (Luke 7:11–17); who raised the dead (John 11:25); whose prayers were effectual (John 17); who also fasted forty days and forty nights.

Some thought Jesus was Elijah (Matthew 16), and one can see why. Elijah was an end-time figure, and a miracle-working prophet. Jesus was too, but he was more than that.

Jesus, unlike Elijah, never sinned. Jesus lived and died, finishing his course, taking judgment upon himself instead of pouring it out on those that deserved it. He was raised from the dead, and is now interceding for us (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25). Yes, Elijah prayed. Yes, we should have an “insane” prayer life like Elijah. But what saves us is Jesus’s insane work, and what sustains us now is his insane prayer life.

May the life of Elijah inspire us to pray biblically and faithfully, and may his life point us to our great source of hope: the true and better prophet, the ultimate mediator; the King of Kings, Jesus.

(@tonymerida) is the founding pastor of Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He also serves as the associate professor of preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Kimberly, with whom he has five adopted children.