The Key to Spiritual Breakthrough

“You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). How much enjoyment of God’s presence and experience of his power for mission are we missing out on because we do not ask God for them?

Jesus also says we do not have because we ask with such little faith (Matthew 17:19–20). How much enjoyment of God’s presence and experience of his power for mission are we missing out on because our expectation is so small that prayer will result in anything?

Jesus also says we do not have, because we do not ask long enough (Luke 11:5–13). All over the Bible we see, not in great detail but in sufficient detail, that we are involved in a great cosmic battle and that the prayers of the saints are crucial to the advancement of the kingdom of God (see Daniel 10:12–14 and Ephesians 6:18). We don’t need to know how it all works; we just need to know it does. The testimony of Scripture and church history is that great, Spirit-empowered, Great Commission-fulfilling works of God are preceded, carried, and prolonged by the fervent, persistent, prevailing prayers of the saints. When prayer dissipates, spiritual power dissipates.

How much enjoyment of God’s presence and experience of his power for mission are we missing out on because we simply don’t ask long enough?

Jesus Prayed

When Jesus encouraged us “always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1), he wasn’t telling us to do something that he himself didn’t need to do. Jesus knew from his own human experience that he needed to ask his Father for everything, to ask him in faith, and at times to persevere in prayer until the breakthrough came.

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. (Hebrews 5:7)

This text gives us unique insight not so much into what Jesus prayed, but into how Jesus prayed. And it has something to say to us about how we should pray.

First, let it hit you that Jesus prayed. “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving [he let his] requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). Hebrews 5:7 gives us a glimpse of the glory of Christ’s humility in his incarnation. We see some of what it meant for him to empty himself by becoming human and taking the form of a servant (Philippians 2:7).

In his fully divine nature, Jesus had continual communion with his Father. But in his fully human nature, he had to pray to the Father just like we do. That’s why “he would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16), sometimes praying entire nights (Luke 6:12). He knew he could do nothing on his own and was completely dependent on the Father (John 5:19).

If Jesus had to pray, and pray a lot, so do we.

Jesus Prayed with Passion

And he prayed “with loud cries and tears.” Complete dependence on God was not merely an abstract theological concept for Jesus; it was a desperate, experiential reality. This verse isn’t referring only to Gethsemane, because Jesus prayed this way “in the days of his flesh.” During Jesus’s human experience on earth, he repeatedly, and likely regularly, prayed with loud cries and tears.

Why was he moved to pray so passionately? He was keenly aware that heaven and hell were real outcomes for real souls as a result of his mission. He knew there were demonized persons needing deliverance, sick needing healing, particular gospel truths needing to be proclaimed at particular times in particular places for particular persons. He and his disciples were also usually living hand-to-mouth on a daily basis.

He also had the forces of hell constantly trying to destroy him, his disciples, and his mission. We know the spiritual warfare that erupts whenever we attempt real, meaningful kingdom labor. Imagine what it was like for Jesus.

And, of course, the cross was always looming before him, growing larger as the day drew nearer. He knew that when he offered himself as a sacrifice, and absorbed the full wrath of God for the sins of all who would believe in him, and died (John 3:16), only the Father “was able to save him from death.”

Jesus knew the nature of his freely chosen human helplessness made him dependent on the Father for all these things. So, he prayed with loud cries and tears out of his desperate human need for his Father’s help. We also desperately need the Father’s help in all these things, too, including preparing for our own death, through which we trust him to deliver us.

Why Did God Hear Jesus’s Prayers?

Would you have expected the author of Hebrews to say that Jesus “was heard because of his reverence”? Wouldn’t we have expected, Jesus was heard because he was God’s Son? Jesus had positional access to the Father, and in him so do we. But the author didn’t say that. He chose “reverence.” Why?

Reverence is a holy fear of God. Now, this is astonishing: God the Son regards God the Father with an appropriate holy fear. The Son is not afraid of the Father’s judgment. He simply has the appropriate regard of the Father’s omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and eternal greatness.

Terror is what persons experience when they truly encounter God and yet have no access to him as a Father. Reverence is what persons experience when they have free access to the Father as his children — when they know the Father, and believe what the Father says.

Reverence isn’t a feigned respectful or formal demeanor we put on when we pray to God that looks quite different from the rest of the way we live and talk. Persons who truly revere God do so all the time. When you hear them pray, it doesn’t sound much different than the way they usually talk. You can just tell they believe they are speaking to God himself.

Their reverence enables them to approach him like the loving Father that he is. God’s throne is a throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). So, a reverent child of God feels the freedom to come to him in desperate need, even with loud cries and tears, because God is honored when that child comes to him in desperate faith.

If we lack reverence for God, it shows up in the way we live and in the way we pray. These are indicators that we do not know him like he wants us to, and therefore our faith in him is very small, which is likely why we aren’t realizing more answered prayer.

Pray Like Jesus

If this is true about us, let’s forget trying to guilt ourselves into praying more, except to allow our guilt to drive us to repentance. Rather, let’s note how Jesus prayed and pray like him!

Jesus prayed because he knew the extent of his human need. He prayed in reverential faith because he believed God and loved him with all his being. And he persisted and prevailed in prayer, sometimes praying with loud cries and tears, because he knew what he was up against, the strongholds imprisoning people, and the cost of his mission. He prayed, and he was heard.

We only pray when, like Jesus, we are aware of our real need. The greater this awareness is, the greater our sense of desperation for God’s help. And the greater our desperation for God, the more we will pray. And the more we will pray, the more we will experience the joy of his presence and his power for mission.

That’s why God wants us to pray like Jesus. He wants us to come to him. His great invitation to us is to come and ask, to ask in faith, and to keep asking in faith until we receive his answer.

Do not lose heart; do not give up; pray, even with loud cries and tears, until God grants the breakthrough you seek.