What’s Lost When We Only Pray Alone?
When you pray, Jesus said, get by yourself, go into your room, shut the door, “and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6). Sounds pretty straightforward. So we just pray alone, right? Wrong. We don’t pray only in secret; we pray together — something we see all over the book of Acts, for example (in texts like Acts 2:42; 4:31; 12:12; 13:3; and 20:36, to name a few). So, why do we pray together and not just alone? What’s added when we pray together? And what’s lost when we pray only by ourselves?
In 1981, Pastor John took up this question in a sermon on 2 Corinthians 1:8–11. There, Paul writes this testimony of his agonies:
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.
And then Paul makes this request in verse 11, which is a little complex, so listen carefully: “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.” Here’s Pastor John.
That’s a hard verse. I noticed Glen this morning had trouble reading verse 11, just like I did. He had to stop and make sure he had it just right because it’s a very complex sentence. I had to read verse 11 again and again, and I could not get the gist of verse 11 until I drew it on paper.
Line of Prayer
Now, follow with me the line of prayer. Keep one eye on the text, one eye on the line, and both ears on me.
The line of prayer begins with Paul, and he feels a need. That’s where prayer begins. His need was probably, “Oh, how I need to rely on God more. Oh, how I need to trust God for deliverance from all my adversaries more.” So what does he do? He sends out a line of prayer, “Help me,” horizontally to the Corinthians. “Help me by prayer.” And that’s stage one in the line of prayer.
Then the line of prayer curves up through the heart of the Corinthians as they hear the plea, and they look up to God and pray that God will, in fact, answer their prayers for Paul’s deliverance and for his faith. That’s stage two: the prayers of the Corinthians heading up to God.
Then the line of prayer enters the heart of God, who is there listening, waiting for the prayers of his people. And in response to the prayers of the many Corinthians, God sends down a gift — or a “blessing,” as the text says — to Paul. What blessing? Greater faith in God, greater dependence on him alone, and deliverance from his adversaries. That’s stage three in the line of prayer.
Now, just as many people heard the plea of Paul to help through prayer, so many people now see the answer to the prayers as they look. “Look: Paul got out. He got out of the Philippian jail. He got away from Ephesus. He made it all the way through Berea and Thessalonica. He’s coming down here to us. He’s going to make it all the way to Jerusalem with that money. He may make it to Rome, to the ends of the earth, and preach to the emperor. Praise God!” And that’s line four.
They see the answer to prayer, and that curves up through their heart in praises and thanksgiving, through many people, back to God. And that’s stage five in the line of prayer. And that’s where the text stops.
But I think there is something implied in the text that’s not explicit, that is just a choice truth that I don’t want to leave out. Namely, if Paul chose to motivate the Corinthians to pray for him by pointing out that it would abound in many thanksgivings to God, then it must be a great delight to Paul to think about God getting so many thanks. And if it’s a great delight to Paul to see God being thanked, then that little dotted line that comes down from God is joy coming back into the heart of Paul as he sees God being thanked in response to the answer to many prayers. So that’s stage six that I’ve added.
In fact, I could go on adding stage seven, because God gets delight in Paul’s delight, and Paul gets delight in God’s delight in his delight. It’s just a great spiral on up into infinite joy someday, when there’s no more sin to clutter up that spiral. That’s the line of prayer.
Let me sum it up just briefly. Paul has a great need, and he feels it. He knows he’s coming into adversity. He said in Acts 20:23, “The Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonments and afflictions await me.” He needs help. “Help me, Corinthians.”
They hear the word, responding, “God, help Paul.” God looks down, “I hear the prayer. Here’s the help, Paul.” Paul is helped. He’s delivered. He’s free. He’s preaching. He’s full of faith. Who sees it? Lots of people see it. What do they do? Praise God. God has responded to our prayers, and the thanks go back to God, and he’s glorified. That’s the line of prayer. That’s what ought to be happening in this church again and again and again.
Many Prayers, Many Thanks
There are more lessons in this than I can begin to say this morning, but I want to mention two — two lessons from the line of prayer. The first is this. If you’re like me, you’ve probably asked yourself why it is that corporate prayer is important. Why pray in groups? Why pray publicly? Why not just close the door, like Jesus said — we should many times — and pray alone?
Why does Paul not simply pray, “God, save me from the enemies; God, fill me with faith” — and not write letters and tell other people to pray for him? Doesn’t he think God can answer his prayer? Is he lacking in faith? Are we weak in faith when we ask many people to pray for something?
That’s the kind of question I came to this text with, and I think the text gives a tremendous answer to why corporate and public prayer is so important. Why might God be more inclined to answer the prayers of many rather than the prayers of one? That’s my question.
And I think the answer begins like this: according to our text, the thing that’s different when many people pray — notice “the prayers of many” — is that the stage is being set for lots and lots and lots of thanks. The more people that are earnestly praying for some blessing from God, the more thanksgiving will ascend to God when that blessing comes.
Paul’s argument is very simply this: “You must help me by prayer so that many will give thanks when the prayers of many are answered.” The reason for praying at all is so God might be thanked when blessings come, and God loves to be thanked. God loves to be thanked. That’s the basic premise here for why this prayer becomes so effective. He loves to be acknowledged and praised as the giver of all good gifts.
Therefore, when we urge, when I urge you to pray for some need — four hundred people, say — I’m creating a situation in which the provision of that need will result in many, many, many thanksgivings, more than if each of us was praying privately.
“God loves to be thanked by many, and therefore, there is a power in church-wide prayer.”
And therefore, we tap into a tremendous incentive on God’s part, because God loves to glorify himself by doing what he must do to get as many thanks as possible, and that means answering the prayers of many people. God loves to be thanked by many, and therefore, there is a power in church-wide prayer because the more people there are praying for the spiritual life of our church, the more thanksgiving will ascend when God gives it.
Seeking Blessing Together
Now, the same reasoning that comes straight out of 2 Corinthians 1:11 also shows that we should not only pray in large numbers, but that we should get together in groups to pray. I’ll try to show you how that follows.
Picture two possibilities. One would be a dozen people, privately in their homes, praying for the release of Paul, say, from jail in Philippi. They pray. God answers and delivers Paul. They get word of it. They give thanks. God is honored. Great!
But suppose that those dozen or so people met together in a group, in a room, in a living room there in Philippi, just like the saints did in Acts 12 to pray for Peter’s release when he was in jail. Suppose they got together and prayed, and the fervor of each other’s prayer kindled each other’s fervor up to God. God released Paul miraculously through this earthquake, and they hear about it.
“When you and I experience a blessing that we’ve asked for together, your thanksgiving deepens and heightens mine.”
Then what would happen? The praises and the thanks would ascend, and is it not human nature — see if this isn’t true to your own experience — to feel gratitude more intensely when somebody you love is sharing the experience with you? Is that not human nature to feel the joy of gratitude more intensely when someone you love is feeling it together with you?
When you and I experience a blessing that we’ve asked for together, your thanksgiving deepens and heightens my thanksgiving, because it works like this: When the answer comes, I see the blessing coming from God. I see it, and I’m glad. I rejoice. But then I look down, and I see it reflected and magnified in all your faces, and my joy, therefore, is compounded, and my thanksgiving is greater. And God loves heightened and deepened thanksgiving, and therefore, he wants us to meet in groups to pray.
Therefore, we are setting ourselves up for tremendous spiritual blessing in this church when we gather in groups to seek God’s blessing on our church.