Regardless of whether one is reviewing the history of the Bible or the history of the church up until today, the number of true believers fluctuates from generation to generation. There are times when faith seems strong and widespread and other times when it appears to weaken and dwindle to very few. This pattern of ebb and flow reflects our response to Him, not His faithfulness to us or His desire to save. Yet, even at the worst of times He is somehow able to overrule human weakness and preserve for Himself enough believers in every generation so that the flame of faith never dies out. This is true not only of the human population at large but of the descendants of Abraham in particular. This is because God made a covenant with Abraham to bless his children. The Lord made the promise and then Abraham believed it, even though he had to wait for 25 years for the first child to be born. But the absolutely staggering truth of which Paul reminds us today is that thousands of years later God is still honoring that agreement. He is still blessing Abrahams children. He didnt promise to convert each one, but He did promise to pursue and care for them, and that somehow He would keep faith alive from one generation to the next, so that by the time we arrive at the end of history Abraham will have so many children who share his faith that no one can count them all.
The main lesson for us today is to see how seriously God takes prayer when it is prayed in genuine faith, and how long He will continue to honor that prayer. So when you and I pray for unbelievers we can be confident God will pursue them as diligently as He pursues the descendants of Abraham.
What does Paul say? (Ro 11:1-6)
(Review: Daily Bible Study)
Praying for unbelievers can be much more difficult than it might appear. We can start out with the best intentions but, particularly if that person does not come to faith in what we consider a reasonable amount of time, we may find ourselves struggling to keep going, or developing bad attitudes. We can grow desperate and start listening to bad advice, and if were not careful we can make the situation far worse. Here are some common mistakes to avoid:
1) Dont assess a persons potential for faith based on their: good judgment, personal history, personality type (dominant, passive), family history (unbelieving ancestors), attitude toward church.
2) Dont base your faith on your own determination to pray them into heaven.
This is a form of self-reliance and becomes a battle of wills (sometimes a struggle for dominance is the main barrier to repentance; if they repent, you win).
3) Dont focus your attention on the devil
Yes, we are to address a deceiving spirit (2Co 4:3, 4) but this is not done regularly. It is done once or occasionally and then we thankfully stand in faith that God is doing that work.
The key is praying through until the Spirit bears witness in our heart that God has heard us.
4) Dont incessantly preach at them or scold, this actually hardens the heart.
Jesus used parables to avoid hardening His listeners further. Those with humility and hunger would ponder the parables until they released their truths. Those who were proud and disinterested would quickly forget what they heard, but at least they had not made another decision to say no to God (Mt 13:10-15).
The Old Fisherman
God is a good fisherman. He never suspends a persons will in order to force them to believe, but He is persistent and knows how to reach a persons heart. Hes even able to intervene in someones life to direct circumstances or send a believer at a moment when the heart is ready.
Does He love everyone equally? Yes. Will He pursue some more than others? Yes. Is this fair? No. Why does He do it? Because He hears prayer. He promised Abraham and Sarah He would pursue and bless their children and they believed Him, so Hes still at work honoring that prayer. What you and I are challenged to believe is that He will do the same for us.
What we must do is transfer the focus of our faith onto Gods faithful pursuit and His skillful powers of persuasion. He:
1) Is relentless
He doesnt grow tired, He doesnt write people off. He works in lifetimes, not months or years.
When we lose heart and stop praying He keeps honoring prayers prayed in faith.
2) Knows the real reason why they resist
As you pray He may show you some of these so you can pray more effectively (see: Praying for Unbelievers, Part 1).
3) Is able to miraculously direct events
He can bring people into their lives (a believing friend, a teacher, a cell-mate
4) Can speak to them in timely moments or open their eyes to His continuing care
Im still here. I still love you. Im still reaching out. Its not too late.
Learning from Elijah (1Ki 19:1-18)
Please notice: Even someone who is as righteous as Elijah can grow profoundly discouraged when dealing with persistent unbelief.
Spiritual warfare is exhausting.
Even when God wins there is a physical and emotional price to pay.
The situation may appear hopeless, worse than it really is.
We can feel isolated, alone.
We can become self-righteous: Im the only faithful one left.
Please also notice: We personally need Gods active care as much as unbelievers for whom we are praying.
He understands our struggle, our weakness, our weariness.
He calls us to rest physically as well as spiritually.
We need fresh hope and vision which come only by waiting on Him until He speaks.
The lesson that comes through loud and clear as we observe Elijah is that we have only a small part to play in the process. Yes, we must do what He tells us, but its not up to us to win Gods battles. He is the One who wins hearts. We are merely His helpers. In fact, during the process He has to carry us even while Hes reaching out to the person for whom we are praying.
Resting in God
Resting in this truth is easier said than done. Our love for someone who resists can make the waiting seem intolerable. We wrestle with feelings of anger, betrayal, fear and loneliness. Over time doubt may grow. We may question whether God has heard us or is at work because we see no change. We may even feel a growing anger at God, wondering why He doesnt do something dramatic to shock the person into believing. We may even fear well die without knowing for sure. So praying for unbelievers requires a lot of praying for myself, of learning to rest in God, of trusting Him to keep His promises long after my own strength has run dry. Imagine this: that a thousand years from now, if Jesus hasnt returned, He will still be honoring the promises He made to you.
Here are some questions to ponder:
1) Have I stopped praying for someone because it has taken so long I gave up?
2) Have I allowed doubt to enter my heart toward God, assuming He must have ignored my prayers because I see no change?
3) Have I assumed that someone elses salvation depended on my faithfulness in prayer, and over time this yoke has grown heavy and Ive grown resentful?
4) Have I learned to let God refresh my hope and vision for someone by waiting quietly in His presence until He speaks to me?
5) Do I really understand that Hes the Savior and Im just His helper? that people will be saved because of His faithfulness, not mine?