When you think about it, why bother to get large groups of Christians to join in prayer? God does not need a certain number of signatures on a petition to respond to it. Just one Christian praying a simple prayer, like Hannah in 1 Samuel 1, is all God needs to move heaven and earth.
It is certainly true that we often have a bad habit of assigning human characteristics to our God, running the risk of turning Him into a celestial vending machine that responds only to the right combination of coins inserted and buttons pushed, like some bored pagan idol (1 Kings 18:27). We do not need to shout louder for God to hear us. We do not need to reach a certain number on our prayer team to activate God’s mercy. We do not need to grovel for a certain amount of time to convince God we are worthy of a response. We are not heard for our many words (Matthew 6:7).
Strictly speaking, we do not need to pray at all! God, who lives outside of time, has already foreseen the moment of our anguish, and has already foreseen every word of our prayer, and has already moved the wheels of the universe in response. And yet this does not negate our free will. He incorporates into reality His response to our prayers, for He is not bound by the way we perceive a one-way flow of time. Again, God is not surprised by our prayers; He has heard them before we utter them (Matthew 6:8).
Yet that being so, that God doesn’t need to be convinced to answer, why do we so often see God’s people engaged in fervent prayer, examples that inspired writers hold up for us to appreciate and emulate? Because while God doesn’t need our prayers, WE need our prayers. And if we need our prayers, then we need our prayers to be something other than perfunctory and matter of fact.
James 5:16 says “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (NKJV). Fervency helps us pray. Fervency helps us believe and trust. What does fervency look like?
Get lots of believers involved. When Peter was imprisoned shortly after the murder of James, “prayer for him was being made fervently by the church of God” (Acts 12:7). On a beach in Miletus, Paul “knelt down and prayed with them all” (Acts 20:36). Something powerful happens when a whole church prays (Acts 4:31). “The prayers of the saints” ascend to God’s throne in Heaven (Revelation 5:8).
Show it’s important with posture and fasting. Again, let me hasten to say, depriving myself is not done to break through God’s crust of boredom and get Him to pay attention to my pain (like the Jews’ trying to get through to Gallio by beating Sosthenes, Acts 18:17). No, it is designed to break through MY crust of worldliness and get more serious about my God. Fast and focus for meaningful things (Acts 13:3, 1 Corinthians 7:5)—like a sick child, a barren sister, a new eldership. Perhaps bow in prayer (Psalm 95:6, Luke 18:13).
Repeat it. Jesus illustrates how the saints “at all times ought to pray and not lose heart” with an unjust judge who needs constant pestering to respond. But the point is that God is not an unjust judge, and so the saints may be encouraged “to cry to Him day and night” (Luke 18:7). If it’s important to you, bring it up more than once. “Be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18). “Devote yourselves to prayer” (Colossians 4:2). “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Besides, God is our Father, and what Father does not love to receive communication from His children (1 Peter 5:7)?
Gather round. Do any of us think Jesus needed to touch the leper to perform a miracle to cleanse Him (Mark 1:41)? Did Jesus need to anoint the blind man’s eyes with muddy spit (John 9:6)? The centurion realized Jesus didn’t need to be in the room to heal his servant (Matthew 8:8). Yet one suspects these actions were a touching and helpful gesture for the weak humans involved. The elders don’t need to come to the hospital and pray over a person, but it sure helps him (James 5:14). We don’t need to hold hands at the dinner table, but it sure helps us feel like we have invited God into our humble presence, and that we are joining our minds in prayer.
You might think an emotionless, sanitized prayer life indicates a mature view of God. I tend to think it indicates an unrealistic view of our human nature. We don’t have to worry that fervent prayer turns God into a false god waiting to be sufficiently impressed. God created us embodied spiritual creatures, and knows that sometimes we need to engage the whole person in any effort that is worthwhile. Fervency isn’t about haranguing God, it’s about our yearning and dependence.