Praying and Doing

By David Feddes

But we prayed to our God and posted a guard. (Nehemiah 4:9)

Ever hear the story of the woman who got caught in a flood? Water was flowing all around Carol’s house and into it, so Carol raced upstairs. The water kept rising, so she climbed out onto the roof. Before long the flood would sweep her away. Carol prayed: “Please, Lord, help me! I’m young. I’ve got a family. It’s too soon for me to die. Please, help me!”

Just then Carol saw a log floating toward her rooftop. Her neighbor was holding on to the log. “Quick,” the neighbor gasped. “Grab this log, and I think we can make it.” But Carol said, “No, thanks. I’ve prayed and asked God to rescue me, and I have faith that he will.” The neighbor and the log floated past, and the water continued to rise.

A few minutes later, Carol heard the sound of a motor. She turned and saw a speedboat racing toward her. The driver pulled up close and shouted, “Hurry and get in. You don’t have much longer.” But Carol smiled and said, “No, thanks. I’ve prayed and asked God to rescue me, and I have faith that he will.” The speedboat driver shook his head and then sped off to see if he could help anyone else. The water continued to rise.

A bit later a helicopter came along and hovered above Carol. Someone dangled a ladder down to her. But Carol waved the copter away. “Don’t worry about me,” she shouted. “I’ve prayed and asked God to rescue me, and I have faith that he will.” The helicopter hovered for another minute, then flew away. The water continued to rise.

Finally, Carol was swept away and drowned in the flood. She woke up in heaven, feeling puzzled. She said to God, “Lord, this is a good place to be, and I don’t want to complain, but why didn’t you answer my prayer? I felt so full of faith. I just knew you were going save me. So why didn’t you?”

The Lord replied, “Carol, I sent a log. I sent a boat. I sent a helicopter. What else did you want?”

Both/And, Not Either/Or

Have you ever used prayer as an excuse to do nothing? Have you ever had the sense that it might even show a lack of faith if you did more than just pray? Some people think that if you accept medical treatment from a doctor, you’re showing a lack of faith in God’s power to heal. And even if you don’t believe that, even if you believe that prayer and action go together when it comes to physical health, you might think that prayer alone should be enough when it comes to mental and emotional health.

I’ve talked with more than one person struggling with depression who thinks that prayer should be all it takes to recover. They feel that if only they have enough faith in God, they should be able to stop taking medication and forget about counseling. I’ve met alcoholics who say that if they pray and rely on God to stay sober, they really shouldn’t need a support group or any other kind of help.

Maybe you’ve heard people who say that if you seek help from a therapist or support group, you’re forgetting the sufficiency of Christ. Maybe you’ve been told that every mental or emotional issue is actually a spiritual issue, and all it takes to get better is to get closer to God, pray harder, and have more faith. Jesus should be enough. You shouldn’t need anything else.

Here’s a question. Should we take that approach to eating? In the Bible there are cases where people were fed by miracles with almost no action on their part. So should we count on direct miracles and nothing else to feed us? When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” should we sit down in front of an empty table and wait for food to appear from thin air? Should we expect the food to rise from the table to our mouth without us lifting a finger? Of course not. If we want food, we try to earn enough money to buy it. We get groceries. We cook a meal and put it on the table. Then we use our hands to put the food into our mouths. In all of this, we should count on God and thank him for each meal, but we also take action to get the meal.

It’s okay for a flood victim to pray and then jump into the first boat that comes along. It’s okay for someone who needs food to pray and then do what it takes to provide a meal. It’s okay for a heart patient to pray and then submit to bypass surgery. And it’s okay for someone with mental and emotional struggles to pray and then go to a professional therapist or support group. God sometimes liberates people from illness or depression or addiction suddenly and miraculously in response to prayer, but more often he answers prayer through ordinary means. Praying and doing belong together.

It’s a big mistake to be all prayer and no action, and it’s an even bigger mistake to be all action and no prayer, to depend totally on human methods without turning to God at all. Some of you may be praying much and doing too little, but probably more of you are doing much and praying too little—or not all. You rely on your own efforts, and if you do need help, you rely only on the technology and techniques of experts. God is just an afterthought. But praying belongs together with doing. It’s not either or but both/and. It’s not either praying or doing, but both praying and doing.

The Bible says, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe” (Proverbs 18:10). That’s what makes prayer so marvelous: we can run to God, and call on his strong name, and find safety in him. Prayer is marvelous, but it’s not an excuse to do nothing. In many situations, even as we pray, we also need to take action, using our God-given common sense and the God-given resources that are available to us.

Pray to God, Post a Guard

The Bible tells about Nehemiah. He became governor of God’s people at a time when they were returning to Jerusalem after many years in exile. As governor, Nehemiah faced an overwhelming task. He had to rebuild the walls of a city that had been completely demolished. He had to build up the morale of a people who had been completely demoralized. And he had to deal with enemies who wanted to ruin everything.

So how did Nehemiah begin? With prayer! He appealed to God’s power and love, he admitted his own sins and the sins of his people, and then he asked God for forgiveness and help.

When Nehemiah finished his prayer, did he sit around doing nothing, waiting for something to happen? No, Nehemiah swung into action. He used tact and diplomacy to get the approval and support of the ruler of the Persian empire. He arranged for lumber and other materials. Then Nehemiah traveled to the ruins of Jerusalem. He shared his plans and dreams for rebuilding the city with some leading officials of the people and enlisted their support. Soon almost all the people were behind him and supported him as their governor. Nehemiah then assigned different parts of the project to different groups of people. If you read the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, you find all sorts of administrative and practical details.

Nehemiah is proof that it’s possible to be deeply spiritual and at the same time very practical, to be a person of prayer and at the same time a skilled organizer, to depend on God and at the same time do what needs doing.

One episode really brings this into sharp focus. Nehemiah’s rebuilding project was starting to move full steam ahead when it was threatened by some nasty enemies. These men tried to use propaganda and nasty jokes to discourage the Israelite people and make them feel like giving up. So how did Nehemiah respond? He prayed that God would deal with his opponents, and he had the people keep right on working. The enemy got even more upset. They started plotting vandalism and violence. “But,” says Nehemiah, “we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat” (4:9). They didn’t just pray, and they didn’t just arrange for tighter security. They did both. They prayed to God and posted a guard.

Nehemiah encouraged his people to keep combining faith with action. He said, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes” (4:14). In other words, pray in faith, knowing that everything depends on God, and then fight as though everything depends on you.

What happened as a result? According to Nehemiah, “When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to his own work” (4:15). Nehemiah planned hard and acted decisively, but he gave God the credit for frustrating the enemy and moving the rebuilding project forward. Nehemiah knew very well that his own abilities, the improved security measures, and the renewed courage of the people, were the means God was using to answer prayer. He knew that praying and doing go together. Nehemiah was dealing with practical details of politics and construction and security, and all the while he was praying.

We need to learn from Nehemiah. In almost any area of life, it’s a big mistake to pit prayer against action. Sometimes prayer without action is based on the notion that there’s no connection between normal processes and divine activity. According to this line of thinking, something isn’t really a work of God unless it is sudden, supernatural and miraculous.

But that’s not what the Bible teaches. Scripture says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). God doesn’t just work through the startling events we call miracles. It’s wonderful when he does, but that’s not his only way of working, or even his usual way. God is constantly active in the physical and the natural and the non-miraculous aspects of this world. The whole earth is his, along with the things and people and inventions in it, and so we can look for God’s hand in the ordinary events and opportunities that come our way.

We often think of Jesus as a worker of miracles, and that’s true. But Christ is also the one through whom all things were made, the one in whom all things hold together. So an important part of depending on Jesus is to make good use of the things around us, even as we pray and trust in Christ as their source.

There are some situations where we need to pray for nothing less than a miracle, but in a great many situations, we should pray for God’s help and blessing and then look for practical ways he’s provided in this world of his to make that blessing a reality. Nehemiah prayed and then posted a guard, and that’s often the way to do it. Pray for protection against crime; then keep your doors locked and be careful where you go at night. Pray for help to do well in school; then do your homework and ask your teacher for extra help if you need it. Pray for a new job; then get out there and look for one. Pray for a better society; then look for a person that needs help and or a policy that needs changing. Pray for healing from an illness; then find a good doctor. Pray to be free from alcoholism; then find a group that’s actually helping people stay sober. Pray to escape your depression; then find someone who knows how to help depressed people. Pray for a better marriage; then find a good pastor or marriage counselor.

If you tend to pray a lot and believe in miracles, that’s good. Now be sure to look for God in everyday things and go to work making the most of every opportunity he sends you.

Why Pray at All?

At this point some of you may be thinking, “Okay, okay! It’s obvious we need to do what’s necessary and use whatever help is available. That’s just common sense. But what’s the point in praying about it? Why not just go ahead and take action, if that’s what you’re going to end up doing anyway? Take better safety precautions, study harder, look for a job, go to a doctor, visit a therapist, do whatever your situation demands—that’s all perfectly sensible, but why pray? You can do any of those things without praying at all. People do it all the time.”

Well, let’s look at another story from the Bible, the story of King Asa. Asa reached a point in his life where he decided to go with a practical approach instead of a prayerful one. Asa faced a serious political problem, and he didn’t pray. He just made a quick alliance to deal with the situation. Later Asa had a serious health problem, and he didn’t pray. He went straight to the doctor and didn’t bother going to God at all.

However, Asa wasn’t always that way. He was a man with a genuine heart for God (1 Kings 15:14), and for much of his life, he combined prayer and action in much the same way Nehemiah did. Earlier in his career, Asa set in motion a plan to fortify the nation of Judah and strengthen its national defense. But he didn’t separate this action from his faith. Instead, Asa said, “The land is still ours because we have sought the Lord our God; we sought him, and he has given us rest on every side.” Asa saw that his nation’s military strength was just the human side of living under protection that ultimately came from God.

Asa had an army of half a million men, well-equipped and brave. But then a vast army from the south, even larger and better equipped than Asa’s, came to invade Judah. It had the latest in chariots and killing equipment. What did Asa do? The Bible says, “Then Asa called on the Lord his God and said, ‘Lord, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this vast army. O Lord, you are our God; do not let man prevail against you” (2 Chronicles 14:11). Then God helped Asa and his troops to fight so effectively that they won a stunning victory despite the impossible odds.

A number of years later, though, Asa began to take a different approach. He faced a military blockade by a country whose military wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as the earlier threat. But this time Asa just decided to do what seemed practical, without praying to God or asking what was right. He decided to deal with the enemy by enlisting the support of a third country. According to the Bible, “Asa then took the silver and gold out of the treasuries of the Lord’s temple and his own palace” and used it to buy the support of one of the most vicious and corrupt kings in the region. This king promptly attacked Asa’s enemies, and the problem was eliminated.

Asa’s plan worked—or did it? The blockade was over, and that had been his goal, but now Asa found himself tangled up with a corrupt regime, and the Lord was no longer eager to bless him. God sent a prophet to scold Asa for his foolishness. But instead of repenting, Asa got so angry that he threw the prophet into prison and brutally oppressed other citizens of Judah who didn’t support his policies.

Then “Asa was afflicted with a disease in his feet. Though his disease was severe,” says the Bible, “even in his illness he did not seek help from the Lord, but only from the physicians” (2 Chronicles 16:12). Ironically, the name Asa means “God heals,” but Asa wouldn’t go to God for healing. He didn’t want to pray. He would deal with his disease as he thought best and get help from the doctors but not from God. Two years later Asa was dead.

Now, let’s ask again, “Why pray at all? Why not just go ahead and do what we think needs to be done?” For one thing, we need to pray because sometimes we find that all our actions and resources are not enough. Asa had a strong army, but when he faced an army that was even stronger, he prayed and prayed. We tend to pray when we’re desperate. There aren’t many atheists in foxholes. As someone once joked, there will be prayer in public schools as long as there are math tests. When nothing short of divine intervention can save the day, it makes sense to pray.

But again, that’s not the only reason to pray, or even the main reason. We’ve seen that even when Asa wasn’t in deep trouble, even when he was in his prime and his country was at its strongest, he gave God the credit for the whole situation. He didn’t think of God only when his situation was hopeless.

You see, prayer is much more than just another way to get what we want when nothing else will work. Prayer isn’t just a magic charm to improve our luck. Prayer is a relationship. Prayer is living each moment, and facing each challenge, with a sense of God’s presence. If it seems I have the resources to handle a situation on my own, that’s no reason to ignore God. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” I don’t have a single resource that God hasn’t given me, and I don’t want to do anything unless Christ is doing it with me and through me. I want all my actions to be prayerful actions, because I want everything I do to flow out of my relationship with the Lord.

Prayer isn’t just about getting a successful outcome—as important as that may be—but about being in tune with God. Don’t just pray, “Lord, give me what I want,” but, “Lord, show me what you want.” The most important thing in any situation isn’t how it turns out but whether God is with you in it.

When you don’t pray and you just do things your way, you might succeed in achieving what you want, but it turns sour. Asa’s plan to buy his way into an alliance using money from God’s temple actually worked. But because Asa acted without praying first, because he did his own thing without asking God, he ended up not doing God’s will, and even his successes no longer had a sense of God’s blessing.

Has that ever happened to you? You make your own plans, you don’t bother praying, and your plans seem to work out just about the way you’d hoped. And yet it leaves a bad taste in your mouth—maybe because you did something you shouldn’t have done, or simply because your achievement feels empty without God. When we pray before we take action, God helps us to sense what course of action is pleasing to him, and what isn’t. This helps us make better choices, and it helps us enjoy the fact that we’re taking each action and living each moment in God’s presence.

When we stop praying and rely only on ourselves and on human methods, it’s a sign that something is amiss in our relationship to God. Why did Asa go to the doctors but not to God? Because he was angry at God and at the way God’s prophet had rebuked him. Asa didn’t want to admit his sin, and that kept him from praying even when his life depended on it. He was too proud to admit he’d been wrong, and he was too proud to ask God’s forgiveness and healing.

Don’t make the same mistake. The longer you go on without admitting your sin, the harder it is to pray. After a while, you just try to look out for yourself. When you need help, you turn to the experts, but you stay away from God. You and God aren’t getting along. My friend, if you think you can get along just fine without praying, you’ve got a serious problem, and the only way to solve it is this: Turn back to God. Ask his forgiveness for Jesus’ sake. Then look to the Lord as your boss and helper, and unite prayer with action in every part of your life.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.