This past summer I spent some time reading The Journals of Jim Elliot. Jim Elliot, missionary to Ecuador, was killed with four colleagues by the Auca Indians on January 8, 1956. His story inspired a generation of missionaries, and continues to do so today. The entries I read were written in 1948 when Elliot was a student at Wheaton College. At the time, he was reading the Old Testament, a chapter a day it seems, and writing a paragraph or so of reflection and prayer on his daily scripture readings.
I was especially challenged by something Elliot wrote on February 16, 1948, a reflection on the opening chapter of Exodus. Elliot was observing how Israel flourished under persecution. How the people increased in Egypt, even as slaves. Elliot rightly observed that God’s kingdom advances through affliction. God’s people grow in their suffering. And then Elliot wrote these words: “Send persecution to me, Lord, that my life might bring forth much fruit.”
Elliot prayed more than he knew, and how God answered that prayer. Elliot himself could never have imagined what God intended to do with and through his life, how his violent death would bear much fruit.
Sometimes we may pray things we don’t mean. But perhaps, just as often, we pray more than we mean. Our words to God say more than we know, and God hears more than we say. Paul spoke of the Spirit interceding on our behalf, praying from deep places that lie beyond our vocabulary, uttering things before God that we could never speak. There is a mystery to prayer, far more happening than we know or speak.
Prayer provides the context for the story of Zechariah and his encounter with the angel Gabriel. As Zechariah is performing his once-in-a-lifetime sacred duty, the people are standing outside praying (1:10). The ritual itself is built around prayer. As Zechariah burns incense at the altar, the prayers of the people are given texture. The sight and smell of incense capture the prayers of a nation.
And of course Zechariah and Elizabeth have prayed. As devout and righteous people they have prayed the Psalms in worship. As husband and wife they have prayed for a child; they prayed about that for many years until it became clear to them that God’s answer was ‘no.’ They struggled to understand that answer, struggled to accept it but accept it they did.
And then Gabriel showed up and greeted Zechariah with “Your prayer has been heard.” Scholars debate exactly which prayer Gabriel is referring to – the prayers for the nation or the prayers for a child. As it turned out, one prayer was integral to the other.
As Zechariah prayed more was happening than he knew. His priestly prayer for the people was being answered in the gift of a child. His prayer for a child would be a part of God’s plan to redeem the nation.
What are you praying about today? Who are you praying for? Whatever it is, whoever it is, don’t stop praying. And don’t worry whether you’re doing it right. With every petition, you ask more than your words speak and God is doing more than you know.
O Lord, hear my prayer. Hear the words I speak and the yearnings of my heart. Do more than I can imagine, and in all things – the people I love, the situations that concern me – make me confident that you do indeed hear the prayers of your people. Amen.