Elijah had been praying. And praying.
Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees. “Go and look toward the sea,” he told his servant. And he went up and looked.
“There is nothing there,” he said.
Seven times Elijah said, “Go back.”
The seventh time the servant reported, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.”
(1 Kings 18:41-44)
He knew that his promise of heavy rain was about to be fulfilled.
How Elijah Exercised His Faith Muscle
In Elijah’s story it really did take a miracle—and faith—of significant proportions. There had been absolutely no rain for three years. But God had told Elijah that the rain would come again at his word. How do you imagine Elijah might feel when by the third time of checking for an answer to his fervent prayer there was absolutely no sign of the “heavy rain” he had promised to King Ahab? The fourth time? Fifth? What kept him sending his obliging servant back again and again? How did he manage to not lose heart?
It reminds me of another time where Elijah prays for something in the same way, several times over; in the previous chapter we see him praying for the only son of the widow he was staying with who had tragically died. Elijah cries out to God, and “stretches himself out on the boy three times”:
“LORD my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?” Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried out to the LORD, “LORD my God, let this boy’s life return to him!” The LORD heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived. Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, “Look, your son is alive!” (1 Kings 17:20-23)
Elijah already knew what it was to pray repeatedly, with no apparent answer at first, and in faith—until he received a ‘yes’. He had seen God bring life from the dead. He was ready for the challenge at the top of Mount Carmel. Three times he prayed for life to return to the widow’s dead son, seven times for rain to return to the barren land, ravaged by drought. But how did he learn such faith and certainty of what God was going to do? To be so persistent in prayer, we need to know that we are praying in line with the will of God.
Before meeting the widow at Zarephath, Elijah had been told by God to hang out at the brook of Cherith. At that place, God provided water from the brook and ravens brought him meat every day. But how many days was he there? The Bible tells us he was there for “a while”—until the brook dried up from the drought. Several months at least. And he was all alone. He had only God for company. And the ravens, of course, but they weren’t great conversationalists. At this time, Elijah would have been both talking to God and learning to listen to God. He would have been getting to know God better and better. To know his voice, and his ways. This is an important part of developing a powerful prayer life… we need to become familiar with the word, the voice, the plans, the heart and the ways of God. Then we can pray into his will alongside him, work with him, and have confidence that he will hear us and answer, no matter how long we may have to wait, or how many times we may have to go back and ask—again and again.
Elijah knew what he could count on God for, and he would not give up. No matter what the circumstances looked like, and no matter how silly other people thought he was. He is a great example to us, when we are praying for the spiritual state of Israel and Jewish people around the world.
Pray Until Something Happens
Jesus also was concerned that we learn to pray in this way, as we can see in Luke 18. The first verse in fact tells us that he told them the parable of the persistent widow, “To show them that they should always pray and not give up.” This widow knew what was right and just, and insisted upon it. We can also learn from God what we can rightly expect from him. This is also a matter of faith – trusting in God’s character. His goodness, justice, desire to bless, to heal, and to save. Yeshua asks us, “Will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.” He then adds the humdinger of a question: “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Jesus here is equating faith with not giving up. Persistence in prayer, even when an answer is slow in coming and we have to go back again and again and again, takes faith. Faith that what we are asking for is firmly in his will, that he will do it, and that we will get the answer eventually if we do not give up.
But why does God need us to “go back” again and again?
Does God lack information?
Does he have a bad memory?
Does he need us to persuade him to do good?
Is he playing hard to get?
What’s the deal?
I believe that, at least in part, God requires this from us in order to develop our faith. It’s easy to give up. It’s easy to lose heart and become discouraged. It’s easy to fear failure and disappointment. But God calls us to be men and women of faith – to persevere, to stand strong, to take heart and have courage. To look the possibility of disappointment in the eye and throw ourselves into our prayers anyway, knowing that ultimately, God’s goodness will catch us. This takes faith. And this is what he wants to see in us. Willingness to go back—and back—and back… in faith, courage and perseverance. Trusting his character, believing his promises, and holding him to his word. If we are willing to keep “going back” even when all seems hopeless; if we are willing to be schooled in God’s training ground of faith building, our prayers, like Elijah’s, will be powerful and effective.