Extraordinary Prayer: A call for an intensification of prayer for Synod 2023 and beyond
By Lora A. Copley
A Time to Pray. Last month, I was wheeled into a surgical room. I was to face a couple days of hospitalization and an extended recovery.
I asked as many people as I could—from old friends to new-- to please pray for me. Dozens and dozens of folks did. (Thank you!)
I asked people to pray because this was an extraordinary event for my body. I was told, “You’ll feel like you’ve been hit by a Mack truck.” I solicited prayer because I was anxious —for the pain, for the risks, for the impact on loved ones. I was not equal to the moment.
Yet I knew this surgery had the potential to bring much health, much good, if what was required could happen. And what was required was discernment by teams of people, radical gentleness paired with radical decisiveness, and, finally, courage.
We are heading towards a significant event in our collective body, the CRC. Synod 2023, like the Synod before, will leave our body changed. No matter how you slice it, no matter what decisions are made, pain will result. Discernment is necessary. Radical gentleness needs to be paired with radical decisiveness. And, of course, courage.
Extraordinary events call for extraordinary prayer.
Extraordinary Prayer. In 1741, Jonathan Edwards wrote to a group of pastors in a time of conflict and concern (over true and false teaching about the revival underway). He counseled:
“Be much in prayer and fasting, in secret and with one another. It seems to me, it would become the circumstances of the present day, if ministers would often meet together, and spend days in fasting and fervent prayer, earnestly seeking those extraordinary supplies of Divine Grace… When God has something great to accomplish for His church, it is His will that there should precede it the extraordinary prayer of His people.”¹
I’m no expert—either on Edwards or on prayer- but three implications attend what is meant by “extraordinary prayer.”² Extraordinary prayer 1) recognizes our great inadequacy, 2) utilizes great aids, and 3) rejoices in a great God (and so finds needed courage).
Great Inadequacy. Who is equal to such a moment as Synod 2023? And the answer, of course, is no one. We are utterly inadequate.
Sure, the Abide Project--in our simple commitment to our denomination’s stance on a Biblical sexual ethic-- has worked hard. But no matter how much we do, we can’t persuade one human heart. We can’t force holiness or healing. Our arm is still flesh. As Rich Mullins sang, “We are not as strong as we think we are.”
This is one reason we pray–our need. The Catechism says, in prayer “we must thoroughly know our need and misery” (QA117). This means we pray our theology: that we are unable. He is able. We are foolish. He is “Wisdom from on high.” We are sinners, “still inclined to all evil”—even in an Advisory committee or on a Synod floor.³ But He! He can do all things well.
The temptation is to think Name Recognition, Influence, Strategy, Large Budgets and the whole slew of media campaigns, podcasts, articles and videos could secure the ends we hope for. But no. Our security, our help is in the name of the Lord. So we get small—on our knees (and sometimes on our very faces). Extraordinary prayer starts by saying, “Lord Jesus, apart from you, we can do nothing.”⁴
Great Aids. Secondly, extraordinary prayer makes purposeful use of great helps in prayer. Extraordinary prayer does not just dabble or babble about prayer; it gets serious to do it.⁵ It employs serious aids of Community, Regularity, Praise, Scripture, Fasting, and Repentance. Just a comment on the last two: fasting and repentance.
Calvin advised, “Whenever men are to pray to God concerning any great matter, it would be expedient to appoint fasting along with prayer."⁶ Why? Why does Calvin (as well as Luther, Knox, Wesley, Edwards, Moody, Bonhoeffer, Lewis, and on) recommend fasting with prayer?
Back when I prepared for “the great matter” of my surgery, I had to fast. For 24 hours, no solid foods; for 12 hours, only clear liquids; for the final 6 hours, not even water. All this self-denial was critical; it aided the objectives of the surgery.
The purposeful giving up of a meal, or a type of cherished food, can aid the objectives of prayer. Fasting helps us recognize our dependency. We more readily cry out for God’s strength because we aren’t satiated. Fasting helps focus. When we feel hunger pangs, it is a physical prompt to pray. Fasting helps us identify and lament sin; in fact, it’s a spur to repent.
That’s another tool: repentance. Unconfessed sin blocks prayer—both individually and corporately. When the Lord tells Jeremiah not to pray for the people (4xs!)⁷, it’s because they cherished sin. No matter how fervent and sincere our prayer, if we’re resolved to hold on to sin, the Lord quietly leaves the room.
Great God. All this brings us to the chief point: extraordinary prayer is about an extraordinary God. It sees and rejoices in this God more than all else – more than loves or desires, more than family or institution, more than a cause and more than fear.
Since the closing moments of Synod 2022, like many in the CRC, I’ve often been hurting and fearful. We fear because we know more pain will come. We know beloved churches will break up or cave in or empty out. (And it must happen, because these are crucible matters that go to the hot core of love, identity, discipleship, sin & harm, repentance, salvation, the body and Scripture.) Even though this is the path we must walk, when we think of it with eyes on ourselves, we wilt in fear and sadness. Synod 2023 seems an impossible road.
But extraordinary prayer turns our eyes upward. My Dad used to say: “Lora, you’ve got an invisible magnifying glass in your hand. You can put the magnifying glass on your fears and those fears are going to get real big and God will seem distant and small. Or, in prayer, through Scripture, you can put your magnifying glass on Him⁸. And your fears get in perspective.”
As we “fix our eyes on Jesus,” courage rises. We see how astonishingly good our God is. How beautiful His law. How sure His purposes. How tender His care. We fearlessly hold out the word of truth, and trust Him as we ask and keep on asking about Synod 2023 and beyond.
Could Something Great be Happening? Of all the commentaries on last year’s Synod, one stays with me. Sarah Eekhof Zystra, in her July Gospel Coalition⁹ piece, sought to account for the surprisingly decisive vote margin. She ventured several reasons but finally landed on some trend lines. She noticed that since 2017, the CRC has shown increases in private prayer, family worship and reading Scripture. Zylstra wondered if the most significant reason behind the unforeseen swell at Synod was a quiet renewal of prayer and Scripture. Essentially, Zylstra wondered if God was accomplishing something great in our midst?
May it be so. May these tumultuous times and critical decisions be what puts us ever on our knees in plowings of dependent prayer and fasting. May extraordinary prayer for Synod 2023¹⁰ be what looks to God to pour out his “extraordinary supplies of Divine Grace” that ultimately reap a harvest of righteousness in our denomination, for the praise of His glory.
So let’s get to it.
Let us pray.
1. Edwards, Thoughts on Revival, pg 209. Scripture and church history proves Edwards correct.
a. Prayer preceded all the moves of God in His church in the book of Acts: Jewish Pentecost -Acts 2,
the boldness before Sanhedrin -Act 3, the diaconate inception- Acts 6, the Samaritan outpouring -Acts 8, the Gentile Pentecost -Acts 10; Paul and Barnabas mission -Acts 9 & 13, and on it goes. Note: out of the 33 references to prayer in Acts, the lion’s share of them are corporate, less are private. (The trend line in Zylstra’s piece show this is flipped for CRC people. The practices in Acts suggest we need to do more praying together.)
b. A cursory look at the last 400 years shows prayer preceding God’s movements of renewal in the church:
the Great Awakening of the Moravians, Whitefield, Wesleys, Edwards and Brainerd
the Prayer Revival of 1857 (started by a Dutch Reformed businessman Jeremiah Lampheir in Manhattan!), spread through South Africa
the Welsh Revival of 1904 and the Korean Revivals of 1903-1907
2. Quick word what is NOT meant by this kind of prayer. Extraordinary prayer is not a merit. We are not getting brownie points with God for extra time put into extra prayer. And it’s not manipulation. We aren’t forcing God to do things our way. (After all we pray -like Jesus - “Thy will be done”.) And this kind of prayer is not about a method, either. Extraordinary prayer is not formulaic, it often looks different for different situations and persons.
3. Recognizing our inability is freeing. It means we don’t need to pray “older or more polished” than we are. We are but children. We can bring to God all our mess. In the Psalms we see every human emotion expressed and then offered to God in prayer. We don’t deny our sadness or wallow in our sadness – we pray our sadness. We don’t deny our anger or stew in our anger – we pray our anger. We pray our disappointment, our fear, our happiness, our loneliness, our confusion. Even our desires, says the Westminster Larger Catechism 178, we offer to God.
4. Multiple verses about our inability– these are good to admit in prayer to God:
We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you. 2 Chron 20
We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired …But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God 2 Cor 1:8
It was not by their sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory. But it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them. Ps 44:3
Lord, there is none like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you… let not man prevail against you. 2 Chron 14:11
The whole point of Solomon’s prayer at the temple dedication was to give people, in a time of corporate distress, a place to admit their inability to save themselves and to confess sin.
5. “The pastor who is not praying, is playing. The people who are not praying are straying. No man is greater than his prayer life.” Rev. Leonard Ravenhill
From Edwards day, here’s an example of the seriousness. In 1744, a group of young pastors in Scotland pledged to gather groups to pray every Saturday evening, Sunday morning, and all day on the first Tuesday of each quarter—for two years. During that time, many churches were renewed. In one town alone, 30 groups of young people formed and then committed themselves to prayer for revival. After 2 years, the pastors wanted to continue, they sent 500 letters to pastors across the ocean, asking for a 7 yr commitment to pray for worldwide mission.
From our own day, the Korean church has had daily! early morning (5am or 6am) prayer.
6. Calvin, The Institutes, IV.7.16. Calvin gives three reasons for fasting: “it weakens and subdues the flesh”, “it better prepares for prayer and holy meditation” and finally “it testifies of our self-abasement before God when we wish to confess our guilt to Him.” If you care to try fasting with your prayers, here’s a couple articles to get you started.
7. Jeremiah 7:16; 11:14; 14:10-11; 15:1. These are hard passages to read. It also reminds us of 1 John 5:16 or Psalm 66:18.. The sin that leads to death is unrepentance. We pray that God would cause the unrepentant to repent. We don’t pray that God would bless unrepentance (because that hurts people and is anti-God; sin hurts people; it leads to death and “The Holy Spirit is given to those who obey Him.” Acts 5:32) It is also sobering to consider the corporate effects of unconfessed sin. Think of what Achan’s unconfessed sin did to the whole community.
8. Tim Keller, in this message, preached similarly: “real courage is not the absence of fear, it’s the presence of joy.” To take joy in God in prayer, consider taking the attributes of God-- attributes that maybe in Sunday School seemed distant or boring. But when we pray and praise God for these same attributes in the midst of the upheaval surrounding a conflicted Synod and other crises of life, it crackles with power, celebration and encouragement. (And if we truly believe these things, why do we not come to Him more regularly, trusting Him for His intervention.)
Praise you Father, Son and Holy Spirit!
10. Here are specific helps and ideas to assist in prayers for Synod:
Abide Project Prayer Zoom meetings -May 23 & 30, 12 ET/9PT am (30min) // June 6, 8pm ET (1hr +)
Lists to Print:
3) Abide Prayer Points – focusing on character qualities of Synod delegates
Great article to read: Kingdom-Centered Prayer, by Rev. Tim Keller (thanks to Andy Sytsma for alerting us to this!)