Together in Prayer

Vertical Prayer with Horizontal Impact

Of Drought, Downpour, and Despair

This article appeared in Issue 33 (Apr-Jun 2018) of Prayer Connect

For several years, my wife and I prayed about getting out of debt. School loans and a couple of poor decisions had led us into a sizable debt load. Through the financial ministry at our church, God alerted us to the seriousness of the problem. We began to pray.

In the beginning, not much changed—primarily because we continued some bad habits. We longed to escape the uncertainty of living paycheck to paycheck. We longed to be able to give more generously. We longed to be able to save for retirement. Slowly, we began to make progress, but not transformative progress. We didn’t receive the kind of answers to prayer we saw in Scripture:

Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops (James 5:17–18, NIV 1984).


Elijah was just like us.

Sure he was, James, I’ve thought with sarcasm. I regularly face down several hundred prophets of the enemy, raise people from the dead, and pray droughts and torrential rain storms into existence. I would never hope to pray and see answers like Elijah did.

Certainly, God gave Elijah special assignments as part of his call as a prophet of the Lord—assignments He won’t likely give us. But we’re like Elijah in many ways:

  • We have an assignment from God, including an assignment for intercession.
  • We’re human and subject to weakness.
  • Above all, God loves us and cares for us.

We often read stories like the showdown on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:20–40) and think, That’s not relevant to me. It’s as though the heroes of those stories are inherently different from us. James refutes this. In fact, he insists that “the prayer of a righteous person [any righteous person] is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).

Why? Because it’s not about the one praying. It’s about the God to whom we pray.


The First Prayer: Drought

Elijah first tells King Ahab that God said there would be no rain for several years. (See 1 Kings 17:1.)

James pulls back the curtain for us. Unknown to Ahab, Elijah had actually prayed for the drought.

Why? Elijah knew the warning in Deuteronomy 11:16–17:

“Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce.

The spiritual environment in Elijah’s day certainly fit Moses’ description of God’s anger toward other gods. In fact, Ahab not only worshiped Baal, but he “did more to arouse the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than did all the kings of Israel before him” (1 Kings 16:33).

A confrontation loomed. Baal’s followers would pray to their god for rain. And Jehovah would show Baal’s impotence by withholding the rain. Perhaps God’s display of power would bring His people to repentance and He could bless them again—as Solomon had prayed in the dedication of the temple (1 Kings 8:35–36).

The Second Prayer: Fire

About three years later, God told Elijah to present himself to Ahab, and He was going to send rain (1 Kings 18:1). The people had not yet repented and were still following Baal. So with the drought coming to an end, Elijah realized the necessity of a showdown to prove who was the one true God.

In the contest on Mt. Carmel we see Elijah’s heart as he prayed before calling on God to send fire: “Let it be known today that you are God in Israel . . . so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again” (1 Kings 18:36–37).

Elijah’s purpose in this prayer was the same as his purpose in the prayer for drought—to turn the people’s hearts to Jehovah. God answered immediately with fire that burned not only the wood and the offering, but also the stones and the water used to douse the offering.

This was no ordinary fire but a fire from an all-powerful God. And how did the people respond? By falling on their faces and repeating, “The Lord—he is God!” (v. 39).


The Third Prayer: Rain

After killing the prophets of Baal and telling Ahab about the coming rain, Elijah climbed to the top of the mountain and prayed for the rain in a dramatic and intense way. He bent down and put his face between his knees (1 Kings 18:42).

This time, God did not respond immediately. Elijah persevered in prayer, knowing that God purposed to bring rain. Seven times, with a sense of anticipation, he sent his servant to watch for some sign of rain.

Finally, a small cloud signaled the coming downpour (1 Kings 18:43–44). Having demonstrated His power by sending fire when Baal could not, Jehovah now demonstrated His power and His mercy by sending much-needed rain. God’s servant persevered in prayer, and the Almighty responded with the rain that Baal worshipers had failed to produce through three years of their prayers.


The Fourth Prayer: Despair

Under threat of death from queen Jezebel, the prophet Elijah—who had just seen the mighty hand of God in both fire and rain—fled in fear. Despair comes through in his prayer: “I have had enough, Lord. . . . Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4). God responded with food and water for a journey Elijah didn’t realize he was going to take—a 40-day pilgrimage to Mount Horeb.

There, God met with the prophet. Elijah described himself as zealous for the Lord, but he felt like he was the only one who still followed God. Again he prayed out of despair—despair for the Israelites who still had not repented, despair for the prophets who had been killed, and despair for himself (1 Kings 19:10, 14).

God answered this prayer also. He told Elijah that he was not alone. Jehovah still had 7,000 faithful followers. Despite the people’s general lack of repentance, God commanded Elijah to anoint his own successor—a sure sign God had not given up on Israel.


Four Prayers, Four Answers

Four prayers. Four times God answered, revealing His power. These prayers were powerful and effective, not because of the man who prayed them but because of the God who answered them. Each time, God answered for His glory and according to His purposes.

Since James holds up Elijah as an example of effective prayer, what can we learn from his experience?

  1. Effective prayer is not about us. Whether Elijah prayed for drought, for fire, or for rain, his prayer was all about bringing God glory and bringing about His purposes. God’s answer didn’t depend on who was praying. God had purposed to bring glory to Himself and to bring the people to repentance. He gave Elijah the assignment of praying His purposes into reality.

So it is with us. We may think we are too insignificant to pray great things, even if God puts them on our hearts. But that kind of thinking makes prayer about us—and not about Him.

  1. Effective prayer is grounded in God’s will. Much of our prayer—for ourselves or for others—is grounded in our will. We pray for an end to the trial we’re facing, for a job offer to come through, or for a friend to be healed. Our prayers focus on specific, temporal results rather than God’s overarching purposes.

Of course, God wants and even commands us to ask, seek, and knock—to bring our needs to Him (Matt. 7:7). There is nothing wrong with this. But it’s easy for needs-based prayer to focus on our will rather than God’s.

Truly effective prayer—whether for personal needs or Kingdom expansion—is grounded in God’s will. Elijah knew God’s will for the people of Israel—to repent. He knew God’s specific warnings about the consequences of following other gods. So he prayed accordingly.

  1. God hears and answers even our prayers of despair. We would love it if Elijah’s story went from victory on Mount Carmel to victory over the evil queen Jezebel, to victory after victory. But then Elijah would not have been a “man like us.”

Our stories don’t work that way, so we need to know that God hears us and answers us even in our defeat and despair. He shows us through stories like Elijah’s that He is always with us, that He hears and answers all kinds of prayer, and that He is ready and powerful to restore us.


Someone Like Us 

A little more than two years ago, my wife and I felt God leading us to uproot our lives and move to Tennessee, to be near my parents. My natural inclination was, We can’t do this. We still have too much debt. But we started down the path and prayed that God would open doors as He saw fit.

God provided in many ways: our townhouse sold quickly, we moved to a less expensive neighborhood, and an annual bonus enabled us to retire all our debt. Most recently, we appealed the denial of my wife’s disability claim—and won! In less than two years, God answered prayers from more than 20 years of our marriage.

What made the difference? Several things positioned us to see God’s blessing. But most importantly, we began to pray beyond our own situation and focused on ways we wanted to bring honor to God with our finances.

I still don’t feel much like Elijah. But, in reality, the God I pray to, worship, and serve is the same God who answered Elijah’s prayers with such power and mercy. I’m learning—slowly—to pray with the faith of Elijah and to await God’s answers with confidence.