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Beyond COVID-19: You must travail before you prevail

Beyond COVID-19: You must travail before you prevail

(Photo: Shane Idleman)

We are facing uncertain times. Within days, our entire way of life in America changed drastically. The pandemic has given most of us a new perspective about what is really important to us. God is giving us a chance to stop, take a breath, and focus on prayer. But we must remember that while COVID-19 is the biggest, most current thing, it’s not the only thing. In other words, prayer is for more than the coronavirus. Discouragement is Satan’s tool to keep us in bondage, but it’s also God’s magnet to draw us to Himself. 

As we all know, the blessing of a child comes only after intense pain and travail. Likewise, we must travail in prayer until we prevail. As David Wilkerson famously said, “Victory in the prayer closet gets you victory on the battlefield.” My concern is that America has not yet been humbled: We are fearful, but are we truly broken? We are anxious, but are we contrite? 

Travailing in prayer means toil, sweat, exertion, labor, and effort. In Psalm 6 we read of a powerful prayer in a time of distress. It’s not clear whether David is talking about sickness, difficulties, or an enemy, but we can feel his pain — his travail: “O Lord, do not rebuke me in Your anger ... Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are troubled” (Psalm 6:1–2). 

Although there is no mention of sin here, when we cross-reference Psalm 38 we see a similar plea, and we find that “there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin” (v. 3). The first point of application, therefore, is to approach prayer with a clean heart. Psalm 66:18 reminds us that “if I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear.” No matter how hard we travail, we will not prevail if sin is blocking our path. 

How many blessings are waiting at the brink? How many promises are yet to be fulfilled? How many prayers are being hindered because of besetting, unconfessed sin? Take time now to follow the example of the blind beggar of Mark 10:46–52 and repent: “[Jesus], Son of David, have mercy on me!” God often crushes our pride to open our ears. 

Once repentance takes place, here are a few ways to prevail in prayer:

1. Your labor is not in vain. Psalm 6:6–7 says. “I am weary with my groaning; All night I make my bed swim; I drench my couch with my tears...” Have you ever been there? I have. The only comfort I had was my confidence that God heard my prayers, even though I saw no fruit. Faith believes God even in the absence of tangible fruit — fruit we can see. The psalmist goes on to declare, “For the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping. The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord will receive my prayer” (vv. 8–9). Travail is for our benefit. It draws us into a deeper relationship with Him. It crushes our pride and produces the wonderful fruit of humility. The man or woman listening to God, obeying God, and wanting to be used by God will hear from God. 

2. Don’t ignore a burden. If God stirs our heart, if there is a God-honoring burden to pray, it’s a sure sign He wants us to press in so He can answer. “When God desires to recover a ruined situation, he baptizes someone in anguish” (David Wilkerson). Has a burden been stirred in your heart? To build a mighty fire of prayer, you have to light the flame! Take time and begin to pray, not as an afterthought or when you’re tired but with purpose and discipline when you’re awake. Stoke the embers by removing distractions and setting time aside to seek God even when you don’t “feel” like it. During this time of stay-at-home orders, shut off the movie streaming and mindless passing of time, and get on your knees.

3. Hold on to the promise. Often, as you’re praying and reading the Word, God will stir your heart with a promise — from beginning a ministry to seeing a loved one repent. A Scripture will leap from the page and deeply touch your heart. Joy and motivation will surely follow, but then comes the valley of doubt. During these times, it’s critical not to become critical. When God speaks, He will bring it to fruition, but some prayers are conditional. Remember what I said earlier: How many prayers are being hindered because of besetting, unconfessed sin? 

Often, God will give us a promise as a motivating factor to turn from sin and turn completely to Him. But be careful. There is a fine line between faith and presumption. Many people “presume” that God is going to answer and bless “their” plans. As Oswald J. Smith rightly noted: “Presumptuous faith believes without the evidence of the Spirit.” What is the evidence of the Spirit? Often, it is patience. We will  also have a sense of peace and assurance that God is going to work His will rather than using our own strength. 

4. Prayer must become your top priority. While five-minute devotions and quick prayers have their place, we will starve spiritually in these dire days if we don’t make prayer a priority. We need powerful times of prayer, devotion, and worship to become priorities in our lives, not something we try to squeeze in when it fits our schedule: “Without the heartbeat of prayer, the body of Christ will resemble a corpse. The church is dying on her feet because she is not living on her knees” (Al Whittinghill). 

God is not too busy, He’s not on vacation, and He’s not sleeping. He is an ever-present help in time of need. You can call out to Him in the deep of the night or in the midst of the storm. He hears the prayers of His children, but we must once again cultivate a life of seeking Him via prayer, brokenness, obedience, and humility.

Leonard Ravenhill rightly noted that the Cinderella of the church of today is the prayer meeting. The prayer meeting, if she exists at all, is relegated to a dark corner somewhere in the church on an off night, so there is little expectation that anyone will pay her any attention. She goes about unnoticed, unloved, and uncelebrated, yet she is the one who keeps the house clean. It’s time for Cinderella to go to the ball — to get dressed for our King and celebrate what He has done. While we cannot meet in person with our local churches due to the mandatory quarantine, God has gifted us with powerful technology for this purpose: conference calls, video conferencing, and even text messaging can be ways of staying in touch and praying together.

5. Bring in the heavy artillery. In Matthew 17:21, Jesus said that a certain evil spirit does not go out of a person except by prayer and fasting. Some manuscripts disagree on whether this verse should be included or not, but the principle is found throughout Scripture: Fasting applies pressure to the spiritual realm. Arthur Wallis notes, “Often, pressure has to be maintained before there is a breakthrough in heavenly warfare.” It appears that some demonic activity is not overcome until pressure is applied through prayer and fasting. 

The weapons we use to fight Satan are not physical but spiritual. The weapons should match the warfare! Satan cannot be eliminated with an AR-15, but we can fast and pray. Those two high-caliber spiritual bullets do substantial damage. Open the Word, pray, meditate, and worship for the fatal blow: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6). 

Two wills — our self-will and God’s will — cannot successfully live in the same body. We know that gluttony and indulging the flesh never lead to spiritual victory, or any victory, for that matter. We must “resist the devil,” and he will eventually flee (James 4:7). Fasting disciplines the body, prayer and worship bind the enemy, and the Word provides wisdom. 

Don’t give up, look up. Here are two sermons designed to motivate prayer in your life. Be sure to listen when time allows. The first is here and the second is here.

Shane Idleman is the founder and lead pastor of Westside Christian Fellowship in Lancaster, California, just North of Los Angeles. Shane's sermons, articles, books, and radio program can all be found at shaneidleman.com or wcfav.org. Follow him on Facebook at: facebook.com/confusedchurch.

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