There are times in prayer when the need doesn’t let up, when the burden will simply not let go.
My wife, Karen, woke up Christmas Eve 2003 with a fever that kept rising throughout the day—as did our concern. She was four months pregnant with our third child. Shuttling back from services at the church to discover another spike in her fever, I called staff to cover for me, then contacted friends to watch our toddler boys at home. And we found ourselves in a very quiet hospital, everyone possible having been discharged for the holiday. That year Christmas Eve became for a bedside vigil, a silent night of prayer over a burden that would not let me go.
Life eventually takes most all of us into places of prayer that cause us to ignore the clock. After he heard of Jerusalem’s destruction, Nehemiah fasted for days, heart churning, that the God of heaven would “be attentive…to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night.” (Nehemiah 1:6) The temple had been built for this kind of unceasing petition (1 Kings 8:59-60), so that centuries later, as the infant Jesus was brought there for circumcision, the prophet Anna was waiting, who “never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying” (Luke 2:37). Praying at all hours had been Jesus’ pattern well before Gethsemane (Matthew 14:23 / Lk 6:12) where he called on friends to keep watch with Him through the night (Mark 14:38). Early Christians continued “night and day to pray and to ask God for help” (1 Timothy 1:5) following Paul’s example, “as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers” (2 Timothy 1:3).
Early into the Second Great Awakening, Charles Finney observed the number of people growing for whom their desire in prayer exceeded what one block of time or one person could express. He came across a woman in “such a state of mind that she could not live without prayer. She could not rest day or night, unless there was somebody praying.” To make such strenuous petition sustainable, prayer took on almost a tag-team or communal quality in the awakenings, one petitioner relieved by the next as a relay partner, collaborating to ensure that the “fire must be kept burning on the altar continuously; it must not go out” (Leviticus 6:13). Nonstop prayer like this at the core of Christian community must have been a part of what John Wesley found so appealing during his visit to Herrnhut (“the Lord’s watch”) three months after his own new birth. He excerpted into his journal from their Constitution that:
…in the year 1727 four-and-twenty men, and as many women, agreed that each of them would spend an hour in every day in praying to God for his blessing on his people… [They] pour out their souls before God, not only for their own brethren, but also for other churches and persons that have desired to be mentioned in their prayers. And this perpetual intercession has never ceased day or night since its first beginning.
What continued for over a century among the Moravians on Zinzendorf’s estate found new expression in recent decades on the prayer mountains of great Korean churches. Daniel Lim, Chief Executive Officer at the International House of Prayer in Kansas City has shared with New Room how, twenty years ago, they knew of maybe twenty-five night-and-day prayer meetings in America. Today there are more than 10,000, filled up primarily with emerging leaders.
When the need doesn’t let up, when the burden simply will not let go, prayer gives voice to the kind of extravagant devotion and faith-filled weakness that has little choice but to lean into God with others. That’s what this 24//7 prayer opportunity between now and Pentecost is for us: new rooms every half-hour for gathering and connecting around our earnest hope in Jesus. We’re not trying to impress God with blanket coverage like some sort of mobile service, our version of the round-the-clock economy we had become accustomed to before COVID-19. That would be to mold prayer into merely another form of activism, just more human effort rather than the declaration of dependence on God our moment is beckoning from us. Instead, 24/7 prayer is an invitation to grow, perhaps to experiment in joining a shift of holy love and longing with new friends. Some of us may want to try out prayer in the “watches of the night” (Psalm 63:6), piercing the darkness with the Light of the World. But regardless whether it is at daybreak, nightfall, or sometime in between, “praying continually” (2 Thess 5:17) for awakening these coming six weeks will unite us to create a symbol conveying to God that we know how much we need Him. And that together, we will not let go of Him.