In 2012, Korean born Southern Baptist missionary Kenneth Bae was arrested by North Korea for attempting to overthrow the government, and sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor. Bae’s “crime” was that he prayed and taught North Koreans to pray. He worked ten hours a day, six days a week in the labor camp, doing farm labor, carrying rock and shoveling coal. After a time, Bae’s health began to fail. He was finally pardoned by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after more than two years in prison.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Bae’s case is that he recalled in an interview, “They said, ‘You attempted to overthrow the government through prayer and worship’ and they really took prayer as a weapon against them.” They thought he had come to pray for the demise of North Korea, “so that we come crumbling down.” After a year in prison, Bae began talking to his captors about life in America. In turn, they began coming to him with marriage and parenting problems. He said, “I was just there to love the people, let people know that God cares about
The North Korean government is right about one thing: Prayer is powerful. Paul told the Ephesians to “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.” (6:18a NRSV). That passage is the conclusion of Paul’s description of “the whole armor of God” (vs. 11-17). In it, he says “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (vs. 12 NRSV). We aren’t fighting a physical battle and we can’t use physical weapons.
When Paul and Silas were in jail in Philippi, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.” (Acts 16:25 NRSV). Their prayers and their response to their circumstances—being in jail on trumped up charges—made an impression on the other prisoners. And on their jailer (vs. 29-34).
James wrote that “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (Jas. 5:16b NRSV). He went on to tell the story of Elijah: “Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.” (Jas. 5:17-18 NRSV). You can find Elijah’s story in 1 Kings 17-18. But prayer isn’t just for prophets, it’s for all believers. The late Corrie ten Boom wrote, “A man is powerful on his knees.”
Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “pray without ceasing,” (1 Thes. 5:17 NRSV). We’re to pray in the same way that we breathe—constantly. Life for Christians should be a constant attitude of prayer. It opens doors (Matt. 7:7), moves mountains (Matt. 17:20), drives out evil (Mark 9:29), raises the dead (Acts 9:40), cures illness (Jas. 5:15-16), and more. Paul also wrote to the Christians in Corinth, “we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds.” (2 Cor. 10:3b-4a NRSV). Throughout the centuries, men and women of faith have accomplished great things through the power of prayer. We stand at the end of a long line of spiritual warriors. Our prayers can accomplish great things—“destroy strongholds”—perhaps even defeat countries and regimes.
If we use the weapon of prayer instead of harsh words, we can make a positive impression on those around us. Solomon wrote, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Prov. 15:1 NRSV). A soft answer—or a soft prayer—can have more power than any other response we might be tempted to make.
“Now I know that the Lord will help his anointed; he will answer him from his holy heaven with mighty victories by his right hand.
Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.
They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright.
Give victory to the king, O Lord; answer us when we call.” (Psa. 20:6-9 NRSV.)