How Many Praying Saints Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb?

by Michael Fischer

James 5:16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. 18 Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.


I wrote this message for our tenth men's prayer advance, so I thought I'd do something unprecedented, and talk about... prayer.

Prayer is just about the most important thing a Christian can do. You can read the Bible for hours, but if you don't ask for the Holy Spirit to enlighten you, you're just filling your head with words that won't change you. You can be the most zealous soul winner in the state, but if you don't pray first, you can't expect much in the way of fruit. The reason we have an annual men's prayer advance is prayer. And so I'd like to address an important aspect of prayer that doesn't get a lot of coverage, because most of us think we already know the answer.

The title of this message sounds like a joke. How many praying saints does it take to change a light bulb? From me, you might expect an answer like, "Two, if one of them lifts the other one up... in prayer." But it's no laughing matter. The real question is, "How many people should pray for something? One, two, or many?"

Well we all know that, the more people who are praying for something, the better it is. Right? I mean, that's one of the "givens" of the Christian faith. If you've got a need, you get your Christian friends and ask them to pray for you.

Of course, there are plenty of Bible verses to support this. Two of the best known are:

Matt 18:19 "Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst."

James 5:16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed.

From verses like these, we could get the idea that, if you don't get others praying for you, you're off the track; you're in error; maybe your prayer won't get answered. Is a prayer that gets prayed alone a second-class prayer? I'm not going to try and defend people who choose to stay off by themselves, living like Lone Ranger Christians, disobeying the commands in Scripture that I just read.

But there are times when you can't get others to pray. Maybe there isn't time; maybe there's no one else around; maybe it's a request that you need to keep between yourself and God for a season. Can you expect God to give you the same grace in answered prayer that He'd give you if more than one person was praying? Let's go back to James 5:16 —

James 5:16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months.

Notice that it says, "A righteous man." Singular. You may recall that Elijah thought he was the last Godly man on the planet. 1Kings 19:10 "The sons of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away." Elijah didn't have any prayer partners, he wasn't part of a prayer cell, he didn't have a prayer chain to rely on. He prayed, all by himself, and God answered.

We also know, from a thousand and one southern-Gospel songs, how important it is for your mother to pray for you. I guess your daddy and the rest of your family can rot — as long as your mother is praying for you, you'll turn out okay. The Catholics have taken this to its logical extreme; they ask Jesus' mother to pray for them. Sarcasm aside, most of us know someone who was saved, or delivered from a trial, because one faithful saint was praying for them, and that one faithful saint was usually a family member.

And we also have the example of Jesus, who is a pretty good example to follow in most cases. He spent many nights alone in prayer, while the rest of the world slept. In the Garden of Gethsemane, in one of the darkest hours of His eternal existence, He actually asked his three closest friends on Earth to pray with Him in a prayer group, but they fell asleep on Him. So He prayed alone. And His prayer was answered — God's will was done, in spite of the cost.

So, to the question, "How many praying saints does it take to change a light bulb?" the answer is, "As many as are willing to pray." If that's just one, no problem. If that's two or three, great. If that's dozens or hundreds, that's fine, too. You don't need to worry about your prayer going unanswered just because you can't round up an army of prayer warriors to pray about it.

But — and here's the meat of this message — the desire to have more than one person praying for you can lead to trouble if it's not done right. Yes, you heard me. Getting others to pray for you can lead to problems. Here again, it's not about numbers, but about your attitude. We find the best example of this in Acts chapter 8:

Acts 8:18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, "Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." 20 But Peter said to him, "May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21 You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity." 24 But Simon answered and said, "Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me."

I know that some people question whether Simon was really saved or not. I'm going to take verse 13 literally ("Simon himself believed") and assume that he was saved. Even if he wasn't, he still illustrates my points without any compromise. If anyone wants to contend over this, that's another message.

Simon was clearly guilty of a sin, and he needed to repent. When Peter confronted him, Simon did not respond, as King David did, "I have sinned against the Lord." He didn't say, as Job,did, "I'm wrong, and I repent." He said, "You pray for me, Peter." That was not the right answer. There are three traps we can fall into in this issue of praying for others, and Simon fell smack into every one of them. Let's look at them. Each one of them starts with the words, "You pray for me because...".

We all know Christians who seem to get more results when they pray than others do. We call them the prayer warriors, and they're much in demand at prayer meetings. Why do they get better results than others? Maybe because they pray more, or because they pray more fervently, or because they pray like they should and the rest of us don't; there could be any number of good reasons. The problem comes when we start holding these prayer warriors up as some kind of special Christians, and think that they have some kind of hot line to the throne of grace.

Can anyone show me one Bible verse that says that some saints have better access to God than others? James 5:16-17 tells us that we can all pray like Elijah, if we'd just do it. There is no special class of Christians with improved prayer privileges. The Roman Catholic Church makes this mistake — they have the clergy and they have the laity, and the clergy are special. In the Catholic church, you don't confess your sins to one another, like it says in James 5:16; you confess them to the clergy. You don't pray for one another, like it says in James 5:16; the clergy prays for you. They have set the clergy apart as a special breed with express-lane access to God. But even if they were saved and God could hear their prayers, it wouldn't be true that they were special in any way.

You get this sometimes in our churches as well. "If you pray for me, that's good, but I really want the pastor to pray for me." I think you get this mostly from new believers and from senior saints who haven't fully cast off the religious debris from their past. But it's a mistake anyone can make. I love Pastor Dave, I love praying with him. But his access to God is no more direct than mine; God doesn't inherently listen to his prayers any more than He does to mine. How do I know that's true, aside from Scripture? He's asked me to pray for him several times. If he was closer to God than me, then all he had to do was pray for himself — my prayers wouldn't be necessary. How could my economy-class prayer add anything to his first-class prayer, if that's the way it worked? Fortunately, it doesn't work that way.

Simon the sorceror fell into this. Peter was an apostle, so Peter's prayer must be better, right? The Holy Spirit was bestowed at the laying on of Peter's hands, so Peter must have a special priority access to the Father, right? Wrong. Peter was just a man, like Simon, like you and me. His access to God was no better than Simon's. Simon gained nothing by asking Peter to pray for him, and as we'll see, he actually wound up worse off.

Just so you know, this is a lie of the devil. If you are Biblically saved, and if you aren't actively harboring sin in your heart, then God can hear your prayers. But some young Christians, and some hurting Christians, are so hung up on their own sinfulness that they convince themselves that there's a wall between them and God. So, naturally, they look to other Christians to do the interceding for them. Especially those Christians who seem to have it all together.

Has anyone ever mistaken you for a Christian who has it all together? It's kind of embarrassing. Those of us who are honest with ourselves know that there are no Christians who have it all together. The more mature we grow in the Lord, the more we see how immature we really are, compared to where we ought to be in Christ. The better we know God, the better we see our own sinfulness, and all the sins we've overcome in the past don't change that. Any Christian who thinks he's got it all together is fooling himself, and I can just about guarantee that God is preparing a test for that person, a test that is meant to wipe away that self-confidence and replace it with confidence in God alone.

But young Christians haven't learned that lesson yet. They know it's true of themselves; they see their own sins, loud and clear. But they don't realize that we all go through the same struggles.

1Cor 10:13 No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man.

So they see themselves, struggling and fighting temptation at every turn, and they see us so-called "mature" believers, praying and getting answers, and they conclude that there's something wrong with them. They don't see our struggles and our temptations. It's a kind of humility gone wrong.

And it's also a kind of unbelief. God has given us promises in the Bible about prayer. Those promises are for all believers, not just the ones who look like they've got it all together. If you think other people's prayers are more effective than yours because you're such a mess, then let me reassure you: we're all a mess. You're right if you think you're unworthy. You're wrong if you think anybody else is more worthy. Christ alone is worthy (Rev 5:12), and He's the one whose blood covers all our sins so God can hear our prayers.

Jesus died for you. He knew what you were like when He died for you. He wants to hear from you, today, now, just as you are. If the really "together" Christians were the only ones who prayed, then nobody would pray.

Simon knew he had sin issues. Peter hit the nail on the head when he said that Simon was still in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity. And Peter was doing amazing things for God that Simon couldn't even understand. So it only made sense for Simon to think that his own access to God had problems. But he didn't hear the rest of what Peter said. Peter told him to pray. Peter thought God would hear Simon's prayer, or he wouldn't have told him to pray, would he? But Simon couldn't get past his own failure. That's a prayer-killer, and a faith-killer as well.

I hate this one. I really do. Pastor Dave has asked me to stay away from pet-peeve sermons, but I gotta be me.

There used to be a man in our church, I won't name his name, who came to Wednesday-night prayer meeting every week, without fail, for years. He had a short list of people he wanted us to pray for — friends and family members who were sick, or who needed jobs, or whose marriages were in trouble. And as soon as we got ready to pray, he was out the door. He never stayed to pray with us, not once. Someone invited him to the prayer advance, and his answer was, "That's not my thing."

There's a word for someone like that. Actually, there are several words, but the one I'm thinking of is "selfish." Totally selfish. He wanted prayer for his needs, but he wouldn't pray for the needs of others. Most people aren't as up-front with their errors as he was. But we all know people who say, "Please pray for me," or, "Please pray for this situation," but when it's time to pray for other people's needs and situations, they are nowhere to be seen. That's just wrong.

Prayer is not an option. We are repeatedly commanded to pray; it's not a suggestion, it's not a choice we can make. If you're a Christian, then praying is "your thing." And if it isn't, you better not take one more step until you've found out why, and fixed the problem. I hope this doesn't apply to anyone here. But even if it doesn't, you can take this message home with you, because you probably know someone who needs to hear it.

And when it comes to prayers for repentance, there is no one who can do that for you. Other people praying for you is not a substitute for your own prayer life. Other people can't get saved for you, other people can't grow spiritually for you, and other people can't do your repenting for you.

Let me illustrate this with an example from marriage. You husbands, let's say your marriage is having a little strife, and it's because you haven't treated your wife right. You've said something wrong, or you've done something wrong, and you know it's your fault.

What's the right way to handle this situation? Go to your wife, admit your wrongdoing, tell her you're sorry and you've repented, prove it by your actions if it's appropriate, make restitution if that's appropriate, and ask her to forgive you.

What's the wrong way to handle this situation? Send your best friend to talk to your wife, and have him tell her you really want to make things right, but you're not ready yet, and could she do something to make it easier for you? Is that not the most ridiculous thing you've ever heard of? But that's exactly what Simon tried to do.

Repentance is a gift from God (Acts 11:18), freely available to all Christians at all times. If a believer needs repentance and doesn't take it, the only reason is that he doesn't really want it. He still loves his sin more than he loves the Lord. So if you don't really want to repent, don't ask for prayer about it — that's being a total hypocrite. And if you do really want to repent, then repent! Just do it! Don't ask for prayer about it — that's a cop-out! You're stalling!

There's also the issue of fairness here. If you're going to pray for people, you're going to have to get involved in their pain and their hurting. I can still remember the first time I came to Plainville Baptist's prayer meeting and saw their prayer list. I didn't come back for weeks, because I was so overwhelmed with all the desperate needs and all the hurting people. It can be a burden, even to an apostle; Paul described it in 2Cor 11:28 — Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? And we are commanded to bear one another's burdens (Galatians 6:2); that includes prayer. Paul also said, in 2 Corinthians 8:13,

For this is not for the ease of others and for your affliction, but by way of equality — 14 at this present time your abundance being a supply for their need, so that their abundance also may become a supply for your need, that there may be equality; 15 as it is written, "HE WHO gathered MUCH DID NOT HAVE TOO MUCH, AND HE WHO gathered LITTLE HAD NO LACK."

It's not right for one person to be heavily burdened while another gets off lightly, and this is both an Old-Testament principle and a New-Testament principle. It's not right for one Christian to dump his prayer requests on others, but not join in prayer for their needs. That's like being a benign tumor in the Body of Christ — it takes up space inside the body, it uses up resources, and it contributes nothing. That's like the Jewish legal experts Jesus rebuked in Luke 11:46 — "you weigh men down with burdens hard to bear, while you yourselves will not even touch the burdens with one of your fingers."

Having said all that, I also have to say this. There are times in the life of every believer when calamity strikes, and your life has been snatched out from you, when the only prayer you can manage is, "God, why?" and you just don't have it in you to pray for others. At those times, it's good and right for your brothers to bear you up in prayer for a season, as Aaron and Hur supported Moses when his arms got tired at the first battle against the Amalekites. Those are times when no one expects you to carry your full share of the load.

But those times are the exception, not the rule, and they aren't supposed to last. What they are supposed to do is teach us, so we can hold up a hurting brother when it's their turn to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. As it says in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God."

If Simon the sorceror truly believed, then forgiveness for his sin was just a prayer away. But, as far as we know, he never prayed that prayer. He didn't seek forgiveness, he didn't receive the gift of repentance, because he wanted Peter to take care of it. He tried to dump his spiritual problems in Peter's lap, instead of dealing with them himself, like he should have. Peter said, "Repent and pray to the Lord, Simon," and Simon said, "No, you pray." And we never hear of Simon again.

So, if you have one of these issues, is it better for you to pray alone? No, it's better for you to get it right with God, so you can pray alone, or in a group,or wherever, whenever, with whomever.

In conclusion: is it better to pray as one person, or as part of a group? The Biblical answer to that question is, "Yes!" Pray alone! Pray in pairs! Pray in groups! Pray in a stadium full of Christians if you can arrange it. But the number involved isn't the real issue. Just pray!

On Wednesday nights, we often break up into prayer cells of three to five people. This is a good thing; I hope I haven't confused anyone on this issue. But the next time you get down to serious prayer, check your hearts and your motives. Make sure you aren't falling into one of the traps we've spoken of. Do you think some Christians have better access to God than others do? Do you think God can't hear the prayers of someone like you? Do you think other people's prayer can be a substitute for yours? If you do, then that's a good thing to start praying about. Yes, you can ask your friends for prayer about it. Just keep in mind that, when all the external stuff is boiled away, prayer is about you and God. No one else's prayers can take the place of that intimate communication between yourself and the Almighty.

God is waiting. Let's go talk to him. Let's all go talk to Him.

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