The battle recorded in 2 Chronicles 20 gets a lot of attention in songs and sermons, and rightly so. Assured of God’s presence with him, King Jehoshaphat of Judah sends out singers to lead the army and as they begin to praise, the enemy soldiers turn on one another. By the time Jehoshaphat’s army arrives, their enemies have been defeated without Judah’s army having to strike a single blow. The battle underlines the need for prophetic direction and the power of praise in the face of the enemy. It is inspiring and instructive. It is also the exception. There are many more battles where, still with God’s presence and support, God’s people have to physically fight their way through to victory.
In the New Testament also, we are told to fight the good fight, to put on the amour of God and take up the sword of the spirit. This need to fight through to victory is not an alternative to trusting God, but the evidence of it. We can embrace the battle knowing that God is with us. Using a different metaphor, Paul talks about his life as a race he has run. Although commissioned and called through a miraculous encounter with Jesus, he still had to endure shipwrecks, beatings and imprisonment in order to complete his God ordained work. Paul’s life was a testing marathon, not a brief sprint.
“This need to fight through to victory is not an alternative to trusting God, but the evidence of it.”
The first to hear John’s words in the book of Revelation were churches enduring trials and even persecution. They needed to be reminded that while the final outcome was assured, they had to stand firm and hold on to what was true. I’ve heard it preached that Jesus’ victory was really won on the night before his death as he struggled with his destiny in an intense and exhausting prayer encounter with his Father, finally accepting the path of winning our salvation through suffering love. I understand the point being made, but without his sacrificial obedience the next day it would have meant nothing.
Many times, God hears our cry for help and answers immediately. The gospels and the pages of church history bear witness to this. Instant healings, enemies defeated by the angel of the Lord or hostile border guards who inexplicably wave through people they would normally stop and arrest. Like the battle in 2 Chronicles 20, we love these stories. They remind us that God listens, cares and acts and they lift our expectations and hope.
Alongside these instant answers though, there is Lazarus who sickened and died, even though Jesus knew he was unwell, before he was miraculously raised to life, and there is Abraham who kept his hope of a son alive even while recognizing that it was impossible without supernatural intervention. There is Simeon who faithfully waited for the coming of Messiah, and there are the many accounts of sustained prayer that precede outbreaks of revival. There are the disciples who prayed and waited in the upper room before the Spirit came at Pentecost, and there are the numerous stories of parents who prayed for many years before their children turned to God.
Jesus told the parable of the widow who would not stop pestering the judge until she got justice and the parable of the man who woke his neighbour to get bread to feed unexpected guests. He told us these stories to encourage us to pray and not give up. In the model for prayer that he taught his disciples, the very first request is for the Kingdom of God to come, something that in its fullest sense we have yet to see. Nevertheless, in the middle of a broken world, Jesus wants us to keep praying and keep expecting to see God’s will done on earth exactly as it is done in heaven where sickness, suffering and sadness are unknown. Like Paul’s life, such prayer is a marathon not a sprint. And like a long distance race it requires us to keep choosing to carry on through tiredness, pain and discouragement. Such prayer changes and refines us, gradually moving our focus from the seen to the unseen.
As a schoolboy cross-country runner, I found the start and finish of races fairly easy. Spectators cheered and coaches shouted encouragement. It was the miles that separated them that were hard. The field thinned out and there were no parents or friends to spur me on. There was just distance, hills and, often, rain and mud. I knew the finish line was somewhere ahead but I couldn’t see it, so it was just one foot in front of the other again and again. Fighting through to victory can be like this. The initial vision comes with excitement and anticipation, and people around us are inspired and supportive. But several months or even years down the road, having faced setbacks and the opposition of the enemy, our perseverance is tested. Regardless of how we feel we have to carry on hoping, working and praying. In these times, people who are with us for the long haul become more precious than gold. People who are committed to praying with us and working with us for as long as it takes.
“Regardless of how we feel we have to carry on hoping, working and praying”
Daniel had to wait and fast three weeks for the interpretation of a vision he had received, not because of any lack of faith but because spiritual powers opposed and delayed the angelic messenger appointed to visit him. Joshua and Caleb had to wait 40 years for their inheritance because of the unbelief of the rest of their generation, but they kept their hope alive and stayed strong.
Let’s praise God for quick answers and battles we don’t have to fight. God knows when we need them. But let’s also be ready to fight and keep fighting for the things God has promised. It doesn’t mean God is no longer interested or that we got it wrong. It means God is strengthening us, developing our faith, honing our vision. The answer will come.