I’m convinced we’re prone to make entirely too much of the most public gifts and entirely too little of the most private. We laud those who stand at the event podiums to preach the Word. We celebrate those who sit on the conference panels to answer our questions. We honor those who pen the few bestselling books. When given the opportunity, we surge forward to shake their hands, to snap a selfie, to share encouraging words.
None of these actions is wrong, of course. But in all our excitement and affirmation, is it possible we tacitly communicate that some gifts are better than others, that some are more desirable than others, that some are more essential than others? Is it possible we suggest that the greatest Christians are those with the most visible gifts?
I often think about one of the first major Christian conferences I ever went to. There were several thousand people in attendance, cramming a great auditorium, singing every song with great passion, listening to every message with rapt attention. But nearby, in a much smaller room, was a second group of people. They sang none of the songs and listened to none of the messages, for they were there to pray. They had with them a long list that included the name of every speaker, every singer, every attendee. For every hour the big group worshipped, this small group interceded. For every one sermon that was heard in the big room one hundred prayers were offered in the small room. Their gift was prayer, their calling was prayer, their task was prayer. And so they prayed, hour after hour and day after day.
The Lord did exciting and memorable things at that event. I’m sure those who came to faith there, those who were convicted of spiritual malaise there, those who were encouraged and refreshed there, can trace it all to one of the songs, or one of the panels, or one of the sermons. But who’s to say that there would have been any true worship in the songs, any real wisdom in the panels, any great power in the sermons had it not been for the unseen commitment, the earnest labor, of those who prayed? Who’s to say any of it would have reached the heart of the listeners if those prayers hadn’t first reached the ear of God?
The captain of a great steamship may have called for “full speed ahead,” but he himself was powerless to actually make it happen. It was the men belowdecks, the men in the engine room, who had to shovel the coal into the boilers and provoke the ship to greater and greater speeds. The captain may have been given a posh cabin and may have worn a handsome uniform and may have been treated with great pomp, but it was those went unseen who propelled the ship forward, who gave it its power. His success was inseparable from their labor.
And in much the same way, might it not be that the effectiveness of sermons depends as much upon the prayers of the unseen saints as the preparation and delivery of even the greatest preachers? Might it not be that true power comes not from the one standing on the stage but the one kneeling behind it? Might it not be that the most essential role on any Sunday morning is that undertaken by the bedridden saint who cannot attend but who commits herself to simple, humble, heartfelt intercession? Wouldn’t this be consistent with the way God has ordered his kingdom in which the greatest are so often those who are accounted least? For in God’s economy earnestness counts for more than eloquence, obedience for more than acclaim, submission for more than any measure of visible success. If God chooses the weak to shame the strong, perhaps he also chooses the least visible to humble the most prominent.