Praying for ‘revival’ might not be the right thing to do

  • Question 185, from Matt

    I was at a prayer meeting where people were praying for revival and I felt uneasy about their prayers. Should we pray for revival? I keep thinking of the Bible verse ‘If my people, who are called by name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face, I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.’ So, surely we should seek God and revival is a ‘by-product’?

    This is a good question because it impacts on a number of theological doctrines, for example, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (sometimes called pneumatology), the theology of mission, and also the application of the Bible.

    Starting with that last point, the verse mentioned in the question is in the account of Solomon dedicating the Temple and receiving a vision of God in 2 Chronicles chapter 7 (the actual quote is from verse 14). Given the specific context it is perhaps right to be wary of applying it as a universal rule, but it is in keeping with other parts of the Bible that purport to be God’s self-revelation to his people.

    However, ‘revival’ as a term in the Bible is fairly limited. The Hebrew word ‘chayah’ means to restore or revive and appears in a few Old Testament contexts in terms of restoring the fortunes of God’s people (for example, Hosea chapter 6, verse 2). In the Psalms the phrase ‘revive us’ or ‘restore us’ is used, so this could be an example of a ‘prayer’ for revival (see Psalm 80, particularly verse 18, and Psalm 85, verse 6).

    The New Testament does not really use the term at all. This could be because of the New Testament understanding of God’s Holy Spirit being present and active to a greater or lesser extent. There are several instructions to be ‘in step with’ the Holy Spirit (Galatians chapter 5, verse 25) or to be ‘filled with’ the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5, verse 18), but this is usually in a church context among those who are already believers.

    ‘Revival’ as it is generally understood among evangelical Christians today is very different – it is usually seen as the Holy Spirit directly affecting those outside the church. The story of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2 certainly seems to add weight to the idea of divine intervention leading to conversion. However, it is only after Peter tells the crowd about Jesus that people convert and there is no indication that any of the new converts had ‘revival’ experiences.

    As a concept, praying for revival could impact on missiology. If the prayer is for God to act supernaturally and convert people, than that is clearly not in line with the New Testament principles. God’s message is spread by people; while the Holy Spirit is often active in guiding and facilitating mission, the New Testament model seems to be for people to go and spread the good news. This could be obscured by an emphasis on praying for revival.

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