There are barriers between us and others—socially, economically, and of power. Prayer can radically change that. There are few stories that more wonderfully show this than the earthquake caused by prayer in Acts 16:25–40. And God still works just as miraculously today—I know from first hand experience.
In Philippi, a Roman colony, Paul and Silas were falsely accused of advocating for customs that were unlawful for Roman citizens (Acts 16:21). They were then beaten and thrown in prison (Acts 16:22–24). In prison around midnight, Paul and Silas start praying and singing hymns to God. Suddenly, an earthquake happens—shaking the prison, loosening the bonds of the prisoners, and opening the doors (Acts 16:25–26).
Then things get a little Graeco-Roman crazy before getting even better. The Philippian jailer ashamed of what has occurred draws his sword to kill himself—the honor and shame culture of the Roman Empire essentially demanded such an action (Acts 16:27). Because it’s dark, he doesn’t realize that all the prisoners are still present, so he hasn’t lost his honor yet. The jailer, so shocked, directly asks Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30 ESV). To which, they answer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31 ESV). The jailer tends to the wounds of Paul and Silas, his household hears the gospel, and his whole household is baptized (Acts 16:32–33).
There is a barrier of power between Paul and the Roman guard, yet prayer overcomes it. The headline of the day, “Inmate Converts Jailer to Crazy Christianity.”
The police come the next day, proclaiming for some unexpected reason that Paul and Silas are to be set free—according to the local officials. Now this is where a normal person would just skip town. But Paul, perpetually bold and insistent upon justice, demands that the local officials come and apologize to him and Silas. He cites his Roman citizenship for the reason, which instills fear in the officials since their citizenship would have guaranteed Paul and Silas a fair trial. And due process was lacking. The local cronies apologize. Paul then hangs around for awhile, encouraging local Christians before departing (Acts 16:35–40).
Now we all know of the sad and painful earthquakes that cause so much pain in our world—but here we see an example of God causing and using an earthquake for good. God shakes the earth for good, in this instance in Acts.
Prayer’s power is not limited to first-century jail cells. At my local rescue mission I have seen prayer overcome the language barrier. I remember an English-speaking man miraculously praying for a Spanish-speaking man in Spanish. Others then told the English-speaking man that they were shocked that he spoke Spanish; just for him to answer, “I don’t.” He didn’t even know he had been speaking Spanish.
In northeast India, I saw prayer turn a distraught and angry young man into a person full of joy, as his kidney failure was miraculously healed. Also in India, I saw a woman who had been paralyzed for quite some time miraculously walk again. Did the earth shake that day too? In the power of the Holy Spirit, it sure seemed so.
In Colorado, I saw prayer stir a man to seek God’s calling on his life—all the fear and trepidation that had been holding him back suddenly disappeared. And the earth sure seemed to shake that day.
Prayer works—and it works everywhere. May the earth shake everywhere! May the world hear the gospel yelling, crying—speaking truth! May the Holy Spirit reshape our world. May it loose the prisoners! May it set the captives free! May it bring the man in power and the man on the underside of that power together!
Yet, when I look at my own life, I realize that experiencing prayer is not a magic cure. A life of prayer requires discipline. Despite all the times I have experienced God’s incredible work through prayer, I realize that my prayer life is often more like a desperate request for water when I am thirsty than a desire to backpack with the right amount of water.
We’ve all felt dehydration before. I experienced it in the deeps of Bryce Canyon and on Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park (that was twice in one trip, what was thinking?). But the most drastic moment was in Bihar, India. We had been in a remote village all day and the people from the village were so excited to see us that it was like that scene one of the Gospels describes, where the people were crushing in upon the house to see Jesus. The simple reason was that we had brought the gospel to town.
But the madness of the moment meant that I was stuck in the back of a building all day, with only one bottle of water. It was hot and humid. And I was far from acclimatized. I later experienced such severe dehydration that when I attempted to drink water I would vomit.
This is what prayer life is like for many of us. We have these moments of incredible spiritual experiences—when the whole village comes out. But we neglect to prepare for the moment or the aftermath. And then when the high of the moment drops—after we were so surprised to see God show up—we find that we’re empty. We then look to prayer again, but instead of prayer making us feel well, we feel like we’re going to vomit. The reason: A massive intake of God all at once means a rapid and radical change in our lives. It means our depleted cells waking up at shocking speed.
The demand for change is too much for many of us, so we slowly find ourselves in our mistakes again. And then we drift farther from the God we love. We fail to pack the water in once more. We fail to sick with Jesus. But somehow, God still shows up—we make it out. Deep down, though, we know that God is showing up because He is that good. It’s not because we were prepared. We have continued to neglect our relationship with our Maker. We are still thirsty; we are once again dehydrated. We know what to do, but we fail to do it.
The answer to this dilemma is rather simple: pack water with you. Pray in everything. Realize that prayer is not like a constant high. Just like any relationship, a lot of it is about just going through life with someone. And God wants to go through life with you.
Paul says in his letter to the Philippians—the same community where he was jailed—“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanking let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).
Let your requests be known friends. The earth needs to shake.