Article by John Piper
Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org
God can do more in five seconds than we can do in five hours or months or years. This is one reason the habit of prayer is wise. Sometimes we do not get the five-second breakthrough because we do not ask.
To be sure, God ordains to do many good things through hours or months or years of labor. Prayer is not meant to replace toil. For example, God wills that a chapter be read, or a meal prepared, or a friend visited in the space of hours not seconds. He wills that a house be built in months not hours. He wills that a child be reared in years not months.
But there are breakthroughs which could come in seconds. They often take us hours or days or months — if they come at all. I have in mind especially the breakthroughs of insight that open a world of life-changing truth and practical wisdom.
Many obstacles to joy and fruitfulness are owing to the fact that we cannot see reality the way it is. We cannot see the meaning of a biblical teaching. Or the meaning of a tragic event. Or the meaning of a friend’s rebuke. We are blind to it. The breakthrough doesn’t come. We may study and think for days or weeks or months, and not see reality any differently than when we started.
I have tasted this frustration dozens of times in trying to understand the Scriptures. I may be preparing a sermon, or pondering a devotional text in relation to some besetting sin, or thinking about a promise of God in connection with a lingering disappointment. I look and look and study and think. And I don’t see it. The breakthrough doesn’t come. Or it may come after days or weeks of seeking. Or not.
But other times — many times — in my desperation I have gone to my knees and called out for insight. I have pleaded, Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things in your word (Psalms 119:18). Touch me with your salve that I may see (Revelation 3:18). Enlighten the eyes of my heart (Ephesians 1:18). And in the twinkling of an eye, the veil has been lifted. I see something that I had never seen before, though it lay right before me. The pieces come together.
Consider two analogies that shed light on what is happening here.
The first is optical illusions. Look at this one.
Perhaps, you are looking at a picture of a young woman facing away from you. You may look for hours and not see that her jaw is the nose of an old woman, and her ear is the old woman’s eye, and her neck-band is the old woman’s mouth. Then, in the twinkling of an eye you see the old woman.
That’s an analogy of many issues in life and many perplexities in the Bible. We look and we look. We think. We study. We may even discuss and debate. And all we see is a young woman looking away from us.
Then, one day, we realize we have not intentionally stopped, admitted our blindness, and called on God for the gift of sight. So we stop and get down on our knees — to say with our body how weak and helpless we are — and ask him for a breakthrough.
Sometimes it comes while praying. Sometimes a hour later, as we work on. Sometimes he says, Not now, and gives us peace to live in our limits. “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Or consider the story of being trapped in a dungeon cell. You have heard there is a tunnel to freedom on the other side of the wall. But the wall is stone, and you have no tools. For months you use fragments of stone to chip away at the wall, and you work and work to gain your freedom.
Then one night, when your hope is almost gone, you collapse in weariness against the wall, and your elbow hits a slight protrusion. Before your eyes the stones move and a small door opens by itself. You are free.
Life has many dungeon cells, and stone walls, to hinder our joy and fruitfulness. Some of them are meant to fall down in five years. Others in five seconds. Whether it is the patient endurance to press on with joy, or the breakthrough in the twinkling of an eye, God has appointed prayer as the key.
If the wall is meant to give way in five years, prayer is the key: “May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11).
If the wall is meant to open by the press of unknown button, prayer is the key: “Knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).
So let it not be said of us: “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). Persevering work in the cause of truth and righteousness is a beautiful thing. God gives it. And God approves it. Never stop. But know this. God also loves to give breakthroughs in the twinkling of an eye.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, and most recently Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship.