Desperation is a guaranteed prayer motivator. When the bandits stormed into our home in Congo and stuck a knife to my throat and a gun to my head, prayer came quickly and easily. When my oldest daughter was more than 30 hours into an intense and difficult labor, I begged God to intervene. I prayed hard and I prayed fervently.

Several months ago, I shared the results of my study of Matthew 9:37-38 with some of our WorldVenture headquarters staff. God’s strong promise to send workers is guaranteed only through a word for “ask” or “pray” that elsewhere is translated “begging, beseeching, imploring or urging.” It is an intense and fervent prayer similar to what I prayed in Congo and for my daughter. As I spoke to the group, I watched at least one of my colleagues shake her head and say, “I can’t do it. I can’t pray like that.”

Inwardly, I knew I couldn’t either! Who prays for workers with that kind of intensity? I simply didn’t have that degree of desperation.It started me on a search for motivation. I knew that God was serious about his promise to send out workers. But how could I hold up my end of the deal?

As I reflected on this, I turned back to Matthew 9:37-38 and happened to glance at verses 35 and 36. And there was Jesus’ own motivator for this kind of prayer:

“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Compassion triggered by sight: that is the motivator!

My mind went in a number of directions. No wonder this was the motivator for Jesus, the Son of God. Compassion is a primary characteristic of God. When Moses asks to see God and God passes before him in Exodus 34:6-7, God proclaims to him that he is “the Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”

Lamentations 3:22 goes even deeper: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.” Never fail? Yes! And that is written for people who had brushed God off and knew they deserved to be wiped out!

Jonah even tried to convince God to be less compassionate on the Ninevites. I can hear him saying, “Come on, God. These guys are jerks. How about a little fire from heaven on this one?” The idea of extending grace to these people was repulsive to him. It’s the reason he ran! “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2). You mean God’s compassion embraces even ruthless, murdering, child-slaughtering, women-raping, torturing terrorists?

Yes.

That’s why it’s no surprise that Jesus’ ministry is also marked by compassion. Aside from Matthew 9:36, compassion moves Jesus three other times (Matthew 14:14, 15:32, 20:34). This is a big deal to God.

And perhaps that is why the Holy Spirit puts it at the top of the list for you and me: “As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12). Compassion is first. It’s the lead characteristic for God as well as for his followers.

Okay, that is motivating. But there is more.

I began studying the word “compassion” itself. I found that the original meaning relates to a person’s bowels, entrails, or, from my Missouri upbringing, one’s innards. It’s easy to see how the literal sense moves to the feelings of one’s heart or the internal stirring that each of us has felt at one time or another. We see something and it moves our insides. It’s a very real feeling that sparks sorrow or even anger at what we see.

But the real work of compassion is what Jesus does with what he sees. Compassion literally means to “suffer with.” When I understood that, I thought of Isaiah 53:4: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering…” Compassion is seeing the plight of someone in need and taking on that burden like it was my own. It’s more than just feeling sorry for someone. It is actually experiencing their grief or pain with them in a vicarious way.

Now THAT produces motivation. When I enter into the pain of someone suffering, I can act on his or her behalf. And the action God primarily wants from me is to pray earnestly for workers to meet that need.

I’ll never forget the refugees pouring over the border into Congo during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Our church needed to move many of these people to an evangelism center compound, so I loaded several people into the bed of my pickup and began the drive.

I particularly noticed a woman, all by herself, who had wrapped everything she could carry into a sheet and put it on her head. Without knowing her specific story, I knew her story from the many others facing a similar situation. Undoubtedly she was a survivor who had lost most of her family. She had walked for days, eluding thieves and rapists. She was defenseless and vulnerable. She had seen countless corpses and people scarred for life both physically and emotionally. Fear was her constant companion. Hope was gone for anything but to find safety and shelter. Without a word, she joined the others in my pickup and we drove away from town and all the turmoil to the evangelism school and its promise of security.

Eventually we turned off of the highway onto a parallel one-lane road full of potholes and mud. And then I looked back and saw them coming. Another pickup full of very angry men was rushing to catch up to us. It was a group of Congolese men who were furious that I was bringing these foreigners deeper into their country. They shouted at me as they pulled alongside of us only yards from our destination.

In their rage, I saw them lift the large bag of possessions the woman had been carrying out of my pickup and into theirs. I watched as the woman crumpled to the bed of my truck and sobbed. She literally lost the last of everything she owned. The supposed security of a neighboring country was in reality just one more hell of injustice. For an incalculable number of times, she was once again a victim. And with the number of men and their anger, I could do nothing about it.

Compassion. I’m moved even now as I recall the story. And perhaps even more. This time, I am taking her anguish on myself. I feel it. I grieve with her. I bear her sorrow. And I pray.

“Please, Jesus, there are countless women just like this unnamed broken one still living in Congo today without hope. In fact, they are all over the world. Oh God. I beg you, send workers. I can’t do much more than this. I can’t send money. I can’t even communicate with people like this. I can’t impact their corrupt leaders. But I can do what you’ve asked me to do. I can pray earnestly. And so, I do pray fervently for you to drive workers out to help them and show them the love of Jesus. I pray with the confidence of knowing that this is your will. I pray in the powerful name of Jesus whose compassion motivates mine.”

So there it is. The most powerful motivator for prayer is compassion triggered by the sight of broken people. When I take the weight of that brokenness on myself, I will pray fervently.

Doug Hazen was the director of prayer mobilization at WorldVenture.

(Photo credit: Flickr/Willy_G91)