Prayers That Changed History: From Christopher Columbus to Helen Keller, how God used 25 people to change the world

Prayers That Changed History: From Christopher Columbus to Helen Keller, how God used 25 people to change the world

by Tricia Goyer

ISBN: 9780310748014

Publisher Zonderkidz

Published in Children's Books/History & Historical Fiction, Reference

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Sample Chapter



When Good Comes From Evil Mary Evans Picture Library

When He Lived: ca. 69 – 155 AD

Polycarp would rather face death than worship a false God

The sound of men's shouts filled the air. Polycarp struggled forward toward the upper window. He couldn't see much more than shapes in the dim light. His vision had failed in his old age, but the memories of those from his past were strong — especially the memory of John, one of the disciples of Jesus. Polycarp was one of the last Christians alive who had been taught by one of Jesus' disciples.

Polycarp closed his eyes and could still picture the older man's gentle gaze, filled with grace. How had time passed so quickly? Polycarp had been young as he sat under John's teaching, and now he was an old man himself.

All his life he'd tried to follow God's laws, and that was the problem. His arrest was a direct result of his Christian beliefs. For years, Smyrna (present-day Izmir in Turkey) was a peaceful city, and both Christians and non-Christians lived together without incident. But eventually citizens started to complain. People feared and hated the Christians. Soldiers began to hunt them and bring them before the judges of Rome.

"These Christians do not honor the emperor! They do not serve our gods. They follow their own ways," the people cried.

Polycarp had been the bishop of Smyrna, and soon soldiers began hunting him. They found him in a farmhouse outside of town.

One of the soldiers pounded on the door. "Where is Polycarp?"

Polycarp came down the stairs. "Here I am."

The soldiers rushed through the door.

"You've come a long way," Polycarp said. To the soldiers' surprise, he invited them in to eat.

Polycarp knew the men had come to take him away. "Would you give me one hour to pray for those I love?" Polycarp asked the soldiers.

"Yes," an officer said. "I will allow that."

Polycarp returned to his room and sank to his knees. The wood floor made his knees ache, but his heart ached even more. He thought of the church. He thought of the believers who sacrificed so much for their faith. He asked God to protect them. He prayed they would stay strong even surrounded by sadness, loss, and threats.

The next day Polycarp was brought to the arena. It was a gathering place for the people of Smyrna. There they watched sports events and chariot races. Gladiators battled fierce lions and each other, but this night the audience had come for a different reason.

Polycarp stood in a holding cell. He prayed as he heard fellow believers being led into the arena. When they refused to offer incense to Caesar, as a loyal oath, he heard their deaths at the jaws of enraged lions.

Before long, Polycarp stood before the Roman proconsul (governor) himself. He was being charged as a traitor. An old man, Polycarp struggled to stay on his feet. He could see pity in the proconsul's eyes.

Observers shouted and cursed him, but the proconsul's gaze was fixed on Polycarp's face. "I will release you," he said. "You simply have to declare, 'Caesar is Lord' and offer a pinch of incense on the fire as a sacrifice."

Polycarp squared his shoulders. To the non-Christians, this seemed like a simple act, but Polycarp knew that by making this declaration he was breaking the First Commandment. The First Commandment said there should be no other Gods before the one true God.

The word "Lord" referred to divinity, being like a god. The people saw the emperor as their lord, and they wanted Polycarp to do the same.

Polycarp stood silent. The people called the Emperor Domitian "Dominus et Deus noster" ("Our Lord and God") by his request. But the emperor was not Polycarp's lord; Jesus Christ was.

"It is just one pinch of incense. Surely you can do this one small act," the Roman governor pleaded.

Polycarp had turned to the Lord Jesus many times in prayer, and he needed him again. He fixed his eyes on the proconsul.

"Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?"

Polycarp knew what his refusal to compromise his faith meant. The judge signaled the herald. The herald turned to face the crowd. "Polycarp has proclaimed himself a Christian!"

Polycarp's knees trembled, but his heart stood strong. He would be burned at the stake for his beliefs.

His arms ached as he was tied to the stake. And then he lifted his face to the sky in prayer.

A fellow Christian heard Polycarp's prayer and wrote it down. The prayer of Polycarp, and his declaration before the Roman proconsul, went from church to church.

From that time on, believers, many of whom also gave their lives for the church, have honored Polycarp every year on February 23. Over the next 150 years, many men, women, and children decided to follow the faithful example of the bishop of Smyrna. They decided to die rather than deny Christ as their Lord, and history was forever changed.

Sometimes Jesus asks us to give everything

Imagine the people who were able to sit at the feet of the apostles. Can you guess the questions they asked of those who shared their life with Jesus — those who had walked with him, touched him, and heard his words of hope?

It might have been exciting for Polycarp to meet the Apostle John, but John's messages most likely weren't easy to hear. John did get to walk with Jesus, but he also faced hardship because of his beliefs. In his gospel, John even wrote that we should expect hardship too. He is quoting Jesus here: "Remember what I told you: 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also" (John 15:20).

In our lives, we might face hard situations because of our belief in Jesus. We might be teased or we might have to walk away from movies or television programs that go against our beliefs. When that happens, we can think of Polycarp. Yes, it might be hard to be embarrassed or to stand out from the crowd, but believers like Polycarp were willing to give so much more. Many gave their lives for their faith. We most likely won't be asked to give our lives, but Polycarp's story is a good reminder that Jesus can be with us during every hardship when we pray.

Something to Think About

During Polycarp's day, people were killed for standing up for their Christian beliefs. How can hearing the stories of Christians who sacrificed everything help us today? What can help you stand up to challenges in your life?

In His Own Words

Like many of Jesus' disciples, Polycarp wrote letters to the Christian churches. And just as he encouraged others to do, the time came for Polycarp to stand firm for his faith. In his Letter to the Philippians, he said "Stand fast, therefore, in this conduct and follow the example of the Lord, 'firm and unchangeable in faith, lovers of the brotherhood, loving each other, united in truth,' helping each other with the mildness of the Lord, despising no man."

How He Changed History

Polycarp's arrest, his refusal to deny Christ, and his martyrdom (dying for his faith) happened as Christianity became more popular in Rome. The Roman emperor saw the growing numbers of Christians and it worried him. It was a threat to the Roman way of life. Polycarp's death, along with those of others, made the church stronger as Christians came together in prayer and support. Christianity also grew as people who saw their bravery and commitment knew there must be something valuable in this new religion. For centuries, Polycarp has been an example of a Christian who did not back down from his beliefs and who believed to the end.

It's in the Bible

Stephen is another example of true faithfulness to God. Stephen was a believer of Jesus Christ, and he did wonderful miracles in Jesus' name. The religious leaders were angry and they brought Stephen before them. Stephen's words about Jesus made them so mad that they killed him. Yet before his death he had a special message to share.

They grabbed Stephen and took him before the High Council. They put forward their bribed witnesses to testify: "This man talks nonstop against this Holy Place and God's Law. We even heard him say that Jesus of Nazareth would tear this place down and throw out all the customs Moses gave us."

As all those who sat on the High Council looked at Stephen, they found they couldn't take their eyes off him — his face was like the face of an angel!

Then the Chief Priest said, "What do you have to say for yourself?" — Acts 6:12 — 7:1 (MSG)

Stephen went on to tell the High Counsel about all those in Hebrew history who had been mistreated for their faith. Then he continued:

"Your ancestors killed anyone who dared talk about the coming of the Just One. And you've kept up the family tradition — traitors and murderers, all of you. You had God's Law handed to you by angels — gift-wrapped! — and you squandered it!"

At that point they went wild, a rioting mob of catcalls and whistles and invective. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, hardly noticed — he only had eyes for God, whom he saw in all his glory with Jesus standing at his side. He said, "Oh! I see heaven wide open and the Son of Man standing at God's side!"

Yelling and hissing, the mob drowned him out. Now in full stampede, they dragged him out of town and pelted him with rocks. The ringleaders took off their coats and asked a young man named Saul to watch them.

As the rocks rained down, Stephen prayed, "Master Jesus, take my life." Then he knelt down, praying loud enough for everyone to hear, "Master, don't blame them for this sin" — his last words. Then he died.

— Acts 7:52 – 59 (MSG)

There are Christian believers like Polycarp and Stephen who gave everything — even their lives — as followers of Jesus. It is sad to know the price they had to pay, but their love for Jesus is an example for us all. Even Stephen's last words were a prayer to God, "Master, don't blame them for this sin." He was praying for those who were taking his life. Jesus said something similar while he was hanging on the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). God's love shone through Stephen even then.

Your Life

There may come a time when people will turn against you because of your faith. It's easier to treat them badly, like they're treating you, but Jesus asks us to do things differently. When we treat others with love, even when they mistreat us, it's a good example to everyone who watches. Others will see God at work in our lives, and perhaps they'll learn to trust Jesus too.

And when you face hard situations, you don't have to do it alone. Pray to God and ask him for strength. He is faithful and will help you stay strong. Trust him in that.

Sometimes God brings good from evil, for his glory.



God Always Wins

When He Lived: 272 – 337 AD

312 AD

Constantine defeats his enemy

The Roman Empire was divided. Many leaders and different families had produced many people who were convinced they should rule. Constantine was raised in the Imperial Court. He encountered Christianity in the court circles as well. Fighting broke out among those who'd set their eyes on the throne. Constantine knew he could make a difference in the Roman Empire if he could defeat Maxentius.

Constantine didn't have the same number of soldiers as his opponent, but he felt he had God on his side. With his band of soldiers, he fought against Maxentius' first, second, and third armies. And then he turned his sights to Rome.

Constantine marched to Rome on October 28, 312, his confidence bolstered by a vision he'd had the previous night.

On the evening of October 27, far outnumbered, Constantine was promised victory in a dream. He was told that if the soldiers put Christ's monogram (initials) on their shields, they would defeat the enemy.

They neared the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber River. Constantine questioned if Maxentius would meet him in battle. Maxentius had organized the stockpiling of large amounts of food in case of an attack. Yet Maxentius did withdraw from the city to meet up with Constantine. Their armies faced off.

Maxentius and his army made his stand in front of the Milvian Bridge. It was a stone bridge that crossed the Tiber River into Rome. Worried that Constantine's men would cross the bridge and take over the city, Maxentius partially destroyed the bridge. Then he had a pontoon (floating) bridge constructed to get his army back across the river.

When the two armies met, Constantine's army proved to be stronger. Maxentius' soldiers were also too close to the river to regroup. Maxentius tried to go back, but there was only one escape route — they had to cross the river. They started to escape, yet as the men tried to cross, their boats broke apart and the men disappeared into the water.

"They went into the depths like a stone," historians recorded. And Constantine thought of Moses: "He cast Pharaoh's chariots and host into the sea, and overwhelmed his chosen charioteers in the Red Sea, and covered them with the flood." The enemy soldiers still left on the shore were either captured or killed. Maxentius also died, drowning in the river while trying to escape.

Constantine entered Rome on October 29. He sang to God, the ruler and victor, as he entered in triumph, and the people accepted him. The senate, the leaders, and the people received him as their leader.

And when a statue was crafted of him, Constantine put the sign of the cross in the statue's right hand, and ordered that this be inscribed: "By this salutary sign, the true proof of bravery, I have saved and freed your city from the yoke of the tyrant; and moreover, having set at liberty both the senate and the people of Rome, I have restored them to their ancient distinction and splendor."

Constantine trusted that he followed God into battle, and humbled himself and his troops in prayer. Because of this, history was forever changed.

Little is much with God

When Constantine went into battle, there were an estimated 100,000 men in Maxentius' army against the 20,000 in Constantine's army. When Constantine saw how his enemy was outnumbered, his mind went back to the Biblical story of the Red Sea opening for the Israelites. Both Moses and Constantine faced a mighty army, but both enemy armies sank into the depths of the water. "Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea" (Exodus 15:21).

In both cases, the weaker group became the victor. When we turn to God in prayer, he is trustworthy. God can protect those who turn to him in their time of need. The impossible can become possible with God.

Something to Think About

Do you find it hard to pray about things that seem "too big?" What should you pray about anyway? How has God answered a big prayer of someone you know?

Excerpted from "Prayers That Changed History: From Christopher Columbus to Helen Keller, how God used 25 people to change the world" by Tricia Goyer. Copyright © 2013 by Tricia Goyer. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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