Quiet Talks on Prayer
S. D. Gordon
Copyright, 1904, by Fleming H. Revell Company
I. The Meaning and Mission of Prayer 1. Prayer the Greatest Outlet of Power 2. Prayer the Deciding Factor in a Spirit Conflict 3. The Earth, the Battle-Field in Prayer 4. Does Prayer Influence God?
II. Hindrances to Prayer 1. Why the Results Fail 2. Why the Results are Delayed 3. The Great Outside Hindrance
III. How to Pray 1. The "How" of Relationship 2. The "How" of Method 3. The Listening Side of Prayer 4. Something about God's Will in Connection with Prayer 5. May We Pray with Assurance for the Conversion of Our Loved Ones
IV. Jesus' Habits of Prayer 1. A Pen Sketch 2. Dissolving Views 3. Deepening Shadows 4. Under the Olive Trees 5. A Composite Picture
I. The Meaning And Mission Of Prayer
1. Prayer the Greatest Outlet of Power. 2. Prayer the Deciding Factor in a Spirit Conflict. 3. The Earth, the Battle-Field in Prayer. 4. Does Prayer Influence God?
Prayer the Greatest Outlet of Power
Five Outlets of Power.
A great sorrow has come into the heart of God. Let it be told only in hushed voice—one of His worlds is a prodigal! Hush your voice yet more—ours is that prodigal world. Let your voice soften down still more—we have consented to the prodigal part of the story. But, in softest tones yet, He has won some of us back with His strong tender love. And now let the voice ring out with great gladness—we won ones may be the pathway back to God for the others. That is His earnest desire. That should be our dominant ambition. For that purpose He has endowed us with peculiar power.
There is one inlet of power in the life—anybody's life—any kind of power: just one inlet—the Holy Spirit. He is power. He is in every one who opens his door to God. He eagerly enters every open door. He comes in by our invitation and consent. His presence within is the vital thing.
But with many of us while He is in, He is not in control: in as guest; not as host. That is to say He is hindered in His natural movements; tied up, so that He cannot do what He would. And so we are not conscious or only partially conscious of His presence. And others are still less so. But to yield to His mastery, to cultivate His friendship, to give Him full swing—that will result in what is called power. One inlet of power—the Holy Spirit in control.
There are five outlets of power: five avenues through which this One within shows Himself, and reveals His power.
First: through the life, what we are. Just simply what we are. If we be right the power of God will be constantly flowing out, though we be not conscious of it. It throws the keenest kind of emphasis on a man being right in his life. There will be an eager desire to serve. Yet we may constantly do more in what we are than in what we do. We may serve better in the lives we live than in the best service we ever give. The memory of that should bring rest to your spirit when a bit tired, and may be disheartened because tired.
Second: through the lips, what we say. It may be said stammeringly and falteringly. But if said your best with the desire to please the Master it will be God-blest. I have heard a man talk. And he stuttered and blushed and got his grammar badly tangled, but my heart burned as I listened. And I have heard a man talk with smooth speech, and it rolled off me as easily as it rolled out of him. Do your best, and leave the rest. If we are in touch with God His fire burns whether the tongue stammer or has good control of its powers.
Third: through our service, what we do. It may be done bunglingly and blunderingly. Your best may not be the best, but if it be your best it will bring a harvest.
Fourth: through our money, what we do not keep, but loosen out for God. Money comes the nearest to omnipotence of anything we handle.
And, fifth: through our prayer, what we claim in Jesus' name.
And by all odds the greatest of these is the outlet through prayer. The power of a life touches just one spot, but the touch is tremendous. What is there we think to be compared with a pure, unselfish, gently strong life. Yet its power is limited to one spot where it is being lived. Power through the lips depends wholly upon the life back of the lips. Words that come brokenly are often made burning and eloquent by the life behind them. And words that are smooth and easy, often have all their meaning sapped by the life back of them. Power through service may be great, and may be touching many spots, yet it is always less than that of a life. Power through money depends wholly upon the motive back of the money. Begrudged money, stained money, soils the treasury. That which comes nearest to omnipotence also comes nearest to impotence. But the power loosened out through prayer is as tremendous, at the least, to say no more just now, is as tremendous as the power of a true fragrant life and, mark you, and, may touch not one spot but wherever in the whole round world you may choose to turn it.
The greatest thing any one can do for God and for man is to pray. It is not the only thing. But it is the chief thing. A correct balancing of the possible powers one may exert puts it first. For if a man is to pray right, he must first be right in his motives and life. And if a man be right, and put the practice of praying in its right place, then his serving and giving and speaking will be fairly fragrant with the presence of God.
The great people of the earth to-day are the people who pray. I do not mean those who talk about prayer; nor those who say they believe in prayer; nor yet those who can explain about prayer; but I mean these people who take time and pray. They have not time. It must be taken from something else. This something else is important. Very important, and pressing than prayer. There are people that put prayer first, and group the other items in life's schedule around and after prayer.
These are the people to-day who are doing the most for God; in winning souls; in solving problems; in awakening churches; in supplying both men and money for mission posts; in keeping fresh and strong these lives far off in sacrificial service on the foreign field where the thickest fighting is going on; in keeping the old earth sweet awhile longer.
It is wholly a secret service. We do not know who these people are, though sometimes shrewd guesses may be made. I often think that sometimes we pass some plain-looking woman quietly slipping out of church; gown been turned two or three times; bonnet fixed over more than once; hands that have not known much of the softening of gloves; and we hardly giver her a passing thought, and do not know, nor guess, that perhaps she is the one who is doing far more for her church, and for the world, and for God than a hundred who would claim more attention and thought, because she prays; truly prays as the Spirit of God inspires and guides.
Let me put it this way: God will do as a result of the praying of the humblest one here what otherwise He would not do. Yes, I can make it stronger than that, and I must make it stronger, for the Book does. Listen: God will do in answer to the prayer of the weakest one here what otherwise he could not do. "Oh!" someone thinks, "you are getting that too strong now." Well, you listen to Jesus' own words in that last long quiet talk He had with the eleven men between the upper room and the olive-green. John preserves much of that talk for us. Listen: "Ye did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that ye should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide: that"—listen, a part of the purpose why we have been chosen—"that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in My name, He may give it you." Mark that word "may"; not "shall" this time but may. "Shall" throws the matter over on God—His purpose. "May" throws it over upon us—our cooperation. That is to say our praying makes it possible for God to do what otherwise He could not do.
And if you think into it a bit, this fits in with the true conception of prayer. In its simplest analysis prayer—all prayer—has, must have, two parts. First, a God to give. "Yes," you say, "certainly, a God wealthy, willing, all of that." And, just as certainly, there must be a second factor, a man to receive. Man's willingness is God's channel to the earth. God never crowds nor coerces. Everything God does for man and through man He does with man's consent, always. With due reverence, but very plainly, let it be said that God can do nothing for the man with shut hand and shut life. There must be an open hand and heart and life through which God can give what He longs to. An open life, an open hand, open upward, is the pipe line of communication between the heart of God and this poor befooled old world. Our prayer is God's opportunity to get into the world that would shut Him out.
In touch with a planet.
Prayer opens a whole planet to a man's activities. I can as really be touching hearts for God in far away India or China through prayer, as though I were there. Not in as many ways as though there, but as truly. Understand me, I think the highest possible privilege of service is in those far off lands. There the need is greatest, the darkness densest, and the pleading call most eloquently pathetic. And if one may go there—happy man!—if one be privileged to go to the honoured place of service he may then use all five outlets direct in the spot where he is.
Yet this is only one spot. But his relationship is as wide as his Master's and his sympathies should be. A man may be in Africa, but if his heart be in touch with Jesus it will be burning for a world. Prayer puts us into direct dynamic touch with a world.
A man may go aside to-day, and shut his door, and as really spend a half-hour in India—I am thinking of my words as I say them, it seems so much to say, and yet it is true—as really spend a half hour of his life in India for God as though he were there in person. Is that true? If it be true, surely you and I must get more half-hours for this secret service. Without any doubt he may turn his key and be for a bit of time as potentially in China by the power of prayer, as though there in actual bodily form. I say potentially present. Of course not consciously present. But in the power exerted upon men he may be truly present at the objective point of his prayer. He may give a new meaning to the printed page being read by some native down in Africa. He may give a new tongue of flame to the preacher or teacher. He may make it easier for men to accept the story of Jesus, and then to yield themselves to Jesus—yonder men swept and swayed by evil spirits, and by prejudices for generations—make it easier for them to accept the story, and, if need be, to cut with loved ones, and step out and up into a new life.
Some earnest heart enters an objection here, perhaps. You are thinking that if you were there you could influence men by your personal contact, by the living voice. So you could. And there must be the personal touch. Would that there were many times more going for that blessed personal touch. But this is the thing to mark keenly both for those who may go, and for those who must stay: no matter where you are you do more through your praying than through your personality. If you were in India you could add your personality to your prayer. That would be a great thing to do. But whether there or here, you must first win the victory, every step, every life, every foot of the way, in secret, in the spirit-realm, and then add the mighty touch of your personality in service. You can do more than pray, after you have prayed. But you can not do more than pray until you have prayed. And just there is where we have all seemed to make a slip at times, and many of us are yet making it—a bad slip. We think we can do more where we are through our service: then prayer to give power to service. No—with the blackest underscoring of emphasis, let it be said—NO. We can do no thing of real power until we have done the prayer thing.
Here is a man by my side. I can talk to him. I can bring my personality to bear upon him, that I may win him. But before I can influence his will a jot for God, I must first have won the victory in the secret place. Intercession is winning the victory over the chief, and service is taking the field after the chief is driven off. Such service is limited by the limitation of personality to one place. This spirit-telegraphy called prayer puts a man into direct dynamic touch with a planet.
There are some of our friends who think themselves of the practical sort who say, "the great thing is work: prayer is good, and right, but the great need is to be doing something practical." The truth is that when one understands about prayer, and puts prayer in its right place in his life, he finds a new motive power burning in his bones to be doing; and further he finds that it is the doing that grows out of praying that is mightiest in touching human hearts. And he finds further yet with a great joy that he may be doing something for an entire world. His service becomes as broad as his Master's thought.
Intercession is Service.
It helps greatly to remember that intercession is service: the chief service of a life on God's plan. It is unlike all other forms of service, and superior to them in this: that it has fewer limitations. In all other service we are constantly limited by space, bodily strength, equipment, material obstacles, difficulties involved in the peculiar differences of personality. Prayer knows no such limitations. It ignores space. It may be free of expenditure of bodily strength, where rightly practiced, and one's powers are under proper control. It goes directly, by the telegraphy of spirit, into men's hearts, quietly passes through walls, and past locks unhindered, and comes into most direct touch with the inner heart and will to be affected.
In service, as ordinarily understood, one is limited to the space where his body is, the distance his voice can reach, the length of time he can keep going before he must quit to eat, or rest, or sleep. He is limited by walls, and locks, by the prejudices of men's minds, and by those peculiar differences of temperament which must be studied in laying siege to men's hearts.
The whole circle of endeavour in winning men includes such an infinite variety. There is speaking the truth to a number of persons, and to one at a time; the doing of needed kindly acts of helpfulness, supplying food, and the like; there is teaching; the almost omnipotent ministry of money; the constant contact with a pure unselfish life; letter writing; printer's ink in endless variety. All these are in God's plan for winning men. But the intensely fascinating fact to mark is this:—that the real victory in all of this service is won in secret, beforehand, by prayer, and these other indispensable things are the moving upon the works of the enemy, and claiming the victory already won. And when these things are put in their proper order, prayer first, and the other things second; second, I say, not omitted, not slurred over; done with all the earnestness and power of brain and hand and heart possible; but done after the victory has been won in secret, against the real foe, and done while the winner is still claiming the victory already assured,—then will come far greater achievements in this outer open service.
Then we go into this service with that fine spirit of expectancy that sweeps the field at the start, and steadily sticks on the stubbornly contested spots until the whipped foe turns tail, and goes. Prayer is striking the winning blow at the concealed enemy. Service is gathering up the results of that blow among the men we see and touch. Great patience and tact and persistence are needed in the service because each man must be influenced in his own will. But the shrewd strategy that wins puts the keen stiff secret fighting first.
The Spirit Switchboard.
Electricity is a strange element. It is catalogued in the study of physics. It is supposed to be properly classed among the forces of nature. Yet it seems to have many properties of the spirit world. Those who know most of it say they know least of what it is. Some of the laws of its being have been learned, and so its marvellous power harnessed for man's use, but in much ignorance of what it is. It seems almost to belong somewhere in between the physical and spirit realms. It furnishes many similes of graphic helpfulness in understanding more nearly much truth of the Spirit life.
In the power-house where the electricity is being wooed into man's harnessing, or generated, as the experts say, is found a switchboard, or switch-room with a number of boards. Here in a large city plant a man may go and turn a switch, that is, move a little handle, a very short distance. It is a very simple act, easily performed, involving almost no strength. But that act has loosened the power in the house back of the switchboard out along the wires, and perhaps lighted a whole section of the city. He goes in again at another hour, and turns this set of switches, and this, and sets in motion maybe scores of cars, carrying swiftly, hundreds of passengers. Again he goes in, and moves the little handles and sets in motion the wheels in some factory employing hundreds of operatives.
It is a secret service, usually as far as any observers are concerned. It is a very quiet, matter of fact service. But the power influenced is unmeasured and immeasurable. And no one, seemingly, thus far, can explain the mysterious but tremendous agent involved. Does the fluid—it a fluid? or, what?—pass through the wire? or, around the wire? The experts say they do not know. But the laws which it obeys are known. And as men comply with them its almost omnipotence is manifested.
Just such a switch-room in the spirit realm is one's prayer-room. Every one who will may have such a spirit switching-board in his life. There he may go and in compliance with the laws of the power used loosen out the gracious persuasive irresistible power of God where he wills to; now in Japan; now in China; among the hungry human hearts of India's plains and mountains; again in Africa which is full as near to where Jesus sits as is England or America; and now into the house across the alley from your home; and down in the slum district; and now into your preacher's heart for next Sunday's work; and now again unto the hearts of those you will be meeting in the settlement house, or the mission school.
Children are not allowed at the electrical switchboard, nor any unskilled hand. For misuse means possibility of great damage to property and life. And the spirit switchboard does not yield to the unskilled touch. Though sometimes there seems to be much tampering by those with crude fingers, and with selfish desire to turn this current to personal advantage merely.
It takes skill here. Yet such is our winsome God's wondrous plan that skill may come to any one who is willing; simply that—who is willing; and it comes very simply too.
Strange too, as with the electrical counterpart, the thing is beyond full or satisfying explanation.
How does it come to pass that a man turns a few handles, and miles away great wheels begin to revolve, and enormous power is manifested? Will some one kindly explain? Yet we know it is so, and men govern their actions by that knowledge.
How does it come to pass that a woman in Iowa prays for the conversion of her skeptical husband, and he, down in the thick of the most absorbing congress Washington has known since the civil war, and in full ignorance of her purpose becomes conscious and repeatedly conscious of the presence and power of the God in whose existence he does not believe; and months afterwards with his keen, legally trained mind, finds the calendar to fit together the beginning of her praying with the beginning of his unwelcome consciousness? Will some one kindly explain? Ah! who can, adequately! Yet the facts, easy ascertainable, are there, and evidenced in the complete change in the life and calling of the man.
How comes it to pass that a woman in Missouri praying for a friend of keen intellectual skeptically in Glasgow, who can skillfully measure and parry argument, yet finds afterwards that the time of her praying is the time of his, at first decidedly unwelcome, but finally radical change of convictions! Yet groups of thoughtful men and women know these two instances to be even so though unable to explain how.
And as the mysterious electrical power is being used by obedience to its laws, even so is the power of prayer being used by many who understand simply enough of its laws to obey, and to bring the stupendous results.
The Broad Inner Horizon.
This suggests at once that the rightly rounded Christian life has two sides; the out-side, and the inner side. To most of us the outer side seems the greater. The living, the serving, the giving, the doing, the absorption in life's work, the contact with men, with the great majority the sheer struggle for existence—these take the greater thought and time of us all. They seem to be the great business of life even to those of us who thoroughly believe in the inner life.
But when the real eyes open, the inner eyes that see the unseen, the change of perspective is first ludicrous, then terrific, then pathetic. Ludicrous, because of the change of proportions; terrific, because of the issues at stake; pathetic, because of strong men that see not, and push on spending splendid strength whittling sticks. The outer side is narrow in its limits. It has to do with food and clothing, bricks and lumber, time and the passing hour, the culture of the mind, the joys of social contact, the smoothing of the way for the suffering. And it needs not to be said, that these are right; they belong in the picture; they are its physical background.
The inner side includes all of these, and stretches infinitely beyond. Its limits are broad; broad as the home of man; with its enswathing atmosphere added. It touches the inner spirit. It moves in upon the motives, the loves, the heart. It moves out upon the myriad spirit-beings and forces that swarm ceaselessly about the earth staining and sliming men's souls and lives. It moves up to the arm of God in cooperation with His great love-plan for a world.
Shall we follow for a day one who has gotten the true perspective? Here is the outer side: a humble home, a narrow circle, tending the baby, patching, sewing, cooking, calling; or, measuring dry goods, chopping a typewriter, checking up a ledger, feeding the swift machinery, endless stitching, gripping a locomotive lever, pushing the plow, tending the stock, doing the chores, tiresome examination papers; and all the rest of the endless, endless, doing, day by day, of the commonplace treadmill things, that must be done, that fill out the day of the great majority of human lives. This one whom we are following unseen is doing quietly, cheerily his daily round, with a bit of sunshine in his face, a light in his eye, and lightness in his step, and the commonplace place becomes uncommon by reason of the presence of this man with the uncommon spirit. He is working for God. No, better, he is working with God. He has an unseen Friend at his side. That changes all. The common drudgery ceases to be common, and ceases to be drudgery because it is done for such an uncommon Master. That is the outer, the narrow side of this life: not narrow in itself but in its proportion to the whole.
Now, hold your breath, and look, for here is the inner side where the larger work of life is being done. Here is the quiet bit of time alone with God, with the Book. The door is shut, as the Master said. Now it is the morning hour with a bit of made light, for the sun is busy yet farther east. Now it is the evening hour, with the sun speeding towards western service, and the bed invitingly near. There is a looking up into God's face; then keen but reverent reading, and then a simple intelligent pleading with its many variations of this—"Thy will be done, in the Victor's name." God Himself is here, in this inner room. The angels are here. This room opens out into and is in direct touch with a spirit space as wide as the earth. The horizon of this room is as broad as the globe. God's presence with this man makes it so.
To-day a half hour is spent in China, for its missionaries, its native Christians, its millions, the printed page, the personal contact, the telling of the story, the school, the dispensary, the hospital. And in through the petitions runs this golden thread—"Victory in Jesus' name: victory in Jesus' name; to-day: to-day: Thy will be being done: the other will undone: victory in Jesus' name." Tomorrow's bit of time is largely spent in India perhaps. And so this man with the narrow outer horizon and the broad inner horizon pushes his spirit-way through Japan, India, Ceylon, Persia, Arabia, Turkey, Africa, Europe's papal lands, the South American States, the home land, its cities, frontiers, slums, the home town, the home church, the man across the alley; in and out; out and in; the tide of prayer sweeps quietly, resistlessly day by day.
This is the true Christian life. This man is winning souls and refreshing lives in these far-off lands and in near-by places as truly as though he were in each place. This is the Master's plan. The true follower of Jesus has as broad a horizon as his Master. Jesus thought in continents and seas. His follower prays in continents and seas. This man does not know what is being accomplished. Yes! He does know, too. He knows by the inference of faith.
This room where we are meeting and talking together might be shut up so completely that no light comes in. A single crack breaking somewhere lets in a thin line of light. But that line of light shining in the darkness tells of a whole sun of light flooding the outer world.
There comes to this man occasional, yes frequent, evidences of changes being wrought, yet he knows that these are but the thin line of glory light which speaks of the fuller shining. And with a spirit touched with glad awe that he can and may help God, and a heart full alike of peace and of yearning, and a life fragrant with an unseen Presence he goes steadily on his way, towards the dawning of the day.
Prayer the Deciding Factor in a Spirit Conflict
A Prehistoric Conflict.
In its simplest meaning prayer has to do with a conflict. Rightly understood it is the deciding factor in a spirit conflict. The scene of the conflict is the earth. The purpose of the conflict is to decide the control of the earth, and its inhabitants. The conflict runs back into the misty ages of the creation time.
The rightful prince of the earth is Jesus, the King's Son. There is a pretender prince who was once rightful prince. He was guilty of a breach of trust. But like King Saul, after his rejection and David's anointing in his place, he has been and is trying his best by dint of force to hold the realm and oust the rightful ruler.
The rightful Prince is seeking by utterly different means, namely by persuasion, to win the world back to its first allegiance. He had a fierce set-to with the pretender, and after a series of victories won the great victory of the resurrection morning.
There is one peculiarity of this conflict making it different from all others; namely, a decided victory, and the utter vanquishing of the leading general has not stopped the war. And the reason is remarkable. The Victor has a deep love-ambition to win, not merely against the enemy, but into men's hearts, by their free consent. And so, with marvellous love-born wisdom and courage, the conflict is left open, for men's sake.
It is a spirit conflict. The earth is swung in a spirit atmosphere. There are unnumbered thousands of spirit beings good and evil, tramping the earth's surface, and filling its atmosphere. They are splendidly organized into two compact organizations.
Man is a spirit being; an embodied spirit being. He has a body and a mind. He is a spirit. His real conflicts are of the spirit sort; in the spirit realm, with other spirit beings.
Satan is a spirit being; an unembodied spirit being. That is, unembodied, save as in much cunning, with deep, dark purpose he secures embodiment in human beings.
The only sort of power that influences in the spirit realm is moral power. By which is not meant goodness, but that sort of power either bad or good which is not of a physical sort: that higher, infinitely higher and greater power than the mere physical. Moral power is the opposite of violent or physical power.
God does not use force, violent physical force. There are some exceptions to this statement. There have been righteous wars, righteous on one side. Turning to the Bible record, in emergencies, in extreme instances God has ordered war measures. The nations that Israel was told to remove by the death of war would have inevitably worn themselves out through their physical excesses, and disobedience of the laws of life. But a wide view of the race revealed an emergency which demanded a speedier movement. And as an exception, for the sake of His plan for the ultimate saving of a race, and a world, God gave an extermination order. The emergency makes the exception. There is one circumstance under which the taking of human life is right, namely, when it can be clearly established that God the giver and sovereign of life has so directed. But the rule clearly is that God does not use force.
But note sharply in contrast with this that physical force is one of Satan's chief weapons. But mark there two intensely interesting facts: first, he can use it only as he secures man as his ally, and uses it through him. And, second, in using it he has with great subtlety sought to shift the sphere of action. He knows that in the sphere of spirit force pure and simple he is at a disadvantage: indeed, worse yet, he is defeated. For there is a moral force on the other side greater than any at his command. The forces of purity and righteousness he simply cannot withstand. Jesus is the personification of purity and righteousness. It was on this moral ground, in this spirit sphere that He won the great victory. He ran a terrific gauntlet of tests, subtle and fierce, through those human years, and came out victor with His purity and righteousness unstained.
Prayer is Projecting One's Spirit Personality.
Now prayer is a spirit force, it has to do wholly with spirit beings and forces. It is an insistent claiming, by a man, an embodied spirit being, down on the contested earth, that the power of Jesus' victory over the great evil-spirit chieftain shall extend to particular lives now under his control. The prayer takes on the characteristic of the man praying. He is a spirit being. It becomes a spirit force. It is a projecting into the spirit realm of his spirit personality. Being a spirit force it has certain qualities or characteristics of unembodied spirit beings. An unembodied spirit being is not limited by space as we embodied folk are. It can go as swiftly as we can think. If I want to go to London it will take at least a week's time to get my body through the intervening space. But I can think myself into London more quickly than I can say the words, and be walking down the Strand. Now a spirit being can go as quickly as I can think.
Further, spirit beings are not limited by material obstructions such as the walls of this building. When I came in here to-day I came in by this door. You all came in by these doors. We were obliged to come in either by doors or windows. But the spirit beings who are here listening to us, and deeply concerned with our discussion did not bother with the doors. They came in through the walls, or the roof, if they were above us, or through the floor here, if they happened to be below this level.
Prayer has these qualities of spirit beings of not being limited by space, or by material obstacles. Prayer is really projecting my spirit, that is, my real personality to the spot concerned, and doing business there with other spirit beings. For example there is a man in a city on the Atlantic seaboard for whom I pray daily. It makes my praying for him very tangible and definite to recall that every time I pray my prayer is a spirit force instantly traversing the space in between him and me, and going without hindrance through the walls of the house where he is, and influencing the spirit beings surrounding him, and so influencing his own will.
When it became clear to me some few years ago that my Master would not have me go yet to those parts of the earth where the need is greatest, a deep tinge of disappointment came over me. Then as I realized the wisdom of His sovereignty in service, it came to me anew that I could exert a positive influence in those lands for Him by prayer. As many others have done, I marked out a daily schedule of prayer. There are certain ones for whom I pray by name, at certain intervals. And it gives great simplicity to my faith, and great gladness to my heart to remember that every time such prayer is breathed out, my spirit personality is being projected yonder, and in effect I am standing in Shanghai, and Calcutta and Tokyo in turn and pleading the power of Jesus' victory over the evil one there, and on behalf of those faithful ones standing there for God.
It is a fiercely contested conflict. Satan is a trained strategist, and an obstinate fighter. He refuses to acknowledge defeat until he must. It is the fight of his life. Strange as it must seem, and perhaps absurd, he apparently hopes to succeed. If we knew all, it might seem less strange and absurd, because of the factors on his side. There is surely much down in the world of the sort which we can fully appreciate to give colour to his expectations. Prayer is insisting upon Jesus' victory, and the retreat of the enemy on each particular spot, and heart and problem concerned.
The enemy yields only what he must. He yields only what is taken. Therefore the ground must be taken step by step. Prayer must be definite. He yields only when he must. Therefore the prayer must be persistent. He continually renews his attacks, therefore the ground taken must be held against him in the Victor's name. This helps to understand why prayer must be persisted in after we have full assurance of the result, and even after some immediate results have come, or, after the general results have commenced coming.
Giving God a Fresh Footing.
The Victor's best ally in this conflict is the man, who while he remains down on the battle-field, puts his life in full touch with his Saviour-Victor, and then incessantly, insistently, believingly claims victory in Jesus' name. He is the one foe among men whom Satan cannot withstand. He is projecting an irresistible spirit force into the spirit realm. Satan is obliged to yield. We are so accustomed through history's long record to seeing victories won through force, physical force, alone, that it is difficult for us to realize that moral force defeats as the other never can. Witness the demons in the gospels, and in modern days in China, clearly against their own set purpose, notwithstanding intensest struggle on their part obliged to admit defeat, and even to ask favours of their Conqueror. The records of personal Christian service give fascinating instances of fierce opposition utterly subdued and individuals transformed through such influence.
Had we eyes to see spirit beings and spirit conflicts we would constantly see the enemy's defeat in numberless instances through the persistent praying of some one allied to Jesus in the spirit of his life. Every time such a man prays it is a waving of the red-dyed flag of Jesus Christ above Satan's head in the spirit world. Every such man who freely gives himself over to God, and gives himself up to prayer is giving God a new spot in the contested territory on which to erect His banner of victory.
The Japanese struggled for weeks to get a footing on the Port Arthur peninsula, even after the naval victories had practically rendered Russia helpless on the seas. It was an unusual spectacle to witness such difficulty in getting a landing after such victories. But with the bulldog tenacity that has marked her fighting Japan fought for a footing. Nothing could be done till a footing was gotten.
Prayer is man giving God a footing on the contested territory of this earth. The man in full touch of purpose with God praying, insistently praying—that man is God's footing on the enemy's soil. The man wholly given over to God gives Him a new sub-headquarters on the battle-field from which to work out. And the Holy Spirit within that man, on the new spot, will insist on the enemy's retreat in Jesus the Victor's name. That is prayer. Shall we not, every one of us, increase God's footing down upon His prodigal earth!
The Earth, the Battle-Field in Prayer
Prayer a War Measure.
This world is God's prodigal son. The heart of God's bleeds over His prodigal. It has been gone so long, and the home circle is broken. He has spent all the wealth of His thought on a plan for winning the prodigal back home. Angels and men have marvelled over that plan, its sweep, its detail, its strength and wisdom, its tenderness. He needs man for His plan. He will use man. That is true. He will honour man in service. That is true. But these only touch the edge of the truth. The pathway from God to a human heart is through a human heart. When He came to the great strategic move in His plan, He Himself came down as a man and made that move. He needs man for His plan.
The greatest agency put into man's hands is prayer. To understand that at all fully one needs to define prayer. And to define prayer adequately one must use the language of war. Peace language is not equal to the situation. The earth is in a state of war. It is being hotly besieged and so one must use war talk to grasp the facts with which prayer is concerned. Prayer from God's side is communication between Himself and His allies in the enemy's country. Prayer is not persuading God. It does not influence God's purpose. It is not winning Him over to our side; never that. He is far more eager for what we are rightly eager for than we ever are. What there is of wrong and sin and suffering that pains you, pains Him far more. He knows more about it. He is more keenly sensitive to it than the most sensitive one of us. Whatever of heart yearning there may be that moves you to prayer is from Him. God takes the initiative in all prayer. It starts with Him. True prayer moves in a circle. It begins in the heart of God, sweeps down into a human heart upon the earth, so intersecting the circle of the earth, which is the battle-field of prayer, and then it goes back again to its starting point, having accomplished its purpose on the downward swing.
Three Forms of Prayer.
Prayer is the word commonly used for all intercourse with God. But it should be kept in mind that that word covers and includes three forms of intercourse. All prayer grows up through, and ever continues in three stages.
The first form of prayer is communion. That is simply being on good terms with God. It involves the blood of the cross as the basis of our getting and being on good terms. It involves my coming to God through Jesus. Communion is fellowship with God. Not request for some particular thing; not asking, but simply enjoying Himself, loving Him, thinking about Him, how beautiful, and intelligent, and strong and loving and lovable He is; talking to Him without words. That is the truest worship, thinking how worthy He is of all the best we can possibly bring to Him, and infinitely more. It has to do wholly with God and a man being on good terms with each other. Of necessity it includes confession on my part and forgiveness upon God's part, for only so can we come into the relation of fellowship. Adoration, worship belong to this first phase of prayer. Communion is the basis of all prayer. It is the essential breath of the true Christian life. It concerns just two, God and myself, yourself. Its influence is directly subjective. It affects me.
The second form of prayer is petition. And I am using that word now in the narrower meaning of asking something for one's self. Petition is definite request of God for something I need. A man's whole life is utterly dependent upon the giving hand of God. Everything we need comes from Him. Our friendships, ability to make money, health, strength in temptation, and in sorrow, guidance in difficult circumstances, and in all of life's movements; help of all sorts, financial, bodily, mental, spiritual—all come from God, and necessitate a constant touch with Him. There needs to be a constant stream of petition going up, many times wordless prayer. And there will be a constant return stream of answer and supply coming down. The door between God and one's own self must be kept ever open. The knob to be turned is on our side. He opened His side long ago, and propped it open, and threw the knob away. The whole life hinges upon this continual intercourse with our wondrous God. This is the second stage or form of prayer. It concerns just two: God and the man dealing with God. It is subjective in its influence: its reach is within.
The third form of prayer is intercession. True prayer never stops with petition for one's self. It reaches out for others. The very word intercession implies a reaching out for some one else. It is standing as a go-between, a mutual friend, between God and some one who is either out of touch with Him, or is needing special help. Intercession is the climax of prayer. It is the outward drive of prayer. It is the effective end of prayer outward. Communion and petition are upward and downward. Intercession rests upon these two as its foundation. Communion and petition store the life with the power of God; intercession lets it out on behalf of others. The first two are necessarily for self; this third is for others. They ally a man fully with God: it makes use of that alliance for others. Intercession is the full-bloomed plant whose roots and strength lie back and down in the other two forms. It is the form of prayer that helps God in His great love-plan for winning a planet back to its true sphere. It will help through these talks to keep this simple analysis of prayer in mind. For much that will be said will deal chiefly with this third form, intercession, the outward movement of prayer.
The Climax of Prayer.
To God man is first an objective point, and then, without ceasing to be that, he further becomes a distributing centre. God ever thinks of a man doubly: first for his own self, and then for his possible use in reaching others. Communion and petition fix and continue one's relation to God, and so prepare for the great outreaching form of prayer—intercession. Prayer must begin in the first two but reaches its climax in the third. Communion and petition are of necessity self-wide. Intercession is world-wide in its reach. And all true rounded prayer will ever have all three elements in it. There must be the touch with God. One's constant needs make constant petition. But the heart of the true follower has caught the warm contagion of the heart of God and reaches out hungrily for the world. Intercession is the climax of prayer.
Much is said of the subjective and objective value of prayer; its influence upon one's self, and its possible influence upon persons and events quite outside of one's self. Of necessity the first two sorts of prayer here named are subjective; they have to do wholly with one's self. Of equal necessity intercessory prayer is objective; it has to do wholly with others. There is even here a reflex influence; in the first two directly subjective; here incidentally reflex. Contact with God while dealing with Him for another of necessity influences me. But that is the mere fringe of the garment. The main driving purpose is outward.
Just now in certain circles it seems quite the thing to lay great stress upon the subjective value of prayer and to whittle down small, or, deny entirely its value in influencing others. Some who have the popular ear are quite free with tongue and pen in this direction. From both without and within distinctly Christian circles their voices come. One wonders if these friends lay the greater emphasis on the subjective value of prayer so as to get a good deep breath for their hard drive at the other. Yet the greater probability is that they honestly believe as they say, but have failed to grasp the full perspective of the picture. In listening to such statements one remembers with vivid distinctness that the scriptural standpoint always is this: that things quite outside of one's self, that in the natural order of prevailing circumstances would not occur, are made to occur through prayer. Jesus constantly so assumed. The first-flush, commonsense view of successful prayer is that some actual result is secured through its agency.
It is an utter begging of the question to advance such a theory as a sufficient explanation of prayer. For prayer in its simplest conception supposes something changed that is not otherwise reachable. Both from the scriptural, and from a rugged philosophical standpoint the objective is the real driving point of all full prayer. The subjective is in order to the objective, as the final outward climactic reach of God's great love-plan for a world.
Six Facts Underlying Prayer.
It will help greatly to step back and up a bit for a fresh look at certain facts that underlie prayer. Everything depends on a right point of view. There may be many view-points, from which to study any subject; but of necessity any one view-point must take in all the essential facts concerned. If not, the impression formed will be wrong, and a man will be misled in his actions. In these talks I make no attempt to prove the Bible's statements, nor to suggest a common law for their interpretation. That would be a matter for quite a separate series of talks. It clears the ground to assume certain things. I am assuming the accuracy of these scriptural statements. And I am glad to say I have no difficulty in doing so.
Now there are certain facts constantly stated and assumed in this old Book. They are clearly stated in its history, they are woven into its songs, and they underlie all these prophetic writings, from Genesis clear to the end of John's Patmos visions. Possibly they have been so familiar and taken for granted so long as to have grown unfamiliar. The very old may need stating as though very new. Here is a chain of six facts:
First:—The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof. His by creation and by sovereign rule. The Lord sat as King at the flood.
Second:—God gave the dominion of the earth to man. The kingship of its life, the control and mastery of its forces.
Third:—Man, who held the dominion of the earth in trust from God, transferred his dominion to somebody else, by an act which was a double act. He was deceived into doing that act. It was an act of disobedience and of obedience. Disobedience to God, and obedience to another one, a prince who was seeking to get the dominion of the earth into his own hands. That act of the first man did this. The disobedience broke with God, and transferred the allegiance from God. The obedience to the other one transferred the allegiance, and through that, the dominion to this other one.
The fourth fact is this:—The dominion or kingship of this earth so far as given to man, is now not God's, for He gave it to man. And it is not man's, for he has transferred it to another. It is in the control of that magnificent prince whose changed character supplies his name—Satan, the hater, the enemy. Jesus repeatedly speaks of "the prince"—that is the ruling one—"of this world." John speaks in his vision-book of a time coming when "the kingdom (not kingdoms, as in the old version) of the world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ." By clear inference previous to that time it is somebody's else kingdom than His. The kingship or rulership of the earth which was given to man is now Satan's.
The fifth fact:—God was eager to swing the world back to its original sway: for His own sake, for man's sake, for the earth's sake. You see, we do not know God's world as it came from His hand. It is a rarely beautiful world even yet—the stars above, the plant life, the waters, the exquisite colouring and blending, the combinations of all these—an exquisitely beautiful world even yet. But it is not the world it was, nor that some coming day it will be. It has been sadly scarred and changed under its present ruler. Probably Eve would not recognize in the present world her early home-earth as it came fresh from the hand of its Maker.
God was eager to swing the old world back to its original control. But to do so He must get a man, one of the original trustee class through whom He might swing it back to its first allegiance. It was given to man. It was swung away by man. It must be swung back by man. And so a Man came, and while Jesus was perfectly and utterly human, we spell that word Man with a capital M because He was a man quite distinct from all men. Because He was more truly human than all other men He is quite apart from other men. This Man was to head a movement for swinging the world back to its first allegiance.
The sixth fact is this:—These two, God's Man, and the pretender-prince, had a combat: the most terrific combat ever waged or witnessed. From the cruel, malicious cradle attack until Calvary's morning and two days longer it ran. Through those thirty-three years it continued with a terrificness and intensity unknown before or since. The master-prince of subtlety and force did his best and his worst, through those Nazareth years, then into the wilderness,—and Gethsemane—and Calvary. And that day at three o'clock and for a bit longer the evil one thought he had won. And there was great glee up in the headquarters of the prince of this world. They thought the victory was theirs when God's Man lay in the grave under the bars of death, within the immediate control of the lord of death. But the third morning came and the bars of death were snapped like cotton thread. Jesus rose a Victor. For it was not possible that such as He could be held by death's lord. And then Satan knew that he was defeated. Jesus, God's Man, the King's rightful prince, had gotten the victory.
But, please mark very carefully four sub-facts on Satan's side. First, he refuses to acknowledge his defeat. Second, he refuses to surrender his dominion until he must. He yields only what he must and when he must. Third, he is supported in his ambitions by man. He has man's consent to his control. The majority of men on the earth to-day, and in every day, have assented to his control. He has control only through man's consent. (Satan cannot get into a man's heart without his consent, and God will not.) And, fourth, he hopes yet to make his possession of the earth permanent.
The Victor's Great Plan.
Now, hold your breath and note, on the side of the Victor-prince, this unparalleled and unimitated action: He has left the conflict open, and the defeated chief on the field that He may win not simply against the chief, but through that victory may win the whole prodigal race back to His Father's home circle again. But the great pitched battle is yet to come. I would better say a pitched battle, for the greatest one is past. Jesus rides into the future fight a Victor. Satan will fight his last fight under the shadow and sting of a defeat. Satan is apparently trying hard to get a Jesus. That is to say Jesus was God's Man sent down to swing the world back. Satan is trying his best to get a man—one of the original trustee class, to whom the dominion of the earth was intrusted—a man who will stand for him even as Jesus stood for God. Indeed a man who will personify himself even as Jesus was the personification of God, the express image of His person. When he shall succeed in that the last desperate crisis will come.
Now prayer is this: A man, one of the original trustee class, who received the earth in trust from God, and who gave its control over to Satan; a man, on the earth, the poor old Satan-stolen, sin-slimed, sin-cursed, contested earth; a man, on the earth, with his life in full touch with the Victor, and sheer out of touch with the pretender-prince, insistently claiming that Satan shall yield before Jesus'-victory, step by step, life after life. Jesus is the victor. Satan knows it, and fears Him. He must yield before His advance, and he must yield before this man who stands for Jesus down on the earth. And he will yield. Reluctantly, angrily, as slowly as may be, stubbornly contesting every inch of ground, his clutches will loosen and he will go before this Jesus-man.
Jesus said "the prince of the world cometh: and he hath nothing in Me." When you and I say, as we may say, very humbly depending on His grace, very determinedly in the resolution of our own imperial will, "though the prince of this world come he shall have nothing in me, no coaling station however small on the shores of my life," then we shall be in position where Satan must yield as we claim—victory in the Victor's Name.
Does Prayer Influence God?
How God Gives.
Some one may object to all this that the statements of God's word do not agree with this point of view.
At random memory brings up a few very familiar passages, frequently quoted. "Call unto Me, and I will answer thee, and will shew thee great things, and difficult, that thou knowest not." "And call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver thee and thou shalt glorify Me." "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." Here it seems, as we have for generations been accustomed to think, that our asking is the thing that influences God to do. And further, that many times persistent, continued asking is necessary to induce God to do. And the usual explanation for this need of persistence is that God is testing our faith, and seeking to make certain changes in us, before granting our requests. This explanation is without doubt quite true, in part. Yet the thing to mark is that it explains only in part. And when the whole circle of truth is brought into view, this explanation is found to cover only a small part of the whole.
We seem to learn best about God by analogies. The analogy never brings all there is to be learned. Yet it seems to be the nearest we can get. From what we know of ourselves we come to know Him.
Will you notice how men give? Among those who give to benevolent enterprises there are three sorts of givers, with variations in each.
There is the man who gives because he is influenced by others. If the right man or committee of men call, and deftly present their pleas, playing skillfully upon what may appeal to him; his position; his egotism; the possible advantage to accrue; what men whom he wants to be classed with are doing, and so on through the wide range that such men are familiar with; if they persist, by and by he gives. At first he seems reluctant, but finally gives with more or less grace. That is one sort of giver.
There is a second sort: the man of truly benevolent heart who is desirous of giving that he may be of help to other men. He listens attentively when pleas come to him, and waits only long enough to satisfy himself of the worth of the cause, and the proper sort of amount to give, and then gives.
There is a third sort, the rarest sort. This second man a stage farther on, who takes the initiative. He looks about him, makes inquiries, and thinks over the great need in every direction of his fellow men. He decides where his money may best be used to help; and then himself offers to give. But his gift may be abused by some who would get his money if they could, and use it injudiciously, or otherwise than he intends. So he makes certain conditions which must be met, the purpose of which is to establish sympathetic relations in some particular with those whom he would help. An Englishman's heart is strongly moved to get the story of Jesus to the inland millions of Chinese. He requests the China-Inland Mission to control the expenditure of almost a million dollars of his money in such a way as best to secure the object in his heart. An American gives a large sum to the Young Men's Christian Association of his home city to be expended as directed. His thought is not to build up this particular organization, but to benefit large numbers of the young men of his town who will meet certain conditions which he thinks to be for their good. He has learned to trust this organization, and so it becomes his trustee.
Another man feels that if the people of New York City can be given good reading they can thereby best be helped in life. And so he volunteers money for a number of libraries throughout that city. And thousands who yearn to increase their knowledge come into sympathy with him in that one point through his gift. In all such cases the giver's thought is to accomplish certain results in those whose purpose in certain directions is sympathetic with his own.
Any human illustration of God must seem crude. Yet of these three sorts of givers there is one and only one that begins to suggest how God gives. It may seem like a very sweeping statement to make, yet I am more and more disposed to believe it true that most persons have unthinkingly thought of God's answering prayer as the first of these three men give. Many others have had in mind some such thought as the second suggests. Yet to state the case even thus definitely is to make it plain that neither of these ways in any manner illustrate God's giving. The third comes the nearest to picturing the God who hears and answers prayer. Our God has a great heart yearning after His poor prodigal world, and after each one in it. He longs to have the effects of sin removed, and the original image restored. He takes the initiative. Yet everything that is done for man must of necessity be through man's will; by his free and glad consent. The obstacles in the way are not numberless nor insurmountable, but they are many and they are stubborn. There is a keen, cunning pretender-prince who is a past-master in the fine art of handling men. There are wills warped and weakened; consciences blurred; minds the opposite of keen, sensibilities whose edge has been dulled beyond ordinary hope of being ever made keen again. Sin has not only stained the life, but warped the judgment, sapped the will, and blurred the mental vision. And God has a hard time just because every change must of necessity be through that sapped and warped will.
Yet the difficulty though great is never complex but very simple. And so the statement of His purpose is ever exquisitely simple. Listen again: "Call unto Me, and I will answer thee and shew thee great things and difficult which thou knowest not." If a man call he has already turned his face towards God. His will has acted, and acted doubly; away from the opposite, and towards God, a simple step but a tremendous one. The calling is the point of sympathetic contact with God where their purposes become the same. The caller is beset by difficulties and longs for freedom. The God who speaks to him saw the difficulties long ago and eagerly longed to remove them. Now they have come to agreement. And through this willing will God eagerly works out His purpose.
A Very Old Question.
This leads to a very old question: Does prayer influence God? No question has been discussed more, or more earnestly. Skeptical men of fine scientific training have with great positiveness said "no." And Christian men of scholarly training and strong faith have with equal positiveness said "yes." Strange to say both have been right. Not right in all their statements, nor right in all their beliefs, nor right in all their processes of thinking, but right in their ultimate conclusions as represented by these short words, "no," and "yes." Prayer does not influence God. Prayer surely does influence God. It does not influence His purpose. It does influence His action. Everything that ever has been prayed for, of course I mean every right thing, God has already purposed to do. But He does nothing without our consent. He has been hindered in His purposes by our lack of willingness. When we learn His purposes and make them our prayers we are giving Him the opportunity to act. It is a double opportunity: manward and Satanward. We are willing. Our willingness checkmates Satan's opposition. It opens the path to God and rids it of the obstacles. And so the road is cleared for the free action already planned.
The further question of nature's laws being sometimes set aside is wholly a secondary matter. Nature's laws are merely God's habit of action in handling secondary forces. They involve no purpose of God. His purposes are regarding moral issues. That the sun shall stay a bit longer than usual over a certain part of the earth is a mere detail with God. It does not affect His power for the whole affair is under His finger. It does not affect His purpose for that as concerning far more serious matters. The emergencies of earth wrought by sin necessitate just such incidents, that the great purpose of God for man shall be accomplished.
Emergencies change all habits of action, divine and human. They are the real test of power. If a man throw down the bundle he is carrying and make a quick wild dash out into the middle of the street, dropping his hat on the way, and grasp convulsively for something on the ground when no cause appears for such action we would quickly conclude that the proper place for him is an asylum. But if a little toddling child is almost under the horse's hoofs, or the trolley car, no one thinks of criticising, but instead admires his courage, and quick action, and breathlessly watches for the result. Emergencies call for special action. They should control actions, where they exist. Emergencies explain action, and explain satisfactorily what nothing else could explain.
The world is in a great emergency through sin. Only as that tremendous fact grips us shall we be men of prayer, and men of action up to the limit of the need, and to the limit of the possibilities. Only as that intense fact is kept in mind shall we begin to understand God's actions in history, and in our personal experiences. The greatest event of earth, the cross, was an emergency action.
The fact that prayer does not make any change in God's thought or purpose, reveals His marvellous love in a very tender way.
Suppose I want something very much and need as well as want. And I go to God and ask for it. And suppose He is reluctant about giving: had not thought about giving me that thing; and rather hesitates. But I am insistent, and plead and persist and by and by God is impressed with my earnestness, and sees that I really need the thing, and answers my prayer, and gives me what I ask. Is not that a loving God so to listen and yield to my plea? Surely. How many times just such an instance has taken place between a child and his father, or mother. And the child thinks to himself, "How loving father is; he has given me the thing I asked for."
But suppose God is thinking about me all the time, and planning, with love-plans for me, and longing to give me much that He has. Yet in His wisdom He does not give because I do not know my own need, and have not opened my hand to receive, yes, and, further yet, likely as not, not knowing my need I might abuse, or misuse, or fail to use, something given before I had felt the need of it. And now I come to see and feel that need and come and ask and He, delighted with the change in me, eagerly gives. Tell me, is not that a very much more loving God than the other conception suggests? The truth is that is God. Jesus says, "Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask." And He is a Father. And with God the word father means mother too. Then what He knows we need He has already planned to give. The great question for me then in praying for some personal thing is this: Do I know what He knows I need? Am I thinking about what He is thinking about for me?
And then remember that God is so much more in His loving planning than the wisest, most loving father we know. Does a mother think into her child's needs, the food, and clothing and the extras too, the luxuries? That is God, only He is more loving and wiser than the best of us. I have sometimes thought this: that if God were to say to me: "I want to give you something as a special love-gift; an extra because I love you: what would you like to have?" Do you know I have thought I would say, "Dear God, you choose. I choose what you choose." He is thinking about me. He knows what I am thinking of, and what I would most enjoy, and He is such a lover-God that He would choose something Just a bit finer than I would think. I might be thinking of a dollar, but likely as not He is thinking of a double eagle. I am thinking of blackberries, big, juicy blackberries, but really I do not know what blackberries are beside the sort He knows and would choose for me. That is our God. Prayer does not and cannot change the purpose of such a God. For every right and good thing we might ask for He has already planned to give us. But prayer does change the action of God. Because He cannot give against our wills, and our willingness as expressed by our asking gives Him the opportunity to do as He has already planned.
The Greatest Prayer.
There is a greatest prayer, the greatest that can be offered. It is the substratum of every true prayer. It is the undercurrent in the stream of all Spirit-breathed prayer. Jesus Himself gives it to us in the only form of prayer He left for our use. It is small in size, but mighty in power. Four words—"Thy will be done." Let us draw up our chairs, and brew it over mentally, that its strength and fragrance may come up into our nostrils, and fill our very beings.
"Thy": That is God. On one side, He is wise, with all of the intellectual strength, and keenness and poised judgment that that word among men brings to us. On another side, He is strong, with all that that word can imply of might and power irresistible. On still another side He is good, pure, holy with the finest thought those words ever suggest to us in those whom we know best, or in our dreams and visions. Then on a side remaining, the tender personal side, He is—loving? No, that is quite inadequate. He is love. Its personification is He. Now remember that we do not know the meaning of those words. Our best definition and thought of them, even in our dreams, when we let ourselves out, but hang around the outskirts. The heart of them we do not know. Those words mean infinitely more than we think. Their meaning is a projection along the lines of our thought of them, but measurelessly beyond our highest reach.
And then, this God, wise, strong, good, and love, is kin to us. We belong to Him.
"We are His flock; He doth us feed. And for His sheep, He doth us take."
We are His children by creation, and by a new creation in Jesus Christ. He is ours, by His own act. That is the "Thy"—a God wise, strong, pure, who is love, and who is a Father-mother-God, and is our God.
"Thy will." God's will is His desires, His purposes, that which He wishes to occur, and that to which He gives His strength that it may occur. The earth is His creation. Men are His children. Judging from wise loving parents among men He has given Himself to thinking and studying and planning for all men, and every man, and for the earth. His plan is the most wise, pure, loving plan that can be thought of, and more. It takes in the whole sweep of our lives, and every detail of them. Nothing escapes the love-vigilance of our God. What can be so vigilant and keen as love? Hate, the exact reverse, comes the nearest. It is ever the extremes that meet. But hate cannot come up to love for keen watchfulness at every turn. Health, strength, home, loved ones, friendships, money, guidance, protecting care, the necessities, the extras that love ever thinks of, service—all these are included in God's loving thought for us. That is His will. It is modified by the degree of our consent, and further modified by the circumstances of our lives. Life has become a badly tangled skein of threads. God with infinite patience and skill is at work untangling and bringing the best possible out of the tangle. What is absolutely best is rarely relatively best. That which is best in itself is usually not best under certain circumstances, with human lives in the balance. God has fathomless skill, and measureless patience, and a love utterly beyond both. He is ever working out the best thing possible under every circumstance. He could oftentimes do more, and do it in much less time if our human wills were more pliant to His. He can be trusted. And of course trust means trust in the darkest dark where you cannot see. And trust means trust. It does not mean test. Where you trust you do not test. Where you test you do not trust. Making this our prayer means trusting God. That is God, and that His will, and that the meaning of our offering this prayer. "Thy will be." A man's will is the man in action, within the limits of his power. God's will for man is Himself in action, within the limits of our cooperation. Be is a verb, an action-word, in the passive voice. It takes some form of the verb to be to express the passive voice of any action-word. It takes the intensest activity of will to put this passive voice into human action. The greatest strength is revealed in intelligent yielding. Here the prayer is expressing the utter willingness of a man that God's will shall be done in him, and through him. A man never loses his will, unless indeed he lose his manhood. But here he makes that will as strong as it can be made, as a bit of steel, better like the strong oak, strong enough to sway and bend in the wind. Then he uses all its strength in becoming passive to a higher will. And that too when the purpose of that higher will is not clear to his own limited knowledge and understanding.
"Thy will be done." That is, be accomplished, be brought to pass. The word stands for the action in its perfected, finished state. Thy will be fully accomplished in its whole sweep and in all its items. It speaks not only the earnest desire of the heart praying, but the set purpose that everything in the life is held subject to the doing of this purpose of God. It means that surrender of purpose that has utterly changed the lives of the strongest men in order that the purpose of God might be dominant. It cut off from a great throne earth's greatest jurist, the Hebrew lawgiver, and led him instead to be allied to a race of slaves. It led that intellectual giant Jeremiah from an easy enjoyable leadership to espouse a despised cause and so be himself despised. It led Paul from the leadership of his generation in a great nation to untold suffering, and to a block and an ax. It led Jesus the very Son of God, away from a kingship to a cross. In every generation it has radically changed lives, and life-ambitions. "Thy will be done" is the great dominant purpose-prayer that has been the pathway of God in all His great doings among men.
That will is being done everywhere else in God's great world of worlds, save on the earth and that portion of the spirit world allied to this earth. Everywhere else there is the perfect music of harmony with God's will. Here only is heard the harsh discordant note.
With this prayer go two clauses that really particularize and explain it. They are included in it, and are added to make more clear the full intent. The first of these clauses gives the sweep of His will in its broadest outlines. The second touches the opposition to that will both for our individual lives and for the race and the earth.
The first clause is this, "Thy kingdom come." In both of these short sentences, "Thy will be done," "Thy kingdom come," the emphatic word is "Thy." That word is set in sharpest possible contrast here. There is another kingdom now on the earth. There is another will being done. This other kingdom must go if God's kingdom is to come. These kingdoms are antagonistic at every point of contact. They are rivals for the same allegiance and the same territory. They cannot exist together. Charles II and Cromwell cannot remain in London together. "Thy kingdom come," of necessity includes this, "the other kingdom go." "Thy kingdom come" means likewise "Thy king come," for in the nature of things there cannot be a kingdom without a king. That means again by the same inference, "the other prince go," the one who makes pretensions to being rightful heir to the throne. "Thy will be done" includes by the same inference this:—"the other will be undone." This is the first great explanatory clause to be connected with this greatest prayer, "Thy kingdom come." It gives the sweep of God's will in its broadest outlines.
The second clause included in the prayer, and added to make clear the swing of action is this—"deliver us from the evil one." These two sentences, "Thy will be done," and "deliver us from the evil one," are naturally connected. Each statement includes the other. To have God's will fully done in us means emancipation from every influence of the evil one, either direct or indirect, or by hereditary taint. To be delivered from the evil one means that every thought and plan of God for our lives shall be fully carried out.
There are the two great wills at work in the world ever clashing in the action of history and in our individual lives. In many of us, aye, in all of us, though in greatly varying degree, these two wills constantly clash. Man is the real battle-field. The pitch of the battle is in his will. God will not do His will in a man without the man's will consenting. And Satan cannot. At the root the one thing that works against God's will is the evil one's will. And on the other hand the one thing that effectively thwarts Satan's plans is a man wholly given up to God's will.
The greatest prayer then fully expressed, sweeps first the whole field of action, then touches the heart of the action, and then attacks the opposition. It is this:—Thy kingdom come: Thy will be done: deliver us from the evil one. Every true prayer ever offered comes under this simple comprehensive prayer. It may be offered, it is offered with an infinite variety of detail. It is greatest because of its sweep. It includes all other petitions, for God's will includes everything for which prayer is rightly offered. It is greatest in its intensity. It hits the very bull's-eye of opposition to God.
II. Hindrances to Prayer
1. Why the Results Fail. 2. Why the Results Are Delayed. 3. The Great Outside Hindrance, or, the Relation of Prayer to Satan.
Why the Results Fail
Breaking with God.
God answers prayer. Prayer is God and man joining hands to secure some high end. He joins with us through the communication of prayer in accomplishing certain great results. This is the main drive of prayer. Our asking and expecting and God's doing jointly bring to pass things that otherwise would not come to pass. Prayer changes things. This is the great fact of prayer.
Yet a great many prayers are not answered. Or, to put it more accurately, a great many prayers fail utterly of accomplishing any results. Probably it is accurate to say that thousands of prayers go up and bring nothing down. This is certainly true. Let us say it just as bluntly and plainly as it can be said. As a result many persons are saying: "Well, prayer is not what you claim for it: we prayed and no answer came: nothing was changed."
From all sorts of circles, and in all sorts of language comes this statement. Scholarly men who write with wisdom's words, and thoughtless people whose thinking never even pricks the skin of the subject, and all sorts of people in between group themselves together here. And they are right, quite right. The bother is that what they say is not all there is to be said. There is yet more to be said, that is right too, and that changes the final conclusion radically. Partial truth is a very mean sort of lie.
The prayer plan like many another has been much disturbed, and often broken. And one who would be a partner with God up to the limit of his power must understand the things that hinder the prayer plan. There are three sorts of hindrances to prayer. First of all there are things in us that break off connection with God, the source of the changing power. Then there are certain things in us that delay, or diminish the results; that interfere with the full swing of the prayer plan of operations. And then there is a great outside hindrance to be reckoned upon. To-day we want to talk together of the first of these, namely, the hindrances that break off connections between God and His human partner.
Here again there is a division into three. There are three things directly spoken of in the book of God that hinder prayer. One of these is a familiar thing. What a pity that repugnant things may become so familiar as no longer to repel. It is this:—sin hinders prayer. In Isaiah's first chapter God Himself speaking says, "When you stretch out your hands"—the way they prayed, standing with outstretched hands—"I will shut My eyes; when you make many prayers, I will shut My ears." Why? What's the difficulty? These outstretched hands are soiled! They are actually holding their sin-soiled hands up into God's face; and He is compelled to look at the thing most hateful to Him. In the fifty-ninth chapter of this same book, God Himself is talking again. Listen "Behold! the Lord's hand is not shortened: His ear is not heavy." There is no trouble on the up side. God is all right. "But"—listen with both your ears—"your iniquities ... your sins ... your hands ... your fingers ... your lips ... your tongue ..." the slime of sin is oozing over everything! Turn back to that sixty-sixth Psalm—"if I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear me." How much more if the sin of the heart get into the hands or the life! And the fact to put down plainly in blackest ink once for all is this—sin hinders prayer. There is nothing surprising about this. That we can think the reverse is the surprising thing. Prayer is transacting business with God. Sin is breaking with God.
Suppose I had a private wire from my apartments here to my home in Cleveland, and some one should go outside and drag the wire down until it touches the ground—a good square touch with the ground—the electricians would call it grounded, could I telegraph over that wire? Almost any child knows I could not. Suppose some one cuts the wire, a good clean cut; the two ends are apart: not a mile; not a yard; but distinctly apart. Could I telegraph on that wire? Of course not. Yet I might sit in my room and tick away by the hour wholly absorbed, and use most beautiful persuasive language—what is the good? The wire's cut. All my fine pleading goes into the ground, or the air. Now sin cuts the wire; it runs the message into the ground.
"Well," some one will object, "now you're cutting us all out, are you not? Are we not all conscious of a sinful something inside here that has to be fought, and held under all the while?" It certainly seems to be true that the nearer a man gets to God the more keenly conscious he is of a sinful tendency within even while having continual victory. But plainly enough what the Book means here is this:—if I am holding something in my life that the Master does not like, if I am failing to obey when His voice has spoken, that to me is sin. It may be wrong in itself. It may not be wrong in itself. It may not be wrong for another. Sometimes it is not the thing involved but the One involved that makes the issue. If that faithful quiet inner voice has spoken and I know what the Master would prefer and I fail to keep in line, that to me is sin. Then prayer is useless; sheer waste of breath. Aye, worse, it is deceptive. For I am apt to say or think, "Well, I am not as good as you, or you, but then I am not so bad; I pray." And the truth is because I have broken with God the praying—saying words in that form—is utterly worthless.
You see sin is slapping God in the face. It may be polished, cultured sin. Sin seems capable of taking quite a high polish. Or it may be the common gutter stuff. A man is not concerned about the grain of a club that strikes him a blow. How can He and I talk together if I have done that, and stick to it—not even apologized. And of what good is an apology if the offense is being repeated. And if we cannot talk together of course working together is out of the question. And prayer is working together with God. Prayer is pulling with God in His plan for a world.
Shall we not put out the thing that is wrong? or put in the thing the Master wants in? For Jesus' sake? Aye for men's sake: poor befooled men's sake who are being kept out and away because God cannot get at them through us!
Shall we bow and ask forgiveness for our sin, and petty stubbornness that has been thwarting the Master's love-plan? And yet even while we ask forgiveness there are lives out yonder warped and dwarfed and worse because of the hindrance in us; yes, and remaining so as we slip out of this meeting. May the fact send us out to walk very softly these coming days.
A Coaling Station for Satan's Fleet.
There is a second thing that is plainly spoken of that hinders prayer. James speaks of it in his letter. "Ye have not because ye ask not"—that explains many parched up lives and churches and unsolved problems: no pipe lines run up to tap the reservoir, and give God an opening into the troubled territory. Then he pushes on to say—"Ye ask, and receive not"—ah! there's just the rub; it is evidently an old story, this thing of not receiving—why? "because ye ask amiss to spend it in your pleasures." That is to say selfish praying; asking for something just because I want it; want it for myself.
Here is a mother praying for her boy. He is just growing up towards young manhood; not a Christian boy yet; but a good boy. She is thinking, "I want my boy to be an honour to me; he bears my name; my blood is in his veins; I don't want my boy to be a prodigal. I want him to be a fine man, an honour to the family; and if he is a true Christian, he likely will be; I wish he were a Christian." And so she prays, and prays repeatedly and fervently. God might touch her boy's heart and say, "I want you out here in India to help win my prodigal world back." Oh! she did not mean that! Her boy in far, far off India! Oh, no! Not that!! Yes, what she wanted—that was the whole thought—selfishness; the stream turning in to a dead sea within her own narrow circle; no thought of sympathy with God in His eager outreach for His poor sin-befooled world. The prayer itself in its object is perfectly proper, and rightly offered and answered times without number; but the motive wholly, uglily selfish and the selfishness itself becomes a foothold for Satan and so the purpose of the prayer is thwarted.
Here is a wife praying that her husband might become a Christian. Perhaps her thought is: "I wish John were a Christian: it would be so good: it really seems the proper thing: he would go to church with me, and sit in the pew Sunday morning: I'd like that." Perhaps she thinks: "He would be careful about swearing; he would quit drinking; and be nicer and gentler at home." Maybe she thinks: "He would ask a blessing at the meals; that would be so nice." Maybe she thinks: "We would have family prayers." Maybe that does not occur to her these days. This is what I say: If her thought does not go beyond some such range, of course you would say it is selfish. She is thinking of herself; not of the loving grieved God against whom her husband is in rebellion; not of the real significance to the man. God might touch her husband's heart, and then say: "I want you to help Me win My poor world back." And the change would mean a reduced income, and a different social position. Oh! she had not meant that! Yes—what she wanted for herself!
Here is a minister praying for a revival in his church. Maybe he is thinking; no, not exactly thinking; it is just half thinking itself out in his sub-consciousness—"I wish we had a good revival in our church; increased membership; larger attendance; easier finances; may be an extra hundred or two in my own pocket; increased prestige in the denomination; a better call or appointment: I wish we might have a revival." Now no true minister ever talked that way even to himself or deliberately thought it. To do so would be to see the mean contemptibility of it. But you know how sly we all are in our underneath scarcely-thought-out thoughts. This is what I say: if that be the sort of thing underneath a man's praying of course the motive is utterly selfish; a bit of the same thing that brought Satan his change of name and character.
Please notice that the reason for the prayer not being answered here is not an arbitrary reluctance upon God's part to do a desirable thing. He never fails to work whenever He has a half chance as far as it is possible to work, even through men of faulty conceptions and mixed motives. The reason lies much deeper. It is this: selfishness gives Satan a footing. It gives a coaling station for his fleet on the shore of your life. And of course he does his best to prevent the prayer, or when he cannot wholly prevent, to spoil the results as far as he can.
Prayer may properly be offered—will be properly offered for many wholly personal things; for physical strength, healing in sickness, about dearly loved ones, money needed; indeed regarding things that may not be necessary but only desirable and enjoyable, for ours is a loving God who would have His dear ones enjoy to the full their lives down here. But the motive determines the propriety of such requests. Where the whole purpose of one's life is for Him these things may be asked for freely as His gracious Spirit within guides. And there need be no bondage of morbid introspection, no continual internal rakings. He knows if the purpose of the heart is to please Him.
The Shortest Way to God.
A third thing spoken of as hindering prayer is an unforgiving spirit. You have noticed that Jesus speaks much about prayer and also speaks much about forgiveness. But have you noticed how, over and over again He couples these two—prayer and forgiveness? I used to wonder why. I do not so much now. Nearly everywhere evidence keeps slipping in of the sore spots. One may try to keep his lips closed on certain subjects, but it seems about impossible to keep the ears entirely shut. And continually the evidence keeps sifting in revealing the thin skin, raw flesh, wounds never healed over, and some jaggedly open, almost everywhere one goes. Jesus' continual references reveal how strikingly alike is the oriental and the occidental; the first and the twentieth centuries.
Run through Matthew alone a moment. Here in the fifth chapter: "If thou are coming to the altar"—that is approaching God; what we call prayer—"and rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee"—that side of it—"leave there thy gift and go thy way, first be reconciled," and so on. Here comes a man with a lamb to offer. He approaches solemnly, reverently, towards the altar of God. But as he is coming there flashes across his mind the face of that man, with whom he has had difficulty. And instantly he can feel his grip tightening on the offering, and his teeth shutting closer at the quick memory. Jesus says, "If that be so lay your lamb right down." What! go abruptly away! Why! how the folks around the temple will talk! "Lay the lamb right down, and go thy way." The shortest way to God for that man is not the way to the altar, but around by that man's house. "First, be reconciled"—keep your perspective straight—follow the right order—"first be reconciled"—not second; "then come and offer thy gift."
In the sixth chapter He gives the form of prayer which we commonly call the Lord's prayer. It contains seven petitions. At the close He stops to emphasize just one of the seven. You remember which one; the one about forgiveness. In the eighteenth chapter Jesus is talking alone with the disciples about prayer. Peter seems to remember the previous remarks about forgiveness in connection with prayer; and he asks a question. It is never difficult to think of Peter asking a question or making a few remarks. He says, "Master, how many times must I forgive a man? Seven times!" Apparently Peter thinks he is growing in grace. He can actually think now of forgiving a man seven times in succession. But the Master in effect says, "Peter, you haven't caught the idea. Forgiveness is not a question of mathematics; not a matter of keeping tab on somebody: not seven times but seventy times seven." And Peter's eyes bulge open with an incredulous stare—"four hundred and ninety times!... one man—straightway!!" Apparently the Master is thinking, that he will lose count, or get tired of counting and conclude that forgiveness is preferable, or else by practice breathe in the spirit of forgiveness—the thing He meant.
Then as He was so fond of doing Jesus told a story to illustrate His meaning. A man owed his lord a great debt, twelve millions of dollars; that is to say practically an unpayable amount. By comparison with money to-day, in the western world, it would be about twelve billions. And he went to him and asked for time. He said: "I'm short just now; but I mean to pay; I don't mean to shirk: be easy with me; and I'll pay up the whole sum in time." And his lord generously forgave him the whole debt. That is Jesus' picture of God, as He knows Him who knows Him best. Then this forgiven man went out and found a fellow servant who owed him—how much do you think? Have you ever thought that Jesus had a keen sense of the ludicrous? Surely it shows here. He owed him about sixteen dollars and a-quarter or a-half! And you can almost feel the clutch of this fellow's fingers on the other's throat as he sternly demands:—"Pay me that thou owest." And his fellow earnestly replies, "Please be easy with me; I mean to pay; I'm rather short just now: but I'm not trying to shirk; be easy with me." Is it possible the words do not sound familiar! But he would not, but put him in the jail. The last place to pay a debt! That is Jesus' picture of man as He knows him who knows him best. And in effect He says what we have been forgiven by God is as an unpayable amount. And what are not willing to forgive is like sixteen dollars and a fraction by contrast. What little puny folks some of us are in our thinking and feeling!
"Oh, well," some one says, "you do not know how hard it is to forgive." You think not? I know this much:—that some persons, and some things you cannot forgive of yourself. But I am glad to say that I know this too that if one allows the Spirit of Jesus to sway the heart He will make you love persons you cannot like. No natural affinity or drawing together through disposition, but a real yearning love in the heart. Jesus' love, when allowed to come in as freely as He means, fills your heart with pity for the man who has wounded you. An infinite, tender pity that he has sunk so low as to be capable of such actions.
But the fact to put down in the sharpest contrast of white and black is that we must forgive freely, frankly, generously, "even as God," if we are to be in prayer touch with God.
And the reason is not far to find; a double reason, Godward and Satanward. If prayer be partnership in the highest sense then the same spirit must animate both partners, the human and the divine, if the largest results are to come. And since unforgiveness roots itself down in hate Satan has room for both feet in such a heart with all the leeway in action of such purchase. That word unforgiving! What a group of relatives it has, near and far! Jealousy, envy, bitterness, the cutting word, the polished shaft of sarcasm with the poisoned tip, the green eye, the acid saliva—what kinsfolk these!
Sin, selfishness, an unforgiving spirit—what searchlights these words are! Many a splendid life to-day is an utter cipher in the spirit atmosphere because of some such hindrance. And God's great love-plan for His prodigal world is being held back; and lives being lost even where ultimately souls shall be saved because of the lack of human prayer partners.
May we not well pray:—Search me, oh God, and know my heart and help me know it; try me and know my innermost, undermost thoughts and purposes and ambitions, and help me know them; and see what way there be in me that is a grief to Thee; and then lead me—and here the prayer may be a purpose as well as a prayer—lead me out of that way unto Thy way, the way everlasting. For Jesus' sake; aye for men's sake, too.
Why the Results are Delayed
God's Pathway to Human Hearts.
God touches men through men. The Spirit's path to a human heart is through another human heart. With reverence be it said, yet with blunt plainness that in His plan for winning men to their true allegiance God is limited by the human limitations. That may seem to mean more than it really does. For our thought of the human is of the scarred, warped, shrivelled humanity that we know, and great changes come when God's Spirit controls. But the fact is there, however limited our understanding of it.
God needs man for His plan. That is the fact that stands out strong in thinking about prayer. God's greatest agency; man's greatest agency, for defeating the enemy and winning men back is intercession. God is counting mightily upon that. And He can count most mightily upon the man that faithfully practices that.
The results He longs for are being held back, and made smaller because so many of us have not learned how to pray simply and skilfully. We need training. And God understands that. He Himself will train. But we must be willing; actively willing. And just there the great bother comes in. A strong will perfectly yielded to God's will, or perfectly willing to be yielded, is His mightiest ally in redeeming the world.
Answers to prayer are delayed, or denied, out of kindness, or, that more may be given, or, that a far larger purpose may be served. But deeper down by far than that is this: God's purposes are being delayed; delayed because of our unwillingness to learn how to pray, or, our slowness—I almost said—our stupidity in learning. It is a small matter that my prayer be answered, or unanswered; not small to me; everything perhaps to me; but small in proportion. It is a tremendous thing that God's purpose for a world is being held back through my lack. The thought that prayer is getting things from God; chiefly that, is so small, pitiably small, and yet so common. The true conception understands that prayer is partnership with God in His planet-sized purposes, and includes the "all things" beside, as an important detail of the whole.
The real reason for the delay or failure lies simply in the difference between God's view-point and ours. In our asking either we have not reached the wisdom that asks best, or, we have not reached the unselfishness that is willing to sacrifice a good thing, for a better, or the best; the unselfishness that is willing to sacrifice the smaller personal desire for the larger thing that affects the lives of many.
We learn best by pictures, and by stories which are pen or word pictures. This was Jesus' favourite method of teaching. There are in the Bible four great, striking instances of delayed, or qualified answers to prayer. There are some others; but these stand out sharply, and perhaps include the main teachings of all. Probably all the instances of hindered prayer with which we are familiar will come under one of these. That is to say, where there are good connections upward as suggested in our last talk, and, excepting those that come under the talk succeeding this, namely, the great outside hindrance. These four are Moses' request to enter Canaan; Hannah's prayer for a son; Paul's thorn; and Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane.