The Hidden Life of Prayer
The Open Recompense
In their anxiety to magnify the personal benefits which are derived from communion with God, the Greek fathers used to employ the figure of a boat moored to a ship. If one were to draw upon the rope, they said, the ship would remain unmoved, but the boat would at once respond to the pull. Apparently they forgot, or did not know, that in mechanics "action and reaction are equal and opposite;" as great an effect would take place on the larger vessel as on the smaller, although the greater bulk of the ship would make the displacement much less obvious with regard to it than as it affected the boat. In prayer also, the influence is reciprocal. There is, as we have seen, a heightened exercise of all the Christian graces; but there are also direct answers to petitions offered in faith.
If we do not expect to receive answers to our requests, our whole conception of prayer is at fault. "None ask in earnest," says Trail, "but they will try how they speed. There is no surer and plainer mark of trifling in prayer than when men are careless what they get by prayer." And to the same effect Richard Sibbes writes: "We should watch daily, continue instant in prayer; strengthen our supplications with arguments from God's Word and promises; and mark how our prayers speed. When we shoot an arrow we look to its fall; when we send a ship to sea we look for its return; and when we sow we look for an harvest....It is atheism to pray and not to wait in hope. A sincere Christian will pray, wait, strengthen his heart with the promises, and never leave praying and looking up till God gives him a gracious answer."
And if the answer is delayed, we ought to ask ourselves if that which we desire is truly according to the will of God; and if we are satisfied that it is, we ought to continue "instant in prayer." Bengel gives his judgment that "a Christian should not leave off praying till his heavenly Father give him leave, by permitting him to obtain something." And George Müller drew encouragement from the fact that he had been enabled to persevere in prayer daily, during twenty-nine years, for a certain spiritual blessing long withheld: "At home and abroad, in this country and in foreign lands, in health and in sickness, however much occupied, I have been enabled, day by day, by God's help, to bring this matter before Him, and still I have not the full answer yet. Nevertheless, I look for it. I expect it confidently. The very fact that day after day, and year after year, for twenty-nine years, the Lord has enabled me to continue patiently, believingly, to wait on Him for the blessing, still further encourages me to wait on; and so fully am I assured that God hears me about this matter, that I have often been enabled to praise Him beforehand for the full answer which I shall ultimately receive to my prayers on this subject."40
We ought not to doubt that those prayers which are according to the Will of God shall have a full answer, for with regard to them we rest our confidence on the Word and Name of Christ. But there are many requests concerning which we do not easily come to full assurance-they do not stand so clearly in the Divine will as to yield us certainty. And with regard to many of them our prayers seem to return empty.
Moses desired to pass over Jordan with the tribes; but Jehovah said to him, "Speak no more unto Me of this matter." Paul besought the Lord thrice that the thorn which rankled in his flesh might be withdrawn, but the only response assured was, "My grace is sufficient for thee." John, the beloved disciple, encourages us to pray for the salvation of our brethren, but even as we address ourselves to this holy duty he reminds us that "there is a sin unto death," in the face of which, apparently, prayer will not prevail. We may indeed be sure that "Whatsoever is good for God's children they shall have it; for all is theirs to help them towards heaven; therefore if poverty be good they shall have it; if disgrace or crosses be good they shall have them; for all is ours to promote our greatest prosperity."41
When we pray for temporal blessings, we are sometimes conscious of the special aid of the Spirit of intercession. This is, so far, a warrant to believe that our prayer is well-pleasing to God. But we must be careful not to confound the yearnings of nature with the promptings of the Spirit. Only those whose eye is single, and whose whole body, therefore, is full of light, can safely distinguish between the impulses of the flesh and of the Spirit.42 Subject to this caution we may very often derive encouragement from the fervor of our petitions. John Livingstone made this note in his private papers: "After prayer, I am to look back and recapitulate what petitions God hath put in my mouth, and these I am to account as blessings promised, and to look for the performance." And Augustus Toplady speaks with even less reserve: "I can, to the best of my remembrance and belief, truly say that I never yet have had one promise, nor assurance, concerning temporal things, impressed upon me beforehand in a way of communion with God, which the event did not realize. I never, that I know of, knew it fail in any one single instance."43
What things should form the burden of our request? Maximus of Tyre declared that he would not ask the gods for anything but goodness, peace, and hope in death. But we Christians may ask our Father for all that we need. Only, let our desires be restrained, and our prayers unselfish. The personal petitions contained in the Lord's Prayer are very modest-daily bread, forgiveness, and deliverance from sin's power. Yet these comprise all things that pertain to life and godliness.
Bread and water, and a place of shelter among the munition of rocks, are assured to us. Garrison, and garrison fare!44 But we are not often reduced to such simplicity of supply: God is so much better than His word. He feeds us with food convenient; and if ever He should suffer us to hunger, it is only that our spiritual nature may be enriched.
But man does not live by bread alone. Health and comfort, the joys of home, and the pleasures of knowledge, are blessings which we may rightfully ask, and they will not be withheld unless our Father judges it best that we should be deprived of them. But if He should bar our repeated request, and refuse to receive our prayer, we must then reply with the First-born among many brethren, "Abba, Father, all things are possible unto Thee: howbeit, not what I will, but what Thou wilt."45 When we reach the end of our journey, if not before, we shall be able to say, "There hath not failed one word of all His good promise, which He promised."
When we pray for spiritual blessings we shall never ask in vain. James Gilmour writes to one who asked his counsel, "All I know about the process is just going to God and telling what I want, and asking to be allowed to have it. "Seek, and ye shall find; ask, and ye shall receive." I know no secret but this. And again, "You say you want reviving-go direct to Jesus, and ask it straight out, and you'll get it straight away. This revived state is not a thing you need to work yourself up into, or need others to help you to rise into, or need to come to England to have operated upon you, Jesus can effect it anywhere, and does effect it everywhere, whenever a man or woman, or men and women, ask it. "Ask, and ye shall receive." My dear brother, I have learned that the source of much blessing is just to go to Jesus, and tell Him what you need." A Scottish Covenanter reports that he received a greater increase of grace in one afternoon, spent in prayer, than during a year before. After two days' prayer in the woods of Anwoth, Samuel Rutherford received the white stone and the new name, to be "a graced minister of Jesus Christ." And how many kneeling in an upper chamber, have received the heavenly baptism into "a sense of all conditions," and the witness of the tongue of fire. All the storehouses of God open at the voice of faith.
It is probable that answers to prayer always bring their own token to the supplicant; but he may not always be able to convince others that the events which happen are due to the direct interposition of God. Let us take two examples, chosen almost at random.
"A Christian friend once sprang after his boy, who had fallen into the swollen flood of the Wupper; and as he sprang he cried, 'Lord, teach me to swim!' He swam skillfully, though he had never tried it before, and saved his child."46
Once when a sudden and terrific hailstorm was pouring down upon the fields, and likely to occasion serious damage, a person rushed into Bengel's room, and exclaimed: 'Alas, sir, everything will be destroyed; we shall lose all!' Bengel went composedly to the window, opened it, lifted up his hands to heaven, and said, 'Father, restrain it'; and the tempest actually abated from that moment"47
Often, however, the reward of prayer is so conspicuous that it is scarcely possible to ignore the connection between the petition and the answer. Let us take as an example of this the case of charitable institutions founded by their pious promoters on the promises of God.
The Pietas Hallensis is little else than an enumeration of deliverances granted to Dr. Francke in connection with the orphan-houses at Halle. Here is one: "Another time I stood in need of a great sum of money, insomuch that an hundred crowns would not have served the turn, and yet I saw not the least appearance how I might be supplied with an hundred groats. The steward came, and set forth the want we were in. I bade him come again after dinner, and I resolved to put up my prayers to the Lord for His assistance. When he came in again after dinner, I was still in the same want, and so appointed him to come in the evening. In the meantime a friend of mine had come to see me, and with him I joined in prayers, and found myself much moved to praise and magnify the Lord for all His admirable dealings towards mankind, even from the beginning of the world, and the most remarkable instances came readily to my remembrance whilst I was praying. I was so elevated in praising and magnifying God, that I insisted only on that exercise of my present devotion, and found no inclination to put up many anxious petitions to be delivered of the present necessity. At length my friend taking his leave, I accompanied him to the door, where I found the steward waiting on one side for the money he wanted, and on the other a person who brought an hundred and fifty crowns for the support of the hospital."
The history of George Müller's Homes at Ashley Down is written vividly on the conscience of Christendom. Mr. Müller, among many trials to faith, encountered one which was especially sharp. Looking back to it in later years, he commemorates the Lord's deliverance, and adds: "The only inconvenience that we had in this case was that our dinner was about half an hour later than usual. Such a thing, as far as I remember, scarcely ever occurred before, and has never occurred since."
William Quarrier balanced the accounts of the Homes at Bridge of Weir every month. If at any time it appeared probable that the balance would fall on the wrong side, he called his fellow-workers to prayer, and invariably the needed funds came in. Almost at the close of his life, he testified that he had never been in debt one hour.
"The God that answereth by orphanages," exclaimed C. H. Spurgeon, "let Him be God."
Less tangible, but not less obvious, are the answers granted to prayers for the extension of the Redeemer's kingdom upon earth. To illustrate this point suitably it would be necessary to outline the history of the whole Church of Christ.
One could almost wish that this were the beginning, and not the close of this small volume. How the instances crowd upon the memory, and stir the imagination!
By prayer a handful of "unlearned and ignorant men," hard-handed from the oar and the rudder, the mattock and the pruning-hook, "turned the world upside down," and spread the name of Christ beyond the limits of the Roman power.
By prayer the tent-maker of Tarsus won the dissolute Corinthians to purity and faith,48 laid the enduring foundations of Western Christianity, and raised the name of Jesus high in the very palace of Nero.
The ruined cells on many barren islets in our Scottish seas remind us of the weeks and months of prayer and fasting by which the Celtic missionaries, in the space of one generation, won Caledonia for Christ.
The prayers of Luther and his colleagues sent the great truths of the Gospel flying across Europe as on the wings of angels.
The moorland and the mountains of Scotland are to this hour witnesses that "a fair meeting" between a covenanting Christ and a covenanted land were drawn on by the prayers of Welsh and Cargill, Guthrie and Blackadder, Peden and Cameron.
Before the great revival in Gallneukirchen broke out, Martin Boos spent hours and days, and often nights, in lonely agonies of intercession. Afterwards, when he preached, his words were as flame, and the hearts of the people as grass.
A sermon preached in Clynnog, Caernarvonshire, by Robert Roberts, was the apparent cause of a widespread awakening in Wales. It is said that a hundred persons were savingly impressed by its delivery. Some days later, a friend of the preacher, John Williams, Dolyddelen, said, "Tell me, Roberts, where did you get that wonderful sermon?" "Come here, John," said Roberts, as he led him to a small parlor, and continued, "It was here I found that sermon you speak of-on the floor here, all night long, turning backward and forward, with my face sometimes on the earth."
Ah! it is always so. Those who have turned many to righteousness have labored early and late with the weapon called "All-prayer."
Of Joseph Alleine, who "was infinitely and insatiably greedy of the conversion of souls," it is related: "At the time of his health, he did rise constantly at or before four of the clock....From four till eight he spent in prayer, holy contemplation, and Singing of psalms, in which he much delighted....Sometimes he would suspend the routine of parochial engagements and devote whole days to these secret exercises, in order to which he would plan to be alone in some empty house, or else in some barren spot in the open valley."
Of William Grimshaw, the apostle of Yorkshire, it was said: "It was his custom to rise early in the morning-at five in the winter, and at four in the summer-that he might begin the day with God."
George Whitefield frequently spent whole nights in meditation and prayer, and often rose from his bed in the night to intercede for perishing souls. He says: "Whole days and weeks have I spent prostrate on the ground in silent or vocal prayer."
The biographer of Payson observes that "prayer was pre-eminently the business of his life," and he himself used to strongly assert that he pitied that Christian who could not enter into the meaning of the words, "groanings which cannot be uttered" (Rom. viii. 26). It is related of him that he "wore the hard wood boards into grooves where his knees pressed so often and so long."
In a word, every gracious work which has been accomplished within the kingdom of God has been begun, fostered, and consummated by prayer.
"What is the secret of this revival?" said one in 1905 to Evan Roberts. "There is no secret," was the reply, "It is only, 'Ask, and receive.'"