After considering meditation upon the Word of God over two Lord’s Day evenings, we come to prayer. If the first is an effort to hear what the Lord is saying to us, the second is our speaking to him in turn. And, I’ll tell you frankly, I’m glad for an opportunity to think hard again about prayer and to read what wise men and women have had to say about the practice of prayer through the ages. For I am one of those who think that Alexander Whyte was talking about me when he said, “There is nothing we are so bad at all our days as prayer” and Lloyd Jones was talking about me when he said, “Everything we do in the Christian life is easier than prayer” and John Newton was speaking about me as well as about himself when he said,
“I find in my own case an unaccountable backwardness to pray. I can read, I can write, I can converse with a ready will, but secret prayer is far more spiritual than any of these. And the more spiritual a duty is the more my carnal heart is apt to start away from it.”
Indeed, Thomas Shepard, the pilgrim father, nailed me precisely when he confided to his journal, “There are times in my life when I would rather die than pray.”
It is easy to make Christians feel guilty about the quantity and the quality of their prayer. At least it is easy to make me feel guilty about those things. It has always been easy to do this. The finest Christians throughout church history have confessed to the man the difficulty they have found in living a life of prayer. But it is not my interest to prove that you don’t pray as you should. You already know that; I know that. I want rather to whet our appetite for the life of prayer, to encourage us to apply ourselves anew and afresh in the confidence that the Lord will meet us and grant us still more blessing as we pray. Prayer has never been easy for believers because it is an act of pure faith and faith, true faith, is the most difficult thing of all. We all find within ourselves a powerful contrary disposition to prayer. It is easy to live by sight; we find it natural. It is very hard to live by faith, and to pray, really to pray is to live by faith.
I remember reading years ago a passage in the Diary of Andrew Bonar, the saintly Scottish pastor. He had set aside a morning for prayer and struggled to concentrate and to maintain his sense of being engaged in an actual conversation with God. Eventually he gave up and concluded that perhaps he was more cut out for short bursts of prayer than long seasons of it. Even the best intentioned, the more spiritually mature Christians have found prayer a great challenge.
What is more, at the point that Christians are truly exercising their faith they pose the greatest danger to the Devil’s program in the world. Richard Sibbes wrote long ago,
“When we go to God by prayer, the devil knows we go to fetch strength against him, and therefore he opposes us all he can.”
The Devil works to make prayer still more difficult for us than it already is! On the other hand, I am sure that even we pray better and more powerfully than we think. I said last week that in regard to the “conditions” of the covenant of grace, the things God requires of us – faith, repentance, and obedience – our gracious heavenly Father takes very little to be adequate fulfillment of those conditions. His mercy is revealed especially in this: that he takes for faith what is very weak faith; for repentance what is admittedly often quite half-hearted repentance; and for obedience what is far, far from heartfelt and consistent and strict obedience to his commandments. He takes our little for a lot. The Bible is reminding us of that all the time. To call us saints, as the Bible so frequently does, is to call saints very sinful people, who are rightly often ashamed of how unholy, unsaintly we are.
Well, many godly writers through the ages have reminded us that prayer is the index of our faith. We know how much faith we have by how ardently and at what length we pray to God. Anyone who believes, truly believes, will live his or her life in a state of conscious dependence upon the Lord. But prayer is the expression of conscious dependence upon the Lord. Prayer is what people do who know and who feel their complete dependence upon the Lord for his help and blessing. So, if we don’t pray very well, we are not believing very well. That seems to me to be a sound conclusion. Which only proves the more my point of last Lord’s Day evening: that in the matter of faith, the Lord takes our little for a lot. We don’t have nearly the faith we ought to have – and our life of prayer or, better, the lack of prayer is the demonstration of that – but what faith we do have, because it is faith in the Lord Jesus, is true faith and connects us to him and to his blessing. The Lord credits even our weak and intermittent faith as righteousness.
So, I suspect that when we get to heaven we will discover that a great many of our prayers were answered and that they made the greatest conceivable difference in our lives. We pray every Lord’s Day together for the forgiveness of our sins. We often tend, I suspect, to think that isn’t so important a prayer. I’m quite sure it is the most important prayer we pray and I’m also quite sure it is regularly answered to the great blessing of our lives because by it and by our heavenly Father’s answering it we maintain a proper relationship with him. The question is: does God hear our prayers and does he answer them? And the Bible says he hears and answers the prayers of even very weak faith. He must; because we all have very weak faith and the Bible assures us that God hears the prayers of his people. Let me illustrate it this way.
“The largest radio receiver on earth is in New Mexico. Pilots call it “the mushroom patch.” Its real name is the Very Large Array. The “VLA” is a series of huge satellite disks on thirty eight miles of railways. Together the dishes mimic a single telescope the size of Washington, D.C. Astronomers come from all over the world to analyze the optical images of the heavens composed by the VLA from the radio signals it receives from space. Why is such a giant apparatus needed? Because the radio waves, often emitted from sources millions of light years away, are very faint. The total energy of all radio waves ever recorded barely equals the force of a single snowflake hitting the ground.” [D. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 65]
Well, if we can hear signals that faint, the Almighty can hear the whispered cry of his children no matter where they are, no matter how poorly they utter the words. As our Savior reminded us, “God knows what we need before we ask him.” He is reading our circumstances before we explain them to him. And he loves us. He wants the best for us because he is our Father and we are his children. We must never forget this.
Charles Spurgeon put it this way:
“I cannot imagine any one of you tantalizing your child by exciting in him a desire you had no intention to gratify. It were a very ungenerous thing to offer alms to the poor, and then when they hold out their hand for it, to mock their poverty with a denial. It were a cruel addition to the miseries of the sick if they were taken to the hospital and there left to die untended and uncared for. Where God leads you to pray, He means you to receive.” [MTP, vol. 30, 539-540; cited in Whitney, 79]
But we don’t want to rest content with what we have so far attained or the measure of blessing we have so far obtained by prayer. We want to grow in this grace, all the more because it is a mother grace and many other graces are given life by it. We want to pray better and we want to pray longer.
And what better way to encourage us in this direction than simply to be reminded what prayer is and what prayer does! So let us begin.
What is prayer? You children remember the definition in the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
“Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.”
That is a wonderful definition but it raises many questions, does it not? Is that what every prayer is? There are many prayers in the Bible, even the Lord’s own prayers, that do not contain all five elements of the definition of prayer in the Shorter Catechism. Even the Lord’s Prayer does not contain all those elements. Some prayers are simply a petition, a request. Think of Nehemiah’s famous “arrow prayer” in Nehemiah 2:4, a prayer he sandwiched between the King’s asking him what he wanted and his reply, obviously a matter of a few seconds at most. Some prayers are entirely praise and thanksgiving from beginning to end and contain no petitions. So, while the catechism gives us a more or less complete definition of prayer in its various parts and kinds, we need something simpler still.
John Knox’s famous and beautiful definition of prayer fits the bill: “earnest and familiar talking with God.” Prayer is talking to God. Before Knox there was Thomas à Kempis who spoke of prayer as simply “conversation with God.” What those definitions are meant to convey is the nature of prayer as personal communication with God, communication like that we have with one another: speaking, hearing, replying.
We know very well, of course, that a great deal of the prayer that is offered in this world is everything but conversation with God. The Lord Jesus, you remember, in his Sermon on the Mount, warned against prayers that were nothing but the empty repetition of words. Much of the world’s prayer is a ritual, not a conversation. I have always found it simply astonishing that, notwithstanding the Lord’s explicit condemnation of such prayers in which people “think they will be heard because of their many words” Roman Catholics will recite four or five or six Hail Marys in a row. I remember listening in on Roman Catholic wakes at the mortuary in St. Louis where I worked as a seminarian. Over and over again they would recite this form of words. Whatever this was, it was not conversation with God; it wasn’t even conversation with Mary. Imagine, for a moment, being on the other end of a conversation like that! What was Mary supposed to think? The people speaking to her kept saying the same thing over and over again! She couldn’t get a word in edgewise because once they had said one Hail Mary they started on the next.
We cannot think too often or too much about prayer as conversation with God. This is what prayer is in the Bible. You see it from the beginning of the Bible to the end. People are talking to the Living God in much the same way they talk to one another. This is how Jesus talked to his heavenly Father. He talked to him in the same way he would have talked to him had he been with him in heaven. “Father, if it be possible, remove this cup from me.” Not a formula; not a ritual; but a conversation about his life and his circumstances at that moment. An expression of his need and of his heart. Or think of Nehemiah that day in court. “Lord, help me to say the right thing in the right way to the King.” That’s the way we speak to one another. That’s conversation. Or think of Hannah in her misery pouring out her heart to the Lord for a child. “Lord, if you love me at all, can you not see how my whole life is overshadowed by my childlessness?” And countless prayers like that in Holy Scripture. They are all real and simple and straightforward conversation with God.
All the church’s best teachers of prayer have emphasized the conversational character of true prayer, that is, that one is to speak to God as one speaks with another human being, particularly another person that one loves and trusts. Take, for example, Francois Fenelon, the 17th century French Catholic mystic and disciple and defender of Madame Guyon, the woman often described as a Catholic Calvinist, a champion of salvation by grace alone. Fenelon was condemned by the Pope at one point, at the insistence of Louis XIV, but so gently condemned that his enemies were mortified and, all the more, when later the Pope was widely quoted as saying that “Fenelon was at fault for too great love of God; his enemies equally at fault for too little love of their neighbor.” So what did Fenelon say about prayer?
“Tell God all that is in your heart, as one unloads one’s heart, its pleasures and its pains to a dear friend. Tell him your troubles that he may comfort you; tell him your joys, that he may sober them; tell him your longings that he may purify them; and so on. [Talk] out of the abundance of [your] heart; without consideration…say just what [you] think. Blessed are they who attain to such familiar, unreserved [conversation] with God.”
Notice again prayer as speaking to another; prayer as conversation. There are other ways than simply showing us the prayers of various believing men and women in the Bible that help us to see prayer as a real conversation with God, conversation with God like the conversation we have with others. For example, prayer can be likened in the Bible to “looking to God.” [Ps. 69:3] We have taught our dog, Simon, to pray before his dinner. The food is placed before him and he bows down. But he doesn’t close his eyes. He turns his head, close to the floor as it is, and looks right up at us waiting for us to say “Amen.” Now, perhaps you think his concentration on us, his looking at us, means that he isn’t concentrating on his prayer, and perhaps you’re right; but looking and praying are something like the same thing. When you are looking at God, concentrating on God, it is perfectly obvious you are waiting for him to say or do something. Someone who sees you looking at him and knows perfectly well why you are looking at him is in a conversation whether or not any words are spoken.
Or consider these opening words to biblical prayers:
“Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God…” (Ps. 4:1)
“Give ear to my words, O Lord, consider my sighing. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray.” (Ps. 5:1-2)
“O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger…” (6:1)
“Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself?” (10:1)
“How long, O Lord! Will you forget me forever?” (13:1)
And on and on. These are so obviously real exchanges on the level of the deepest personal sincerity. These people are talking to God! And they are talking to him about what is more important to them.
Now, before we go on, it is important for us to stop and consider for a few moments what the possibility of such prayer tells us about God.
- Obviously there is a great wonder here in this possibility of real conversation with God; a revelation of God’s infinity and transcendence.
How wonderful God is! How far beyond our understanding? When you come to the Lord God in prayer in this way, as you do again and again and at the drop of a hat, you come with the expectation of your being heard. That is precisely what the Scripture teaches you to think and to expect. But you are hardly the only person in the world addressing God at that moment. Every moment of every day multitudes of people, hundreds of thousands upon hundreds of thousands at once are addressing the Lord in prayer. And yet you have the promise of God that when you speak to him, whenever you speak to him, you will have his full attention.
C.S. Lewis thought he could explain how this was possible this way. “Almost certainly God is not in time. His life does not consist of moments following one another. If a million people are praying to him at ten-thirty tonight, he need not listen to them all in that one little snippet we call ten-thirty. Ten-thirty – and every other moment from the beginning of the world – is always the present for him.” [Mere Christianity, 146] Perhaps that is the explanation; perhaps not. But what the Bible is at pains to remind us is that prayer is not a pageant; it is not a charade. It is a real conversation with a listening and hearing God. God is so great, so infinite, he can hear you and everyone else, and give his full attention to you and to everyone else who is praying to him.
- In the second place, the possibility of real conversation with God is a revelation of God’s love and condescension.
Just imagine for a moment the Almighty God in his glory; seated upon his throne, surrounded by the angelic hosts; receiving the praises and love of the glorified church. Imagine such a scene as is painted for us in several places in John’s Revelation. It is an imaginary scene, of course; God the Father is a glorious spirit; he does not sit on a throne. But the scene helps us to conceive of the truth nevertheless. And imagine in the midst of all of that glory, in the midst of all of that beautiful song, a telephone, sitting beside the throne on an alabaster table, begins to ring. And the phone is picked up; not by some angel assistant; not by some underling serving as the Almighty’s receptionist. God himself turns and picks up the phone himself, raises it to his ear, and, lo and behold, it is you on the other end! You – you pipsqueak – have interrupted this heavenly scene. What does God say? Does he say that he is sorry but he cannot speak with you at this time? Does he say that he’s having trouble hearing you because of the thunder of the great chorus singing to him? Does he say as he puts you on hold that your call is valuable to him and will be answered in the order received. No! He stops everything to listen to you and doesn’t allow anything to begin again until you have said what is in your heart to say. We take this for granted, but it is one of the most phenomenal truths of human life. You can have the ear of Almighty God, you can have his undivided attention, you can speak to him about what is on your mind and heart any time you please. The Lord God Almighty is at your beck and call. He is because he promised to be. That is astonishing; but it is true.
- Third, in this possibility of real conversation with God there is inevitably the promise of prayer’s power.
The fact is God would never have made the promises he has made to prayer had he no intention of keeping them in ways that would prove of great importance to his children. In 1924, in an article published in the Atlantic Monthly, Kirsopp Lake, then a professor of biblical studies at Harvard, wrote that “few educated people [today] believe in prayer’s [efficacy]…. I do not believe that the religion of tomorrow will have any more place for petition than for any other form of magic.” And if that was the view of educated people in 1924, how much more in our day. Prayer is an act of faith and people without faith will, obviously, never credit it. And, yet, it remains perfectly clear that to doubt the power of prayer is effectively to abandon Christianity entirely.
That is not only because the Bible makes so many direct and emphatic statements to the effect that prayer induces God to do things in the world.
“Whatever you ask in my name, it shall be done for you,” said Jesus.
“Ask and it shall be given to you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened to you,” said Jesus.
“Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” That is James.
Or think of the prayers of the saints, in Rev. 8:3 that are sent back down to earth as “peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.”
There are many texts like those. And there is another large class of texts in which we are taught that there would have been changes in the course of events had one prayed faithfully.
“You have not because you ask not.” (James 4:2)
“When you ask you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives.” (James 4:3)
“If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” (Ps. 66:18)
But more, the fact that Jesus himself was a man of prayer for us is a consideration that, by itself, settles the question. Jesus would not have invested in an exercise that had no particular usefulness.
But what absolutely settles this question is the simple fact that in prayer we are actually speaking to God. If this is prayer and this is what God himself has urged us to do it is simply unthinkable that such a conversation would not lead to things. Having been invited to tell our heavenly Father about our circumstances and our needs, it is inconceivable that he would not respond in love and power. The Lord Jesus himself made this argument.
“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”
That is what we must remember and never forget. We are talking to our heavenly Father. We are speaking to the one who sent his Son to die for our salvation. We are talking to the one who has invited us to have a conversation with him any time we choose. “My door is always open, son; or daughter,” he has said to us. “Come any time for a talk.”
If prayer is conversation with God and we have the right to that conversation with the Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Ruler of all, why do we not find it easy to do? And why do people not have to drag us up from our knees and away from the desks or tables where we are so happily at prayer. Surely the reason is that it is hard for us to grasp just to whom we are speaking. If we could see God in his glory, why speaking to him would be the greatest thing in the world and we would never for a moment harbor a doubt that what we said to him would matter to him and what we asked him would be heard and responded to in some important way.
I’m sure that the reason the Lord Jesus was such a man of prayer, carving out time for prayer out of the hours he would otherwise have been asleep and doing so even though he was exhausted by the press of people from early in the morning until late in the evening, was because he had a living sense of the person he was talking to. He knew his heavenly Father, he knew the depth and power of his love, he had heard the Father speak from heaven, and so he knew that simply to tell him what was on his heart was to change the world.
Remember this as we conclude this consideration of prayer as simply conversation with God. As the Lord Jesus reminds us, God knows what we need before we ask him. So why must we ask? Why doesn’t God simply give us what we need? He knows better than we do what that is. Why does he wait for us to ask?
Well, of course, in most cases he doesn’t. If you stop and think you will realize that most of what you have and enjoy every day you did not really ask for. God just gave it to you. How often have you and I been rebuked in our conscience because we received some kindness from the Lord we should have asked for but didn’t. We certainly didn’t ask for our election, or redemption, or regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Most blessings God gives us without our ever having asked.
But there is a reason he wants you to call upon him, to speak to him, to tell him what you need. It is because he loves you so mightily and wants you to love him more and more. He wants you to live in communion with him. He wants relationship with you. A parent could provide for his children’s needs impersonally. Prepare meals ahead of time that the children could take from the freezer; leave money for them with which to buy what they need; have servants take care of the laundry and so on. There are, alas, many parents who have provided for their children in that way. Winston Churchill’s parents did so. But it is a debased and unnatural relationship that is created in that way. It is impersonal; it does not express or foster love.
The children would not learn to love in return, to be grateful or wise; they would instead become self-centered. God wants us to ask and wants to give us his blessing because we have asked.
“We do not ask as beggars but as children. Petition is not mere receptivity, nor is it mere pressure; it is filial reciprocity. Love loves to be told what it knows already. Every lover knows that. It wants to be asked for what it longs to give. And that is the principle of prayer to the all-knowing Love.” [P.T. Forsyth, The Soul of Prayer, 63]
Prayer makes personal our relationship with God; it makes it real at the level of our actual daily life and that is why God has made such a great place for prayer in the Christian life. And that is why we should love to pray. It is the conversation that binds us to God in the most personal and immediate way, as one person to another, as a child to his or her father.