As we look around the Western world today, there is very little to encourage anyone on the moral or spiritual level. Iniquity no longer hides its face for shame; immorality is assumed to be normal; violent crime is increasing. The Churches generally are becoming weaker, many of them no longer prepared to make any stand against sin, unless perhaps on the basis of some political philosophy; so serious is the situation that some sections of the Anglican Church are prepared to promote openly homosexual men to high office. Particularly in mainline denominations, there seems to be no concern to maintain doctrinal purity – indeed there is often no concern to prevent the propagation even of serious heresy.
Yet in various places of worship, the Word of God is read and proclaimed. And the truths contained in that Word are being blessed to the good of some souls – God’s children, in particular, receiving spiritual nourishment. What ought, however, to be a matter of great concern is that comparatively few individuals are being awakened to see the seriousness of their sins and then being brought to look to Christ Jesus alone for salvation, being renewed in their hearts and lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This means that the proportion of the population of Britain, for example, who are true believers is very significantly smaller than it once was. It means that, the Lord’s people, “the salt of the earth”, have less and less influence in restraining corruption in society generally. It means too that there are fewer “living epistles” which the ungodly have the opportunity to read; many today, even in professedly Christian countries, have never had the opportunity of living or working beside anyone who has been genuinely converted and so they have never seen the reality of true godliness. And it means that there is a disturbing absence of people with a genuine concern for the moral and spiritual well being of their nation. So there are few who come to the throne of grace to plead earnestly with God that, for the sake of Christ, He would pour out His Spirit on the whole world and so bring multitudes of sinners into His kingdom.
To the unbelieving eye, it might well seem that, in many parts of the world, true Christianity is in its death throes. And to the sceptical mind, which is becoming increasingly prevalent in Western culture, it might appear that all forms of the Christian religion will disappear before many more generations have passed. But, in spite of appearances, the believing soul will grasp the sure word of divine revelation and say with confidence: “Thou remainest” (Heb 1:11). Changes there will be, in society at large and within the Church; one generation of God’s people will pass on to glory, and another – perhaps smaller and less spiritually alive – will come in its place. But the great God of eternity remains absolutely unchanged, and He is ruling over all.
Jeremiah lived through tremendous disasters. His country was invaded and completely overrun by enemy armies. His people were sent away into captivity, and he could not but recognise this as the judgement of God. Most distressing of all, no doubt, was the destruction of the temple and, as a consequence, the end of the public worship of God for the time being, and of the sacrifices through which sins were forgiven. Yet after all the sadness that he poured from his weary heart into his Lamentations, he could state with true faith: “Thou, O Lord, remainest for ever; Thy throne from generation to generation” (5:19). However disturbing his situation, Jeremiah was supported by the fact that God had not abandoned the world; He was still in control; He was still ruling over everything.
And so today. God is still on the throne; He is still in control of everything. Whatever happens, God allows it for wise purposes (though it should go without saying that He is not to be held responsible for the sin of the actions which He has foreordained). It may yet be made abundantly clear why He has allowed the devil’s kingdom to become so powerful and His own kingdom to become so weak. But, although we as yet may understand nothing about His purposes in these matters, we are to go on believingly – in the absolute certainty that God is ruling, and that He is ruling wisely.
Because God is ruling, it makes sense to pray to Him – to bring before Him everything that concerns us about, in particular, the moral and spiritual state of the Church and of the nations of the world. And surely God’s children can expect an answer when they do so. Yet let them always remember, not only God’s sovereignty in how and when He answers prayer, but also that His blessing may be kept back by the sins of believers and of the Church – even while, on the whole, they are seeking to be faithful to Him and His Word. David had to acknowledge: “O God, Thou hast cast us off, Thou hast scattered us, Thou hast been displeased” (Psa. 60:1). And so may we acknowledge. Yet we are not to despair; we are not unbelievingly to imagine that God has lost the power to act – to bless His Word on a large scale, to purify His Church and to cause iniquity once more to hide its face for shame. How relevant then the petition with which David continued his prayer: “O turn Thyself to us again”!
It is of the utmost importance to remember the grounds on which we can expect an answer to our prayers. It is through the work of Christ, the “one Mediator between God and men”, that prayer can be heard. It is not through the individual believer’s faithfulness or holiness; it is not through the faithfulness or holiness of the Church as a whole or any part of it – though these things are vitally important, and in the absence of such faithfulness and holiness we need not be surprised when God holds back His blessing.
In the mid-seventeenth century, as Joseph Alleine brought towards a conclusion a letter “to an intimate friend”, he quoted the words of a martyr: “Pray, pray, pray”. Then he went on: “I know you do, but be importunate. I know you are, but continue to be.”1 There is no doubt that prayer for the Church of God and for the nations of the world is an absolute duty. It is a duty which all the people of God will, more or less, engage in. But the question remains: Is that prayer importunate? And, further, is it continuously importunate? If Alleine’s friend needed to be exhorted to continue importunate in prayer, how much more necessary today is the exhortation to pray earnestly and without ceasing! Indeed must we not conclude that, when the situation in Britain and elsewhere is – morally and spiritually – as desperate as it now is, there can be very little importunate prayer ascending from the hearts of God’s people?
Yet such prayer is clearly of great importance. Christ told the parable of the widow who would not give up seeking justice from an unjust judge; because of “her continual coming”, he gave her what she asked for. So the Saviour asked, “Shall not God avenge His own elect, which cry day and night unto Him, though He bear long with them?” (Luke 18:7).
Certainly we ought to bear in mind that prayer, like every other grace, is a gift from God. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit of prayer, to create sincere spiritual earnestness in the hearts of God’s children, which results in living desires being sent up to heaven. Obviously, when the spiritual situation around us is as dire as it is, there is a particular need for earnest prayer. Let God’s children seek, in the name of Christ, grace to engage in this essential duty. There is every reason to do so. Nothing is too hard for the Lord, and He has promised to do wonderful things for His Church.
Christ Himself promised: “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask Him?” (Matt 7:11). Here is solid encouragement, in spite of so much pointing in the opposite direction.
- The Life and Letters of Joseph Alleine, page 283.
Taken with permission from The Free Presbyterian Magazine, November 2006, edited by the author.
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