We Pray — But Do We Really?
Never in the history of the church has so much been said to so many with so little effect! We have pronouncements by church leaders and church bodies, elaborate reunion schemes, commissions on this, that and the next, and endless discussion groups. The torrent of words flows on and, for the most part, over the heads (or under the feet) of ordinary men and women in our churches — and evangelicals are swelling the current.
The evangelical, however, ought to know that the kingdom of God is not in word but in power. Have we not often found in praying and preaching particularly that our words are mocking us? We are multiplying words without knowledge (Job 35:16). We are using language that to us, and for the present at least, has lost its real meaning.
We naturally tend to make up in length what we lack in depth. In an excellent address on ‘Long Sermons’ to the students of the Pastors’ College Spurgeon said, ‘The reason why some preach such long sermons may be that they are not filled with spiritual power. Prolixity of speech can never be charged upon the Holy Ghost. Those prayers and those discourses which are fullest of divine power are never too long. . . If we were more fully possessed by the Spirit of God, our words would be more weighty, and probably fewer.’
The more weary we become of words without meaning and power the more hopeful we may be of revival. The more of the inward sigh and groan the less there will be of verbosity. ‘Words’, says Rutherford, ‘are the accidents (incidental accompaniments) of prayer.’ James Montgomery was seeking to convey the same truth when he said:
‘Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire
Uttered or unexpressed.’
We may well ask ourselves therefore in the words of the occasionally over-worked lines,
‘We often say our prayers
But do we ever pray?’
The one is relatively easy; the other is very difficult. In the words of Martin Luther, ‘It is a tremendously hard thing to pray aright, yea, it is verily the science of all sciences.’
There are at least four things by which we may determine whether or not we are really praying.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne, who ‘dwelt at the mercy-seat as if it were his home’, used to say that very much of his prayer-time was spent in preparing to pray. The Puritans were right in pointing out that Satan bends all the force of his attack against the spirit of prayer. ‘When we go to God by prayer the devil knows that we go to fetch strength against him and therefore he opposeth all he can’ (Sibbes). We have to fight against the devil who makes use of the flesh and the world to quench the spirit of prayer. That is why prayer requires a set time (‘when thou prayest’), a secret place (‘enter into thy closet’) and detachment from the world (‘when thou hast shut thy door’). And as Dr Lloyd-Jones points in his Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, the first stage in praying is recollection. We must realise what we are seeking to do.
Are we sure then that we have the right preparation?
There is no true prayer without faith. ‘He that cometh to God must believe that he is and that he is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him’. How often we Christians live as practical atheists! And when we come to prayer we are not conscious that we are talking to a living, personal God who is interested in us and concerned about us and willing and ready to bless us. It is only as we are conscious of his presence (Ps. 145:18), recognise our acceptance before him in Christ (Heb. 10:19), seek the help of his Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:26, 27) and plead his promises (2 Peter 1:3, 4). Consider the promise in James 4:8 that we shall pray aright. The old divines used to speak much about ‘gaining access’ (in a subjective sense) but this concept seems to have dropped out of our evangelical understanding.
Do we exercise such faith before and during prayer?
The mere repetition of devotional language without preparation or faith deadens us and leaves us further away from God. ‘Prayer’, says Richard Sibbes, ‘exercises all the graces of the Spirit’. Secret prayer has an open reward. It is the great means of advancing our sanctification by bringing our will into line with the will of God. It is also the thing which will determine the quality and success of our Christian service. ‘You must strive to excell in this [prayer]’, says John Flavel, ‘forasmuch as no grace within or service without can thrive without it.’ William Gurnall maintained that ‘the praying Christian is the thriving Christian.’
Does our life and service indicate or suggest that we are not praying Christians?
To many of us it would doubtless come as a great shock to have some of our prayers answered. Richard Sibbes put it bluntly when he said, ‘It is atheism to pray and not to wait in hope.’ It means we have a misconception of the nature and character of God. ‘Prayer is not wrestling with God’s reluctance to bless us, but rather laying hold upon his willingness to prove himself true to his own nature and work.’ And it also means that we are not really and sufficiently earnest in our requests. Robert Traill, using an illustration from archery, says, ‘None ask in earnest but they will try how they speed.’
Do we not frequently use petitions in prayer without consciously linking them to the expectation of an answer?
To use words in prayer, therefore, without the spirit of prayer is a serious matter. It surely betrays lack of reverence for the Divine Name. ‘Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few’ (Eccles. 5:2). We must study brevity especially in public prayer and preaching, and use the time saved in seeking to make our words more meaningful and powerful. And we can best do this by realising that what is all-important is the spirit of prayer.
This article is taken from the February 1969 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.
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