Prayer - Part I
Adapted from a Sermon by J.C.Ryle
“They ought always to pray.” Luke 18:1
Prayer is the most important subject in practical religion. All other subjects are second to it. Reading the Bible, hearing sermons, attending public worship, going to the Lord’s Table,—all these are very important matters. But none of them are so important as private prayer.
This morning we will consider seven plain reasons why such strong language may be used about prayer. Listen to what follows and see whether or not it is true to say that prayer is the most important subject in practical religion.
I. In the first place, Prayer is absolutely necessary for a person to be saved.
Of those not able to pray such as infants or those otherwise physically unable this cannot be said. But for those who call themselves Christians, who have an open Bible and free access to gospel truth, prayer is absolutely necessary. Of such, no man or woman or child can expect to be saved who does not pray.
Now salvation is surely by grace alone. And free and full pardon is offered to the greatest sinner that ever lived. No one should hesitate to stand by his dying bed, and say, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ even now, and you will be saved.” But that a man can have salvation without asking for it, this is not in the Bible. That a man will receive pardon of his sins, who will not so much as lift up his heart inwardly, and say, “Lord Jesus, give it to me,” for this there is no evidence. Nobody will be saved by his prayers, but without prayer nobody will be saved.
It is not absolutely necessary to salvation that a man should read the Bible. A man may have no learning, or be blind, and yet have Christ in his heart. It is not absolutely necessary that a man should hear the public preaching of the Gospel. He may live where the Gospel is not preached, or he may be bedridden, or deaf. But the same thing cannot be said about prayer. It is absolutely necessary to salvation that a man should pray.
There is no effortless road either to health or learning. Princes and kings, poor men and labourers, all alike must attend to the needs of their own bodies and their own minds. No one can have someone else eat, drink, or sleep for them. No man can have the alphabet learned for him by another. All these are things which everybody must do for himself, or they will not be done at all.
Just as it is with the mind and body, so it is with the soul. There are certain things absolutely necessary to the soul’s health and well-being. Each one must attend to these things for himself. Each must repent for himself. Each must apply to Christ for himself. And for himself each one must speak to God and pray. You must do it for yourself, for nobody else can do it for you.
How can we expect to be saved by an “unknown” God? And how can we know God without prayer? We know nothing of men and women in this world, unless we speak with them. We cannot know God in Christ, unless we speak to Him in prayer. If we wish to be with Him in heaven, we must be His friends on earth. If we wish to be His friends on earth, we must pray.
There will be many at Christ’s right hand in the last day. The saints gathered from North and South, and East and West, will be “a great multitude” that no man can number. (Rev. 7:9.) The song of victory that will burst from their mouths, when their redemption is finally complete, will be a glorious song indeed. It will be far above the noise of many waters, and of mighty thunders. But there will be no discord in that song. They that sing will sing with one heart as well as one voice. Their experience will be one and the same. All will have believed. All will have been washed in the blood of Christ. All will have been born again. All will have prayed. Yes, we must pray on earth, or we will never praise in heaven. We must go through the school of prayer, or we will never be fit for the holiday of praise. In short, to be prayerless is to be without God,—without Christ,—without grace,—without hope,—and without heaven. It is to be in the road to hell.
II. In the second place, a habit of prayer is one of the surest marks of a true Christian.
All the children of God on earth are alike in this respect. From the moment there is any life and reality about their religion, they pray. Just as the first sign of life in an infant when born into the world, is the act of breathing, so the first act of men and women when they are born again, is praying.
This is one of the common marks of all the elect of God: They “cry to him day and night.” (Luke 18:7.) The Holy Spirit, who makes them new creatures, works in them the feeling of adoption, and makes them cry, “Abba, Father.” (Rom. 8:15.) The Lord Jesus, when He awakens them, gives them a voice and a tongue, and says to them, “Be prayerless no more.” God has no prayerless children. It is as much a part of their new nature to pray, as it is of an infant to cry. They see their need of mercy and grace. They feel their emptiness and weakness. They cannot do otherwise than they do. They must pray.
Looked carefully over the lives of God’s saints in the Bible and you will not find one, of whose history much is told us, from Genesis to Revelation, who was not a man of prayer. You will find it mentioned as a characteristic of the godly, that they “call on him as Father,” that they “call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” You will find it recorded as a characteristic of the wicked, that they “do not call upon the LORD.” (1 Peter 1:17; 1 Cor. 1:2; Psalm 14:4.)
But this is not to say that a man may not pray without heart, and without sincerity. The mere fact of a person praying does not prove everything about his soul. As in every other part of religion, so also in this, there is plenty of deception and hypocrisy.
But this may certainly be said: that not praying is a clear proof that a man is not yet a true Christian. He cannot really feel his sins. He cannot love God. He cannot feel himself a debtor to Christ. He cannot long after holiness. He cannot desire heaven. He has yet to be born again. He has yet to be made a new creature. He may boast confidently of election, grace, faith, hope, and knowledge, and deceive ignorant people. But you may rest assured it is all vain talk if he does not pray.
And furthermore, consider that of all the evidences of a real work of the Spirit, a habit of hearty private prayer is one of the most encouraging that can be named. A man may preach from false motives. A man may write books, and make fine speeches, and seem diligent in good works, and yet be a Judas Iscariot. But a man seldom goes into his room, and pours out his soul before God in secret, unless he is sincere. The Lord Himself has set His stamp on prayer as the best proof of a true conversion. When He sent Ananias to Saul in Damascus, He gave him no other evidence of his change of heart than this;—“behold, he is praying.” (Acts 9:11.)
Now much may go on in a man’s mind before he is brought to pray. He may have many convictions, desires, wishes, feelings, intentions, resolutions, hopes, and fears. But all these things are very uncertain evidences. They are to be found in ungodly people, and often come to nothing. In many a case they are not more lasting than the “morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away” (Hos. 6:4.) A real hearty prayer, flowing from a broken and contrite spirit, is worth all these things put together.
Now the elect of God are chosen to salvation from all eternity. The Holy Spirit, who calls them in due time, in many instances leads them by very slow degrees to the knowledge of Christ. But we can only judge by what we see. We cannot hope to call any one justified until he believes. We dare not say that any one believes until he prays. There is no sense in a silent, prayerless faith. The first act of faith will be to speak to God. Faith is to the soul what life is to the body. Prayer is to faith what breath is to life. As much as a man can live without breathing, so may a man believe without praying.
Is anyone surprised that we dwell so long on the importance of prayer? But this is the point every true minister of the gospel wants to bring you to,—to know that you pray. Your views of doctrine may be correct. Your love of Protestantism may be warm and unmistakeable. But still this may be nothing more than head knowledge and party spirit. The great point is this,—whether you can speak to God as well as speak about God.
III. In the third place, there is no duty in religion so neglected as private prayer.
Among professing Christians prayer is just one of those things which is thought a “matter of course,” and, like many matters of course, is shamefully neglected. It is “everybody’s business;” and, as it often happens in such cases, it is a business carried on by very few. It is one of those private transactions between God and our souls which no one sees, and therefore one which there is every temptation to pass over and leave undone.
It is to be feared that thousands never say a word of prayer at all. They eat; they drink; they sleep; they rise; they go to work; they return to their homes; they breathe God’s air: they see God’s sun; they walk on God’s earth; they enjoy God’s mercies; they have dying bodies; they have judgment and eternity before them. But they never speak to God! They live like the beasts that perish; they behave like creatures without souls; they have not a word to say to Him in whose hand are their life, and breath, and all things, and from whose mouth they must one day receive their everlasting sentence. How truly awful this seems! But if the secrets of men were only known, how common!
It is to be feared that there are tens of thousands whose prayers are nothing but a mere form,—a set of words repeated by rote, without a thought about their meaning. Some say over a few hasty sentences picked up in the nursery when they were children. Some add the Lord’s Prayer, but without the slightest desire that its solemn petitions may be granted.
Many, even of those who use good forms, mutter their prayers after they have got into bed, or scramble over them while they wash or dress in the morning. Men may think what they please, but they may depend on it that in the sight of God this is not praying. Words said without heart are as utterly useless to our souls as the drum-beating of the poor heathen before their idols. Where there is no heart, there may be lip-work and tongue-work, but there is nothing that God listens to, there is no prayer. Saul, no doubt, said many a long prayer before the Lord met him on the way to Damascus. But it was not till his heart was broken that the Lord said, “He is praying.” (Acts 9:11)
Does this surprise anyone? Listen to what follows and you will see that this is not unreasonable. Does anyone think that these assertions are extravagant and have no support? Listen carefully and you will soon see that this is indeed the truth.
Consider that it is not natural to anyone to pray.
The carnal mind is hostile to God. The desire of man’s heart is to get far away from God, and to have nothing to do with Him. His feeling toward Him is not love but fear. Why then should a man pray when he has no real sense of sin, no real feeling of spiritual needs,—no thorough belief in unseen things,—no desire after holiness and heaven? Of all these things the vast majority of men know and feel nothing. The multitude walk in the wide and easy way. This is fact and therefore it is reasonable to believe that few pray.
Consider how it is not fashionable to pray.
It is just one of the things that many would be rather ashamed to admit to doing. There are hundreds who would sooner do anything else than confess publicly that they make a habit of prayer. There are thousands who, if forced by chance to sleep in the same room with a stranger, would lie down in bed without a prayer. To play well, to dress well, to go to sports events, and concerts, and theatres, to be thought clever and agreeable, all this is fashionable, but not to pray. This is fact. And so it is not reasonable to think a habit is common which so many seem ashamed to admit to. From this it is reasonable to believe that few pray.
Consider the lives that many live.
Can we really suppose that people are praying against sin night and day, when we see them plunging right into it? Can we suppose they pray against the world, when they are entirely absorbed and taken up with its pleasures and pursuits? Can we think they really ask God for grace to serve Him, when they do not show the slightest desire to serve Him at all? No! It is plain as daylight that the great majority of men either ask nothing of God, or do not mean what they say when they do ask,—which is just the same thing. Praying and sinning will never live together in the same heart. Prayer will consume sin, or sin choke prayer. If we look at men’s lives, it is reasonable to conclude that few pray.
IV. In the fourth place, prayer is that act in religion to which there is the greatest encouragement.
There is everything on God’s part to make prayer easy, if men will only attempt it. “Everything is … ready” on His side. (Luke 14:17.) Every objection is anticipated. Every difficulty is provided for. The crooked places are made straight, and the rough places are made smooth. There is no excuse left for the prayerless man.
There is a way by which anyone, however sinful and unworthy, may draw near to God the Father. Jesus Christ has opened that way by the sacrifice He made for us on the cross. The holiness and justice of God need not frighten sinners and keep them back. Only let them cry to God in the name of Jesus,—only let them plead the atoning blood of Jesus,—and they will find God on a throne of grace, willing and ready to hear. The name of Jesus is a never-failing passport to our prayers. In that name anyone may draw near to God with boldness, and ask with confidence. God has engaged to hear us. Think of this. Is this not encouragement?
There is an advocate and intercessor always waiting to present the prayers of those who will make use of Him. That advocate is Jesus Christ. He mingles our prayers with the incense of His own almighty intercession. So mingled they go up as a sweet savour before the throne of God. Poor as they are in themselves, they are mighty and powerful in the hand of our High Priest and elder brother. The cheque without a signature at the bottom is nothing but a worthless piece of paper. A few strokes of a pen impart on it all its value. The prayer of a poor child of Adam is a feeble thing in itself, but once endorsed by the hand of the Lord Jesus it can do much. The ear of the Lord Jesus is ever open to the cry of all who want mercy and grace. It is His office to help them. Their prayer is His delight. Think of this. Is this not encouragement?
There is the Holy Spirit ever ready to help our infirmities in prayer. It is one part of His special office to assist us in our endeavours to speak to God. We do not need to be cast down and distressed by the fear of not knowing what to say. The Spirit will give us words if we will only seek His help. He will supply us with appropriate thoughts and words. The prayers of the Lord’s people are the inspiration of the Lord’s Spirit,—the work of the Holy Spirit who dwells within them as the Spirit of grace and supplications. Surely the Lord’s people may well hope to be heard. It is not they that merely pray, but the Holy Spirit pleading in them. (Rom. 8:26.) Think of this. Is this not encouragement?
There are exceeding great and precious promises to those who pray. What did the Lord Jesus mean when He spoke such words as these, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matt. 7: 7, 8.) “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive.” (Matt. 21:22.) “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13, 14.) What did the Lord mean when He spoke the parables of the friend at midnight and the persistent widow? (Luke 11:5, and 18:1.) Think over these passages. If this is not encouragement to pray, words have no meaning at all.
There are wonderful examples in Scripture of the power of prayer. Nothing seems to be too great, too hard, or too difficult for prayer to do. It has obtained things that seemed impossible and out of reach. It has won victories over fire, air, earth, and water. Prayer opened the Red Sea. Prayer brought water from the rock and bread from heaven. Prayer made the sun stand still. Prayer brought fire from the sky on Elijah’s sacrifice. Prayer turned the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness. Prayer overthrew the army of Sennacherib.
Well might Mary, Queen of Scots, say, “I fear John Knox’s prayers more than an army of ten thousand men.” Prayer has healed the sick. Prayer has raised the dead. Prayer has brought about the conversion of souls. Prayer, efforts, and faith can do anything. Nothing seems impossible when a man has the Spirit of adoption. “Let me alone,” (or as one translation has it “Leave off praying”) is the remarkable saying of God to Moses, when Moses was about to intercede for the children of Israel. (Exod. 32:10.) And so long as Abraham asked mercy for Sodom, the Lord went on giving. He never ceased to give until Abraham ceased to pray. Think of this. Is this not encouragement?
What more can we want to lead us to take any step in religion than the things we have just heard about prayer? What more could be done to make the path to the mercy-seat easy, and to remove all obstacles from the sinner’s way? Surely if the devils in hell had such a door set open before them they would leap for gladness, and make the very pit ring with joy.
But where will the person hide his head at last who neglects such glorious encouragements? What can be possibly said for the one who, after all, dies without prayer? God grant that no one here present may be that person.
V. In the fifth place, diligence in prayer is the secret of eminent holiness.
There is no doubt that there is a vast difference among true Christians. There is a great difference between those at the front and those at the back in the army of God.
They are all fighting the same good fight;—but how much more valiantly some fight than others! They are all doing the Lord’s work;—but how much more some do than others! They are all light in the Lord;—but how much more brightly some shine than others! They are all running the same race;—but how much faster some get on than others! They all love the same Lord and Saviour;—but how much more some love Him than others! I ask any true Christian whether this is not the case. Are not these things so?
There are some of the Lord’s people who seem never able to get on from the time of their conversion. They are born again, but they remain babies all their lives. They are learners in Christ’s school, but they never seem to get beyond the A B Cs. They have got inside the fold, but there they lie down and get no further. Year after year you see in them the same old besetting sins. You hear from them the same old experience. You remark in them the same lack of spiritual appetite,—the same squeamishness about anything but the milk of the Word, and the same dislike to strong meat,—the same childishness,—the same feebleness, the same littleness of mind,—the same narrowness of heart,—the same lack of interest in anything beyond their own little circle, which you noticed ten years ago. They are pilgrims indeed, but how slowly they progress. This must be said with sorrow and grief. But I ask any real Christian, Is it not true?
There are others of the Lord’s people who seem to be always getting on. They grow like the grass after rain. They increase like Israel in Egypt. They press on like Gideon, though sometimes “exhausted but still in pursuit.” (Judges 9:4.) They are ever adding grace to grace, and faith to faith, and strength to strength. Every year they appear to see more, and know more, and believe more, and feel more in their religion. They not only have good works to prove the reality of their faith, but they are zealous in them. They not only do well, but they are unwearied in well-doing. (Titus 2:14; Gal. 6:9.)
They attempt great things, and they do great things. When they fail they try again, and when they fall they are soon up again. And all this time they think themselves poor unprofitable servants, and imagine they do nothing at all!—These are those who make religion lovely and beautiful in the eyes of all. They extract praise even from the unconverted, and win golden opinions even from the selfish men of the world.
These are those whom it does one good to see, to be with, and to hear. When you meet them, you could believe that, like Moses, they had just come out from the presence of God. When you part with them you feel warmed by their company, as if your soul had been near a fire. Admittedly such people are rare. I only ask, Is it not so?
Now, how can we account for the difference which has just been described? What is the reason that some believers are so much brighter and holier than others? It is very likely that the difference, in nineteen cases out of twenty, comes from different habits about private prayer and that those who are not eminently holy pray little, and those who are eminently holy pray much.
This may be startling to some. No doubt many look on eminent holiness as a kind of special gift, which none but a few must pretend to aim at. They admire it at a distance, in books: they think it beautiful when they see an example near themselves. But as to its being a thing within the reach of any but a very few, such a notion never seems to enter their minds. In short, they consider it a kind of monopoly granted to a few favoured believers, but certainly not to all.
But this is surely a most dangerous mistake. Spiritual, as well as natural, greatness, depends far more on the use of means within everybody’s reach, than on anything else. When a man is once converted to God, whether he will be eminently holy or not depends chiefly on his own diligence in the use of God’s appointed means. And the principal means by which most believers have become great in the Church of Christ is the habit of diligent private prayer.
Look through the lives of the brightest and best of God’s servants, whether in the Bible or not. See what is written of Moses, and David, and Daniel, and Paul. Mark what is recorded of Luther and the Reformers. Observe what is related of the private devotions of Whitefield, and M’Cheyne. See if there is any in all the goodly fellowship of saints and martyrs, who has not had this mark most prominently, he was a man of prayer. You can depend on it, prayer is power!
Prayer obtains fresh and continued outpourings of the Spirit. He alone begins the work of grace in a man’s heart: He alone can carry it forward and make it prosper. But the Holy Spirit loves to be petitioned. And those who ask most, will always have most of His influence.
Prayer is the surest remedy against the devil and besetting sins. That sin will never stand firm which is heartily prayed against: that devil will never long keep dominion over us which we beseech the Lord to cast out. But, then, we must spread out all our case before our Heavenly Physician, if He is to give us daily help: we must drag our indwelling devils to the feet of Christ, and cry to Him to send them back to the pit.
Do we wish to grow in grace and be very holy Christians? Then let us never forget the value of prayer.
VI. In the sixth place, neglect of prayer is one great cause of backsliding.
There is such a thing as going back in religion, after making a good profession. People may run well for a time, like the Galatians, and then turn aside after false teachers. They may profess loudly, while their feelings are warm, as Peter did; and then, in the hour of trial, deny their Lord. People may lose their first love, as the Ephesians did. They may cool down in their zeal to do good, like Mark, the companion of Paul. People may follow an apostle for a season, and then, like Demas, go back to the world.—All these things people may do.
It is a miserable thing to be a backslider. Of all unhappy things that can befall a person, it may very well be the worst. A stranded ship, a broken-winged eagle, a garden overrun with weeds, a harp without strings, a church in ruins,—all these are sad sights; but a backslider is a sadder sight still. That true grace will never be extinguished, and true union with Christ never be broken off, there is no doubt. But a person may fall away so far that he will lose sight of his own grace, and despair of his own salvation. And if this is not hell, it is certainly the next thing to it! A wounded conscience, a mind sick of itself, a memory full of self-reproach, a heart pierced through with the Lord’s arrows, a spirit broken with a load of inward accusation,—all this is a taste of hell. It is a hell on earth. It is a true solemn saying of the wise man: “The backslider in heart will be filled with the fruit of his ways.” (Prov. 14: 14.)
Now, what is the cause of most backsliding? Likely one of the main causes is neglect of private prayer. Of course what happens in the secrets of a person’s heart will not be known till the last day. But it is likely, very likely, that backsliding generally first begins with neglect of private prayer.
Bibles read without prayer, sermons heard without prayer, marriages entered into without prayer, journeys undertaken without prayer, residences chosen without prayer, friendships formed without prayer, the daily act of private prayer itself hurried over or gone through without heart,—these are the kind of downward steps by which many a Christian descends to a condition of spiritual sleep, or reaches the point where God allows him to have a tremendous fall.
This is the process which forms the lingering Lots, the unstable Samsons, the wife-idolizing Solomons, the inconsistent Asas, the pliable Jehoshaphats, the over-careful Marthas, of whom so many are to be found in the Church of Christ. Often the simple history of such cases is this, —they became careless about private prayer.
We may be very sure that people fall in private long before they fall in public. They are backsliders on their knees long before they backslide openly in the eyes of the world. Like Peter, they first disregard the Lord’s warning to watch and pray; and then, like Peter, their strength is gone, and in the hour of temptation they deny their Lord.
The world takes notice of their fall, and scoffs loudly. But the world knows nothing of the real reason.
If you do not wish to be a backsliding Christian, remember this hint: Do not neglect private prayer.
VII. In the seventh place, prayer is one of the best paths to happiness and contentment.
We live in a world where sorrow abounds. This has always been its state since sin came in. There cannot be sin without sorrow. And till sin is driven out from the world it is vain for anyone to suppose he can escape sorrow.
Some, without doubt, have a larger cup of sorrow to drink than others. But few are to be found who live long without sorrows or cares of one sort or another. Our bodies, our property, our families, our children, our relations, our friends, our neighbours, our worldly callings,—each and all of these are fountains of care. Sicknesses, deaths, losses, disappointments, partings, separations, ingratitude, slander,—all these are common things. We cannot get through life without them. Some day or other they find us out. The greater are our affections, the deeper are our afflictions; and the more we love, the more we have to weep.
And what is the best recipe for cheerfulness in such a world as this? How will we get through this valley of tears with least pain? There is no better way than the habit of taking everything to God in prayer.
This is the plain advice that the Bible gives, both in the Old Testament and the New. What says the Psalmist? “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” (Psalm l. 15.) “Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.” (Psalm 55:22.) What says the Apostle Paul? “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. iv. 6, 7.) What says the Apostle James? “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” (James 5:13.)
This was the practice of all the saints whose history we have recorded in the Scriptures. This is what Jacob did, when he feared his brother Esau. This is what Moses did, when the people were ready to stone him in the wilderness. This is what Joshua did, when Israel was defeated before Ai. This is what David did, when he was in danger at Keliah. This is what Hezekiah did, when he received the letter from Sennacherib. This is what the Church did, when Peter was put in prison. This is what Paul did, when he was cast into the dungeon at Philippi.
The only way to be really happy, in such a world as this is to be ever casting all our cares on God. It is the trying to carry their own burdens which so often makes believers sad. If they will only tell their troubles to God He will enable them to bear them as easily as Samson did the gates of Gaza.
There is a friend ever waiting to help us, if we will only open up our sorrow to Him,—a friend who pitied the poor, and sick, and sorrowful, when He was on earth,—a friend who knows the heart of a man, for He lived thirty-three years as a man among us,—a friend who can weep with the weepers, for He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,—a friend who is able to help us, for there never was earthly pain He could not cure. That friend is Jesus Christ. The way to be happy is to be always opening our hearts to Him.
Jesus can make those happy who trust Him and call on Him, whatever their outward condition may be. He can give them peace of heart in a prison,—contentment in the midst of poverty,—comfort in the midst of bereavements,—joy on the brink of the grave. There is a mighty fulness in Him for all His believing members,—a fulness that is ready to be poured out on everyone who will ask in prayer. Would that men would understand that happiness does not depend on outward circumstances, but on the state of their heart!
Prayer can lighten crosses for us however heavy. It can bring down to our side One who will help us to bear them.—Prayer can open a door for us when our way seems blocked. It can bring down One who will say, “This is the way, walk in it”—Prayer can let in a ray of hope, when all our earthly prospects seem darkened. It can bring down One who will say, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”(Heb 13:5) —Prayer can obtain relief for us when those we love most are taken away, and the world feels empty. It can bring down One who can fill the gap in our hearts with Himself, and say to the waves within, “Peace: be still!” Would, that believers were not so like Hagar in the wilderness, blind to the well of living waters close beside them! (Gen. 21:19.)
If we want to be truly happy Christians, let us realize the importance of the duty of prayer.