Prayer - Part II
Adapted from a Sermon by J.C.Ryle
“I desire then that in every place the men should pray.” 1Timothy 2:8
Last week we heard seven plain reasons why prayer can be said to be the most important subject in practical religion. They were:
1. First that prayer is absolutely necessary for a person to be saved
2. Next that a habit of prayer is one of the surest marks of a true Christian
3. Thirdly, that there is no duty in religion so neglected as private prayer
4. In the fourth place, that prayer is that act in religion to which there is the greatest encouragement
5. Next that diligence in prayer is the secret of eminent holiness
6. In the sixth place, that neglect of prayer is one great cause of backsliding
7. And in the last place that prayer is one of the best paths to happiness and contentment.
This morning we close with some application and encouragements on this, the most important subject in practical religion: prayer.
(1) First here are some words to those who do not pray.
It would be unwise to suppose that every congregation is composed of only those who are praying people.
If you are a prayerless person, allow me to speak to you this morning on God’s behalf.
Prayerless friend, I can only warn you; but I do warn you most solemnly. I warn you that you are in a position of fearful danger. If you die in your present state you are a lost soul. You will only rise again to be eternally miserable. I warn you that of all professing Christians you are most utterly without excuse. There is not a single good reason that you can give for living without prayer.
It is useless to say you do not know how to pray. Prayer is the simplest act in all religion. It is simply speaking to God. It requires neither learning, nor wisdom, nor book-knowledge to begin it. It requires nothing but heart and will. The weakest infant can cry when he is hungry. The poorest beggar can hold out his hand for a gift, and does not wait to find fine words. The most unlearned man will find something to say to God, if he has only a mind to do it.
It is useless to say you have no convenient place to pray in. Anyone can find a place private enough, if he is willing. Our Lord prayed on a mountain; Peter on the house-top; Isaac in the field; Nathanael under the fig-tree; Jonah in the whale’s belly. Any place may become a private place and be to us the presence of God.
It is useless to say you have no time. There is plenty of time, if people will only make use of it. Time may be short, but time is always long enough for prayer. Daniel had all the affairs of a kingdom on his hands, and yet he prayed three times a day. David was ruler over a mighty nation, and yet he says, “Evening and morning and at noon will I pray.” (Psalm 55:17 KJV) When we really want to make time for something, time can always be found.
It is useless to say you cannot pray till you have faith and a new heart, and that you must sit still and wait for them. This is to add sin to sin. It is bad enough to be unconverted and going to hell. It is even worse to say, “I know it, but I will not cry for mercy.” This is a kind of argument for which there is no support in Scripture. “Seek the LORD ,” says Isaiah, “while he may be found.” (Isaiah 55:6.) “Take with you words and return to the LORD,” says Hosea. (Hosea 14:2.) “Repent … and pray,” says Peter to Simon the magician. (Acts 8:22.) If you want faith and a new heart, go and cry to the Lord for them. The very attempt to pray has often been the enlivening of a dead soul. Sadly, there is no devil so dangerous as a the one who prevents prayer.
Consider, you who are prayerless, who and what are you that you will not ask anything of God? Have you made a covenant with death and hell? Are you at peace with the worm and the fire? Have you no sins to be pardoned? Have you no fear of eternal torment? Have you no desire for heaven? Will you not awake from your present folly and consider what is awaiting you in your present state! Wake up now and call upon God! For there is a day coming when men will pray loudly, “Lord, Lord, open to us,” (Matt 25:11) but all too late;—when many will cry to the rocks to fall on them, and the hills to cover them, who would never before cry to God. I kindly and solemnly warn you. Beware lest this be the end of your soul. Salvation is very near you. Do not lose heaven because you would not ask for it
(2) Let me speak in the next place to those who have real desires for salvation, but who do not know what steps to take or where to begin.
I cannot but be hopeful that there are some in this state of mind, and for them here is some encouragement and advice.
In every journey there must be a first step. There must be a change from sitting still to moving forward. The journeyings of Israel from Egypt to Canaan were long and wearisome. Forty years passed away before they crossed Jordan. Yet there was someone who moved first when they marched from Rameses to Succoth. When does a man really take his first step in coming out from sin and the world? He does it in the day when he first prays with his heart.
In every building the first stone must be laid, and the first hammer must be swung. The ark was 120 years in building. Yet there was a day when Noah laid his axe to the first tree he cut down to form it. The temple of Solomon was a glorious building. But there was a day when the first huge stone was laid at the foot of Mount Moriah. When does the building of the Spirit really begin to appear in a man’s heart? It begins, so far as we can judge, when he first pours out his heart to God in prayer.
If there is anyone here this morning who desires salvation, and wants to know what to do, I advise him to go this very day to the Lord Jesus Christ, in the first private place he can find, and entreat Him in prayer to save his soul.
Tell Him that you have heard that He receives sinners and has said, “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” (John 6:37.) Tell Him that you are a poor vile sinner, and that you come to Him on the faith of His own invitation. Tell Him you put yourself wholly and entirely in His hands,—that you feel vile and helpless, and hopeless in yourself,—and that except He saves you, you have no hope to be saved at all. Ask Him to deliver you from the guilt, the power, and the consequences of sin. Ask Him to pardon you and wash you in His own blood. Ask Him to give you a new heart, and plant the Holy Spirit in your soul. Ask Him to give you grace, and faith, and will, and power to be His disciple and servant from this day and forever. Go this very day, and tell these things to the Lord Jesus Christ, if you really are in earnest about your soul. Tell Him in your own way and your own words.
If a doctor came to see you when sick you could tell him where you felt pain. If your soul really feels its disease you can surely find something to tell Christ.
Do not doubt that he is willing to save you, because you are a sinner. It is Christ’s office to save sinners. He says Himself, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke v. 32.)
Do not wait because you feel unworthy. Wait for nothing: wait for nobody. Waiting comes from the devil. Just as you are, go to Christ. The worse you are, the more need you have to come to Him. You will never heal yourself by staying away.
Do not fear because your prayer is stammering, your words feeble, and your language poor. Jesus can understand you. Just as a mother understands the first babblings of her infant, so does the blessed Saviour understand sinners. He can read a sigh, and see a meaning in a groan.
Do not despair because you do not get an answer immediately. While you are speaking, Jesus is listening. If He delays an answer, it is only for wise reasons, and to see if you are in earnest. Pray on, and the answer will surely come. Though it delays, wait for it: it will surely come at last.
If you have any desire to be saved, remember the advice given you this day. Act upon it honestly and heartily, and you will be saved.
(3) Let me speak, lastly, to those who do pray.
I trust that some who are here this morning know well what prayer is, and have the Spirit of adoption. To all such here are a few words of advice and exhortation. The incense offered in the tabernacle was ordered to be made in a particular way. Not every kind of incense would do. Let us remember this, and be careful about the matter and manner of our prayers.
As is the common experience of true believers, you to whom I now speak are often sick of your own prayers. You never enter into the Apostle’s words, “when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (Rom. 7:21), so thoroughly as you sometimes do when you are praying. There are few children of God who do not often find the season of prayer a season of conflict. The devil has special wrath against us when he sees us praying. Yet that prayers which cost us no trouble should be regarded with great suspicion. We are likely very poor judges of the goodness of our prayers, and that the prayer which pleases us least often pleases God most.
Here are then a few words of exhortation. One thing, at least, we all feel,—we must pray. We cannot give it up: we must go on.
(i) First then, mark the importance of reverence and humility in prayer.
Let us never forget what we are, and what a solemn thing it is to speak with God. Let us beware of rushing into His presence with carelessness and lightness. Let us say to ourselves, “I am on holy ground. This is no other than the gate of heaven. If I do not mean what I say, I am playing around with God. Let us keep in mind the words of Solomon: “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth.” (Eccles. 5:2.) When Abraham spoke to God, he said, “I … am but dust and ashes.” When Job spoke, he said, “I am insignificant.” (Gen. 18:27; Job 40:4 NASB) Let us do the same.
(ii) Mark, in the next place, the importance of praying spiritually.
That is that we should labour always to have the direct help of the Spirit in our prayers, and beware above all things of formality. There is nothing so spiritual but that it may become a form, and this is specially true of private prayer. We may without realizing get into the habit of using the fittest possible words, and offering the most Scriptural petitions; and yet we may do it all by rote, without feeling it, and walk daily round an old beaten path, like a horse in a mill.
This is a nuanced and delicate point. There are certain great things we need every day, and there is nothing necessarily formal in asking for these things in the same words. The world, the devil, and our hearts, are the same every day. We must necessarily go over old ground every day. But we must be very careful on this point. If the skeleton and outline of our prayers be by habit almost a form, let us strive that the clothing and filling up of our prayers be as far as possible of the Spirit. As to repeating prayers out of a book, it is a habit which Ryle in any case says he cannot praise. If we can tell our doctors the state of our bodies without a book, he says, we ought to be able to tell the state of our souls to God. A man may use crutches, when he is first recovering from a broken limb. It is better to use crutches than not to walk at all. But if we saw him all his life on crutches, it would be a matter for concern. It would be better to see him strong enough to throw his crutches away.
(iii) In the third place, mark the importance of making prayer a regular business of life.
There is great value in having regular times in the day for prayer. God is a God of order. The hours for morning and evening sacrifice in the Jewish temple were not fixed as they were without a meaning. Disorder is eminently one of the fruits of sin. Though one must not make a law of this, this only should be said: that it is essential to your soul’s health to make praying a part of the business of every twenty-four hours in your life. Just as you allot time to eating, sleeping, and business, so also allot time to prayer. Choose your own hours and seasons. At the very least, speak with God in the morning, before you speak with the world; and speak with God at night, after you have done with the world. But settle it down in your minds that prayer is one of the great things of every day. Do not drive it into a corner. Do not give it the scraps, and leftovers, and parings of your day. Whatever else you make a business of, make a business of prayer.
(iv) Mark, in the next place, the importance of perseverance in prayer.
Once having begun the habit, never give it up. Your heart will sometimes say, “We have had family prayers; what mighty harm if we leave private prayer undone?”—Your body will sometimes say, “You are unwell, or sleepy, or weary; you need not pray.”—Your mind will sometimes say, “You have important business to attend to today; cut short your prayers.” Look on all such suggestions as coming directly from the devil. They are all as good as saying, “Neglect your soul.”
This is not to say that prayers should always be of the same length;—however, let no excuse make you give up prayer. It is not for nothing that Paul said, “Continue steadfastly in prayer,” and “Pray without ceasing.” (Colos. 4:2; 1 Thess. 5:17.) He did not mean that men should be always on their knees but he did mean that our prayers should be like the continual burnt offering,—a thing steadily persevered in every day;—that it should be like seed-time and harvest, and summer and winter,—a thing that should unceasingly come round at regular seasons;—that it should be like the fire on the altar, not always consuming sacrifices, but never completely going out. Never forget that you may tie together morning and evening devotions by an endless chain of short spontaneous prayers throughout the day. Even in company, or business, or in the very streets, you may be silently addressing God, as Nehemiah did in the very presence of Artaxerxes. (Neh. 2:4.) And never think that time is wasted which is given to God. A Christian never finds he is a loser in the long run by persevering in prayer.
(v) Mark, in the next place, the importance of earnestness in prayer.
It is not necessary that a man should shout, or scream, or be very loud, in order to prove that he is earnest. But rather that we should be wholehearted, and fervent, and warm, and ask as if we were really interested in what we were doing. This is the lesson that is taught us by the expressions used in Scripture about prayer. It is called, “crying, knocking, wrestling, striving.” (Ps 34:17, Matt 7:7, Gen 32:25, Rom 15:30)
This is the lesson taught us by Scripture examples. Jacob is one. He said to the angel at Penuel, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Gen. 32:26.) Daniel is another. Hear how he pleaded with God: “O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God.” (Dan. 9:19.) Our Lord Jesus Christ is another. It is written of Him, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.” (Heb. 5:7.) How sadly unlike is this to many of our supplications! How tame and lukewarm they seem by comparison! How truly might God say to many of us, “You do not really want what you pray for!”
Let us try to correct this fault. Let us knock loudly at the door of grace, like Mercy in “Pilgrim’s Progress,” as if we must perish unless heard. Let us settle it down in our minds, that cold prayers are a sacrifice without fire.
(vi) Mark, in the sixth place, the importance of praying with faith.
We should endeavour to believe that our prayers are always heard, and that if we ask things according to God’s will, we will always be answered. This is the plain command of our Lord Jesus Christ: “whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:24). Faith is to prayer what the feather is to the arrow: without it prayer will miss the mark.
We should cultivate the habit of pleading promises in our prayers. We should take with us some promise, and say, like Samuel, “Lord, here is Your own word pledged. Do for us as You have said.” (2 Sam. 7:25 parapharase) This was the habit of Jacob, and Moses, and David. The 119th Psalm is full of things asked, “according to your promise.”
Above all, we should cultivate the habit of expecting answers to our prayers. We should not be satisfied unless we see some result. There are sadly few points on which Christians come short so much as this. The Church at Jerusalem prayed without ceasing for Peter in prison; but when the prayer was answered, they would hardly believe it. (Acts 12:15.) It is a solemn saying of an old commentator, “There is no surer mark of superficial prayer, than when people are not concerned about what they get by prayer.”
(vii) Mark, in the next place, the importance of boldness in prayer.
There is an unseemly familiarity in some people’s prayers, which ought to be avoided. But there is such a thing as a holy boldness, which is exceedingly to be desired. Such boldness as that of Moses, when he pleads with God not to destroy Israel: “Why,” says he, “should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains…? Turn from your burning anger.” (Exod. 32:12.) Such boldness as that of Joshua, when the children of Israel were defeated before Ai: “What,” says he, “will you do for your great name?” (Josh. 7:9.)
This is the boldness for which Luther was remarkable. One who heard him praying said, “What a spirit,—what a confidence was in his very expressions! With such a reverence he sued, as one begging of God, and yet with such hope and assurance, as if he spake with a loving father or friend.”
It is to be feared we sadly come short in this. We do not sufficiently realize the believer’s privileges. We do not plead as often as we might, “Lord, are we not your own people? Is it not for your glory that we should be sanctified? Is it not for your honour that your Gospel should increase?“
(viii) Mark, in the next place, the importance of fulness in prayer.
We must not forget that our Lord warns us against the example of the Pharisees, who for pretence made long prayers, and commands us, when we pray, not to use vain repetitions. But we should not forget, on the other hand, that He has given His own approval to large and long devotions, by continuing all night in prayer to God.
In any case we are not likely in our day to err on the side of praying too much. Might it not rather be feared that many believers in this generation pray too little? Is not the actual amount of time that many Christians give to prayer on the whole very small?
It is to be feared that the private devotions of many are most painfully sparse and limited, just enough to prove they are alive, and no more. They really seem to want little from God. They seem to have little to confess, little to ask for, and little to thank Him for. Sadly, this is altogether wrong!
It is common to hear believers complaining that they are not progressing. That they do not grow in grace, as they could desire. Is it not rather to be suspected that many have quite as much grace as they ask for? Is it not the true account of many, that they have little, because they ask little? The cause of their weakness is to be found in their own hurried, little, narrow, diminutive prayers. They do not have because they do not ask. (James 4:2)
Consider, believers, we are not limited in Christ, but in ourselves. The Lord says, “Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.” But we are like the king of Israel who struck the ground three times and stopped, when he ought to have struck it five or six times. (Psalm 81:10; 2 Kings 13:18, 19.)
(ix) Mark, in the ninth place, the importance of particularity in prayer.
We ought not to be content with great general petitions. We ought to specify our wants before the throne of grace. It should not be enough to confess we are sinners. We should name the sins of which our conscience tells us we are most guilty. It should not be enough to ask for holiness. We should name the graces in which we feel most deficient. It should not be enough to tell the Lord we are in trouble. We should describe our trouble and all its peculiarities.
This is what Jacob did, when he feared his brother Esau. He tells God exactly what it is that he fears. (Gen. 32:11.) This is what Paul did, when he had a thorn in the flesh. He pleaded with the Lord. (2 Cor. 12:8.) This is true faith and confidence. We should believe that nothing is too small to be named before God.
What should we think of the patient who told his doctor he felt sick, but never went into details? What should we think of the child who told his father he was in trouble, but nothing more? Let us never forget that Christ is the true bride-groom of the soul,—the true physician of the heart,—the real father of all His people. Let us show that we feel this, by being unreserved in our communications with Him. Let us hide no secrets from Him. Let us tell Him all our hearts.
(x) Mark, in the next place, the importance of intercession in our prayers.
We are all selfish by nature; and our selfishness is very apt to stick to us, even after we are converted. There is a tendency in us to think only of our own souls,—our own spiritual conflict,—our own progress in religion, and to forget others. Against this tendency we all have need to watch and strive, and not least in our prayers.
We should stir ourselves up to name other names beside our own before the throne of grace. We should try to bear in our hearts the whole world,—the heathen,—the Jews,—the Roman Catholics,—the body of true believers,—the professing Protestant Churches,—the country in which we live,—the congregation to which we belong,—the household in which we sojourn,—the friends and relations we are connected with. For each and all of these we should plead. This is the highest form of love. He loves me best who loves me in his prayers.
This is for our soul’s health. It enlarges our sympathies and expands our hearts. This is for the benefit of the Church. The wheels of all machinery for extending the Gospel are oiled by prayer. They do as much for the Lord’s cause who intercede like Moses on the mountain, as they do who fight like Joshua in the thick of the battle. This is to be like Christ. He bears the names of His people on His breast and shoulders as their High Priest before the Father.
(xi) Mark, in the next place, the importance of thankfulness in prayer.
It is true that asking God is one thing, and praising God is another. But there is so close a connection between prayer and praise in the Bible, that thankfulness should be a natural part of all prayer. It is not for nothing that Paul says, “by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4: 6.) And “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.”(Coloss. 4:2.)
It is of mercy that we are not in hell. It is of mercy that we have the hope of heaven. It is of mercy that we live in a land where the Bible is not outlawed. It is of mercy that we have been called by the Spirit, and not left to reap the fruit of our own ways. It is of mercy that we still live, and have opportunities of glorifying God actively or passively. Surely, these thoughts should crowd in on our minds whenever we speak with God. Surely, we should never open our lips in prayer without blessing God for that free grace by which we live, and for that loving-kindness which endures for ever.
There never was an eminent saint who was not full of thankfulness. The Apostle Paul hardly ever writes an Epistle without beginning with thankfulness. Eminent saints of old were ever running over with thankfulness. If we would be bright and shining lights in our day, we must cherish a spirit of praise! And above all, let our prayers be thankful prayers.
(xii) Mark, in the last place, the importance of watchfulness over your prayers.
Prayer is that point of all others in religion at which you must be on your guard. Here it is that true religion begins: here it flourishes, and here it decays. See what a man’s prayers are, and you will soon see the state of his soul. Prayer is the spiritual pulse: by this the spiritual health may always be tested. Prayer is the spiritual barometer: by this we may always know whether it is fair or foul with our hearts. And so, let us keep an eye continually upon our private devotions! Here is the essence, and marrow, and backbone of our practical Christianity.
Sermons, and books, and tracts, and the company of good people, are all good in their way; but they will never make up for the neglect of private prayer.
Mark well the places, and society, and companions, that unhinge your hearts for communion with God, and discourage you from praying. There be on your guard.
Observe closely what friends and what employments leave your soul in the most spiritual frame, and most ready to speak with God. To these cleave and stick close. If you will only take care of your prayers, it may be safely said that nothing shall go very wrong with your soul.
We would all do well to consider these points carefully. I know no one who needs to be reminded of them more than I do myself. But I do believe them to be God’s own truth, and I should like myself and all I care for to feel them more.
Would that the times we live in were praying times. Would that the Christians of our day were praying Christians. Would that the Church of our age were a praying Church.
May it be that those who never prayed yet, arise now and call upon God; and may those who do pray, improve their prayers every year, and see that they are not standing still or praying improperly, but following the pattern traced out for us in God’s most holy Word.