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THE INWARDNESS OF PRAYER
“Behold he prayeth” (Acts 9 v11).
I can never read the account of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus without being struck by the comment of the One, ‘unto Whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from Whom no secrets are hid’, made to Ananias. Saul had spent so much of his life giving the closest attention to religious observances, and in fasting and prayers. His own witness to this fact was, “I . . . profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1 v14). And yet now, for the first time, God says of him, “Behold he prayeth”. The day of new life has dawned for Saul, life which consists essentially of fellowship with the Living God, moment by moment, for time and eternity.
Robert Murray McCheyne, speaking after the Communion Service on one occasion, exhorted his people to “pray in the Holy Spirit” (Jude 20). “When a believer prays”, he remarked, “he is not alone, there are three with him. The Father seeing in secret, His ear open, the Son blotting out sin, and offering up the prayer; the Holy Spirit quickening and giving desires. There can be no true prayer without these three. Some people pray like a parrot, repeating words when the heart is far from God. Some pray without the Father. They do not feel. They are speaking to the back of their chair, or to the world, or to the empty air. Some pray without the Son. They come in their own name, in their own righteousness. That is the sacrifice of fools. Some pray without the Holy Spirit. These are not filled with divine breathings. Dear friends, if you would live, you must pray; and if you would pray with acceptance, you must pray to the Father in the name of Jesus. and by His Spirit quickening”. This goes to the root of things, and underlines again the fact that prayer is an inward movement of life, not a regimented outward exercise. There is, and always has been, a tendency to view prayer as some inexplicable, unseen power, which if wielded aright will produce almost magical results. I was speaking, for instance, to a man in India, who told me of experiments in which plants had been made to grow and develop ‘through prayer’, whilst others had been stunted and withered ‘by curses’. When I asked him to whom prayer had been addressed he had no answer to give; in fact, it had not seemed to occur to him that there was a need to have someone to whom prayer is offered. Some of my readers may indulge in a quiet smile at this; but is it not a fact that there is much written in Christian books and papers, which gives the impression that prayer is a kind of ‘extra’ to the Christian life, a kind of switch which, if handled aright, will produce the desired result. Actually that dependence upon God, which makes prayer necessary, is the very first evidence of the existence of new life in Christ; and as the Christian grows up into Him, life becomes one long, inward prayer. If this is not so then the lessons of grace have been but poorly learned.
Shall we turn now to what is possibly the great central utterance of the Lord Jesus regarding prayer (Matthew 6 v5-15). First He lays down a ‘don’t’. “Thou shalt not be as the hypocrites”, the actors, to whom prayer is a kind of drama to be enacted so that those regarding may do so with admiration, and a reputation may thus be gained for piety. “Verily I say unto you”, He continues, “they have their reward”. We live in a day of prayer cards and circulars, and I wonder sometimes if a missionary would dare not to send out the customary letter, or an evangelist would be bold enough to dispense with the usual prayer card, simply because of the criticism which would at once be levelled at him. Is it possible to be content with a reputation for spirituality, and never to see the gracious, spontaneous workings of God because we conform automatically to custom, and miss the true inward crying of an utter dependence upon God? Is this one reason why books telling of ‘wonderful answers to prayer’ are read with such avidity, and yet the effect on the readers is only to make them sigh, and exclaim, ‘I wish I could pray like that!’ without any upsurge of desire and trust, which brings them out into the joyous place of true fellowship with Him?
An old commentator says of this chapter, “In the passages which follow, we have strong and repeated cautions to avoid all show and ostentation in the performance of our religious duties, instanced in the acts of giving alms, of praying, and of fasting. Here is a marked disapprobation of everything that looks like parade, vainglory, insincerity, or hypocrisy in the discharge of our Christian duties. We here see in the clearest light the spirit and temper of the Christian religion, which is modest, silent, retired, quiet, unobtrusive, shunning the observation and the applause of men, and looking only to the approbation of Him, Who sees every thought of our hearts, and every secret motive of our actions. We have here established, as the grand principle for every disciple of Christ, that, in every part of his moral and religious conduct, he is to have no other object in view than the favour of God”. True prayer is the practice of this passion that God and God alone shall be the object of our confidence, and shall be glorified in all that He pleases to do with or through us.
Must we take this prohibition to mean that we are to avoid united prayer? The Expositors’ Greek New Testament seems to provide a clear answer to such a question. “Is social prayer negatived by this directory? No! But it is implied that social prayer will be a reality only in proportion as it proceeds from a gathering of men and women accustomed to private prayer”. Here is the reason for the dullness and lack in so many of our church prayer gatherings. The outward is stressed. The act of prayer is kept to the fore, while heart dealing with God is little understood. We are often more concerned with how we shall express ourselves, than filled with longings which must find expression, however inadequate, before His Throne. Because of this our prayer meetings became stilted, and formal, and therefore barren and ineffective, and we wonder why folk are not interested in them.
Negatives never stand alone in the Word of God, and our ‘don’t’ is immediately followed by a positive command. “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly” (Matthew 6 v6). “Note the emphasis on isolation”, comments the Expositors’ Greek New Testament. “THY closet, THY door, Thy Father, carefully shutting thy door, the door of thine own retreat, to exclude all but thy Father, with as much secrecy, as if you were about a guilty act. What delicacy of feeling, as well as sincerity, is implied in all this; greatly to be respected, often sinned against. He who is in the secret place, perhaps with allusion to God’s presence in the dark Holy of Holies, is in the place from which all fellowmen are excluded. Surely the important factor in prayer must be that all else is rigorously excluded except the individual and his God; and with each of us, who is willing to learn, God will insist that this lesson is properly mastered. Paul, for example, gives the Corinthians a retrospect of a ‘tunnel’ experience through which he had been taken. “For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble, which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life: but we had the sentence of death in ourselves (and here comes the lessons which the Master was teaching him) that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God, Which raiseth the dead, Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in Whom we trust that He will yet deliver us; ye also helping together by prayer for us, that for the gift bestowed upon us by the means of many persons thanks may be given by many on our behalf” (1 Corinthians 1 v8-11). Do you notice the courteous self-effacement, by which the apostle so naturally turns the attention of his readers away from himself, and his own dealings with God, but brings them into the picture, making himself, as it were, dependent upon their faith and prayers, that he may be delivered from the abyss of helplessness, into which at times it pleased God to bring him.
The great secret of all Christian living is absolute dependence upon God, and God alone, and prayer is the constant vehicle of man’s expression of that dependence. Have you not often, as I have, caught yourself watching the human means or circumstance through which you feel that prayer might be answered, having, if you will, one eye on God and the other on the means of the technique to be used. I love to turn again and again to a book, upon which I was brought up as a young Christian, ‘The Autobiography of George Muller’. On one occasion, when the demands of the Orphan Homes had assumed great proportions, and the needs were clamant, he wrote, “What is to be done under such circumstances? To trust in what we have in hand, to depend upon the liberality of former donors, or to trust in the number of reports which have been circulated? All these would be found broken reeds if leaned upon. We trust alone in the Living God, and are assured, that either before that which we have in hand is gone, He will send help, or when it is gone: for Himself, as with an unseen hand, has led me on to the enlargement of the work, and causes it still further to be enlarged, week after week. This trust in the Living God, but this alone keeps my heart in peace. Were I to look at things after the outward appearance, there is no natural prospect of my being carried through the constantly recurring large demands before me”. Such quiet confidence in God cannot be imitated, it has to be learnt in the secret place.
Our feverish efforts, and intense concentration upon doing things for God are clear evidence that we do not understand, and have not heeded this command, which is not only the basis of all heart rest, but the means by which His heart of love may be satisfied, and His Name glorified amongst men. You and I need to let those urgent possessives burn themselves deep into us, “THY closet, THY door, THY Father”. What riches lie hidden in the secret place, upon which it is His pleasure that we draw for every need! What lessons are learned here, which give us an intimate knowledge of our Father, and prepare us for full fellowship with Him, which will last throughout eternity!
There is so much that could be said on this score, but we must pass on to the next pronouncement of our passage. “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking” (Matthew 6 v7). Here is an error which dies hard! Examples readily come to mind of the futility of the mere multiplication of words, the use of prayer as a kind of accumulative, persuasive force. Think of the priests of Baal working themselves up into a fury of repetition upon Mount Carmel; and compare all this with the few brief sentences of Elijah’s prayer, which was the fruit of a life lived in the secret place: “As the Lord of Hosts liveth, before Whom I stand,” (Kings 18 v15, etc.). Listen to the purposeless shouting for two solid hours of the slogan, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians” (Acts 19 v34). This blind, pagan belief in ‘prayer’ always prides itself on and trusts in its fervour and volubility. As one commentator points out, there are branches of the so-called Christian Church, where repetition again and again, even of the pattern prayer given us in our passage, is encouraged, until it becomes almost a kind of incantation. The sad thing is that amongst evangelical Christians, where extempore prayer is insisted on, this same idea is all too prevalent. If we have prayed much we think that God is bound to answer; but if we have not prayed enough we become thoroughly disheartened and disbelieving. And yet our next verse brings us emphatically back to the whole basis of true prayer, intimate fellowship with God. “Be not ye therefore like unto them”; Why? “For your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask Him” (Matthew 6 v8). What simple words! And yet how little they mean to many of us! Surely in building a house it is the architect who has estimated the needs before the foundations were laid, to whom the workmen look for their supplies. They are not responsible to supply their own bricks or stone; they are only called upon to use the materials allotted to them to the best of their ability. If materials are needed they automatically turn to the one who, having planned, therefore knows all that will be required to finish the job properly. Is it not a fact that our inability to grasp the significance of the great, practical truth of our verse is rooted in our desirers, or even our determination, to be the architect of our own fortunes, and to do God’s work for Him, as we conceive that it should be done? We are so few of us content to be labourers only, putting all that we have and are into God-planned activity. Therefore we are unable to lean the true power of prayer. J.Hudson Taylor, the beloved founder of The China Inland Mission, spoke from the depths of his wide knowledge, when he once said, “God’s work, done in God’s way, will never lack God’s supplies”. The task upon which God sends a man can never fail for want of anything either spiritual or material, which is needed for its completion. We can, therefore, approach the throne of grace, and ask in absolute confident assurance that He, Who has planned, has estimated our needs down to the smallest detail, and is merely waiting for us to recognize and act upon our complete dependence on Him, whether for direction or supply, and will Himself supply our every need. Comparing Matthew’s account of the feeding of the five thousand with John’s (Matthew 14 v15-21 and John 6 v1-14) two striking facts emerge. Matthew records the command, “Give ye them to eat”. John looks behind the command to the wisdom of the Planner, “for He Himself knew what He would do”. He never sends His disciples on a fool’s errand. When He instructs it is with the full knowledge of every need and implication, and He has at His command unsearchable riches from which to give supplies. The real problem is that His ways are so different to ours, that unless we are prepared to quit our bustle, and our cherished plans, and humbly to learn of Him, we never master the inwardness of prayer, and so make things difficult for ourselves.
From verses 9-13 the great principles upon which all true prayer is built up are enunciated, and it is worth noticing that they are prefaced by, “After this manner therefore pray ye”, not merely ‘in these words’. These principles we must leave for examination in other issues, and pass on for the present to verses 14-15 in order to round off our present study. These verses read, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses”. This is not the only place where this important aspect of prayer is stressed. Turn, for example, to Matthew 18 v19-35. Immediately following one of the promises most prized by the Christian Church showing the willingness of the Father to answer prayer, and of the real presence of the Risen Saviour in the midst of His praying people, Peter expresses his concern at the forceful presentation of the obligation to forgive. He asks, “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?” The reply is unequivocal. “Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, until seven times: but, until seventy times seven”. Then follows the remarkable story of the servant, who himself forgiven an overwhelmingly large debt, refused to forgive his fellow servant a trifling one; and is therefore delivered ‘to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due....’ The Lord’s final word is, “So likewise shall my Heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not everyone his brother their trespasses”. Mark 11 v22-26 repeats the same theme. In verse 22 the Lord Jesus instructs His disciples that God is to be the sole object of their trust, and then makes the amazing statement about the moving of mountains, which is surely something more than a hint of the boundless power which God can and will exercise with and through those who rely on Him. Then suddenly we find ourselves back at the very same place, “And when ye stand praying forgive....” Why is this? Obviously we must return to the fact of our new relationship, as Christians, of oneness with God, for the explanation. The teaching of Paul’s Epistles bears this out. Both in Ephesians and Colossians (Ephesians 4 v20-32 and Colossians 3 v8-14) the call to forbearance and forgiveness is closely linked with putting off the old man, and putting on the new, “which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created him”.
He, who frequents the secret place because it is his home, and lives in inward fellowship and harmony with the Father, must of necessity become at one with Him in purpose, outlook and nature. Because God is light, not only does the sinfulness and folly of his old nature become a trouble to him continually, but he also learns truly to appreciate right and wrong in all that goes on around him. Because God is love he becomes daily more understanding and compassionate, and views his fellow men with new eyes. How wonderfully patient God is! How gracious in all His ways and dealings! When grappling with a world’s sin, and engaged in the final conflict with all the powers of hell upon the Cross, the God Man prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23 v34). Following in royal succession Stephen died with the prayer upon his lips, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge”. (Acts 7 v60). It was said of Archbishop Cranmer in his day, “Do my lord of Canterbury an ill turn, and you make him your friend for ever”. The secret of it all lies in the glorious fact that we are truly brought near to God in Christ, until we are knit with Him into a deep, rich understanding which overflows into heart and life, making prayer that utterly necessary inner communion, which in turn overflows in blessing to those amongst whom we live and labour.
E.M.Bounds concludes his book, ‘Power through Prayer’, with these words, which you and I shall do well to lay to heart. “God wants elect men, men out of whom self and the world have gone by severe crucifixion, by a bankruptcy which has so totally ruined self and the world that there is neither hope nor desire of recovery; men who by this insolvency and crucifixion have turned toward God perfect hearts.” Thus we may learn the inwardness of prayer for ourselves, and most certainly many of our ideas will be turned topsy-turvy in the process of learning. But it will prove to be infinitely worth-while.