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The Prayer of Faith
Believe . . . Say. . . Forgive . . . (Mark 11 v24-25)
God has found it necessary to ensure that the priceless privilege of prayer is not violated by the acquisitiveness of human nature; and the three words quoted above stand as sentinels at the very doors of the prayer life, whether of the individual or of the community. The passage from which they are taken, Mark 11 v22-26 is one in which the Lord Jesus points out to His disciples the infinite possibilities of the ‘prayer of faith’. It opens with the striking words, which Hudson Taylor rendered, “Hold the faithfulness of God”, and which fix our eyes at once on the One with whom we have to do.
The Lord’s Prayer also opens by fixing our eyes upon God, and His holiness, and if we are to learn to pray we must seek to know God Himself as fully as we may while in the body. Unless we do this we have no foundation for our trust, nor can we learn the secret of prevailing prayer. Prayer will remain for us the dim mysterious, almost meaningless exercise with which we vaguely feel that Christians ought to be occupied. Now follows one of the most astonishing and least understood declarations of Scripture, “For verily I say unto you, that whosoever shall say unto this mountain, ‘Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea’; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith”. This business of moving mountains either arouses the showman in us, and fires our imagination and desire to possess such power; or bewilders us a little, and leaves us with an impression that here is something quite beyond us. And yet it embodies a simple spiritual law, which can be learnt by those who will let God teach them. It is simply stating a thing that we know must happen, because God has enabled us to pray the prayer of faith.
This brings us to our first word, “believe”, and we must face the fact at once that such belief is impossible unless based on God-given assurance. Even if we can find backing for the prayer we are praying in the promises of the Bible it still needs the breath of the Spirit of God to make any such word a living assurance, which may be applied to the circumstances or challenges, which face us. We can probably all look back upon instances in our own experience when we have prayed for something definite, and have risen from our knees with the knowledge that our petition has been granted. But the mistake we make is that we do not deliberately seek to know the will of God in everything about which we pray. Nor do we realize in the words of J.O.Fraser, of China, that “praying without faith is like trying to cut with a blunt knife, much labour expended to little purpose”. Is not one probable cause of the falling off in the prayer life of Evangelical Christian bodies the fact that prayer has become a routine, made without consultation with each other or with God. It is deemed necessary, in fact, in many gatherings for prayer to fill the bulk of the time available with preaching or singing. The whole wonder and romance of prayer is surely the discovery of the purposes of God, and without this wonder all prayer must become a dead, discouraging, conventional self-deception.
Desire or Faith
Of course seeking the will of God presupposes the denying of our own will, and therefore the very starting place of intercession must be, “I am crucified with Christ . . . and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God . . .” (Gal. 2 v20). Without the crucifixion of self as our experimental basis of life we are dominated by the “carnal phronema”, which means “the mind, will or spirit, in the sense of purpose or endeavour”, and this is “enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Rom. 8 v7). Any prayer, individual or collective, having as its source the “carnal mind” is therefore doomed to barrenness and disappointment. Thomas Upham differentiates between such prayer, which he labels “the life of desire”, and the “life or prayer of faith”. “The life of desire”, he says, “has its centre in the creature. The life of faith has its centre in God. The life of desire has its origin in the wants of man’s fallen condition. It is the natural expression, the voice of those wants. The life of faith has its origin in the fulness of God. It is the expression, the voice of that fulness. The life of desire, originating in the creature, is bounded in its horizon. It selects particular objects, such as it can see, and appreciate and cling to. The life of faith seeks nothing of its own will, but expanding its view to all objects and all relations of objects, it chooses, without knowing what is best for itself or others, only what God chooses. The life of desire is variable. It takes a new appearance, and operates in a new direction with every new object to which it attaches itself. The life of faith is invariable, always exhibiting the same aspect and looking in the same direction, because the object which inspired it never changes, and never can change. The life of desire is a multiplied one, because it seizes successively upon the multiplied objects of desire by which it is surrounded. The life of faith is simple, because, tracing effects to causes and losing sight of the littleness of the creature in the infinity of the Creator, it rests upon God alone . . . Desire, restless by its very nature, seeks to accomplish its object by positive and aggressive efforts. Faith, in the consciousness of its strength, conquers by being in harmony with the divine movement, and by the attractions and power of its innate purity and repose”.
How does this work out in practice? Let us suppose two sets of conditions, one affecting an individual, and the other a Church. In the case of an individual, it may be that some crisis has suddenly overshadowed life, and the natural reaction is to pray. The way that the self-dominated man or woman sets about such prayer is a blind cry for deliverance when the only safe and true way is to seek to know what God purposes in this matter until He either says to us as He once said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12 v9), and we shall be enabled to rejoice even in our infirmities; or He says as He said to the blind man at Jericho, “Thy faith hath saved thee” (Luke 18 v42) and the cloud will then dissipate in His time and way. In the case of a Church, it may be that much prayer has been offered for revival, and the immediate result is a multiplication of difficulties in the work, and even the scattering of its members. The natural instinct is to be daunted by the difficulties, sink to the dead level of the religious treadmill and forget the glorious vision of a mighty harvest. Surely the real position is, however, that God is urging those who have embarked on a line of prayer so fraught with divine possibilities to seek His plan, to learn the inadequacy of human effort, and discover the place where living waters refreshing in their spontaneity may flow into many needy lives. He is seeking to teach them that the true incentive for such intercession can only be that “He may see of the travail of His soul and be satisfied”, and in due course, if they go on, learning as they go, assurance will be given, a living faith born, and blessing poured out. The Church to-day is a Church without a vision, and lacking power because what prayer there is is not “the prayer of faith”; and yet only through her can God shed His love and mercy abroad on our desperately needy day and generation.
The declaration of Faith
It is when faith has come, founded upon divine assurance, that the time is ripe for the declaration of faith whether it be before men or devils. It is then that mountains move at our bidding, and miracles are wrought at our word. This does not of necessity mean some dramatic denouement. The old man likes to picture himself challenging unbelief in the type of circumstance which Elijah faced on Carmel, and to think of himself as a man of faith, God’s plan is that “no flesh should glory in His presence” and therefore our declaration of faith often brings us to a steady patient progress, possibly in the teeth of misunderstanding and criticism, towards the final manifestation of victory.
There are many New Testament instances, other than those recorded of the Lord Jesus, of assurance culminating in a declaration, an open exercise of authority based on the word of the King. Peter in Acts 3 speaks in this vein to the man “at the gate of the temple, which is called Beautiful” when he says, “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk” . . . “and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength”. Ananias in Acts 9, acting on a God-given assurance goes to the “street which is called Straight” and says, “Brother Saul, the Lord even Jesus that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit” . . . “And . . . he received sight forthwith, and arose and was baptized”. Paul in Acts 16 found himself persistently followed through the streets of Philippi by a demon-possessed damsel, and eventually the moment came when he “turned and said to the spirit, I command thee in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her” . . . “And he came out the same hour” . . . These are but three instances chosen at random out of a veritable pageant of faith which can be drawn from the life of a Church living in the tide of the power of God. In our day Satan has, through a cleverly engineered campaign of the pseudo-miraculous, and by puffing up uncrucified flesh so that overbalanced extremism has resulted, managed to hide this aspect of the prayer of faith from the Church as a whole. Nor has his task proved difficult because the bedrock foundation of life-union with Christ is so little known in our day. But all his efforts cannot invalidate the promise, “Whosoever shall say . . . he shall have whatsoever he saith”. The history of the Church in recent years is not wanting in parallel cases to those quoted from the New Testament, most of them it must be admitted come from the young Churches of China, Africa, and other lands where faith is yet the simple rule of life, and Christians have not been crippled by a too highly institutionalized materially minded ministry.
The book of the Acts contains some strong warnings against the misuse of this delegated authority. Simon the Sorcerer, who offered money for such power was told “Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter, for thy heart is not right in the sight of God” (Acts 8 v2I). There is also the case of the seven sons of Sceva, who sought to deliver a demon-possessed man, and met with the humiliating answer direct from the evil spirit, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?” Great humility is needed in making a declaration of faith, and we must always recognize that the choice of occasion, time, place and audience for such a declaration is the prerogative of Him who gives the assurance, upon which our faith is founded. There is a moment for the exercise of delegated authority, and unless we are walking very close to Him, we may well fall into what the Psalmist termed “presumptuous sin”, and meet with nothing but failure and disappointment. On the other hand there may well be prayers unanswered, because we have not obeyed this divine law, but have “staggered at the promise of God through unbelief”.
There are occasions, when such a declaration is not the signal for an instantaneous miracle, but is the first shot fired in a battle of faith. In such cases we find we must go forward backed by God-given assurance to see a work founded, a series of difficulties overcome, or an outbreak of revival. J. O. Fraser for instance tells of a day when he was enabled to pray the prayer of faith. “I knew”, he wrote not long after, “that the time had come for the prayer of faith. Fully conscious of what I was doing and what it might cost me, I definitely committed myself to this petition in faith (hundreds of Lisu families for Christ). The transaction was done. I rose from my knees with the deep restful conviction that I had already received the answer”. Armed with this assurance he stepped out alone to colossal labours, and continual discouragements until years later while witnessing a remarkable movement of God he could write, “There are now, in all, about four hundred and fifty families of tribes people for whose teaching and shepherding we are responsible. Rejoice with me”. What a change the prayer of faith had wrought. Barriers of superstition had been swept aside, years of demon domination over-ruled, mountains of difficulty removed, and hundreds of Lisu families won for Christ. Are not such experiences in true apostolic succession, and worthy to be placed side by side with Paul’s declaration to his companions in shipwreck, “Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me” and in exact fulfilment of his statement not one of them was lost. Cannot we too learn to pray so that God may be able to make His will known to us, and miracles of grace can be wrought in our chaotic modern days.
The final condition for enablement to pray the prayer of faith is outlined in the words, “And when you stand praying, forgive”, and it is a condition that must not be overlooked. Our access into the presence of God is based utterly on His mercy and forgiveness, and unless we too are governed by the same merciful, forgiving spirit then we are told bluntly . . . “if you do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses”. It is surely not so much that it is individual cases of pique and rancour that are meant in this passage, although obviously these cannot be permitted to remain in our hearts. It is the whole spirit of the man of prayer that is here called in question. Pardon and gentleness are the very nature of Christ, whilst a hard, dominating, unforgiving outlook is the hallmark of the self-dominated man. Do you remember the incident recorded in Luke 9 when Samaritan villagers refused to receive Jesus, whose face was set towards Jerusalem? The disciples were indignant, and sought permission to make what they conceived to be a grand declaration of faith, “Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, even as Elias did?”. “But He turned, and rebuked them, and said, you know not what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”
Again have you ever considered the speed with which the cry of pardon from the Cross was answered? The crowd egged on by the priests and scribes were hurling mockery at the crucified Saviour, and He prayed, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”. The events of the book of Acts had not gone far on their course when we read “and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6 v7) and the triumph of this glorious petition is thus made manifest. Stephen facing his murderers also prays, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge”, and it is an incredibly short time later that Saul, one of the most furious of his accusers, becomes Paul the apostle, God’s chosen missionary to the Gentile world. Ever since that day those to whom it has been given to pray the prayer of faith for their fellow men have been men of the same spirit, who have gone steadily and purposefully to work, denying self, and looking with the yearning and love of Him who, “endured such contradiction of sinners against Himself”, upon all and sundry whether disposed to accept them and their message or not. What of us? Our day is a very barren one, where manifestation of such love is concerned. We workers and ministers find that our Church members are obstinate, and difficult so we discover that we have a “call” to wider service. We Christian believers are so intent on drubbing the modernist, and trouncing those who do not observe the rules or rituals so dear to us that we forget that as Abraham felt the burden of responsibility for Lot, so we are responsible to pray the prayer of forgiving faith for those, who through unbelief make life hard for us. We shall never see revival from a pedestal of cold self-righteousness, and the prayer of faith in its application to the need of the world about us will remain a mystery until we become those who “have crucified the flesh, with the affections and lusts”. The flesh is utterly unable to comprehend the ways of God, it can only fasten on the external fact that prayer is answered, a fact that many unconverted people heartily endorse, but it is always prayer for tangible material things, for personal benefits, for Church work, but of the mystery of that prayer which is fellowship with God, and carries the burdens of “all sorts and conditions of men” in double harness with their Saviour it can know nothing. Let us make no mistake it is not activity and organization that can meet the stark need about us, it is the prayer of faith, and that alone. The question that confronts us is, am I able and willing to learn to pray in this fashion? He can and will teach us how, if we are prepared to become learners in His school, and the blessings of such knowledge are eternal.