Here we have a summary of the teaching of our Lord Jesus on prayer. Nothing will so much help to convince us of the sin of our remissness in prayer, to discover its causes, and to give us courage to expect entire deliverance, as the careful study and then the believing acceptance of that teaching. The more heartily we enter into the mind of our blessed Lord, and set ourselves simply just to think about prayer as He thought, the more surely will His words be as living seeds. They will grow and produce in us their fruit, -- a life and practice exactly corresponding to the Divine truth they contain. Do let us believe this: Christ, the living Word of God, gives in His words a Divine quickening power which brings what they say, which works in us what He asks, which actually fits and enables for all He demands. Learn to look upon His teaching on prayer as a definite promise of what He, by His Holy Spirit dwelling in you, is going to work into your very being and character.
Our Lord gives us the five marks, or essential elements, of true prayer. There must be, first, the heart's desire; then the expression of that desire in prayer; with that, the faith that carries the prayer to God; in that faith, the acceptance of God's answer; then comes the experience of the desired blessing. It may help to give definiteness to our thought, if we each take a definite request in regard to which we would fain learn to pray believingly. Or, perhaps better still, we might all unite and take the one thing that has been occupying our attention. We have been speaking of failure in prayer; why should we not take as the object of desire and supplication the "grace of supplication," and say, I want to ask and receive in faith the power to pray just as, and as much as, my God expects of me? Let us meditate on our Lord's words, in the confidence that He will teach us how to pray for this blessing.
1. "What things soever ye desire." -- Desire is the secret power that moves the whole world of living men, and directs the course of each. And so desire is the soul of prayer, and the cause of insufficient or unsuccessful prayer is very much to be found in the lack or feebleness of desire. Some may doubt this: they are sure that they have very earnestly desired what they ask. But if they consider whether their desire has indeed been as whole-hearted as God would have it, as the heavenly worth of these blessings demands, they may come to see that it was indeed the lack of desire that was the cause of failure. What is true of God is true of each of his blessings, and is the more true the more spiritual the blessing: "Ye shall seek Me, and shall find, when ye shall search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. xxix.13). Of Judah in the days of Asa it is written, "They sought Him with their whole desire" (2 Chron. xv.15). A Christian may often have very earnest desires for spiritual blessings. But alongside of these there are other desires in his daily life occupying a large place in his interests and affections. The spiritual desires are not all-absorbing. He wonders that his prayer is not heard. It is simply that God wants the whole heart. "The Lord thy God is one Lord, therefore thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart." The law is unchangeable: God offers Himself, gives Himself away, to the whole-hearted who give themselves wholly away to Him. He always gives us according to our heart's desire. But not as we think it, but as He sees it. If there be other desires which are more at home with us, which have our heart more than Himself and His presence, He allows these to be fulfilled, and the desires that engage us at the hour of prayer cannot be granted.
We desire the gift of intercession, grace and power to pray aright. Our hearts must be drawn away from other desires: we must give ourselves wholly to this one. We must be willing to live wholly in intercession for the kingdom. By fixing our eye on the blessedness and the need of this grace, by thinking of the certainty that God will give it us, by giving ourselves up to it, for the sake of the perishing world, desire may be strengthened, and the first step taken towards the possession of the coveted blessing. Let us seek the grace of prayer, as we seek the God with whom it will link us, "with our whole desire"; we may depend upon the promise, "He will fulfil the desire of them that fear Him." Let us not fear to say to Him, "I desire it with my whole heart."
2. "What things soever ye desire when ye pray." -- The desire of the heart must become the expression of the lips. Our Lord Jesus more than once asked those who cried to Him for mercy, "What wilt thou?" He wanted them to say what they would. To speak it out roused their whole being into action, brought them into contact with Him, and wakened their expectation. To pray is to enter into God's presence, to claim and secure His attention, to have distinct dealing with Him in regard to some request, to commit our need to His faithfulness and to leave it there: it is in so doing that we become fully conscious of what we are seeking.
There are some who often carry strong desires in their heart, without bringing them to God in the clear expression of definite and repeated prayer. There are others who go to the Word and its promises to strengthen their faith, but do not give sufficient place to that pointed asking of God which helps the soul to the assurance that the matter has been put into God's hands. Still others come in prayer with so many requests and desires, that it is difficult for themselves to say what they really expect God to do. If you would obtain from God this great gift of faithfulness in prayer and power to pray aright, begin by exercising yourself in prayer in regard to it. Say of it to yourself and to God: "Here is something I have asked, and am continuing to ask till I receive. As plain and pointed as words can make it, I am saying, 'My Father! I do desire, I do ask of Thee, and expect of Thee, the grace of prayer and intercession.'"
3. "What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe." -- As it is only by faith that we can know God, or receive Jesus Christ, or live the Christian life, so faith is the life and power of prayer. If we are to enter upon a life of intercession, in which there is to be joy and power and blessing, if we are to have our prayer for the grace of prayer answered, we must learn anew what faith is, and begin to live and pray in faith as never before.
Faith is the opposite of sight, and the two are contrary the one to the other. "We walk by faith, and not by sight." If the unseen is to get full possession of us, and heart and life and prayer are to be full of faith, there must be a withdrawal from, a denial of, the visible. The spirit that seeks to enjoy as much as possible of what is innocent or legitimate, that gives the first place to the calls and duties of daily life, is inconsistent with a strong faith and close intercourse with the spiritual world. "We look not at the things that are seen" -- the negative side needs to be emphasised if the positive, "but at the things which are not seen," is to become natural to us. In praying, faith depends upon our living in the invisible world.
This faith has specially to do with God. The great reason of our lack of faith is our lack of knowledge of God and intercourse with Him. "Have faith in God," Jesus said when He spoke of removing mountains. It is as a soul knows God, is occupied with His power, love, and faithfulness, comes away out of self and the world, and allows the light of God to shine on it, that unbelief will become impossible. All the mysteries and difficulties connected with answers to prayer will, however little we may be able to solve them intellectually, be swallowed up in the adoring assurance: "This God is our God. He will bless us. He does indeed answer prayer. And the grace to pray I am asking for He will delight to give." (Note C.)
4. "What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye have received," now as you pray. -- Faith has to accept the answer, as given by God in heaven, before it is found or felt upon earth. This point causes difficulty, and yet it is of the very essence of believing prayer, its real secret. Try and take it in. Spiritual things can only be spiritually apprehended or appropriated. The spiritual heavenly blessing of God's answer to your prayer must be spiritually recognised and accepted before you feel anything of it. It is faith does this. A soul that not only seeks an answer, but seeks first the God who gives the answer, receives the power to know that it has what it has asked of Him. If it knows that it has asked according to His will and promises, and that it has come to and found Himself to give it, it does believe that it has received. "We know that He heareth us."
There is nothing so heart-searching as this faith, "Believe that ye have received." As we strive to believe, and find we cannot, it leads us to discover what there is that hinders. Blessed is the man who holds nothing back, and lets nothing hold him back, but, with his eye and heart on God alone, refuses to rest till he has believed what our Lord bids him, "that he has received." Here is the place where Jacob becomes Israel, and the power of prevailing prayer is born out of human weakness and despair. Here comes in the real need for persevering and ever-importunate prayer, that will not rest, or go away, or give up, till it knows it is heard, and believes that it has received.
You pray for "the Spirit of grace and supplication"? As you ask for it in strong desire, and believe in God who hears prayer, do not be afraid to press on and believe that your life can indeed be changed, that the world with its press of duties, whether religious or not, hindering prayer, can be overcome, and that God gives you your heart's desire, grace to pray both in measure and in spirit, just as the Father would have His child do. "Believe that you have received."
5. "What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye have received, and ye shall have them." -- The receiving from God in faith, the believing acceptance of the answer with the perfect, praising assurance that it has been given, is not necessarily the experience or subjective possession of the gift we have asked for. At times there may be a considerable, or even a long, interval. In other cases the believing supplicant may at once enter upon the actual enjoyment of what he has received. It is specially in the former case that we have need of faith and patience: faith to rejoice in the assurance of the answer bestowed and received, and to begin and act upon that answer though nothing be felt; patience to wait if there be for the present no sensible proof of its presence. We can count upon it: Ye shall have, in actual enjoyment.
If we apply this to the prayer for the power of faithful intercession, the grace to pray earnestly and perseveringly for souls around us, let us learn to hold fast the Divine assurance that, as surely as we believe we receive, and that faith therefore, apart from all failing, may rejoice in the certainty of an answered prayer. The more we praise God for it, the sooner will the experience come. We may begin at once to pray for others, in the confidence that grace will be given us to pray more perseveringly and more believingly than we have done before. If we do not find any special enlargement or power in prayer, this must not hinder or discourage us. We have accepted, apart from feeling, a spiritual Divine gift by faith; in that faith we are to pray, nothing doubting. The Holy Spirit may for a little time be hiding Himself within us; we may count upon Him, even though it be with groanings which cannot find expression, to pray in us; in due time we shall become conscious of His presence and power. As sure as there is desire and prayer and faith, and faith's acceptance of the gift, there will be, too, the manifestation and experience of the blessing we sought.
Beloved brother! do you truly desire that God should enable you so to pray that your life may be free from continual self-condemnation, and that the power of His Spirit may come down in answer to your petition? Come and ask it of God. Kneel down and pray for it in a single definite sentence. When you have done so, kneel still in faith, believing in God who answers. Believe that you do now receive what you have prayed: believe that you have received. If you find it difficult to do this, kneel still, and say that you do it on the strength of His own word. If it cost time, and struggle, and doubt -- fear not; at His feet, looking up into His face, faith will come. "Believe that you have received": at His bidding you dare claim the answer. Begin in that faith, even though it be feeble, a new prayer-life, with this one thought as its strength: "You have asked and received grace in Christ to prepare you, step by step, to be faithful in prayer and intercession. The more simply you hold to this, and expect the Holy Spirit to work it in you, the more surely and fully will the word be made true to you: Ye shall have it. God Himself who gave the answer will work it in you."