"What profit should we have, if we pray unto Him?" -- JOB xxi.15.
"God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you." -- 1 SAM. xii.23.
"Neither will I be with you any more, except ye destroy the accursed from among you." -- JOSH. vii.12.
Any deep quickening of the spiritual life of the Church will always be accompanied by a deeper sense of sin. This will not begin with theology; that can only give expression to what God works in the life of His people. Nor does it mean that that deeper sense of sin will only be seen in stronger expressions of self-reproach or penitence: that is sometimes found to consist with a harbouring of sin, and unbelief as to deliverance. But the true sense of the hatefulness of sin, the hatred of it, will be proved by the intensity of desire for deliverance, and the struggle to know to the very utmost what God can do in saving from it -- a holy jealousy, in nothing to sin against God.
If we are to deal effectually with the lack of prayer we must look at it from this point of view and ask, Restraining prayer, is it sin? And if it be, how is it to be dealt with, to be discovered, and confessed, and cast out by man, and cleansed away by God? Jesus is a Saviour from sin. It is only as we know sin truly that we can truly know the power that saves from sin. The life that can pray effectually is the life of the cleansed branch -- the life that knows deliverance from the power of self. To see that our prayer-sins are indeed sins, is the first step to a true and Divine deliverance from them.
In the story of Achan we have one of the strongest proofs in Scripture that it is sin that robs God's people of His blessing, and that God will not tolerate it; and at the same time the clearest indication of the principles under which God deals with it, and removes it. Let us see in the light of the story if we can learn how to look at the sin of prayerlessness, and at the sinfulness that lies at the root of it. The words I have quoted above, "Neither will I be with you any more, except ye put away the accursed thing from among you," take us into the very heart of the story, and suggest a series of the most precious lessons around the truth they express, that the presence of sin makes the presence of God impossible.
1. The presence of God is the great privilege of God's people, and their only power against the enemy. -- God had promised to Moses, I will bring you in unto the land. Moses proved that he understood this when God, after the sin of the golden calf, spoke of withdrawing His presence and sending an angel. He refused to accept anything less than God's presence. "For whereby shall it be known that I and Thy people have found grace in Thy sight? Is it not that Thou goest with us?" It was this gave Caleb and Joshua their confidence: The Lord is with us. It was this gave Israel their victory over Jericho: the presence of God. This is throughout Scripture the great central promise: I am with thee. This marks off the whole-hearted believer from the worldling and worldly Christians around him: he lives consciously hidden in the secret of God's presence.
2. Defeat and failure are always owing to the loss of God's presence. -- It was thus at Ai. God had brought His people into Canaan with the promise to give them the land. When the defeat at Ai took place Joshua felt at once that the cause must be in the withdrawal of God's power. He had not fought for them. His presence had been withheld.
In the Christian life and the work of the Church, defeat is ever a sign of the loss of God's presence. If we apply this to our failure in the prayer-life, and as a result of that to our failure in work for God, we are led to see that all is simply owing to our not standing in clear and full fellowship with God. His nearness, His immediate presence, has not been the chief thing sought after and trusted in. He could not work in us as He would. Loss of blessing and power is ever caused by the loss of God's presence.
3. The loss of God's presence is always owing to some hidden sin. -- Just as pain is ordered in nature to warn of some hidden evil in the system, defeat is God's voice telling us there is something wrong. He has given Himself so wholly to His people, He delights so in being with them, and would so fain reveal in them His love and power, that He never withdraws Himself unless they compel Him by sin.
Throughout the Church there is a complaint of defeat. The Church has so little power over the masses, or the educated classes. Powerful conversions are comparatively rare. The fewness of holy, consecrated, spiritual Christians, devoted to the service of God and their fellowmen, is felt everywhere. The power of the Church for the preaching of the gospel to the heathen is paralysed by the scarcity of money and men; and all owing to the lack of the effectual prayer which brings the Holy Spirit in power, first on ministers and believers, then on missionaries and the heathen. Can we deny it that the lack of prayer is the sin on account of which God's presence and power are not more manifestly seen among us?
4. God Himself will discover the hidden sin. -- We may think we know what the sin is: it is only God who can discover its real deep meaning. When He spoke to Joshua, before naming the sin of Achan, God first said, "They have transgressed My covenant which I commanded them." God had commanded (vi.19) that all the booty of Jericho, gold and silver and all that was in it, was to be a devoted thing, consecrated unto the Lord, and to come into His treasury. And Israel had broken this consecration vow: it had not given God His due; it had robbed God.
It is this we need: God must discover to us how the lack of prayer is the indication of unfaithfulness to our consecration vow, that God should have all our heart and life. We must see that this restraining prayer, with the excuses we make for it, is greater sin than we have thought; for what does it mean? That we have little taste or relish for fellowship with God; that our faith rests more on our own work and efforts than on the power of God; that we have little sense of the heavenly blessing God waits to shower down; that we are not ready to sacrifice the ease and confidence of the flesh for persevering waiting on God; that the spirituality of our life, and our abiding in Christ, is altogether too feeble to make us prevail in prayer. When the pressure of work for Christ is allowed to be the excuse for our not finding time to seek and secure His own presence and power in it, as our chief need, it surely proves that there is no right sense of our absolute dependence upon God; no deep apprehension of the Divine and supernatural work of God in which we are only His instruments, no true entrance into the heavenly, altogether other-worldly, character of our mission and aims, no full surrender to and delight in Christ Jesus Himself.
If we were to yield to God's Spirit to show us that all this is in very deed the meaning of remissness in prayer, and of our allowing other things to crowd it out, all our excuses would fall away, and we should fall down and cry, "We have sinned! we have sinned!" Samuel once said, "As for me, God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you." Ceasing from prayer is sin against God. May God discover this to us. (Note A.)
5. When God discovers sin, it must be confessed and cast out. -- When the defeat at Ai came, Joshua and Israel were ignorant of the cause. God dealt with Israel as a nation, as one body, and the sin of one member was visited on all. Israel as a whole was ignorant of the sin, and yet suffered for it. The Church may be ignorant of the greatness of this sin of restraining prayer, individual ministers or believers may never have looked upon it as actual transgression, none the less does it bring its punishment. But when the sin is no more hidden, when the Holy Spirit begins to convince of it, then comes the time of heart-searching. In our story the combination of individual and united responsibility is very solemn. The individual: as we find it in the expression, "man for man"; each man felt himself under the eye of God, to be dealt with. And when Achan had been taken, he had to make confession. The united: as we see it in all Israel first suffering and dealt with by God, then taking Achan, and his family, and the accursed thing, and destroying them out of their midst.
If we have reason to think this is the sin that is in the camp, let us begin with personal and united confession. And then let us come before God to put away and destroy the sin. Here stands at the very threshold of Israel's history in Canaan the heap of stones in the valley of Achor, to tell us that God cannot bear sin, that God will not dwell with sin, and that if we really want God's presence in power, sin must be put away. Let us look the solemn fact in the face. There may be other sins, but here is certainly one that causes the loss of God's presence -- we do not pray as Christ and Scripture teach us. Let us bring it out before God, and give up this sin to the death. Let us yield ourselves to God to obey His voice. Let no fear of past failure, let no threatening array of temptations, or duties, or excuses, keep us back. It is a simple question of obedience. Are we going to give up ourselves to God and His Spirit to live a life in prayer, well-pleasing to Him? Surely, if it is God who has been withholding His presence, who has been discovering the sin, who is calling for its destruction, and a return to obedience, surely we can count upon His grace to accept and strengthen for the life He asks of us. It is not a question of what you can do; it is the question of whether you now, with your whole heart, turn to give God His due, and give yourself to let His will and grace have their way with you.
6. With sin cast out God's presence is restored. -- From this day onwards there is not a word in Joshua of defeat in battle. The story shows them going on from victory to victory. God's presence secured gives power to overcome every enemy.
This truth is so simple that the very ease with which we acquiesce in it robs it of its power. Let us pause and think what it implies. God's presence restored means victory secured. Then, we are responsible for defeat. Then, there must be sin somewhere causing it. Then, we ought at once to find out and put away the sin. We may confidently expect God's presence the moment the sin is put away. Surely each one is under the solemn obligation to search his life and see what part he may have in this evil.
God never speaks to His people of sin except with a view to saving them from it. The same light that shows the sin will show the way out of it. The same power that breaks down and condemns will, if humbly yielded to and waited on in confession and faith, give the power to rise up and conquer. It is GOD who is speaking to His Church and to us about this sin: "HE WONDERED that there was no intercessor." "I WONDERED that there was none to uphold." "I SOUGHT for a man that should stand in the gap before Me, and found none." The God who speaks thus is He who will work the change for His children who seek His face. He will make the valley of Achor, of trouble and shame, of sin confessed and cast out, a door of hope. Let us not fear, let us not cling to the excuses and explanations which circumstances suggest, but simply confess, "We have sinned; we are sinning; we dare not sin longer." In this matter of prayer we are sure God does not demand of us impossibilities. He does not weary us with an impracticable ideal. He asks us to pray no more than He gives grace to enable us to. He will give the grace to do what He asks, and so to pray that our intercessions shall, day by day, be a pleasure to Him and to us, a source of strength to our conscience and our work, and a channel of blessing to those for whom we labour.
God dealt personally with Joshua, with Israel, with Achan. Let each of us allow Him to deal personally with us concerning this sin, of restraining prayer, and its consequences in our life and work; concerning the deliverance from sin, its certainty and blessedness. Just bow in stillness and wait before God, until, as God, He overshadow you with His presence, lead you out of that region of argument as to human possibilities, where conviction of sin can never be deep, and full deliverance can never come. Take quiet time, and be still before God, that He may take this matter in hand. "Sit still, for He will not be in rest until He have finished this thing this day." Leave yourself in God's hands.