Do we pray?
Dr. Stuart is known to have three rules which guided his prayer life, the first of which is perhaps the most profound, “Pray till you pray.”
Do we actually believe in prayer?
Or, by our works, do we deny it?
Have we professed to its importance, but by our actual practices demonstrated that we look down upon it, take it lightly and find the honor of coming into God’s very presence, the holy of holies, His inner chamber, before His very throne, to be insignificant?
Do we actually believe prayer to be both commanded and effective, needed and required?
Things change when we pray. Or do they?
God hears us when we pray. Or does He?
Let us settle this matter once and for all. On the topic of believing prayer is the subject of today’s letter.
“So it was when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” Nehemiah 1:4
Nehemiah was a praying man. Even in his position of influence, as a cupbearer to the King, he saw that no height of human rank could replace making his petitions known before the God to whom all rulers and authorities bow.
Nehemiah prayed - when he heard the news, before he went to the King, while he was talking to the King, when he was working, when the work was opposed, as the work was completed, and afterwards on behalf of a compromised people - Nehemiah prayed, he always prayed.
He knew something that most of us believe, but many of us have forgotten:
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” Philippians 4:6
“And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” Matthew 21:22
“Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.” Mark 11:24
“If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.” John 15:7
“Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.” 1 John 5:14
“And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.” 1 John 3:22
“The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” James 5:16
At reading these verses we have either two responses - one, wrangle and wrestle with the text. Break it apart. Look for all the ways it could be used or misused. Devote focus to defining “His will,” and, “all things.” Let this carry you into asking deep questions about God’s sovereignty, “Does prayer really change anything or was it already pre-determined?” And, quite quickly, away your energy for prayer has gone - all in the name of proper spirituality.
Or two - take these verses at face value, as literal promises, and pray to a Father in heaven who hears us, desires to give us good gifts, commands us to pray, and promises to answer.
Prayer requires us to be silent, to remove distractions, to get alone. Nothing between us and God. And because of this, prayer reveals our true nature. It has to, as all is laid bare before Him. This is a scary place, not only to be alone, but also to see ourselves in this light. Are we prepared to confront ourselves in this way, with Him in the room?
We would rather debate about the interpretation of these prayer scriptures, or put our hand to work doing all the other important and good daily tasks. It’s far easier to listen to sermon after sermon and read commentary after commentary, than it is to quiet ourselves, get alone, be silent, still and actually pray.
This lack of prayer is evident. Shallow, tired, easily worn out, hopeless, full of despair, lacking demonstration of the Spirit and power, turning to every other method and machinery of man in order to generate results.
“Do you want to know how to backslide, why they backslide? They all backslide in the place of prayer.” - Leonard Ravenhill
“All decays begin in the closet. No heart thrives without much secret conversation with God, and nothing will make amends for the lack of it,” was the confession of John Berridge, the man whose tombstone reads as such:
Reader art thou born again?
No salvation without new birth.
I was born in sin February 1716.
Remained ignorant of my fallen state till 1730.
Lived proudly on faith and works for salvation till 1754.
Admitted to Everton Vicarage 1755.
Fled to Jesus alone for refuge 1756.
Fell asleep in Christ 22 January 1793.
Reading through the key milestones of this man’s life, one entry stands out above the others, “Fled to Jesus alone for refuge 1756.”
A biographer shares more context into this memorable event, “In 1755 he became vicar in out-of-the-way Everton, and there at age 42 he finally agonized about his own soul.
“Lord,” he began crying, “if I am right, keep me so; if I am not right, make me so, and lead me to the knowledge of the truth in Jesus.”
One morning sitting before an open Bible these words flashed to mind: “Cease from thine own works; only believe.” He immediately started preaching salvation by grace through faith alone.
Soon one of his parishioners visited him. “Why, Sarah,” he said, “What is the matter?” “I don’t know,” said the woman. “Those new sermons! I find we are all lost now. I can neither eat, drink, nor sleep. I don’t know what will become of me.” Others echoed the same cry. Berridge’s church soon swelled with villagers giving their lives to Christ. People flocked from all parts, and the buildings proved too small. On May 14, 1759 Berridge began preaching outdoors.”
Berridge held a successful ministry prior to this event. He was well-respected in his profession, yet lacked the power and fruitfulness that comes from true communion with God. It was only after his prayer, in agony - “If I am not right, make me so!” - that everything changed for him. Suddenly, his words had life, breath, power.
And going forward from this place of answered prayer, he could then declare thus, “All decays begin in the closet. No heart thrives without much secret conversation with God, and nothing will make amends for the lack of it.”
David M’Intyre (1859-1938) continues on this same theme in his book, The Hidden Life of Prayer, “Communion with God is the condition of spiritual growth. It is the soil in which all the graces of the divine life root themselves….Communion with God discovers the excellence of His character, and by beholding Him the soul is transformed. Holiness is conformity to Christ, and this is secured by a growing intimacy with Him.”
This theme of the importance of prayer and secret communion with God runs down the lineage of church history.
“These last three days I have had very little real communion with God, and have therefore been very weak spiritually, and have several times felt irritability of temper. May God in mercy help me to have more secret prayer.” - George Müller (1805-1898)
“The devil is aware that one hour of close fellowship, hearty converse with God in prayer, is able to pull down what he has been contriving and building many a year.” - John Flavel (1627–1691)
“So we must say to our friends, ‘I must away and have time for prayer and solitude.’” C.H. Spurgeon (1834-1892)
“I cannot say that a day passes without beholding the beauty of the Lord, and being revived by His grace. For the most part, the Lord is with me the greater part of the day, and is daily giving me some new insight into the depth and freedom of His love, together with the conviction of sin and contrition of spirit, in which there is much peace and rest.” Dr. Moody Stuart (1809-1898)
And while we could stop and examine the rich legacies of each of the men mentioned above, and the role that prayer played, time does not allow. Instead, let us just look into a small aspect of one of them - Dr. Moody Stuart. Dr. Stuart is known to have three rules which guided his prayer life, the first of which is perhaps the most profound, “Pray till you pray.”
This instruction to, '“Pray till you pray,” is reminiscent of the opening line to an old hymn which appeared in The Song Book of the Salvation Army, written by John Burton (1803-1877), “I often say my prayers, but do I ever pray?”
At this juncture I am going to be as direct as I feel is demanded, yet please read these words as “truth in love,” rather than heaping a burden of condemnation.
We have many today who say prayers, but very few who pray.
We have many who busy themselves with spiritual activity, but few who, like Nehemiah, sit down and weep and mourn for many days.
We have many who are willing to defend the Gospel in the media, in the courts, online, on the street corner, and in many other places before men. But few who go into their room, shut the door and make such an impassioned plea alone, before God, “who is in the secret place.” (Matthew 6:6)
E.M. Bounds spoke of this declining condition in his book, “Prayer and Praying Men”:
How few the strong men in these days who can weep at the evils and abominations of the times! How rare those who, seeing the desolations of Zion, are sufficiently interested and concerned for the welfare of the Church to mourn!
Mourning and weeping over the decay of religion, the decline of revival power, and the fearful inroads of worldliness in the Church are almost an unknown quantity. There is so much of so-called optimism that leaders have no eyes to see the breaking down of the walls of Zion and the low spiritual state of the Christians of the present day, and have less heart to mourn and cry about it.
Nehemiah was a mourner in Zion. And possessing this state of heart, distressed beyond measure, he does that which other praying saints had done - he goes to God and makes it a subject of prayer.
Will you likewise go to God today? Will you stir yourself to take hold of Him? (Isaiah 64:7)
You have most likely heard things today you have heard before, possibly many times. But it’s my hope that today your response will be different than in times past. And that in heaping evidence upon evidence, it will be as wave upon wave against your resistance.
The verses above provided Biblical evidence, the subsequent stories shared examples of countless saints who have gone before, and the story of Nehemiah gave a pointed rebuke by comparing his response to the common apathy of our generation. Wave upon wave upon wave.
Yet, perhaps it is still not enough.
Then I implore you once more in another light - a prayer of my own.
Oh Lord, I pray for your Church today, that you would bring us back to a place of secret prayer. with You.
I pray that we would hear Your words today and that these words would stop us in our tracks. I pray that praise would spontaneously break forth from our lips - that we could not help but sing forth of Your great works. Let this praise well up within us as an overflowing spring of life.
And from this place of never-ending praise, will you place within us the desire to pray? Let words of prayer constantly be on the tip of our tongue, the edge of our heart and the forefront of our mind.
As E.M. Bounds wrote, “Fortunate is that Church whose leaders are men of prayer,” we pray for these men, for these leaders, for Your Church, that they would be brought back to the place of daily communion with You in the secret place. Let us forsake all other methods, all other tasks, all other good things, until we have sought for and found You in that secret place every day.