Who May Pray?
It is only two centuries ago that six undergraduates were expelled from the University of Oxford solely because they met together in each other’s rooms for unscheduled prayer! Whereupon George Whitefield wrote to the Vice-Chancellor, “It is to be hoped that, as some have been expelled for extempore praying, we shall hear of some few others of a contrary stamp being expelled for extempore swearing.”1 Today, thank God, no man in our land is hindered by his fellow men from praying. Anyone may pray—but has everyone a right to pray? Will God listen to anyone?
[George Whitefield; “A Letter to the Reverend Dr. Durell,” 1768.]
Who may pray? Is it the privilege—the right—of all people? Not everyone can claim the right to approach the King of our realm. But there are certain persons and groups of people who have the privilege of immediate access to our sovereign. The Prime Minister has that privilege. The ancient Corporation of the City of London can at anytime lay its petition at the feet of the King. The ambassador of a foreign power may do the same. He has only to present himself at the gate of the palace of the King, and no power can stand between him and the monarch. He can go at once into the royal presence and present his request. But none of these has such ease of access and such loving welcome as the King’s own son.
But there is the King of kings—the God and Father of us all. Who may go to Him? Who may exercise this privilege—yes, this power—with God? We are told—and there is much truth in the remark—that even in the most skeptical person or generation, prayer is always underneath the surface, waiting. Has it the right to come forth at any time? In some religions it has to wait. Of all the millions in India living in the bondage of Hinduism, none may pray except the Brahmins! A millionaire merchant of any other caste must get a Brahmin—often a mere boy at school!—to say his prayers for him.
The Muslim cannot pray unless he has learned a few phrases in Arabic, for his god only hears prayers offered in what they believe to be the holy language. Praise be to God, no such restrictions of caste or language stand between us and our God. Therefore, can anyone pray?
Yes, you reply, anyone. But the Bible does not say so. Only a child of God can truly pray to God. Only a son can enter His presence. It is gloriously true that anyone can cry to Him for help—for pardon and mercy. But that is scarcely prayer. Prayer is much more than that. Prayer is going into “the secret place of the Most High,” and abiding under the shadow of the Almighty (Psalm 41:1). Prayer is a making known to God our wants and desires, and holding out the hand of faith to take His gifts. Prayer is the result of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. It is communion with God. Now, there can scarcely be communion between a king and a rebel. What communion hath light with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14). In ourselves we have no right to pray. We have access to God only through the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:18, 3:12).
Prayer is much more than the cry of a drowning man—of a man sinking in the whirlpool of sin: “Lord, save me! I am lost! I am undone! Redeem me! Save me!” Anyone can do this, and that is a petition which is never unanswered, and one, if sincere, to which the answer is never delayed. For “man cannot be God’s outlaw if he would.” But that is not prayer in the Bible sense. Even the lions, roaring after their prey, seek their meat from God; but that is not prayer.
We know that our Lord said, “Everyone that asketh receiveth” (Matthew 7:8). He did say so, but to whom? He was speaking to His disciples (Matthew 5:1-2). Yes, prayer is communion with God: the “home-life” of the soul, as one describes it. And I much question whether there can be any communion with Him unless the Holy Spirit dwells in the heart, and we have “received” the Son, and so have the right to be called “children of God” (John 1:12).
Prayer is the privilege of a child. Children of God alone can claim from the heavenly Father the things which He hath prepared for them that love Him. Our Lord told us that in prayer we should call God “our Father.” Surely only children can use that word? Paul says that it is “because ye are sons God sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father’” (Galatians 4:6). Is this what was in God’s mind when, in dealing with Job’s “comforters,” He said, “My servant Job shall pray for you; for him will I accept”? (Job 42:8). It looked as if they would not have been “accepted” in the matter of prayer. But as soon as one becomes a “son of God” he must enter the school of prayer. “Behold, he prayeth,” said our Lord of a man as soon as he was converted. Yet that man had “said” prayers all his life (Acts 9:11). Converted men not only may pray, but must pray—each man for himself, and, of course, for others. But, unless and until we can truthfully call God “Father,” we have no claim to be treated as children—as “sons,” “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ”—no claim at all. Do you say this is hard? Nay, surely it is natural. Has a “child” no privileges?
But do not misunderstand me. This does not shut any man out of the kingdom of heaven. Anyone, anywhere, can cry, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” Any man who is outside the fold of Christ, outside the family of God, however bad he may be, or however good he thinks he is, can this very moment become a child of God, even as he reads these words. One look to Christ in faith is sufficient; “Look and live.” God did not even say “see”—He says just look! Turn your face to God.
How did those Galatian Christians become “sons of God”? By faith in Christ. “For ye are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26). Christ will make any man a son of God by adoption and grace the moment he turns to Him in true repentance and faith. But we have no rightful claim even upon God’s providence unless we are His children. We cannot say with any confidence or certainty, “I shall not want,” unless we can say, with confidence and certainty, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”
A child, however, has a right to his father’s care, and love, and protection, and provision. Now, a child can only enter a family by being born into it. We become children of God by being “born again,” “born from above” (John 3:3,5). That is, by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ (John 3:16).
Having said all this as a warning, and perhaps as an explanation why some people find prayer an utter failure, we hasten to add that God often hears and answers prayer even from those who have no legal right to pray—from those who are not His “children,” and may even deny that He exists! The Gospels tell us of not a few unbelievers who came to Christ for healing; and He never sent one away without the coveted blessing—never. They came as “beggars,” not as “children.” And even if “the children must first be fed,” these others received the crumbs—yea, and more than crumbs—that were freely given.
So today God often hears the cry of unbelievers for temporal mercies. One case well known to the writer may be given as an illustration. My friend told me that he had been an atheist many years. Whilst an infidel, he had been singing for forty years in a church choir because he was fond of music. His aged father became seriously ill two or three years ago, and lay in great pain. The doctors were helpless to relieve the sufferer. In his distress for his father, the infidel choirman fell on his knees and cried, “O God, if there is a God, show Thy power by taking away my father’s pain!” God heard the man’s piteous cry, and removed the pain immediately. The “atheist” praised God, and hurried off to his pastor to find out the way of salvation! Today he is out-and-out for Christ, giving his whole time to work for his newly-found Savior. Yes, God is greater than His promises, and is more willing to hear than we are to pray.
Perhaps the most striking of all “prayers” from the lips of unbelievers is that recorded of Caroline Fry, the author of Christ Our Example. Although possessed of beauty, wealth, position and friends, she found that none of them satisfied, and at length, in her utter misery, she sought God. Yet her first utterance to Him was an expression of open rebellion to and hatred of Him! Listen to it—it is not the prayer of a “child”:—
“O God, if Thou art a God: I do not love Thee; I do not want Thee; I do not believe there is any happiness in Thee: but I am miserable as I am. Give me what I do not seek; give me what I do not want. If Thou canst, make me happy. I am miserable as I am. I am tired of this world; if there is anything better, give it me.”
What a “prayer”! Yet God heard and answered. He forgave the wanderer and made her radiantly happy and gloriously fruitful in His service.
In even savage bosoms
There are longings, strivings, yearnings
For the good they comprehend not.
And their feeble hands and helpless.
Groping blindly in the darkness,
Touch God’s right hand in the darkness,
And are lifted up and strengthened.
Shall we, then, alter our question a little, and ask, who has a right to pray?” Only children of God in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. But, even so, we must remember that no man can come unashamed and with confidence to his Father in heaven unless he is living as a son of God should live. We cannot expect a father to lavish his favors upon erring children. Only a faithful and sanctified son can pray with the Spirit and pray with the understanding also (1 Corinthians 14:15).
But if we are sons of God, nothing but sin can hinder our prayers. We, His children, have the right of access to God at any time, in any place. And He understands any form of prayer. We may have a wonderful gift of speech pouring itself out in a torrent of thanksgiving, petition, and praise like Paul; or we may have the quiet, deep, lover-like communion of a John. The brilliant scholar like John Wesley and the humble cobbler like William Carey are alike welcome at the throne of grace. Influence at the court of heaven depends not upon birth, or brilliancy, or achievement, but upon humble and utter independence upon the Son of the King.
Moody attributed his marvelous success to the prayers of an obscure and almost unknown invalid woman! And truly the invalid saints of England could bring about a speedy revival by their prayers. Oh, that all the shut-ins” would speak out!
Do we not make a mistake in supposing that some people have a “gift” of prayer? A brilliant Cambridge undergraduate asked me if the life of prayer was not a gift, and one which very few possessed? He suggested that, just as not everyone was musical, so not everyone is expected to be prayerful! George Müller was exceptional not because he had a gift of prayer, but because he prayed. Those who cannot “speak well,” as God declared Aaron could, may labor in secret by intercession with those that speak the word. We must have great faith if we are to have great power with God in prayer, although God is very gracious, and oftentimes goes beyond our faith.
Henry Martyn was a man of prayer, yet his faith was not equal to his prayers. He once declared that he “would as soon expect to see a man rise from the dead as to see a Brahmin converted to Christ.” Would James say, “Let not that man think he shall receive anything of the Lord”? (James 1:7). Now, Henry Martyn died without seeing one Brahmin accepting Christ as his Savior. He used to retire, day by day, to a deserted pagoda for prayer. Yet he had not faith for the conversion of a Brahmin. A few months back there knelt in that very pagoda Brahmins and Mohammedans from all parts of India, Burma and Ceylon, now fellow-Christians. Others had prayed with greater faith than Henry Martyn.
Who may pray? We may; but do we? Does our Lord look at us with even more pathos and tenderness than when He first uttered the words, and say, “Hitherto ye have asked nothing in My name? Ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:24). If the dear Master was dependent on prayer to make His work a power, how much more are we? He sometimes prayed with “strong crying and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). Do we? Have we ever shed a prayerful tear? Well might we cry, “Quicken us, and we will call upon Thy name” (Psalm 80:18).
Paul’s exhortation to Timothy may well be made to us all: “Stir up the gift of God which is in thee” (2 Timothy 1:6). For the Holy Spirit is prayer’s great Helper. We are incapable of ourselves to translate our real needs into prayer. The Holy Spirit does this for us. We cannot ask as we ought. The Holy Spirit does this for us. It is possible for unaided man to ask what is for our ill. The Holy Spirit can check this. No weak or trembling hand dare put in motion any mighty force. Can I—dare I—move the Hand that moves the universe? No! Unless the Holy Spirit has control of me.
Yes, we need Divine help for prayer—and we have it! How the whole Trinity delights in prayer! God the Father listens: the Holy Spirit dictates: the eternal Son presents the petition—and Himself intercedes; and so the answer comes down.
Believe me, prayer is our highest privilege, our gravest responsibility, and the greatest power God has put into our hands. Prayer, real prayer, is the noblest, the sublimest, the most stupendous act that any creature of God can perform.
It is, as Coleridge declared, the very highest energy of which human nature is capable. To pray with all your heart and strength—that is the last, the greatest achievement of the Christian’s warfare on earth.
“Lord, teach us to pray!”