By Arthur Wallis
"I desire therefore that the men pray in every place, lifting up holy hands without wrath and disputing" 1 Tim. 2: 8
Since revival is the product of prevailing prayer, let us first of all be quite clear as to what prevailing prayer is, and then examine the basic factors which condition our approach to God.
Jacob's encounter with God at Peniel is the first instance in which a man was said to prevail with God. "Let me go," said the Stranger to Jacob, "for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me." Here was a man determined to be blessed, and he was blessed. "Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for thou has striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed. . . . And He blessed him there" (Gen. 32:24-30). Jacob prevailed with God because he obtained from God the blessing he sought.
Prayer is a comprehensive word, and we may rightly think of it in terms of communion, worship, thanksgiving, praise, confession and so forth. But here we are concerned with that aspect of prayer that Scripture calls petition, supplication, or intercession. The great prayer promises are mostly related to this aspect, and how definite they are: "It shall be done for them" (Matt. 18:19); "ye shall have" (Mark 11:24); "it shall be given you" (Luke 11:9); "that will I do" (John 14:14); "it shall be done unto you" (John 15:7); "He will give it you" (John 16:23); "ye shall receive" (John 16:24). James says, ""Ye have not because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss" (Jas. 4:2, 3).
These and many similar passages confirm that it is both the desire and intention of God that His children should not only ask, but obtain what they ask; and if they are not obtaining, the purpose of God in their asking has not been fulfilled. May this fact be as indelibly printed on every heart, as it is on the pages of His word - God desires us to prevail in prayer. "Let us therefore draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive. . ." (Heb. 4:16).
The expression "praying through", although not found in Scripture, is sometimes used for prevailing with God, and emphasizes an important aspect of the subject. It has been defined as "praying one's way into full faith, emerging while yet praying into the assurance that one has been accepted and heard, so that one becomes actually aware of receiving, by firmest anticipation, and in advance of the event, the thing for which one asks".
This throws light on the paradox of Mark 11:24, "All things whatsoever ye pray and ask for, believe that ye have received them, and ye shall have them." When in prayer we are brought to that point of faith where we believe that we have received, in spite of there being nothing outward to confirm it, then we have prevailed with God, or "prayed through". To continue in prayer for that object will now seem the height of folly and unbelief, since the heart is assured that the decree granting the request has gone forth from the throne, and will shortly be fulfilled.
In Hannah's prayer for a son Scripture gives us a clear example of "praying through". "She was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the Lord, and wept sore" (1 Sam. 1:10), but when Eli said to her, "Go in peace: and the God of Israel grant thy petition" (verse 17), she received the assurance that she had been accepted and heard. When Hannah believed that she had prevailed with God, she wiped her tears and prayed no more. "So the woman went her way, and did eat, and her countenance was no more sad. . . and the Lord remembered her. And it came to pass, when the time was come about, that Hannah conceived, and bare a son; and she called his name Samuel, saying, Because I have asked him of the Lord" (verses 18-20).
This assurance of having "prayed through" before the answer is actually given is not essential in order to prevail with God. According to our definition we prevail whenever we obtain what we ask, and in many cases there is no assurance of having been heard until our eyes see the fulfilment of our prayers. It was thus with the release of Peter from prison, when "prayer was made earnestly of the church unto God for him" (Acts 12:5). These prayers prevailed with God, and an angel was sent to bring him out. But when Peter knocked at the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, the saints were still on their knees, and refused to believe the word of Rhoda "that Peter stood before the gate".
If they had been praying in unbelief they could hardly have prevailed, for it is said of the doubter, "let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord" (Jas. 1:6, 7).
Perhaps in their desire to "continue steadfastly in prayer" they had forgotten the necessity of "watching therein with thanksgiving" (Col. 4:2). Be that as it may, one thing is clear, they prevailed with God without having any prior assurance of it. They knew not that they had been heard until Peter presented himself at the house.
When believers have an intolerable burden upon them so that they pray with strong crying and tears, and with groanings which cannot be uttered, as is often the case preceding a revival, it is very common for such intercessors to know beforehand that they have prevailed.
A striking case of this is given by Charles Finney: "The first ray of light that broke in upon the midnight which rested on the churches in Oneida County, in the fall of 1825, was from a woman in feeble health who, I believe, had never been in a powerful revival. Her soul was exercised about sinners. She was in an agony for the land. She did not know what ailed her, but she kept praying more and more, till it seemed as if her agony would destroy her body. At length she became full of joy, and exclaimed, 'God has come! God has come! There is no mistake about it, the work is begun, and is going all over the region.' And sure enough, the work began, and her family were almost all converted, and the work spread all over that part of the country. Now do you think that woman was deceived? I tell you, no. She knew she had prevailed with God in prayer. She had travailed in birth for souls, and she knew it" (Lecture II on Revivals of Religion).
Praying through should ever be our objective, but God may permit us to see the answer before we are conscious of having prevailed. To prevail with God for revival is to "seek the Lord until He come" in revival blessing, whether that coming is, at first, only in the conviction of our hearts, as in the above case; or whether it be straightway in the full manifestation of divine power.
Alas, not all who pray, though their prayers be fervent and prolonged, succeed in prevailing with God. Of Moab we read, "when he wearieth himself upon the high place, and shall come to his sanctuary to pray, that he shall not prevail" (Isa. 16:12). And the reason was not because Moab was outside the elect race of Israel, but because God had seen "the pride of Moab, that he is very proud" (verse 6). There are many such hindrances which are set forth in Scripture as specific reasons for unanswered prayer. It is these basic factors in our approach to God that must now be considered.
The All-Inclusive Condition
When David asked the question, "Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place?" - and answered it by declaring, "He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart" (Ps. 24:3), he set before us the all-inclusive condition of our approach to God.
This is true in all aspects of prayer, but especially in that of intercession.
He whose hands are clean and whose heart is pure has fulfilled all the basic conditions of prevailing prayer; he is a righteous man, and "the supplication of a righteous man has much strength [to prevail] in its working" (Jas. 5:16 lit. trans.). To intercede is to plead in the court of heaven against our adversary the Devil, to say with the widow in the parable, "Do me justice of mine adversary" (Luke 18:3, margin). But that adversary is also in the court to oppose us as "the accuser of [the] brethren" (Rev. 12:10), and any unrighteousness he can find in us will strengthen his case against us, and must lead to our defeat.
"The Judge of all the earth" cannot vindicate a law-breaker, therefore the suppliant, if he would win his suit, must have a case which bears investigation. The strength of his appeal must lie in the fact that he has righteousness on his side. "The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous, and His ears are open unto their cry" (Ps. 34:15).
Who are the righteous? Who are the pure in heart? Only those who have in repentance turned from their sin, abandoned their own righteousness, and in faith subjected themselves to the righteousness of God (Rom. 10:3-4). None other is deemed righteous by the great Judge, and none other has any right of appeal whatsoever in the court of heaven.
This however is not all. The saving work of Christ in the believer is the ground, but not the guarantee of heart purity. In other words, being born again does not necessarily ensure that our hands are clean and our hearts pure, in the sense of this passage. We may be true believers and yet not be qualified to "ascend into the hill of the Lord" as effective intercessors. Lot is described as "that righteous man" (2 Pet. 2:8), but he had not the righteousness of the intercessor, and when God sought for a man to stand in the gap for Sodom that He might not destroy it, He had to turn to Abraham. It is worthy of note that Abraham did far more for Sodom from without than Lot ever did from within.
The righteousness of the intercessor is not merely that which is imputed, or put to our account, when we believe (Rom. 3:21-28), but that which is imparted and manifested in a holy life. This is the righteousness that a believer must seek (Matt. 6:33), and after which he must hunger and thirst (Matt. 5:6), to prevail as an intercessor. This necessarily involves an honest dealing with all in the life that is contrary to the righteousness of God, especially those unrighteousnesses that are specifically stated in Scripture to hinder prayer.
Harbouring in the life that which we instinctively know to be sin will effectively prevent us praying through to God. "If I regard [or countenance] iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear" (Ps. 66:18). All fellowship with God is rendered impossible by unjudged sin. This is obvious the moment we consider His character. "God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in the darkness, we lie, and do not the truth" (1 John 1:5).
It was to the Lord's people that Isaiah had to say, "Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear" (Isa. 59:2). The hands that are lifted up in the hill of the Lord must needs be "holy hands", lest God should have to say as He did to His ancient people, "When ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood" (Isa. 1:15).
But the situation was one they could remedy, and so the message continued, "Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes" (verse 16). The blood to cleanse and the water to sanctify are available today, and may be applied by confession and faith (1 John 1:9; Acts 26:18).
Is there one reading these lines with some sin of thought, word, or deed upon the conscience? Make no pretence of praying until that sin has been confessed and repented of, for God says, "Bring no more vain oblations; [your] incense is an abomination unto Me" (Isa. 1:13). Such prayers are not only ineffective, they are an insult to the throne of God's holiness - an insult far greater than that of an earthly subject who appears in the august presence of his sovereign in torn or dirty clothes; or who, on being introduced, should stretch out a filthy hand. James was addressing Christians when he said, "Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double-minded" (Jas. 4:8).
In addition to general sins and iniquities, there are some specific sins that are specially mentioned in Scripture as barriers to prevailing prayer, and these must be carefully watched.
One is idolatry. Of some of the elders of Israel God had to say, "These men have taken their idols into their heart. . . should I be inquired of at all by them ?" (Ezek. 14:3). God will resolutely turn His face from the prayers of all who cherish idols in their hearts. In the very postures commonly adopted in prayer, the bowing of the head or the bending of the knee, the sovereignty of God is acknowledged. To submit to this proper relationship between the Sovereign and the suppliant is the foundation of all prayer.
Idolatry, however, denies this very thing. How can we expect the One Whom we are commanded to love with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, to grant our petitions when He sees in our hearts that which rivals His supremacy? Would a sovereign grant the petition of a subject he knew to be disloyal? Would a lover release her treasures to a beloved who she had discovered secretly cherished another more than her? Let us remember as we pray, "all things are naked and laid open before the eyes of Him with whom we have to do" (Heb. 4:13).
"Who [then] shall ascend into the hill of the Lord. . .? He that hath a pure heart" - cleansed from the pollutions of idols.
Lord, I come to Thee for rest,
Take possession of my breast.
There Thy blood-bought right maintain,
And without a rival reign.
- J. NEWTON.
An idol may be defined as any person or thing that has usurped in the heart the place of preeminence that belongs to the Lord. When a relationship with a friend or loved one is causing the spiritual life to wane we may suspect that that one has become an idol. When we are seeking first our business interests and vainly supposing that God will add to us the things of His kingdom, when in fact we are more concerned and anxious about material prosperity than spiritual prosperity, we should examine ourselves as to whether we are not joined to idols.
When our homes and families become the be-all and end-all, and we are prepared to make a spiritual compromise to please them; when some pastime or recreational interest is our absorbing passion; when we are more concerned about our outward appearance than the state of our hearts; when our minds are perpetually full of some material possession or some human ambition, are we not as guilty of idolatry as any Israelite who bowed the knee to Baal? "What agreement hath a temple of God with idols?" (2 Cor. 6:16).
The dearest idol I have known,
What'er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from Thy throne,
And worship only Thee.
- W. COWPER.
It is true that where idols are detected they must be ruthlessly exterminated; but since prevention is better than cure it is vital to heed the exhortation, "guard yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21). A sure preventative is to maintain at all times the freshness of our "first love" toward the Saviour; to have, like Count Zinzendorf of Moravia, but "one passion - Jesus, Jesus only"; to cultivate His continual presence and live always in the sunshine of His smile.
For as idolatry is an insuperable obstacle to prevailing prayer, just so is a personal, all- absorbing passion for Christ a mighty factor in praying through. "Delight thyself also in the Lord; and He shall give thee the petitions of thine heart" (Ps. 37:4).
Of the one who dwells in the secret place of the most High the Lord says, "Because he hath set his love upon Me. . . he shall call upon Me, and I will answer him" (Ps. 91:14, 15). All the great intercessors of the Bible have been characterized by this intensity of devotion to the Lord. It was so with Abraham, "the friend of God"; Moses, "whom the Lord knew face to face"; David, the man after God's own heart; Daniel, the man greatly beloved; and Paul, who suffered the loss of all things and counted them as refuse that he might win Christ. No wonder they princes who prevailed with God.
An unforgiving Spirit
Here is a common obstacle to prevailing prayer. Christ said, "Whensoever ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have aught against anyone; that your Father also. . . may forgive you" (Mark 11:25). In the pattern prayer of the Lord, the fact that "we have forgiven our debtors" is cited as a ground upon which we ask God to "forgive us our debts" (Matt. 6:12). At the conclusion of the prayer the Lord further showed that the reverse was also true, that if we did not forgive we should not be forgiven. There are clearly two aspects of forgiveness in the New Testament, and they need to be distinguished. Failure to do this leads to confusion, and to the harmful theory that the teachings of Christ in the Gospels do not apply to this age (see Matt. 7:26; 28:20).
There is the initial forgiveness of the sinner, and there is the conditional forgiveness of the saint. The former is for ever ours when we repent and believe the gospel: "Repent ye and be baptized. . . unto the remission of your sins" (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 13:38, etc.). This, accompanied as it is by the new birth, brings the sinner into that relationship with God of Father and child.
From then on conditional forgiveness applies. As children of God our fellowship with the Father is possible only as the sins we commit are confessed and thereupon forgiven (1 John 1:9).
Where a believer does not confess he is not forgiven, though he is still a child of his Heavenly Father. A child who refuses to acknowledge his wrongdoing forfeits his father's forgiveness, ceases to enjoy his fellowship, and may, if he persists in his course, be disinherited, but he does not cease to be his child. He cannot be un-born. So it is in the spiritual relationship. This forfeiting of forgiveness concerns only those whose relationship to God is that of Father and child, as Christ showed when He said, "neither will your heavenly Father forgive you. . . ." While we regard the iniquity of an unforgiving spirit in our hearts, how can the Lord hear our confession of other sins, and bestow the forgiveness that we refuse to another? (see Matt. 18:21-35). "With what measure ye mete it shall be measured unto you" (Matt. 7:2).
The importance of this teaching in relation to prevailing prayer cannot be over-emphasized.
Many a time a bitter spirit maintained by one Christian towards another has been like a great dam holding back the river of blessing; only when the one concerned was broken down by the Spirit of God were the sluice-gates of blessing opened.
The famous "four points" which Evan Roberts believed conditioned the outpouring of the Spirit were (1) Dealing with unconfessed sin. (2) Dealing with doubtful things. (3) Implicit obedience to the Spirit. 4) Public confession of Christ.
Under the second point he would commonly say: "Have you forgiven everybody, everybody, EVERYBODY? If not, don't expect forgiveness of your own sins. You won't get it."
Sins of Omission
These are obvious hindrances to prevailing prayer. "Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, we have boldness toward God; and whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do the things that are pleasing in His sight" (1 John 3:21, 22). Have we an uncondemned conscience concerning the things that God has commanded us to do? Have we kept His commandments? How can we stand before the throne with that boldness which prevails with God if our conscience is accusing us of disobedience? The particular command that the apostle has in mind here is that of loving one another in a practical way, for he has just said, "Whoso hath the world's goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth" (verses 17, 18).
Failure to obey the supreme command of Christ to "love one another", and to do it "in deed and truth", and "out of a pure heart fervently", is an obvious cause of failure in prayer. This is even taught in the Old Testament. According to the law our whole duty manward is contained in the precept, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself"; but Solomon reminds us that, "He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination" (Prov. 28:9). Love cannot do other than minister to the needs of others according to its ability. "God so loved. . . that He gave."
Believers who are mean and close with that which God has given them when there is need all around them, and the work of God is retrenching in many lands through lack of support, need not look far to see why their prayers do not prevail. "Whoso stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry, but shall not be heard." (Prov. 21:13; see also Isa. 58:7-9). After George Muller's death it was discovered that he had during his life given away, out of personal gifts designated to him, #81,490. He left #60, plus the value of his books and furniture, estimated at #100. Such sacrificial giving had without doubt a direct bearing on the extraordinary power he possessed to prevail with God in prayer.
Another common sin of omission relates to vows. "When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for He hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou vowest" (Eccles. 5:4)' If we have made a vow to God and have not fulfilled it; if we promised that we would do something, and have not done it, we need not expect to prevail in prayer. As well may a man who has persistently refused to pay his just debts go to his creditor and ask for further credit.
The hands we lift up in the sanctuary are not holy hands unless they have fulfilled the promises and vows our lips have uttered. A vow performed, however, gives us power with God. It is said of the Egyptians, in a day yet future, they "shall vow a vow unto the Lord, and shall perform it. . . and He shall be entreated of them, and shall heal them" (Isa. 19:21, 22).
And again, "Pay thy vows unto the Most High: and call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify Me" (Ps. 50:14; also 65:1, 2). It was when Jonah said, "I will pay that which I have vowed" (Jonah 2:9, 10), that his prayer prevailed, and he was delivered from the belly of the fish.
There are many other things that could be dealt with under this heading. Some of them are not covered by specific commands, but conscience tells us that they are among the "things that are pleasing in His sight" which we have failed to do. Let us put them right now if we would prevail in prayer.
These, especially between husband and wife, may be a serious hindrance to prevailing prayer.
Husbands are commanded, "Dwell with your wives according to knowledge, giving honour unto the woman, as unto the weaker vessel, as being also joint-heirs of the grace of life; to the end that your prayers be not hindered" (1 Pet. 3:7).
Where a husband fails to show that due tenderness and consideration and unselfishness for the weaker vessel, or where the wife fails in her duty towards her husband, which is that "she doeth him good and not evil all the days of her life", and "the law of kindness is on her tongue" (Prov. 31:12, 26), effective intercession will be greatly hindered. Failure on the part of either or both to see that the most intimate matters of their married life are pleasing before His all-seeing eyes and stamped with "holiness unto the Lord", may effectively prevent their prevailing with God.
Whatever form our praying takes, if it be worship, confession, supplication, or intercession, it is vital that we "draw near with a true heart" (Heb. 10:22), that is, in absolute sincerity, if we would really touch the throne. James speaks of two reasons why "ye have not": firstly, "because ye ask not"; and secondly, "because ye ask amiss, that ye may spend it in your pleasures" 4:2, 3); in other words, the motive in asking is selfish. When the motive in prayer is the satisfying of our own desires and pleasures, or when we desire the Almighty to pander to our own pride and love of reputation, or to act for our own convenience, the motive is clearly unholy, and God cannot and will not fulfil our petitions.
It is possible to pray for a right thing with a wrong motive. It is certainly pleasing to God that we plead for revival, but our prayer for revival may be displeasing to God because the motive is wrong. It is vital to examine our hearts on this matter. Let us pause a moment and ask ourselves, "Why do I want revival? How much does my own personal gain figure in my thinking and praying for it?"
R. A. Torrey wrote in this connection, "Many prayers for revival are purely selfish. The churches desire revivals in order that the membership may be increased, in order that the church may have a position of more power and influence in the community, in order that the church treasury may be filled, in order that a good report may be made at the presbytery, or conference, or association. For such low purposes as these, churches and ministers oftentimes are praying for a revival, and oftentimes too, God does not answer the prayer.
Why should we pray for a revival? For the glory of God, because we cannot endure it that God should continue to be dishonoured by the worldliness of the church, by the sins of unbelievers, by the proud unbelief of the day, because God's word is being made void; in order that God may be glorified by the outpouring of His Spirit on the church of Christ." Among those who seek God for revival, there may be few who are, from the outset, wholly free from the admixture of selfish motives in their petitions. This need not deter or discourage if this condition of prevailing prayer is kept constantly in view. When we are aware of being moved by anything less than a desire for the supreme glory of God, let us avail ourselves of the cleansing of the blood by confession, and look to God in faith that He may by the Spirit bring "every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5). God uses the very activities and heart exercises of prayer to effect this.
The diaries of David Brainerd, whose prayers and labours brought revival in 1745 to the American Indians to whom he had been sent, contain this entry: "I was wholly free from selfish ends in my supplications for the poor Indians. . . All my cares, fears, and desires disappeared, and were of little more importance than a puff of wind. I longed that God would get to Himself a name among the heathen, and I appealed to Him with the greatest freedom that He knew I 'preferred Him above my chief joy'." Such selfless pleading is irresistible in the courts of heaven. There is prevailing power in our intercessions when we can pray with the sincerity of David, who said, "Give ear unto my prayer, that goeth not out of feigned lips" (Ps. 17:1); and when we can truly append this desire to our petitions, "that the Father maybe glorified in the Son" (John 14:13).
In view of the desperate need of revival, are we willing to draw near to God and plead for this great thing? If so, we must continually remember the way of approach that God has enjoined.
The priest of old, as he drew near to the sanctuary, first to the altar, red with the blood of sprinkling, and then the laver with its pure water.
The altar would remind him that in approaching God the conscience must be purged from the guilt of sin, while the water, for the washing of his body, would speak of the cleansing of the outer life - the action of the Spirit applying the word, and effecting obedience to it in the life.
This is "the washing of water [the Spirit] with the word" (Eph. 5:26) to which the Psalmist also referred when he said, "Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed thereto according to Thy word" (Ps. 119:9). Both the blood and the water would seem to cry out, "Be ye clean, ye that bear the vessels of the Lord" (Isa. 52:11).
So with us, only clean hands and a pure heart can qualify us for the sanctuary, and these necessitate the continual application of blood and water. "Purge me with hyssop [the blood], and I shall be clean: wash me [the water], and I shall be whiter than snow" (Ps. 51:7).
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
- A. M. TOPLADY
The way into the holiest is open. The need of the hour is true intercessors. The goal of revival beckons us. "Let us draw near with a true heart in fulness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled [with the blood] from an evil conscience, and our body washed with pure water" (Heb. 10:22).