My Dear Friends,
John Bunyan’s justly famous words are a helpful starting point for a brief letter on ‘prayer’: “you can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed.” Bunyan is reminding us of the priority prayer is to have in the Christian life. Far from being peripheral and supplemental, prayer is central and fundamental. It truly is “the Christian’s vital breath.”
In his wonderful exposition on prayer in Book III of his “Institutes”, Calvin tells us that it is by prayer “that we reach those riches which are laid up for us with the Heavenly Father (III.xx.2). He continues, ”So true is it that we dig up by prayer the treasures that were pointed out by the Lord’s gospel, and which our faith has gazed upon“ (III.xx.2). The picture Calvin paints of prayer ”digging up“ the rich treasures of the gospel, is surely instructive. We know that in our Lord Jesus Christ are to be found ”all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge“. But how are we to enjoy those riches? Surely the answer is: digging them up by believing prayer. We know that God is ”the master and bestower of all good things“ and that he invites us to ask him to bless us with those good things. Didn’t our Lord Jesus assure us; ”If you, then, though you are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him“ (Matthew 7:11). This must surely be the greatest of all encouragements for a Christian to pray. Our heavenly Father delights to bless his children with his good gifts, that is, the knowledge and experience of his love, presence, support, forgiveness, gentleness and patient forbearance. But, he ministers his giving through our asking - ”to those who ask him".
And yet, even with such a wonderful encouragement, how slow we are to pray. Do you not often marvel at how sluggishly you pray? Are you not humbled by your reluctance to “dig up” in prayer the treasures that are yours in Christ? There are, perhaps, three main reasons why we struggle in prayer. First, we give in to our often weary and care-distracted minds. Even when the spirit is willing, the flesh can be weak. Second, Satan is an ever-present prayer-opposer. He hates to see God’s children pray and will conjure up every distraction to divert you from prayer. “Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon his knees.” Third, we fail to appreciate how ready our Father is to help us and bless us. He is the best of all Fathers. He is the Father whose love for us is out of this world (cf. 1 John 3:1). He is a Father who never forgets we are dust (Psalm 103:12-13).
The apostles resolved to give themselves to “prayer and the ministry of the word.” Paul pleaded, “Pray for me,” James wrote, “you do not have, because you do not ask God.”
Many years ago as a young Christian, my then minister, George Philip, quoted words I have never forgotten: “Prayer is evangelism shorn of all its carnal attraction.” What do you think of that? This is where the battle is won or lost.
The last word belongs to the Psalmist: “Trust him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge” (Psalm 62:8).
As ever yours in the fellowship of Christ.