Quiet Talks On Prayer Part Seven
Hindrances To Prayer: The Great Outside Hindrance
The Traitor Prince
There remains yet a word to be said about hindrances. It is a most important word; indeed the climactic word. What has been said is simply clearing the way for what is yet to be said. A very strange phase of prayer must be considered here. Strange only because not familiar. Yet though strange it contains the whole heart of the question. Here lies the fight of the fight. One marvels that so little is said of it. For if there were clear understanding here, and then faithful practicing, there would be mightier defeats and victories: defeats for the foe; victories for our rightful prince, Jesus.
The intense fact is this: Satan has the power to hold the answer back--for awhile; to delay the result--for a time. He has not the power to hold it back finally, if someone understands and prays with quiet, steady persistence. The real pitch of prayer therefore is Satanward.
Our generation has pretty much left this individual Satan out. It is partly excusable perhaps. The conceptions of Satan and his hosts and surroundings made classical by such as Dante and Milton and DorÈ have done much to befog the air. Almost universally they have been taken literally whether so meant or not. One familiar with Satan's characteristics can easily imagine his cunning finger in that. He is willing even to be caricatured, or to be left out of reckoning, if so he may tighten his grip.
These suggestions of horns and hoofs, of forked tail and all the rest of it seek to give material form to this being. They are grotesque to an extreme, and therefore caricatures. A caricature so disproportions and exaggerates as to make hideous or ridiculous. In our day when every foundation of knowledge is being examined there has been a natural but unthinking turning away from the very being of Satan through these representations of him. Yet where there is a caricature there must be a true. To revolt from the true, hidden by a caricature, in revolting from the caricature is easy, but is certainly bad. It is always bad to have the truth hid from our eyes.
It is refreshing and fascinating to turn from these classical caricatures to the scriptural conception of Satan. In this Book he is a being of great beauty of person, of great dignity of position even yet, endowed with most remarkable intellectual powers, a prince, at the head of a most remarkable, compact organization which he has wielded with phenomenal skill and success in furthering his ambitious purposes.
And he is not chained yet. I remember a conversation with a young clergyman one Monday morning in the reading-room of a Young Men's Christian Association. It was in a certain mining town in the southwest, which is as full of evil resorts as such places usually are. The day before, Sunday, had been one of special services, and we had both been busy and were a bit weary. We were slowing down and chatting leisurely. I remarked to my friend, "What a glad day it will be when the millennium comes!" He quickly replied, "I think this is the millennium." "But," I said, "I thought Satan was to be chained during that time. Doesn't it say something of that sort in the Book?" "Yes," he replied, "it does. But I think he is chained now." And I could not resist the answer that came blurting its way out, "Well, if he is chained, he must have a fairly long chain: it seems to permit much freedom of action." From all that can be gathered regarding this mighty prince he is not chained yet. We would do well to learn more about him. The old military maxim, "Study the enemy," should be followed more closely here.
It is striking that the oldest of the Bible books, and the latest, Job and Revelation, the first word and the last, give such definite information concerning him. These coupled with the gospel records supply most of the information available though not all. Those three and a half years of Jesus' public work is the period of greatest Satanic and demoniac activity of which any record has been made. Jesus' own allusions to him are frequent and in unmistakable language. There are four particular passages to which I want to turn your attention now. Let it not be supposed, however, that this phase of prayer rests upon a few isolated passages. Such a serious truth does not hinge upon selected proof texts. It is woven into the very texture of this Book throughout.
There are two facts that run through the Bible from one end to the other. They are like two threads ever crossing in the warp and woof of a finely woven fabric. Anywhere you run your shears into the web of this Book you will find these two threads. They run crosswise and are woven inextricably in. One is a black thread, inky black, pot-black. The other is a bright thread, like a bit of glory light streaming across. These two threads everywhere. The one is this--the black thread--there is an enemy. Turn where you will from Genesis to Revelation--always an enemy. He is keen. He is subtle. He is malicious. He is cruel. He is obstinate. He is a master. The second thread is this: the leaders for God have always been men of prayer above everything else. They are men of power in other ways, preachers, men of action, with power to sway others but above all else men of prayer. They give prayer first place. There is one striking exception to this, namely, King Saul. And most significantly a study of this exception throws a brilliant lime light upon the career of Satan. King Saul seems to furnish the one great human illustration in scripture of heaven's renegade fallen prince. These special paragraphs to be quoted are like the pattern in the cloth where the colours of the yarn come into more definite shape. The gospels form the central pattern of the whole where the colours pile up into sharpest contrast.
Praying Is Fighting
But let us turn to the Book at once. For we know only what it tells. The rest is surmise. The only authoritative statements about Satan seem to be these here. Turn first to the New Testament.
The Old Testament is the book of illustrations; the New of explanations, of teaching. In the Old, teaching is largely by kindergarten methods. The best methods, for the world was in its child stage. In the New the teaching is by precept. There is precept teaching in the Old; very much. There is picture teaching in the New; the gospels full of it. But picture teaching, acted teaching, is the characteristic of the Old, and precept teaching of the New. There is a wonderfully vivid picture in the Old Testament, of this thing we are discussing. But first let us get the teaching counterpart in the new, and then look at the picture.
Turn to Ephesians. Ephesians is a prayer epistle. That is a very significant fact to mark. Of Paul's thirteen letters Ephesians is peculiarly the prayer letter. Paul is clearly in a prayer mood. He is on his knees here. He has much to say to these people whom he has won to Christ, but it comes in the parenthesis of his prayer. The connecting phrase running through is--"for this cause I pray.... I bow my knees." Halfway through this rare old man's mind runs out to the condition of these churches, and he puts in the always needed practical injunctions about their daily lives. Then the prayer mood reasserts itself, and the epistle finds its climax in a remarkable paragraph on prayer. From praying the man goes urging them to pray.
We must keep the book open here as we talk: chapter six, verses ten to twenty inclusive. The main drive of all their living and warfare seems very clear to this scarred veteran:--"that ye may be able to withstand the wiles of the devil." This man seems to have had no difficulty in believing in a personal devil. Probably he had had too many close encounters for that. To Paul Satan is a cunning strategist requiring every bit of available resource to combat.
This paragraph states two things:--who the real foe is, against whom the fight is directed; and, then with climactic intensity it pitches on the main thing that routs him. Who is the real foe? Listen:--"For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood"--not against men; never that; something far, subtler--"but against the principalities"--a word for a compact organization of individuals,--"against powers"--not only organized but highly endowed intellectually, "against the world-rulers of this darkness,"--they are of princely kin; not common folk--"against the hosts of wicked spirits in the heavenlies"--spirit beings, in vast numbers, having their headquarters somewhere above the earth. That is the foe. Large numbers of highly endowed spirit beings, compactly organized, who are the sovereigns of the present realm or age of moral darkness, having their headquarters of activity somewhere above the earth, and below the throne of God, but concerned with human beings upon the earth. In chapter two of the epistle the head or ruler of this organization is referred to, "the prince of the powers of the air."[Eph. 2:2] That is the real foe.
Then in one of his strong piled up climactic sentences Paul tells how the fight is to be won. This sentence runs unbroken through verses fourteen to twenty inclusive. There are six preliminary clauses in it leading up to its main statement. These clauses name the pieces of armour used by a Roman soldier in the action of battle. The loins girt, the breastplate on, the feet shod, the shield, the helmet, the sword, and so on. A Roman soldier reading this or, hearing Paul preach it, would expect him to finish the sentence by saying "with all your fighting strength fighting."
That would be the proper conclusion rhetorically of this sentence. But when Paul reaches the climax with his usual intensity he drops the rhetorical figure, and puts in the thing with which in our case the fighting is done--"with all prayer praying." In place of the expected word fighting is the word praying. The thing with which the fighting is done is put in place of the word itself. Our fighting is praying. Praying is fighting, spirit-fighting. That is to say, this old evangelist-missionary-bishop says, we are in the thick of a fight. There is a war on. How shall we best fight? First get into good shape to pray, and then with all your praying strength and skill pray. That word praying is the climax of this long sentence, and of this whole epistle. This is the sort of action that turns the enemy's flank, and reveals his heels. He simply cannot stand before persistent knee-work.
Now mark the keenness of Paul's description of the man who does most effective work in praying. There are six qualifications under the figure of the six pieces of armour. A clear understanding of truth, a clean obedient life, earnest service, a strongly simple trust in God, clear assurance of one's own salvation and relation to God, and a good grip of the truth for others--these things prepare a man for the real conflict of prayer. Such a man--praying--drives back these hosts of the traitor prince. Such a man praying is invincible in his Chief, Jesus. The equipment is simple, and in its beginnings comes quickly to the willing, earnest heart.
Look a bit at how the strong climax of this long sentence runs. It is fairly bristling with points. Soldier-points all of them; like bayonet points. Just such as a general engaged in a siege-fight would give to his men. "With all prayer and supplication"--there is intensity; "praying"--that is the main drive; "at all seasons"--ceaselessness, night and day; hot and cold; wet and dry; "in the Spirit"--as guided by the Chief; "and watching thereunto"--sleepless vigilance; watching is ever a fighting word; watch the enemy; watch your own forces; "with all perseverance"--persistence; cheery, jaw-locked, dogged persistence, bulldog tenacity; "and supplication"--intensity again; "for all the saints"--the sweep of the action, keep in touch with the whole army; "and on my behalf"--the human leader, rally around the immediate leader. This is the foe to be fought. And this the sort of fighting that defeats this foe.
A Double Wrestling Match
Now turn back to the illustration section of our Book for a remarkably graphic illustration of these words. It is in the old prophecy of Daniel, tenth chapter. The story is this: Daniel is an old man now. He is an exile. He has not seen the green hills of his fatherland since boyhood. In this level Babylon, he is homesick for the dear old Palestinian hills, and he is heartsick over the plight of his people. He has been studying Jeremiah's prophecies, and finds there the promise plainly made that after seventy years these exiled Hebrews are to be allowed to return. Go back again! The thought of it quickens his pulse-beats. He does some quick counting. The time will soon be up. So Daniel plans a bit of time for special prayer, a sort of siege prayer.
Remember who he is--this Daniel. He is the chief executive of the land. He controls, under the king, the affairs of the world empire of his time. He is a giant of strength and ability--this man. But he plans his work so as to go away for a time. Taking a few kindred spirits, who understand prayer, he goes off into the woods down by the great Tigris River. They spend a day in fasting, and meditation and prayer. Not utter fasting, but scant eating of plain food. I suppose they pray awhile; maybe separately, then together; then read a bit from the Jeremiah parchment, think and talk it over and then pray some more. And so they spend a whole day reading, meditating, praying.
They are expecting an answer. These old-time intercessors were strong in expectancy. But there is no answer. A second day, a third, a fourth, a week, still no answer reaches them. They go quietly on without hesitation. Two weeks. How long it must have seemed! Think of fourteen days spent waiting; waiting for something, with your heart on tenter hooks. There is no answer. God might have been dead, to adapt the words of Catharine Luther, so far as any answer reaching them is concerned. But you cannot befool Daniel in that way. He is an old hand at prayer. Apparently he has no thought of quitting. He goes quietly, steadily on. Twenty days pass, with no change. Still they persist. Then the twenty-first day comes and there is an answer. It comes in a vision whose glory is beyond human strength to bear. By and by when they can talk, his visitor and he, this is what Daniel hears: "Daniel, the first day you began to pray, your prayer was heard, and I was sent with the answer." And even Daniel's eyes open big--"the first day--three weeks ago?" "Yes, three weeks ago I left the presence of God with the answer to your prayer. But"--listen, here is the strange part--"the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me, resisted me, one and twenty days: but Michael, your prince, came to help me, and I was free to come to you with the answer to your prayer."
Please notice four things that I think any one reading this chapter will readily admit. This being talking with Daniel is plainly a spirit being. He is opposed by someone. This opponent plainly must be a spirit being, too, to be resisting a spirit being. Daniel's messenger is from God: that is clear. Then the opponent must be from the opposite camp. And here comes in the thing strange, unexpected, the evil spirit being has the power to detain, hold back God's messenger for three full weeks by earth's reckoning of time. Then reenforcements come, as we would say. The evil messenger's purpose is defeated, and God's messenger is free to come as originally planned.
There is a double scene being enacted. A scene you can see, and a scene you cannot see. An unseen wrestling match in the upper spirit realm, and two embodied spirit beings down on their faces by the river. And both concerned over the same thing.
That is the Daniel story. What an acted out illustration it is of Paul's words. It is a picture glowing with the action of real life. It is a double picture. Every prayer action is in doubles; a lower human level; an upper spirit level. Many see only the seen, and lose heart. While we look at the things that are seen, let us gaze intently at the things unseen; for the seen things are secondary, but the unseen are chief, and the action of life is being decided there.
Here is the lower, the seen;--a group of men, led by a man of executive force enough to control an empire, prone on their faces, with minds clear, quiet, alert, persistently, ceaselessly praying day by day. Here is the upper, the unseen:--a "wrestling," keen, stubborn, skilled, going on between two spirit princes in the spirit realm. And by Paul's explanation the two are vitally connected. Daniel and his companions are wrestlers too, active participants in that upper-air fight, and really deciding the issue, for they are on the ground being contested. These men are indeed praying with all prayer and supplication at all times, in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication, and at length victory comes.
Prayer Concerns Three
Now a bit of a look at the central figure of the pattern. Jesus lets in a flood of light on Satan's relation to prayer in one of His prayer parables. There are two parables dealing distinctively with prayer: "the friend at midnight,"[Luke 11:5-13] and "the unjust judge."[Luke 18:18] The second of these deals directly with this Satan phase of prayer. It is Luke through whom we learn most of Jesus' own praying who preserves for us this remarkable prayer picture.
It comes along towards the end. The swing has been made from plain talking to the less direct, parable-form of teaching. The issue with the national leaders has reached its acutest stage. The culmination of their hatred, short of the cross, found vent in charging Him with being inspired by the spirit of Satan. He felt their charge keenly and answered it directly and fully. His parable of the strong man being bound before his house can be rifled comes in here. They had no question as to what that meant. That is the setting of this prayer parable. The setting is a partial interpretation. Let us look at this parable rather closely, for it is full of help for those who would become skilled in helping God win His world back home again.
Jesus seems so eager that they shall not miss the meaning here that He departs from His usual habit and says plainly what this parable is meant to teach:--"that men ought always to pray, and not to faint." The great essential, He says, is prayer. The great essential in prayer is persistence. The temptation in prayer is that one may lose heart, and give up, or give in. "Not-to-faint" tells how keen the contest is.
There are three persons in the parable; a judge, a widow, and an adversary. The judge is utterly selfish, unjust, godless, and reckless of anybody's opinion. The worst sort of man, indeed, the last sort of man to be a judge. Inferentially he knows that the right of the case before him is with the widow. The widow--well, she is a widow. Can more be said to make the thing vivid and pathetic! A very picture of friendlessness and helplessness is a widow. A woman needs a friend. This woman has lost her nearest, dearest friend; her protector. She is alone. There is an adversary, an opponent at law, who has unrighteously or illegally gotten an advantage over the widow and is ruthlessly pushing her to the wall. She is seeking to get the judge to join with her against her adversary. Her urgent, oft repeated request is, "avenge me of mine adversary." That is Jesus' pictorial illustration of persistent prayer.
Let us look into it a little further. "Adversary" is a common word in scripture for Satan. He is the accuser, the hater, the enemy, the adversary. Its meaning technically is "an opponent in a suit at law." It is the same word as used later by Peter, "Your adversary the devil as a roaring lion, goeth about, seeking whom he may devour."[1 Pet. 5:8] The word "avenge" used four times really means, "do me justice." It suggests that the widow has the facts on her side to win a clear case, and that the adversary has been bully-ragging his case through by sheer force.
There is a strange feature to this parable, which must have a meaning. An utterly godless unscrupulous man is put in to represent God! This is startling. In any other than Jesus it would seem an overstepping of the bounds. But there is keenness of a rare sort here. Such a man is chosen for judge to bring out most sharply this:--the sort of thing required to win this judge is certainly not required with God. The widow must persist and plead because of the sort of man she has to deal with. But God is utterly different in character. Therefore while persistence is urged in prayer plainly it is not for the reason that required the widow to persist. And if that reason be cut out it leaves only one other, namely, that represented by the adversary.
Having purposely put such a man in the parable for God, Jesus takes pains to speak of the real character of God. "And He is long-suffering over them." That is God. That word "long-suffering" and its equivalent on Jesus' lips suggests at once the strong side of love, namely, patience, gentle, fine patience. It has bothered the scholars in this phrase to know with whom or over what the long-suffering is exercised. "Over them" is the doubtful phrase. Long-suffering over these praying ones? Or, long-suffering in dealing righteously with some stubborn adversary--which? The next sentence has a word set in sharpest contrast with this one, namely "speedily." "Long-suffering" yet "speedily."
Here are gleams of bright light on a dark subject with apparently more light obscured than is allowed to shine through. Jesus always spoke thoughtfully. He chooses His words. Remembering the adversary against whom the persistence is directed the whole story seems to suggest this: that there is a great conflict on in the upper spirit world. Concerning it our patient God is long-suffering. He is a just and righteous God. These beings in the conflict are all His creatures. He is just in His dealings with the devil and this splendid host of evil spirits even as with all His creation. He is long-suffering that no unfairness shall be done in His dealings with these creatures of His. Yet at the same time He is doing His best to bring the conflict to a speedy end, for the sake of His loyal loved ones, and that right may prevail.
The upshot of the parable is very plain. It contains for us two tremendous, intense truths. First is this: prayer concerns three, not two but three. God to whom we pray, the man on the contested earth who prays, and the evil one against whom we pray. And the purpose of the prayer is not to persuade or influence God, but to join forces with Him against the enemy. Not towards God, but with God against Satan--that is the main thing to keep in mind in prayer. The real pitch is not Godward but Satanward.
The second intense truth is this:--the winning quality in prayer is persistence. The final test is here. This is the last ditch. Many who fight well up to this point lose their grip here, and so lose all. Many who are well equipped for prayer fail here, and doubtless fail because they have not rightly understood. With clear, ringing tones the Master's voice sounds in our ears again to-day, "always to pray, and not to faint."
A Stubborn Foe Routed
That is the parable teaching. Now a look at a plain out word from the Master's lips. It is in the story of the demonized boy, the distressed father, and the defeated disciples, at the foot of the transfiguration mountain.[Matt. 17:14-20, Mark 9:14-29, Luke 9:37-43] Extremes meet here surely. The mountain peak is in sharpest contrast with the valley. The demon seems to be of the superlative degree. His treatment of the possessed boy is malicious to an extreme. His purpose is "to destroy" him. Yet there is a limit to his power, for what he would do he has not yet been able to do. He shows extreme tenacity. He fought bitterly against being disembodied again. (Can it be that embodiment eases in some way the torture of existence for these prodigal spirits!) And so far he fought well, and with success. The disciples had tried to cast him out. They were expected to. They expected to. They had before. They failed!--dismally--amid the sneering and jeering of the crowd and the increasing distress of the poor father.
Then Jesus came. Was some of the transfiguring glory still lingering in that great face? It would seem so. The crowd was "amazed" when they saw Him, and "saluted" Him. His presence changed all. The demon angrily left, doing his worst to wreck the house he had to vacate. The boy is restored; and the crowd astonished at the power of God.
Then these disciples did a very keen thing. They made some bad blunders but this is not one of them. They sought a private talk with Jesus. No shrewder thing was ever done. When you fail, quit your service and get away for a private interview with Jesus. With eyes big, and voices dejected, the question wrung itself out of their sinking hearts, "Why could not we cast it out?" Matthew and Mark together supply the full answer. Probably first came this:--"because of your little faith." They had quailed in their hearts before the power of this malicious demon. And the demon knew it. They were more impressed with the power of the demon than with the power of God. And the demon saw it. They had not prayed victoriously against the demon. The Master says, "faith only as big as a mustard seed (you cannot measure the strength of the mustard seed by its size) will say to this mountain--'Remove.'" Mark keenly:--the direction of the faith is towards the obstacle. Its force is against the enemy. It was the demon who was most directly influenced by Jesus' faith.
Then comes the second part of the reply:--"This kind can come out by nothing but by prayer." Some less-stubborn demons may be cast out by the faith that comes of our regular prayer-touch with God. This extreme sort takes special prayer. This kind of a demon goes out by prayer. It can be put out by nothing less. The real victory must be in the secret place. The exercise of faith in the open battle is then a mere pressing of the victory already won. These men had the language of Jesus on their lips, but they had not gotten the victory first off somewhere alone. This demon is determined not to go. He fights stubbornly and strongly. He succeeds. Then this Man of Prayer came. The quiet word of command is spoken. The demon must go. These disciples were strikingly like some of us. They had not realized where the real victory is won. They had used the word of command to the demon, doubtless coupling Jesus' name with it. But there was not the secret touch with God that gives victory. Their eyes showed their fear of the demon.
Prayer, real prayer, intelligent prayer, it is this that routs Satan's demons, for it routs their chief. David killed the lion and bear in the secret forests before he faced the giant in the open. These disciples were facing the giant in the open without the discipline in secret. "This kind can be compelled to come out by nothing but by prayer," means this:--"this kind comes out, and must come out, before the man who prays." This thing which Jesus calls prayer casts out demons. Would that we knew better by experience what He meant by prayer. It exerts a positive influence upon the hosts of evil spirits. They fear it. They fear the man who becomes skilled in its use.
There are yet many other passages in this Bible fully as explicit as these, and which give on the very surface just such plain teaching as these. The very language of scripture throughout is full of this truth. But these four great instances are quite sufficient to make the present point clear and plain. This great renegade prince is an actual active factor in the lives of men. He believes in the potency of prayer. He fears it. He can hinder its results for a while. He does his best to hinder it, and to hinder as long as possible.
Prayer overcomes him. It defeats his plans and himself. He cannot successfully stand before it. He trembles when some man of simple faith in God prays. Prayer is insistence upon God's will being done. It needs for its practice a man in sympathetic touch with God. Its basis is Jesus' victory. It overcomes the opposing will of the great traitor-leader.
Continued in Part Eight: How To Pray: The "How" Of Relationship on the bottom of Christian Life.
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