If I had an ambition to be the ambassador of this country to our mother-country, there would be two essential things involved. The first and great essential would be to receive the appointment. I would need to come into certain relation with our president, to possess certain qualifications considered essential by him, and to secure from his hand the appointment, and the official credentials of my appointment. That would establish my relationship to the foreign court as the representative of my own country, and my right to transact business in her name.
But having gotten that far I might go over there and make bad mistakes. I might get our diplomatic relations tangled up, requiring many explanations, and maybe apologies, and leaving unpleasant memories for a long time to come. Such incidents have not been infrequent. Nations are very sensitive. Governmental affairs must be handled with great nicety. There would be a second thing which if I were a wise enough man to be an ambassador I would likely do. I would go to see John Hay and Joseph H. Choate, and have as many interviews with them as possible, and learn all I possibly could from them of London official life, court etiquette, personages to be dealt with, things to do, and things to avoid. How to be a successful diplomat and further the good feeling between the two governments, and win friends for our country among the sturdy Britons would be my one absorbing thought. And having gotten all I could in that way I would be constantly on the alert with all the mental keenness I could command to practice being a successful ambassador.
The first of these would make me technically an ambassador. The second would tend towards giving me some skill as an ambassador. Now there are the same two how's in praying. First the relationship must be established before any business can be transacted. Then skill must be acquired in the transacting of the business on hand.
Just now, we want to talk about the first of these, the how of relationship in prayer. The basis of prayer is right relationship with God. Prayer is representing God in the spirit realm of this world. It is insisting upon His rights down in this sphere of action. It is standing for Him with full powers from Him. Clearly the only basis of such relationship to God is Jesus. We have been outlawed by sin. We were in touch with God. We broke with Him. The break could not be repaired by us. Jesus came. He was God and Man. He touches both. We get back through Him, and only so. The blood of the cross is the basis of all prayer. Through it the relationship is established that underlies all prayer. Only as I come to God through Jesus to get the sin score straightened, and only as I keep in sympathy with Jesus in the purpose of my life can I practice prayer.
Jesus' own words make this very clear. There are two groups of teachings on prayer in those three and a half years as given by the gospel records. The first of these groups is in the Sermon on the Mount which Jesus preached about half-way through the second year of His ministry. The second group comes sheer at the end. All of it is in the last six months, and most of it in the last ten days, and much of that on the very eve of that last tragic day.
It is after the sharp rupture with the leaders that this second series of statements is made. The most positive, and most sweeping utterances on prayer are here. Of Jesus' eight promises regarding prayer six are here. I want to ask you please to notice these six promises or statements; and then, to notice their relation to our topic of to-day.
In Matthew 18:19, 20, is the first of these. "Again I say unto you, that if two of you shall agree on earth, as touching anything that they Shall ask, it shall be done for them of My Father who is in heaven." Notice the place of prayer--"on earth"; and the sweep--"anything"; and the positiveness--"it shall be done." Then the reason why is given. "For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them." That is to say, if there are two persons praying, there are three. If three meet to pray, there are four praying. There is always one more than you can see. And if you might perhaps be saying to yourself in a bit of dejection, "He'll not hear me: I'm so sinful: so weak"--you would be wrong in thinking and saying so, but then we do think and say things that are not right--if you might be thinking that, you could at once fall back upon this: the Father always hears Jesus. And wherever earnest hearts pray Jesus is there taking their prayer and making it His prayer.
The second of these: Mark 11:22-24, "Jesus answering saith unto them, have faith in God"--with the emphasis double-lined under the word "God." The chief factor in prayer is God. "Verily I say unto you, whosoever shall say unto this mountain, be thou taken up and cast into the sea--" Choosing, do you see the unlikeliest thing that might occur. Such a thing did not take place. We never hear of Jesus moving an actual mountain. The need for such action does not seem to have arisen. But He chooses the thing most difficult for His illustration. Can you imagine a mountain moving off into the sea--the Jungfrau, or Blanc, or Rainier? If you know mountains down in your country you cannot imagine it actually occurring. "--And shall not doubt in his heart--" That is Jesus' definition of faith. "--But shall believe that what he saith cometh to pass; he shall have it. Therefore, I say unto you, all things whatsoever ye pray and ask for, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them." How utterly sweeping this last statement! And to make it more positive it is preceded by the emphatic "therefore--I--say--unto--you." Both whatsoever and whosoever are here. Anything, and anybody. We always feel instinctively as though these statements need careful guarding: a few fences put up around them. Wait a bit and we shall see what the Master's own fence is.
The last four of the six are in John's gospel. In that last long quiet talk on the night in which He was betrayed. John preserves much of that heart-talk for us in chapters thirteen to seventeen.
Here in John 14:13, 14: "And whatsoever ye shall ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask anything in My name, that will I do." The repetition is to emphasize the unlimited sweep of what may be asked.
John 15:7: "If ye abide in Me, and My words abide in you--" That word abide is a strong word. It does not mean to leave your cards; nor to hire a night's lodging; nor to pitch a tent, or run up a miner's shanty, or a lumberman's shack. It means moving in to stay. "--Ask whatsoever ye will--" The Old Version says, "ye shall ask." But here the revised is more accurate: "Ask; please ask; I ask you to ask." There is nothing said directly about God's will. There is something said about our wills. "--And it shall be done unto you." Or, a little more literally, "I will bring it to pass for you."
I remember the remark quoted to me by a friend one day. His church membership is in the Methodist Church of the North, but his service crosses church lines both in this country and abroad. He was talking with one of the bishops of that church whose heart was in the foreign mission field. The bishop was eager to have this friend serve as missionary secretary of his church. But he knew, as everybody knows, how difficult appointments oftentimes are in all large bodies. He was earnestly discussing the matter with my friend, and made this remark: "If you will allow the use of your name for this appointment, I will lay myself out to have it made." Now if you will kindly not think there is any lack of reverence in my saying so--and there is surely none in my thought--that is the practical meaning of Jesus' words here. "If you abide in Me, and My words sway you, you please ask what it is your will to ask. And--softly, reverently now--I will lay Myself out to bring that thing to pass for you." That is the force of His words here.
This same chapter, sixteenth verse: "Ye did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that ye should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide; that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in My name, He may give it you." God had our prayer partnership with Himself in His mind in choosing us. And the last of these, John 16:23, 24, second clause, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, if ye shall ask anything of the Father, He will give it you in My name. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in My name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be fulfilled."
These statements are the most sweeping to be found anywhere in the Scriptures regarding prayer. There is no limitation as to who shall ask, nor the kind of thing to be asked for. There are three limitations imposed: the prayer is to be through Jesus; the person praying is to be in fullest sympathy with Him; and this person is to have faith.
Words With A Freshly Honed Razor-Edge
Now please group these six sweeping statements in your mind and hold them together there. Then notice carefully this fact. These words are not spoken to the crowds. They are spoken to the small inner group of twelve disciples. Jesus talks one way to the multitude. He oftentimes talks differently to these men who have separated themselves from the crowd and come into the inner circle.
And notice further that before Jesus spoke these words to this group of men He had said something else first. Something very radical; so radical that it led to a sharp passage between Himself and Peter, to whom He speaks very sternly. This something else fixes unmistakably their relation to Himself. Remember that the sharp break with the national leaders has come. Jesus is charged with Satanic collusion. The death plot is determined upon. The breach with the leaders is past the healing point. And now the Master is frequently slipping away from the crowd with these twelve men, and seeking to teach and train them. That is the setting of these great promises. It must be kept continually in mind.
Before the Master gave Himself away to these men in these promises He said this something else. It is this. I quote Matthew's account: "If any man would come after Me let him deny himself and take up his cross (daily, Luke's addition) and follow Me [Matt. 16:24]." These words should be written crosswise over those six prayer statements. Jesus never spoke a keener word. Those six promises are not meant for all. Let it be said very plainly. They are meant only for those who will square their lives by these razor-edged words.
I may not go fully into the significance of these deep-cutting words here. They have been gone into at some length in a previous set of talks as suggesting the price of power. To him whose heart burns for power in prayer I urge a careful review of that talk in this new setting of it. "If any man would come after Me" means a rock-rooted purpose; the jaw locked; the tendrils of the purpose going down around and under the gray granite of a man's will, and tying themselves there; and knotting the ties; sailor knots, that you cannot undo.
"Come after Me" means all the power of Jesus' life, and has the other side, too. It means the wilderness, the intense temptation. It may mean the obscure village of Nazareth for you. It may mean that first Judean year for you--lack of appreciation. It may mean for you that last six months--the desertion of those hitherto friendly. It will mean without doubt a Gethsemane. Everybody who comes along after Jesus has a Gethsemane in his life. It will never mean as much to you as it meant to Him. That is true. But, then, it will mean everything to you. And it will mean too having a Calvary in your life in a very real sense, though different from what that meant to Him. This sentence through gives the process whereby the man with sin grained into the fibre of his will may come into such relationship with God as to claim without any reservation these great prayer promises. And if that sound hard and severe to you let me quickly say that it is an easy way for the man who is willing. The presence of Jesus in the life overlaps every cutting thing.
If a man will go through Matthew 16:24, and habitually live there he may ask what he wills to ask, and that thing will come to pass. The reason, without question, why many people do not have power in prayer is simply because they are unwilling--I am just talking very plainly--they are unwilling to bare their breasts to the keen-edged knife in these words of Jesus. And on the other side, if a man will quietly, resolutely follow the Master's leading--nothing extreme--nothing fanatical, or morbid, just a quiet going where that inner Voice plainly leads day by day, he will be startled to find what an utterly new meaning prayer will come to have for him.
Vital relationship is always expressed by purpose. The wise ambassador has an absorbing purpose to further the interests of his government. Jesus said, and it at once reveals His relationship to God, "I do always those things that are well pleasing to him."
The relationship that underlies prayer has an absorbing purpose. Its controlling purpose is to please Jesus. That sentence may sound simple enough. But, do you know, there is no sentence I might utter that has a keener, a more freshly honed razor-edge to it than that. That the purpose which controls my action in every matter be this: to please Him. If you have not done so, take it for a day, a week, and use it as a touch stone regarding thought, word and action. Take it into matters personal, home, business, social, fraternal. It does not mean to ask, "Is this right? is this wrong?" Not that. Not the driving of a keen line between wrong and right. There are a great many things that can be proven to be not wrong, but that are not best, that are not His preference.
It will send a business man running his eye along the shelves and counter of his store. "The controlling purpose to please Jesus ... hm-m-m, I guess maybe that stuff there ought to come out. Oh, it is not wrong: I can prove that. My Christian brother-merchants handle it here, and over the country: but to please Him: a good, clean sixty per cent, profit too, cash money, but to please Him--" and the stuff must go down and out.
It would set some woman to thinking about the next time the young people are to gather in her home for a delightful social evening with her own daughters. She will think about some forms of pastime that are found everywhere. They are not wrong, that has been conclusively proven. But to please Him. Hm-m. And these will go out. And then it will set her to work with all her God-given woman-wit and exquisite tact to planning an evening yet more delightful. It will make one think of his personal habits, his business methods, and social intercourse, the organizations he belongs to, with the quiet question cutting it razor-way into each.
And if someone listening may ask: Why put the condition of prayer so strongly as that? I will remind you of this. The true basis of prayer is sympathy, oneness of purpose. Prayer is not extracting favours from a reluctant God. It is not passing a check in a bank window for money. That is mandatory. The roots of prayer lie down in oneness of purpose. God up yonder, His Victor-Son by His side, and a man down here, in such sympathetic touch that God can think His thoughts over in this man's mind, and have His desires repeated upon the earth as this man's prayer.
Think for a moment into Jesus' human life down here. His marvelous activities for those few years over which the world has never ceased to wonder. Then His underneath hidden-away prayer-life of which only occasional glimpses are gotten. Then grouping around about that sentence of His--"I do always the things that are pleasing to Him"--in John's gospel, pick out the emphatic negatives on Jesus' lips, the "not's": not My will, not My works, not My words. Jesus came to do somebody else's will. The controlling purpose of His life was to please His Father. That was the secret of the power of His earthly career. Right relationship to God; a secret intimate prayer-life: marvelous power over men and with men--those are the strands in the threefold cord of His life.
There is a very striking turn of a word in the second chapter of John's gospel down almost at its close. The old version says that "Many believed on His name beholding His signs which He did, but Jesus did not commit Himself unto them" because He knew them so well. The word "believed," and the word "commit" are the same word underneath our English. The sentence might run "many trusted Him beholding what He did; but He did not trust them for He knew them." I have no doubt most, or all of us here to-day, trust Him. Let me ask you very softly now: Can He trust you? While we might all shrink from saying "yes" to that, there is a very real sense in which we may say "yes," namely, in the purpose of the life. Every life is controlled by some purpose. What is yours? To please Him? If so He knows it. It is a great comfort to remember that God judges a man not by his achievements, but by his purposes: not by what I am, actually, but by what I would be, in the yearning of my inmost heart, the dominant purpose of my life. God will fairly flood your life with all the power He can trust you to use wholly for Him.
Commercial practice furnishes a simple but striking illustration here. A man is employed by a business house as a clerk. His ability and honesty come to be tested in many ways constantly. He is promoted gradually, his responsibilities increased. As he proves himself thoroughly reliable he is trusted more and more, until by and by as need arises he becomes the firm's confidential clerk. He knows its secrets. He is trusted with the combination to the inner box in the vault. Because it has been proven by actual test that he will use everything only for the best interests of his house, and not selfishly.
Here, where we are dealing, the whole thing moves up to an infinitely higher level, but the principle does not change. If I will come into the relationship implied in these words:--it shall be the one controlling desire and purpose of my life to do the things that please Him--then I may ask for what I will, and it shall be done. That is how to pray: the how of relationship. The man who will live in Matthew 16:24, and follow Jesus as He leads: simply that: no fanaticism, no morbidism, no extremism, just simply follow as He leads, day by day,--then those six promises of Jesus with their wonderful sweep, their limitless sweep are his to use as he will.
Continued in Part Nine: How To Pray: The "How" Of Method on the bottom of Christian Life.