God answers prayer. Prayer is God and man joining hands to secure some high end. He joins with us through the communication of prayer in accomplishing certain great results. This is the main drive of prayer. Our asking and expecting and God's doing jointly bring to pass things that otherwise would not come to pass. Prayer changes things. This is the great fact of prayer.
Yet a great many prayers are not answered. Or, to put it more accurately, a great many prayers fail utterly of accomplishing any results. Probably it is accurate to say that thousands of prayers go up and bring nothing down. This is certainly true. Let us say it just as bluntly and plainly as it can be said. As a result many persons are saying: "Well, prayer is not what you claim for it: we prayed and no answer came: nothing was changed."
From all sorts of circles, and in all sorts of language comes this statement. Scholarly men who write with wisdom's words, and thoughtless people whose thinking never even pricks the skin of the subject, and all sorts of people in between group themselves together here. And they are right, quite right. The bother is that what they say is not all there is to be said. There is yet more to be said, that is right too, and that changes the final conclusion radically. Partial truth is a very mean sort of lie.
The prayer plan like many another has been much disturbed, and often broken. And one who would be a partner with God up to the limit of his power must understand the things that hinder the prayer plan. There are three sorts of hindrances to prayer. First of all there are things in us that break off connection with God, the source of the changing power. Then there are certain things in us that delay, or diminish the results; that interfere with the full swing of the prayer plan of operations. And then there is a great outside hindrance to be reckoned upon. To-day we want to talk together of the first of these, namely, the hindrances that break off connections between God and His human partner.
Here again there is a division into three. There are three things directly spoken of in the book of God that hinder prayer. One of these is a familiar thing. What a pity that repugnant things may become so familiar as no longer to repel. It is this:--sin hinders prayer. In Isaiah's first chapter God Himself speaking says, "When you stretch out your hands"--the way they prayed, standing with outstretched hands--"I will shut My eyes; when you make many prayers, I will shut My ears."[Is. 1:15] Why? What's the difficulty? These outstretched hands are soiled! They are actually holding their sin-soiled hands up into God's face; and He is compelled to look at the thing most hateful to Him. In the fifty-ninth chapter of this same book,[Is. 59:1-3] God Himself is talking again. Listen "Behold! the Lord's hand is not shortened: His ear is not heavy." There is no trouble on the up side. God is all right. "But"--listen with both your ears--"your iniquities ... your sins ... your hands ...your fingers ... your lips ... your tongue ..." the slime of sin is oozing over everything! Turn back to that sixty-sixth Psalm--"if I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear me." How much more if the sin of the heart get into the hands or the life! And the fact to put down plainly in blackest ink once for all is this--sin hinders prayer. There is nothing surprising about this. That we can think the reverse is the surprising thing. Prayer is transacting business with God. Sin is breaking with God.
Suppose I had a private wire from my apartments here to my home in Cleveland, and some one should go outside and drag the wire down until it touches the ground--a good square touch with the ground--the electricians would call it grounded, could I telegraph over that wire? Almost any child knows I could not. Suppose some one cuts the wire, a good clean cut; the two ends are apart: not a mile; not a yard; but distinctly apart. Could I telegraph on that wire? Of course not. Yet I might sit in my room and tick away by the hour wholly absorbed, and use most beautiful persuasive language--what is the good? The wire's cut. All my fine pleading goes into the ground, or the air. Now sin cuts the wire; it runs the message into the ground.
"Well," some one will object, "now you're cutting us all out, are you not? Are we not all conscious of a sinful something inside here that has to be fought, and held under all the while?" It certainly seems to be true that the nearer a man gets to God the more keenly conscious he is of a sinful tendency within even while having continual victory. But plainly enough what the Book means here is this:--if I am holding something in my life that the Master does not like, if I am failing to obey when His voice has spoken, that to me is sin. It may be wrong in itself. It may not be wrong in itself. It may not be wrong for another. Sometimes it is not the thing involved but the One involved that makes the issue. If that faithful quiet inner voice has spoken and I know what the Master would prefer and I fail to keep in line, that to me is sin. Then prayer is useless; sheer waste of breath. Aye, worse, it is deceptive. For I am apt to say or think, "Well, I am not as good as you, or you, but then I am not so bad; I pray." And the truth is because I have broken with God the praying--saying words in that form--is utterly worthless.
You see sin is slapping God in the face. It may be polished, cultured sin. Sin seems capable of taking quite a high polish. Or it may be the common gutter stuff. A man is not concerned about the grain of a club that strikes him a blow. How can He and I talk together if I have done that, and stick to it--not even apologized. And of what good is an apology if the offense is being repeated. And if we cannot talk together of course working together is out of the question. And prayer is working together with God. Prayer is pulling with God in His plan for a world.
Shall we not put out the thing that is wrong? or put in the thing the Master wants in? For Jesus' sake? Aye for men's sake: poor befooled men's sake who are being kept out and away because God cannot get at them through us!
Shall we bow and ask forgiveness for our sin, and petty stubbornness that has been thwarting the Master's love-plan? And yet even while we ask forgiveness there are lives out yonder warped and dwarfed and worse because of the hindrance in us; yes, and remaining so as we slip out of this meeting. May the fact send us out to walk very softly these coming days.
There is a second thing that is plainly spoken of that hinders prayer. James speaks of it in his letter.[James 4:2-3] "Ye have not because ye ask not"--that explains many parched up lives and churches and unsolved problems: no pipe lines run up to tap the reservoir, and give God an opening into the troubled territory. Then he pushes on to say--"Ye ask, and receive not"--ah! there's just the rub; it is evidently an old story, this thing of not receiving--why? "because ye ask amiss to spend it in your pleasures." That is to say selfish praying; asking for something just because I want it; want it for myself.
Here is a mother praying for her boy. He is just growing up towards young manhood; not a Christian boy yet; but a good boy. She is thinking, "I want my boy to be an honour to me; he bears my name; my blood is in his veins; I don't want my boy to be a prodigal. I want him to be a fine man, an honour to the family; and if he is a true Christian, he likely will be; I wish he were a Christian." And so she prays, and prays repeatedly and fervently. God might touch her boy's heart and say, "I want you out here in India to help win my prodigal world back." Oh! she did not mean that! Her boy in far, far off India! Oh, no! Not that!! Yes, what she wanted--that was the whole thought--selfishness; the stream turning in to a dead sea within her own narrow circle; no thought of sympathy with God in His eager outreach for His poor sin-befooled world. The prayer itself in its object is perfectly proper, and rightly offered and answered times without number; but the motive wholly, uglily selfish and the selfishness itself becomes a foothold for Satan and so the purpose of the prayer is thwarted.
Here is a wife praying that her husband might become a Christian. Perhaps her thought is: "I wish John were a Christian: it would be so good: it really seems the proper thing: he would go to church with me, and sit in the pew Sunday morning: I'd like that." Perhaps she thinks: "He would be careful about swearing; he would quit drinking; and be nicer and gentler at home." Maybe she thinks: "He would ask a blessing at the meals; that would be so nice." Maybe she thinks: "We would have family prayers." Maybe that does not occur to her these days. This is what I say: If her thought does not go beyond some such range, of course you would say it is selfish. She is thinking of herself; not of the loving grieved God against whom her husband is in rebellion; not of the real significance to the man. God might touch her husband's heart, and then say: "I want you to help Me win My poor world back." And the change would mean a reduced income, and a different social position. Oh! she had not meant that! Yes--what she wanted for herself!
Here is a minister praying for a revival in his church. Maybe he is thinking; no, not exactly thinking; it is just half thinking itself out in his sub-consciousness--"I wish we had a good revival in our church; increased membership; larger attendance; easier finances; may be an extra hundred or two in my own pocket; increased prestige in the denomination; a better call or appointment: I wish we might have a revival." Now no true minister ever talked that way even to himself or deliberately thought it. To do so would be to see the mean contemptibility of it. But you know how sly we all are in our underneath scarcely-thought-out thoughts. This is what I say: if that be the sort of thing underneath a man's praying of course the motive is utterly selfish; a bit of the same thing that brought Satan his change of name and character.
Please notice that the reason for the prayer not being answered here is not an arbitrary reluctance upon God's part to do a desirable thing. He never fails to work whenever He has a half chance as far as it is possible to work, even through men of faulty conceptions and mixed motives. The reason lies much deeper. It is this: selfishness gives Satan a footing. It gives a coaling station for his fleet on the shore of your life. And of course he does his best to prevent the prayer, or when he cannot wholly prevent, to spoil the results as far as he can.
Prayer may properly be offered--will be properly offered for many wholly personal things; for physical strength, healing in sickness, about dearly loved ones, money needed; indeed regarding things that may not be necessary but only desirable and enjoyable, for ours is a loving God who would have His dear ones enjoy to the full their lives down here. But the motive determines the propriety of such requests. Where the whole purpose of one's life is for Him these things may be asked for freely as His gracious Spirit within guides. And there need be no bondage of morbid introspection, no continual internal rakings. He knows if the purpose of the heart is to please Him.
A third thing spoken of as hindering prayer is an unforgiving spirit. You have noticed that Jesus speaks much about prayer and also speaks much about forgiveness. But have you noticed how, over and over again He couples these two--prayer and forgiveness? I used to wonder why. I do not so much now. Nearly everywhere evidence keeps slipping in of the sore spots. One may try to keep his lips closed on certain subjects, but it seems about impossible to keep the ears entirely shut. And continually the evidence keeps sifting in revealing the thin skin, raw flesh, wounds never healed over, and some jaggedly open, almost everywhere one goes. Jesus' continual references reveal how strikingly alike is the oriental and the occidental; the first and the twentieth centuries.
Run through Matthew alone a moment. Here in the fifth chapter:[Matt. 5:23-24] "If thou are coming to the altar"--that is approaching God; what we call prayer--"and rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee"--that side of it--"leave there thy gift and go thy way, first be reconciled," and so on. Here comes a man with a lamb to offer. He approaches solemnly, reverently, towards the altar of God. But as he is coming there flashes across his mind the face of that man, with whom he has had difficulty. And instantly he can feel his grip tightening on the offering, and his teeth shutting closer at the quick memory. Jesus says, "If that be so lay your lamb right down." What! go abruptly away! Why! how the folks around the temple will talk! "Lay the lamb right down, and go thy way." The shortest way to God for that man is not the way to the altar, but around by that man's house. "First, be reconciled"--keep your perspective straight--follow the right order--"first be reconciled"--not second; "then come and offer thy gift."
In the sixth chapter[Matt. 6:9-15] He gives the form of prayer which we commonly call the Lord's prayer. It contains seven petitions. At the close He stops to emphasize just one of the seven. You remember which one; the one about forgiveness. In the eighteenth chapter [Matt. 18:19-35] Jesus is talking alone with the disciples about prayer. Peter seems to remember the previous remarks about forgiveness in connection with prayer; and he asks a question. It is never difficult to think of Peter asking a question or making a few remarks. He says, "Master, how many times must I forgive a man? Seven times!" Apparently Peter thinks he is growing in grace. He can actually think now of forgiving a man seven times in succession. But the Master in effect says, "Peter, you haven't caught the idea. Forgiveness is not a question of mathematics; not a matter of keeping tab on somebody: not seven times but seventy times seven." And Peter's eyes bulge open with an incredulous stare--"four hundred and ninety times!... one man- straightway!!" Apparently the Master is thinking, that he will lose count, or get tired of counting and conclude that forgiveness is preferable, or else by practice breathe in the spirit of forgiveness--the thing He meant.
Then as He was so fond of doing Jesus told a story to illustrate His meaning. A man owed his lord a great debt, twelve millions of dollars; that is to say practically an unpayable amount. By comparison with money to-day, in the western world, it would be about twelve billions. And he went to him and asked for time. He said: "I'm short just now; but I mean to pay; I don't mean to shirk: be easy with me; and I'll pay up the whole sum in time." And his lord generously forgave him the whole debt. That is Jesus' picture of God, as He knows Him who knows Him best. Then this forgiven man went out and found a fellow servant who owed him--how much do you think? Have you ever thought that Jesus had a keen sense of the ludicrous? Surely it shows here. He owed him about sixteen dollars and a-quarter or a-half! And you can almost feel the clutch of this fellow's fingers on the other's throat as he sternly demands:--"Pay me that thou owest." And his fellow earnestly replies, "Please be easy with me; I mean to pay; I'm rather short just now: but I'm not trying to shirk; be easy with me." Is it possible the words do not sound familiar! But he would not, but put him in the jail. The last place to pay a debt! That is Jesus' picture of man as He knows him who knows him best. And in effect He says what we have been forgiven by God is as an unpayable amount. And what are not willing to forgive is like sixteen dollars and a fraction by contrast. What little puny folks some of us are in our thinking and feeling!
"Oh, well," some one says, "you do not know how hard it is to forgive." You think not? I know this much:--that some persons, and some things you cannot forgive of yourself. But I am glad to say that I know this too that if one allows the Spirit of Jesus to sway the heart He will make you love persons you cannot like. No natural affinity or drawing together through disposition, but a real yearning love in the heart. Jesus' love, when allowed to come in as freely as He means, fills your heart with pity for the man who has wounded you. An infinite, tender pity that he has sunk so low as to be capable of such actions.
But the fact to put down in the sharpest contrast of white and black is that we must forgive freely, frankly, generously, "even as God," if we are to be in prayer touch with God.
And the reason is not far to find; a double reason, Godward and Satanward. If prayer be partnership in the highest sense then the same spirit must animate both partners, the human and the divine, if the largest results are to come. And since unforgiveness roots itself down in hate Satan has room for both feet in such a heart with all the leeway in action of such purchase. That word unforgiving! What a group of relatives it has, near and far! Jealousy, envy, bitterness, the cutting word, the polished shaft of sarcasm with the poisoned tip, the green eye, the acid saliva--what kinsfolk these!
Sin, selfishness, an unforgiving spirit--what searchlights these words are! Many a splendid life to-day is an utter cipher in the spirit atmosphere because of some such hindrance. And God's great love-plan for His prodigal world is being held back; and lives being lost even where ultimately souls shall be saved because of the lack of human prayer partners.
May we not well pray:--Search me, oh God, and know my heart and help me know it; try me and know my innermost, undermost thoughts and purposes and ambitions, and help me know them; and see what way there be in me that is a grief to Thee; and then lead me--and here the prayer may be a purpose as well as a prayer--lead me out of that way unto Thy way, the way everlasting. For Jesus' sake; aye for men's sake, too.
Continued in Part Six: Hindrances To Prayer: Why The Results Are Delayed on the bottom of Christian Life.