The heart of God hungers to redeem the world. For that He gave His own, only Son though the treatment He received tore that father's heart to the bleeding. For that He sent the Holy Spirit to do in men what the Son had done for them. For that He placed in human hands the mightiest of all forces--prayer, that so we might become partners with Him.
For that too He set man in the relationships of kinship and friendship. He wins men through men. Man is the goal, and he is also the road to the goal. Man is the object aimed at. And he is the medium of approach, whether the advance be by God or by Satan. God will not enter a man's heart without his consent, and Satan can not. God would reach men through men, and Satan must. And so God has set us in the strongest relation that binds men, the relation of love, that He may touch one through another. Kinship is a relation peculiar to man, and to the earth.
I have at times been asked by some earnest sensitive persons if it is not selfish to be especially concerned for one's own, over whom the heart yearns much, and the prayer offered is more tender and intense and more frequent. Well, if you do not pray for them who will? Who can pray for them with such believing persistent fervour as you! God has set us in the relationship of personal affection and of kinship for just such a purpose. He binds us together with the ties of love that we may be concerned for each other. If there be but one in a home in touch with God, that one becomes God's door into the whole family.
Contact means opportunity, and that in turn means responsibility. The closer the contact the greater the opportunity and the greater too the responsibility. Unselfishness does not mean to exclude one's self, and one's own. It means right proportions in our perspective. Humility is not whipping one's self. It is forgetting one's self in the thought of others. Yet even that may be carried to a bad extreme. Not only is it not selfish so to pray, it is a part of God's plan that we should so pray. I am most responsible for the one to whom I am most closely related.
One of the questions that is more often asked in this connection than any other perhaps is this: may we pray with assurance for the conversion of our loved ones? No question sets more hearts in an audience to beating faster than does that. I remember speaking in the Boston noonday meeting, in the old Broomfield Street M. E. Church on this subject one week. Perhaps I was speaking rather positively. And at the close of the meeting one day a keen, cultured Christian woman whom I knew came up for a word. She said, "I do not think we can pray like that." And I said, "Why not?" She paused a moment, and her well-controlled agitation revealed in eye and lip told me how deeply her thoughts were stirred. Then she said quietly, "I have a brother. He is not a Christian. The theatre, the wine, the club, the cards--that is his life. And he laughs at me. I would rather than anything else that my brother were a Christian. But," she said, and here both her keenness and the training of her early teaching came in, "I do not think I can pray positively for his conversion, for he is a free agent, is he not? And God will not save a man against his will."
I want to say to you to-day what I said to her. Man is a free agent, to use the old phrase, so far as God is concerned; utterly, wholly free. And, he is the most enslaved agent on the earth, so far as sin, and selfishness and prejudice are concerned. The purpose of our praying is not to force or coerce his will; never that. It is to free his will of the warping influences that now twist it awry. It is to get the dust out of his eyes so his sight shall be clear. And once he is free, able to see aright, to balance things without prejudice, the whole probability is in favour of his using his will to choose the only right.
I want to suggest to you the ideal prayer for such a one. It is an adaptation of Jesus' own words. It may be pleaded with much variety of detail. It is this: deliver him from the evil one; and work in him Thy will for him, by Thy power to Thy glory in Jesus, the Victor's name. And there are three special passages upon which to base this prayer. First Timothy, second chapter, fourth verse (American version), "God our Saviour, who would have all men to be saved." That is God's will for your loved one. Second Peter, third chapter, ninth verse, "not wishing (or willing) that any should perish but that all should come to repentance." That is God's will, or desire, for the one you are thinking of now. The third passage is on our side who do the praying. It tells who may offer this prayer with assurance. John, fifteenth chapter, seventh verse, "If ye abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you ask what it is your will to ask, and I will bring it to pass for you."
There is a statement of Paul's in second Timothy that graphically pictures this: [2 Timothy 2:24-26] "The Lord's servant must not strive "--not argue, nor combat--"but be gentle towards all, apt to teach"--ready and skilled in explaining, helping--"in meekness correcting (or, instructing) them that oppose themselves; if peradventure God may give them repentance unto the knowledge of the truth, and they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him unto his will."
That word "deliver" in this prayer, as used by Jesus, the word under our English, has a picturesque meaning. It means rescue. Here is a man taken captive, and in chains. But he has become infatuated with his captor, and is befooled regarding his condition. Our prayer is, "rescue him from the evil one," and because Jesus is Victor over the captor, the rescue will take place.
Without any doubt we may assure the conversion of these laid upon our hearts by such praying. The prayer in Jesus' name drives the enemy off the battle-field of the man's will, and leaves him free to choose aright. There is one exception to be noted, a very, very rare exception. There may be extreme instances where such a prayer may not be offered; where the spirit of prayer is withdrawn. But such are very rare and extreme, and the conviction regarding that will be unmistakable beyond asking any questions.
And I cannot resist the conviction--I greatly dislike to say this, I would much rather not if I regarded either my own feelings or yours. But I cannot resist the conviction--listen very quietly, so I may speak in quietest tones--that there are people ... in that lower, lost world ...who are there ...because some one failed to put his life in touch with God, and pray.
Having said that much let me go on to say this further, and please let me say it all in softest sobbing voice--there is a hell. There must be a hell. You may leave this Bible sheer out of your reckoning in the matter. Still there must be a place for which that word of ugliest associations is the word to use. Philosophically there must be a hell. That is the name for the place where God is not; for the place where they will gather together who insist on leaving God out. God out! There can be no worse hell than that! God away! Man held back by no restraints!
I am very clear it is not what men have pictured it to be. It is not what my childish fancy saw and shrank from terrified. And, please let us be very careful that we never consign anybody there, in our thinking or speaking about them. When that life whose future might be questioned has gone the most we can say is that we leave it with a God infinitely just and the personification of love.
There has been in some quarters an unthinking consigning of persons to a lost world. And there has been in our day a clean swing of the pendulum to the other extreme. Both drifts are to be dreaded. Let us deal very tenderly here, yet with a right plainness in our tenderness. We are to warn men faithfully. We know the Book's plain teaching that these who prefer to leave God out "shall go away." The going is of their own accord and choice. Regarding particular ones we do not know and are best silent. The grave is closing. Let us deal with the living.
One day at the close of the morning hour at a Bible conference in the Alleghany Mountains a young woman came up for a moment's conversation. She spoke about a friend, not a professing Christian, for whom she had prayed much, and who had died unexpectedly. He had passed away during unconsciousness, with no opportunity for exchange of words. She was much agitated as the facts were recited, and then said as she finished, "he is lost and in hell: and I can never pray again."
We talked quietly awhile and I gathered the following facts. He was of a Christian family, perfectly familiar with the Bible, was a thoughtful man, of outwardly correct life in the main, had talked about these matters with others but had never either in conversation or more openly confessed personal faith in Christ. He was not in good health. Then came the sudden end. One other fact came out. She had prayed for his conversion for a long time. She was herself an earnest Christian woman, solicitous for others. There were four facts to go upon regarding him. He knew the way to God. He was thoughtful. He had never openly accepted. Some one had prayed.
Can one know anything certainly about that man's condition? There are two sorts of knowledge, direct and inferential. I know there is such a city as London for I have walked its streets. That is direct knowledge. I know there is such a city as St. Petersburg because though I have never been there, yet through my reading, pictures I have seen, and friends who have been there I am clear of its existence to the point of knowledge. That is inferential knowledge.
Now regarding this man after he slipped from the grasp of his friends, I have no direct knowledge. But I have very positive inferential knowledge based upon these four facts. Three of the facts, namely, the first, second, and fourth were favourable to the end desired. The third swings neither way. The great dominant fact in the case is the fourth, and a great and dominating fact it is in judging--some one in touch with God had been persistently, believingly praying up to the time of the quick end.
That fact with the others gives strong inferential knowledge regarding the man. It is sufficient to comfort a heart, and give one renewed faith in praying for others.
We cannot know a man's mental processes. This is surely true, that if in the very last half-twinkling of an eye a man look up towards God longingly, that look is the turning of the will to God. And that is quite enough. God is eagerly watching with hungry eyes for the quick turn of a human eye up to Himself. Doubtless many a man has so turned in the last moment of his life when we were not conscious of his consciousness, nor aware of the movements of his outwardly unconscious sub-consciousness. One may be unconscious of outer things, and yet be keenly conscious towards God.
At another of these summer gatherings this incident came to me. A man seemingly of mature mind and judgment told me of a friend of his. That was as close as I got to the friend himself. This friend was not a professing Christian, was thrown from a boat, sank twice and perhaps three times, and then was rescued, and after some difficulty resuscitated. He told afterwards how swiftly his thoughts came as they are said to do to one in such circumstances. He thought surely he was drowning, was quiet in his mind, thought of God and how he had not been trusting Him, and in his thought he prayed for forgiveness. He lived afterwards a consistent Christian life. This illustrates simply the possibilities open to one in his keen inner mental processes.
Here is surely enough knowledge to comfort many a bereft heart, and enough too to make us pray persistently and believingly for loved ones because of prayer's uncalculated and incalculable power. Be sure the prayer-fact is in the case of your friend, and in strong.
Yet let us be wary, very wary of letting this influence us one bit farther. That man is nothing less than a fool who presumes upon such statements to resist God's gracious pleadings for his life. And on our side, we must not fail to warn men lovingly, tenderly yet with plainness of the tremendous danger of delay, in coming to God. A man may be so stupefied at the close as to shut out of his range what has been suggested here. And further even if a man's soul be saved he is responsible to God for his life. We want men to live for Jesus, and win others to Him. And further, yet, reward, preferment, honour in God's kingdom depends upon faithfulness to Him down here. Who would be saved by the skin of his teeth!
The great fact to have burned in deep is that we may assure the coming to God of our loved ones with their lives, as well as for their souls if we will but press the battle.
Out in one of the trans-Mississippi states I ran across an illustration of prayer in real life that caught me at once, and has greatly helped me in understanding prayer.
Fact is more fascinating than fiction. If one could know what is going on around him, how surprised and startled he would be. If we could get all the facts in any one incident, and get them colourlessly, and have the judgment to sift and analyze accurately, what fascinating instances of the power of prayer would be disclosed.
There is a double side to this story. The side of the man who was changed, and the side of the woman who prayed. He is a New Englander, by birth and breeding, now living in this western state: almost a giant physically, keen mentally, a lawyer, and a natural leader. He had the conviction as a boy that if he became a Christian he was to preach. But he grew up a skeptic, read up and lectured on skeptical subjects. He was the representative of a district of his western home state in congress; in his fourth term or so I think at this time.
The experience I am telling came during that congress when the Hayes-Tilden controversy was up, the intensest congress Washington has known since the Civil War. It was not a time specially suited to meditation about God in the halls of congress. And further he said to me that somehow he knew all the other skeptics who were in the lower house and they drifted together a good bit and strengthened each other by their talk.
One day as he was in his seat in the lower house, in the midst of the business of the hour, there came to him a conviction that God--the God in whom he did not believe, whose existence he could keenly disprove--God was right there above his head thinking about him, and displeased at the way he was behaving towards Him. And he said to himself: "this is ridiculous, absurd. I've been working too hard; confined too closely; my mind is getting morbid. I'll go out, and get some fresh air, and shake myself." And so he did. But the conviction only deepened and intensified. Day by day it grew. And that went on for weeks, into the fourth month as I recall his words. Then he planned to return home to attend to some business matters, and to attend to some preliminaries for securing the nomination for the governorship of his state. And as I understand he was in a fair way to securing the nomination, so far as one can judge of such matters. And his party is the dominant party in the state. A nomination for governor by his party has usually been followed by election.
He reached his home and had hardly gotten there before he found that his wife and two others had entered into a holy compact of prayer for his conversion, and had been so praying for some months. Instantly he thought of his peculiar unwelcome Washington experience, and became intensely interested. But not wishing them to know of his interest, he asked carelessly when "this thing began." His wife told him the day. He did some quick mental figuring, and he said to me, "I knew almost instantly that the day she named fitted into the calendar with the coming of that conviction or impression about God's presence."
He was greatly startled. He wanted to be thoroughly honest in all his thinking. And he said he knew that if a single fact of that sort could be established, of prayer producing such results, it carried the whole Christian scheme of belief with it. And he did some stiff fighting within. Had he been wrong all those years? He sifted the matter back and forth as a lawyer would the evidence in any case. And he said to me, "As an honest man I was compelled to admit the facts, and I believe I might have been led to Christ that very night."
A few nights later he knelt at the altar in the Methodist meeting-house in his home town and surrendered his strong will to God. Then the early conviction of his boyhood days came back. He was to preach the gospel. And like Saul of old, he utterly changed his life, and has been preaching the gospel with power ever since.
Then I was intensely fascinated in getting the other side, the praying-side of the story. His wife had been a Christian for years, since before their marriage. But in some meetings in the home church she was led into a new, a full surrender to Jesus Christ as Master, and had experienced a new consciousness of the Holy Spirit's presence and power. Almost at once came a new intense desire for her husband's conversion. The compact of three was agreed upon, of daily prayer for him until the change came.
As she prayed that night after retiring to her sleeping apartment she was in great distress of mind in thinking and praying for him. She could get no rest from this intense distress. At length she rose, and knelt by the bedside to pray. As she was praying and distressed a voice, an exquisitely quiet inner voice said, "will you abide the consequences?" She was startled. Such a thing was wholly new to her. She did not know what it meant. And without paying any attention to it, went on praying. Again came the same quietly spoken words to her ear, "will you abide the consequences?" And again the half frightened feeling. She slipped back to bed to sleep. But sleep did not come. And back again to her knees, and again the patient, quiet voice.
This time with an earnestness bearing the impress of her agony she said, "Lord, I will abide any consequence that may come if only my husband may be brought to Thee." And at once the distress slipped away, and a new sweet peace filled her being, and sleep quickly came. And while she prayed on for weeks and months patiently, persistently, day by day, the distress was gone, the sweet peace remained in the assurance that the result was surely coming. And so it was coming all those days down in the thick air of Washington's lower house, and so it did come.
What was the consequence to her? She was a congressman's wife. She would likely have been, so far as such matters may be judged, the wife of the governor of her state, the first lady socially of the state. She is a Methodist minister's wife changing her home every few years. A very different position in many ways. No woman will be indifferent to the social difference involved. Yet rarely have I met a woman with more of that fine beauty which the peace of God brings, in her glad face, and in her winsome smile.
Do you see the simple philosophy of that experience. Her surrender gave God a clear channel into that man's will. When the roadway was cleared, her prayer was a spirit-force traversing instantly the hundreds of intervening miles, and affecting the spirit-atmosphere of his presence.
Shall we not put our wills fully in touch with God, and sheer out of sympathy with the other one, and persistently plead and claim for each loved one, "deliver him from the evil one, and work in him Thy will, to Thy glory, by Thy power, in the Victor's name." And then add amen--so it shall be. Not so may it be--a wish, but so it shall be--an expression of confidence in Jesus' power. And these lives shall be won, and these souls saved.
Continued in Part Thirteen: Jesus' Habits Of Prayer on the bottom of Christian Life.