Luke 18, and I want to prepare us for the week of prayer that lies ahead by speaking to you just from the title 'A Heart To Heart On Prayer'. It's particularly verse 1 that I want to think about, of chapter 18, although the whole parable that we have here right down to verse 8, of course, is so important to our understanding of what verse 1 means.
So let's read it all together, Luke 18 beginning at verse 1: "And the Lord Jesus spake a parable unto them", that is, His disciples, "to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?". Amen.
I want to bring to you a message today that isn't really a sermon as such, or an exposition of a portion of Scripture; but it is a heart-to-heart, from me to you, on prayer. It really focuses around verse 1 of chapter 18: "[The Lord Jesus said unto them], men ought always to pray, and not to faint".
Now the parable that comes after verse 1, don't make the mistake of thinking that it's a comparison of similarities between this unjust judge and our God. It is not a comparison between God and the unjust judge, rather it is a contrast of extremes. The Lord Jesus wants us to realise that, just as this unjust judge was unwilling to listen to this woman who kept coming and imploring him for an answer; our God is to a contrasting extreme of that. He is more than willing to answer our prayers when we persevere and persist in the asking. So our God is not like this judge, hard to get answers from, rather He is the counter-example of this judge. He is one who is willing and able, and abundantly desires to give us our asking - according to His will, of course.
So the point of this parable is actually to encourage us to be persistent in our praying, that's what verse 1 is all about: men ought always to pray, and not to faint, or not to lose heart - for our God is not like this unjust judge, He is willing, He is ready to bless us. Now the question that comes very forcibly to us, to me at least and I hope, in this heart-to-heart, to you, is: does this view of God in prayer reflect my prayer life? Do I see God as the unjust judge who has His hand clasped tight on the blessings that I seek; or is He the counter-example of this unjust judge - as the Lord would set Him forth to be - one who is ready, overflowing with blessings, if only we were to ask and persist in the asking?
I think John Newton captured this idea of a superabundance of God's desire in blessing, when he said:
'Thou art coming to a King,
Great petitions with thee bring,
For His grace and power are such,
None can ever ask too much'.
Is that the way you come to God in prayer? Is it the way I come? You see, we honour God by the greatness of our petitions, the more our asking, the greater our asking, the more and the greater honour is brought to His holy name. Does that reflect your praying and mine? Our praying as a church? Will it reflect it this week? A beggar on one occasion asked Alexander the Great for a farm for himself, and a dowry for his daughter, and an education for his son. Of course, all his aides and advisers told him that this person was really chancing his arm, but Alexander gave him the requests: a dowry for his daughter, an education for his son, a farm for himself. When his aides reproached him for granting all these requests, Alexander said: 'I get tired of these people who come asking for a gold coin, that saucy beggar treated me like a King, he asked big'.
Is that how we ask God in prayer? Too often our prayers are puny and feeble. The poet M. Calley (sp?), suggested this in this poem that he wrote that is wonderful, it goes like this:
'If you had been living when Christ was on earth,
And had met the Saviour kind,
What would you have asked Him to do for you,
Supposing you were stone blind?
The child considered, and then replied,
'I suppose that, without a doubt,
I'd ask the Lord for a dog, with a chain,
To lead me daily about'.
How often thus, in our faithless prayers,
We acknowledge with shamed surprise
We have only asked for a dog with a chain
When we might have had opened eyes!'.
We've only asked for a dog with a chain, when we might have had opened eyes. That's what this parable is all about, it's there to motivate us to pray and not give up in our praying, not faint, not lose heart. Yet, if you're like me and most Christians, the place where I faint the most is when it comes to prayer. Are you with me on that? Most fainting fits for the Christian are on his knees. The problem is so serious that in verse 8 the Lord Jesus says: 'Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?'.
Now I'm just asking the question: does this mean that the closer we come to the return of the Lord Jesus, fewer people will be praying and more will be fainting? I believe that's what it means. It's certainly true of today, and it's why we need to challenge ourselves with a little heart-to-heart on prayer before our week of prayer, that we might overcome the conditions that prevail all around us in the church. Now, if you really want to humble David Legge, ask him how his prayer life is. I have to confess to you this morning that my prayer life is not what it should be. Robert Murray M'Cheyne said those searing words: 'A man is what he is on his knees, and no more'. Oh, you can have great knowledge biblically, a great reputation as a theologian, a preacher, a missionary - but at the end of the day, our estimate in heaven's eyes comes down to this level: what we are on our knees, that we are and no more.
Now I think, on a level, none of our prayer lives are what they ought to be chiefly because we are prone to fainting fits in prayer. We lose heart! We give up! Now someone said: 'Preach into your own heart', that's what I'm doing this morning, 'and you'll be surprised how many hearts you hit'. So I'm going to preach to myself, and hope that this applies to you - as I'm sure it will - and it helps you:
'What various hindrances we meet,
When coming to the Mercy Seat'.
What are those hindrances? Why do we find prayer so difficult? Now I have summed them up, those hindrances, under three headings. The first three of them comprise of the three enemies of the Christian, and the fourth might be a surprise to you - I'll keep that one till later on. The first enemy and hindrance to our prayers is the devil himself. So if you're taking notes, do put this down: the devil is against us, that's why we so often have fainting fits. Often we forget that we, as believers, are in a spiritual battle. Listen to some verses, in Ephesians 6:12: 'For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places'. There are many wars going on, and we see them so graphically depicted on our 24 hour news every moment of the day, and yet the real battle that is going on in our world is a spiritual battle, it is one we need spiritual armour for, it's one we as Christians ought to be engaged in. In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul says: 'For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal', not fleshly, 'but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ'. That's the warfare that we are engaged in.
Ephesians 6:18: 'Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for the saints'. After Paul gives us what the armour of God is: the helmet of salvation, the breastplate of righteousness, the belt of truth, feet shod with the shoes of the gospel of peace, the sword of the Spirit, and the shield of faith - he gives this final piece of armour, I believe, that John Bunyan called 'all-prayer', all types, all kinds of prayers, 'with supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints'. We need this piece of armour, this weaponry, if we are going to overcome the devil - all-prayer.
Mary, Queen of Scots, said: 'I fear the prayers of John Knox more than all the assembled armies of Europe' - not because he had an army, but because he was on his knees. With his knees he was affecting the hand of God, and therefore affecting the world - that's why Cowper grasped it when he said: 'Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon his knees'. Now we must concede that if we believe in a personal devil - and we do - he will do that he can to hinder our prayer lives. Does that not make sense? You women, it might be a pile of ironing; men, it might be a busy day's schedule that you just can't wait to make headway on. It might be the phone ringing, the doorbell going. It could be anything, and everything seems to be put before prayer because the devil wants it that way! The devil will create the ironing, he will cause the phone call, he will get the schedule busy if it will detract you and distract you from that most important thing that he hates: prayer.
Now the question you need to answer, and I, is: how can I thwart his plans? His plans for me are to keep me off my knees, how can I thwart his plans? Now generally speaking, I think that Satan aggravates attempts to pray through the manipulation of ordinary daily circumstances. He doesn't stand in front of us with horns and a pitchfork, breathing fire; but he manipulates those things that are the mundane aspects of our lives in order to checkmate us from getting to God. So the simple answer to how to sidestep him is that, in the power of the Spirit, we have to take control of our circumstances day by day.
Now here are three ways of doing that, if you're interested. One, pray at a time and a place where disruption is less likely - have you got a time? It's usually early in the morning. Have you got a place where it is less likely that those particular ordinary daily circumstances could be manipulated to interrupt you? A time before the phone starts to ring - that might be very early! Here is a second piece of advice: prioritise. You need to set boundaries in your life, that means you need to decide that there can be nothing else more important in your day than meeting with God, reading your Bible and praying to Him, having communion. It was Watchmen Nee who said: 'No Bible, no breakfast'. He set his boundary: 'I'm not going to do anything, even my breakfast, unless I have got this most important priority in place'. Pray at a time and place where those distractions are less likely, prioritise, set boundaries. Thirdly: learn not to be controlled by circumstances that are external. How many of us are controlled by the telephone? What I mean is, I know some people - I'm not like this, I thank God, I don't think it's a positive trait, but nevertheless - when the phone rings, I'm quite content to leave it ringing, whoever it is. A lot of people aren't like that: 'I wonder who that is? I wonder what they're ringing about? I wonder what crisis has now hit their family, or hit their country, or whatever it may be?'. Though those things are important, let me say that if you give into being controlled by the doorbell or the ringing of the phone, you will be tortured to such an extent that the devil will keep that phone ringing, and keep that doorbell ringing. Even the Lord Jesus Christ Himself made sure - though we have seen from Mark's gospel that He was the Servant of the Lord, and His whole day was filled, morning, afternoon and evening, with service - don't forget that, to such an extent that He was so tired He had to sleep in the boat, but He never allowed the multitude to get between Him and His Father, never. To such an extent that He withdrew from the crowds, and even if it meant spending all night in prayer, He did it to get alone with God.
The devil is against us, three things you can do - very simple, they might be elementary to you, but I'll tell you: I need to go over these again, and again, and again, and again, because I lose them. Pray at a time and a place where disruption is less likely. Prioritise, and learn not to be controlled by external circumstances. That's how to sidestep the devil in a very simple way.
Here's the second hindrance against us, and it is the second enemy of the Christian: the flesh. Not only the devil, but the flesh is against us and causes us to faint in prayer. Now, I don't know about your sinful nature, it's my heart I'm preaching to this morning, but I know that my sinful nature would rather have an hour in bed than an hour on its knees. Is that the same for you? I know some people can't sleep for various reasons, but if you're normal and you're healthy you'll be like me. Then add to that the fact that there are often no obvious, immediate and visible returns for praying - our answers don't come always there and then, we don't always see the answers in a visible, physical way; so that can frustrate us, especially our sinful natures that have been conditioned in our world to expect instant everything. Anything that is not material, cannot be seen, tangible, is worthless - and so our natures are conditioned to expect things there and then, and expect to be able to see them, touch them, sense them; and if we don't, we lose heart. That encourages our sinful natures not to pray.
Now what is the answer to this problem of the flesh that faints so often in prayer for these reasons? Well, here's two at least: one, discipline your body. You've got to discipline your body - 1 Corinthians 9:27 in the New King James Version reads like this: 'But I discipline my body', other versions put it, 'I buffet my body' - now that doesn't say 'Buffet' my body, it says 'buffet' my body - 'and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified'. He says he beat his body, in a spiritual sense not physical now, but he put his body under his godly mind, he subjected it to do what he knew was God's will for him. Do we do that? Here's a very, very easy way to diagnose that: when you want that extra hour in bed, do you listen to the Spirit of God or do you listen to your body? Do you beat your body into subjection to what God's will is? So does your body control you, is the issue, or do you control your body? Discipline is the way by which we learn to control our bodies, put them under subjection. It's not very popular today - we're told to pamper our bodies and do all sorts of things.
We need to discipline our bodies, the second thing we need to do to war against the flesh is to indoctrinate our minds with spiritual values. Every spiritual battle, I believe, is won or lost in the mind. It is the primary battlefield of the devil. First Corinthians 2:14 says: 'The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned'. Now people often interpret that as speaking about unsaved people, it is not, it is talking primarily about the sinful nature. The sinful nature cannot perceive the things of God the Spirit, but these things are spiritually discerned, and so there has to be a renewal that takes place in our minds and in our hearts. Romans 8 expands when it says: 'They that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God'. For that reason, in 2 Corinthians 5:7, Paul says we ought to walk by faith, not by sight.
So to summarise all those verses, what they are saying is: we cannot obey God in our own flesh, by our own sinful natures, we need the Holy Spirit of God energising us as we surrender to Him - and if we do that, our minds will start to be indoctrinated by spiritual values, not fleshly values. What are the values that you have in your mind? Is one of them: 'Well, I deserve that extra hour in bed', that's the way I think, 'I deserve it, I had a late night last night, and I was doing God's work. I deserve it' - is that the way we think? We need to re-indoctrinate our minds with true spiritual values. We need our rest, of course, but that rest should never be in place of prayer.
The flesh is against us, the devil is against us, and thirdly: the world is against us, that third archenemy of the Christian. Mod-cons are a mod-curse, in my opinion at least. Mod-cons are a modern curse, of course 'mod-con' stands for 'modern conveniences' that were invented to be convenient to us in our lifestyles - but they're certainly not convenient for our prayer lifestyles, are they? You only need to think about it for a moment or two, and I'm not just talking about watching television - which, of course, would give the average person another two hours extra in the day in which they could pray and do a whole lot of other things. It's not just TV, I mean mod-cons were created to make our lives easier, and whatever you want to talk about - a dishwasher, a car, or a washing machine - they were created to make life easier, to give us more time, but the reality is that we use the time saved by these inventions to do more things in that time that we have saved, is that not the truth?
Incidentally, it turns out that there is also usually another mod-con or machine invented to do that thing that we've saved the time with the other mod-cons to do! It's a vicious circle, and the result is that our lives become a frantic hive of constant exhausting activity, as we save all this time and then use it up in other ways. Think about the car, for instance, thank God for the car! You would all agree with me on that one. It has been used for gospel outreach, to spread the gospel in a wonderful way that couldn't have been done otherwise. Yet we are actually losing time because of the car - how is that? Well, just imagine the thinking time, let alone praying time, that the Lord Jesus and His disciples would have had as they journeyed from, say, Jerusalem to Bethany - as they walked and talked, and prayed and thought. John Wesley, I think, was up somewhere around four or half four in the morning. His first preaching engagement every day was somewhere around six - now you have to remember that these guys went to bed maybe at eight or nine o'clock at night. People wonder at the many sermons that he preached, and on horseback going from town to town, getting off and preaching the gospel, many souls being saved, travelling all over the place - he was hours on horseback, hours thinking, praying, meditating - that's where he got the time to do those things. Whilst we're grateful for the car, what are we doing with the time that we save from the car and other mod-conveniences? Do we fill them up with time for God? No, more modern conveniences to save more time to do more things.
I think I'm right in saying that people today have less time to do what they want to do than in any other generation. Let me repeat that, lest you miss it: people today have less time to do what they want to do than in any other generation. Why is that? Because we are victims of our own success. Let me illustrate it to you: we have more money to spend than any other generation ever had, and there's more experiences that can be bought by that money, but we have the same amount of time that other generations had - 24 hours - in which to do all those new experiences that all our much more money can buy. Here's the problem for the Christian: all those modern experiences often seem so much more attractive than prayer. It's exacerbated as time passes by for the Christian church, because fewer Christians have really experienced the true power of prayer, and therefore see little beauty in it that they should desire it - and that's one of our greatest problems today. There are few children of God who really know what it is to break through with God in prayer, and see genuine answers. The less we see of it, the less Christians want it. It's all input, no output - you get very little return, as far as they're concerned.
Now, how do you address that problem of the world? Well, let me put that on hold, because the next enemy, as I answer it, I believe it will answer that question: how to deal with the world. We've dealt with the devil, the flesh, the world, what is the fourth enemy against the Christian that is a hindrance to his praying, and adds to his fainting fits, losing heart? Would you believe: it's the church. The church? Yes, the church. The devil is against us, the flesh is against us, and the church is against us - why? Because we, as the church, have allowed the world to inoculate us with its needle, its deadly needle. It is a twofold needle, and I'll explain it in a moment, but it was Romans 12 verse 2 that says: 'Do not be conformed to this world: but be transformed by the renewing of your mind'. Again here is the battle in prayer, indeed every spiritual battle being won or lost in the mind. We have allowed the world to condition us in the church in two ways: one, in our practices; and two, in our theology.
Firstly in our practices: the church has made the fatal mistake that activity equals productivity - it does not. Prayer is more important than service. That might shock some of you, someone has said anonymously - I can't find out who it is - 'God sets more value on prayer and communion than on labour. The heavenly Bridegroom is wooing a wife, not hiring a servant' - that's good, isn't it?
The author, Ron Boyd-MacMillan, met a Chinese Christian, Wang Mingdao, in his travels among the persecuted church in China. Wang Mingdao was a father figure among the persecuted in the Chinese church, and he spent many years in solitary confinement. The first time Ron Boyd-MacMillan met him, he said he asked him a sudden question, it was this: 'Young man, how do you walk with God?'. 'Well', Ron said, 'I listed off a set of disciplines, such as Bible study and prayer, to which he mischievously retorted, 'Wrong answer! To walk with God, you must go at walking pace''. 'Frankly', Ron says, 'I had no idea what he was talking about, and I let it go as the ramblings of a slightly senile old man in his late eighties'. The next time he visited him, he said to Wang Mingdao: 'I will never be put in jail like you, so how can your faith have any impact on mine?'. Wang Mingdao seemed nonplussed, and then he started asking Ron a series of questions. Listen to these carefully, he said: 'When you go back home', that is, America, 'how many books do you have to read this coming month? How many letters do you have to write? How many people do you have to see? How many articles do you have to produce? How many sermons must you preach?'. He kept up these questions, and he says: 'I answered them each time, and after about 15 of these questions', Ron says, 'I was beginning to feel panicked at the amount of work that was ahead of me'. Wang Mingdao seemed to sense this, and Ron says: 'We sat in silence, and suddenly an insight burst into my consciousness with scalding ferocity: I need to build myself a cell!'. Remember that.
Ron shared this thought with Wang Mingdao, and he grew very excited, and he explained, I quote: 'When I was put in jail I was devastated. I was 60 years old, at the peak of my powers. I was a well known evangelist and wished to hold crusades all over China. I was an author, I wanted to write more books. I was a preacher, I wanted to study my Bible and write more sermons. But instead of serving God in all these ways, I found myself sitting alone in a dark cell. I could not use the time to write more books - they deprived me of pen and paper. I could not study my Bible and produce more sermons, they had taken my Bible away. I had no one even to witness to as the jailer, for years, just pushed my meals through a hatch'. Listen to this: 'Everything that had given me meaning as a Christian worker had been taken away from me, and I had nothing to do'. Very interesting. He stopped, and his eyes moistened again: 'Nothing to do, except get to know God. For 20 years that was the greatest relationship', he says, 'I have ever known - but the cell was the means'.
This is what I want to leave with you, with the closing words of Wang Mingdao to Ron McMillan, his parting advice. I quote: 'I was pushed into a cell, but you will have to push yourself into one. You have no time to know God, you need to build yourself a cell, so that you can do for yourself what persecution did for me: simplify your life, and know God'. May I suggest to you that the crammed programmes of the modern church often are a hindrance to us getting to know God, and we need - as a church and as individuals - to build cells, to simplify our lives to know Him.
Then there is our theology, not only our practices, but our theology. What do I mean by that? Well, one hindrance to prayer is that there is a low view of prayer in the church. There is this view that, 'Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be. God has predetermined everything, so what's the point in praying'. Or there is another view which says that, 'We're just praying God's will after Him, having God's thoughts after Him', which in a measure is true, 'and therefore it's all going to happen anyway'. The view of prayer as actually moving the hand that moves the world, and actually being able to instrumentally move God, has been lost to a large extent - that's the Bible view of prayer. Essentially this low view of prayer has come derivative from a low view of scripture. Many preachers and commentators, when you listen to them and read them, have diluted many of the verses in the New Testament to do with prayer. They say: 'Oh, you have to look at the context, that doesn't really mean what it says - Ask, and it shall be given, and all that - well, that's not strictly true'. Now, yes, you do have to look at context; yes, you do have to look at the gamut of everything that the Bible says about prayer and get an inductive understanding of prayer from the whole of the word of God - but let the Bible say what it says, and mean what it means.
The ultimate reason why there is a low view of prayer, because of a low view of scripture, is because men and women in the church today - including myself - haven't faith to believe God will do what He said He will do. Today I believe what God needs and desires is men and women who will bow their brains to the Bible, believe God to give answers to prayer. Leonard Ravenhill put it this way, and I wrote this on one of the first Bibles I ever had: 'One of these days some simple soul will pick up the book of God, read it, and believe it - then the best of us will all be embarrassed. We have adopted the convenient theory that the Bible is a book to be explained, whereas first and foremost it is a book to be believed, and after that to be obeyed'.
Well might our Lord have said, 'When I come, will I find faith on the earth?'. We have the spirit of Laodicea about us today in the Western Church, and even though things are so lukewarm that the Lord Jesus would vomit us out of His mouth, He is looking for a faithful remnant who will be overcomers, collectively or individually, for He says to us all today: 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me'. I think the hardest thing in the world to do is to pray, and yet it is perhaps the most necessary thing. We might say, 'All these things are against me', and yet God is for us - and if God be for us, who can be against us?
'What various hindrances we meet
In coming to a mercy seat;
Yet who that knows the worth of prayer,
But wishes to be often there.
Prayer makes the darkened cloud withdraw,
Prayer climbs the ladder Jacob saw;
Gives exercise to faith and love,
Brings every blessing from above.
While Moses stood with arms spread wide,
Success was found on Israel’s side;
But when through weariness they failed,
That moment Amalek prevailed'.
'Jesus spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint'.
Let's bow our heads please. Now, you may mistake this as coercion, take it as you like - but, have you plans to be with us this week, morning and evening? I know you might have other plans that can't be changed, and I understand that, and other circumstances that make it difficult. I'm not speaking to people like that, I'm speaking to those who could be here, should be here, but have no intention of being here. You need to ask yourself the question: can I truly sing 'We long for Thee'? Let us meet this week to seek God's blessing, with hearts of faith believing His word, and I do believe that if we do such, we will not be disappointed. But what about your own personal life? After a busy day on the Lord's day, what will you do tomorrow morning? It doesn't have to be the morning, but will the next 24 hours find you in prayer? How long has it been since you talked to the Lord?
Father, so many of us can say: 'What peaceful hours I once enjoyed, how sweet their memory still; yet they have left an aching void the world, the flesh, the devil, the church can never fill'. Lord, from this hour, may our walk be close with God, for Christ's sake and for His glory, give us a revival in our hearts - individually, as a church - and give us a prayer revival. For Christ's sake, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the recording titled "A Heart To Heart On Prayer" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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