The Place of Prayer
What we have considered above on the place of means applies very directly to the subject of prayer. It is currently popular in some quarters to treat prayer as the great key to revival. Failure in prayer, it is said, explains the absence of revival; an awakening would be certain if only enough Christians could be brought to pray for it. Two lines of thought support this understanding of the place of prayer:
God has promised to hear prayer. Prayer is the appointed means for receiving blessings as many Scriptures show. In Isaiah God promised, 'I will pour water upon him who is thirsty, And floods on the dry ground; I will pour My Spirit on your descendants, And My blessing on your offspring' (Isaiah 44:3); but for such blessing the church has to ask, 'Concerning the work of My hands, you command Me' (Isaiah 45:11). In Ezekiel God promised the recovery of the dry bones of the house of Israel but he also directed, 'I will also let the house of Israel inquire of Me to do this for them' (Ezekiel 36:37). Christ himself connects the giving of the Spirit with prayer (Luke 11:13), and it is to prayer that he is referring when he says, 'Your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly' (Matthew 6:6).
History shows that it is when earnest prayer is multiplied that revivals occur.
In looking at the first of these two arguments we must say that it is true, yet it is not the whole truth. More needs to be said about the nature of effective prayer. There is something missing in the view that 'more prayer' is the answer. Years ago A. W. Tozer pointed out that there has in fact been a great deal of prayer for revival in this century: 'If one-tenth of one per cent of the prayers made in any American city on any Sabbath day were answered, the world would see its greatest revival come with the speed of light.' Yet, he says, 'we go on at a pretty dying rate' and asks, 'Can someone tell us the answer?'
The 'answer' surely has to do with how God comes into effective prayer. The pattern prayer, which Jesus has given us, begins with the reminder that the starting point for prayer has to do with how we think about God: 'In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven...' Prayer is communion with God and in addressing him we are to begin with the name which assures us of his love. We are to think of him, and speak to him, as 'our Father' (Matthew 6:9).
Prayer, then, is not in the first place an agency to meet our needs. Nor is it the exercise of a duty in which we remind God of what he may be unwilling to give. So concerned is Christ to disabuse the minds of the disciples of any such thought that he assures them, 'I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father Himself loves you' (John 16:26, 27; cf. Romans 8:32). Nor, again, is prayer an exercise which requires the use of many words, or the engagement of many people, before God will begin to listen. The idea dishonours him.
When you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do ... For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. Matthew 6:7-8
Prayer has to begin with the recognition of what God is in relation to his people. 'Our Father' comes first and always first. Further, the activity of prayer, as with other duties already considered, is altogether too high for us left to ourselves. We cannot pray to order. God's own agency is involved in all effective prayer. It is the ascended Christ who pours out 'the Spirit of grace and supplication' (Zechariah 12:10). The Holy Spirit is engaged in true praying. He inspires prayer by giving us confidence in God's love so that 'we cry out, "Abba, Father"' (Romans 8:15); he illuminates promises, strengthens faith and gives expectancy. In one sense everything gained in prayer is attributed to us; it is faith which 'obtains promises'; 'the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much' (Hebrews 11:33; James 5:16). William Cowper did not go too far when he wrote:
Prayer makes the darkened cloud withdraw,
Prayer climbs the ladder Jacob saw;
Gives exercise to faith and love,
Brings every blessing from above.
Yet at the same time it is only of prayer 'in the Holy Spirit' of which all this can be said (Jude 20; Ephesians 6:18). In other words, the spirit of prayer does not originate with ourselves; another hymn writer, Joseph Hart, had reason to write:
Prayer was appointed to convey
The blessings God designs to give.
We are back again to the combination of the human and the divine and to the mystery which is involved. Prayer is a voluntary Christian activity and an activity which determines results. Yet effectual prayer has a divine source and it achieves the purpose which God himself intended.
What are we to say then to the second argument that history shows that multiplied prayer always precedes God's working in revival? In our opinion the statement is wrong when stated in that form. James Robe, minister at Kilsyth, Scotland, at the time of the revival of 1742, says that before 'this uncommon dispensation of the Spirit that we looked not for', his congregation's 'societies for prayer came gradually to nothing' and were given up. The Rev. Henry Davis, President of Hamilton College, New York, and a participant in the Second Great Awakening which began in 1798, noted: 'I have heard no believers saying that they knew from their freedom or enlargement in prayer, that there was about to be a revival.' A minister who was in the midst of the great Ulster awakening of 1859, wrote:
I knew that there were always a few (very few I feared) praying persons in the several congregations of the neighbourhood, and there were always attempts to keep up prayer meetings in my own; but, up to the very week of the bursting forth of the revival, there appeared no general desire nor felt need for such a thing.
Such testimonies are significant. Nonetheless there are other accounts of the beginnings of revival which show that such times have been attended by unusual prayer. It is possible, for instance, to see the commencement of the Evangelical Revival in England in the prayer meetings in London which marked the first week in January 1739. Certainly it was a momentous week. The last night of 1738 when Whitefield, the Wesleys, with four other preachers and some sixty other Christians, prayed far into the morning of the New Year, was never forgotten by them. Such was the influence that ensued that Robert Philip, biographer of Whitefield, saw it as 'the cradle of the field preaching' which was about to work such a change in the land. Philip wrote: 'These Pentecostal seasons in private made Whitefield feel through all his soul, that he ought to do everything to win souls, and that he could do any thing he might attempt ... prayer meetings were to Whitefield what the "third heavens" were to Paul: the finishing school of his ministerial education. He was as much indebted to them for his unction and enterprise, as to Pembroke College for his learning.' Yet it has to be observed that Whitefield himself never made that week of January 1739 the starting point. Before that date he wrote to a friend on 20 December 1738:
Blessed be His holy name! There seems to be a great pouring out of the Spirit in London and we walk in the comfort of the Holy Ghost.
Instead of putting our hopes in the quantity of prayer, as though that will bring revival, our trust needs to be in the God who is himself the prime mover. Sometimes an unusual spirit of prayer does precede revival; to use William Gurnall's words, as 'cocks crow thickest towards the break of day'. But it is neither cocks nor prayer which causes the dawn. Brainerd recognised the larger picture when he wrote: 'I saw how God had called out his servants to prayer, and made them wrestle with him, when he designed to bestow any great mercy on his church.'
This God-centred view of prayer, as the example of the church in Acts 4:25-30 shows, fuels prayer rather than discouraging it. While not diminishing our responsibility, it sets the God-appointed means in a more biblical and encouraging light than does the view which would make all success depend upon us. The mistake of the latter view is that it draws the wrong lesson from the priority which Scripture gives to prayer. God has chosen to make prayer a means of blessing, not so that the fulfilment of his purposes becomes dependent upon us, but rather to help us learn our absolute dependence upon him. On this subject John Love wrote:
A believer's encouragement to prayer is not from anything that he expects to work in God by his prayer, but in what he apprehends to be already in God before he begins. He hopes in what God has determined in his own grace to do; and in his prayer he looks for the outbreaking of this. Therefore, in prayer he keeps close by God's promises. A natural man, on the contrary, can pray without a promise; for he thinks to work upon God — to bring him to do what he had no mind to do before.
Such an understanding of prayer, far from leading to resignation or fatalism, engenders a spirit of God-consciousness and what a contemporary author calls 'radical prayer'.
John Piper writes: It is the time for radical prayer and fasting to the end that all our thinking and all our preaching and all our writing and all our social action and missions will have the aroma of God on it and will carry a transforming thrust far beyond anything mere man could do.