Must I Agonize?
Prayer is measured, not by time, but by intensity. Earnest souls who read of men like Praying Hyde are today anxiously asking, “Am I expected to pray like that?”
They hear of others who sometimes remain on their knees before God all day or all night, refusing food and scorning sleep, whilst they pray and pray and pray. They naturally wonder, “Are we to do the same? Must all of us follow their examples?” We must remember that those men of prayer did not pray by time. They continued so long in prayer because they could not stop praying.
Some have ventured to think that in what has been said in earlier chapters I have hinted that we must all follow in their train. Child of God, do not let any such thought — such fear? — distress you. Just be willing to do what He will have you do — what He leads you to do. Think about it; pray about it. We are bidden by the Lord Jesus to pray to our loving Heavenly Father. We sometimes sing, “Oh, how He loves!” And nothing can fathom that love.
Prayer is not given us as a burden to be borne, or an irksome duty to fulfill, but to be a joy and power to which there is no limit. It is given us that we “may find grace to help us in time of need” (Heb. iv. 16, R.V.). And every time is a “time of need.” “Pray ye” is an invitation to be accepted rather than a command to be obeyed. Is it a burden for a child to come to his father to ask for some boon? How a father loves his child, and seeks its highest good! How he shields that little one from any sorrow or pain or suffering! Our heavenly Father loves us infinitely more than any earthly father. The Lord Jesus loves us infinitely more than any earthly friend. God forgive me if any words of mine, on such a precious theme as prayer, have wounded the hearts or consciences of those who are yearning to know more about prayer. “Your heavenly Father knoweth,” said our Lord: and if He knows, we can but trust and not be afraid.
A schoolmaster may blame a boy for neglected homework, or unpunctual attendance, or frequent absence; but the loving father in the home knows all about it. He knows all about the devoted service of the little laddie in the home circle, where sickness or poverty throws so many loving tasks in his way. Our dear, loving Father knows all about us. He sees. He knows how little leisure some of us have for prolonged periods of prayer.
For some of us God makes leisure. He makes us lie down (Psa. xxiii. 2) that He may make us look up. Even then, weakness of body often prevents prolonged prayer. Yet I question if any of us, however great and reasonable our excuses, spend enough thought over our prayers. Some of us are bound to be much in prayer. Our very work demands it. We may be looked upon as spiritual leaders; we may have the spiritual welfare or training of others. God forbid that we should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray enough for them (I Sam. xii. 23). Yes, with some it is our very business — almost our life’s work-to pray, Others —
Have friends who give them pain,
Yet have not sought a friend in Him.
For them they cannot help praying. If we have the burden of souls upon us we shall never ask, “How long need I pray?”
But how well we know the difficulties which surround the prayer-life of many! A little pile of letters lies before me as I write. They are full of excuses, and kindly protests, and reasonings it is true. But is that why they are written? No! No! Far from it. In every one of them there is an undercurrent of deep yearning to know God’s will, and how to obey the call to prayer amid all the countless claims of life.
Those letters tell of many who cannot get away from others for times of secret prayer; of those who share even bedrooms; of busy mothers, and maids, and mistresses who scarcely know how to get through the endless washing and cooking, mending and cleaning, shopping and visiting; of tired workers who are too weary to pray when the day’s work is done.
Child of God, our heavenly Father knows all about it. He is not a taskmaster. He is our Father. if you have no time for prayer, or no chance of secret prayer, why, just tell Him all about it — and you will discover that you are praying!
To those who seem unable to get any solitude at all, or even the opportunity of stealing into a quiet church for a few moments, may we point to the wonderful prayer-life of St. Paul ? Did it ever occur to you that lie was in prison when he wrote most of those marvelous prayers of his which we possess? Picture him. He was chained to a Roman soldier day and night, and was never alone for a moment. Epaphras was there part of the time, and caught something of his master’s passion for prayer. St. Luke may have been there. What prayer-meetings! No opportunity for secret prayer. No! but how much we owe to the uplifting of those chained hands! You and I may be never, or rarely ever, alone, but at least our hands are not fettered with chains, and our hearts are not fettered, nor our lips.
Can we make time for prayer? I may be wrong, but my own belief is that it is not God’s will for most of us — and perhaps not for any of us — to spend so much time in prayer as to injure our physical health through getting insufficient food or sleep. With very many it is a physical impossibility, because of bodily weakness, to remain long in the spirit of intense prayer.
The posture in which we pray is immaterial. God will listen whether we kneel, or stand, or sit, or walk, or work.
I am quite aware that many have testified to the fact that God sometimes gives special strength to those who curtail their hours of rest in order to pray more. At one time the writer tried getting up very early in the morning — and every morning — for prayer and communion with God. After a time he found that his daily work was suffering in intensity and effectiveness, and that it was difficult to keep awake during the early evening hours! But do we pray as much as we might do? It is a lasting regret to me that I allowed the days of youth and vigor to pass by without laying more stress upon those early hours of prayer.
Now, the inspired command is clear enough: “Pray without ceasing” (I Thess. v. 17). Our dear Lord said, “Men ought always to pray, and not to faint” — “and never lose heart” (Weymouth) (Luke xviii. 1).
This, of course, cannot mean that we are to be always on our knees. I am convinced that God does not wish us to neglect rightful work in order to pray. But it is equally certain that we might work better and do more work if we gave less time to work and more to prayer.
Let us work well. We are to be “not slothful in business” (Rom. xii. 11). St. Paul says, “We exhort you, brethren, that ye abound more and more; and that ye. . . do your own business, and to work with your hands. . . that ye may walk honestly . . . and have need of nothing” (I Thess. iv. 11, 12). “If any will not work, neither let him eat” (I Thess. iii. 10).
But are there not endless opportunities during every day of “lifting, up holy hands” — or at least holy hearts — in prayer to our Father? Do we seize the opportunity, as we open our eyes upon each new day, of praising and blessing our Redeemer? Every day is an Easter day to the Christian. We can pray as we dress. Without a reminder we shall often forget. Stick a piece of stamp-paper in the corner of your looking-glass, bearing the words, — “Pray without ceasing.” Try it. We can pray as we go from one duty to another. We can often pray at our work. The washing and the writing, the mending and the minding, the cooking and the cleaning will be done all the better for it.
Do not children, both young and old, work better and play better when some loved one is watching? Will it not help us ever to remember that the Lord Jesus is always with us, watching? Aye, and helping. The very consciousness of His eye upon us will be the consciousness of His power within us.
Do you not think that St. Paul had in his mind this habitual praying rather than fixed seasons of prayer when he said, “The Lord is at hand” — i.e., is near (Weymouth). “In nothing be anxious, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God” (Phil. iv. 5, 6)? Does not “in everything” suggest that, as thing after thing befalls us, moment by moment, we should then and there make it a “thing” of prayer and praise to the Lord Who is near? (Why should we limit this “nearness” to the Second Advent?)
What a blessed thought: prayer is to a near-God. When our Lord sent His disciples forth to work, He said, “Lo, I am with you alway.”
Sir Thomas Browne, the celebrated physician, had caught this spirit. He made a vow “to pray in all places where quietness inviteth; in any house, highway or street; and to know no street in this city that may not witness that I have not forgotten God and my Savior in it; and that no town or parish where I have been may not say the like. To take occasion of praying upon the sight of any church which I see as I ride about. To pray daily and particularly for my sick patients, and for all sick people, under whose care soever. And at the entrance into the house of the sick to say, ‘The peace and the mercy of God be upon this house.’ After a sermon to make a prayer and desire a blessing, and to pray for the minister.”
But we question if this habitual communion with our blessed Lord is possible unless we have times — whether long or brief — of definite prayer. And what of these prayer seasons? We have said earlier that prayer is as simple as a little child asking something of its father. Nor would such a remark need any further comment were it not for the existence of the evil one.
There is no doubt whatever that the devil opposes our approach to God in prayer, and does all he can to prevent the prayer of faith. His chief way of hindering us is to try to fill our minds with the thought of our needs, so that they shall not be occupied with thoughts of God, our loving Father, to Whom we pray. He wants us to think more of the gift than of the Giver. The Holy Spirit leads us to pray for a brother. We get as far as “O God, bless my brother” — and away go our thoughts to the brother, and his affairs, and his difficulties, his hopes and his fears, and away goes prayer!
How hard the devil makes it for us to concentrate our thoughts upon God! This is why we urge people to get a realization of the glory of God, and the power of God, and the presence of God, before offering up any petition. If there were no devil there would be no difficulty in prayer, but it is the evil one’s chief aim to make prayer impossible. That is why most of us find it hard to sympathize with those who profess to condemn what they call “vain repetitions” and “much speaking” in prayer — quoting our Lord’s words in His sermon on the mount.
A prominent London vicar said quite recently, “God does not wish us to waste either His time or ours with long prayers. We must be business-like in our dealings with God, and just tell Him plainly and briefly what we want, and leave the matter there.” But does our friend think that prayer is merely making God acquainted with our needs? If that is all there is in it, why, there is no need of prayer! “For your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask him,” said our Lord when urging the disciples to pray.
We are aware that Christ Himself condemned some “long prayers” (Matt. xxiii. 14). But they were long prayers made “for a pretense,” “for a show” (Luke xx. 47). Dear praying people, believe me, the Lord would equally condemn many of the “long prayers” made every week in some of our prayer-meetings — prayers which kill the prayer-meeting, and which finish up with a plea that God would hear these “feeble breathings,” or “unworthy utterings.”
But he never condemns long prayers that are sincere. Let us not forget that our Lord sometimes spent long nights in prayer. We are told of one of these — we do not know how frequently they were (Luke vi. 12). He would sometimes rise a “great while before day” and depart to a solitary place for prayer (Mark i. 35). The perfect Man spent more time in prayer than we do. It would seem an undoubted fact that with God’s saints in all ages nights of prayer with God have been followed by days of power with men.
Nor did our Lord excuse Himself from prayer — as we, in our ignorance, might think He could have done — because of the pressing calls to service and boundless opportunities of usefulness. After one of His busiest days, at a time when His popularity was at its highest, just when everyone sought His company and His counsel, He turned His back upon them all and retired to a mountain to pray (Matt. xiv. 23).
We are told that once “great multitudes came together to hear Him, and to be healed of their infirmities.” Then comes the remark, “But Jesus himself constantly withdrew into the desert, and there prayed” (Luke v. 15, 16, Weymouth). Why? Because He knew that prayer was then far more potent than “service.”
We say we are too busy to pray. But the busier our Lord was, the more He prayed. Sometimes He had no leisure so much as to eat (Mark iii. 20); and sometimes He had no leisure for needed rest and sleep (Mark vi. 31). Yet He always took time to pray. If frequent prayer, and, at times, long hours of prayer, were necessary for our Savior, are they less necessary for us?
I do not write to persuade people to agree with me: that is a very small matter. We only want to know the truth. Spurgeon once said: “There is no need for us to go beating about the bush, and not telling the Lord distinctly what it is that we crave at His hands. Nor will it be seemly for us to make any attempt to use fine language; but let us ask God in the simplest and most direct manner for just the things we want. . . . I believe in business prayers. I mean prayers in which you take to God one of the many promises which He has given us in His Word, and expect it to be fulfilled as certainly as we look for the money to be given us when we go to the bank to cash a check. We should not think of going there, lolling over the counter chattering with the clerks on every conceivable subject except the one thing for which we had gone to the bank, and then coming away without the coin we needed; but we should lay before the clerk the promise to pay the bearer a certain sum, tell him in what form we wished to take the amount, count the cash after him, and then go on our way to attend to other business. That is just an illustration of the method in which we should draw supplies from the Bank of Heaven.” Splendid!
But — ? By all means let us be definite in prayer; by all means let us put eloquence aside — if we have any! By all means let us avoid needless “chatter,” and come in faith, expecting to receive.
But would the bank clerk pass me the money over the counter so readily if there stood by my side a powerful, evil-countenanced, well-armed ruffian whom he recognized to be a desperate criminal waiting to snatch the money before my weak hands could grasp it? Would he not wait till the ruffian had gone? This is no fanciful picture. The Bible teaches us that, in some way or other, Satan can hinder our prayers and delay the answer. Does not St. Peter urge certain things upon Christians, that their “prayers be not hindered”? (I Peter iii. 7.) Our prayers can be hindered. “Then cometh the evil one and snatcheth away that which hath been sown in the heart” (Matt. xiii. 19, R.V.).
Scripture gives us one instance — probably only one out of many — where the evil one actually kept back — delayed — for three weeks an answer to prayer. We only mention this to show the need of repeated prayer, persistence in prayer, and also to call attention to the extraordinary power which Satan possesses. We refer to Daniel x. 12, 13: “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that thou didst set thine heart to understand, and to humble thyself before God, thy words were heard: and I am come for thy word’s sake. But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me one and twenty days. But lo, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me.”
We must not overlook this Satanic opposition and hindrance to our prayers. If we were to be content to ask God only once for some promised thing or one we deemed necessary, these chapters would never have been written. Are we never to ask again? For instance, I know that God willeth not the death of a sinner. So I come boldly in prayer: “O God, save my friend.” Am I never to ask for his conversion again? George Muller prayed daily — and oftener — for sixty years for the conversion of a friend. But what light does the Bible throw upon “business-like” prayers? Our Lord gave two parables to teach persistence and continuance in prayer. The man who asked three loaves from his friend at midnight received as many as he needed “because of his importunity” — or persistency (Weymouth), i.e., his “shamelessness,” as the word literally means (Luke xi. 8). The widow who “troubled” the unjust judge with her “continual coming” at last secured redress. Our Lord adds “And shall not God avenge his elect which cry unto him day and night, and he is longsuffering over them?” (Luke xviii. 7, R.V.)
How delighted our Lord was with the poor Syro-Phoenician woman who would not take refusals or rebuffs for an answer! Because of her continual request He said: “O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt” (Matt. xv. 28). Our dear Lord, in His agony in Gethsemane, found it necessary to repeat even His prayer. “And he left them and went away and prayed a third time, saying again the same words” (Matt. xxvi. 44). And we find St. Paul, the apostle of prayer, asking God time after time to remove his thorn in the flesh. “Concerning this thing,” says he, “I besought the Lord thrice that it might depart from me” (II Cor. xii. 8).
God cannot always grant our petitions immediately. Sometimes we are not fitted to receive the gift. Sometimes He says “No” in order to give us something far better. Think, too, of the days when St. Peter was in prison. If your boy was unjustly imprisoned, expecting death at any moment, would you — could you — be content to pray just once, a “business-like” prayer: “O God, deliver my boy from the hands of these men”? Would you not be very much in prayer and very much in earnest?
This is how the Church prayed for St. Peter. “Long and fervent prayer was offered to God by the Church on his behalf” (Acts xii. 5, Weymouth). Bible students will have noticed that the A.V. rendering, “without ceasing,” reads “earnestly” in the R.V. Dr. Torrey points out that neither translation gives the full force of the Greek. The word means literally “stretched-out-ed-ly.” It represents the soul on the stretch of earnest and intense desire. Intense prayer was made for St. Peter. The very same word is used of our Lord in Gethsemane: “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became as it were great drops of blood falling down upon the ground” (Luke xxii. 44).
Ah! there was earnestness, even agony in prayer. Now, what about our prayers? Are we called upon to agonize in prayer? Many of God’s dear saints say “No!” They think such agonizing in us would reveal great want of faith. Yet most of the experiences which befell our Lord are to be ours. We have been crucified with Christ, and we are risen with Him. Shall there be, with us, no travailing for souls?
Come back to human experience. Can we refrain from agonizing in prayer over dearly beloved children who are living in sin? I question if any believer can have the burden of souls upon him — a passion for souls — and not agonize in prayer.
Can we help crying out, like John Knox, “O God, give me Scotland or I die”? Here again the Bible helps us. Was there no travail of soul and agonizing in prayer when Moses cried out to God, “O, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made gods of gold. Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin –; and if not, blot, me, I pray thee, out of thy book”? (Exod. xxxii. 32.)
Was there no agonizing in prayer when St. Paul said, “I could wish” — (“pray,” R.V. marg.) — “that I myself were anathema from Christ for my brethren’s sake”? (Rom. ix. 3.)
We may, at all events, be quite sure that our Lord, Who wept over Jerusalem, and Who “offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears” (Heb. v. 7), will not be grieved if He sees us weeping over erring ones. Nay, will it not rather gladden His heart to see us agonizing over the sin which grieves Him? In fact, may not the paucity of conversions in so many a ministry be due to lack of agonizing in prayer?
We are told that “As soon as Zion travailed she brought forth her children” (Isa. lxvi. 8). Was St. Paul thinking of this passage when he wrote to the Galatians, “My little children, of whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you”? (Gal. iv. 19.) And will not this be true of spiritual children? Oh, how cold our hearts often are! How little we grieve over the lost! And shall we dare to criticize those who agonize over the perishing? God forbid! No; there is such a thing as wrestling in prayer. Not because God is unwilling to answer, but because of the opposition of the “world-rulers of this darkness” (Eph. vi. 12, R.V.).
The very word used for “striving” in prayer means “a contest.” The contest is not between God and ourselves. He is at one with us in our desires. The contest is with the evil one, although he is a conquered foe (I John iii. 8). He desires to thwart our prayers.
“We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. vi. 12). We, too, are in these “heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. i. 3); and it is only in Christ that we can be victorious. Our wrestling may be a wrestling of our thoughts from thinking Satan’s suggestions, and keeping them fixed on Christ our Savior — that is, watching as well as praying (Eph. vi. 18); “watching unto prayer.”
We are comforted by the fact that “the Spirit helpeth our infirmities: for we know not how to pray as we ought” (Rom. viii. 26) How does the Spirit “help” us, teach us, if not by example as well as by precept? How does the Spirit “pray”? “The Spirit Himself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered (Rom. viii. 26). Does the Spirit “agonize” in prayer as the Son did in Gethsemane?
If the Spirit prays in us, shall we not share His “groanings” in prayer? And if our agonizing in prayer weakens our body at the time, will angels come to strengthen us, as they did our Lord? (Luke xxii. 43.) We may, perhaps, like Nehemiah, weep, and mourn, and fast when we pray before God (Neh. i. 4). “But,” one asks, “may not a godly sorrow for sin and a yearning desire for the salvation of others induce in us an agonizing which is unnecessary, and dishonoring to God?”
May it not reveal a lack of faith in God’s promises? Perhaps it may do so. But there is little doubt that St. Paul regarded prayer — at least sometimes — as a conflict (see Rom. xv. 30). In writing to the Colossian Christians he says: “I would have you know how greatly I strive for you . . . and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh; that their hearts may be comforted” (Col. ii. 1, 2). Undoubtedly he refers to his prayers for them.
Again, he speaks of Epaphras as one who is “always striving for you in his prayers, that ye may stand perfect, and fully assured in all the will of God” (Col. iv. 12).
The word for “strive” is our word “agonize,” the very word used of our Lord being “in an agony” when praying Himself (Luke xxii. 44).
The apostle says again, Epaphras “hath much labor for you,” that is, in his prayers. St. Paul saw him praying there in prison, and witnessed his intense striving as he engaged in a long, indefatigable effort on behalf of the Colossians. How the Praetorian guard to whom St. Paul was chained must have wondered — yes, and have been deeply touched — to see these men at their prayers. Their agitation, their tears, their earnest supplications as they lifted up chained hands in prayer must have been a revelation to him! What would they think of our prayers?
No doubt St. Paul was speaking of his own custom when he urged the Ephesian Christians and others “to stand,” “with all prayer and supplication, praying at all seasons in the Spirit, and watching thereunto in all perseverance and supplication for all saints, and on my behalf . . . an ambassador in chains.” (Eph. vi. 18-20). That is a picture of his own prayer-life, we may be sure.
So then prayer meets with obstacles, which must be prayed away. That is what men mean when they talk about praying through. We must wrestle with the machinations of Satan. It may be bodily weariness or pain, or the insistent claims of other thoughts, or doubt, or the direct assaults of spiritual hosts of wickedness. With us, as with St. Paul, prayer is something of a “conflict,” a “wrestle,” at least sometimes, which compels us to “stir” ourselves up “to lay hold on God” (Isa. Ixiv. 7). Should we be wrong if we ventured to suggest that very few people ever wrestle in prayer? Do we? But let us never doubt our Lord’s power and the riches of His grace.
The author of The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life told a little circle of friends, just before her death, of an incident in her own life. Perhaps I may be allowed to tell it abroad. A lady friend who occasionally paid her a visit for two or three days was always a great trial, a veritable tax upon her temper and her patience. Every such visit demanded much prayer-preparation. The time came when this “critical Christian” planned a visit for a whole week! She felt that nothing but a whole night of prayer could fortify her for this great testing. So, providing herself with a little plate of biscuits, she retired in good time to her bedroom, to spend the night on her knees before God, to beseech Him to give her grace to keep sweet and loving during the impending visit. No sooner had she knelt beside her bed than there flashed into her mind the words of Phil. iv. 19: “God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” Her fears vanished. She said, “When I realized that, I gave Him thanks and praised Him for His goodness. Then I jumped into bed and slept the night through. My guest arrived the next day, and I quite enjoyed her visit.
No one can lay down hard and fast rules of prayer, even for himself. God’s gracious Holy Spirit alone can direct us moment by moment. There, however, we must leave the matter. God is our judge and our Guide. But let us remember that prayer is a many-sided thing. As Bishop Moule says, “True prayer can be uttered under innumerable circumstances.” Very often
Prayer is the burden of a sigh
The falling of a tear,
The upward glancing of an eye
When none but God is near.
It may be just letting your request be made known unto God (Phil. iv. 6). We cannot think that prayer need always be a conflict and a wrestle. For if it were, many of us would soon become physical wrecks, suffering from nervous breakdown, and coming to an early grave.
And with many it is a physical impossibility to stay any length of time in a posture of prayer. Dr. Moule says: “Prayer, genuine and victorious, is continually offered without the least physical effort or disturbance. It is often in the deepest stillness of soul and body that it wins its longest way. But there is another side of the matter. Prayer is never meant to be indolently easy, however simple and reliant it may be. It is meant to be an infinitely important transaction between man and God. And therefore, very often . . . it has to be viewed as a work involving labor, persistence, conflict, if it would be prayer indeed.”
No one can prescribe for another. Let each be persuaded in his own mind how to pray, and the Holy Spirit will inspire us and guide us how long to pray. And let us all be so full of the love of God our Savior that prayer, at all times and in all places, may be a joy as well as a means of grace.
Shepherd Divine, our wants relieve
In this and every day;
To all Thy tempted followers give
The power, to watch and pray.
The spirit of interceding grace
Give us the faith to claim;
To wrestle till we see Thy face
And know Thy hidden Name.