Maintaining the Glow
"Prayer is the nearest approach to God, and the highest enjoyment of Him, that we are capable of in this life. It is the noblest exercise of the soul, the most exalted use of our best faculties, and the highest imitation of the blessed inhabitants of heaven." (William Law, 1726)
"I try to keep my mind as if it was situated at the Rock which is His throne. We can keep a continual telegraphic communication with Him; that is our strength." (Gordon of Khartoum)
If Bible Study is food for the soul, prayer is its air, and equally vital to spiritual health. It is a wonderful thing that God desires fellowship with His children, that He longs for us to have an affectionate confidence in Him which will take pleasure in sharing with Him all the joys and troubles of life. This we do in prayer.
We have been made sons in order that we may come to God as such, finding in His presence the friendship, help and sympathetic understanding of a loving heavenly Father. Our Lord has set us an example in the use which He made of solitude for the express purpose of communion with His Father.
There is nothing so difficult in these hectic days there is nothing so essential, as time alone with God when our souls can breathe in the fresh air of prayer. It is this time spent apart with Him, unknown to anyone and for no motive other than a longing to meet with Him, that causes growth in a Christian's life. All the men of God from the Old Testament saints down to the present time have been men who disciplined themselves to get apart from the distracting crowds and shut the door.
It is difficult for some of those who live in crowded houses. It may be possible, of course, to have intercourse with God after the fashion of Brother Lawrence in his kitchen. But for most people a quiet church, a garden, an attic, or some little place apart is an urgent necessity if prayer is to be real.
There are four conditions of successful prayer, as we can see in this verse: "Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water."
First of all, there must be no deceit. Our approach must be with a true heart. We cannot hide anything from God's searching gaze. It is no good attempting to pretend in His presence. We may deceive our friends; we may even deceive ourselves, but we cannot deceive God: He is not mocked. If there is any reservation, or any insincerity in our approach, we shall know nothing of the uplifting communion which God wishes to establish in our lives.
Secondly, there must be no doubt in our hearts. We must come in full assurance of faith. When we receive no answer to our requests, the cause may be unbelief. James says of the Christian who lacks faith: "Let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord." But the effect of unbelief goes deeper than this. It mars the whole of our prayer life and relentlessly destroys our fellowship with God.
Thirdly, there must be no deliberate sin. Our hearts are to be sprinkled from an evil conscience. This is picture language which Hebrew Christians would well understand. It referred them back to the Old Testament types. It reminded them of how sin was cleansed only by the shedding of blood. If there is deliberate sin in our lives; if we are holding on to habits which God has pointed out to us as being displeasing to Him; we shall find no response when we seek to enter the presence of our heavenly Father.
In such a case, we must show our repentance by confessing the sin which has been holding us back, and then claim cleansing and forgiveness through the shed blood of our great Sacrifice. He can cleanse from sin, and if we confess, we are assured of forgiveness.
Fourthly, there is to be no defilement. The "pure water" is a metaphor depicting a vivid truth to the eastern mind. Before entering the precincts of the temple, before even partaking of a meal in their own homes, the feet and body were washed. The dust and travel stains were removed. Cleansed and purified they could then have fellowship with God or with their friends.
In a non-Christian world, it is almost impossible to avoid some defilement as we pass through it performing the normal duties of the day. By eye and ear so much sin tends to reach our minds. It all defiles. So sensitive is our communion with God that even this will mar the fellowship. Let us therefore seek cleansing, through the blood of Christ, from every taint of sin as we come into God's presence.
With these conditions of true prayer in our minds, we can go on to examine some of the various aspects of prayer. This will help us to see how best we can spend our quiet times of communion with God.
The first, and often the most neglected, aspect is worship. This is difficult to define, although many examples of it can be found in the Psalms which has been called the Jews' "Book of Common Prayers." Often it cannot be expressed in words. It is the warm response of our hearts as we meditate upon the attributes and character of God. It is praising God with all that we are for all that He is.
Another act of prayer is thanksgiving. It is a poor spirit which takes and takes and never says "thank you." It does us all good continually to "count our blessings." To the discerning heart, God's goodness can be recognised in the little things of life as well as in the big. With such sacrifices of praise God is well pleased. But a sinful heart has no song of praise to sing. It is earth bound and cannot soar to the heights where it is possible to survey all God's goodness. For this reason confession also becomes a most necessary part of prayer.
Before fellowship can be established we must get right with God.
Prayer, too, involves intercession. We may not be able to understand completely why God should want us to pray for others. But when our fellowship with Him is real, His love for the non-Christian becomes ours; His interest in the lives of our relatives and friends we also share. Such prayers are an instrument in God's hands. They serve to effect His purposes.
In this way "prayer changes things." Gordon of Khartoum found time in his busy life to go through a list of names of those for whom he prayed every day, which his biographer tells us he kept in columns in a thick copy book. Many will find it useful to keep some such prayer list on which names and specified requests can be written down, and regularly mentioned before God. But worship, thanksgiving, confession and intercession do not cover all there is to prayer.
Meditation on the Scriptures in silence and listening to God speaking in one's heart is a very real, though sometimes overemphasised aspect of prayer.
Oliver Cromwell, we are told, was "always in a listening attitude waiting for the Divine Whisper. Long hours of meditation and prayer were essential for his spirit lest the 'mystica catena' snap." And if a man of that calibre could so talk with God and hear God speak to him, so also should we seek the same inspiration.
There are two practical matters with regard to prayer which trouble young Christians especially.
They are wandering thoughts and the problem of unanswered prayer.
With regard to the first, let us realise at the start that it is a difficulty with everyone. Our finite limitations and our necessary preoccupation with everyday affairs, make it so. However, that is no excuse for letting these thoughts get the better of one, and the writer has found two things helpful in this connection.
First, start your Quiet Time with reading from the Scriptures, for this directs one's thoughts on to the King's business. Secondly, when praying, pray aloud. By that we mean actually form the words prayed, if only in a whisper. In these ways concentration in prayer will become gradually easier.
The problem of unanswered prayer is a large matter to seek to touch on in a single paragraph. But this much can be said, namely, that granted the conditions have been fulfilled there is no such thing as unanswered prayer. God has promised to hear and answer.
What we are so slow to learn is that His answer is sometimes "No," and sometimes "Wait," and sometimes something different from what we had expected. But it is always an answer.
Where there are groups of Christian people in one place, they will find tremendous power in united prayer. Prayer too in pairs at regular intervals can help as little else to keep each other spiritually alive.
Informal prayer when two of God's children have meals together, or otherwise meet, should be more common than it is. Borden of Yale's most intimate friend once wrote, "Through all the time I have known him, when there has been an opportunity, we have never parted without going on our knees and praying for God's work."
More of that spirit in our universities and churches would deepen God's work as nothing else. Why are we so slow to pray with those who are one with us in Christ?
Is it necessary to confine our prayer to family prayers, or actual prayer meetings, excellent and essential as they are? It should be the most natural thing for two Christians to bow their heads for a word of prayer whenever their Lord's work is being discussed, or the spiritual condition of others is at stake.
But prayer and Bible study alone, though they will help invaluably in one's own spiritual development, are not to be taken as a substitute for the other means of grace, fellowship with other Christians.
Man is a "gregarious animal" we are told, and it is second nature to him to club together with those of similar interests, but this is not the chief reason why a young Christian should get in touch with a local branch of an established and recognised body of Christians.
If he reads his New Testament he will find it incumbent upon him to be baptised (if he has not already been baptised), and to remember Christís death "till He come." This he will do as a member of the Christian Church.
For the strength of this community spirit, for a witness to those around, and for the sake of the work for God which had to be done, the early Christians were drawn together by the Lord to whom they belonged. We are not intended to enjoy our spiritual benefits in isolation, but to join in with "the blessed company of all faithful people."
No man emphasised this more than the Apostle Paul. He, no doubt, learned from his friend, Luke, who was a doctor, the details of the wonderful unity in diversity of the human body. He knew something of its function, something of the relation between the various members, something of inter-dependence, even although each had its own particular work to do.
Three times he uses the body as an illustration of that same unity in diversity which should characterise the Christian society. Its Head is Christ Himself. All its members are necessary and useful. None can afford to be independent. All are linked up in a wonderful and mysterious way to form a living whole, so that if one member suffers, all the members suffer with him. Such is the true, invisible Christian Church.
At this point it would seem worth while emphasising the importance of a right appreciation of the Lord's Day. The complex conditions of modern life tend to obliterate any difference in the days of the week, but the fact remains that one day in seven has been divinely set apart for man's spiritual good, and the observance of it is a Christian duty.
In the past it has often been considered a day of "don'ts." But the Christian looks upon it in a different manner. For him it is a day of special opportunity. He recognises that God has given this provision for his spiritual good. He will set aside the books and occupations of the week, and make extra time for the study of the Bible, for attendance at the House of God, for practical work in Sunday school or class, and for trying to win others for Christ by taking them along with him to some place where the gospel is preached. In this way he will not only be fresher for the work of the week, but he will be refreshed in spirit as well.
Ultimately, however, the real secret of maintaining the spiritual glow, to which Bible study, prayer and corporate worship are essential aids, lies in personal communion and fellowship with the living Christ.
Abiding in Him means the realisation by faith, and not by feeling, that really and truly "closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet."
If circumstances militate against such a consciousness, the part of faith is to claim that He is present as He said He would be. But there will come times, as there came to Temple Gairdner while still at Oxford, when, as he said, "That communion is so real that if you are sitting alone in a room with Him and even your dearest friend comes in, you feel it is an interruption."
Now the first step to maintaining such close communion with our Master is the resolute refusal to allow anything to come between Him and us, the firm resolve, as Samuel Rutherford wrote, "that Satan shall not draw a straw or a thread betwixt us."
The Tamils of South India have a proverb to describe two intimate friends of whom they would say, "They are bound together as the nail to the quick of the nail." Anything that comes between causes pain. And that is the meaning of "grieving the Holy Spirit," the Greek word literally meaning "to cause sorrow or pain to." The moment the will says "Yes" and gives place to the devil's allurements, we "put to pain the Spirit of our God within us." We need, therefore, constantly to pray the prayer of David, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts; and see if there be any way of pain in me."
But there are many who, conscious of having allowed a sin to enter and spoil their fellowship with Christ, want to know "How can the cause be removed?"
The obvious advice to one who has thus fallen is, (though it changes the metaphor), "Get up." The pig when it falls into the mire, remains happily wallowing there, for such is its nature. But the sheep, if it slips into the same mire, will immediately seek to get out again.
It is not the nature of the Christian to sin, and if he does so he feels at once that something is wrong. It is useless to sigh and pity myself and think that it is inevitable that I, as a Christian, shall fall. It is actually foreign to me to do so, contrary to my new nature as a Christian.
How exactly, then, does God intend a Christian who has sinned to rise to his feet?
The way is clear in Scripture. The first step is to confess to God that particular fault which was the cause of the downfall. Name it before Him, and claim the forgiveness that He has promised because of what Christ did for us on the cross. And then believe that you have been forgiven in the moment you confessed; that that sin will never be called to mind by God, however much the memory of it may linger in your heart; that it has been removed an immeasurable distance from you; that it is in fact out of God's sight.
Such is the Bible teaching of the forgiveness that God's children find in the heart of their loving Father, and on the ground of the blood that Christ shed on the cross.
What need then for further despondency when He Himself looks upon us as if we had never sinned?
It may be, however, that our sin has affected another. If this is so, Christ made it plain that restitution must be made if the wound is to be healed. It is not enough to have confessed to God, if it is still possible to get right again with the one offended. Zacchaeus is our example here. The hardest part of getting right with God is getting right with one's neighbour.
And for lack of this many a division exists where a word of apology would bring union. We need to be prepared for the humbling experience of owning we are in the wrong, and of praying with St. Augustine, "O God, deliver me from this lust of always vindicating myself."
The secret of maintaining communion with Christ lies in keeping short accounts with Him. Every evening the confession in detail of any sin that the Holy Spirit brings to mind: every morning a daily surrender afresh to God and claiming the fulness of the Holy Spirit; an hourly walk in the Spirit by faith and not by feeling counting on the presence of Christ within.
These are the steps to a continual walk with God. "Therefore let us . . . put aside every incumbrance, put off the garment of sin that can so readily trammel our efforts, and with strong endurance let us race along the course that stretches before us, turning our eyes away from all else towards Jesus, to Him Who gives the first impulse to our faith, to Him Who brings it to final maturity."
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Seek time alone with God every day.
Remember that prayer should never be a monologue, and is far more than religious begging.
Is the symbol of your prayer the open hand, or the open heart?
Try to find another Christian with whom to pray. It will help you both.
Link up with other Christians who are really "out-and-out" for Christ. You will never regret it.
Cultivate "the practice of the presence of God" by realising, by faith and not by emotion, that Christ is really and truly with you all and every day, as He said.
If sin come between you and your Lord, have it removed at once, by telling Him all about it.
Keep short accounts with God.