Prayer as a Practice

by B. B. Warfield

"The supplication of a righteous man availeth much."- James 5:16b:

I Want to speak to you this afternoon about prayer, and I have chosen a text which, if we cannot quite say of it that it brings prayer before us at the height of its idea, yet, certainly, presents its value to us in the most emphatic way.

Men ask, What is the use of praying? Above all, What is the use of bringing specific petitions to the throne of the Almighty? "To crave boons you know little of, from a God of whom you know nothing at all, save that you have made him in your own image—of what profit can that be?" That is the language of unbelief.

Much, however, which passes for belief asks practically the same thing in somewhat more chastened forms of speech. This half belief also asks, What is the use of praying? We must have a very low conception of God, it suggests, to suppose that He does not know how to govern His universe without our telling Him. Do we really think He will subordinate His wisdom to the demands of our folly? Cannot we leave the direction of affairs to Him? If He be, indeed, a good and wise God, must we not leave it to Him? Why rush hysterically into His presence and demand that the universe be ruled according to our notions? Are we competent to give Him advice? Do we fancy that we know what is best even for ourselves, as He does not? He cannot hear us unless He be God; He certainly ought not to hearken to us if He be God. If He is "mighty enough to make laws," why should we think Him "weak enough to break them" at our request? Prayer is in effect an attempt to undeify the Deity and substitute our will for His will. It is not only foolish and immoral, therefore, but supremely self-contradictory. We cannot attempt it save on the supposition that it is God whom we are addressing; we would not attempt it if we really believed that He whom we are addressing is God. Of one thing, at least, we may be assured, that it is of no use to pray.

Well, you see, it is precisely to this point that our text speaks. It speaks not of prayer in general, but of the specific act of petition. "Supplication," our Revised Version calls it. It is that precise act of prayer which is the making of a request, the urging of a desire, the preferring of a petition. And what it says about it is that so far from its being of no use, it is of very great use. "The prayer,"—or more specifically, the "petition," the "request," the "supplication"—"of a righteous man availeth much," "is of great value," "exerts great power." There is another word in the sentence, but as it is of somewhat doubtful interpretation and in no way qualifies the sense of the declaration for our present purpose, we may pass it by here. It is variously rendered as qualifying the prayer of the righteous man that availeth further as "earnest"; or as indicating the source from which such a prayer alone can come, by affirming that it is "inwrought" in him, that is, by the Holy Ghost; or as further describing the value of it as availing "in its working." It is obvious that whether we say "the fervent prayer of the righteous man availeth much," or "the prayer of a righteous man availeth much, seeing that it is inwrought," or "the prayer'of a righteous man availeth much in its working," the one main thing asserted in every case is that a righteous man's prayer is of high value; that it is strong to obtain its end; that it is fully worth offering up. And this emphatic assertion is buttressed immensely by its context. The assertion is made in order to encourage the readers to pray for one another, and for themselves. To pray for one another when they are sick; to pray for one another when they are soul-sick, li any is sick among you, exhorts James, send for the elders of the Church and have them pray over such an one; and the prayer of faith shall heal the sick; yes, and if he have any sin on his conscience, it will heal that sin. And all of you—why, confess your sins to one another—and pray for one another, and the prayer will bring healing. Take everything to God. If you are suffering go in prayer; if you are in joy go in praise. But in any and every case, go. It is strong and reiterated advice, you see. Go continually, go always, to God. Go, go, because prayer is not of no profit; but, on the contrary, the "prayer of a righteous man profiteth much!" And then James supports this central declaration with a most telling example. It is taken from the life of Elijah. Elijah prayed. He was a man just like us. And he got what he prayed for. And it was no little thing he asked for. He asked for drought and he asked for rain. And he got the drought and the rain he asked for. See, says James in effect, see, how much the prayer of a righteous man is good for!

It looks as if we could not easily find a stronger assertion of the value of prayer; and of prayer at the very apex of its difficulty as I have said; prayer, specifically as petition. But I do not wish this afternoon to confine our thoughts to this one point, the value of petition, but to take encouragement from this emphatic assertion of the value of prayer, and direct our minds to a general consideration of prayer in the large.

First, then, the idea of prayer. In its most general connotation, prayer is the Godward expression of subjective religion. Subjective religion is the state of mind consequent on the apprehension of God. Prayer is, therefore, in its most general sense the Godward expression of that state of mind which is consequent on the apprehension of God. In short, all conscious communion with God is prayer. A great many elements, therefore, enter into prayer. It is not to be confined to petition. Every form of expression of the soul Godward is a form of prayer. Many terms, therefore, are employed in the Scriptures, Hebrew and Greek alike, to give expression to the various forms and modes of praying. In some passages several of these are accumulated and that with full consciousness of the variety of mental state and action expressed by them. One of the most formal of these summations occurs at the opening of the second chapter of First Timothy. Here four terms are gathered together to give more adequate expression to what Paul would have us do when we pray; four terms which emphasize the mental movements we call respectively adoration, petition, urgency, thanksgiving. These four elements, at least, ought, therefore, to intertwine in all our acts of prayer. When we come before God, we should come with adoration in our hearts and on our lips, with thanksgiving suffusing all our being for His goodness to us, and making known our desires with that earnestness which alone can justify our bringing them to Him.

Next, the presuppositions of prayer. Obviously they are the presuppositions of subjective religion. And these may be summed up in the existence, the personality, the accessibility and the continued activity of God in the world. The Scriptures themselves tell us that to come to God implies that we believe that He is, and that He is the rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. We must really believe in the existence of God and in His care for the'works of His hands, or we cannot pray to Him. Not only then cannot the atheist, or the agnostic, or the pantheist, pray; nor yet the deist or the fatalist. But neither can adherents of many a variety of our modern thought which baptizes itself with the Christian name, pray as men ought to pray. I have particularly in mind in saying this, on the one hand, those extreme advocates of the reign of law in external nature who love to call themselves either speculative theists or non-miraculous Christians; and on the other those extreme advocates of the autocracy of the human will, who fancy that the whole cause of liberty is bound up with the selfsufficiency of the human soul.

The one of these would forbid us to pray for any external want; the other for any internal effect on the soul. So, between the two, they would take away the whole sphere of prayer. Unless we should prefer wisely to look at it from the opposite angle, and to say that each refutes the other, and between the two they allow us the whole sphere of prayer. Certainly, that is what the Scriptures do. They authorize, or rather require, us to pray both for external and internal blessings; for rain and drought like Elijah; for the healing of sickness like the elders of the Church; for the healing of sin-sick souls like Christians at large. There is, no doubt, a problem of how God answers prayers for external effects; and we may be chary of supposing that miracles will be wrought when special providences will serve the end; and there is a problem of how God answers prayer for internal changes and we may be chary of supposing that violence is done to our nature, when confluent action along psychologically indicated lines will suffice. But one thing we must hold firmly to: God answers prayer. And that equally, and equally readily and equally easily, for internal and for external things.

Now, the conditions of acceptable prayer. Let us study here the simplicity of Scripture. We need not multiply conditions where the Scriptures do not multiply them. And, speaking strictly, Scripture knows of but one condition. It conduces to the peace and comfort of our souls to remember that there is but one condition to acceptable prayer. It is easiest and best, however, to state this one condition in a twofold manner: objectively and subjectively. There is an objective condition of acceptable prayer and there is a subjective condition of acceptable prayer. The objective condition is that we should have access to God. The subjective condition is that we should have faith. The objective and subjective conditions are one, because it is only in Jesus Christ that we have access to God and only through faith that we are in Him.

Whatever may be said of men as men—the creatures of God—you and I have nothing to do with. You and I are not men as men; we are sinners. And sinners as such have no access to God. They may go through all the motions of prayer, no doubt. It is like bodily exercises that profit nothing; one might as will turn a prayer wheel like the Thibetans. It goes no higher than our own heads. For this is of the very essence of sin—that it breaks communion with God. God is deaf to the sinner's cry. He owes the sinner punishment, not favour. In Jesus Christ alone has the breach between God and sinful man been filled in. In the blood of His sacrifice only can we penetrate within the veil. In Him only, as Paul repeatedly tells us, do we have our introduction into the Divine presence. All prayer that is acceptable and reaches the ears of God, therefore, is prayer that is conveyed to Him through Jesus Christ. For sinners the atonement of Christ lays the only basis for real prayer.

The subjective condition is faith; and faith is the sole subjective condition. No other condition is ever announced in Scripture. And the promises to faith are repeated, emphatic and unlimited. He that prays in faith shall surely receive. For faith can no more fail in prayer than in salvation; and if faith and faith alone is not the only but all-sufficient instrument of salvation, then we are yet in our sins and are of all men the most miserable. If any one is puzzled by so unlimited a promise, let him reflect what faith is and whence faith comes. If faith is the gift of God in this sphere, too—as assuredly it is—then faith can no more fail than the God who gives it can fail. Or think you that God will deceive you by working faith in you by His Holy Spirit when He has no intention of correspondingly blessing you? Man-made faith—that might fail; for that is no faith at all. But God-inspired faith, as it is God within you working, so is it sure to find God without you hearkening. That is what Paul says in that great passage in the eighth of Romans about the Holy Spirit groaning within us unutterably, and God knowing the mind of His Spirit. It is possibly also what James says in our present passage, when he says that it is an "energized prayer" which is effective. But the gist of the whole matter is that there is no condition of successful prayer but faith.

No condition, but not therefore no characterizing qualities, which are always present where faithful prayer is; and the presence and absence of which you and I can observe as marks of acacceptable or unacceptable prayer. These are customarily enumerated as sincerity, reverence, humility, importunity, submission. Many more similar characteristic features of acceptable prayer could be added. We need not dwell on these in detail.

Lastly, the effects of prayer. These too are both objective and subjective. Which are the more important? That depends very much on the specific exercises of prayer which we have in mind; and on the specific things we pray for, if it is of the exercise of petition that we are thinking.

The main point to emphasize is that prayer has an objective effect. It terminates on God, and does not merely bound back like a boomerang upon our own persons. We do not throw it up towards the heavens to have it do nothing but circle back to smite our own heads. But though this is to be mainly insisted upon, it does not follow that prayer may not also have subjective effects; or that these subjective effects may not be of unspeakable importance to us; or even that in some exercises of prayer, they may not be almost the most important of its effects. If the specific exercise of prayer in which we are engaged is adoration or thanksgiving, may not what we call its subjective effects be the most important? No doubt, if we are engaging in petition, it may be different; may be even here, not must. If our petition be, Father, hallowed be Thy Name!—or, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth as in heaven!—no subjective effects can compare with the objective value of the petition. But suppose the petition be, "Give us this day our daily bread!" Or for some lesser blessing "of this life"! Is not the enjoyment in prayer of communion with God of more value than any of these things? Let us bless God that man does not live by bread alone; nay, not even chiefly.

If we seek to enumerate the benefits obtained by prayer, then, I think we must say that they are, at least, threefold. There are the objective blessings obtained by means of the prayer in the answer to its petitions. There is the blessing that consists in the very act of prayer, that communion with God which is the highest act of the soul. There are the blessings that arise from the assumption in prayer of the proper attitude of the creature, especially of the sinful creature, towards God. Perhaps these last alone can be strictly called purely subjective. The first we may speak of as purely objective. It is the second in which the highest value of prayer is to be found.

We must not undervalue the purely subjective or reflex effects of prayer. They are of the highest benefit to us. Much less must we undervalue the objective effects of prayer. In them lies the specific meaning of that exercise of prayer which we call petition. But the heart of the matter lies in every case in the communion with God which the soul enjoys in prayer. This is prayer itself, and in it is summed up what is most blessed in prayer. If it be man's chief end to glorify God and enjoy Him for ever, then man has attained his end, the sole purpose for which he was made, the entire object for which he exists, when he enters into communion with God, abides in His presence, streaming out to Him in all the emotions, I do not say appropriate to a creature in the presence of his Maker and Lord, apprehended by him as the Good Lord and Righteous Ruler of the souls of men, but appropriate to the sinner who has been redeemed by the blood of God's own Son and is inhabited by His Spirit and apprehends his Maker as also his Saviour, his Governor as also his Lover, and knows the supreme joy of him that was lost and is found, was dead and is alive again,—and all, through the glory of God's seeking and saving love. He who attains to this experience has attained all that is to be attained. He is absorbed in the beatific vision. He that sees God shall be like Him.


From Faith and Life by BBW

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