Alfred Place Baptist Church

9:24-32 The Need And Nature Of True Faith

Mark 9:24-32 “Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’ When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the evil spirit. ‘You deaf and mute spirit,’ he said, ‘I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.’ The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, ‘He’s dead.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up. After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why couldn’t we drive it out?’ He replied, ‘This kind can come out only by prayer.’ They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.’ But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.”

A man has brought his son to the disciples of the Lord Jesus in order to be healed, but they failed to help the boy. When the Lord Jesus arrives and hears what has happened his judgment on these disciples is that their faith in himself had temporarily disappeared from their lives. They were his chosen disciples, but without his presence they had quickly reverted back to a lifestyle typical of the entire generation of unbelieving men and women, the very people whom Jesus was evangelising. Christ then explains to the father of the boy that Christian disciples are able to do anything God requires of us only as we keep on trusting in the Lord. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Our faith is the means by which we are united to Jesus Christ. It’s by trusting in him that we are plugged into the source of the grace and strength that is essential for every day. He is our food from heaven, and we can’t get through a day without imbibing him and receiving him into our lives. All our lives we keep looking to Jesus, that is, trusting in him, beleiving that he is in control of our lives.

Some people keep the things they value, their stocks and shares and bonds and securities, in a special secure place. There will be times when they will unlock that cupboard, and they will take them out, and pore over them, and then they will put them back and think about other things. It cannot be like that with ourselves and Christ. We virtually live upon him. We never put him into a box, say, there’s one particular day each week and we’ll think about him on Sundays. No, we live upon the Son of God, as a man lives upon his daily bread. We can’t survive without him. That is saving faith.

The Lord Jesus had gone away to the top of the mount of transfiguration. Out of sight, out of mind. So the man with his sick boy arrive and the disciples turn from the living Christ to their techniques, and their formulae, and they go through the motions of their routines of exorcism. Their human engineering achieve nothing, much to the delight of their enemies and the pain of the father. “O unbelieving generation!” cries the Saviour when he hears what had happened. It is when we are walking by faith in Christ, trusting him in tough times, casting our cares on him, confessing to him that we can’t cope without his blessing, and looking to him for his assistance that then we find we have enough love, and enough patience, and enough self-control, and most of all, enough power to accomplish what he’s told us we have to do. He had commissioned these men to preach and cast our demons, but they needed his Spirit to do all these things. Everything is possible to him who believes.

You understand that Christ is not saying something like “Believing is the secret to living.” He is talking about a very specific faith, about trusting in this glorious living person Jesus Christ. It is not that any faith saves, it is that this great divine person helps and keeps us as we trust in him. His enabling grace become ours as we are trust right into him. So in the whole of the Christian life we are never relieved of the obligation to keep believing in Christ, not for a moment, and more and more we put our trust in him as the years go by. Without him we can do nothing. So the Christian at times may find himself praying, “If ever I needed thee, Lord Jesus, it is now. I cannot get by without Thee. Save me. I’m falling.”

It is the response of the father of this boy to these words of Jesus on the crucial significance of faith that is so fascinating. The father expresses what so many Christians feel when they hear of the importance of keeping trusting in Christ. “‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!'” (v.24). The man certainly believed, but there was this awareness of how weak his faith was.

1. THE FATHER OF THE BOY DID TRUST IN JESUS CHRIST.

He is not saying that he had a vague faith, not that he believed something like ‘whatever will be will be.’ No, his faith was focused in Jesus Christ. He could say to the Saviour, “‘Teacher, I brought you my son.'” (v.17). The boy was his most precious possession, and he brought him to the Lord. “I do believe,” he said, and he did. He believed that the Lord Jesus was sent from God, for no man could do the miracles he did unless God was with him, but this father didn’t possess mighty faith, or even well taught faith. He didn’t know of the two natures and three offices of Christ, but he knew that there was no one else in all the world who could save their family from bondage and the devil but the Lord, and he went to him. All saving faith goes to Christ. The person strong in faith goes to Christ with a very purposeful stride, while the person weak in faith shuffles along, hardly seeming to move. However both Mr Tortoise and Mr Hare arrive at their goal. They end up reaching out and touching Christ, and both receive all the benefits that come from him.

One of the most important answers a Christian can hear from a believer whom they are trying to help is, “Getting there.” “How are things now?” “I’m getting there.” God can use all sorts of things to get us there. I’m not talking about the preaching but the simplest providences. It was Joseph Parker who said that there’s a time in the life of every man when the touch of a child’s hand makes him strong. You are sitting in your chair feeling low, and your child or grandchild comes up to you and puts his hand on yours, and you feel strong. Once we believe in Christ then God can use everything to get us there.

Are we all sure today that we have gone to Christ for salvation? We have to start there. Let me even take a step back from that and ask this question. Have we seen that we are sinners? What an unpopular question. There are words at the end of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” which sum up man’s attitude today:

“For what is man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels,
And not the words of one who kneels.”

“Not the servility of praying. Oh no, not that! We don’t need to pray, we do things our own way!” I was reading the life of a man called Edward Blackstock this week, and at one time he came under conviction of his need of salvation. So he took a Bible into his room, closed the door and he knelt down. He even kissed the Bible in a solemn way; his eyes were full of tears and he prayed his first real prayer. He poured out his soul to God, and he could remember the words that came to him on that occasion for the rest of his life. This is what he said: “O God, I am a great sinner. I have no religion and I don’t know what religion is, or what is truth. I am blind to the knowledge of things written in this Book which I’m holding in my hand and which I believe is your book. O God, open my blind eyes. If you can show mercy to such a sinful wretch as I am, O God show mercy to me!” Those are the words of “a man who kneels.” That prayer is a most spiritual prayer isn’t it? It is the prayer of a man in need because he has seen his sin, and is aware that God alone can help him. Edward later went to a church, and at first glance disdained the man of short stature standing in the pulpit. How insignificant he appeared. Then the preacher announced his text on the Pharisee and the Publican in the temple, and soon he came to the prayer of the Publican, “God be merciful to me a sinner” and as he said the words such divine light flooded Edward’s heart! He knew he was a sinner and he knew that a sinner could speak to the living God and find mercy. That is the beginning of faith in the Saviour, knowing that we are sinners who need salvation.

So I ask again, have you seen that you are a sinner? Becky Pippert said once at a student conference in Urbana, “I heard a television evangelist not long ago saying, ‘People ask me if ever I struggle with sin. I say, “Maybe I do, but you’ll never hear about it. I just go to God.” Others say, “But don’t you ever struggle with being godly, or loving your wife, or being a good father.” I say, “Maybe I do and maybe I don’t, but you’ll never hear about it. I just go to God.”‘ Then he read a poem entitled ‘Be a Man.’ It went something like this: ‘Feel tired or discouraged? Don’t let it get you down – be a man! Feel like throwing in the towel? Feel tired of struggling? Be a man!’ I counted the refrain ‘be a man’ twenty times. Now most women might have a little trouble identifying with a poem called ‘Be a Man.’ But more importantly, why did this man exhibit such resistance to admitting even that he struggles? I can understand his not wanting to bare himself in front of millions of viewers, but does he bring glory to Christ by refusing even to say that he is tempted?

“Paul acknowledged, ‘I am the chief of sinners.’ When Paul told of his struggle with his thorn in the flesh the Lord Jesus didn’t answer him, ‘For heaven’s sake Paul, buck up and be a man!’ No. That TV evangelist has done what we often do. He has taken a popular image from our culture and spiritualized it. It’s the myth of the Lone Ranger. All I need is God and my horse. I don’t need anyone else. If I make mistakes, I’ll just tell my horse and ride off into the sunset. How different is the real Christian. Martin Luther attributed the cause of most sins to unbelief. Christians have no excuse for naivete about evil. Heaven will be full of thanks for deliverance from wickedness. Never be ashamed of confessing your sin and struggling with your sin. There can be no saving faith without that. That faith will drive us to the only one who is the Saviour of sinners. Such faith makes us gritty, and it teaches us to say no.”

Have you gone to Christ the Saviour as a sinner? I have been fascinated with what has been happening in the English town of Peterborough during this last month. On February 9, four weeks exactly tomorrow, a man called Alec Molton and two friends went to preach there in the open air between noon and 2.15. They do this each Monday and they give away much Christian literature and have many good conversations with people. Alec Molton had been preaching on the words of the New Testament, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Then it was his friend’s turn when a police car drew up and a policeman began to talk to his friend saying that they had had several complaints about the preaching. Alec Molton told them that they had been preaching the message of the Bible which says that everyone has sinned. The policeman said to him these words, “If you call me a sinner that would offend me.” To which Alec replied, “That is what the Bible says.” “Sir,” said the policeman, “you do not have the freedom to say that . . .” and many other exchanges took place along the same lines. The preachers may find that the Peterborough Outreach is to be closed down and its preachers even prosecuted. These are the days in which we live.

Let me affirm that the Biblical verdict is that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. You and I are sinners, and let me ask you have you gone to Christ as a sinner? Have you entrusted yourself to him? You say that you do not have strong enough faith, and I say that you must use the faith you have. I am saying to you that it is not the quality or strength of that faith that should be our first concern but that a sight of our sin has resulted in our going and seeking to join ourselves to the great Saviour. He alone can save us. Have we seen it however clearly or not, however weak or strong our faith? A mighty aircraft carrier is moored to the dock with huge hawsers, while a spider is attached to its web by a fine thread, but both are secure, fastened to the place they should be. So sinners must get attached to Jesus Christ, some are joined by strong tried and tested faith, while others are joined by the thinnest newest thread, but by trusting Christ they too are joined to him. It is he who saves us through faith, it is not our faith in him that is the Saviour.

Let me use this illustration, that electric cables are the mere means of bringing power into your homes. There are the distant generators, a hundred miles away perhaps, in some hydroelectric stations. Here in our homes are the hairdryers and toasters and standard lamps and computers. The electric flex and the underground cables and the high voltage wires all join our lives to the generators in the mountains. We never talk about flex and cable and wires. We never even think about all that, however indispensable they are. They are the channel for the power to enter and warm or enlighten our lives. Faith is like those cables. It is a connecting grace. It is utterly indispensable, but all it does is plug us into the fulness of God in Christ. He is the one who saves and keeps us when we’re joined to him.

What do we know about that one Christian in our congregation who has the weakest faith, whoever that person may be? We know this, that his sins are comprehensively forgiven, from the greatest transgressions to the least, past, present and future sins, without any exception at all, all pardoned sins, just as much as the sins of the person with the strongest faith, whoever he may be. Dr Lloyd-Jones in his book, “Spiritual Depression,” has a sermon entitled “That One Sin,” the sin we most regret, that we are most ashamed of, of all our past actions, that is the one we wish we’d never done. That sin too, is a forgiven sin, through Christ. As Peter says to the congregation in Cornelius’ household, “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). That is true of every single person who believes in Christ however strong or weak their faith; the least of them as well as the greatest of them; the believer one day old, or the person who has been a believe for three score years and ten. The least measure of faith can bring the greatest measure of blessings. It will unite us to the fullness of Jesus Christ.

What a wonderful privilege it is to say aloud as this father said, “I do believe.” Maybe it was the first time he had ever said it publicly. I remember a student watching a girl working her way up the lunch queue in the refectory giving out Christian leaflets. She finally came to him, and he said to her, “I’m a Christian,” and experienced such peace from making that confession. You don’t have to say, “I have great faith.” In fact, those who truly possess great faith can be very reluctant to acknowledge the depth of their faith. The phrase, “How little I trust him” may be often on their lips, but if you tried to force them turn from Jesus, or speak meanly of him, they would turn on you in holy anger: “I may not trust him as I should but he has been a wonderful faithful Saviour to me. Don’t you say a word against him.” The greatest oak tree was once an acorn. The most famous believer was once a weak and doubting Christian. It is much better to be a doubting Christian than a presumptuous religious man.

If you can say, “I do believe,” then that will encourage you to believe that God has chosen you from before the foundation of the world, because we know, “as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). He has loved you with an everlasting love. He gave you to Jesus Christ his Son to save and keep and glorify. Your name is written in the book of life. The very devils are subject to you. You have something that will never be taken away from you, even though it be as small as a mustard seed, it will be yours for ever and ever. Death will take everything else away from you, but not your trust in Jesus Christ. This will spring up to eternal life. You may outlive all your generation; you may be the last one in your family. You may say good-bye to your money and possessions. You may lose your very mind itself, but you will never lose your faith in Christ. That will be yours for ever and ever! That is true for every believer, he who has the weakest faith in Christ as well as the strongest.

2. THE FATHER OF THE BOY WAS UNHAPPY WITH HIS UNBELIEF.

The father had more to say, not only that he did believe in Christ, but these words, “Help me overcome my unbelief,” (v.24). Isn’t that a mighty prayer? “I do believe, but my faith is not as it should be, but you can help me. Please help me!” Do you pray that prayer? You won’t be satisfied with weak faith will you? No one here is thinking, “Well, others have strong faith, while I don’t. That’s the sovereignty of God.” No it’s not! Don’t think, “I can still enjoy all the blessings of salvation and forgiveness that they enjoy.” Yes, but how much is your life impoverished and the whole life of this church by your unbelief. Never think like that! Weak faith greatly dishonours God. As strong faith honours him, so unbelief grieves God above all sins. Unbelief makes God a liar. Let me tell you seven sad consequences of weak faith:

i] Unbelief spoils our best duties. Unbelief hides the face of God from us when we pray. Unbelief makes our affections cold and flat and dead. It drives the blessedness from our lives. “Let a man examine himself;” go into your heart and look at your life and you will find there unbelief as the cause of so many of your problems. If none of the ordinances of the gospel, none of the duties done in the name of Christ, none of the promises of the gospel are meaning much to you these days then it is because of this sin of unbelief. Our walk with God should be more precious to us than our sight or our hearing.

ii] Unbelief makes us strangers to a spirit of repentance. I am talking about your reluctance to turn your back on all those things that keep God at a distance from your life – all the junk, all the glories of the world that have got you in their power. They control you too much, and you must turn your back on them, and turn your face to the cross of Christ. The Bible tells us that we have to die to the world, and the world must die to us. Let me explain that. Our age loves angles. We have angles for everything; how to catch a husband or wife, how to have fresh breath, how to witness, how to look ten years younger than we really are, how to be the country’s greatest worship leader. But God says that the one crucial angle we’ve got to have – it is absolutely essential – is our bankruptcy:

“Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling.
Naked come to Thee for dress,
Helpless look to Thee for grace,
Foul I to the fountain fly,
Wash me Saviour or I die.” (Augustus Toplady)

We’ve got to be there. We’ve got to make those words our very own, from our own hearts. The world has nothing to offer us to clothe our nakedness. The world for the Christian is what crucified Jesus Christ. The world for the Christian is as attractive and desirable as the sight of a tortured young man sucking in each breath to keep alive as he hangs for hours on a cross by nails through his hands and his feet. I turn in grief from that sight because it was I who put him on that cross. I crucified him! I love the whole world system as little as I love a crucifixion. So, my richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride. That is the only angle God gives to us. Unbelief makes us strangers to a spirit of repentance.

iii] Unbelief makes us weak when we meet Satan’s temptations. What piece of armour protects us from the fiery darts of the evil one? It is the shield of faith! What is the weapon that gives us victory over the world? It is our faith. Unbelief disarms us; it sends us into battle with the world without a sword. It leaves us naked in the midst of the battle. It was unbelief that brought David so very low.

iv] Unbelief makes us complacent. There is the story of the three evil spirits discussing what strategy to use to keep Christians from being effective. One of them said, “I know. Let’s tell them there’s no hell, and no punishment. Then they’ll settle back and do nothing.” The next one said, “No, I’ve got it. Let’s tell them that there is no heaven, no prospect of a reward.” But the third evil spirit said, “Wait, I know. Lets just tell them that there is no hurry. Sure, it’s all true, but there’s no need to rush, no urgency, that they have plenty of time.” And that’s exactly what the demons did; “It’s OK but put it off .. .” Little faith feels that there’s plenty of time, but the Lord Jesus didn’t believe that as he went around Galilee. There was an urgency about his ministry. The kingdom of God was at hand.

The China Inland Mission, now the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, was born out of the agony in the heart of Hudson Taylor over complacent church services divorced from mission. In June 1865 he was in Brighton one Sunday morning worshipping in a church when he suddenly got up and left the building. He wrote in his diary that night his reason for that action: “Unable to bear the sight of a congregation of a thousand or more Christian people rejoicing in their own security while millions were perishing for lack of knowledge. I wandered out on the sands alone in great spiritual agony.” There on the Brighton shore he prayed for twenty-four willing skillful fellow labourers, and the China Inland Mission was born.

v] Unbelief makes us contented with a little bit of Bible knowledge. So our prayers never mature. Our defence of the faith is not what it should be because we don’t get the good news straight. You must understand what God has given to us in the Bible. You must know what you are talking about. Sit under the best biblical ministry you can get. Join in all the gatherings where Christians talk about the way of salvation and the Kingdom of God. Go where you can deepen your understanding, especially where you can hear old Christians talking of the ways God has led them.

vi] Unbelief makes us silent when people ask us a reason for the hope that is in us. You think of this, that that dull stranger who is sullenly listening to you stammering to him about Christianity will one day be changed into either a creature whom you are strongly tempted to worship or to a creature who is an utter horror, whom you only see now in nightmares. There are no ‘ordinary people.’ You never witness to a mere mortal. We travel on a train, and we sit in lectures, and we make jokes with, and we work alongside, and we visit immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

vii] Unbelief makes us just like the world. What is the great warning of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount? It is that the salt can lose its savour and make it good for nothing, in other words, that Christians can lose their heavenly Christ-like ethos and be just like the world in their thinking and enthusiasms and values and affections. Rebecca Pippert again, speaking at that American students’ conference, said, “I have a beautiful friend who, in the midst of a personal crisis, posed for ‘Playboy’ magazine. Some time later she made a commitment of faith to Christ. Recently ‘Playboy’ asked her to do another series of photographs and offered her enough money to have bought three or four Rolls Royces. She asked me with great sincerity, ‘Can I pose for ‘Playboy’ now that I’m a Christian?’ I don’t condemn her for thinking about it. She was genuinely trying to understand what it means to be a Christian. I grieve instead for us – the body of Christ – that our model of godliness has been so shabby and weak that she would have asked that question.” Why shouldn’t she ask it, when she sees the way Christians promote themselves on the religious TV channels? Where is their poverty of spirit, and the mourning for sin, and the meekness and purity of heart? Aren’t such graces the prime graces? Yes, the very fundamental graces of being a true Christian. Then why aren’t these graces lifted high and set in first place in the professing church? Little wonder a Christian woman is confused and asks, “Can I pose for ‘Playboy’?” We live in a narcissistic ‘me’ decade with its emphasis on my rights, and my desires. “To be strong is to be in control,” says our culture, but the Bible says that strength comes from a knowledge of our weakness and the mighty power that’s in the grace of Jesus Christ. We have to be tough-minded, and that is difficult because we are such pampered Christians. How little we know of the cost of following Christ. There are Christians all over the world at this moment who have sacrificed homes and jobs and even their lives for Christ. How different we are. If we have to live with one unfulfilled desire – one thing we ask God for and he says no – we sulk!

Let’s never be satisfied with bare faith in Jesus Christ. Let’s go on to maturity. Eric Alexander had an uncle who served in World War I, who was decorated by the king for his army service. Eric remembers him telling them that one of the greatest problems the troops had when they were sent out to the front line in France was finding it. They would go around asking, “Where’s the front line? Do you know where it is?” So it is with the church of God in our generation, we have forgotten where the front line is. That is why we are in so parlous a condition. Let me give you the front line: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Provs. 2:5&6). If you seek to live like that then be sure that the devil will do all in his power to make you believe that the front line is somewhere else. He will want to divert you from that wholehearted trust to tinkering with some of the externals of the Christian life, while plodding on with your weak faith. That is why it is vital to have a holy dissatisfaction with what your faith in Christ has achieved so far and to cry to him, “Help me overcome my unbelief.”

3. CHRIST TELLS US OF THE ESSENTIAL NATURE OF PRAYER.

With easy graciousness the Lord dismisses for ever the demon from the boy. The rending of evil spirit and the spiritof the boy is savage and leaves the boy as dead, but Jesus sweetly raises him up and restores him to this father completely healed. “After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why couldn’t we drive it out?’ He replied, ‘This kind can come out only by prayer'” (vv. 28&29). Jesus didn’t say, “Well it was a tough old demon and once he got his talons into a soul it would be hard going to get them out.” No, he didn’t attribute their failure to the power of the enemy but to their own sinful weakness. Spurgeon comments on this incident and he says, “No man may expect to be the means of the conversion of a sinner without having the faith which leads him to believe that the sinner can be converted. Such things may occur, but it is not the rule. If I can preach in faith that hearers will be saved, they will be saved. If I have no faith, God may honour his word, but it will be in no degree; certainly he will not honour me. Abandoned sinners, if converted by means, are usually brought under the power of divine grace through ministers of great faith” (C.H.Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Volume 10, 1864, p.34).

The Saviour particularly mentioned the absence of prayer in the attempt to save the child. What is prayer? We are back again to the absence of faith. Prayer is the articulation of our faith. Why had they failed to deliver the little boy? It was not because of the sovereignty of God, and there was no need for Jesus to give them some complicated psychological reason for their failure. They hadn’t prayed. They hadn’t gathered together around the boy, a number of them in a little circle, and one after another commended him to the Lord in earnest prayer, crying mightily for his deliverance. They had thought they could do it themselves. Their faith was in their techniques and thus they came a cropper. Lack of faith led to lack of prayer. It always does. When we believe that Jesus Christ has supreme authority in heaven and on earth then we will watch unto prayer, wait before the Lord, seek his face, and exercise patience until we get an audience. Perhaps there are some of you who are thinking, “If that is the case, then I will try it again. I will take the Master at his word.” Good, but if twenty or more joined together it might be better. Let’s meet on Tuesday . . . again, and together pray for those whose minds have been blinded by the god of this world.

When the late Omri Jenkins was recalling the impact of the very first sermons he heard Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones preach during his regular visits to different parts of Carmarthenshire in Wales then one of those sermons the Doctor preached – it was some time during the Second World War – was on this very text, as Matthew records it in the Authorised Version, “Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (Matt. 17:21). Sermons like that preached by Dr Lloyd-Jones changed Omri Jenkins’ life. How fascinating to think of Dr Lloyd-Jones’ approach to this passage, how he might dealt with it. How important for the church to go in its impotence and grasp at God’s omnipotence.

My pastoral assistant and I meet each week for a meal and then we study Dr Lloyd-Jones’ book, “Preaching and Preachers.” We both have a copy and we read alternate paragraphs and make comments. It has been so helpful to me to read that book once again – I have read it several times in the past. I am so impressed with its timeless relevance, the greatest book on preaching ever written. This week we were studying together what the Doctor had to say on “The Preparation of the Preacher.” There is a key section of just over two pages on prayer. It is very helpful. He approaches the matter of our praying with great diffidence, much hesitation and a sense of utter unworthiness. But he cannot ignore it for prayer is vital to the Christian.

Dr Lloyd-Jones himself never wrote a book on prayer, or even a booklet. In other words, he never preached a series of messages on prayer, for all his books are transcripts of his sermons and lectures. Prayer is not simple, he says, and then he goes on to say how important it is to know your own self in this matter. For example, Dr Lloyd-Jones confesses, “I have often found it difficult to start praying in the morning.” He then makes these comments: “I have come to learn certain things about private prayer. You cannot pray to order. You can get on your knees to order; but how to pray? I have found nothing more important than to learn how to get oneself into that frame and condition in which one can pray. You have to learn how to start yourself off, and it is just here that this knowledge of yourself is so important. What I have generally found is that to read something which can be characterised in general as devotional is of great value. By devotional I do not mean something sentimental, I mean something with a true element of worship in it. Notice that I do not say that you should start yourself in prayer by always reading the Scriptures; because you can have precisely the same difficulty there. Start by reading something that will warm your spirit. Get rid of a coldness that may have developed in your spirit. You have to learn how to kindle a flame in your spirit, to warm yourself up, to give yourself a start. It is comparable, if you like, to starting a car when it is cold. You have to learn how to use a spiritual choke. I have found it most rewarding to do that, and not to struggle vainly. When one finds oneself in this condition, and that it is difficult to pray, do not struggle in prayer for the time being, but read something that will warm and stimulate you, and you will find that it will put you into a condition in which you will be able to pray more freely.

“But I am not suggesting for a moment – quite the reverse – that your praying should be confined only to the morning when you start your work in your study. Prayer should be going on throughout the day. Prayer need not of necessity be long; it can be brief, just an ejaculation at times is a true prayer. That is, surely, what the Apostle Paul means in his exhortation in I Thessalonians 5:17, ‘Pray without ceasing’. That does not mean that you should be perpetually on your knees, but that you are always in a prayerful condition. As you are walking along a road, or while you are working in your study, you turn frequently to God in prayer.

“Above all – and this I regard as most important of all – always respond to every impulse to pray. The impulse to pray may come when you are reading or when you are battling with a text. I would make an absolute law of this – always obey such an impulse. Where does it come from? It is the work of the Holy Spirit; it is a part of the meaning of, ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure’ (Phil. 2 :12-13). This often leads to some of the most remarkable experiences in the life of the minister. So never resist, never postpone it, never push it aside because you are busy. Give yourself to it, yield to it; and you will find not only that you have not been wasting time with respect to the matter with which you are dealing, but that actually it has helped you greatly in that respect. You will experience an ease and a facility in understanding what you were reading, in thinking, in ordering matter for a sermon, in writing, in everything, which is quite astonishing. Such a call to prayer must never be regarded as a distraction; always respond to it immediately, and thank God if it happens to you frequently.

“From every standpoint the minister, the preacher, must be a man of prayer. This is constantly emphasised in the Pastoral Epistles and elsewhere, and, as I say, it is confirmed abundantly in the long history of the Church, and especially in the lives of the outstanding preachers. John Wesley used to say that he thought very little of a man who did not pray four hours every day. Nothing stands out so clearly likewise in the lives of people like David Brainerd and Jonathan Edwards, Robert Murray McCheyne and a host of other saints. That is why one is so humbled as one reads the stories of such men” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Preaching and Preachers,” Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1971, pp.170&171).

That is the means of delivering many boys from the bondage of the god of this world, and giving hope to many grieving parents.

8th March 2004 GEOFF THOMAS