Why Pray by Martyn Lloyd Jones?
All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “The Assurance of our Salvation.” The sermons were preached at Westminister Chapel, London, from 1952 to 1953. It was originally published in four volumes: Seed in Eternity, Safe in the World, Sanctified through the Truth, and Growing in the Spirit. It was published in one volume in 2000.
I should like to look once more at John 17 in a more or less general sense, not so much from the standpoint from which we have just seen it, but rather as this chapter and this prayer have some lessons to teach us about the whole subject of prayer itself. I sometimes think that there is no subject, perhaps, in connection with the Christian life, which causes so many people such perplexity as this one, I think we all understand very well the feelings of the disciples when they turned to our Lord on one occasion and said, `Lord, teach us to pray,’ because, for some peculiar reason,prayer does tend to be a problem to people. I think any pastor of souls will agree with me when I say that this question of prayer is one that is very frequently brought to his notice. Anyone who takes the Christian life at all seriously is probably concerned about his or her prayer life, and very great difficulties and perplexities often surround this question.
Now obviously in the space of one sermon I cannot hope to deal with all the problems, indeed, I am not proposing to go into it in detail—that would require a whole series of sermons on the subject of prayer as such. I am simply concerned to gather certain general lessons which seem to me at any rate to be taught us on the very surface of the prayer of our Lord which is recorded in this particular chapter. In order to concentrate attention on this, let me put it to you in this form. I think there are two main difficulties that tend to present themselves to people as they contemplate this whole question of prayer, and these perplexities are generally due to two extreme positions which have been taken up by Christian people in the past and are still taken up by some today.
First of all there is the extreme position of those who seem to have no difficulty in prayer, the people who give the impression that there is nothing so easy or so simple. They are very fond of using the phrase `prayer changes things’, and give us the impression that whatever their problem, the answer comes and all is well. They are sure that nobody should be in trouble about these matters, that prayer is the most natural thing in the world, involving no effort, no difficulty at all; they just do it so easily and talk so glibly about it.
That, I think, is a position which does raise problems and queries in the minds of many other Christian people, who find it very difficult to reconcile that with some of the plain teaching of Scripture. Those friends who find prayer so easy seem to forget all the conditions that are attached to these promises and to these great offers. There are many souls who, having listened to such teaching and having tried honestly and genuinely to put it into practice, have found that it does not work out like that with them. As a consequence, being disappointed, they begin to question the goodness of God. They question all the teaching of the Scriptures with regard to the Fatherhood of God and with regard to the whole question of prayer. This perplexity arises from exaggerations on the part of that particular school which I have just described.
But, on the other hand, there is another position which is taken up by some and which again leads to all sorts of difficulties and perplexities. It is the position of those who more or less deny the value and the point of prayer at all. Their argument is that God knows everything and that everything that happens, happens as the result of God’s will, and therefore, surely, there is no point in praying. God is omniscient, they say. He knows everything; he is the sovereign Lord of the universe; nothing does happen or can happen outside his will or control. And so they question the purpose of prayer. This is the position which is sometimes described as determinism. It is an attitude which regards life and everything that happens in this world as being part of a rigid and closed process, and clearly, if that is true, there is no point in prayer. Furthermore, there are many people who have so exaggerated the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, or have drawn such wrong deductions from it, that they have rendered those who listen to their arguments and teaching almost incapable of praying with any sense of confidence and assurance.
There, then, are the main positions. I have chosen these two simply because they are the two extremes, but many others are to be found between them. The question, therefore, arises as to how we approach all this. How do we try to arrive at the true position with regard to prayer, in the light of these two extreme positions that lead us to so many problems and perplexities? Well, I would lay it down as a principle at this point—and it is applicable not only to this question of prayer but to many other problems as well—that the one thing we have to do in a situation like this is to avoid becoming slaves to our own theories and ideas and to our own understanding of the truth. In avoiding that danger we should go to the Scriptures, and look at the Bible’s plain and obvious teaching with as dispassionate and open a mind as we are capable of. We should do that, I say, not only with regard to this problem of prayer, but with regard to any other problem that may arise in our spiritual experience. There are certain doctrines taught in Scripture quite clearly, but then we come up against something that we cannot quite fit into our doctrinal pattern, and the danger at that point is to stand on our own doctrine and to try to explain away the Scripture. If ever we find a point that seems to conflict with our clear grasp of doctrine, it seems to me that, for the time being, the essence of wisdom is to leave our doctrine where it is. It is not that we deny it, we just leave it for the moment, we come back to Scripture and we note what Scripture has to say everywhere about this particular matter. Then having done that, we again attempt to relate this obvious and clear teaching of Scripture with the doctrine of which we are equally sure.
Now that is the kind of thing which we must do with this whole question of prayer, and fortunately there is a great wealth of material in the Bible at our disposal. I am merely going to select certain points of which we can be absolutely sure, things which are beyond doubt and peradventure. I do not pretend I can solve every problem with regard to prayer; there are certain ultimate difficulties here, as there are with many other points touching our relationship to God, which perhaps we will never fully understand in this life and world. But it is our bounden duty to go as far as we can and to understand the teaching as far as that is possible.
The first obvious point is that a very prominent place is given in the Scriptures to prayer. According to Scripture, prayer is an important and essential element in the godly life. Indeed, the Scriptures actively teach us to pray, both by precept, and by example. We are exhorted to pray, our Lord himself exhorted people to do so. He said that men should always pray and not faint. He taught his disciples how to pray, and he urged them not to give up. You also find the same thing in the epistles: ‘Keep steadfast in prayer’ is their argument, always encouraging us to pray. Now whatever your view may be of the sovereignty of God and of man’s relationship to him, you have to reckon with this obvious, plain teaching of the Scriptures, so that prayer must be a very prominent part of the life of any godly person in this world.
Furthermore, it is not only by precept that we are taught to pray. We are taught by example also. If you read the Old Testament you will find that the patriarchs talked with God and spoke to him—that is prayer. Look at the psalms, most of them are prayers. Consider, for instance, Psalm 74; that is typical of the psalmists and of how these men prayed to God. Then you find prayers in the prophetic books, indeed you have them everywhere in the Old Testament. You also find the apostles praying, but above all, as we see in this great chapter, our Lord himself prayed, and all these facts urge us to pray. We see, then, that the Bible teaches us to pray, it urges us to pray, in a sense it pleads with us to pray.
But I can draw a second deduction, which is also very plainly taught in the Scriptures: the more saintly, the more godly a person, the more time he spends in prayer. Take any example you like in the Scriptures and you will find it absolutely invariable. Now if you and I had argued on general principles, we might have come to the opposite conclusion. We might have considered a man very saintly because his will was conforming to the will of God, and because he meditated about these things and because his supreme desire was to live to the glory of God. Well, you might say, such a man would have much less need of prayer than anybody else, but it is not the case. Look at the most outstanding godly men and women, how often they spent much more time in prayer than anybody else. They did not just passively wait for God’s will to be done, no, they, more than anybody else, went, rather, and talked to God. And as you proceed to read the history of the church throughout the centuries, you will find exactly the same thing. Whether he belongs to the Roman Catholic Church or the Protestant Church, it is always the hallmark of a saint that he is a great man of prayer. John Wesley used to say that he had a very poor opinion of a Christian who did not spend at least four hours in prayer every day, and that is but a typical statement of God’s outstanding people in the church throughout the centuries.
But, and this of course brings us directly to John 17, the most striking and important thing of all is the fact that prayer played such a prominent part in the life or our Lord himself. Now I wonder whether we have ever stopped to contemplate that? Of course we all know that he prayed. We say that we have read our gospels and have known that since we were children. But I am not talking about an intellectual awareness of the fact, I am asking whether we have ever understood that fact, and meditated upon it, because the more you stop to think about it, the more you see that one of the most astounding things in Scripture is the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ ever prayed at all. The fact is, however, that he did pray, and not merely that he prayed, but that he prayed constantly; indeed you find that he prayed for very long periods. On one occasion he spent the whole night in prayer—the Son of God praying right through the night! We are constantly told that he rose a great while before dawn and went up into a mountain somewhere to pray.
Now his disciples always noticed that he was praying, and that was, in a sense, one of the things which prompted them to ask him, `Lord, teach us to pray.’ They felt that he was doing something which they did not quite understand; they wondered what the reason was for the delight and pleasure which he took in the act of prayer, and why it meant so much to him. They could not say they felt like that. But they knew that there was no one like him. They saw something in his face and demeanour, they saw his miracles and they said, Ah, there is something in that prayer life, oh that we might have that!
They noticed especially the fact that he always prayed a great deal, and in an exceptional way, in times of crisis and in times of great importance. You remember it was before he chose his twelve disciples that he spent the whole night in prayer. This was a very important and a very vital decision to take, so he spent the whole night in prayer to God before he selected these men. There was another occasion when he prayed like this, we read about it in John 6. He had just fed the five thousand and some of the people were so deeply impressed that they decided that he was the Messiah, and that they must take him up to Jerusalem and crown him king. But when our Lord saw that they were going to take him by force and make him a king, he went up into a mountain, himself alone, and there he communed with God, and prayed to him. It was one of the critical moments in his life and experience. Here was a great temptation—he had already met it in the wilderness—to bring in his kingdom in a kind of human political sense, and the temptation was so strong that he went away alone to pray with God.
You find him doing it, too, at the grave of Lazarus. This again was a momentous, tremendous occasion—he was going to raise the dead—and so he prayed to God and thanked God that he knew that God had heard his voice and always heard it. Then you remember how he prayed just as he was going up to face the cross—you find it recorded in John 12:27-28—and, too, you see him praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying to the Father in an agony that produced blood-stained sweat. Then here we have this great high priestly prayer, in his last hours with his disciples before he goes to finish the work upon the cross, and here he prays audibly in their presence.
What, then, does all this teach us? We might very well spend much time in deducing certain things about the person of our Lord. We will not do that now, but at least we must note that it tells us a great deal about him. If ever you are in trouble about the incarnation this one prayer of our Lord’s prayer life in general ought at once to put you at rest and keep you at rest. He is truly man. It is not a case of God in a kind of phantom body, it is not a theophany, it is the incarnation, the Word made flesh and dwelling among us. He is truly God, yes, but he is truly man. Here you begin to understand what Paul was talking about in Philippians 2, when he says, `He emptied himself’ (see the Revised Version). What Paul meant is that while he was here on earth our Lord did not make use of his powers as God. And because he lived as a man, prayer was essential to him—even he could not go on without prayer. In other words, it teaches us what he said so often himself, that he was entirely dependent upon his Father. He said, `The words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works’ (John 14:10).
That is the astounding thing about our Lord’s life. Here he is, very Son of God and perfect man, and yet he does nothing of himself, he gets all his orders, as it were, from God. God gives him the words to speak, God tells him what to do, and gives him the power to do it—that is why he prayed before calling his disciples. He looked to God for light and guidance, perfect man but in utter dependence upon his Father. As God, there was no need for him to pray. As God, he was co-equal with God, he was omniscient and all powerful, but here on earth we see him in his true character, the mediator, God-Man. And as we watch him in prayer we see him there as the appointed mediator, the One who has been sent by God to do certain work and to complete it here on earth for us. Therefore, to look at our Lord praying is perhaps one of the most wonderful doors of entry into the great mystery of his blessed person. I repeat, if there is anyone in trouble about the person of Christ, about the God-Man, oh, just watch him praying, and you have to include that in your doctrine of his person. So many think of him as God only, with a kind of clothing of flesh. That is wrong, because if he were God only, there would be no need for prayer. No, we must insist upon man also—God-Man.
But next I want also to draw certain more general deductions about prayer itself, and I think we can draw them very definitely from the points I have established. Watch those patriarchs, watch King David, watch the prophets, all praying, and the more saintly they were the more they prayed. Watch the apostles praying, and above all, watch the Son of God praying. What, then, is prayer? What is the explanation of all this? I suggest that we must inevitably come to the conclusion that prayer, to the Christian, to God’s man, is something natural and almost instinctive; prayer is something which is expressive of the relationship between the child and the Father. Now I think that is a very important argument. You show me a man who does not pray very much and I will tell you the real problem of that man. It is that he does not know God, he does not know God as his Father. That is the trouble. The problem is not that he is not a moral man, or that he is not a good man. He can be highly moral, he may be very faithful in Christian church work, there may be nothing he is not prepared to do, but if he does not pray, I tell you that the essence of that man’s trouble is that he does not know God as his Father. For those who know God best are the ones who speak to him most of all.
There is no need to prove a thing like this—the little child always speaks to his Father. Have you not often noticed how the child of some great man talks to him freely, while another man going into his presence is nervous. Not so the child; the child speaks freely, because he knows the relationship and so he speaks to his father. And that is why the most saintly people are the ones who pray most; that is why the Lord Jesus Christ prayed more than anybody else, because he knew God in a way nobody else knew him. That, then, is the way to approach this question of prayer. The whole trouble with people who get into difficulties over prayer is that they start at the end instead of at the beginning. You do not start with the desire for answers, you start with adoration, and it is because we forget this all important matter that we tend to get into such perplexities. To pray is the obvious, natural thing for a child to do and there is nothing that expresses more eloquently or more cogently the whole relationship of man to God as prayer. That is the first thing. So, then, I think that the saints and, supremely, our Lord himself, prayed to God, primarily, not to ask for things but to assure their own hearts and to maintain their contact with God and to make certain of their contact and communion with him.
Our whole idea of prayer is false. We think of prayer only as guidance and requests. Now if you were to put that into practice in human relationships you would regard it as insulting. No, the thing the saint wants to know above everything else is that all is well between his soul and the Father. There is nothing the saint delights in more than to know God as his Father. He likes to maintain the contact and communion, to assure his heart before God and in the presence of God. The saint is in this difficult world, there are temptations from the outside and the whole world is against us, and the saint is tried—sometimes he almost despairs. So he goes to God immediately, not to ask this or that but just to make certain that all is well there, that the contact is unbroken and perfect, that he can assure his heart and know that all is well.
That is what our Lord is doing here in John 17, and that is the thing which stands out most frequently in this prayer. Our Lord is assuring his own human heart in the presence of his Father. We saw earlier how he did that when he was raising Lazarus from the dead; indeed he puts it in words for us: `Then they took away the stone . . . And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, ‘Father’—he is praying—`I thank thee that thou hast heard me’—always he is assured in his heart—`And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people . . .’ (John 11:41-42). He just turns to God. He knows all is well, but, he is assuring his heart in the presence of God.
Let me put it like this: the saints always prayed to God, and our Lord supremely did so, because they believed in God’s power, because they believed in God’s ability to help, and, above all, because they believed in God’s willingness and readiness to help. That is tremendously important. They, of everybody, knew the power of God, yes, but the world and its trials tend to shake our confidence in him and there is no better way of reminding ourselves of the power and the greatness of God, his ability and his readiness to help, than to go and talk to him; that is why the saints always fly to prayer. `The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe’ (Proverb 18:10). In other words, the saint rushes to God in prayer and reminds himself of these things.
Prayer, in many ways, is the supreme expression of our faith in God and our faith and confidence in the promises of God. There is nothing that a man ever does which so proclaims his faith as when he gets down on his knees and looks to God and talks to God. It is a tremendous confession of faith. I mean by this that he is not just running with his requests and petitions, but if he really waits upon God, if he really looks to God, he is there saying, ‘Yes, I believe it all, I believe that you are a rewarder of them that diligently seek you, I believe you are the Creator of all things and all things are in your hands. I know there is nothing outside of your control. I come to you because you are in all this and I find peace and rest and quiet in your holy presence and I am praying to you because you are what you are.’ That is the whole approach to prayer that you find in the teaching of Scripture.
And finally I can put it in this way, that the saints and our Lord clearly prayed to God in order that they might discover his will. They were much more concerned about discovering his will than having their own way and will. `Ah,’ they said, `the one thing that matters at this juncture is that we may know what God’s will is’, so they went into his presence. If you read the marvellous prayers of the saints, as in Daniel 9, for instance, you will learn a great deal about how to pray. The prophet did not quite understand what God was doing. The whole thing was perplexing to him and he went to God and talked to God about it. He said various things to God of which he was certain and then he said, in effect, `I do not quite understand this, but I want to do your gracious will and you understand what you are doing.’
Jeremiah did exactly the same thing. God told him to go and buy a particular field. Jeremiah’s first reaction was that it was impossible because God was also telling him that the Children of Israel were going to be carried into captivity. If this was going to happen, what was the point of buying a field? Then he reminded himself of the great character of God, and having done that he said, in effect, `Enlighten my perplexity, let me see what you are doing, explain your holy will to me.’
We have now reached the point where we can draw certain general conclusions, and here they are. Whatever else I do not understand about prayer, I think I now understand this: that God has chosen to do his work in this world in that way, through praying people. He need not have done so, he could have done it without them, but it is perfectly clear that God has ordained and decreed to do his work in this world through men and women, like you and me, and through our prayers. He calls us to pray. He urges us to do so and then he answers our prayers—even though he could have done without our prayers at all.
‘Ah,’ says someone, `that is what I want to know—why does he do it?’
My dear friends, who can answer such a question? I cannot, but I thank God that he does it in that way. I do not know why he elected to do it, but I know he does it. That is his way and I accept it. And I am grateful for this reason: it is in this way that God reveals himself to us. Read about prayer in the Scriptures and especially watch these people praying, even our Lord himself, and I think you will find that as the result of prayer all these people come to know God better than they would have ever known him apart from this. It is in this way that God shows himself, and reveals his Father-heart to us. For example, there is this difficult circumstance with which I am faced. I do not know what to do. I tend to become unhappy and miserable. But then I go to God and wait upon him and he begins to show himself and his purpose to me; he reveals himself to me. If you have not learnt more of God through prayer there is something wrong with your spiritual life. It is there that he teaches us things and in this way draws out our faith. So, then, since this is one of God’s ways of revealing himself to mankind and bringing his purposes to pass, the whole problem and question of God’s omnipotence is removed. You should never be perplexed by it. God has chosen to do these things in this way, so his omniscience should never arise as a problem. And in the same way I can say that it in no way affects the sovereignty of God. It is one of God’s ways of displaying his sovereignty. There is no conflict between the sovereignty of God and prayer, for it is the sovereign God who has chosen to do his work in this world through praying men and women. Far from being contradictory, they work together.
And, finally, we can draw some wonderful practical conclusions from this teaching and especially from this chapter. The supreme object of prayer should be to glorify and magnify God and that is why we must always start by worshipping him. The model prayer does that: `Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come …’ Not, `Give me this little request …’ No, you start by worshipping. It is the personal relationship; you pray because you like the person, because you want to show your respect to the person, because you delight to be in the presence of the person—that is the essence of prayer.
Then another thing we can draw as a practical deduction and I am grateful for it—is that God delights to be told things he knows already. I am addressing certain intellectuals who are very fond of making fun of people who in their prayers tell God certain things. You will have heard the criticism. But to tell God what he knows is an essential part of prayer. Read the Bible and you will find John, for example, telling God things he knew already. The writers of the psalms did the same thing—why? It is because God is a Father. God is not a machine, if I may say it with reverence. He is our Father, and as a Father he delights to be told these things by his children. He means us to tell him, so do not be afraid to tell God things he knows already. Do not say, `God is omniscient and, because God knows everything, I must just wait silently in his presence.’ No, tell him these things, he likes to hear, he wants to be in communion with you, he delights in fellowship with you.
The next thing I would say is that our object in prayer should never be to change God’s heart or will. There is never any need to do that, for if you think you need to change God’s heart you are insulting him. God’s will is always perfect, and he is a loving Father. Rather, come to him to discover his will, to see that it is right and to rejoice in it—that is the object of prayer. But that does not mean that you do not take your requests to him. Again, as your Father, he is there waiting for you to do that and willing for you to do that; he is there ready to listen to our requests and petitions. So tell him all about them. Do what these men did and what our Lord did in the Garden of Gethsemane—`If it be possible … nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.’ Make your requests known, tell him your desires but always immediately say, `I am so small and finite, I do not understand. This is what I would like, but if it is not your will, well I do not ask, I am content with your will, whatever it may be’—an attitude of utter resignation. If you have started your prayer rightly, if you have started by glorifying God and saying, `Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come on earth, thy will be done,’ and so on, you have already been saying, `God, my supreme desire is that your will be done in me as in the whole world.’ Therefore you are very ready, when you bring your requests, to say, `If it be your will.’ I cannot understand the approach to prayer which says you should not add `If it be your will.’ I have the authority of the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ himself for saying that we must always say, `If it be your will.’ It is God’s will that has to be done, so make your requests and desires known but always submit utterly and absolutely to the will of God.
And the last point I make is this, that pleas and arguments and requests are perfectly legitimate in prayer. Have you noticed these men of God praying? They knew God was omniscient, yes, so they not only made their requests known to him but also pleaded with him. And what I like above everything else is the way they argued with him. Moses, for example, did so. On one occasion he came down from the Mount and found the people rebellious, and when he found God threatening to disown them and leave them to their own devices, Moses said to God, You cannot do this. Look too at the man in Psalm 74, who says, in effect, `Lord why do you allow men to do these things?’ I believe God as Father delights in listening to such pleas and reasonings and arguments. This flabby generation of Christians seems to have forgotten what our fathers used to delight in when they talked about `pleading the promises’. They did not regard that as offensive. They had no sort of mock humility but they felt they were entitled, according to this teaching, to go to God as the psalmist did and remind him of his own promises. They said, `Lord, I do not understand, I know it is my imperfection, but I am certain of these promises. Lord, help me to see how the promises are to be related to these perplexities.’
So it is perfectly right to plead with God; our Lord pleaded with him. In this great prayer he argued with God by bringing these requests. He reminded him of his own promises, and of his own character. I believe God delights in this as Father, and as we do these things in this way our hearts will be reassured before him and, oftentimes, we shall be amazed and astonished at the answers that we receive. Whatever happens, prayer will always bring us nearer and closer to God if we pray in the right and the true way.
So, then, we have looked together at this great prayer and at some of the great lessons that are obvious on the very surface; God grant that we may learn them and implement them. My dear friends, think before you pray. Go into the presence of God realizing that he is in heaven and that you are upon the earth. Look at these great examples, and above all look at your blessed Lord himself. Remember that he suffered against himself the contradiction of sinners, that he resisted unto blood striving against sin and that he prayed with cries of agony and with sweat and was heard because of his reverence and godly fear, though he was indeed the only begotten Son of God. (25-40)