Eph_6:18. Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance, and supplication for all saints.
IT is graciously ordained of God that none of his creatures should be independent of him: however richly they may be furnished with either gifts or graces, they are under the necessity of receiving continual supplies from him, and of acknowledging him, from day to day, as the one source of all their benefits. Hence, in addition to the armour with which the Christian is arrayed from head to foot, it is necessary that he wait upon God in prayer, agreeably to the direction given him in the text.
To enter into the full meaning of the Apostle’s words, as connected with the foregoing context, it will be proper to shew,
The aspect which prayer in general bears on the Christian warfare—
The particular kind of prayer that will ensure to us the victory—
In considering the aspect which prayer in general bears on the Christian warfare, it should be noticed, that prayer is the medium of communication between God and man: it is that whereby man ascends to God, and makes known to him his wants, and gains from him whatever he stands in need of.
It is by prayer that we must obtain the armour provided for us. No one part of the divine panoply can be formed by an arm of flesh: from the first infusion of faith and hope into the soul, to the perfect transformation of the soul into the Divine image in righteousness and true holiness, all is of God. He is the only “giver of every good and perfect gift [Note: Jam_1:17.]:” and all his children in all ages have acknowledged their obligations to him in this view. The evangelical prophet confesses, “Thou hast wrought all our works in us [Note: Isa_26:12.];” and to the same effect the great Apostle of the Gentiles speaks; “He that hath wrought us to the self-same thing is God [Note: 2Co_5:5.].” But how must this armour be obtained from God? Hear his own direction: “Ask, and ye shall have; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you [Note: Mat_7:7.].” Desirous as he is to impart to us all spiritual blessings, “he yet will be inquired of by us [Note: Eze_36:37.],” that he may bestow them on us as the reward of importunity [Note: Heb_11:6.]. Not that he needs to be informed of our wants, for “he knoweth what things we have need of before we ask [Note: Mat_6:8.];” nor needs he to be prevailed upon by the urgency of our requests; for he is far more ready to give than we are to ask, and he stirs us up to ask, because he had before determined to give [Note: Joh_4:10.]: but there is a propriety in this divine appointment: it necessitates us not only to feel our wants, but to confess our inability to relieve ourselves: it compels us to acknowledge God as the one source of blessedness to man, and to adore him for every thing we receive at his hands. It cuts off from us all possible occasion of glorying; and obliges us, when most completely armed, to say, “By the grace of God I am what I am [Note: 1Co_15:10.].”
Again; It is by prayer that We must learn how to use this armour aright. Men are disciplined to the use of arms: it is not deemed sufficient to clothe them with armour; they must also be taught how to guard themselves against the assaults of their adversary, and at the same time to inflict on him a deadly wound. Such instruction must the Christian receive from God. If he “lean to his own understanding,” he will as surely be foiled, as if he trust in his own strength, or go unarmed to the field of battle. Many are the devices of the wicked one, of which the uninstructed Christian cannot be aware. He alone, “to whom all things are naked and open,” knows his plots, or can put us sufficiently on our guard against them. He alone can tell us when, and where, and how to strike [Note: 2Sa_5:23-25.]. With him alone is that “wisdom that is profitable to direct [Note: Ecc_10:10.].” But if we call upon him, “he will guide us by his counsel [Note: Psa_73:24.]:” he will “give us a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and of might, a spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord, and will make us quick of understanding in the fear of the Lord [Note: Isa_11:2-3.].” He will inform us of the designs of our enemy [Note: Luk_22:31.], and shew us how to counteract them [Note: Jos_8:6-8.]. And though in ourselves we be “unskilful in the word of righteousness [Note: Heb_5:13.],” yet will he “give us the tongue of the learned [Note: Isa_50:4.],” and the arm of the mighty [Note: 2Sa_22:33-35.]: he will fight in us, as well as for us [Note: Isa_49:25.];” and will give us reason to adopt the grateful acknowledgments of that renowned warrior, “Blessed be the Lord, my strength, who teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight [Note: Psa_144:1.].” Still, however, must this be sought of him in prayer. His promise is suspended on this condition, that we pray to him for the performance of it: on our fulfilling this duty, he will interpose; “he will be very gracious unto us at the voice of our cry; when he shall hear it, he will answer us:” and then it is that “our ears shall hear a voice behind us, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it [Note: Isa_30:19; Isa_30:21.].” We must first “acknowledge him, and then he will direct our paths [Note: Pro_3:5-6.].”
Once more—It is by prayer that we must bring down the Divine blessing on our endeavours. Many noble purposes are formed in the minds of unregenerate men, which yet are “as the grass that groweth on the house-tops, wherewith the mower filleth not his arms, neither he that bindeth up the sheaves, his bosom.” Nor is it any wonder that those efforts should be blasted, which are undertaken without a reference to God, and which, if they succeeded, would confirm men in a conceit of their own sufficiency. God is a jealous God: and “his glory will he not give to another.” Hence he is interested, as it were, in disconcerting the plans of those who disregard him, and in prospering the concerns of those who humbly implore his aid. Agreeably to this, we find in the sacred records that the most powerful armaments, and best concerted projects, have been defeated, when God was not acknowledged [Note: Isa_37:36. 2Sa_17:11-13.]; and that the weaker have triumphed gloriously, when they sought the Divine favour and protection [Note: 2Ch_20:12; 2Ch_20:25.]. In one instance more particularly we see the prayer of faith blended with human exertions: and it was made manifest, for the instruction of that and all future generations, that, whatever means God himself might use, prayer was the most powerful of all weapons. When the hands of Moses hanged down through weariness, Amalek prevailed over Israel; but when he held up his hands, Israel prevailed over Amalek [Note: Exo_17:11.]; so that, in fact, it was the prayer of Moses, rather than the sword of Joshua, that gained the victory. It is in this way also that we must vanquish our spiritual enemies. We must fight against them indeed, and seek their utter destruction; but our reliance must be altogether upon God, whose blessing we must obtain in a way of prayer. In vain shall we attempt to combat Satan in any other way. He laughs at an arm of flesh; and yields to Omnipotence alone. To him may be justly applied that lofty description of Leviathan; “Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons, or his head with fish-spears? Behold, the hope of him is vain: shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him? His scales are his pride, shut up together as with a close seal. His heart is as firm as a stone, yea, as hard as a piece of the nether mill-stone. The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold, the spear, the dart, nor the harbergeon. He esteemeth iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood. Darts are counted by him as stubble; he laugheth at the shaking of the spear. He is king over all the children of pride [Note: Job_41:7; Job_41:9; Job_41:15; Job_41:24; Job_41:26-27; Job_41:29; Job_41:34.].” But prayer he cannot withstand; the man who fights upon his knees is sure to vanquish him: and the weakest Christian in the universe, if he has but a heart to pray, may say with David, “I will call upon the Lord who is worthy to be praised, and so shall I be saved from mine enemies [Note: 2Sa_22:4.].”
To prevent mistakes, however, it will be proper to shew,
What kind of prayer that is that will secure to us the victory—
Much that is called prayer is utterly unworthy of that sacred name. That which alone will prevail to the extent of our necessities, must be comprehensive, spiritual, persevering.
It must, in the first place, be comprehensive. In the text, mention is made of supplication, and of intercession: both of which are necessary in their season. Of supplications, there are some stated, such as those which we offer regularly in the Church, the family, and the closet; others are occasional; and are presented to God at those intervals, when any particular occurrence, whether prosperous or adverse, renders it necessary to obtain some special interposition of the Deity. Intercessions are those prayers which we offer for others; and which are intented to bring down blessings either on the world at large (for God commands “intercession to be made for all men, and more especially for kings, and all that are in authority [Note: 1Ti_2:1-2.]”) or on the saints in particular, with whom we have a common interest; and amongst whom, as amongst soldiers in the same army, there should exist a solicitude to promote to the uttermost each other’s safety and welfare.
Now it is by a regular application to God, in all these ways, that we are to procure from heaven those seasonable supplies which we stand in need of. Respecting the customary devotions of the closet, both in the morning and the evening, corresponding to the sacrifices that were daily offered to God under the Mosaic law [Note: Exo_29:38-39; Exo_29:42.], there can be no doubt. A man who neglects them has no pretension to the Christian name. Instead of being in a state of friendship with God, he must rather be numbered amongst his enemies; for the very description given of his enemies is, that they call not upon God [Note: Psa_14:4.]; whereas the character of his friends is, that “they are a people near unto him [Note: Psa_148:14.].” Nor is it less necessary that we should worship God in our families: for, as we have family wants, and family mercies, it is proper that we should “offer the sacrifices of prayer and praise” in conceit with our families. Abraham is commended for his attention to the religious concerns of his family [Note: Gen_18:19.]: and Joshua’s noble resolution to maintain, both in his own soul and in his family, the worship of the true God [Note: Jos_24:15.], clearly shews, how important this part of a Christian’s duty was considered among the saints of old. Nor can any expect the blessing of God upon their families, who will not unite with them in acknowledging the mercies they have already received. As for the public worship of God, none who have any regard for God’s honour in the world can possibly neglect it.
The importance of occasional prayer may perhaps be not so clearly seen. But are there not frequent occasions when we need in a more especial manner the assistance of God? If any thing have occurred that is gratifying to flesh and blood, do we not need to call upon God for grace, that we may not, Jeshurun like, “wax fat, and kick” against our heavenly Benefactor? If, on the contrary, we are suddenly involved in any afflictive circumstances, do we not need to implore help from God, in order that we may bear with patience his paternal chastisements, and that the trial may be sanctified to our eternal good? Sometimes indeed the seasons occur so instantaneously, that we have no time or opportunity for a long address to God: but then we might lift up our hearts in an ejaculatory petition; and in one short moment obtain from God the succour we require. Look at the saints of old, and see how they prospered by a sudden elevation of their souls to God: David, by one short prayer, “Lord, turn the counsels of Ahithophel into foolishness,” defeated the crafty advice he gave to Absalom: and caused him, through chagrin, to put a period to his own existence [Note: 2Sa_15:31. with 17:14, 23.]. Jehoshaphat, by a single cry, turned hack his pursuers, who, if God had not instantly interposed on his behalf, would have overtaken and destroyed him [Note: 2Ch_18:31.]. Nehemiah, by a silent lifting up of his soul to God, obtained success to the petition which he was about to offer to his royal master [Note: Neh_2:4-6.]. Thus we should blunt the edge of many temptations, and defeat innumerable machinations of Satan, if we habituated ourselves on all occasions to make known our requests to God. Nor would prayer be less successful, if offered for others. Who can behold Moses repeatedly arresting the hand of justice, and averting the wrath of God from the whole Jewish nation [Note: Exo_32:10-14.]; or contemplate Peter’s deliverance from prison on the night preceding his intended execution, effected as it was in a way that appeared incredible even to the very people who had been praying for it [Note: Act_12:5-16.], and not confess the efficacy of intercession, whether of people for their minister, or of ministers for their people? Indeed we need no other instance than that of Abraham’s intercession for Sodom and Gomorrha [Note: Gen_18:23-32.], to convince us, that it is our most glorious privilege to “pray one for another [Note: Jam_5:16.];” and that in neglecting this duty, we “sin against God [Note: 1Sa_12:23.],” and against our brethren, and against our own souls.
Such then must be our prayers, if we would be “good soldiers of Jesus Christ,” or exert ourselves with effect against our great adversary.
In the next place, our prayer must be spiritual. Were our devotions multiplied in ever so great a degree, they would be of no avail, unless they came from the heart, and were offered up “through the power of the Holy Ghost.” God has warned us, that “they who draw nigh to him with their lips while their hearts are far from him, worship him in vain [Note: Mat_15:8-9.].” Indeed how can we imagine that God should regard a mere repetition of words, when we ourselves should reject with indignation a petition offered to ourselves in a similar manner [Note: Mal_1:8.]? Our “supplications must be in the Spirit,” or, as St. Jude expresses it, “in the Holy Ghost [Note: Jude, ver. 20.].” The Holy Ghost must teach us what to pray for, and must assist our infirmities in praying for it [Note: Rom_8:26.], quickening our desires after God, emboldening us to draw nigh to him with filial confidence, and enabling us to expect at his hands an answer of peace. As there is but one Mediator through whom we can have access to God, so there is only one Spirit by whom we can approach him [Note: Eph_2:18.]. But we need not on this account be discouraged: for the Spirit is promised to us for these ends [Note: Joe_2:29; Joe_2:32.]; and in whomsoever he is “a Spirit of grace, he will be also a Spirit of supplication [Note: Zec_12:10.].”
Lastly, our prayer must also be persevering: we must pray “always, watching thereunto with all perseverance.” It is by no means sufficient that we pray to God, as too many do, just under the pressure of some heavy affliction [Note: Isa_26:16.], or be fervent for a time, and then relapse again into our former coldness and formality [Note: Job_27:10.]. We must be “instant in prayer [Note: Rom_12:12.],” “stirring up our souls to lay hold on God [Note: Isa_64:7.],” and “wrestling with him,” like Jacob, till we obtain his blessing [Note: Gen_32:24-28. with Hos_12:4.]. There is a holy importunity which we are to use, like that of the Canaanitish woman [Note: Mat_15:22-27.], or that of the two blind men, who became more urgent in proportion as others strove to repress their ardour [Note: Mat_20:30-31.]. And because Satan will do all in his power to divert us from this course, we must watch against his devices with all possible care, and persevere in it without fainting [Note: Luk_18:1.], even to the end. If we notice our frames at the returning seasons of prayer, we shall perceive that there is often a most unaccountable backwardness to this duty. Any concern, however trifling, will appear a sufficient reason for delaying it, till, from weariness of body or indisposition of mind, we are induced to omit it altogether, or perhaps we fall asleep in the midst of it. We sometimes think in the evening, that we shall be fitter for it in the morning; and then in the morning we expect a more convenient season at noon-day; and at noon-day we look forward with a hope of performing our duty to more advantage in the evening; and thus we deceive ourselves with delays, and rob our souls of the benefits which God would bestow upon them. But who ever found himself the more ready for prayer on account of his having neglected it the preceding day? Do not such neglects “grieve the Holy Spirit,” and increase, rather than diminish, our indisposition for prayer? Most assuredly they do: and therefore we should “watch” against all excuses, all neglects, all formality; and “persevere” in a steady, uniform, and conscientious performance of this duty. It is not necessary indeed that we should at all times occupy the same space of time in our devotions; for “we shall not be heard for our much speaking [Note: Mat_6:7.];” but we should endeavour at all times to maintain a spirituality of mind in this duty, and improve in a more particular manner those seasons, when God stretches out to us, as it were, his golden sceptre [Note: Est_4:11. with 5:2, 3.], and admits us to a more than ordinary “fellowship with himself and with his Son Jesus Christ [Note: 1Jn_1:3.].”
We shall conclude this interesting subject with an address,
To those who neglect prayer—
What easier terms could God have prescribed, than those on which he has suspended the communication of his blessings? or what could you yourselves have dictated to him more favourable than that condition, “Ask, and you shall have?” Do but consider, what will be your reflections as soon as ever you enter into the invisible world! When you see the door of mercy for ever shut, and begin to feel the judgments which you would not deprecate, how will you lament, and even curse, your folly in neglecting prayer! When you call to mind, that heaven with all its glory was open to you, and you had nothing to do but to ask for it at the hands of God, you would not give yourselves the trouble to call upon him! what can you expect, but that the threatening, already recorded for your instruction, shall be executed upon you; “Because I called, and ye refused, I stretched out my hand, and ye regarded me not; but ye set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof; I also will laugh at your calamity, and mock when your fear cometh: when your fear cometh as a desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you. Then shall ye call upon me, but I will not answer; ye shall seek me early, but ye shall not find me; for that ye hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the Lord: therefore shall ye eat of the fruit of your own way, and be filled with your own devices [Note: Pro_1:24-31.].” O let not this awful period arrive! “Arise, ye sleepers, and call upon your God [Note: Jon_1:6.].” Is not heaven worth asking for? Is it not worth your while to escape the miseries of hell? What if diligence and self-denial be necessary; will not the prize repay the labours of the contest? Perhaps you are saying in your hearts, that you will begin to pray at some future, and more convenient, season [Note: Act_24:25.]: but dream not of a more convenient season, lest that season never arrive. Procrastination is the ruin of thousands, and of millions. It is Satan’s grand device for keeping you from God. Should he tempt you to say, “I will never pray at all,” he knows you would revolt at the idea; and therefore he prompts you only to defer it in hopes of finding your mind better disposed to the employment on some future day. But let him not deceive you. Delay not a single hour. Yea, at this very moment lift up that ejaculatory petition, “Lord, teach us to pray [Note: Luk_11:1.]:” and embrace the first moment to begin that work, which if prosecuted with fervour and perseverance, shall issue in present peace, and everlasting triumphs.
To those who are daily waiting upon their God, we would also address a few words—
That you find much cause for humiliation in your secret walk with God, is highly probable: for though nothing would be easier than prayer, if you were altogether spiritual, the remaining carnality of your hearts renders it inexpressibly difficult. Nor can we doubt but that Satan labours to the uttermost to increase your discouragements, both by distracting your minds in prayer, and by insinuating, that your labour will be in vain. And too often are you inclined perhaps to credit his suggestions, and to say, like the unbelieving Jews, “What profit should we have, if we pray unto him [Note: Job_21:15.]?” he will not hear: “he has shut up his loving-kindness in displeasure.” But rest assured that he will not suffer you to seek his face in vain. His answers may be delayed; but they shall come in the best time. You have only to wait; and the vision, though it may tarry for a season, will not ultimately disappoint you [Note: Hab_2:3.]. Sooner or later, “God will assuredly avenge his own elect [Note: Luk_18:7.].” There is no situation so desperate but prayer will relieve us from it [Note: Jon_2:2-7.]: no object is so far beyond the reach of human influence, but prayer will attain if [Note: Jam_5:17-18.]. The efficacy of prayer is as unlimited as Omnipotence itself, because it will bring Omnipotence to our aid [Note: Joh_14:13-14.].
But some are ready to say, “I have prayed, and earnestly too; and yet have obtained no answer to my prayer.” It may be so; because you have “asked amiss [Note: Jam_4:3.];” or because the time for answering it is not yet arrived. But it often happens, that persons think their prayers are cast out, when they have indeed received an answer to them, yea, the best answer that could have been given to them. Perhaps, like Paul, they have prayed against a thorn in their flesh; and, instead of having it removed, have received strength to bear it, and grace to improve it to their spiritual good [Note: 2Co_12:8-9.]. But is this no answer to their prayer? Is it not the best that could possibly be vouchsafed? A trial may be removed in wrath [Note: Isa_1:5.]; but it cannot be sanctified from any other principle than love [Note: Heb_12:10.]. The removal of it may produce present ease; but its sanctified operations will ensure and enhance our everlasting felicity [Note: 2Co_4:17.].
Let us then “tarry the Lord’s leisure, and be strong,” knowing that the prayer of faith can never go forth in vain; nor can a praying soul ever perish. Let us “in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving make our requests known unto God; and the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus [Note: Php_4:6-7.].”