All of God's mighty men and women have been mighty in prayer. When Martin Luther was in the middle of his conflict with the Pope, the man of sin, he used to say that he could not get on without three hours a day in prayer. Charles Finney's grip on God gave him a tremendous grip on sinners' hearts. The greatest preacher of our times, Spurgeon, had pre-eminently the "gift of the knees;" the last prayer I ever heard him utter (at his own family worship) was one of the most wonderful that I ever listened to; it revealed the hiding of his power. Abraham Lincoln once said: "I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go; my own wisdom and that of all around me seemed insufficient for the day."
But what is prayer? Has every prayer power with God? Let us endeavor to get some clear ideas on that point. Some people seem to regard prayer as the rehearsal of a set form of solemn words, learned largely from the Bible or a liturgy; and when uttered they are only from the throat outward. Genuine prayer is a believing soul's direct converse with God. Phillips Brooks has condensed it into four words — a "true wish sent Godward." By prayer, adoration, thanksgiving, confession of sin, and petition for mercies and gifts ascend to the throne, and by means of prayer infinite blessings are brought down from Heaven. The pull of our prayer may not move the everlasting throne, but — like the pull on a line from the bow of a boat — it may draw us into closer fellowship with God, and fuller harmony with His wise and holy will.
1. This is the first characteristic of the prayer that has power: "Delight yourself in the Lord — and He shall give you the desires of your heart." A great many prayers are born of selfishness and are too much like dictation or command. None of God's promises are unconditional; and we have no such assets to our credit that we have a right to draw our checks and demand that God shall pay them. The indispensable quality of all right asking — is a right spirit toward our heavenly Father. When a soul feels such an entire submissiveness towards God that it delights in seeing Him reign, and His glory advanced — then it may fearlessly pour out its desires; for then the desires of God and the desires of that sincere submissive soul will agree. God loves to give to those who love to let Him have His way; they find their happiness in the chime of their own desires with the will of God.
James and John once came to Jesus and made to Him the amazing request that He would place one of them on His right hand and the other on His left hand when He set up His imperial government at Jerusalem! As long as these self-seeking disciples sought only their own glory — Christ could not give them the askings of their ambitious hearts. By-and-by, when their hearts had been renewed by the Holy Spirit, and they had become so consecrated to Christ that they were in complete chime with Him, they were not afraid to pour out their deepest desires. James declares that, if we do not "ask amiss," God will "give liberally." John declares that "whatever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight." Just as soon as those two Christians found their supreme happiness in Christ and His cause, they received the desires of their hearts.
2. The second trait of prevailing prayer is that it aims at a mark, and knows what it is after. When we enter a store or shop we ask the salesman to hand us the particular article we want. There is an enormous amount of pointless, prayerless praying done in our devotional meetings; it begins with nothing — and ends nowhere. The model prayers mentioned in the Bible were short and right to the mark. "God be merciful to me a sinner!" "Lord, save me!" cries sinking Peter. "Come down, before my child die!" exclaims the heart-stricken nobleman. Old Rowland Hill used to say, "I like short, ejaculatory prayer; it reaches Heaven before the devil can get a shot at it."
3. In the next place, the prayer that has power with God must be a prepaid prayer. If we expect a letter to reach its destination, we put a stamp on it; otherwise it goes to the dead-letter office. There is what may be called a dead-prayer office, and thousands of well-worded petitions get buried up there. All of God's promises have their conditions; we must comply with those conditions, or we cannot expect the blessings coupled with the promises. No farmer is such a fool as to look for a crop of wheat — unless he has ploughed and sowed his fields. In prayer, we must first be sure that we are doing our part — if we expect God to do His part. There is a legitimate sense in which every Christian should do his utmost for the answering of his own prayers.
For the Churches in these days to pray, "Your kingdom come," and then spend more money on jewelry and cigars than in the enterprise of Foreign Missions, looks almost like a solemn farce. God has no blessings for stingy pockets. When I hear requests for prayer for the conversion of a son or daughter, I say to myself, How much is that parent doing to win that child for Christ? The godly wife who makes her daily life attractive to her husband, has a right to ask God for the conversion of that husband; she is co-operating with the Holy Spirit, and prepaying her heart's request. God never defaults; but He requires that we prove our faith by our works, and that we never ask for a blessing that we are not ready to labor for, and to make any sacrifice to secure the blessing which our souls desire.
4. Another essential of the prayer that has power with God is that it be the prayer of faith, and be offered in the name of Jesus Christ. "Whatever you shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son." The chief "wrestling" that we are to do is not with any reluctance on God's part; it is with the obstacles which sin and unbelief put in our pathway. What God orders, we must submit to uncomplainingly; but we must never submit to what God can better. Never submit to be blocked in any pious purpose or holy undertaking if, with God's help, you can roll the blocks out of your pathway. The faith that works while it prays, commonly conquers; for such faith creates such a condition of things that our heavenly Father can wisely hear and help us.
Oh, what a magnificent epic the triumphs of striving, toiling, victorious faith make! The firmament of Bible story blazes with answers to prayer, from the days when Elijah unlocked the heavens, on to the days when the petitions in the house of John Mark unlocked the dungeon, and brought liberated Peter into their presence. The whole field of providential history is covered with answered prayers as thickly as bright-eyed daisies cover our Western prairies. Find your happiness in pleasing God — and sooner or later He will surely grant you the desires of your heart.