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Occasional Letters - The Challenge of Public Prayer

D Newell, Glasgow

One of the pleasures of travelling around and visiting friends in the summer months (apart, that is, from the benefit of living off the land, as it were) is the joy of fellowship with different companies of believers. Normally I sit alone at the Breaking of Bread, the seat immediately beside me acting as a convenient surface on which to rest Bible and hymnbook. But elsewhere I find I frequently have close neighbours. After one Lord’s Day morning the young friend seated next to me asked the following very candid question. "Uncle David", he said, "Do you realise that you breathe in a funny, jerky manner before you stand up to pray?" Well, to be honest I didn’t realise. But I think I know what he meant – it’s that I tend to hyperventilate in anticipation of praying in public. Now, you may consider this rather strange. After all, I am over sixty (and feel it) and have been in assembly fellowship since I was 16. Surely if I am not at ease with public prayer by now, I never shall be? Doesn’t one over the years become comfortably accustomed to the various spiritual exercises expected of a male in a gathering of believers? Well, yes and no. Yes, regular activity does, in the goodness of God, remove some of the nervousness associated with public service; but no, one never completely overcomes the sense of profound awe at the notion of speaking to God on behalf of the saints. And dare I suggest that one never should lose that solemn awareness of unimaginable privilege?

Let me therefore share a few thoughts on the whole subject of public prayer, especially in relation to the Lord’s Supper. I know this is the special preserve of the males, but I trust it will not therefore be completely irrelevant to any Christian women who may choose to read on. Indeed, I venture to hope that it may help them to understand why the men folk can seem sometimes so frustratingly slow to raise their voices in the meetings. It is, you see, no undemanding matter to speak aloud to the God of heaven.

Corporate prayer requires that we constantly bear in mind three great truths. First, we must remember to whom we are speaking. Prayer is addressed to the living God of the universe, than whom there is none greater, grander, or more majestic. As he sought to intercede on behalf of his nephew Lot, Abraham had a lively sense of his own insignificance and personal unworthiness: "Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes" (Gen 18.27). And Abraham, mark you, was standing alone before the Lord. He was not speaking in the presence of a company. The note in the 1587 Geneva Bible, the translation so beloved of the Puritans, draws the lesson: "By this we learn, that the nearer we approach to God, the more our miserable estate appears, and the more we are humbled". Of course, the believer enjoys an unshakeable standing before God: no charge can be levelled against those who are in Christ Jesus. Nevertheless, privilege is never an excuse for pride and complacency, nor should we ever lose an awareness of what we are by nature. That is the great contrast of Ephesians 2. First, what were we by nature?

"[We] were dead in trespasses and sins; wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others" (Eph 2.1-3).

But what are we by grace?

"When we were dead in sins, [God] hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Eph 2.5-6).

But the blessedness of the second is not meant to annihilate our consciousness of the first. Nothing should in any sense compromise our reverence as we approach the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who in the excellence of His immeasurable holiness is still a "consuming fire". As I rise to pray I am addressing not my neighbour or my equal but my Creator and my Father by grace.

The second truth to keep in mind, most obviously at the Lord’s Supper, is about whom we are speaking. We are talking to God about His Son, and the Son is, as the letter to the Hebrews so comprehensively argues, far greater than prophets, than angels, than Adam the first man, than Moses, than Joshua, than Aaron, than anyone else mentioned in the Scriptures. The experience of the disciples on the mount of transfiguration is designed to direct our gaze exclusively at God’s Son: "when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only" (Mt 17.8). A moment before they had been overwhelmed by the sight of two great Old Testament servants of God, Moses and Elijah, but now there was no one to fill their vision but Christ Jesus. And that is the case when we meet to Break Bread. Our theme, our centre, our delight, our subject is the Lord Jesus Christ and no one else. It is therefore important that what we say about Him is absolutely correct according to the teaching of the Scriptures. My worship, you see, will only be as accurate and reliable as my knowledge of the Word. In this sense it seems to me that the assembly prayer meeting is a better nursery for public prayer. Requests and thanksgiving can be offered up by the youngest man without any undue anxiety about accurate Christology. But when we make mention to the Father of so glorious a person as the Son we want to be scrupulously exact, for it is a serious thing to speak wrongly of Him. When in Numbers 20 Moses struck instead of speaking to the rock he unwittingly damaged a type of Christ, for our substitute, once smitten at Calvary, need never be smitten again, but graciously pours forth inexhaustible blessing on His people simply in response to their petitions. In talking of Him we are on holy ground.

The third factor to consider is for whom, that is to say, on behalf of whom we are speaking. I can be sure that what I say to the Lord in the privacy of my own room will reach His ear without any danger of misunderstanding, but what I say in the meetings of the assembly is intended to represent in some measure the collective mind of the saints. That is why in public it is appropriate to use the first person plural ("we") rather than the first person singular ("I"): we are praying on behalf of the gathered company. Reference to deeply personal matters is therefore out of place. Now this means I must make a conscious effort to be understood. I want the believers to be able to express full agreement and say "Amen" at the close. No point waxing long and lyrical about an obscure Scripture if no one else can make head or tail of what I am talking about. One local brother has the very practical habit of reading his key Biblical passage aloud before praying so that everyone is immediately tuned in to his thoughts. But there is yet another matter to be borne in mind. "Let all things be done decently and in order", says Paul at the close of a chapter devoted to proper participation in assembly gatherings. To those with prophetic gift he writes, "Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge. If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace" (1 Cor 14.29-30). If those with specific vocal gift were to be courteous and make allowance for the exercise of others, I think the same principle must apply to public prayer. It is therefore incumbent upon us to observe, for example, how many men folk are at the gathering and adjust our participation accordingly. In a tiny company it may be necessary to offer a lengthier prayer or take part several times; but, where there are a good number of males present, to insist on holding the floor for twenty minutes is not spiritual but just plain selfish. Diffident young men often need to be gently coaxed into raising their voice, and the notion that worship has to be prolix will only discourage them.

The challenge is obvious – the praying brother must endeavour to be reverent, accurate, and considerate in his worship, aiming both to represent and simultaneously to enhance the thoughts of the entire company for whom he speaks. Can you wonder that I find it so hard?

To be continued.


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