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Occasional Letters: The Way to Pray

D Newell, Glasgow

The music teacher of my childhood was a veritable dragon of a woman. Like most of her pupils, I used to enter her room for my weekly piano lesson with the greatest trepidation, knowing full well that she was capable of reducing the toughest schoolboy to tears. But this I will say of her: she not only told me what to do, she showed me how it should be done. With an imperious gesture of the hand she would sweep me from the piano stool, take her place on it, and demonstrate exactly how Beethoven’s 31st sonata should be performed. Even on those rare occasions when I deluded myself into thinking I’d made a decent stab at the piece, it was both disheartening and yet at the same time stimulating to hear the thing played as it ought to be. There’s nothing like a practical example to set us on the right course.

One of the great characteristics of God’s Word is that it both gives instructions and provides illustrations. It directs us to pray, but it also documents genuine prayer in action. And what a treasury of examples it contains! Best of all, there is the Lord Jesus Himself, whose devotions so stirred His disciples that, "as he was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray" (Lk 11.1). To hear the perfect man at prayer must have been a privilege indeed. Then there are those emergencies when the child of God, in the throes of immediate peril, can scarcely articulate his anxieties. As he sank beneath the waters of Galilee, Peter’s "Lord, save me" (Mt 14.30) may have been inspired by a recollection of Psalm 69.1-2 ("Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing"). What for David was a metaphor for distress was for Peter very literal danger. Nehemiah’s crisis, on the other hand, was different. Having been engaged in private intercession on behalf of the Jewish remnant back in the land of Israel, he suddenly faced an on-the-spot challenge by his employer. He tells us that, having no time for preparation, "I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said unto the king..." (Neh 2.4-5). Look at that – instant access to God even in the intimidating presence of an earthly ruler! To reach the Lord’s ears prayer need neither be prolonged nor audibly voiced, for our omniscient God knows what we need before we ask. When I Skype my friend Lemmy in India our conversation is sometimes impaired by a poor connection, but the line to heaven is always open.

Of course, prayers don’t have to be so brief. Solomon’s act of worship at the dedication of the Temple is a climactic moment in Old Testament history, looking back to God’s past goodness and forward to His future dealings with His people (2 Chr 6.13-42). Daniel’s earnest prayer in captivity sprang from his awareness that the period of Israel’s disciplinary exile was fast coming to a close (Dan 9.4-19). In both cases God answered favourably: supernatural fire fell on Solomon’s altar (2 Chr 7.1), and Daniel received an angelic visitor bearing further information about Israel’s destiny and Messiah’s coming (Dan 9.20-27). Then again, to console us in our own disappointments, we find cases where requests were unexpectedly denied. Moses pleaded to be allowed to enter the land but met with a peremptory refusal: "I besought the Lord at that time, saying, O Lord God...I pray thee, let me go over, and see the good land that is beyond Jordan, that goodly mountain, and Lebanon. But the Lord was wroth with me for your sakes, and would not hear me: and the Lord said unto me, Let it suffice thee; speak no more unto me of this matter" (Deut 3.23-26). And what about that Gadarene man so gloriously rescued from demonic possession? He longed (who can blame him?) to accompany the Lord Jesus and the disciples, but was told instead to "Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee" (Mk 5.18-19). The important lesson for us is that both these men responded positively to disappointing answers to prayer. Instead of sulking because they did not get their own way, they submitted with good grace. Moses assiduously prepared his successor Joshua for leadership responsibility, while the Gadarene, denied missionary service, was content to witness faithfully out of the limelight at home. Scripture is packed with such instances of prayer to encourage us never to give up.

One example recently struck me in Proverbs 30.1-9. Although little is known about Agur, his words are well worth pondering. Notice how they seem to form a chiastic pattern so that his key request is located right in the centre of his petition:

(a) give me neither poverty
(b) nor riches;
(c) feed me with food convenient for me:
(b) Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord?
(a) or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain (vv.8-9).

Don’t allow Agur’s disarming honesty to blind you to his intelligence. The man who admits he is "more brutish than any man, and have not the understanding of a man" (v.30.2), doesn’t sound much like a university graduate, does he? But this frank confession of human stupidity (and "stupid" is the term used in the ESV translation of verse 2) is in reality a testimony to spiritual discernment. Those conscious of their ignorance are on the high road to learning (Ps 119.130). Agur disparages himself, but has a healthy respect for Scripture, asserting that "Every word of God is pure...Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar" (vv.5-6). Clearly he has absorbed Moses’s teaching in Deuteronomy 4.2. There is nothing in God’s Word that ought not to be there (after all, it has been refined, like pure silver), nor is anything missing that should be there. These twin truths affirm the total sufficiency of Scripture: it needs neither subtraction nor addition. Simply put, the Bible is enough for the child of God. Now, a low view of self and a high view of Scripture are bound to promote prayer.

Sensible of his personal inadequacy, Agur humbly approaches the God who has made Himself known in His infallible Word. It should never cease to amaze us that the Creator of the universe is not only accessible to the feeblest of His children but actively invites their petitions: "call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee" (Ps 50.15). Nor does God put any quota upon our requests. Paul urges us to "Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God" (Phil 4.6). Underline that comforting word, "everything". Further, Agur is fully mindful of the sovereignty of God. His choice of verbs ("remove...give...feed") testifies to a complete dependence upon Jehovah’s power to meet his needs. His circumstances, his abilities, his blessings are all traceable to heaven. At the same time he acknowledges the innate vulnerability of man. We are so susceptible to sin. Few would welcome poverty, but how many would also resist prosperity? The little word "Lest" in v.9 is so telling: says Agur, I have not even the skill to hold a full cup without spilling it. He asks to be spared from poverty not because of its attendant misery, and wealth not because of the burden it brings, but rather because both extremes of experience are liable to draw him into spiritual danger. Poverty may nudge him into dishonesty, riches may foster pride, and in either case he would bring shame to his God. In Matthew Henry’s words, "He prays that he may be kept from every condition of life that would be a temptation to him". Here is a man whose conscience is so tender he shies away from anything that might displease the Lord. You see, he knows the wickedness of his heart. We are always but a step away from sin. Thus, at the very core of his prayer is the desirability of moderation, the comparative safety of a modest life-style. Fearful of his own frailties yet convinced of divine wisdom, Agur asks, "feed me with food convenient for me", or "give me just what I need" (CEV), no more, no less. That’s a good prayer. And it has significant echoes. "Give us this day our daily bread" (Mt 6.11) will doubtless be the plea of the faithful remnant of Israel during the great tribulation, when the Beast will control food supplies (Rev 13.17). Paul urges godly contentment (1 Tim 6.6-8), while testifying that he was sustained in all the unpredictable circumstances of life through the enabling power of Christ (Phil 4.11-13). Yes, we can learn much from a man who prayed with an awareness of God’s greatness and his own infirmity, his requests motivated by a scrupulous desire to avoid bringing dishonour on the Lord’s name. I don’t know about you, but although (for me) the opportunity to learn to play is long past, I find I am in constant need of expert instruction in how to pray.

To be continued.


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