Prayer and its Remarkable Answers
"Conditions of Success"
Abstract: These thirteen conditions are necessary to prevail in prayer; but they are really so many speciﬁcations of the one condition of a right state of heart—a heart unselﬁsh, in sympathy with God, jealous for his honor, and desirous of carrying out his will and promoting the good of all. There is no mysterious or inexplicable condition, and none beyond the reach of the humblest petitioner. Yet as these conditions do reasonably and necessarily exist, they must be regarded by those who wish to prevail in prayer.
As prayer is one of the essentials of a life spiritually successful, and as our continual dependence and oft recurring temptations and trials make it daily necessary, the subject of the conditions of its success, as an appeal to God, ought to be of the deepest interest to every Christian. “What are these conditions?” We learn them from the nature of the case, and from the express statements of Scripture. They stand related to the object which God has in view, in requiring us to pray; to-wit, the securing a state of mind which shall honor him, shall promote right character in us, and shall make his gifts, when received, most, pleasant and proﬁtable. The promises to hear prayer are not made to the mere form, but to the appropriate spirit. That spirit has regard to various particulars.
1. A Sense Of Want. Those who use prayer as a mere form have no real sense of want. They follow a habit, or comply with a system. Why should God hear them? They do not feel that they need him. They are not so burdened with their wants, as to be driven to prayer, as the only resource. It is reasonable that God should withhold a blessing, until we feel our need of it sufﬁciently. It is not enough that we mention our supposed wants, in the way of petition. We must reﬂect upon our condition and circumstances until we are borne down with a sense of need, and fall upon our knees in earnest prayer, as having something really to ask.
2. Reverence. God must regard his own honor. It is for our good, as well as for his glory, that he should be approached with reverence. “Hallowed be thy name” is the ﬁrst petition in the prayer which Jesus taught. This forbids the coming to God in a light and thoughtless manner, or in a way of indecorous familiarity. It should prevent, also, everything noisy, boisterous and confused, as being inconsistent with a true conception of God’s presence and character. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage and martyr, well says in his treatise on the Lord’s Prayer “Let our speech and petition, when we pray, be under discipline, observing quietness and modesty. Let us consider that we are standing in God’s sight. We must please the divine eyes both with the habit of body and with the measure of voice. For as it is characteristic of a shameless man to be noisy with his cries, so, on the other hand, it is ﬁtting to the modest man to pray with moderate petitions.” And Tertullian, in his treatise on Prayer, inculcating the same duty, said: “But we more commend our prayers to God, when we pray with modesty and humility. … The sounds of our voice likewise should be subdued; else, if we are to be heard for our noise, how large windpipes we should need!” The majesty of God should greatly impress us. Every person of digniﬁed station should be treated with due respect by inferiors, and should not grant favors to those who are irreverent.
3. A Filial Spirit. Reverence need not beget slavishness. God would have us realize that we are his children, and he invites us to come with the words “Abba, Father” upon our lips, and the ﬁlial spirit in our hearts. A parent is grieved, when his own child comes to him in a cold, distrustful way, as if approaching a stranger. Jesus taught his disciples to begin their prayer with, “Our Father,” in order to cherish this childlike spirit, which God loves to reward. It is our special privilege as Christians to understand this. Faber beautifully expresses it:
“The light of love is round His feet,
His paths are never dim;
And He comes nigh to us, when we
Dare not come nigh to Him.
“Let us be simple with Him, then,
Not backward, stiff, or cold,
As though our Bethlehem could be
What Sinai was of old.”
4. Gratitude. Can we expect future mercies, if we are not thankful for past blessings? If a spirit of discontent and murmur is in our hearts, as though God had not dealt kindly with us, are we in a frame to approach him, and implore his continued protection? Or if we accept his gifts so lightly, and as a matter of course, that we are not impressed with his goodness, have we not missed their principal beneﬁt, and thus disqualiﬁed ourselves to ask or to receive added favors? It is not by accident, that the Psalms of David are half petition and half thanksgiving. Let them be an example, while the needed precept is furnished by Paul, when he says: “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.” Phil. iv:6. There is nothing like gratitude to secure renewed benefactions.
5. Humility. One must approach God in the spirit of truth; and humility is simply owning the truth as to our character and deserts. As a fact, we are inﬁnitely beneath God in our powers, while our character is sinful, and our desert is that of evil only. Can we approach his mercy-seat, and forget this? And if we should, could he consistently accept us? Jesus taught his disciples to say, “Forgive us our debts”; and he related the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican to enforce the same idea. “God be merciful to me a sinner!” uttered with downcast eye and with the hand smiting the breast, was the sentence which God heard with delight. “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up,” is the language of James (iv: 10). Confession of sin, heartfelt and deﬁnite, is an important condition of acceptable prayer. Therefore the wise man said: “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper; but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.” Prov. xxviii: 13. Abraham declared himself to be but “dust and ashes,” when he prevailed in prayer. Gen. xviii:27. The Psalms also abound in penitent confessions of sin.
6. Faith. The very idea of prayer implies faith; for why come to God for aid, if there be doubt of his ability, or his willingness, to help us? To approach him in unbelief is to mock him, and to stultify ourselves. It makes prayer a self-contradiction. It is as though a man should come to us, saying, “I am in great trouble, and need your help, but I have no belief that you will render me assistance”! We should be quite likely to verify his unbelief. Faith is so essential to the divine honor, that uncommon stress is laid upon it as a condition. When salvation is asked, the grand condition is, faith in Christ as the divinely provided Savior. And similarly every other request must be accompanied by faith in God’s willingness to grant it, if best, and to make good any promise which is connected with it. Jesus said to the afﬂicted father, who prayed that the demon might be cast out of his child: “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.” Mark ix: 23. Of a certain city which he visited, it is said: “He did not many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.” Mat. xiii:58. To the healed woman he said: “Thy faith hath saved thee: go in peace.” Luke vii:50. And so it was in connection with all the miraculous aid which he dispensed: he required the applicant to have faith. And he laid down this general rule: “What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.” Mark xi:24. Rom. iv: 19-21 commends Abraham, because, “being not weak in faith … he staggered not at the promise of God, through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully persuaded, that what he had promised, he was able also to perform.” Similarly James writes: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to every man liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth, is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord.” James i: 5-7. A failure in this respect will explain the want of success of many in their prayers. They do not “lift up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.” 1 Tim. ii:8.
7. Obedience. He who prays for divine help must not insult God by maintaining, at the same time, an attitude of opposition to him. The second and third petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are: “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.” No prayer offered in a spirit inconsistent with this can hope to be accepted. Reason afﬁrms this, and the Bible is explicit. Only the prayers of one who is truly consecrated to God can have power with him. God is not a mere convenience, to be resorted to for selﬁsh purposes, in time of trouble. He invites us to enter into his spirit and plans, to identify ourselves with his cause and kingdom, to carry out in our lives his will; and he promises, on this condition, to care for us, and to hear our appeals for aid and blessing. Therefore we read in his Word: “The Lord is far from the wicked, but he heareth the prayer of the righteous.” Prov. xv: 29. “He that turneth away his ear, from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be abomination.” Prov. xxviii: 9. “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.” John xv: 7. “The eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers.’’ 1 Peter iii: 12. “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.” 1 John iii: 22. Thus it will be seen, that when the sinful feel their need of God, and begin to pray to him, a ﬁrst step must be, “to lift up holy hands,” as Paul expresses it; to forsake all that they know to be wrong; to repent of evil thoughts and evil ways; to dedicate themselves to his service; to accept his law as their rule of life; to implore forgiveness for the past, and to make a consecration of the future.
8. Forgiveness Of Injuries. Acceptable prayer must imply that we are forgiven of God; for how can an unpardoned sinner hope to have inﬂuence with him? But of nothing are we more plainly assured in the New Testament, and by the Savior himself, than that our own forgiveness by God is conditional upon our forgiveness of those who have injured us. The ﬁfth petition of the Lord’s Prayer signiﬁcantly implies this, when it says: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors;” and, at the close of its record in Matthew, as if to enforce this particular thought more than any other, these words of Jesus are added: “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (vi: 14, 15.) As if to emphasize this further, on another occasion he directed this forgiveness to be repeated, if necessary, seventy times seven; uttered the instructive parable of the servant who, owing his lord ten thousand talents, and being forgiven, would not forgive his fellow servant, who owed him but a hundred pence, and was therefore handed over to “the tormentors;” and concluded with this application: “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother, their trespasses.” Mat. xviii: 23-35. And that this truth is to be especially borne in mind in prayer, Mark reminds us (xi: 25): “When ye stand praying, forgive if ye have aught against any, that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” And with this may be compared the words of Jesus about bringing a gift to the altar and there remembering that our brother has something against us, which should be settled. Matt. v: 23, 24. Many unanswered petitions may be thus explained.
9. Asking For Approved Objects. God does not mean, in hearing prayer, to abdicate his throne, or to substitute our judgment for his own. Hence he requires us to ascertain, as far as possible, what his judgment is, and to conform our prayers to it. Therefore it is written: “And this is the conﬁdence that we have in him, that if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us.” 1 John v: 14. When, with reference to any speciﬁc object, we cannot ascertain God’s exact will, we are to offer our petitions conditionally, with submission to the perfect wisdom and love of our heavenly Father. Thus Jesus, in the agony of the garden, prayed: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” Mat. xxvi: 39. To aid us in understanding our true wants, and the application of the promises to them, we need the enlightening and sanctifying inﬂuence of the Holy Spirit, which is freely offered. Thus we are taught that it is our duty to be “praying in the Holy Ghost,” (Jude xx,) and to be “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit,” (Ep. vi: 18,) while Paul assures us, (Rom., viii: 26, 27.) that “likewise the Spirit also helpeth our inﬁrmities; for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered; and he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.” Thus we have divine aid in learning what objects are approved by God. Other light will be thrown on this condition of acceptable petition in the following chapter.
10. Importunate Perseverance. This is a prerequisite to success in prayer, because it has an intimate connection with the preparation of a right spiritual condition in us. We saw at the outset that one must have a sense of want. God desires to deepen this to the utmost, and at the same time to test our faith, and to bring it out clearly to ourselves and to others. And so he delays the answer to our prayers, till they assume a more and more earnest tone, become importunate, and show a spirit of perseverance, born not of blind presumption, or of unsubmissive desire, but of enlightened persuasion that the object is important, proper, and one that God will eventually grant. Thus Paul teaches us to pray “always, with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints.” Ep. vi: 18. Jesus spake a parable “to this end, that men ought always to pray and not to faint;” and the parable was of the importunate widow, who, by her continual coming, gave the judge no rest till he redressed her wrongs; and he added: “Shall not God avenge his own elect, who cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?” Luke xviii: 1-8. In the Old Testament is the example of Jacob’s prayer for deliverance from his brother Esau, and the wrestling with the divine angel, refusing to let him go, till assured of the needed blessing. In the New Testament is the illustrative case of the Syro-Phenician widow, who besought Jesus to heal her possessed daughter, and would be deterred neither by neglect, nor by seeming rebuff, and who was ﬁnally rewarded for her perseverance and faith by gaining the desired answer. Do not our prayers fail sometimes because through discouragement we cease to pray? In the case of not a few successful prayers importunity has risen to the height of agony. This does not warrant us in saying, with some, that agony is a condition of prevailing prayer; for agony is not a matter of will, but depends upon temperament and occasion; it is nowhere prescribed in the Bible, and it by no means always attends success in petition. Many an accepted petition has risen to God from the quietude of a complete faith. Yet the agony of spirit which a sense of the need of the divine aid sometimes develops, in great emergencies and previous to striking answers, shows the relation of persevering importunity to success. The same earnestness is also manifested by fasting; all strong desire tending to destroy appetite, and the voluntary laying aside of food, in connection with prayer, indicating a spirit of humility and earnestness. Hence Jesus said of certain very difﬁcult cases of exorcism: “This kind (of demons) goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” Mat. xvii: 21.
11. Asking In The Name Of Christ. A sinner must needs have an intercessor. This idea was represented ritually in the Old Testament economy, by the priesthood and its sacriﬁces; an arrangement which preﬁgured the atoning death and living advocacy of the Lord Jesus Christ. The statement of the Epistle to the Hebrews is: “But this man, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood. Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them,” vii: 25. This explains the meaning of Jesus, when he said, just before his betrayal, trial and death: “Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be gloriﬁed in the Son. If ye shall ask anything in my name, I will do it.” John xiv: 13, 14. Again: “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name; ask and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full,” xvi: 23, 24. The idea is, that as sinners, we must come in the way which God has provided, even as Jesus had before said: “I am the way and the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father but by me,” xiv: 6. It were contempt for us to approach without using the advocate whom God has provided; while to come through him is to make sure of a favorable hearing, if our spirit be otherwise appropriate. The famous hymn of Charles Wesley, “Arise, my soul arise!” is the very essence of the gospel in this respect, especially the lines:
“He ever lives above,
For me to intercede;
His all-redeeming love,
His precious blood to plead.”
And also these:
“Five bleeding wounds he bears,
Received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers,
They strongly speak for me.”
12. Appropriate Effort. Prayer would be an injury, were it to supersede human action. For character depends not a little upon personal effort. The result would be weakness and not strength, if all our wants could be supplied through prayer, with no exertion of our own. We see the effect in the case of the children of rich parents, who are unduly indulged, and have all for which they ask, without necessity of work. They seldom develop into a true manhood. God trains his children in a better way. The heathen understand this. Hence the ancient fable ridiculing the wagoner who piteously called on Hercules, to extricate his wagon from the mud, without putting his own shoulder to the wheel. The Christian as well as the pagan motto is, that, God helps those who help themselves. Prayer must never be made an excuse for idleness and sloth. Its design is to rouse us to effort, by the hope of a divine blessing. Not until we are shut up to a difﬁculty which we can in no way touch, may we rely on prayer alone. In the matter of personal sanctiﬁcation, the exhortation is to watch and pray. A signiﬁcant implication is found in Christ’s words: “I have chosen you and ordained you that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain; that whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he may give it you.” John xv: 16. Thus Jesus made labor a condition of acceptable prayer, as being a manifestation of sincerity, earnestness and self-denial, and as tending to the highest good of ourselves and of others. He himself labored and prayed, and taught his disciples so to do. His instruction concerning daily bread was not simply to pray for it, but to work with faith that God would prosper industry, making his providence second our exertions. Thus Paul, in answer to his prayers, was assured that no life should be lost by the shipwreck at Melita; and yet he required the seamen to use the appropriate means for an escape, asserting that otherwise they could not be saved. Acts xxvii: 22-32. Probably some Christians fall into an error the reverse of that of men of the world: the one class substituting prayer for labor, and the other labor for prayer. But each was intended to aid the other, and progress was to be made by the use of both; as the body avails itself of two arms and two feet, and as a boat is propelled by the simultaneous stroke of both oars.
13. Union With Other Petitioners. If the prayer of one saint has power with God, as fulﬁlling the requisite moral condition of the bestowment of blessing, then the prayer of two saints may be said to have double the moral power; and in proportion as God’s people unite in asking for a speciﬁc gift, must be the certainty of its bestowment. The way is thus opened more clearly and perfectly for the divine action. Therefore Jesus said: “If two of you shall agree on earth, as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father who is in heaven.” Mat. xviii:19. Hence the marvelous effect of the prayers of the disciples at Jerusalem, before the day of Pentecost, concerning which we read: “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.” Acts i: 14. This was evidently one reason why Paul continually besought the Christians to whom he wrote, to join their prayers to his, to secure the objects which he mentions. “Now I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that ye strive together with me, in your prayers to God for me.” Rom. xv:30. “Ye also helping together by prayer for us, that for the gift bestowed upon us by the means of many persons, thanks may be given by many in our behalf.” 2 Cor. i:ll. It is thus evident, that we may strengthen our prayers by associating others with us in making common petition for the desired object.
These thirteen conditions are annexed to prevailing prayer; but they are really so many speciﬁcations of the one condition of a right state of heart-a heart unselﬁsh, in sympathy with God, jealous for his honor, and desirous of carrying out his will and promoting the good of all. There is no mysterious or inexplicable condition, and none beyond the reach of the humblest petitioner. Yet as these conditions do reasonably and necessarily exist, they must be regarded by those who wish to prevail in prayer. And it would be both unchristian and unphilosophical, for one to think that he could test prayer in a manner inconsistent with any of these prerequisites to success. For moral experiments, equally with those in physical science, have their essential conditions, which arise from the very nature of the case. When God ordained the physical system, he did it with strict reference to the nature and laws of matter; and when he ordained the moral system, of which prayer is a force, he did it with equally strict reference to the nature and laws of mind. But of this further notice will be taken, when we come to consider skeptical objections to prayer.
When thou dost talk with God—by prayer, I mean—
Lift up pure hands; lay down all lust’s desires;
Fix thoughts on heaven; present a conscience clean:
Since holy blame to mercy’s throne aspires,
Confess faults’ guilt, crave pardon for thy sin,
Tread holy paths, call grace to guide therein.
Even as Elias, mounting to the sky,
Did cast his mantle to the earth behind,
So, when the heart presents the prayer on high,
Exclude the world from trafﬁc with the mind:
Lips near to God, and ranging heart within,
Is but vain babbling and converts to sin.—Robert Southwell.
Taken from Prayer and its remarkable answers: being a statement of facts in the light … by William Weston Patton, pp. 73-88.