"Talent of Intercession"
Not everyone realizes that ability to pray is a talent. When the Rev. Charles G. Finney, about 1830, was laboring for deeper, stronger religious life among the people of western New York, there was one man whose praying seems to have done very much toward obtaining the desired results. In Utica, Syracuse, Binghamton, Rochester, Rome, great numbers of persons were aroused to new earnestness. Great numbers also, renouncing sin, entered upon the Christian life. In all that country religion became the foremost thing. It leavened society and business. It controlled ambition. The person who, as the world saw, was the one through whom these results were secured, was the preacher, Mr. Finney.
But there was another person who had part in these results, Mr. Abel Clary. He never appeared in public gatherings. He gave himself wholly to private prayer. He was an educated man. He had been licensed to preach. He preached, however, very little. He was so burdened with the souls of men that he gave almost his whole time and strength to intercession. He was a very silent man. Mr. Finney had known him from boyhood and had the greatest respect for his character. This Mr. Clary, lying in bed as a consumptive, and drawing a little table to his side, would write in his journal day by day, "My heart has been moved to pray for Utica, for Syracuse, for Binghamton, for Rochester, for Rome." After Mr. Clary's death, Mr. Finney obtained this memorandum book and found that in the precise order of the burden laid upon that man's heart was the order of blessing as poured upon Mr. Finney's ministry in the places named. Among other notes he discovered a memorandum about Ceylon. Looking into the records of the American Board, he found that at the time when Mr. Clary was praying on his sickbed for Ceylon, there had been a great forward movement in that land.
We are familiar with the thought that every talent we possess or can possess should be cultivated. Sometimes the talent is that of money-making, sometimes that of public-speaking, sometimes that of doing drudgery faithfully. We believe in many kinds of talents, and we believe that every individual has some special talent, given him by God, to be used for the world's good. The man who knows how to lay a drain well has a great opportunity of aiding the public health. The woman who can regulate a home's atmosphere so that it shall be religiously beneficial also has a great opportunity. Every now and then, when someone stands forth very prominently as a writer, or as a speaker, or as a philanthropist, we say, "What a great talent that person has!" We immediately think "what a loss the world would suffer if that person's talent should not be used!" Certainly our world would be the poorer if a Victor Hugo had not written his books, and a Henry Ward Beecher had not preached his sermons, and a George Peabody had not erected his buildings. The whole of western New York and great parts of Ohio and Illinois, affected by the men who came from western New York, would have suffered a distinct and grievous loss had not Mr. Finney spoken and labored as he did.
But do we keep to the front in our minds this thought, that there is a talent of prayer as truly as there are other talents? Mr. Clary used the talent of prayer as God entrusted it to him. The results of his use of intercession were very great. Thousands of lives would have been the poorer had he not used his talent.
There are many worthy people asking themselves what more they can do to advance the good of the world. They give themselves to every kind of beautiful enterprise; they provide holidays for the weary; they take little children from the crowd of the city to the open spaces of the country; they nurse the sick; they furnish safe pleasures to the tempted; they teach; they preach; they do everything that human ingenuity, under the inspiration of Christian love, can suggest. The many beautiful agencies of help, all under Christ and all for Christ, at work in the world are legion. Let not one of them be relaxed. Let all be sustained, and let a thousand more be added to them as opportunity may arise. Ability to use any or all of these agencies is a talent. As a talent let it be magnified.
But side by side with these different talents let there be recognition of still another talent, a talent that perhaps sometimes lies wrapped in a napkin unused—the talent of intercession. The Yoriba Christians call prayer "the gift of the knees," for to them prayer is a special endowment directly bestowed by God.
Every now and then we are confronted by some grave statements concerning the use of this talent of intercession. It is not a rare occurrence to hear the very men who, we might think, would most realize their dependence on divine help confess that their own personal use of intercessory prayer is very limited. This information often comes out at a time when there is a gathering of ministers, or perhaps a more general gathering of Christian "workers." The questions then are asked, "How much time each day do you spend in interceding with God for the advance of His work? Is it an hour, a half hour? Is it fifteen minutes?" The answers to such questions are startling. The number of persons who regularly give fifteen minutes a day to this means of blessing is very small. Of course we all understand that intercession is not a matter of place nor of attitude. Dr. Henry M. Scudder, when questioned in public on this very subject, once said, "I walk the streets of Chicago, picking my way in and out of the multitudes and I am praying for those multitudes every minute." So others may pray as did Dr. Scudder. Wherever they may be—on trains, in stores, at public entertainments they may continually and earnestly ask God to bless those who are around them. Such prayer may be unobserved by any human eye, but the divine eye observes it, and to that eye it is direct prayer. When we see people in their sorrow or see them in their thoughtlessness or see them, like Lot, exposing their children by too near residence to Sodom, we may silently lift our hearts to God for them.
While not one word passes our lips, nor one change takes place in our bodily attitude, our intercession is true intercession. God hears it and regards it.
Even after all such silent prayer has been reckoned as intercession, how large a place does such intercession have in our lives? How does its place compare with the place held by other matters? If the place is a small one, is the reason for that small place our misunderstanding of the value of intercessory prayer? Have we thought about intercession as a talent entrusted to us for whose use we are responsible? We hear the calls for our money and we try to respond conscientiously to cases of need. We intend also to advocate all enterprises that make for the welfare of humanity. We hold ourselves ready to do much running, thinking, working for every cause known to be dear to Christ. But do we forget that Christ spent a whole night in prayer before He chose His twelve fellow workers and before He preached His Sermon on the Mount? Do we forget that the early church continued for days in prayer before Peter's words at Pentecost could be effective? Does our eye fail to note that Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians has two distinct prayers in it, as though Paul's hope for the good of the Ephesians rested, not so much in his words of instruction, as in God's power and blessing?
The history of the Christian church never has been completely written. That history has been attempted and well attempted. The deeds done by men in the name and for the sake of Christ have been told. These deeds make a remarkable record: the record of all martyrdoms, of all missionary advances, of all philanthropic conquests. These nineteen hundred years have witnessed scenes that are well calculated to stir the blood and make brave the heart of the student of church history. But nothing except exterior effects and the supposed motives back of these exterior effects have as yet been described. The throne of grace, out from which go the answers to prayer, is curtained. No one has been able to draw aside that curtain and show the world the spiritual helps that in answer to prayer have issued from that throne. It is by these helps that history largely has been wrought out. There are some instances in which we can trace the direct influence of intercession. We read in the Scripture that Peter was delivered from prison because men and women, meeting together, prayed for his deliverance. When then we see Peter, a free man, knocking at the door of John Mark's home we understand that the means whereby he has become free is prayer.
In profane history, too, there is an occasional narrative that indicates the unseen force of prayer. The Marquis of Argyle was one of Scotland's noble witnesses for Christ's cross and crown. On the morning of the day on which he was to be executed he was engaged in settling worldly affairs. Several of the leading people of Scotland were in the prison room with him. Suddenly in the midst of his business his soul was visited with such a sense of the divine favor as almost overwhelmed him. He attempted to conceal his emotions. He arose and went to the fireplace to stir the fire. But soon he turned around and with great fervor said, "I see that this will not do. I must now declare what the Lord has done for my soul. He has just now, at this very instant of time, sealed my charter in these words, 'Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.'" A little later he went to the scaffold. In the hour when he was put to death he had the most perfect assurance and a most triumphant calm. The scene in the prison room as thus described was all that the human observers could see. But was there nothing unseen that was of significance that day? Yes, there was. For in a retired part of Edinburgh the wife of the Marquis and the Rev. John Carstairs during that morning were praying for the Marquis. They knew that the Marquis would be put to death. They wished him to die, if he must, so calmly that his death would show the power of Christian faith and would contribute to Christ's glory in Scotland. They made one special plea for the Marquis, that the Lord would seal his charter by saying to him, "Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee." It was that very assurance that came into the heart of the Marquis as he turned to the fireplace in the prison, and it was that assurance, secured to him by others through prayer, that sustained him in his brave death.
Nor do these instances stand alone. So soon as the facts are known, it becomes evident that the means whereby some of the most blessed events of life have been secured was prayer. The history of Yale University tells of a great revival which one hundred years ago stirred the whole college community. The secret of the revival was, that a group of men were so earnest in their desire to have a spiritual awakening that "they got up before daybreak, day after day in the long winter months, and gave themselves to earnest prayer for that definite thing. A revival began and spread from class to class until almost every man in the college was led into faith in Christ." Mary, Queen of Scotland, realized that in John Knox the talent for prayer had been so cultivated that it had become a mighty force. She once declared, "I fear John Knox's prayers more than an army of ten thousand men."
It is impossible to estimate the power for usefulness latent in hearts capable of prayer. No one conceived the power lying latent in steam until the spirit of steam, asserting itself, began to transform the earth. No one conceived the power lying latent in electricity until electricity, asserting itself, began its world-wide ministry. The power lying latent in hearts capable of prayer is similarly great. Luther prayed for the Diet of Nuremberg. He interceded with intense earnestness. He laid hold of the throne of grace with such power that he seemed to prevail with God. He felt sure, even before the Diet took action, that those who composed it would stand firm in Reformation principles. And they did. The people of Enfield, Massachusetts, prayed all night that the sermon to be preached by their pastor Jonathan Edwards might be blessed to the good of souls. When the sermon was preached the congregation left their pews, crowding up the pulpit stairs and asking what they might do to obtain the salvation of God.
DeQuincey divides all literature into the literature of knowledge and the literature of power. As there is a literature of power so there is a prayer of power. It is the prayer of power of which we stand in need. A powerless Christian ought to be considered as great a misnomer as a powerless thunderbolt. If the talent of prayer should be cultivated as assiduously as the talent of business is cultivated, the result would be that numberless people who never can be forceful in speech, nor bounteous in beneficence, nor energetic in evangelism, would become as effective forces for the world's help as any men and women who have ever lived.
Mrs. Elizabeth Prentiss in one of her letters used the significant expression, "learning the mysterious art of prayer by an apprenticeship at the throne of grace." How many of us have ever thought of "learning" to pray? Or, of "an apprenticeship at the throne of grace?" In another sentence Mrs. Prentiss enlarges on this idea. She says: "I think many of the difficulties attending upon the subject of prayer would disappear if it could be regarded in early life as an art that must be acquired through daily, persistent habits with which nothing shall be allowed to interfere." Thus she makes "learning" to pray as much of a training as learning to sing, or paint, or write. She exalts prayer into an "art"—and makes us realize that the same application, concentration, persistency and heartiness needed to become a sculptor, are needed by us if the talent of prayer (possible to every one) reaches its greatest development. Happy the man who, like Epaphras commended of Paul, learns so well the lesson of prayer that his distinguishing characteristic is that he "always labors fervently in prayer for others."
What blessings are awaiting the world if we only develop the talent of prayer to its fullest possibility! Has not the time come when we, one and all, will do our part to re-assert the power of the Christian church? Andrew Bonar with great sorrow wrote in his diary: "I work more than I pray." Also he wrote: "I must at once return, through the Lord's strength, to not less than three hours a day spent in prayer and meditation upon the Word."
There is no doubt that God longs to have His servants so love their fellows that they shall rest not day nor night in interceding in their behalf. He waits for the effectual fervent prayer. Oh, that thousands upon thousands of God's people would awake to their possibility, and would become powerful in His Kingdom through learning to prevail with God in prayer!
Taken from A mighty means of usefulness: A Plea For Intercessory Prayer by James Gore King McClure