THE LAWS OF PRAYER
Jesus answered, “Have faith in God. This is the truth I tell you–whoever will say to this mountain, `Be lifted up and be cast into the sea,’ and who in his heart does not doubt, but believes that what he says is happening, it will be done for him. So then I tell you, believe that you have received everything for which you pray and ask, and it will be done for you. And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive it, so that your Father who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
We return now to sayings which Mark attaches to the story of the blasting of the fig-tree. We have noticed more than once how certain sayings of Jesus stuck in men’s minds although the occasion on which he said them had been forgotten. It is so here. The saying about the faith which can remove mountains also occurs in Matt.17:20 and in Lk.17:6, and in each of the gospels it occurs in a quite different context. The reason is that Jesus said it more than once and its real context had often been forgotten. The saying about the necessity of forgiving our fellow-men occurs in Matt.6:12,14 again in a quite different context. We must approach these sayings as not so much having to do with particular incidents, but as general rules which Jesus repeatedly laid down.
This passage gives us three rules for prayer.
(i) It must be the prayer of faith. The phrase about removing mountains was a quite common Jewish phrase. It was a regular, vivid phrase for removing difficulties. It was specially used of wise teachers. A good teacher who could remove the difficulties which the minds of his scholars encountered was called a mountain-remover. One who heard a famous Rabbi teach said that “he saw Resh Lachish as if he were plucking up mountains.” So the phrase means that if we have real faith, prayer is a power which can solve any problem and make us able to deal with any difficulty. That sounds very simple, but it involves two things.
First, it involves that we should be willing to take our problems and our difficulties to God. That in itself is a very real test. Sometimes our problems are that we wish to obtain something we should not desire at all, that we wish to find a way to do something we should not even think of doing, that we wish to justify ourselves for doing something to which we should never lay our hands or apply our minds. One of the greatest tests of any problem is simply to say, “Can I take it to God and can I ask his help?”; Second, it involves that we should be ready to accept God’s guidance when he gives it. It is the commonest thing in the world for a person to ask for advice when all he really wants is approval for some action that he is already determined to take. It is useless to go to God and to ask for his guidance unless we are willing to be obedient enough to accept it. But if we do take our problems to God and are humble enough and brave enough to accept his guidance, there does come the power which can conquer the difficulties of thought and of action.
(ii) It must be the prayer of expectation. It is the universal fact that anything tried in the spirit of confident expectation has a more than double chance of success. The patient who goes to a doctor and has no confidence in the prescribed remedies has far less chance of recovery than the patient who is confident that the doctor can cure him. When we pray, it must never be a mere formality. It must never be a ritual without hope.
James Burns quotes a scene from Leonard Merrick’s book, Conrad in Quest of His Youth. “Do you think prayers are ever answered?” inquired Conrad. “In my life I have sent up many prayers, and always with the attempt to persuade myself that some former prayer had been fulfilled. But I knew. I knew in my heart none ever had been. Things that I wanted have come to me, but–I say it with all reverence–too late….” Mr. Irquetson’s fine hand wandered across his brow. “Once,” he began conversationally, “I was passing with a friend through Grosvenor Street. It was when in the spring the tenant’s fancy lightly turns to coats of paint, and we came to a ladder leaning against a house that was being redecorated. In stepping to the outer side of it my friend lifted his hat to it. You may know the superstition. He was a ‘Varsity man, a man of considerable attainments. I said, `Is it possible you believe in that nonsense?` He said, `N-no, I don’t exactly believe in it, but I never throw away a chance’.” On a sudden the vicar’s inflexion changed, his utterance was solemn, stirring, devout, “I think, sir, that most people pray on my friend’s principle–they don’t believe in it, but they never throw away a chance.”
There is much truth in that. For many people prayer is either a pious ritual or a forlorn hope. It should be a thing of burning expectation. Maybe our trouble is that what we want from God is our answer, and we do not recognize his answer when it comes.
(iii) It must be the prayer of charity. The prayer of a bitter man cannot penetrate the wall of his own bitterness. Why? If we are to speak with God there must be some bond between two people who have nothing in common. The principle of God is love, for he is love. If the ruling principle of a man’s heart is bitterness, he has erected a barrier between himself and God. If ever the prayer of such a man is to be answered he must first ask God to cleanse his heart from the bitter spirit and put into it the spirit of love. Then he can speak to God and God can speak to him.
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