Category Archives: prayer

Don’t draw the wrong conclusion from unanswered prayer

Here is something that puzzles me and I expect puzzles you too.

Ever since we’ve started prayer meetings in Ilford, we’ve prayed for people we know to come to Jesus. I’ve not counted how many such prayers we’ve offered, but there have been many. And yet we’ve seen very few clear answers. The puzzle is this: “are we really more anxious to see people saved than God himself is?”. That’s how it can look and feel. We really want people to become Christians; if it were in our hands, we’d save everyone straight away. So, it looks like we’re more merciful than God.

In his book, “Only A Prayer Meeting”, the preacher Charles Spurgeon puts his finger on that issue and tackles it very, very helpfully. So, this is me basically regurgitating his answer!

Here’s the answer: it’s just an optical illusion. That’s only how it looks at a casual glance. But if we probe further, and examine ourselves a bit more, we’ll see that we’re seriously misrepresenting our own hearts. We’re being pretty puffed up about quite how zealous we really are. Isn’t our compassion pretty hit and miss? Are we as intense in our desire for people’s salvation as we like to tell ourselves? This kind of self-satisfaction is not a good sign at all. It suggests we think our work for God is up to scratch. We’re being pretty conceited. That’s hardly a good pre-condition for God to work. If God were to answer our prayers this Sunday, wouldn’t we be tempted to steal the honour and feel smug about ourselves, secretly thinking: “we’ve done things pretty well as a church; we somehow deserve this”?

God’s plan in salvation is always to make ourselves smaller that he might be bigger. The trouble is: “Some trumpets are so stuffed with self that God cannot blow through them. Some pitchers are too full of their own muddy water for God to pour the water of life into them” (p.29). So, part of our reaction to our unanswered prayers for conversions should be to ask: “what have we got to learn from our non-success?” Paul experienced “the anguish of childbirth” before Christ was formed in the Galatians’ hearts (Gal 4:19). The psalmist first sowed in tears, before he reaped in joy (Psalm 126:5). God wants to form us into men like Moses, who was ready to have his name blotted out of the book that Israel might be saved (Ex 32:32), and like Paul, who was ready to be cut off from Christ for the sake of his brothers (Rom 9:3). Spurgeon says: “We cry, ‘Arm of the Lord, awake!’ and he replies, ‘Awake, awake, O Zion!” (p.30). In other words, let’s not kid ourselves that God’s the one sleeping, when, really, it’s us!

So, don’t draw the wrong conclusion from our unanswered prayers for conversions. When God delays to answer us, let’s not secretly tell ourselves we’re more compassionate than him; rather let’s humble ourselves and pray we’ll start to show just a fraction of the compassion that he has for sinners.

Answered Prayers Guaranteed

Yesterday at prayer meeting, James recommended the book: Matthew Henry’s A Way to Pray (also called A Method for Prayer) It’s a great book, so I asked Andrew to write a review of it. Here it is:

It’s your quiet time. You sit down. You shut your eyes. And… you begin to pray. Now what?

Prayer can be a daunting task. There are infinite things to pray for and there are countless different words to use. So how do we do it? How does God want us to pray?

At prayer meeting last night Simon showed how Exodus 34:6-7 is repeated throughout Scripture in people’s prayers. God’s people used Scripture as their prayer (almost word for word!). And here is the key for us – our prayers should be soaked in Scripture. We should use the words of Scripture as our prayers. Scripture itself tells us what we should pray for and the words we should use. 

God wants the words he has spoken to us to be spoken back to Him. 

And this is a wonderful thing to do because as we use Scripture more in our prayers, the more we will pray in line with God’s will. Our will will match God’s will. Is not what is revealed in Scripture God’s will? Absolutely! So surely if we make that will our will, those words our words, God’s words our prayers… well, then, he will answer them. God does what he wills. Of course, this will always be in God’s timing and providence but, nevertheless, that is the way we should pray.

Now the Bible is a big book. It is a mammoth task to memorise all Scripture and be able to turn them into prayers. If only someone had done that for us… well they have! Matthew Henry, a godly minister 300 years ago, did just this. A Method for Prayer is a book in which Henry has compiled lots of prayers about different topics (praise, confession, thanksgiving etc) and all of them are based on verses of Scripture. They are deeply rich, soaked in Scripture and well crafted. Personally, I have found it has changed my prayer life. Not only has it given me direction in what to pray for but also the very words on my lips have been gradually aligning to the words of the Bible.

I recommend this book to pray through just once a day. Read one prayer to yourself. Reflect on it and then pray those words to God. Over time, the language you use will be transformed and your prayers and desires will be become more in line with God’s will.

So, don’t let prayer be daunting. God has told us what to say.

A hardback edition can be found here

Or an online version here:

A “full diet” of prayer

At men’s breakfast recently, we were thinking about men leading in prayer. One of the ideas I talked about was the importance of praying a “full diet” of prayer, when we’re leading in prayer. But this idea is also very relevant for our own private prayer lives.  When we’re finding prayer hard, one thing Christians sometimes do is to try and inject some creativity into their prayer time. “Light a candle. Draw some pictures. Get expressive. Turn it into a craft session, with colouring pens, and scissors”. I don’t recommend that. Those things are like looking for the equivalent of sugar rush. What we actually need is to be committed to a “full diet” of prayers.

The Bible is crammed with examples of prayer for us to learn from:

There are prayers of adoration. Psalms 146-150 each begin and end with “Praise the Lord!”. The heavenly worship in Revelation includes pure adoration: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Rev 4:8). This type of prayer is like your spiritual meat. It’s spending time focussing on the character of our great Triune God and is like protein for your soul.

There are prayers of confession. Daniel humbled himself in Daniel 9, after reading God’s promises to Jeremiah, and prayed a big prayer of confession. Ezra does something similar in Ezra 9. The people of God spend a quarter of the day confessing their sins in Nehemiah 9. Maybe this kind of prayer is like eating your greens; it’s less popular or easy, but really important for our ongoing spiritual health. God wants us to keep short accounts with him, and the Spirit humbles us all the days of our life (Rom 7:24).

There are prayers of thanksgiving. David prayed a prayer of thanksgiving “on the day the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul” (2 Samuel 22). In this type of prayer, we take time to thank God for the good things he’s given us. Regularly taking time to name the good things we’ve received from him is an important part of our diet. I particularly know I’m capable of being ungrateful, and need to be more deliberate here.

There are prayers of supplication.This is the bread and potatoes of Christian prayer. It means simply asking God for things. We should pray prayers of supplication for ourselves, and for others. We should pray for our families, for our church, for our neighbours, for our denomination, for our country, for the church through the world, and for the world. Even here, maybe we need to learn to switch from white bread to brown-bread, or from mashed potato to eating the potato with the skins on! We should aim to line up the things we ask for with the things the Bible asks for (e.g. Luke 11:2-4; Eph 1:16-21).

The Bible really is packed with spiritually nutritious prayers. If you told a nutritionist that you only ever eat starch in your diet, they’d tell you to change what you eat. Why? because a well-balanced diet is important for your health. Well, the same is true for us spiritually. Why not take some time to think: which of these types of prayer are lacking from my regular spiritual diet? Which ones do I need to introduce into my regular praying? Rather than seeking a spiritual sugar rush, aim to pray a “full diet” of prayers.

Not at the prayer meeting – presumed dead

Acts 2:42 tells us: “They devoted themselves to… the prayers”. What could that kind of devoted commitment to the prayers of the church look like for you? Here’s a lovely example of a Christian’s commitment to the prayer meeting, reported by Charles Spurgeon’s little brother, James Spurgeon:

There never was a prayer-meeting held without Mrs. W—— being present. Whether I was there or not, she was. Once, about six months ago, she was absent; but when I asked her where she had been, she said:
I came there, and put the books down, although I could not stop to the meeting.
She had come to the chapel, and reported herself, and then gone off to see someone who was ill. That was the only time I ever knew her to be away from a prayer-meeting until last Sunday evening, when I missed her again. I asked my deacons if they had seen her, or heard anything of her, and they said:
We do not know where she is, but she was not with us last Friday night, at the prayer-meeting.
I said that I was sure she was dead, for if she had been alive she would have been certain to have been at the prayer-meeting. Nobody questioned what I said. All felt with me that she would not have missed two consecutive prayer-meetings unless she had been dead, or too ill to leave her house. During the evening service one of the deacons went off to where she lived all by herself, and, not being able to make anybody hear, he obtained assistance, and broke into the house. There he found just what we expected; she was there, upon her knees, dead, in her little parlour, and she must have died in great suffering, and in the act of praying to God.
She was a remarkable character. She visited and gave away tracts in the worst street in Croydon, and she had a singularly happy way of getting hold of very wicked people, to whom she would tell the story of her own life, and say that she used to be just like them, but by the grace of God she had been converted, and that grace which had done so much for her could do the same for them.
There is a story told as an instance of the pranks that used to be played upon her. A young man thought that he would frighten her; so he dressed himself up as nearly like the devil as his imagination enabled him to do, and when she knocked at his door, he opened it, and called out:
I am the devil,
and began to shout at her. Without being at all alarmed, she quietly put on her glasses, and looked him up and down, and said:
You ain’t the devil, you are only one of his children.
I thought the old lady had the best of it that time. I asked her if she ever saw him again, and she replied:
Oh dear, no! He just put his head in, and went off.
We shall sorely miss her; our prayer-meetings will have a blank through Mrs. W——’s absence that we shall not easily make up. I hope some of you will be such constant attendants at the prayer-meeting that if you are absent twice we shall say of you:
I am sure our brother or sister must be dead,
although we do not want to have you departing from us so suddenly as did our good friend at Croydon.

(Taken from The Sword and Trowel: 1884 pages 89 – 90)

I know that London life is much busier for us today than it was in Victorian London. And I know we can’t do everything.  But I am convinced that the church prayer meeting is much more telling as to the real health of our church than what you see on Sundays. Luther says somewhere: “as it is the business of cobblers to make shoes, and tailors to make clothes, so it is the business of Christians to pray”.  Let’s encourage each other to come along, to share our needs, and spread them before our Father in heaven.

“They devoted themselves to… the prayers” (Acts 2:42).


The Prayer Meeting

A striking feature of the church in Acts is the disciples’ commitment to praying together:

Acts 1:12-14, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer”.

Acts 2:42, “they devote themselves to … the prayers”.

Acts 4:23-31, “when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken”.

Acts 6:4, the apostles say: “we will devote ourselves to prayer”.

Acts 12:5, “earnest prayer for [Peter] was made to God by the church”.

Acts 20:36-38,  “when [Paul] had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all”.

Every Wednesday, we meet to pray and cry out to God together as a church. One thing that can stop us joining in and taking part is that we don’t think prayer has any power. I doubt any of us would come right out and say that; as soon as you say it, you see how sinful a thing it is to think, but we can think it. That’s why hearing examples of answered prayer can be helpful. The book of Acts itself clearly gives us some specific examples. But here’s a great story from the 19th century revival in New York, told by Samuel Prime, in his book “the Power of Prayer”. It’s a great reminder to keep praying for God to save specific people we know:

“I must tell you one thing in regard to the power of prayer. I believe much in prayer for particular cases and particular individuals. I have seen it to result in the salvation of souls in many cases during the last winter. But the case I wish to speak of is the following:

A brother pastor, who laboured near me, was on his death-bed. I knew him well – knew all about his habits of prayer. When he was dying, some one of his brother ministers asked him how he felt in view of his departure. ‘Oh!’ he said, ‘I feel happy, and assured of my salvation, as a poor, lost sinner saved through a Saviour’s precious, atoning blood.’ But still there seemed to be something weighing upon his mind. So one of us inquired, ‘My dear brother, is there any thing that is now a cause of anxiety to you?

The dying minister put his hand under his pillow, and drew out a piece of paper, on which were written twenty-five names of men, unconverted, leading men in his parish, and, with tears in his eyes, he said, “Yes, there is one cause of anxiety, and here it is: it is the salvation of these twenty-five men. I have prayed much for these twenty-five men, name by name. If I could know that these men would be converted, I could then say, ‘Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.’” This was the great burden upon his heart, and so he died.

At a recent meeting of our ecclesiastical body, when the conversation on the state of religion was being held, and the successor of that departed minister was giving in his account, I asked the moderator if I might, through him, ask the brother about those twenty-five men, for we all knew about the case. The clergyman heard my inquiry, and for some time was unable to speak. Then, with the tears flowing down his cheeks, he said, ‘Brethren, every one of those twenty-five men has been converted.’ We believe they were converted in answer to our deceased brother’s desires and prayers – perhaps in answer to that burden of desire which he had for their conversion in the dying hour. Long had he borne them on his heart as the burden of prayer, and all of them, we think, will be stars in his crown of rejoicing in the great day”.