‘What things soever ye desire when ye pray believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them’ (Mark 11:24)
By the words ‘believe that ye receive them’: we understand, expect God to give them to you. But it is at this point that so many of God’s people fail oftenest in their prayer lives. There are three chief things to be attended to in prayer.
First, make sure that you are asking for something that is in accordance with God’s Word: see 1 John 5:14. But right here, the devil will foil you unless you are upon your guard. He will come as an angel of light and preach a sermon to you on God’s holy will. O yes, the devil is quite capable even of that!
It is our privilege and duty to know what God’s will is! ‘Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is’ (Eph. 5:17). It is the revealed will of God which is in view in these passages, for with His ‘secret’ will, we have nothing to do; that is none of our business.
God’s revealed will is made known in His Word. Fix this in your mind; never allow Satan inject a thought (Eph. 4:27) to shake you thereon, that everything God has commanded you to do, every precept and exhortation addressed to you, is ‘God’s will’ for you, and is to be turned into prayer for enabling grace. It is God’s will that you should be ‘sanctified’ (1 Thess. 4:2), that you should ‘rejoice’ (Phil. 4:4), that you should ‘make your calling and election sure’ (2 Peter 1:10), that you should ‘grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord’ (2 Peter 3:18).
Second, having made sure that what you are praying for is according to God’s revealed will, then plead His promises, such as Matt. 7:7, Phil. 4:19, etc. Plead them in the name of Christ, asking God to give you the ‘desires of thine heart’ (Psalm 37:4) for Christ’s sake, that He may be honoured in and by a Godly walk from you, and that His people may be helped and encouraged by your example. Those are pleas which God cannot deny.
Third, and this is what we would earnestly and lovingly press upon the Christian reader: EXPECT God to do what you have asked. Unless there is an expectancy, faith is not fully in exercise. It is this expecting from Him which honours and pleases God, and which always draws down from Him answers of peace.
There may be some difficulty, problem, trial, looming ahead of you, which assumes the proportions of a mountain. Never mind that: do not let it depress, discourage, or dismay you. Praise God it stands written in the eternal Word of Truth, ‘Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith and doubt not…ye shall say unto this mountain be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; It shall be done'(Matt. 21:21).
Notice carefully, it is not ‘If thou doubt not and have faith, ‘but if ye have faith’ and then (while you are awaiting God’s answer) ‘doubt not’, but continue the fulfillment of His promise. When you first get down on your knees, beg God in the name of Christ and for His own glory’s sake, to work in you by His Spirit that expectancy of faith which will not take ‘NO’ from Him; which reverently, but confidently says, ‘I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless me’ (Gen. 32:26). That is what honours God, that is what pleases Him, that is what obtains answers from Him.
‘A friend at court!’ No doubt that expression is more or less familiar to the older readers, but it has almost dropped out of use in this generation. It denoted that one had a friend possessing influence with another in authority, and using it on my behalf. How unspeakably blessed to know that the Christian has a friend at court, the Court of Heaven; ‘A friend that sticketh closer than a brother.’ He has the ear of God, for on earth He declared ‘Thou hearest me always’ (John 11:42).
Then, make use of Him, and ask Him to present them to His Father and your Father, accompanied by His own all-prevailing merits; and, if they are for God’s glory and thy (real) good, be fully assured that they shall be granted. Thus will Christ be honoured and your faith strengthened.
Prayer; Filling our souls with Heaven by David MacIntyre, Puritan Pastor; author of The Hidden Life of Prayer
Prayer is the most sublime energy of which the spirit of man is capable.
It is in one aspect glory and blessedness; in another, it is toil and travail, battle and agony. Uplifted hands grow tremulous long before the field is won; straining sinews and panting breath proclaim the exhaustion of the ‘heavenly footman.’ The weight that falls upon an aching heart fills the brow with anguish, even when the midnight air is chill.
Prayer is the uplift of the earth-bound soul into the heaven, the entrance of the purified spirit into the holiest; the rending of the luminous veil that shuts in, as behind curtains, the glory of God. It is the vision of things unseen; the recognition of the mind of the Spirit; the effort to frame words which man may not utter.
A man that truly prays one prayer,’ says Bunyan, ‘shall after that never be able to express with his mouth or pen the unutterable desires, sense, affection, and longing that went to God in that prayer.’
The saints of the Jewish Church had a princely energy in intercession: ‘Battering the gates of heaven with storms of prayer,’ they took the kingdom of heaven by violence. The first Christians proved in the wilderness, in the dungeon, in the arena, and at the stake the truth of their Master’s words, ‘He shall have whatsoever he saith.’ Their souls ascended to God in supplication as the flame of the altar mounts heavenward. The Talmudists affirm that in the divine life four things call for fortitude; of these, prayer is one.
One who met Tersteegen at Kronenberg remarked, ‘It seemed to me as if he had gone straight into heaven, and had lost himself in God; but often when he had done praying he was as white as the wall.’
David Brainerd notes that on one occasion, when he found his soul ‘exceedingly enlarged’ in supplication, he was ‘in such anguish, and pleaded with so much earnestness and importunity,’ that when he rose from his knees he felt ‘extremely weak and overcome.’ ‘I could scarcely walk straight,’ he goes on to say, ‘my joints were loosed, the sweat ran down my face and body, and nature seemed as if it would dissolve.’ A living writer has reminded us of John Foster, who used to spend long nights in his chapel, absorbed in spiritual exercises, pacing to and fro in the disquietude of his spirit, until his restless feet had worn a little track in the aisle.
One might easily multiply examples, but there is no need to go beyond Scripture to find either precept or example to impress us with the arduousness of that prayer which prevails. Should not the supplication of the Psalmist, ‘Quicken Thou me, according to Thy word…quicken me in Thy righteousness…quicken me after Thy loving-kindness…quicken me according to Thy judgments…quicken me, O Lord, for Thy name’s sake;’ and the complaint of the Evangelical Prophet, ‘There is none that calleth upon Thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of Thee,’ find an echo in our experience?
Do we know what it is to ‘labour,’ to ‘wrestle,’ to ‘agonize’ in prayer?
Another explanation of the arduousness of prayer lies in the fact that we are spiritually hindered: there is ‘the noise of archers in the places of drawing water.’
St. Paul assures us that we shall have to maintain our prayer energy ‘against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.’ Dr. Andrew Bonar used to say that, as the King of Syria commanded his captains to fight neither with small nor great, but only with the King of Israel, so the prince of the power of the air seems to bend all the force of his attack against the spirit of prayer. If he should prove victorious there, he has won the day.
Sometimes we are conscious of a satanic impulse directed immediately against the life of prayer in our souls; sometimes we are led into ‘dry’ and wilderness-experiences, and the face of God grows dark above us; sometimes, when we strive most earnestly to bring every thought and imagination under obedience to Christ, we seem to be given over to disorder and unrest; sometimes the inbred slothfulness of our nature lends itself to the evil one as an instrument by which he may turn our minds back from the exercise of prayer.
Because of all these things, therefore, we must be diligent and resolved, watching as a sentry who remembers that the lives of men are lying at the hazard of his wakefulness, resourcefulness, and courage.
‘And what I say unto you,’ said the Lord to His disciples, ‘I say unto all, Watch! ‘
There are times when even the soldiers of Christ become heedless of their trust, and no longer guard with vigilance the gift of prayer. Should anyone who reads these pages be conscious of loss of power in intercession, lack of joy in communion, hardness and impenitence in confession, ‘Remember from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works.’
‘Oh, stars of heaven that fade and flame, Oh, whispering waves below! Was earth, or heaven. or I the same, A year, a year ago!
‘The stars have kept their home on high, The waves their wonted flow; The love is lost that once was I, A year, a year ago.’
The only remedy for this sluggish mood is that we should ‘rekindle our love,’ as Polycarp wrote to the Church in Ephesus, ‘in the blood of God.’ Let us ask for a fresh gift of the Holy Spirit to quicken our sluggish hearts, a new disclosure of the charity of God.
The Spirit will help our infirmities, and the very compassion of the Son of God will fall upon us, clothing us with zeal as with a garment, stirring our affections into a most vehement flame, and filling our souls with heaven.
‘Men ought always to pray, and ‘-although faintness of spirit attends on prayer like a shadow-‘not faint.’
The soil in which the prayer of faith takes root is a life of unbroken communion with God, a life in which the windows of the soul are always open towards the City of Rest. We do not know the true potency of prayer until our hearts are so steadfastly inclined to God that our thoughts turn to Him, as by a Divine instinct, whenever they are set free from the consideration of earthly things.
‘The vision of God,’ says Bishop Westcott, ‘makes life a continuous prayer.’ And in that vision, all fleeting things resolve themselves and appear in relation to things unseen.
In a broad use of the term, prayer is the sum of all the service that we render to God, so that all fulfillment of duty is, in one sense, the performance of Divine service, and the familiar saying, ‘Work is worship,’ is justified.
‘I am prayer,’ said a Psalmist (Psa. cix. 4). ‘In everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving,’ said an Apostle.
In the Old Testament that life which is steeped in prayer is often described as a walk with God. Enoch walked in assurance, Abraham in perfectness, Elijah in fidelity, the sons of Levi in peace and equity. Or it is spoken of as a dwelling with God, even as Joshua departed not from the Tabernacle; or as certain craftsmen of the olden time abode with a king for his work.
Again, it is defined as the ascent of the soul into the Sacred Presence; as the planets, ‘with open face beholding,’ climb into the light of the sun’s countenance, or as a flower, lit with beauty and dipped in fragrance, reaches upwards towards the light.
At other times, prayer is said to be the gathering up of all the faculties in an ardor of reverence, and love, and praise. As one clear strain may succeed in reducing to harmony a number of mutually-discordant voices, so the reigning impulses of the spiritual nature unite the heart to fear the name of the Lord.
Source: David MacIntyre, The Hidden Life of Prayer
Throughout the Old and New Testaments and church history, every spiritual awakening was founded on corporate, prevailing, intensive, kingdom-centered prayer. We cannot create spiritual renewal by ourselves, but we can “prepare the altar” and ask God to send his Holy Spirit to change our hearts, our churches, and our communities. Christians are used to thinking about prayer as a means to get their personal needs met. More mature Christians understand prayer as a means to praise and adore God, to know him, to come into his presence and be changed by him. But the corporate aspect of prayer is not well known. How do we pray, repent, and petition God as a people?
SPIRITUAL AWAKENING AND RENEWAL IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Throughout the Old Testament, the people of God continually fall into periods of spiritual stagnation and then cultural accommodation to the idol worship and practices of surrounding pagan societies. Then there is a turning to God, the raising up of new leaders, and a “covenant renewal”—a restoration of spiritual vision and vitality.
This pattern is especially visible in the book of Judges, but it continues throughout the reign of the kings, the captivity, and the return from exile. Just as Israel was constituted a people with the reading of the law and the taking of the covenant oath at Mount Sinai, so the people must periodically remember who they are, renew the covenant, and return to the Lord.
Sinai-like covenant ceremonies occur again before entering Canaan (Joshua 24), before choosing the first king (1 Samuel 12), and after the return from exile (Nehemiah 8–9). Less formal but crucial renewal movements are continually happening (you can find a string of them in Judges 3:7–11; 3:12–15; 4:1–4; 6:7–10; and 10:6–16). If we look at all of these various revivals, we are first struck by how different they are. Some are formal ceremonies. Some seem to be spontaneous. Some are led by a strong central leader, and some seem to bubble up from the grassroots.
But one thing is stated over and over again: the people “cried out to the Lord.” It is the only factor that is always present in every revival. It is corporate, intense, prevailing prayer—not for personal needs, but for the presence and reality of God among his people.
SPIRITUAL AWAKENING AND RENEWAL IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
Even in the New Testament under the leadership of the apostles, it is evident that there is still a need for continual renewal. Just as Israel’s election as God’s people was demonstrated at Mt. Sinai, so the church is constituted by the descent and filling of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. But just as Israel is continually called to Sinai-like covenant renewals, so the church, even when it doesn’t seem to be in major decline, receives fresh fillings of the Holy Spirit. “Mini-Pentecosts” happen in Acts 4:31; 7:55; 8:17; 10:44; and 13:9.
What do these have in common? It is very easy to get distracted by the three unusual phenomena of the day of Pentecost: the mighty sound like “a violent wind” (v. 2); the visible “tongues of fire” over each person (v. 3); and speaking “in other tongues” (v. 4), which each member of the multiethnic audience could understand in his or her native language (v. 6). Speaking in tongues happens in some of the other Spirit-filling occasions, but not all, nor even most.
The central, abiding characteristics of Pentecost are that they were together in prayer (Acts 1:14; 2:1), they were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (2:4), and therefore they “began to speak” (2:4) “declaring the wonders of God (2:11).” Compare this with two other incidents in Acts after Pentecost.
In Acts 4:31, like Pentecost, there is a period of prevailing prayer (4:24) and then a powerful shaking as everyone senses the presence of God descending. But unlike Pentecost there are no tongues of fire or speaking in tongues. What results again are boldness (an assurance of God’s love and reality) and the ability to speak the word of God (v. 31).
The incident in Acts 7:55–56 is interesting, because it is an individual experience. As Stephen is about to be executed, he raises his eyes to heaven (v. 55), as the believers in 4:24 raised their voices to God. He gets the same assurance and boldness, the sense of God’s reality and presence called “the fullness of the Holy Spirit.” This allows him to face persecution in a completely Christ-like way, with courage and forgiving love toward his executioners.
In summary, what do all of these incidents have in common? We see that there is a continual need to renew the fullness of the Spirit. We see also that the fullness, in general, is connected to prevailing prayer, especially in the face of a challenge.
WHAT IS SPIRITUAL RENEWAL?
Spiritual revival, or renewal, is a work of God in which the church is beautified and empowered because the normal operations of the Holy Spirit are intensified. The normal operations of the Spirit include conviction of sin (John 16:8), enjoyment and assurance of grace and of the Father’s love (Rom. 8:15–16), access to the presence of God (John 14:21–23; 2 Cor. 3:17–18), and creation of deep community and loving relationships (Eph. 4:3–13).
This view differs or opposes three other common views:
1) The popular charismatic notion of revival, which sees revival as essentially the addition of extraordinary operations of the Holy Spirit (miracles, healings, prophecy, revelations).
2) The popular fundamentalist view that revivals are simply especially vigorous seasons of evangelistic activity. A “revival” is taken to mean an evangelistic crusade or a city-wide mission, etc.
3) The popular secular view that revivals are primitive, emotionally cathartic events, occurring among uneducated people subject to psychological manipulation by evangelists.
Instead the marks of revival are based upon the following.
First, there is an outpouring of the Spirit on and within the congregation, so that the presence of God among his people becomes evident and palpable.
In New York City, the Fulton Street Revival began in 1857, when a layman at the North Dutch Reformed Church on Fulton Street began a noontime prayer meeting for businessmen. These statistics are drawn from collections of sermons preached by New York City pastors during the revival years. When this happens, “sleepy” or stagnant Christians “wake up.” That is, there is a new and deeper conviction of sin and repentance—not just for major “behavioral sins” but for attitudes of the heart.
They experience a far more powerful assurance of the nearness and love of God, with the end result that Christians become both humbler and bolder at the same time. The more deeply one feels his or her debt of sin, the more intensely he or she feels the wonder of the payment on their behalf.
Nominal Christians, or Christians in name only, begin to realize they don’t actually have a living relationship with Christ by grace, and they get converted. When this begins to happen, it electrifies people. Long-time members are getting up and talking about being converted or speaking of Christ in radiant terms or expressing repentance in new ways. The early stages of renewal shake up other nominals and “sleepers” into renewal. Corporately, there is a sense of more passion and freedom and the presence of God in the worship services.
Second, as a result of this outpouring of the Spirit, new people are brought into the church, and it begins to grow. On the one hand, the renewed believers create a far more attractive community of sharing and caring and, often, great worship. There is the beautified community of the King. This can attract people from the outside.
On the other hand, Christians who begin to experience God’s beauty, power, and love put their relationship with Christ and the church first in their lives, and they become radiant and attractive witnesses—more willing and confident to talk to others about their faith, more winsome (less judgmental) when they do so, and more confident in their own church and thus more willing to invite people to visit it.
As a result, there are numerous conversions—sound, lasting, and sometimes dramatic. Significant, even astounding, church growth occurs. Many churches in America grow rapidly, but almost completely through transfer growth. When that is the case, renewal dynamics are not strong in the church.
Many churches in America do grow rapidly, but there are tell-tale symptoms of lifelessness. Most or all of the growth may be by transfer, not conversion. There is no deep conviction of sin or repentance, and thus few people can attest to dramatically changed lives. Also, the growth of many churches makes no impact on the local social order, because people do not carry their Christian faith out into their use of wealth, their work, or their public lives.
Without deep renewal of the gospel in our hearts, our external lives will be sealed off from what we believe, and our beliefs will never result in concretely changed living.
HOW DOES SPIRITUAL RENEWAL COME?
There is much to say about this, but we will concentrate on what is, biblically and historically, the one non-negotiable, universal ingredient in times of spiritual renewal: corporate, prevailing, intensive, kingdom-centered prayer. What is that?
It is focused on God’s presence and kingdom. Jack Miller talks about the difference between “maintenance” and “frontline” prayer meetings.
Maintenance prayer meetings are short, mechanical, and totally focused on physical, personal needs inside the church.
But frontline prayer has three basic traits: A request for grace to confess sins and humble ourselves; a compassion and zeal for the flourishing of the church; and a yearning to know God, to see his face, to see his glory.
It is quite clear when listening to a prayer meeting whether these traits are present. Most interesting. It is to study biblical prayer for revival, such as in Acts 4 or Exodus 33 or Nehemiah 1, where these three elements are evident. Notice in Acts 4, for example, that the disciples, who had been threatened, did not ask for protection for themselves and their families, but only for boldness to keep preaching!
It is bold and specific.
The history of revivals shows one or a few or many who take the lead in praying fervently for renewal.
Their pattern is Moses (Exodus 33), who pitched a tabernacle outside Israel’s camp, where he and others prayed for God’s presence and to see his glory. Such prayer need not (indeed, usually does not) begin as an organized church program, but rather it is a private field of strong exertion and even agony for the leaders. The characteristics of this kind of prayer include pacesetters in prayer, who spend time in self-examination. Without a strong understanding of grace, this can be morbid and depressing. But in the context of the gospel, it is purifying and strengthening. They “take off their ornaments” (Ex. 33:1–6). They examine themselves for idols and set them aside.
They then begin to make the big request—a sight of the glory of God. That includes asking for a personal experience of the glory and presence of God (“that I may know you,” Ex. 33:13); for the people’s experience of the glory of God (v. 15); and that the world might see the glory of God through his people (v. 16). Moses asks that God’s presence would be obvious to all: “What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” This is a prayer that the world would be awed and amazed by a show of God’s power and radiance in the church, that it would truly become the new humanity that is a sign of the future kingdom.
It is prevailing and corporate.
By this we simply mean that prayer should be constant, not sporadic and brief. Why? Are we to think that God wants to see us grovel? Why do we not simply put our request in and wait? But sporadic, brief prayer shows a lack of dependence, a self-sufficiency, and thus we have not built an altar that God can honor with his fire (see 1 Kings 18). We must pray without ceasing, pray long, pray hard, and we will find that the very process is bringing about that which we are asking for—to have our hard hearts melted, to tear down barriers, and to have the glory of God break through. We need sustained, repeated prayer.
BUILDING AN ALTAR
Let’s return to Stephen’s “mini-Pentecost” in Acts 7. When Stephen was dragged before a human court, he was condemned unjustly and was about to be executed. But he was filled with the Holy Spirit (v. 55). How so? We are told, “full of the Holy Spirit, he looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him . . . While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed… ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’” (vv. 55–57, 59–60).
What happened? First, he prayed. He looked up. Second, by the power of the Holy Spirit, something Stephen knew with his mind became real to his heart. He saw Jesus standing at God’s right hand. This refers to his work as our Advocate (1 John 2:1 says we have an advocate with the Father, one who speaks in our defense—Jesus Christ the Righteous One. He is the propitiation for our sins). At the very moment that an earthly court was condemning him, he realized that the heavenly court was commending him.
In other words, the “fullness” he experienced was an experience of the gospel. At that moment, he got an extremely vivid, powerful sight of what he already knew intellectually—that in Christ we are beautiful in God’s sight and free from condemnation (Rom. 8:1; Col. 1:22). The Spirit took that intellectual concept and electrified his entire soul and mind and heart and imagination with it. Third, Stephen, although only for a moment, was able to exhibit the new humanity that God is creating. He had courage. He forgave his oppressors. He faced his accusers not just with boldness, but with a calmness and joy. That is spiritual renewal.
It is not simply an emotional experience—it is a heart-changing and therefore life and practice-shaping work of the Holy Spirit. A good image for seeking the fullness of the Spirit is the concept of “building a life altar.” In the Old Testament, an altar was built and a sacrifice placed on it, and then God sent his fire to burn up the sacrifice (e.g., 1 Kings 18). This is a great illustration of the dynamics of personal revival and spiritual renewal.
Paul uses it when he tells us to make ourselves a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1–2). We cannot create spiritual renewal—we can only prepare the altar and the sacrifice. Only God can send the fire. If we look at Acts 1, we see Jesus helping the disciples build an altar. There are at least four parts to this process.
A renewed church is vision-driven.
In Acts 1:6–8, Jesus repairs their faulty vision of what he is going to do in the world. They were looking for a political campaign, and he tells them about the nature of the kingdom, which will spread through his disciples as they become his witnesses and ambassadors.
The vision is that through our words we will bring people under the kingship of Christ, which will heal and repair all things.
A renewed church is gospel-driven.
In Acts 1:9–11, Jesus ascends to heaven, and the angels tell the disciples that now the knowledge of his ascension should empower them. As in the incident with Stephen, it is only as we “preach the gospel to ourselves” about our standing in Christ that the Holy Spirit takes that truth and catches it on fire in our hearts, creating times of amazing assurance that equip us for service.
A renewed church is prayer-driven.
In Acts 1:14, we see the disciples uniting in corporate, prevailing prayer. It is only in prayer and through prayer that the Holy Spirit takes up the vision and the gospel and makes them fiery realities in the centers of our being.
A renewed church is leader-driven.
In Acts 1:15–26, we see the disciples asking for God to raise up leaders. Personal and corporate revivals occur through leaders which God identifies and equips.
How, then, can we as leaders “build an altar,”
…seeking our renewal as a church and a people by the power of the Holy Spirit. Let’s begin now.
First, pray that your church grasps its own vision in a new way. Take time to thank God for your church, for what it has done in your life, and for what you see it doing in the lives of others and in your community. Ask God to help you better understand and grasp what he is calling you to do to reach your city. Pray that your small group and outreach ministries will give people a deeper appreciation of your church’s vision and an experience of real community.
Second, pray that your worship services this season will be particularly anointed, that the truth of the gospel will be unusually vivid and spiritually real to all hearers—believers and non-believers—and that God’s presence would be evident.
Third, pray that your seasons and services of prayer would not be just a passing program but would signal a greater emphasis on and practice of corporate prayer within your church.
Fourth, accept your leadership role in the church. Even if you are not an officer—even if you think of yourself as a “volunteer”—you, as an active worker and servant, are a model to those less committed.
Take time to pray for yourselves, that you could enter a season of self-examination. Ask that you may be, with full gospel assurance, nonetheless hard on yourself. Ask that God would show you ways in which you don’t represent Christ as you should, in your relationships, in your work life, in your family life, in your habits and attitudes, and in your relationships within the church. Take time to pray for yourselves, that God will make things you know about the gospel in your head real to your heart, and changing the way you live where you need to change.