Passing now from these preliminary counsels concerning prayer, let us note how great is the importance which, both by His precepts and His example, Christ attaches to the duty of intercessory prayer. I have been much struck of late in reading several books on this subject, to note how one writer after another judges it needful to warn his readers against the idea that prayer is no more than petition. What they say is, of course, true; prayer is much more than petition. But, unless I misread the signs of the times, this is not the warning which just now we most need to hear. Rather do we need to be told that prayer is more than communion, that petition, simple asking that we may obtain, is a part, and a very large part of prayer. “Who rises from prayer a better man,” says George Meredith, “his prayer is answered.” This is true, but it is far from being the whole truth. The duty of intercession, of prayer for others, is writ large on every page of the New Testament; but intercession has simply no meaning at all unless we believe that God will grant our requests as may be most expedient for us and for them for whom we pray. Let me illustrate the wealth of Christ’s teaching on this matter by two or three examples.
(1) We have all read Tennyson’s question—
“What are men better
than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friends?”
For themselves and those who call them friends—but Christ will not suffer us to stop there. “Bless them that curse you,” He said; “pray for them that despitefully use you.” So He spoke, and on the Cross He made the great word luminous for ever by His own prayer for His murderers: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
(2) Christ prayed for His disciples and for His Church: “I pray for them ... neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on Me through their word.” “I will pray the Father and He shall give you ——.” Only once are the actual words recorded, but they cover, we are sure, great stretches of Christ’s intercourse with God. And when once in their work for Him they had failed, He puts His finger on the secret of their failure thus: “This kind can come out by nothing save by prayer.” Do we pray for our Church? We find fault with it; but do we pray for it? We blame its office—bearers and criticize its ministers; but do we pray for them? We go to the house of God on the Sabbath day; but no fire is burning on the altar, the minister has no message for us, we come away no whit better than we went. Whose is the blame? Let the man in the pulpit take his share; but is it all his? Must not some of it be laid at the door of his people? How many of them during the week had prayed for him, that his eyes might be opened and his heart touched, that as he sat and worked in his study he might get from God to give to them? Dr. Dale used to say that if ever he preached a good sermon, a sermon that really helped men, it was due to the prayers of his people as much as to anything he had done himself. If in all our churches we would but proclaim a truce to our bickerings and fault-findings, and try what prayer can do!