PRAYER is a 6 part series taken from Dr Nichterlein’s Essay presented at the South Australian District Convention, ELCA, held at Adelaide, South Australia, March 3-9, 1949, that has been adapted for the web by the ELCR webmaster Helen Kilpatrick. All original content has been preserved with images, extra divisions, headings and formatting being added for ease of reading. The full original un-adapted article is available for download on the archives page.
[It is of interest to note that as this essay was presented just 4 years following the close of WWII it is not surprising that it touches on war quite frequently. – HK]
This article directly follows on from the previous – Part 1 What Is Prayer?
1. God wants us to pray
Prayer, then, is an act of worship wherein with heart and voice we bring before God our petitions, our praises, and our thanks. And this act of worship we engage in, in the first place, because God has commanded it. Our Creator wants to be worshipped. He wants to hear our prayers. He says, “Call upon me in the day of trouble.” Jesus says, “Ask!” St. Paul bids us pray without ceasing. He exhorts that first of all supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made. He tells Timothy to see to it that men everywhere pray, lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting.
2. God has promised to hear us
In the second place, we should be encouraged to pray by the promise given us by our Father in heaven that He will hear our prayer. He not only says, “Call upon me in the day of trouble,” but also adds, “And I will deliver thee.” Jesus declares that when we ask, it shall be given unto us. Just such promises of God were the motive power of David’s prayers as we read them in the psalms. “O thou that hearest prayer,” he says, “unto thee shall all flesh come.” It is just this lack of confidence in God’s willingness to hear their prayers that so often makes Christians neglect the sweet hour of prayer.
Although the Lord has promised, “It shall come to pass that before they call, I will answer: and while they are yet speaking, I will hear,” our old stubborn heart often says, “What will prayer avail! What’s the use of praying! Does God really care? Will He take any notice of my requests?” To such littleness of faith God replies in the 145th Psalm: “The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth. He will fulfil the desire of them that fear him: he also will hear their cry, and will save them.”
But is it really true that God hears and answers prayers? We often hear Christians complain that their prayers have been in vain. Their experience in this direction has led them to doubt whether God really means what He says when He promises to hear His children’s prayers. On some occasion they very insistently asked God for something they believed themselves to be in dire need of, but apparently the petition was not granted, and so they boldly assert that prayer is not efficacious. They think the Epistle of James is wrong when it is said there, “Ye have not because ye ask not.” They see no meaning in the words of the same epistle that the “effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” But are such people honest in their conclusions? Were there not times also within their experience when God did give them what they asked for in their prayer? And have not other Christians been able to tell them of very remarkable answers they had to their prayers?
St. Paul, too, might have complained that prayer was in vain when feeling that thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan who buffeted him, he solemnly on three special occasions approached the Lord in prayer asking for the removal of this disability, whatever it may have been. The burden was not taken from him, but the reply of the Lord was, “My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” But Paul has no such complaint against God to make. He had taken his trouble to the Lord in prayer and left it to the Lord to deliver him in His own time in His own way.
God hears His children when they cry to Him, always hears them, but in His wisdom does not always give them exactly that what they ask for. Just as earthly parents often for their children’s good have to refuse their requests, so our Father in heaven knows best what is good for us and what fits in with the way in which He wishes to lead us through life, and notwithstanding our pleadings, withholds from us the things we have been asking for. And perhaps what we know not now we shall know hereafter. Many a Christian has admitted that he had much reason to thank God for not having given him that for which he was at one time praying.
The mother of St. Augustine, Monica, was a very pious woman. Her husband was not a Christian. And her son followed in the footsteps of the father. Though it did not seem of much use to speak to these two about God, this lady incessantly pleaded with God for their conversion. When Augustine planned to undertake a journey to Rome, Monica trembled at the thought of the evil influences the life of this great and wicked city would have on her son, and she besought the Lord to prevent his journeying thither. The prayer was not granted. Augustine went to Rome. But whilst in Rome he came under good Christian influence which brought him to the conviction of the dangers of heathenism and the truth of Christianity. In consequence of that journey to Rome, which Monica would like to have prevented, the Church received one of the greatest teachers of that period.
In the end Monica was not disappointed because her petition had not been granted. Perhaps many of us, too, have had reason to thank God because at some time or other He withheld from us the thing we were asking for and gave us something far better instead.
The reasons why apparently prayers often go unanswered are several. The promise of God to hear prayer is certainly conditional. St. John tells us to have this confidence in Him that if we ask anything “according to his will,” He will hear us (1 John 5: 14). Our prayers are not always according to God’s will. The mother of the two disciples James and John probably thought she was making quite a legitimate request to Jesus when she besought Him that, when His kingdom would be established, the two highest posts of honour might be given to her two sons, but Jesus had to rebuff her, telling her that her request was foolish.
The leper who came to Jesus said, “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.” He did not demand unconditionally that the Lord should restore him to health. He made his petition subject to the Lord’s will. He would be a happy man if he could regain his health. But God’s ways were higher than his ways, and he was unable to know the intentions of the Lord. The Lord would know best. Let the Lord’s will be done. Therefore he says, “If thou wilt,” if it is in accordance with what Thy wisdom has planned for me, if it should redound to Thy glory and my good, then in Thy almighty power grant me recovery from this disease.
So also Jesus Himself set us the example when He prayed in Gethsemane, saying, “Father, if it be possible … Not my will, but thine, be done.” God hears the prayers of His children, but not always in the way the children expect it to be done.
And then, too, to test the faith and the patience of the children He sometimes lets them wait a while. The Syrophenician woman who came to Jesus pleading for her daughter was very insistent in her prayer. It seemed for a while as though her petition were falling on deaf ears. At first the Lord seemed to ignore her. Then He told her that He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and, therefore, had no time for her, a Gentile woman, and that it was not the proper thing to take the bread from the children and throw it to the dogs. But all this was merely a trial of her faith. In the end the Lord could say to her, “O woman, great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt.”
What a fine example this woman has set us. From her we may learn not to despair if it looks as if God were turning a deaf ear to our prayer, but simply to go on praying, yea, to wrestle with God in prayer, to remind Him, as it were, of His promises, to bring before Him our arguments as though we were bent on convincing Him.
It is sometimes argued that to pray is illogical since God’s decrees cannot be altered by man’s prayers. The fatalist may say, What is to be will be, whether I pray or not. He might as well say, I will live to the age that God has decreed to me whether I eat or not.
Christians do not speak like that. Although they know that their times are in God’s hands and that He has alloted to them the years of pilgrimage they are to have on earth, yet they take every reasonable precaution to live according to the rules of health and do not unnecessarily jeopardize their lives.
So also God not only foreknows, He moulds our destinies, but in moulding them He also considers our prayers which He has also foreknown. Therefore, in the day of trouble we do not sit idly down and say, We shall wait and see what the Lord has decreed for us, but besides using every reasonable means we know of to overcome our trouble we call upon God for His help. There is nothing illogical in that.
Again it is argued that God cannot answer every prayer, because so often prayers are contradictory. John Smith would like to have rain and he asks the Lord to open the windows of heaven and send down a copious supply of moisture. But his neighbour, Fred Mueller, is not yet ready for rain. Part of his harvest is still out in the field. He would like to see a continuance of fine dry weather and he asks the Lord for more days of warm sunshine. Both men are good Christians and God has promised them both that when they ask it shall be given; now which one is the Lord to please? It is suggested that at times such contradictory requests made by His children must place the Lord in a rather awkward dilemma.
We heard this argument frequently in connection with the war. So-called Christian nations were wrapped in deadly warfare with each other. From both sides prayers were ascending to the throne of God asking for victory in the struggle. Both sides were able to back up their prayers by very sound arguments, at least so they thought. Each side thought it could make an appeal to the righteousness of God and ask that the enemy be vanquished. It is suggested that if God had been really impartial, He would have made the war end in a draw. Since He did not do that, He must have gone back on His promises as far as His children on the losing side were concerned.
People argue in that way in order to make the Christian teaching of the efficacy of prayer look ridiculous. They do not see how ridiculous they are making themselves by using arguments of that kind. They depict the Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, as a vacillating dullard [(irresolute fool) – HK] who is swayed by popular opinion and desires in making His decisions. Christians believe that the Lord God omnipotent rules over all things in heaven and earth and that He, therefore, is the God of battles who decides the issues when nation rises up against nation. “The Lord wrought a great victory,” we are told in the account of David’s wars with the Philistines. And St. Paul tells the Athenians that He who made of one blood all nations for to dwell on all the face of the earth has “determined the times before appointed and the bounds of their habitation.”
Humanly speaking the rise and fall of kingdoms and their boundaries are decided by wars. Yet in those wars is the finger of God moulding the history of the world. And in the affairs of His government the Almighty does not require the advice of men. Nevertheless, also in time of war the children of God take their trouble to the Lord in prayer. And if there are children of God, true Christians, on both of the warring sides, in each case seeking and praying for the welfare of their country and for victory, that will not present any difficulties to the King of kings.
In each case, as such prayers are, or should be, conditional prayers, the spirit of the prayer will be that if it please the Lord, if it be good for the nation, if it serve for the building of His kingdom, He would ward off defeat and bring the war to a conclusion that would enable His children throughout the affected nations to lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. Christians will in time of war offer up such prayers in all humility, acknowledging the war as a righteous retribution from on high for their country’s sins, and will not base their request on their country’s assumed righteousness, but solely on the love and mercy of God and will acknowledge that if their nation is going to suffer defeat, they are but receiving the due reward of their deeds.
If, on the other hand, the Lord grants a victorious conclusion of the war, Christians will not be puffed up with pride. To claim that the Lord grants victory to the side that is in the right, and to accept victory as proof that the cause for which the nation was fighting was a just one betrays abysmal spiritual ignorance. Not only the Word of God but also the records of the world’s history tell us that it is not always the righteous cause that gains the victory on the battle fields. At the present time Christians everywhere are fervently praying that God would prevent a World War No. 3, yet when it comes, they will humble themselves under the almighty hand of God and say, “The will of the Lord be done; let Him do whatsoever seemeth Him good.”
3. Troubles should urge us to pray
Times of war are times of trouble. And the Lord bids us call upon Him in the day of trouble. It is just because His children are often so slow and too stubborn to bow the knee in humble supplication that the Lord sends days of trouble. Troubles come into our life, they come into our families, they come into our country, and often their purpose is to take the stiffness out of our knees. Many a one has only then learnt to pray fervently and become instant in prayer and to call to God out of the depths when heavy clouds lowered over him.
Those who do not love and fear God will probably in days of trouble only resort to rebellion against the Almighty and will blaspheme Him. Cursing will come from their lips instead of prayers. To them the words of the prophet apply:
“Thou hast stricken them, but they have not grieved; thou hast consumed them, but they have refused to receive correction: they have made their faces harder than a rock; they have refused to return” (Jer 5: 3).
Nevertheless, there have been cases innumerable, possibly also within our own experience, in which the day of trouble has led men and women to seek the Lord and to find the way that leads to life eternal.
Not only should our own troubles be the burden of our prayers. Our prayers are not to be a display of selfishness and self-interest. Our prayers should reveal our universal concern for and our love of mankind. We are told of the old Scotchman who used to say in his daily prayer: “God bless me and my wife and our John and his wife, us four and no more.” I am afraid that often our prayers lack that love and concern for others that marks the true Christian. Just in our prayers also we are to bear one another’s burdens. We know how cheering and strengthening it is to the Christian when he knows and is assured that others are praying for him.
These, then, are the reasons why we should pray:
- God wants us to pray;
- God has promised to hear us when we pray;
- our own troubles and those of others should urge us to pray.
Let us allow Luther to give us a word of admonition here. In reply to the question why we should pray he answers:
“In the first place we should be urged by God’s commandment who so earnestly commands us to pray. Then His promise to hear us. In the third place that we consider our needs and misery that weigh heavily upon us and make the prayer necessary in which we pour out our troubles before Him in accordance with His command and promise. Fourthly that in accord with God’s Word and promise we pray in true faith and be confident that He will hear us. And we do it in the name of Jesus through whom our prayers are acceptable to God who grants us mercy and every blessing for Jesus’ sake.”
Reprinted by kind permission of Openbook Publishers, Adelaide, by the Evangelical Lutheran Congregations of the Reformation (ELCR), 1995. Contact: P.O. Box 692, Kingaroy, Qld. Aust. 4610.