“A man’s prayer is only heard if he puts his soul in his hand.” So runs the axiom of the Rabbis, and it stands as a crushing rebuke for the tepid self-seeking which passes for prayer with so many of us today.
The saying is based on Job 13:14, and it gives expression to the thought that prayer is an adventure. It is a realising of one’s utter helplessness, a casting of oneself entirely on the mercy of God. It is a cry to man’s Maker from the depths of man’s troubled being.
Many people never rise above the infant stage in the all-important matter of their prayer life. It is the most natural thing in the world for the babe to regard the world as his oyster. From early days he makes the tacit assumption that everything that there is, is for his benefit, and in truly lordly fashion he makes his demands. In time he comes to learn that there are other people who also have their wants, and life becomes a matter of adjusting his claims to theirs.
Sooner or later he makes the great discovery that there are other ways of getting what he wants than yelling for it. The great tragedy is when a man never proceeds beyond this point, other than in the perfecting of better and better ways of securing his desires. But so common is this attitude that much of modern life is permeated with it. There is a well-known book with the title, “How to win friends and influence people.” What nobody seems to doubt is whether one man has the right to be influencing people in this sense. The underlying assumption is that a man should have other people do the things he wants them to do, and the only question is “What is the best way to do this?” So the average man sets his heart on his own success. He interprets it variously: popularity, making money, being powerful, being secure, having a happy home. There are many ways of wrapping selfishness up, but basically the modern man is one who seeks to do his own will.
The great change that takes place when a man becomes a Christian is that God becomes the centre of his life not self. He dies to his former way of life, and is born again. His whole direction is changed; he is converted. His past evil is done away as his sin is forgiven through the atoning work of the Saviour. He ceases to trust in self and trusts its Christ.
There is much more to it, but we are concerned with prayer. The converted man cannot look on prayer as a new and wonderful instrument for getting his way. If you regard prayer as the divine means of insuring that your will done, then you have a sub- Christian outlook on prayer. Prayer is not a process of persuading God to see life as we see it. Rather in one of its aspects it is coming to see things in a measure as God sees them. True prayer always includes “Thy will be done.”
Someone has said that prayer is practicing the presence of God, and in one aspect this is true. So far from making prayer a means of securing one’s wants, the redeemed soul delights simply to be with the Lord. Look at the beautiful little prayer of adoration in Rev 4:11. Throughout the ages mature Christians have found in pure adoration one of the highlights of prayer.
If prayer is concerned with getting the will of God done rather than the will of man, the question arises, “Why then, should we pray? Will not God see that His will is done?” There are deep mysteries here, and we will not in this article go into the question of the extent to which the divine will is actually done. Nor do we feel competent to give a complete answer to the question “Why pray?”
But if we may hazard a speculation, prayer seems to be the sphere in which God is pleased to work. It is not that He cannot work without it, for none can place limits to His activity. And in any case He sometimes does work even where no prayer has been offered, as many a converted sinner can humbly testify. But normally He pleases to work in response to prayer. Everyone knows the difference in the atmosphere of a meeting which has been prepared with an abundance of prayer. No amount of organisation, or bright singing, or attractive speaking can make up for lack of prayer. Prayer does change things.
Then, too, prayer is the expression of the great change that has come over a man. Earlier we referred to the change of outlook which takes place when a man comes to believe. He no longer relies on his own best effort, but all his trust is in God. Humble believing prayer is the outcome of this and the expression of this. That is what we had in mind in the Rabbinic quotation with which this article opened. Unless we have come to the place where we see our complete helplessness, where we see sin for the horror that it is, where we cry in faith for God to save us, we do not begin to understand the nature of prayer. When prayer is the expression of our complete abandonment of self then indeed do we “put our soul in our hand.”
From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, originally published under the title ‘Let us Pray’ in the ACR, March 1, 1956.