G. H. C. Macgregor
The words in this passage represent a high water mark in the Bible teaching regarding Prayer. The word here translated “laboring fervently” might more literally have been translated “agonizing,” and is perhaps the strongest word that could be employed. Its meaning we cannot at once realize. It startles us; it pains us; at first it repels us. To speak of agony in connection with prayer might seem to some unwise. It might seem to ensure our turning away from prayer. Yet there the word lies written by the inspiration of the Spirit of God, and full of the deepest teaching about the manner of prayer.
In connection with prayer several words are used in the New Testament. With three of these we shall now deal. Each of them has a separate lesson for us; while taken together they exhibit a progressive teaching, leading up to, and culminating in the word specially before us.
From the first of these words comes the startling call:
BE SOBER WHEN YOU PRAY
You may be startled at reading such words, but they are words from the book of God. If you turn to 1 Peter 4:7 you read in your Bibles, “The end of all things is at hand; be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer.” But if you turn to the Revised Version, you find the words run thus: — “Be ye therefore of sound mind, and be sober unto prayer.” The word is nepho and the literal meaning of it is “to abstain from wine.” It is used six times in the New Testament, three times by Paul and three times by Peter (1 Thess. 5:6; 1 Thess. 5:8; 2 Tim. 4:5; 1 Pet. 1:13; 5:8).
In four cases out of the six, we have it translated “be sober,” and in the other two “watch.” It would have been better had uniformity of translation been maintained, for the message of this word is much needed by all of us. We must hear and lay to heart the call “Be sober when you pray,” if we are to learn to pray, and in prayer to be led into that fellowship with God, in which the soul finds its strength and blessedness.
There are many things which intoxicate that are not wine. It is possible to be drunk with worldly gaiety, and when the brain is reeling after indulgence in worldly pleasure to try to approach God in prayer.
It is possible to be drunk with worldly business, and with a mind full of business cares, business plans, business successes or failures to attempt to draw near to the Holy God. It is possible to be drunk with pride over some success which we have achieved; it is possible to be drunk with envy, because some rival has outstripped us in the race; it is possible to be drunk with anger, because of some insult we have received; it is possible to be drunk with vanity to which our friends have been injudiciously ministering, and with our little souls swelling with vanity, anger, envy, or pride, to kneel down and attempt to pray.
But Peter tells us that prayer in these circumstances is impossible. Such feelings are definite, open hindrances to prayer, and must be set aside. They must be repented of and renounced, if we are to know what true fellowship with God is.
Prayer is an awful thing. God is very great. Between us at our best, and God there is a great gulf. It will ever be a wonderful thing that we are allowed to pray at all. So the word before us tells us that to the solemn exercise of prayer we ought to bring a mind, humble, penitent, clear, sound. It is not without meaning that prayer is connected in Scripture with fasting. It is to remind us of the reverence, and the self-abasement which becomes us when we come into the presence of the Holy God. “Be sober when you pray.”
We turn to a second word, and from it comes the call:
BE AT LEISURE WHEN YOU PRAY
We find this message in 1 Corinthians 7:5. The apostle Paul is there speaking of the distractions of family life, and virtually says that these are so sacred, that they are not to be set aside, unless that be necessary to secure leisure for prayer. “Defraud ye not one the other, except it be by consent for a season, that ye may give yourselves unto prayer” (1 Cor. 7:5).
The word used here is scholazo. It is used only three times in the New Testament, in two cases, Matthew 12:44, and Luke 11:25, being applied to a house left vacant. The word literally means to have leisure or spare time; to have nothing to do. Then it came to mean to have leisure for anything, and to devote one’s time to a thing. The lesson it teaches us is that we are to make time for prayer, and to take time in prayer. Prayer is not only not to be omitted; it is not to be hurried.
We are to approach God in prayer not only with a sober, but with a calm mind. Dew falls, we are told, only when the atmosphere is still, and the dew of prayer will fall abundantly on our souls, only when we are at leisure.
Do you say it is impossible to find leisure? Have you to confess that in this busy age you have so much work to do that prayer is thrust into a corner? Then the lesson of this word for you is plain. Take a holiday. Do less that you may do more. Do more by doing less. To pray well is to work well. Luther, a far busier man than any of us, used to say of his heavy days that he had so much to do, he could not do with less than two or three hours of prayer.
The lesson is one of immense importance for the Church of Christ today. Our activity is one of our greatest snares. We forget that it is of more importance to have power with God, than to have power with man. Yet we have only to read the biographies of the most eminent workers that God has ever given to His Church, to find that the secret of their power did not lie so much in what they did in the presence of men, as in what they did in the presence of God. They waited until they had got into touch with the power of God, and then went forth to do God’s work. From Scripture, from history, from the lives of God’s saints, comes the call “Be at leisure when you pray.”
We turn to a third word, and from it comes the message:
MAKE PRAYER THE GREAT BUSINESS OF YOUR LIFE
The word that brings us this message is a beautiful one. It is proskartereo and is frequently used in connection with prayer. In the New Testament it occurs ten times, and the places where it is used throw light on its meaning. In Mark 3:9, we read that “Jesus spake to His disciples that a little boat should wait on Him.” In Acts 10:7, we read that Cornelius sent to Peter “a devout soldier of them that waited on him continually.” In Romans 13:6, we are commanded to pay tribute to the authorities who administer justice, “for they are ministers of God’s service, attending continually upon this very thing.” In all these cases the word employed is the word now before us. The idea underlying the word is that of giving such attention to the matter in hand that it becomes the first business of life.
When the Lord gave the command that the boat should wait on Him, those in the boat had no higher duty, which could call them away. The soldier’s business was to attend on Cornelius. He dare not plead that he was too busy to attend to his master. He had no right to be too busy. Attendance on Cornelius was his first concern. When the Emperor appointed magistrates to administer justice, that was their first business. If a magistrate were to plead “I am too busy to attend the courts of justice, “the Emperor’s reply would be “You have no right to be too busy.”
What can our God think of our plea that we are too busy to pray, when, time after time, in His Holy Word He has bidden us make it the great business of our life.
Was I not right in saying that there is a distinct progress in the New Testament teaching as revealed in these words? Be sober when you pray. Be at leisure when you pray. Make prayer the great business of your life. Not only are all hindrances to prayer to be carefully removed; not only are our spare moments, our leisure hours to be occupied with prayer; it is to occupy our life. We are to pray without ceasing. We are to “continue steadfastly” in prayer, and to give ourselves to it.
Yet when we have done all this, when we have learned the lessons that underlie the words we have just considered, we are only in a position to begin to understand the weight of that wonderful word from which we started.
For after our last word has taught us to make prayer the great business of life, this word bids us:
MAKE PRAYER A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
I do not think anything less strong than that brings out the force of the word of our text. It is a wonderful word. It is the word from which our English word “agonize” is taken. The word is used in the New Testament eight times, and the use of the word shows that to the work of prayer, if it is to be done properly, we must call in every motive whereby a man may be moved to strenuous toil.
(a) We are to labor at prayer as a man labors at his daily work. We are to put forth our energy in this work until we are weary. This is the idea in the use of the word in Colossians 1:29, “Whereunto I labor also, striving according to His working which worketh in me mightily.” We know that in our day the aim of some laborers is to make their daily task as light as possible. The less they do for their day’s wage the better pleased they are. It is to be feared that some of us labor in prayer after that fashion. We do not bend our back to this work, toiling at it as the rural laborer toils in the fields, with his eye on the sun, looking till it dip over the horizon, and bid him go home to rest.
(b) We are to labor in prayer as a man labors in the arena, striving to obtain a prize which he covets more than life; straining to avoid defeat, the shame of which he dreads more than death. This is the teaching of 1 Corinthians 9:25, “Every man that striveth in the games is temperate in all things.” Today there is a passion for athletics, and any one who cares may see how men put their whole soul into sport. Would that God’s people were as earnest in prayer as the men of the world in sport. Watch an athletic contest, and see how the men engaged in it bring to it not only the force of the body but of the mind. Every faculty is bent on winning the prize.
That is how you and I are to pray. Agony in prayer means striving as the athlete in the arena. He strives for a corruptive prize; we strive for a prize above all price — fellowship with God, and knowledge of Him through His blessed Son.
(c) We are to labor in prayer as a soldier labors on the battlefield. This is the teaching of 1 Timothy 6:12, “Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life.” I do not think we have any conception of the way a soldier labors on the battlefield. From reading the accounts of many campaigns, I have received the impression that there is hardly any labor that man ever does, so intense as the labor of the battlefield. The soldier who does not put his whole heart into his work is sure of defeat.
Have we not often been utterly defeated in prayer? We have knelt to pray, and because the heavens seemed as brass, and the earth as iron, we have turned away from this blessed work, disheartened and discouraged. We have not fought as good soldiers fight, till victory crowns their efforts. Yet thus we must strive if we are to know what true prayer is.
Wonderful as these verses are, there are others which carry us still deeper. For when we turn to John 18:36, we learn that,
(d) We are to labor in prayer as a man would labor to defend a loved friend from danger. The discovery of this passage brought great delight to my soul. In it Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world: if My kingdom were of this world then would My servants fight that I should not be delivered to the Jews.” We know that at the time of our Lord’s arrest the disciples fled panic-stricken. But the reason of their panic was that the Lord would not allow them to fight. They were brave men, and they loved their Master, and had He bidden them to do it, for Him they would gladly have laid down their lives.
The lesson of the passage for us now is this, that we should bring to prayer all the chivalry and courage of our nature, which we would bring to the defense of our homes, and of our loved ones in a time of danger.
(e) We are to labor in prayer as a man labors to save his soul. This is the lesson of Luke 13:24, “Strive to enter in at the strait gate.” Perhaps this verse will teach us more than any of the others. Many of us are Christian workers. To many of us the privilege has been given of leading anxious souls to the Lord Jesus. We know how a truly awakened soul, who feels the burden of guilt, and hears the thunder of God’s wrath, labors to be saved. We know the agony and earnestness with which he flees from the wrath to come, and lays hold on life eternal. We have seen this and thanked God for it.
But have we ever prayed with an earnestness like his? Yet’ until we know what it is to bring to prayer something of the strenuousness of desire which we brought to the salvation of our souls, we are not ready to be led to those heights of spiritual blessing and power to which our God calls us.
(f) One verse more demands our attention, and as we turn to it we feel that the place where we stand is holy ground. Will you read very reverently these verses, Luke 22:41, “And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast and kneeled down and prayed, saying, ‘Father, if Thou be willing remove this cup from Me; nevertheless, not My will but Thine be done.’ And being in an agony He prayed more earnestly; and His sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”
Only once is the word “agony” used in the Bible, and it is here. What depths open before us as we read this passage, and see what laboring in prayer means. It means seeing the world’s sin somewhat as Christ saw it; it means seeing the world’s need somewhat as Christ saw it. It means assenting, as utterly as Christ did, to God’s judgment upon sin. And it means entering so into the will of God about the world’s deliverance from sin, that for that end we are willing to lay down our lives.
To true laboring in prayer there is necessary something of the Saviour’s conception of sin, and an inner intimate fellowship with His sufferings. It is only after we have been in the Garden with Him, that we learn the deeper lessons of the school of prayer.
This, then, is laboring in prayer, and it is to this that you and I are called. Truly, there are depths in connection with prayer, that we have never fathomed. We should humble ourselves before God, that we know so little in experience what agony in prayer really is.
But if we have learned to pray thus, the Word of God teaches us further the manner in which we shall agonize in prayer.
AGONIZE IN SECRET
1. Our prayers will be secret. The soul’s agony in prayer will be known to God alone. The highest kind of prayer is too sacred to share with any one but God. In this matter we cannot wear our heart upon our sleeve. We cannot allow our brother to share this agony with us. It is profoundly instructive in studying the life of the Lord Jesus to find how often He went apart to pray. He could not let His most loved disciples share His prayers. And this not only because the relation in which they stood to the Father was different from that in which He stood; but because His prayers were too deep, too sacred for them to know.
When we have learned to agonize in prayer, we will not tell our neighbors that we have learned it. The blessed suffering, which the learning of this will cost us, will be borne alone. But although we say nothing of it, its influence will be felt. It will inevitably touch our public prayers with a tenderness, and a yearning, and a pleading power such as they never had before.
2. Our prayers will be self-denying. We shall fast as well as pray. But, remember, fasting is matter for the soul as much as for the body. That we may agonize in prayer we shall subject ourselves to a holy discipline. We shall require discipline if we are to get time for prayer, to get quiet for prayer, and to make prayer the great business of our life. And this discipline may affect the body. We may, like the apostle, have to beat our body black and blue and keep it under, training it to be obedient as the wrestler trains his body for the battle, or the runner for the race.
3. Our prayers will be sustained. When we have reached this height in prayer, we shall understand what our Lord meant when He said that “men ought always to pray and not to faint” (Luke 18:1), and what the apostle meant when he bade us “Pray without ceasing.” When we have learned to agonize in prayer, our prayers have ceased to be a matter of impulse. They have become part of the main, full stream of our life. The habit of prayer has been formed, so that we live and move in an atmosphere of prayer.
4. Our prayers will be Spirit-taught. It is impossible for us to agonize in prayer unless we are “praying in the Holy Ghost” (Jude 20). Our agony in prayer is really something of His begetting. It is the answer of our soul to His agony when He makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered. Prayer, like faith, is the gift of God the Holy Spirit. It is a work which He works in our hearts, as they are yielded to Him, and filled by Him.
5. But if our prayers are Spirit-taught our prayers will be successful. For the Holy Spirit will bring us into true fellowship with God, and strengthen faith so that we shall pray earnestly (Acts 12:5) with our spirits on the stretch, looking for the answer that will speedily come from the Throne of God.
And then the Spirit will teach us the secret which we can learn from none but Him, how, in the very act of agonizing in prayer. to enjoy the deepest rest of faith. He will prevent us from praying in such a way as to dishonor God by seeming to think Him unwilling to bless. He will prevent us from weariness and discouragement. So our prayers will prevail, and to us will be given the joy of seeing those for whom we have prayed standing “perfect and complete in all the will of God.”
Discuss this article and other topics in our Discussion Board