And He said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing but prayer (Mark 9:29).
THE SUN had risen upon the earth when Jesus came down from the mount. It was late morning when He, with His three disciples, reached the place of their retreat. In the East the day’s activity begins with the
dawn. He found the quiet spot of their rest invaded by an excited multitude. In the midst stood the other disciples humiliated and mortified by their failure to cast out the evil spirit which possessed the epileptic child. When He had healed the boy and the crowd had departed, His disciples asked Him privately, “Why could not we cast him out?” (Mark 9:28). Christ’s reply touches one of the deepest mysteries of the religious life. “This kind can come forth by nothing but by prayer.” It proclaims that prayer is a force in the universe and that the blessedness of mankind is bound up with the prayers of God’s people. That seemed so difficult and transcendent a statement to the earlier transcribers of the Gospel that they added the words “and fasting” to Christ’s brief saying. They conceived that this tremendous power could be received only after some stern and self-denying discipline of the body and the soul. In some versions, this ascetic gloss has been removed. Jesus declared that great things are wrought by prayer alone.
Moods About Prayer
Most men find themselves at different times in two sharply contrasted moods towards prayer. In one mood prayer is our easy, inevitable, and most natural speech. When a man is walking with God it is his irresistible impulse to speak with Him. When we are certain of God’s presence, we do not hesitate to ask Him to work in us and for us and through us. Or when we are in the depths of sorrow or of shame, prayer
is our almost involuntary cry. The severer studies of the anthropologists have proved that there is no land in which men do not call upon an unseen power in their want and fear and pain. Even though a man may ignore God when his boat is sailing on an even keel, when his heart is overwhelmed, he cries to be led to the rock that is higher than he. Prayer is always a necessity. At other times it becomes a delight.
But in the other mood, prayer becomes a mystery and an effort. The difficulties seem so dark and insuperable that our very breath is caught when we attempt to pray. So many petitions seem to remain
unanswered. The reign of law in the universe seems so absolute that the mind cannot reach any certainty that an answer to prayer is even a possibility. Why should a weak and sobbing human cry check the stars in
their courses? The most deadening and disheartening barrier lies in the moral difficulty. Why should a man have to pray to a loving and merciful God? A man that is a father does not wait ’til the child who is laying on a bed of pain cries out for his sympathy and his healing. A man that is merciful does not wait ’til he hears the bleat of his sheep which he has lost. When our poor human hearts love, they do not wait to be begged that they may supply the needs of their dear ones. Why should prayer on our part be the indispensable condition of the working of God? We may receive some answers to these and other questions which trouble us if we take up, as simply as possible, this deep word of Jesus. “This kind can come forth by nothing but by prayer.”
How Is Prayer an Energy for God?
In the first place, prayer makes us more deeply conscious of God. In the rush and stress of life, and never more than in these days when the song of speed is on every man’s tongue, we tend to lose a sure and
clear consciousness of God. It is not that people disbelieve in God. The atheist is unknown. A generation ago he slipped back from the proud and defiant standpoint of the unbeliever to the more diffident position
of the agnostic. Never was faith in God and a submission to the authority of Christ so unquestioning as today. But in this busy and engrossing world, when the mind is filled every morning with all the news of the ends of the earth, and the interest of the heart is held, as the eyes are held by a drama on the stage, God falls out of men’s thoughts. If men will not sometimes think of God, He will merely become a name to them. If they glance toward Him only now and again, and with an unobservant and undesiring eye, He will become strange and shadowy and will remain unknown. We do not become sure of God by mustering up the arguments for His being and His purpose in the world. No heart ever stood up in a passionate conviction of God’s presence because it had been told that His footprints were marked upon the rocks. No mind was ever driven by the logic of history to assent with a deep persuasion to the personal providence of the Almighty. These things have their place and their power. They are byways of evidence in which a believing heart will sometimes walk. But the only certainty which can satisfy the mind and stir the heart is an ethical and a religious, a moral and a spiritual consciousness of God.
Faith is an opening of the eyes that we may see. It is in prayer that we rise most swiftly and most convincingly into this faith which sees. It is in prayer that we have the sure consciousness of God. Even though a man may kneel with a haze over his mind and a chill upon his spirit, he will not kneel in vain. Sailors have called out of the mist and fog as their vessel has approached some hidden shore. They did not know how far off the cliffs were which were marked upon their chart. Still they called, and as the responding hail came back, they knew that eyes were watching and hearts were beating for them. In the same way men become sure of God when they pray to Him. Mark the result! To have a clear consciousness of God is to be filled with power.
In the second place, prayer brings us into sympathy with the mind of God. It is a sad commonplace that there are evils unnoticed, wrongs unremedied, poor unpitied and unhelped, miserable uncomforted, not
because men do not know, but because they do not sympathize. Their eyes look out daily on scenes of poverty and of pain. Their ears are filled with the cries of those who suffer. But they do not seem to see or to hear because their hearts have not been touched to sympathy. Travelers in Africa all dwell on the callous way in which a band of bearers look upon one of their number who is carrying his load in utter exhaustion.
They will leave him behind them on the trail, well aware that soon his bones will be bleaching in the sun. They will obey any command to care for him with a sulky discontent. They will meet the order to carry him
almost with rebellion.
There was a day when Christians heard the cry from the regions beyond and yet gave it no heed. To this day people are told of the darkness and degradation, the fear and the whispering dread, the torture of body
and of mind, the infamy of life and of spirit, all of which prevails over large tracts of Asia and of Africa, and they listen unmoved. The cries of children, the sobs of widowed hearts, and the sighs of over-driven men fall upon some men’s ears as they take their ease and yet leave them cold. Ever and again some great soul rises who sees and hears with a new throb of sympathy. He sees right into the misery of the pain and wrong. He sees all the iniquity which is the spring of these bitter streams. With George Muller of Bristol and other like-minded men he hears the cry of the children. With William Carey and his long line of noble fellow-laborers he feels the burden of those who walk in darkness. With William Clarkson he is afflicted with the wrongs of the slave. He stands as a prophet of God to his generation. But what is the source of his sympathy? Whence came the light of his seeing? “With Thee is the fountain of life; and in Thy light we shall see light” (Psalm 36:9). Every one of these leaders in helping the oppressed have been men of prayer. As they have continued in prayer, they have come to learn the mind of Christ. They have begun to think His thoughts. They have become one with Him in spirit. He has lived and breathed within them. As the tide of sympathy with the mind of God has risen in their souls while they prayed, they were endued with the power of God.
In the third place, prayer surrenders us to the energy of God. The highest attitude in prayer is not desire nor aspiration nor praise. It is surrender. In surrender we open our whole being to God as a flower opens itself to the sun, and we are filled, up to our measure, with His divine energy. It is because man can be filled with the fulness of God that he has been chosen of God as His instrument in the world. In one
true sense God set bounds to His power when He created man. He placed a further limit on Himself when He committed dominion to him. God now works through man, and if man will not work the works of God, the works of God remain undone. God might have peopled the world, as He has spread the stars through the heavens, by a word of command. He has chosen to people the world by one generation bringing forth another. If men will not replenish the earth, it will remain as lonely as a wilderness. He might have chosen to make the earth a place of order and beauty by the breath of His Spirit. But He has put man into His garden to till it. If a man will not take care of the garden it will become woods and prairie. He might have committed the gospel to a dispensation of angels, or have written His message in letters of light on the
midnight sky, or made every stone breathe forth a Memnon music of appeal with every morning light. But He has committed to humans the ministry of reconciliation, and if they refuse to be God’s ambassadors
His gospel shall remain unknown.
There is a strange deep saying of the Old Testament in which a psalmist charges the Hebrew people with limiting the Holy One of Israel. We limit God when we think meanly of Him and teach men an impoverished doctrine of His grace. We limit God when we will not keep His commandments and do His will. We limit God by every act of rebellion which blocks His way. But there is one way in which we limit God most effectually of all. That way is by our prayerlessness. Because we are not surrendered to God in prayer, the might of His energy does not pass into us. Every faculty a man has, every talent God has given him, every fibre of his heart, and every cell in his brain may be energized by the energy of God. “He giveth power to the faint, and to them that have no might He increaseth strength” (Isaiah 40:29). People whom others have despised, teachers whom the strong have scorned, humble and lowly and unlearned men and women have done great things for God because they have been so surrendered to Him that His energy has been a swift dynamic in every faculty of body and of soul.
That truth is written in such large letters that one wonders why any man doubts the efficacy of prayer, or why so many men neglect it. It is always after ten days of prayer that Pentecost comes, and Peter stands
up with new and amazing powers of exposition and of eloquence. In his surrender he has been filled with all the energy of God. We never come into close touch with any man who has lead a revival or been an
instrument in the renewal of faith in multitudes of men, but we are impressed both by his personal weakness and his strange and mysterious strength. In his prayer of surrender he has been filled with the energy of God. The whole inwardness of this truth is written in the journal of John Wesley. For over twelve years he served in the ministry without power and without joy. But he came to that day when in prayer he
surrendered himself and he was filled with the energy of God. His life thereafter was a daily yielding of himself to God. His journal, on almost every page, records his constant and daily touch with his Almighty Lover. On the first page of his diary he discloses the whole secret. He writes: “I resolved Deo juvante: 1) To devote an hour morning and evening to private prayer; no presence or excuse whatever. 2) To converse with God; no lightness, no foolish talking. As with Wesley, all who receive God’s potent energy in prayer do great things for God.
In the fourth place, prayer works on the will of God. No error has done more to paralyze our faith in prayer and to make the prayer of faith a wistful observance than the strange conception that God is fixed and
inexorable law, if not even an iron and inflexible fate. There are many praying men who are fatalists in their heart. But God is not law, nor is He fate. God is will. The essential truth about will is this, that
it is continually forming new plans, making fresh choices, and coming to unprophesied decisions. The common thought of God is that He is a personality bound hand and foot by His laws. The conception that lies behind much of the seemingly wise writing of many clever men is that God has no other laws than those we know and no higher methods than those we use. But God is a sovereign will with infinite resources. God’s will as an eternal purpose in Christ cannot be finally thwarted. God’s will as a fixed and steadfast purpose of grace shall be fulfilled. “I am the Lord, I change not” (Malachi 3:6). God is not a
man that He should lie, neither the son of man that He should repent (Numbers 23:19). As Bunyan writes in his rustic couplet:
Whether to heaven or hell you tend, God will have glory in the end.
God’s will, as Jesus tells us in the prayer He taught us to pray, is not always done. It is not His will that one of the little ones should perish, and yet the sighs of their dying hours ascend to His throne. His will is our sanctification, and yet our sanctification is not an actuality. Men can thwart His intentions, check His plans, block His way, both within their own souls and in the outer world of life. A man can resist the Holy Spirit. As a man can thwart and check the will of God, so also can he move that will and work on it to his blessing and his help. As he brings his desires and his will to bear on the will of God, he moves God and alters His method and His ways. The issue is often seen in what men call miracles. But there are no miracles with God. Yet the answers to a human prayer are signs and wonders which seem to interrupt the course of nature, to divide the seas in their beds, and to keep the sun from going down.
This is the only scriptural conception of the will of God. Never did men guard so jealously against thinking of God as a man as did these Old Testament teachers. Yet they boldly say that God loves, fears, hopes, rejoices, grieves, repents of His methods, and changes His mode of dealing. With one voice they declare that God may be entreated, His anger turned away, and the course He has threatened left untravelled.
Abraham does not doubt but that God can be turned aside from the destruction of Sodom. Moses does not doubt but that God can be led to take fresh pity on His disobedient people and keep their name in His
book. Hezekiah is assured that the Lord will turn back the shadow of death. They are well aware that the whole truth lies in an infinite mystery beyond their power to fathom. But this they know, that their
prayers are not empty and idle breath, but forces which can act on the mind and will of God. This they are confident of, that a man can wrestle with God and can prevail.
The New Testament Scripture is equally emphatic in its testimony. Jesus is most daring of all, when again and again He urges men to persistent praying which has power to change even the expressed mind of God. The urgent praying that Jesus demands in the bringing of the whole force of an eager will, in sympathy with God’s inner purpose, to bear upon His will and His ways.
So then-pray! When your child is lying on a bed of sickness, and wise eyes look on him with a pitying hopelessness, still-pray! When weakness has smitten you, and you have the sentence of death in yourself, still-pray! When your business affairs are in confusion, and there seems no relief from disaster and shame, still-pray! When the heart of a once noble people seems to have become gross, and their ears are deaf to
every appeal, still-pray! Who can tell whether God will be gracious to you.
However, it may not be His will to grant your prayers. Your request may conflict with His eternal purpose of grace. He is the moral governor of the universe, and your request may stand right in the way of wisdom, if not of mercy and love. He is your Father, but He has a spiritual purpose towards you which may require the denial of much that seems to you your necessary good. He cannot grant all the prayers of His children, any more than you can grant all the prayers of yours. He may answer their purpose when He may seem to deny their request. He did not grant Abraham’s prayer for Sodom, but He answered the heartthrob in it
when He sent His angels to lay their hands on the wrists of Lot. He did not answer the prayers of the stricken hearts of Israel when they saw the days of the captivity coming upon them. But the enriching years of exile were a better gift than centuries of unblessed and unenlightened prosperity in Jerusalem. He did not grant Christ’s appeal in Gethsemane, “Let this cup pass from Me.” He gave Christ His cross. But He made the cross Christ’s cup of delight for evermore. Prayer has power with the will of God.
“This kind can come forth by nothing save by prayer.” Christ’s words lie clearly in the light. Had these disciples been deeply conscious of God, had they been in sympathy with His mind, had they been surrendered to the inflow of His energy, and had they, in prayer, moved His will, they would have cast out the evil spirit from the epileptic child. They were impotent because they were prayerless. Yet we need not be at God for every trifle. The life of prayer we must always live. But there are wrongs we can redress, there are diseases we can heal, there are broken hearts we can comfort, by means God has placed already in our power. He has given us our talents and our aptitudes; He has given us His word of truth and His grace. He has given us our eyes, and our hands, and our voices, and our renewed and tender hearts. These we can use for Him. But when it comes to casting out the devils of people’s hate, greed and sensual desire, and to the exorcising of the dark passions of the mutinous human heart-“this kind can come forth by nothing save by
prayer.” In this deadly strife it is Moses, with the upheld hands, and not Joshua, who wins the victory.
William M. Clow (1853-1930) was born in Scotland and educated in Auckland, New Zealand, and Glasgow, Scotland. From 1881 to 1911, he pastored five churches in Scotland and then joined the faculty of the
United Free Church College in Glasgow. He taught theology for several years and closed his ministry as principal of the college. The Cross in Christian Experience and The Day of the Cross are two of his most
popular books. This sermon comes from The Secret of the Lord, which was published in 1911 in London by Hodder and Stoughton.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS TAKEN FROM CLASSIC SERMONS ON PRAYER, PAGES 60-69. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.