The Ladder Of Prayer



Behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven (Genesis 28:12).

THIS IS a remarkable verse about a memorable scene. Today in this sermon I wish to use the imagery of the verse without direct regard to its context. In some of our devotional writers we read of what is called the ladder of prayer. Prayer is regarded as the ascent to God, up which, step by step, the soul is borne. And these devotional writers, often with great power and penetration, dwell on the separate steps of the ascent that carry the heart upward to the throne. In other words, they show where prayer begins and to what heights it is capable of rising. They trace its stages, not by formal logic, but by the large experience of men. And it is on that ladder of prayer I should like to dwell, beginning with the lowest step and so ascending to the higher ones.


Step One-Emergency Prayer

Prayer, then, commonly begins with the cry of escape from some external evil. The lowest step on the ladder of the soul is the cry wrung from disaster or adversity. When a man is faced with a dangerous operation, when he finds himself (as in shipwreck) in dire peril, when someone who is very dear to him is ill, or in a situation of great hazard, I say that then there is an instinct of the heart which urges to a cry of
help to God, and it is in such a cry that prayer is often born.

Now it is one sign of what I should venture to call the humanity of Holy Scripture that it preserves for us such a vast store of prayers of this initial kind. The Bible is the great record of the soul -please notice-and such prayers are not for blessings of the soul. They are wrung out, not in spiritual darkness, but in some kind of distress.

And yet the Bible is so superbly human in its handling of this life of ours that it is a very treasury of prayers which some would scarcely reckon prayers at all. It does not ignore them because they are untouched by the deep sense of spiritual alienation. The Bible does not rule such desperate prayers out of the soul’s history because there is in them yet no plea for pardon. It knows our frame-remembers we are dust-and is touched like the Lord with the feeling of our infirmities. It welcomes the strong cry-and calls it prayer-that is uttered in adversity.


God’s Great Patience

This, too, always seems to me to glorify the patience of our Lord. For I suppose that of every ten prayers men made to Jesus, not fewer than nine were of this kind. Of course, we cannot tell what the disciples
asked for in their seasons of sweet and secret intercourse. “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1), “Show us the Father” (John 14:8)such hints may move us at least to hope the best. But we do know that as Jesus moved
about, and men drew near and cried to Him, nine times out of ten the things they cried for could scarcely be called spiritual at all. Some -prayed for sight. They prayed for physical power. They prayed that a son or daughter might be healed. Others prayed in the wild uproar of the storm, “Lord, save us: we perish” (Matthew 8:25).

And what I say is that for one like Jesus, to whom the spiritual overshadowed everything, such ceaseless praying for the physical and temporal must have made His cross heavier to bear. It deepens the wonder of His patience to remember that He accepted so many prayers of distress. It sheds a light on His infinite compassion. He certainly wanted to have been asked for deeper things; yet He never wearied in bestowing these things. And so may we learn that in the ear of God those cries, which are but the rudiments of prayer, are neither rejected nor despised.


Step Two – Confession

That, then, is the first step on the ladder, and now above it there is another step. It is the stage when prayer for outward help becomes a cry for deliverance from sin. In the first outbreak of appeal to heaven, there is scarcely any consciousness of sin. There is no thought of anything but the calamity which has befallen us or some one who is dear. But slowly, as a person prays for help, there steals on him the strange conviction that he needs something deeper than assistance and that in the sight of God he is a sinner.

It would lead us far beyond our bounds today to consider how the sense of sin is born. It is created by the Holy Spirit in ways that oftentimes defy analysis. Yet it, I think, is very largely true that when a man prays in trouble or adversity, gradually there is awakened in him the feeling that he is a sinner. I have heard people who have had to suffer greatly say, “What a sinner I must have been, when God has sent me this.” Now of course, in the light of the words of Jesus, they were unwarranted in saying that. Still, it betrayed that lurking sense to which few, I take it, are quite strangers that when suffering falls on us or those we love, near the suffering is guilt.

I wonder if a father ever saw his child suffer without some dark suspicion of that kind. Childish pain not only excites pity; it has a strange way of getting at the conscience. When some one dear to us has to suffer greatly, and we begin to pray for them in secret, we find ourselves crying, ere we close, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”

It is thus that prayer, in the ordering of God, rises to what is called the second stage. Born in the need of help in some dark hour, it passes onward to the need of pardon. It deepens into prayer for forgiveness,
for the inward cleansing of the heart, and for deliverance, through the grace of God, from the sin that cloth so easily beset us.

I want you here to note in passing how often Jesus sought to deepen prayer so. He took prayer by the hand-if I might put it thus-and led it upward to this higher step. People came to him and asked for something
physical; Christ lent a willing ear to them and answered them. They asked for sight, and Jesus gave them sight; they asked for bodily health, and He bestowed it. But you know how often when He bestowed such gifts-when He answered the prayer for outward things like these-He turned the thought of the sufferer to sin. “Go,” he would say to them, “and sin no more” (John 8:11). Was it merely a word of warning for the
future? I do not think you exhaust the thought of Jesus when you narrow it in any way like that. He was leading men into that deeper life which can never be satisfied with outward blessings, but which feels, in the very bestowal of such benefits, the need of pardon and release from sin.

That, then, is the second step of prayer, and God, I think, brings most of us to that. We are no longer crying wildly heavenward, as in some shipwreck or calamity. We are crying for a clean heart and a right spirit; we are crying, “Against thee and thee only have we sinned”, and to every such true cry is given the answer, ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18).


Step Three-Supplication for God’s Grace

Well, now we pass on to the third stage in the upward progress of the life of prayer, for we come to find that deliverance is not everything, if our walk is to be well-pleasing before God. Our Savior spoke of a house that was swept and garnished, and yet it became the dwelling-place of devils. If it was to be the home of light and love, it needed something more than cleansing. And so do men awaken, when they have prayed for pardon, to their abiding need of something more than pardon, if they are to be clothed in the comeliness of love. There are virtues that they must achieve. There are graces that they must attain. Patience is needed, and courage, and control, if they are to walk in the light as He is in the light.

And so prayer rises from the cry for pardon into the range and compass of petition and becomes the daily appeal of the endeavoring soul for needed virtue and for needed grace. It is true that our Father knows
what things we need before one syllable of prayer has left the lip. But Christ, who told us of His knowledge, has told us also that the Father delights to have His children asking.

And the fact is that in such holy mysteries there is little to be gained by argument; it is far wiser, in a childlike trust, to accept the perfect leadership of Jesus. “Ask, and it shall be given you; . . . knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matthew 7:7). We must still ask-we must still knock-though our Father knows the things of which we
have need.

And hence it is that in the Christian life there is such a range of petitionary prayer, from the lowliest virtue that the weakest person needs, to the loftiest grace that can adorn the saint. We are a long way now from the wild cry that rises in some season of disaster. We are breathing a different, though not a diviner, air than in the moment when our one thought was pardon. We have risen into a life of need which is wide as the mercy and the grace of God, and that is the third step upon the ladder.


The First Steps-Involving Our Desires

Now if you will turn back in thought and survey the road that we have traveled, you will find that all the stages mentioned have at least one common element. What is that element? Well, it is this. It is the
presence in them all of self: It is the stealing of self onto the scene in the solemn moment of approach to God. Notice that I do not say such prayers are selfish. To say that would be to misinterpret everything. A
man is not selfish because he prays for healing or because he asks God for some special grace. All I say is that in these prayer-stages, sometimes with far more insistence than at other times, there is felt, in every approach to God, the presence, if not the pressure, of the self.

Now the question is: Is there any prayer possible where self shall be utterly forgotten? Is there any prayer where the very thought of self would be lost and hidden and absorbed in God? If there is such, then
prayer is at its highest, and we have reached the topmost step upon the ladder, which rises from the Bethel where we rest and reaches to the glory of the throne.

Step Four- Real Submission to God’s Will

The answer is that such prayer is not only possible, but is within the grasp of everyone of us. It is born when a man has learned to look to God and to say with his whole heart, “Thy will be done.” There is no
longer any thought of our will; our will is merged in the sweet will of God. Through light and shadow, gladness and adversity, the perfect will of God is being wrought. And so each day, not choosing for ourselves, we take what God in His infinite wisdom sends us, and our life becomes a prayer, “Thy will be done.” We do not ask to see the distant scene now. We do not blindly insist on this or that. We do not complain when blessings are denied us or because there is sorrow where we had looked for joy. We have ceased to think that we know what we most need. We have ceased to think we can direct our steps. Through all that is sent to us and all we have to do, our one prayer is, “Thy will be done.”

There may be many a struggle before that stage is reached. There was struggle for Jesus before that stage was reached- “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou  wilt” (Matthew 26:39). But when it is reached, then there is perfect peace and a new light on everything that happens; and self, which even in our petitions vexed us, passes in music out of sight. That is the
highest reach of prayer when it is grasped in the fulness of its meaning. That is something nobler than petition. It is communion with the Father of all spirits. It is the voicing of the passion to obey whether obedience be hard or pleasant, and without obedience there can be no religion.

The Beginning of Joy and Power in Prayer

In closing, let me make two remarks on the last and highest stage in prayer. The first is that it is at this stage that joy in prayer commonly begins. There are many who pray, and pray with regularity, who
have never experienced joy in prayer. They hold to the practice from a sense of duty, but it is a duty to which they have to force themselves. Knowing how surely the omission of secret prayer leads to unguardedness and unbelief, they cling to it in the dark with fine fidelity.

Now it would take me far beyond my theme to discuss generally the lack of joy in prayer. But perhaps the commonest of all causes of that absence is to be found along the lines I have been indicating.

I question if there is ever joy in prayer when men come to the Father wanting their own way. That joy is born when they have learned to come wanting nothing but the way of God. It is then that there comes sweet peace into the soul. It is then that we learn that no evil can befall us. It is then that we find, through fair and foul, that underneath are the everlasting arms. And this is such a wonderful discovery, in a life
so difficult and intricate as ours, that it brings the ransomed of the Lord to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads.

And the other remark which I would make is that we owe it to Christ that all of us can pray so. It is Christ who has made it possible even for the weakest to reach this highest stage of prayer. If God were an
unknown ruler in the distance, only a hero could pray, “Thy will be done.” If He were but a Spirit of omnipotence, such prayer would take far stronger faith than ours. But Christ has taught us that God is our
Heavenly Father, and that He loves us with a perfect love, and that the very hairs of our head are numbered, and that He does not will that any one soul should perish. Given a character of God like that, it is not impossible to pray, “Thy will be done.”

We pray in the childlike and Christ-given confidence that in the will of God there is our highest good. And there we leave it, not seeing what it means perhaps, for now we know in part and see in part; but we
are quietly certain that the day is coming when we shall say, “He has done all things well.”


George H. Morrison (1866-1928) assisted the great Alexander Whyte in Edinburgh, pastored two churches, and then became pastor in 1902 of the distinguished Wellington Church on University Avenue in Glasgow. His preaching drew great crowds; in fact, people had to queue up an hour before the services to be sure to get seats in the large auditorium. Morrison is a master of imagination in preaching; yet his messages are
solidly biblical. From his many published volumes of sermons, I have chosen this message, found in The Afterglow of God, published 1912 by Hodder and Stoughton, London.