A Blank Check
Among the many writings of C. H. Spurgeon, one of the most useful is a volume of daily devotional readings called The Cheque-book of the Bank of Faith. In the introduction, he says, "A promise from God may very instructively be compared to a cheque payable to order. It is given to the believer with the view of bestowing upon him some good thing. . . . He is to take the promise, and endorse it with his own name by personally receiving it as true. . . . This done, he must believingly present the promise to the Lord, as a man presents a cheque at the counter of the Bank. He must plead it by prayer, expecting to have it fulfilled."
Indeed, every promise of God is like a check made out to us that we may cash at any time. But God's generosity goes beyond giving us many checks for specific amounts, each corresponding to a specific promise. Besides these, He gives us a blank check, allowing us to claim whatever we want. There is no limit on how much He is willing to give us (Luke 11:9; John 14:13-4; also John 16:23, where the double "verily" strongly admonishes us to believe the promise).
Terms and Conditions
Before we can submit our blank check to the heavenly banker, we must provide certain credentials. We are entitled to payment only if we meet three conditions.
We must be free of unconfessed sin (Psa. 66:18). We find the same condition in His promise to hear us if we do His commandments (1 John 3:22). The implication is that if we do not keep His commandments, He will not hear us. If we are not yielding to His rules and directions, we can hardly expect Him to yield to our requests.
We must pray according to God's will (1 John 5:14). The Bible records many prayers that God refused to answer because they failed to meet this requirement.
After Nathan the prophet exposed the grievous sins that David committed for the sake of Bath-sheba, their child became very sick, and David pleaded with God to spare the child's life (2 Sam. 12:15–19). The prayer was invalid because David was asking God to change His word (2 Sam. 12:13–14). God had already told him that the only mercy He could extend was to spare David's own life. As for the child, he would "surely" die. God meant that His decision to take the child was irreversible. Therefore, the child died despite David's fervent intercession on his behalf.
Likewise God did not comply when Paul asked to be delivered from the thorn in his flesh (2 Cor. 12:7-9). Why? The thorn was necessary to keep Paul humble.
In general, a prayer is outside God's will if it contradicts His Word or threatens our welfare. If your little boy wanted a rattlesnake for a pet, would you give it? Of course not. Nor does God give His children anything that would hurt them, although they beg Him for it.
The requirement to pray according to God's will is a sticking point for most Christians. How can I know whether a desire in my heart matches a desire in the heart of God?
Unconditional guarantees. For the following seven kinds of prayer, the Bible unconditionally guarantees an affirmative answer:
- For salvation (Rom. 10:13; John 6:37).
- For forgiveness of a believer's sins (1 John 1:9). The certainty that God will forgive proceeds from His character. He is both faithful and just.
- For the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:11-3). To ask for the Holy Spirit is to seek His presence and control, making a godly life possible. Godliness is always God's will.
- For wisdom (James 1:5). True wisdom is God's will because it dispels the mental darkness that keeps a man from seeing and pursuing righteousness.
- For material needs (Phil. 4:19).
- For Christ's return (Rev. 22:20). The prayer concluding the Bible, "Even so, come, Lord Jesus," is essentially the same as the plea foremost in the Lord's Prayer, "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6:10).
- For God's name to be glorified (John 12:28).
Recommendations. Prayers of certain kinds are normally God's will, although the Bible declines to guarantee their acceptability under all conceivable circumstances. A sample of prayers that the Bible recommends includes the following:
- For laborers to reap the harvest (Luke 10:2). This is not certain of a positive answer because no one may be willing to go.
- For the sick (James 5:16). But God does not always grant healing. None of us can escape a last sickness leading to death.
- For civil leaders (1 Tim. 2:2). Yet if they prefer the path of wickedness, God may not prevent them from proving the true condition of their hearts.
- For all men (1 Tim. 2:1). Again, whether good comes to them may depend on whether they are willing to receive it.
Illegitimate prayer. One kind of prayer is so divergent from God's will that the Bible warns against it. It is the kind that arises from lustful motives (James 4:3). The most common example is asking God for riches. To make the request seem spiritual, the petitioner may say to God that he would use most of the money to further Christian work. The fallacy in this way of thinking is twofold.
- A request for riches disregards the teaching of Scripture that we should not seek them (1 Tim. 6:9-10). Scripture says rather that for our own good we should desire only a modest share of material things (Prov. 30:8-9).
- Although God wants a rich believer to give generously, the danger is that the church will become dependent on him and will make decisions with too much concern for his personal preferences. A rich man must also be a man wise enough to temper his influence with a spirit of meekness and submission. In view of the problems that may arise when the rich are too prominent in the church, God prefers the church to have a broad financial base, resting on the sacrificial giving of many rather than on the largesse of a few.
I have on occasion heard a Christian say that he has entered a sweepstakes or lottery in the hope of gaining money that he could give to God. But God does not want such money—money taken from the poor and foolish by deceptive appeals to greed.
Although we should shun lust-driven prayer, we should not imagine that seeking a mate is basically lustful. On the contrary, it is according to God’s will (Prov. 18:22).
The prayer of Jabez. This prayer (1 Chron. 4:10) was the subject of a best-selling book some years ago. I have heard that when the younger Bush was President, a copy sat on a coffee table in the White House. The premise of the book is that it is legitimate to pray for wealth and influence as a means of promoting righteous causes in society. Some elements of Jabez's prayer can indeed be transferred to our situation. We can pray that in our dealings with others we will do only good, not evil—that we will be harmless as doves (Matt. 10:16). But to treat his whole prayer as a model for us wrenches it out of context.
The prayer appears in a detailed genealogy memorializing the godly in Israel who obeyed God's command to possess and populate the land of Canaan (Deut. 1:8). For them, it was right to seek personal prosperity, because personal prosperity contributed to national prosperity. God intended Israel to become chief among nations so that she might teach them the knowledge of God (2 Sam. 22:44, 50; Psa. 96:3; 102:13-5). But because of her stiff-necked preference for idolatry, Israel never fulfilled her intended role except during the reigns of David and Solomon.
Material wealth has no comparable value for a Christian. The church can be strong whether or not its people are rich. Indeed, many of the strongest churches in church history have been the spiritual home of poor people.
We must pray in faith (Matt. 17:20; 21:22). When Jesus speaks of faith as a mustard seed, the language is figurative. The idea is that small faith can do big things. The halting and insecure Gideon conquered a host with only three hundred men (Judg. 6:12-15; 7:15-25). The young maidservant of Naaman, the Syrian general afflicted with leprosy, had an impact on international affairs (2 Kings 5:1-19). As a captive from Israel, she advised her master to seek healing from Elisha, Israel's great prophet. From a human perspective, her faith, the faith of one mere child, would be counted small. Yet when Naaman in desperation did as she said, God miraculously healed him. Thus Israel gained an influential spokesman for peace between the two nations.
A Modern Champion of Faith
When Christians talk about great men of faith, one name they are likely to mention is George Muller. Stories of his power in prayer have become familiar through many retellings.
In 1877 he and his wife left England to go on a speaking tour of America. Off the banks of Newfoundland a thick fog descended and brought the ship nearly to a halt. "The captain had been on the bridge for twenty-four hours when something happened which was to revolutionize his life. George Muller appeared on the bridge.
"'Captain, I have come to tell you I must be in Quebec by Saturday afternoon.'
"'It is impossible,' said the captain.
"'Very well,' said Muller, 'if your ship cannot take me, God will find some other way—I have never broken an engagement for fifty-two years. Let us go down into the chart-room and pray.'
. . . "'Mr. Muller,' [the captain] said, 'do you know how dense this fog is?'
"'No, my eye is not on the density of the fog, but on the living God, Who controls every circumstance of my life.'
"Muller then knelt down and prayed simply. When he had finished the captain was about to pray, but Muller put his hand on his shoulder, and told him not to:
"'First, you do not believe He will; and second, I believe He has, and there is no need whatever for you to pray about it.'
"The captain looked at Muller in amazement.
"'Captain,' he continued, 'I have known my Lord for fifty-two years, and there has never been a single day that I have failed to get an audience with the King. Get up, captain, and open the door, and you will find the fog is gone.'
"The captain walked across to the door and opened it. The fog had lifted."
This story comes from the captain himself, "who was subsequently described by a well-known evangelist as 'one of the most devoted men I ever knew'" (1).
The power of Muller's prayers to achieve supernatural results was not confined to a few dramatic instances. The hand of God was evident in his life every day, especially so in his work of superintending a large orphanage. Muller himself started this institution, and from the very outset, as a matter of policy, he never publicized his needs, and he never approached individuals with requests for money. He depended solely on the provision of God. During long periods this provision was only enough to meet the needs of each day. On several occasions, the money required to furnish a meal did not arrive until meal time. But the orphans never went hungry. Nor did they ever lack any other material necessity.
Muller once observed, "This way of living brings the Lord remarkably near. He is, as it were, morning by morning inspecting our stores, that accordingly He may send help. Greater and more manifest nearness of the Lord's presence I have never had, than when after breakfast there were no means for dinner, and then the Lord provided the dinner for more than one hundred persons; or when after dinner, there were no means for the tea, and yet the Lord provided the tea; all this without one single human being having been informed about our need" (2).
If we wish to emulate Muller's success in prayer, we must uncover the secrets to his success. One obviously was his great faith, but we also find three others.
- His requests needed no polishing or adjusting to bring them into perfect alignment with God's will. All pleading for the welfare of the many helpless orphans under his care went straight to the compassionate heart of God. The God who heard and answered them was the same God who promised to provide for the fatherless (Psa. 10:14; 68:5; 146:9). We too could win dramatic answers to prayer if we made ourselves spokesmen for such a good cause.
- Early in his ministry Muller adopted a life of faith not only because he saw its practical benefits, but also because he wished to create a strong witness to the reality and goodness of God. He wanted to gain answers to prayer that would strengthen fellow believers and bring conviction to the hearts of the unconverted. Likewise, God will hear us when our root desire is to bring glory to Him.
- Another secret to Muller's success in prayer was perseverance. In obedience to the teaching of Christ (Luke 18:1-8), he never gave up praying for something he thought was God's will. He said, "The great point is never to give up until the answer comes. I have been praying for fifty-two years, every day, for two men, sons of a friend of my youth. They are not converted yet, but they will be! . . . The great fault of the children of God is, they do not continue in prayer; they do not go on praying; they do not persevere. If they desire anything for God's glory, they should pray until they get it" (3). He also said, "Thousands of souls have been saved in answer to the prayers of George Muller" (4).
Perseverance in a prayer that engages the heart and mind is not vain repetition (Matt. 6:7-8). Indeed, for at least four reasons, God may put off answering a prayer until He sees us persevering in it.
- He may wish to test whether the prayer represents an earnest, deep desire. Most of our desires are so shallow that they change from day to day. Therefore, like an earthly father who declines to grant his child's request for a puppy until he is sure that the child wants the puppy enough to take care of it, God may not give us what we want until we prove that we truly want it—until we show that what we want is more than a momentary whim.
- He may wish to test our faith. He has promised to give us any good thing we ask for. If He does not give it immediately, we must decide whether to ask Him again. That is the test of our faith. Faith in His promise will motivate us to keep on praying. To demonstrate such faith may be the precondition of a positive answer.
- He may wish to strengthen our faith. Persistent prayer for a good thing is an exercise of faith that has the effect of making our faith stronger.
- He knows that persistent and fervent prayer for good things enlarges our appetite for them, and in consequence it also increases our gratitude when we finally receive them.