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[Here we continue a series on Prayer. The first study in this series, which is concluded here, is by Jonathan Edwards, concerning our God being a God who hears our prayers.]—Ed.
The Most High a Prayer-Hearing God, pt. 3
by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
O Thou that hearest prayer. (Ps. 65:2, AV).
How highly we are privileged, in that we have the Most High revealed to us as a God that heareth prayer. The greater part of mankind are destitute of this privilege. Whatever their necessities are, whatever their calamities or sorrows, they have no prayer-hearing God to whom they may go. If they go to the gods whom they worship, and cry to them ever so earnestly, it will be in vain. They worship either lifeless things that can neither help them, nor know that they need help; or wicked cruel spirits, who are their enemies, and wish nothing but their misery; and who, instead of helping them, are from day to day working their ruin, and watching over them as a hungry lion watches over His prey.
How are we distinguished from them, in that we have the true God made known to us: a God of infinite grace and mercy a God full of compassion to the miserable, who is ready to pity us under all our troubles and sorrows, to hear our cries, and to give us all the relief which we need; a God who delights in mercy, and is rich unto all that call upon Him! How highly privileged are we, in that we have the holy word of this same God, to direct us how to seek for mercy! And whatever difficulties or distress we are in, we may go to Him with confidence and great encouragement. What a comfort may this be to us! And what reason have we to rejoice in our privileges, to prize them so Highly, and to bless God that He hath been so merciful to us as to give us His word, and reveal Himself to us; and that He hath not left us to cry for help to stocks and stones, and devils, as He has left many thousands of others.
I have often prayed to God for certain mercies, and He has not heard my prayers. — To this I answer,
1. It is no argument, that God is not a prayer-hearing God, if He gives not to men what they ask of Him to consume upon their lusts. Oftentimes when men pray for temporal good things, they desire them for no good end, but only to gratify their pride or sensuality. If they pray for worldly good things chiefly from a worldly spirit, and make an idol of the world, it is no wonder that God doth not hear their prayers: “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, to consume it upon your lusts” (James 4:3). If you request Him to give you something of which you will make an idol, and set up in opposition to Him — or will use as weapons of warfare against Him, or as instruments to serve His enemies — no wonder that God will not hear you. If God should hear such prayers, He would act as His own enemy, inasmuch as He would bestow them to serve His enemies.
2. It is no argument that God is not a prayer-hearing God, that He heareth not insincere and unbelieving prayers. How can we expect that He should have any respect to that which has no sincerity in it! God looketh not at words, but at the heart, and it is fit that He should do so. If men pray only in words, and not in heart, what are their prayers good for? And why should that God who searches the heart, and tries the reins, have any respect to them? — Sometimes men do nothing but dissemble in their prayers, and when they do so, it is no argument that God is the less a prayer-hearing God, that He doth not hear such prayers, for it is no argument of want of mercy. Sometimes they pray for that in words which they really desire not in their hearts, as that He would purge them from sin, when at the same time they show by their practice that they do not desire to be purged from sin, while they love and choose it, and are utterly averse to parting with it. In like manner, they often dissemble in the presence and show, which they make in their prayers, of dependence on God for mercies, and of a sense of His sufficiency to supply them. In our coming to God, and praying to Him for such and such things, there is a show that we are sensible we are dependent on Him for them, and that He is sufficient to give them to us. But men sometimes seem to pray, while not sensible of their dependence on God, nor do they think Him sufficient to supply them; for all the while they trust in themselves, and have no confidence in God. — They show in words as though they were beggars; but in heart they come as creditors, and look on God as their debtor. In words they seem to ask for things as the fruit of free grace; but in heart they account it would be hard, unjust, and cruel, if God should deny them. In words they seem humble and submissive, but in heart they are proud and contentious; there is no prayer but in their words.
It doth not render God at all the less a prayer-hearing God, that He distinguishes, as an all-seeing God, between real prayers and pretended ones. Such prayers as those which I have just now been mentioning, are not worthy of the name in the eyes of Him who searches the heart, and sees things as they are. — That prayer which is not of faith, is insincere; for prayer is a show or manifestation of dependence on God, and trust in His sufficiency and mercy. Therefore, where this trust or faith is wanting, there is no prayer in the sight of God. And however God is sometimes pleased to grant the requests of those who have no faith, yet He has not obliged himself so to do, nor is it an argument of His not being a prayerhearing God, when He hears them not.
3. It is no argument that He is not a prayer-hearing God that He exercises His own wisdom as to the time and manner of answering prayer. Some of God’s people are sometimes ready to think that He doth not hear their prayers, because He doth not answer them at the times when they expected, when indeed God doth hear them, and will answer them, in the time and way to which His own wisdom directs. — The business of prayer is not to direct God, who is infinitely wise, and needs not any of our directions; who knows what is best for us ten thousand times better than we, and knows what time and what way are best. It is fit that He should answer prayers and, as an infinitely wise God, in the exercise of His own wisdom, and not ours. God will deal as a father with us, in answering our requests. But a child is not to expect that the father’s wisdom be subject to His nor ought He to desire it, but should esteem it a privilege that the parent will provide for Him according to His own wisdom.
As to particular temporal blessings for which we pray, it is no argument that He is not a prayer-hearing God, because He bestows them not upon us; for it may be that God sees the things for which we pray, not to be best for us. If so, it would be no mercy in Him to bestow them upon us, but a judgment. Such things, therefore, ought to always to be asked with submission to the divine will. God can answer prayer, though He bestow not the very thing for which we pray. He can sometimes better answer the lawful desires and good end we have in prayer another way. If our end be our own good and happiness, God can perhaps better answer that end in bestowing something else than in the bestowment of that very thing which we ask. And if the main good we aim at in our prayer be attained, our prayer is answered, though not in the bestowment of the individual thing which we sought. And so that may still be true which was before asserted, that God always hears the prayer of faith. God never once failed of hearing a sincere and believing prayer; and those promises for ever hold good, “Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you: for every one that asketh, receiveth and He that seeketh, findeth; and to Him that knocketh, it shall be opened.” (Matt. 7:7-8).
Another use of this doctrine may be of reproof to those that neglect the duty of prayer. If we enjoy so great a privilege as to have the prayer-hearing God revealed to us, how great will be our folly and inexcusableness if we neglect the privilege, or make no use of it, and deprive ourselves of the advantage by not seeking this God by prayer. They are hereby reproved who neglect the great duty of secret prayer, which is more expressly required in the word of God than any other kind. What account can those persons give of themselves, who neglect so known a duty? It is impossible that any among us should be ignorant of this command of God. How daring, therefore, is their wickedness who live in the neglect of this duty! and what can they answer to their Judge, when He shall call them to an account for it?
Here I shall briefly say something to an excuse which some may be ready to make for themselves. Some may be ready to say, “If I do pray, my prayer will not be the prayer of faith, because I am in a natural condition, and have no faith.”
This excuses not from obedience to a plain command of God. The command is to all to whom the command shall come. God not only directs godly persons to pray, but others also. In the beginning of the second chapter of Proverbs, God directs all persons to cry after wisdom, and to lift up their voices for understanding, in order to their obtaining the fear and knowledge of God; and in James 1:5, the apostle says, “If any man lack wisdom, let Him ask of God;” and Peter directed Simon Magus to repent, and pray to God, if perhaps the thought of His heart might be forgiven Him (see Acts 8:22). Therefore when God says, do thus or thus, it is not for us to make excuses, but we must do the thing required. Besides, God is pleased sometimes to answer the prayers of unbelievers. Indeed He hears not their prayers for their goodness or acceptableness, or because of any true respect to Him manifested in them, for there is none; nor has He obliged himself to answer such prayers; yet He is pleased sometimes, of His sovereign mercy, to pity wicked men, and hear their cries. Thus He heard the cries of the Ninevites (see Jonah 3), and the prayer of Ahab, (see 1 Kings 21:27,28). Though there be no regard to God in their prayers, yet He, of His infinite grace, is pleased to have respect to their desires of their own happiness, and to grant their requests. He may, and sometimes does, hear the cries of wicked men as He hears the hungry ravens, when they cry (see Psalm 147:9). and as He opens His bountiful hand, and satisfies the desires of every living thing (see Psalm 145:16). Besides the prayers of sinners, though they have no goodness in them, yet are made a means of a preparation for mercy.
Finally, seeing we have such a prayer-hearing God as we have heard, let us be much employed in the duty of prayer: let us pray with all prayer and supplication: let us live prayerful lives, continuing instant in prayer, watching thereunto with all perseverance; praying always, without ceasing, earnestly, and not fainting.