Again, it may be objected, ‘I do not know if what I pray for is agreeable to the will of God; how, then, can I be importunate?’ This is an important matter. We shall consider the things which may be asked in prayer, under three headings: first, those in which the will of God is eternally and immutably the same. Second, those concerning which he has revealed his will particularly and expressly in the holy Scriptures. And third, those which are circumstantial and personal.
In regard to the first things, there ought not to exist any doubt in our minds, when we pray to God for them. The will of God must unchangeably and eternally be fixed on holiness, Whatever then is connected with the hallowing of God’s name or the sanctification of your own heart should be the object of your fervent faith, your most ardent prayers. The hand of the diligent maketh rich; holiness is the gold of heaven; and in proportion to your diligence, perseverance, and earnestness in prayer, so will be your increase in eternal wealth.
Secondly, those things which God has revealed as, for instance, that his kingdom shall come, and that the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth. This, like other truths, being positively revealed, there is no room to doubt regarding their ultimate fulfilment, as there is great room to pray for their speedy accomplishment. The Lord himself has appointed prayer to be the antecedent means: ‘For this will I be inquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them’ (Ezek. 36:37). To encourage this inquiry, the Lord condescends to say: ‘Ask me of things to come concerning my sons: and concerning the work of my hands command ye me’ (Isa. 45:11). And our Lord teaches us to pray: ‘Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10).
In reference therefore to these two great divisions of things that may be prayed for there ought to exist in the mind the fullest assurance that they shall be granted. This is not because we pray for them but because they are agreeable to the will of God. So because we know them to be so we pray that his will in all things may be done through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Importunity here therefore may be to any extent and can commit no excess.
In regard to the third division, namely those petitions which are suggested by our own personal and peculiar circumstances, since we do not know the will of God we can pray in faith and with importunity only when the desire itself is holy and when we submit resignedly to the unknown will of God, whatever it may be.
Our Lord in Gethsemane exhibited the fullest resignation in harmony with the most earnest importunity It is alike necessary to our submission, as to our fervency, that we believe God’s will to be good: ‘good-will towards men’. In mentioning therefore any temporal matter in prayer we must leave it entirely and confidently to the good-will of God.
We must also settle it in our minds, whether it be indispensable to our salvation. It may be good for us that we should never obtain it. In distresses and difficulties, for it grieves the heart of our Father to witness the extremities of his creatures, we may spread our case with great freedom before the Lord. Casting ourselves upon his goodness in Christ, we may use great importunity of entreaty for deliverance. But as we know not what is best for ourselves, even in such cases, we consult our own happiness, as well as discharge an incumbent duty, when we renounce our own wishes, saying, ‘Not my will, but thine be done’.
In regard however to spiritual blessings, in which we positively know that God is glorified, as well as our own sanctification promoted, we need employ no reserving cause. To say in such prayers, ‘Not my will, but thine be done’, is to imply that our desire is to attain holy graces, but that God’s will is to deprive us of them. When we say spiritual blessings, we do not allude to the gifts, but to the graces of the Spirit. The former are given severally to every man, as the Lord the Spirit sees fit to minister. But in regard to the graces – love, joy, meekness, temperance, etc., against which there is no law human or divine – there is no limit to the bounty of God, and should be none to our requests.
When we pray for these, we ought not to entertain any doubts as to their being given to us. In proportion to the value we attach to them, and to the fulness of our desire for their possession, so will be our earnestness and importunity in prayer to obtain them. To this however we are brought only by the Spirit of grace and of supplications (Zech. 12:10): ‘The Spirit helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what to pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God’ (Rom. 8:26, 27).
The greatest of all spiritual and eternal blessings is the presence of God. On this our heart’s strongest desires ought to be fixed. This is the subject which warrants, and rewards, the most vehement importunity. Even in the greatest darkness of soul, even while the countenance of God is withdrawn, nothing can honour God more as a Creator, or gratify his heart more as a parent, than that we should make the light of his countenance the first and last object of our desires, and be restless and unhappy so long as it is turned away from us. Indeed, not to be importunate after this, proves that we are destitute of the feelings of a child, and shows that we possess little or no love to our heavenly Father. It was this that well nigh burst the filial heart of Christ in the garden and on the Cross. His whole soul desired to enjoy the smile of his Father’s countenance. He knew the goodness of his Father and he knew that the further he pressed into it the more of it he should obtain.
In regard then to the extent to which you may use importunity in prayer, here is the greatest of all spiritual and eternal blessings open to you: ‘The Lord God is a sun and shield; he will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly’ (Psa. 84:11). The Lord will bestow himself. Ask largely, and you shall obtain largely. Pray earnestly, and you shall receive immediately. God is not willing to hide his face for ever from you.
From Christ on the Cross, An Exposition of the Twenty-second Psalm by John Stevenson, London, 1844