CHAPTER 4: ASKING FOR SIGNS
"DOES God indeed answer prayer?" is a question often on the lips of people, and oftener still in their inmost hearts. "Is prayer of any real use?" Somehow or other we cannot help praying; but then even pagan savages cry out to someone or something to aid them in times of danger and disaster and distress.
And those of us who really do believe in prayer are soon faced with another question: "Is it right to put God to the test?" Moreover, a further thought flashes into our minds: "Dare we put God to the test?" For there is little doubt failure in the prayer-life is often -- always? -- due to failure in the spiritual life. So many people harbor much unbelief in the heart regarding the value and effectiveness of prayer; and without faith, prayer is vain.
Asking for signs? Putting God to the test? Would to God we could persuade Christian men and women to do so. Why, what a test this would be of our own faith in God, and of our own holiness of life. Prayer is the touchstone of true godliness. God asks our prayers, values our prayers, needs our prayers. And if those prayers fail, we have only ourselves to blame. We do not mean by this that effective prayer always gets just what it asks for. Now, the Bible teaches us that we are allowed to put God to the test. The example of Gideon in Old Testament days is sufficient to show us that God honors our faith even when that faith is faltering. He allows us to "prove Him" even after a definite promise from Himself. This is a very great comfort to us.
Gideon said unto God, "If Thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as Thou hast said, behold, I will put a fleece of wool on the floor; and if the dew be on the fleece only . . . then shall I know that Thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as Thou has said." Yet, although there was a "bowl full of water" in the fleece the next morning, this did not satisfy Gideon! He dares to put God to the test the second time, and to ask that the fleece should be dry instead of wet the following night. "And God did so that night" (Judges vi. 40).
It is all very wonderful, the Almighty God just doing what a hesitating man asks Him to do! We catch our breath and stand amazed, scarcely knowing which startles us the more -- the daring of the man, or the condescension of God! Of course, there is more in the story than meets the eye. No doubt Gideon thought that the "fleece" represented himself, Gideon.
If God would indeed fill him with His Spirit, why, salvation was assured. But as he wrung the fleece out, he began to compare himself with the saturated wool. "How unlike this fleece am I! God promises deliverance, but I do not feel full of the Spirit of God. No inflow of the mighty power of God seems to have come into me. Am I indeed fit for this great feat?" No! But then, it is "Not I, but God." "O God, let the fleece be dry -- canst Thou still work? Even if I do not feel any superhuman power, any fullness of spiritual blessing within me: even if I feel as dry as this fleece, canst Thou still deliver Israel by my arm?" (Little wonder that he prefaced his prayer with the words, "Let not Thine anger be hot against me"!) "And God did so that night: for it was dry upon the fleece only, and there was dew on all the ground" (verse 40).
Yes, there is more in the story than can be seen at a glance. And is it not so in our own case? The devil so often assures us that our prayers cannot claim an answer because of the "dryness" of our souls. Answers to prayer, however, do not depend upon our feelings, but upon the trustworthiness of the Promiser.
Now, we are not urging that Gideon's way of procedure is for us, or for anyone, the normal course of action. It seems to reveal much hesitation to believe God's Word. In fact, it looks gravely like doubting God. And surely it grieves God when we show a faith in Him which is but partial.
The higher and better and safer way is to "ask, nothing doubting." But it is very comforting and assuring to us to know that God allowed Gideon to put Him to the test. Nor is this the only such case mentioned in Scripture. The most surprising instance of "proving God" happened on the Sea of Galilee. St. Peter put our Lord Himself to the test. "If it be Thou --" yet our Savior had already said, "It is I." "If it be Thou, bid me come unto Thee on the water." And our Lord said, "Come," and Peter "walked on the water" (Matt. xiv. 28, 29). But this "testing-faith" of Peter's soon failed him. "Little faith" (verse 31) so often and so quickly becomes "doubt." Remember that Christ did not reprove him for coming. Our Lord did not say, "Wherefore didst thou come?" but "Wherefore didst thou doubt?"
To put God to the test is, after all, not the best method. He has given us so many promises contingent on believing prayer, and has so often proved His power and His willingness to answer prayer, that we ought, as a rule, to hesitate very much before we ask Him for signs as well as for wonders!
But, someone may be thinking, does not the Lord God Almighty Himself bid us to put Him to the test? Did He not say, "Bring ye the whole tithe into the storehouse . . . and prove Me now herewith, saith the Lord of Hosts, if I will not open unto you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it"? (Mal. iii. 10).
Yes that is true: God does say, "Prove Me: test Me." But it is really we ourselves who are thus tested. If the windows of heaven are not opened when we pray, and this blessing of fullness-to-overflowing is not bestowed upon us, it can only be because we are not whole-tithers. When we are in very deed wholly yielded to God -- when we have brought the whole tithe into the storehouse for God -- we shall find such a blessing that we shall not need to put God to any test! This is a thing we shall have to speak about when we come to the question of unanswered prayer.
Meanwhile we want every Christian to ask, "Have I ever fairly tested prayer?" How long is it since you last offered up a definite prayer? People pray for "a blessing" upon an address, or a meeting, or a mission; and some blessing is certain to come, for others are also pleading with God about the matter. You ask for relief from pain or healing of sickness: but Godless people, for whom no one appears to be praying, often recover, and sometimes in a seemingly miraculous way. And we may feel that we might have got better even if no prayer had been offered on our behalf. It seems to me that so many people cannot put their finger upon any really definite and conclusive answer to prayer in their own experience. Most Christians do not give God a chance to show His delight in granting His children's petitions; for their requests are so vague and indefinite. If this is so, it is not surprising that prayer is so often a mere form -- an almost mechanical repetition, day by day, of certain phrases; a few minutes' "exercise" morning and evening.
Then there is another point. Have you, when in prayer, ever had the witness borne in upon you that your request was granted? Those who know something of the private life of men of prayer are often amazed at the complete assurance which comes over them at times that their prayers are answered, long before the boon they seek is actually in their possession. One prayer-warrior would say, "A peace came over my soul. I was confident my request was granted me." He then just thanked God for what he was quite sure God had done for him. And his assurance would prove to be absolutely well founded.
Our Lord Himself always had this assurance, and we should ever bear in mind that, although He was God, He lived His earthly life as a perfect Man, depending upon the Holy Spirit of God.
When He stood before the opened tomb of Lazarus, before He had actually called upon the dead to come forth, He said, "Father, I thank Thee that Thou hast heard Me. And I know that Thou hearest Me always" (John xi. 41, 42). Why, then, did He utter His thanks? "Because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that Thou hast sent Me." If Christ is dwelling in our hearts by faith: if the Holy Spirit is breathing into us our petitions, and we are "praying in the Holy Ghost," ought we not to know that the Father "hears" us? (Jude 20). And will not those who stand by begin to recognize that we, too, are God-sent?
Men of prayer and women of prayer will agonize before God for something which they know is according to His will, because of some definite promise on the page of Scripture. They may pray for hours, or even for days, when suddenly the Holy Spirit reveals to them in no uncertain way that God has granted their request; and they are confident that they need no longer send up any more petitions to God about the matter. It is as if God said in clear tones: "Thy prayer is heard and I have granted thee the desire of thy heart." This is not the experience of only one man, but most men to whom prayer is the basis of their life will bear witness to the same fact. Nor is it a solitary experience in their lives: it occurs again and again.
Then prayer must give place to action. God taught Moses this: "Wherefore criest thou unto Me? Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward" (Exod. xiv. 15).
We are not surprised to find that Dr. Goforth, a much-used missionary in China, often has this assurance given him that his petitions are granted. "I knew that God had answered. I received definite assurance that He would open the way." For why should anyone be surprised at this? The Lord Jesus said, "Ye are My friends, if ye do the things I command you. No longer do I call you servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends" (John xv. 14, 15). Do you think it surprising, then, if the Lord lets us, His "friends," know something of His plans and purposes?
The question at once arises, does God mean this to be the experience of only a few chosen saints, or does He wish all believers to exercise a like faith, and to have a like assurance that their prayers are answered?
We know that God is no respecter of persons, and therefore we know that any true believer in Him may share His mind and will. We are His friends if we do the things He commands us. One of those things is "prayer." Our Savior begged His disciples to "have faith in God" (the literal translation is "Have the faith of God"). Then, He declares, you can say to a mountain, "Be thou taken up and cast into the sea," and if you believe and doubt not, it shall come to pass. Then He gives this promise: "All things whatsoever ye pray and ask for, believe that ye have received them [that is, in heaven], and ye shall have them [on earth]" (Mark xi. 24). Now, this is exactly the experience we have been talking about. This is just what real men of prayer do. Such things naturally pass the comprehension of unbelievers. Such things are perplexing to the half-believers. Our Lord, however, desires that men should know that we are His disciples, sent as He was sent (John xvii. 18 and xx. 21). They will know this if we love one another (John xiii. 35). But another proof is provided, and it is this: if we know and they see that "God heareth us always" (John xi. 42).
Some of us at once recall to mind George Muller's wonderful prayer-life. On one occasion, when crossing from Quebec to Liverpool, he had prayed very definitely that a chair he had written to New York for should arrive in time to catch the steamer, and he was quite confident that God had granted his petition. About half an hour before the tender was timed to take the passengers to the ship, the agents informed him that no chair had arrived, and that it could not possibly come in time for the steamer. Now, Mrs. Muller suffered much from sea-sickness, and it was absolutely essential that she should have the chair. Yet nothing would induce Mr. Muller to buy another one from a shop near by. "We have made special prayer that our Heavenly Father would be pleased to provide it for us, and we will trust Him to do so," was his reply; and he went on board absolutely sure that his trust was not misplaced, and would not miscarry. Just before the tender left, a van drove up, and on the top of the load it carried was Mr. Muller's chair. It was hurried on board and placed into the hands of the very man who had urged George Muller to buy another one! When he handed it to Mr. Muller, the latter expressed no surprise, but quietly removed his hat and thanked his Heavenly Father. To this man of God such an answer to prayer was not wonderful, but natural. And do you not think that God allowed the chair to be held back till the very last minute as a lesson to Mr. Muller's friends-and to us? We should never have heard of that incident but for that delay.
God does all He can to induce us to pray and to trust, and yet how slow we are to do so! Oh, what we miss through lack of faith and want of prayer! No one can have very real and deep communion with God who does not know how to pray so as to get answers to prayer.
If one has any doubt as to God's willingness to be put to the test, let him read a little book called Nor Scrip (Marshall, Morgan and Scott, Ltd.). Miss Amy Wilson Carmichael tells us in its pages how again and again she "proved God." One gets the impression from the book that it was no accident that led her to do so. Surely God's hand was in it? For instance, in order to rescue a Hindu child from a life of "religious" shame, it was necessary to spend a hundred rupees. Was she justified in doing so? She could help many girls for such a sum: ought she to spend it on one? Miss Wilson Carmichael felt led to pray that God would send her the round sum of a hundred rupees -- no more, no less -- if it was His will that the money should be spent in this way. The money came -- the exact amount -- and the sender of it explained that she had sat down to write a check for a broken sum, but had been impelled to make it just a hundred rupees.
That happened over fifteen years ago, and since that time this same missionary has put God to the test over and over again, and He has never failed her. This is what she says: "Never once in fifteen years has a bill been left unpaid; never once has a man or woman been told when we were in need of help; but never once have we lacked any good thing. Once, as if to show what could be done if it were required, 25 pounds came by telegram! Sometimes a man would emerge from the clamoring crowd at a railway station, and slip some indispensable gift of money into the hand, and be lost in the crowd again before the giver could be identified."
Is it wonderful? Wonderful! Why, what does St. John say, speaking by the Spirit of God? "And this is the boldness which we have towards Him, that if we ask anything, according to His will, He heareth us; and if we know that He heareth us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions which we have asked of Him" (I John v.14, 15). Have you and I such "boldness"? If not, why not?
To call it wonderful is to show our want of faith. It is natural to God to answer prayer: normal, not extraordinary.
The fact is -- let us be quite honest and straightforward about it -- the fact is so many of us do not believe God. We may just as well be quite candid about it. If we love God we ought to pray, because He wants us to pray, and commands us to pray. If we believe God we shall pray because we cannot help doing so: we cannot get on without it. Fellow-Christian, you believe in God, and you believe on Him (John iii. 16), but have you advanced far enough in the Christian life to believe Him; that is, to believe what He says and all He says? Does it not sound blasphemous to ask such a thing of a Christian man? Yet how few believers really believe God! -- God forgive us! Has it ever struck you that we trust the word of our fellow-man more easily than we trust God's word? And yet, when a man does "believe God," what miracles of grace God works in and through him! No man ever lived who has been revered and respected by so many peoples and tongues as that man of whom we are told three times over in the New Testament that "He believed God" (Rom. iv. 3; Gal. iii. 6; James ii. 23). Yes, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness." And today, Christian and Jew and Moslem vie with each other in honoring his name. We implore every believer on Christ Jesus never to rest till he can say, "I believe God, and will act on that belief" (Acts xxvii. 25).
But before we leave the question of testing God, we should like to point out that sometimes God leads us on "to prove Him." Sometimes God has put it into the heart of Miss Wilson Carmichael to ask for things she saw no need for. Yet she felt impelled by the Holy Spirit to ask. Not only were they granted her, but they also proved an inestimable boon. Yes, God knows what things we have need of, whether we want them or not, before we ask (Matt. vi. 8). Has not God said, "I will in no wise fail thee"?
Oftentimes the temptation would come to Miss Wilson Carmichael to let others know of some special need. But always the inner assurance would come, as in the very voice of God, "I know, and that is enough." And, of course, God was glorified. During the trying days of the war, even the heathen used to say, "Their God feeds them." "Is it not known all the country round," said a worldly heathen, "that your God hears prayer?"
Oh, what glory to God was brought about by their simple faith! Why do not we believe God? Why do we not take God at His word? Do believers or unbelievers ever say of us, "We know your prayers are answered"? Ye missionaries the wide world over, listen! (Oh, that these words might reach every ear, and stir every heart!) It is the yearning desire of God -- of our loving Savior Jesus Christ -- that every one of us should have the same strong faith as that devoted lady missionary we are speaking about.
Our loving Father does not wish any child of His to have one moment's anxiety or one unsatisfied need. No matter how great our need may be; no matter how numerous our requirements, if we only "prove Him" in the manner He bids us, we shall never have room enough to receive all the blessing He will give (Mal. iii. 10).
Oh, what peace we often forfeit !
Oh, what needless pain we bear!
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer;
or all because, when we do "carry it," we do not believe God's word. Why is it we find it so hard to trust Him? Has He ever failed us? Has He not said over and over and over again that He will grant all petitions offered out of a pure heart, "in His name"? "Ask of Me"; "Pray ye"; "Prove Me"; "Try Me." The Bible is full of answers to prayer -- wonderful answers, miraculous answers; and yet somehow our faith fails us, and we dishonor God by distrusting Him!
If our faith were but more simple
We should take Him at His word,
And our lives would be all sunshine
In the bounties of our Lord.
But our eye must be "single" if our faith is to be simple and our "whole body full of light" (Matt. vi. 22). Christ must be the sole Master. We cannot expect to be free from anxiety if we are trying to serve God and Mammon (Matt. vi. 24, 25). Again we are led back to the Victorious Life! When we indeed present our bodies "a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God" (Rom. xii. 1); when we present our members "as servants to righteousness and sanctification" (Rom. vi. 19); then He presents Himself to us and fills us with all the fullness of God (Eph. iii. 19).
Let us ever bear in mind that real faith not only believes that God can, but that He does answer prayer. We may be slothful in prayer, but "the Lord is not slack concerning His promise" (II Peter iii. 9). Is not that a striking expression?
Perhaps the most extraordinary testing of God which that Dohnavur missionary tells us of is the following. The question arose of purchasing a rest-house in the hills near by. Was it the right thing to do? Only God could decide. Much prayer was made. Eventually the petition was offered up that if it was God's will that the house should be purchased, the exact sum of 100 pounds should be received. That amount came at once. Yet they still hesitated. Two months later they asked God to give them again the same sign of His approval of the purchase. That same day another check for 100 pounds came. Even now they scarcely liked to proceed in the matter. In a few days' time, how-
ever, another round sum of 100 pounds was received, earmarked for the purchase of such a house. Does it not flood our hearts with joy to remember that our gracious Savior is so kind? It is St. Luke the physician who tells us that God is kind (Luke vi. 35). Love is always "kind" (I Cor. xiii. 4); and God is Love. Think over it when you pray. Our Lord is "kind." It will help us in our intercessions. He bears so patiently with us when our faith would falter. "How precious is Thy lovingkindness, O God" (Psalm xxxvi.7); "Thy lovingkindness is better than life" (Psalm lxiii. 3).
The danger is that we read of such simple faith in prayer, and say, "How wonderful!" and forget that God desires every one of us to have such faith and such prayer. God has no favorites! He wants me to pray; He wants you to pray. He allows such things to happen as we have described above, and suffers them to come to our knowledge, not to surprise us, but to stimulate us. One sometimes wishes that Christian people would forget all the man-made rules with which we have hedged prayer about! Let us be simple. Let us be natural. Take God at His word. Let us remember that "the kindness of God our Savior, and His love toward man," has appeared (Titus iii. 4). God sometimes leads men into the prayer-life. Sometimes, however, God has to drive us into such a life.
As some of us look back over our comparatively prayerless life, what a thrill of wonder and of joy comes over us as we think of the kindness and "patience of Christ" (II Thess. iii. 5). Where should we have been without that? We fail Him, but, blessed be His name, He has never failed us, and He never will do so. We doubt Him, we mistrust His love and His providence and His guidance; we "faint because of the way"; we murmur because of the way; yet all the time He is there blessing us, and waiting to pour out upon us a blessing so great that there shall not be room to receive it.
The promise of Christ still holds good: "Whatsoever ye shall ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son" (John xiv. 14).
Prayer changes things -- and yet how blind
And slow we are to taste and see
The blessedness that comes to those
Who trust in Thee.
But henceforth we will just believe God.