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When we pray, on what do we base our assurance that God will hear us? When Christians grow in maturity and seek to live holy lives, does this give an extra weight to their prayers? The question this article seeks to address was brought to this examiner’s mind after recently reading an excerpt from E.M. Bounds. Bounds, a Civil War chaplain and Methodist pastor, is best known today for his writings on the subject of prayer. An excerpt from Bounds’ book, The Essentials of Prayer, asserts that people, when they live holy and consecrated lives, have more “leverage” when praying to God. Bounds said:
“It is the consecrated man who accomplishes most by his praying. God must hear the man wholly given up to God. God cannot deny the requests of him who has renounced all claims to himself, and who has wholly dedicated himself to God and his service. This act of the consecrated man puts him ‘on praying ground and pleading terms’ with God. It puts him in reach of God in prayer. It places him where he can get hold of God, and where he can influence God to do things which he would not otherwise do… He who gives all to God will get all from God. Having given all to God, he can claim all that God has for him.”
1. Bounds is right to emphasize being consecrated to God
Bounds is right to say that there is a connection between obedience to God and answered prayer. It is presumptuous to disregard God’s command in one’s life and still expect God to operate like a genie, fulfilling our every wish. Prayer is relational, a way to connect with God, not merely a way to get things from God. If one is living out of harmony with God’s will, then the relationship—and prayer which is a major part of that relationship—is obviously going to suffer.
Unrepentant sin hinders prayer. Psalm 66:18 says, "If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened." In his first epistle, the apostle Peter instructs husbands to treat their wives in an understanding manner lest, because of their mistreatment of their wives, their prayers be hindered. There are things we can do to keep our prayers from being heard by God. Does it then follow that there are things we can do--such as living a consecrated life--that can ensure our prayers will be heard?
2. Bounds' comments could mislead people to trust in their own holiness, rather than simply God's promise
Where Bounds overstates his point is by saying God must hear the person who is wholly given up to him. Even the most consecrated saint the church has ever known, the person entirely given over to God, is still a sinner saved by Christ’s blood—a sinner that, if God were being just, he would expel eternally from his presence. No redeemed sinner, however sanctified, has any claim on God’s favor.
Bounds says God cannot deny the requests of someone wholly dedicated to God. Yet Scripture and experience alike teach us this is not accurate. Jesus, the God-Man, the consecrated man, if there ever was one, asked for the cup of suffering to be spared in the Garden of Gethsemane and God denied his request. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, asked God to remove his thorn in the flesh, and God denied his request. The fact that God said no had nothing to do with a lack of holiness or consecration on the part of the petitioner.
The only thing that puts a person on ‘pleading terms’ with God is the blood of Christ. No act of consecration, on the part of a human being, can put a person in reach of God in prayer. Only the blood of Christ can make God accessible. If certain people, through their prayers, find that they are able to influence God to do things he wouldn’t otherwise do, this is certainly not a result of anything meritorious on the part of human beings. God graciously hears our prayers for Christ’s sake when they are prayed in Christ’s name; God doesn’t grant our prayers for our own sakes or because of any holiness on our own part.
There is a sense in which the person who gives all to God will get all from God. This doesn’t mean, though, that all of a person’s prayers in this life will be answered. We pray with very imperfect wisdom, and even our most mature prayers are often requests for things that God, in his infinite wisdom, knows would be bad for us.
The most righteous Christians on this earth are sinners who’ve been spared from God’s wrath solely through the work of Christ on behalf of sinners. Just because we are forgiven and adopted into God’s family doesn’t mean we, in ourselves, have any “leverage” with God. We pray through the merit of Christ and this is how we must pray our whole life long. Even Christ, though, the most righteous person who ever lived, didn’t always get a resounding “yes” from God (remember Gethsemane). This shows that God, in his wisdom, sometimes grants, sometimes refuses prayers, and it is overly simplistic to look for the answer to the mystery in the holiness, or lack thereof, in the person praying.
The passion, sincerity, piety, holiness, or whatever else we think we bring to a prayer is not what moves God to grant it. As the hymn, “Rock of Ages” puts it so well:
“Could my tears forever flow, could my zeal no respite know
All for sin could not atone; Thou must save and Thou alone”
Just as our own efforts can’t obligate God to forgive us, our own efforts can’t obligate God to do anything for us. That doesn’t mean that God won’t do anything for us. He will do immeasurably more than we could ever ask or imagine, but when he does this, it will be because he loves us for Christ’s sake, not because of anything good in us that obligates God to give us his attention.
In closing, consider these poignant words of Martin Luther, excerpted from By Faith Alone (World Publishers, 1998):
“Prayer must not be based on or depend on your personal worthiness or the quality of the prayer itself but on the unchanging truth of God’s promise. If the prayer is based on itself, or on anything else besides God’s promise, then it’s a false prayer that deceives you—even if your heart was breaking with intense devotion, and you were weeping drops of blood. We pray because we are unworthy to pray. Our prayers are heard precisely because we believe that we are unworthy. We become worthy to pray when we risk everything on God’s faithfulness alone.”