The Word Of God And Prayer
GEORGE Müller OF BRISTOL
HABIT both shows and makes the man, for it is at once historic and prophetic, the mirror of the man as he is and the mould of the man as he is to be. At this point, therefore, special attention may properly be given to the two marked habits which had principally to do with the man we are studying.
Early in the year 1838, he began reading that third biography which, with those of Francké and John Newton, had such a singular influence on his own life-- Philip's Life of George Whitefield. The life-story of the orphan's friend had given the primary impulse to his work; the life-story of the converted blasphemer had suggested his narrative of the Lord's dealings; and now the life-story of the great evangelist was blessed of God to shape his general character and give new power to his preaching and his wider ministry to souls. These three biographies together probably affected the whole inward and outward life of George Müller more than any other volumes but the Book of God, and they were wisely fitted of God to co-work toward such a blessed result. The example of Francké incited to faith in prayer and to a work whose sole dependence was on God. Newton's witness to grace led to a testimony to the same sovereign love and mercy as seen in his own case. Whitefield's experience inspired to greater fidelity and earnestness in preaching the Word, and to greater confidence in the power of the anointing Spirit.
Particularly was this impression deeply made on Mr. Müller's mind and heart: that Whitefield's unparalleled success in evangelistic labours was plainly traceable to two causes and could not be separated from them as direct effects; namely, his unusual prayerfulness, and his habit of reading the Bible on his knees.
The great evangelist of the last century had learned that first lesson in service, his own utter nothingness and helplessness: that he was nothing, and could do nothing, without God. He could neither understand the Word for himself, nor translate it into his own life, nor apply it to others with power, unless the Holy Spirit became to him both insight and unction. Hence his success; he was filled with the Spirit: and this alone accounts both for the quality and the quantity of his labours. He died in 1770, in the fifty-sixth year of his age, having preached his first sermon in Gloucester in 1736. During this thirty-four years his labours had been both unceasing and untiring. While on his journeyings in America, he preached one hundred and seventy-five times in seventy-five days, besides travelling, in the slow vehicles of those days, upwards of eight hundred miles. Then health declined, and he was put on "short allowance," even that was one sermon each week-day and three on Sunday. There was about his preaching, moreover, a nameless charm which held thirty thousand hearers half-breathless on Boston Common and made tears pour down the sooty faces of the colliers at Kingswood.
The passion of George Müller's soul was to know fully the secrets of prevailing with God and with man. George Whitefield's life drove home the truth that God alone could create in him a holy earnestness to win souls and qualify him for such divine work by imparting a compassion for the lost that should become an absorbing passion for their salvation. And let this be carefully marked as another secret of this life of service-- he now began himself to read the word of God upon his knees, and often found for hours great blessing in such meditation and prayer over a single psalm or chapter.
Here we stop and ask what profit there can be in thus prayerfully reading and searching the Scriptures in the very attitude of prayer. Having tried it for ourselves, we may add our humble witness to its value.
First of all, this habit is a constant reminder and recognition of the need of spiritual teaching in order to the understanding of the holy Oracles. No reader of God's word can thus bow before God and His open book, without a feeling of new reverence for the Scriptures, and dependence on their Author for insight into their mysteries. The attitude of worship naturally suggests sober-mindedness and deep seriousness, and banishes frivolity. To treat that Book with lightness or irreverence would be doubly profane when one is in the posture of prayer.
Again, such a habit naturally leads to self-searching and comparison of the actual life with the example and pattern shown in the Word. The precept compels the practice to be seen in the light of its teaching; the command challenges the conduct to appear for examination. The prayer, whether spoken or unspoken, will inevitably be:
"Search me, O God, and know my heart,
Try me, and know my thoughts;
And see if there be any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting!"
(Psalm cxxxix. 23,24.)
The words thus reverently read will be translated into the life and mould the character into the image of God.
"Beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Lord the Spirit."*
But perhaps the greatest advantage will be that the Holy Scriptures will thus suggest the very words which become the dialect of prayer. "We know not what we should pray for as we ought"-- neither what nor how to pray. But here is the Spirit's own inspired utterance, and, if the praying be moulded on the model of His teaching, how can we go astray? Here is our God-given liturgy and litany-- a divine prayer-book. We have here God's promises, precepts, warnings, and counsels, not to speak of all the Spirit-inspired literal prayers therein contained; and, as we reflect upon these, our prayers take their cast in this matrix. We turn precept and promise, warning and counsel into supplication, with the assurance that we cannot be asking anything that is not according to His will;† for are we not turning His own word into prayer?
So Mr. Müller found it to be. In meditating over Hebrews xiii.8: "Jesus Christ the same yesterday and to-day and for ever," translating it into prayer, he besought God, with the confidence that the prayer was already granted, that, as Jesus had already in His love and power supplied all that was needful, in the same unchangeable love and power He would so continue to provide. And so a promise was not only turned into a prayer, but into a prophecy-- an assurance of blessing-- and a river of joy at once poured into and flowed through his soul.
*2 Cor. iii.18.
†I John v.18.
The prayer habit, on the knees, with the Word open before the disciple, has thus an advantage which it is difficult to put into words: It provides a sacred channel of approach to God. The inspired Scriptures form the vehicle of the Spirit in communicating to us the knowledge of the will of God. If we think of God on the one side and man on the other, the word of God is the mode of conveyance from God to man, of His own mind and heart. It therefore becomes a channel of God's approach to us, a channel prepared by the Spirit for the purpose, and unspeakably sacred as such. When therefore the believer uses the word of God as the guide to determine both the spirit and the dialect of his prayer, he is inverting the process of divine revelation and using the channel of God's approach to him as the channel of his approach to God. How can such use of God's word fail to help and strengthen spiritual life? What medium or channel of reproach could so insure in the praying soul both an acceptable frame and language taught of the Holy Spirit? The first thing is not to pray but to hearken, this surely is hearkening for God to speak to us that we may know to speak to Him.
It was habits of life such as these, and not impulsive feelings and transient frames, that made this man of God what he was and strengthened him to lift up his hands in God's name, and follow hard after Him and in Him rejoice.* Even his sore affliction, seen in the light of such prayer-- prayer itself illuminated by the word of God-- and radiant; and his soul was brought into that state where he so delighted in the will of God as to be able in his heart to say that he would not have his disease removed until through it God had wrought the blessing He meant to convey. And when his acquiescence in will of God had become thus complete he instinctively felt that he would speedily be restored to health.
*Psalm lxiii. 4,8,11.
Subsequently, in reading Proverbs iii. 5-12 he was struck with the words, "Neither be weary of His correction." He felt that, though he had not been permitted to "despise the chastening of the Lord," he had at times been somewhat "weary of His correction," and he lifted up the prayer that he might so patiently bear it as neither to faint nor be weary under it, till its full purpose was wrought.
Frequent were the instances of the habit of translating promises into prayers, immediately applying the truth thus unveiled to him. For example, after prolonged meditation over the first verse of Psalm Ixv, "O Thou that hearest prayer," he at once asked and recorded certain definite petitions. This writing down specific requests for permanent reference has a blessed influence upon the prayer habit. It assures practical and exact form for our supplications, impresses the mind and memory with what he thus asked of God, and leads naturally to the record of the answers when given, so that we accumulate evidences in our own experience that God is to us personally a prayer-hearing God, whereby unbelief is rebuked and importunity encouraged.
On this occasion eight specific requests are put on record, together with the solemn conviction that, having asked in conformity with the word and will of God, and in the name of Jesus, he has confidence in Him that He heareth and that he has the petitions thus asked of Him.*
*1 John v.13.
"I believe He has heard me. I believe He will make it manifest in His own good time that He has heard me; and I have recorded these my petitions this fourteenth day of January, 1838, that when God has answered them He may get, through this, glory to His name."
The thoughtful reader must see in all this a man of faith, feeding and nourishing his trust in God that his faith may grow strong. He uses the promise of a prayer-hearing God as a staff to stay his conscious feebleness, that he may lean hard upon the strong Word which not fail. He records the day when he thus takes this staff in hand, and the very petitions which are the burdens which he seeks to lay on God, so that his act of committal be the more complete and final. Could God ever dishonour such trust?
It was in this devout reading on his knees that his whole soul was first deeply moved by that phrase
"A FATHER OF THE FATHERLESS."
He saw this to be one of those "names" of Jehovah which He reveals to His people to lead them to trust in Him, as it is written in Psalm ix.10:
"They that know Thy name
Will put their trust in Thee."
These five words from the sixty-eighth psalm became another of his life-texts, one of the foundation stones of all his work for the fatherless. These are his own words:
"By the help of God, this shall be my argument before Him, respecting the orphans, in the hour of need. He is a Father, and therefore has pledged Himself, as it were, to provide for them; and I have only to remind Him of the need of these poor children in order to have it supplied."
This is translating the promises of God's word, not only into praying, but into living, doing, serving. Blessed was the hour when Mr. Müller learned that one of God's chosen names is "the Father of the fatherless"!
To sustain such burdens would have been quite impossible but for faith in such a God. In reply to oft-repeated remarks of visitors and observers who could not understand the secret of his peace, or how any man who had so many children to clothe and feed could carry such prostrating loads of care, he had one uniform reply:
"By the grace of God, this is no cause of anxiety to me. These children I have years ago cast upon the Lord. The whole work is His, and it becomes me to be without carefulness. In whatever points I am lacking, in this point I am able by the grace of God to roll the burden upon my heavenly Father."*
In tens of thousands of cases this peculiar title of God, chosen by Himself and by Himself declared, became to Mr. Müller a peculiar revelation of God, suited to his special need. The natural inferences drawn from such a title became powerful arguments in prayer, and rebukes to all unbelief. Thus, at the outset of his work for the orphans, the word of God put beneath his feet a rock basis of confidence that he could trust the almighty Father to support the work. And, as the solicitudes of the work came more and more heavily upon him, he cast the loads he could not carry upon Him who, before George Müller was born, was the Father of the fatherless.
About this time we meet other signs of the conflict going on in Mr. Müller's own soul. He could not shut his eyes to the lack of earnestness in prayer and fervency of spirit which at times seemed to rob him of both peace and power. And we notice his experience, in common with so many saints, of the paradox of spiritual life. He saw that "such fervency of spirit is altogether the gift of God," and yet he adds,"I have to ascribe to myself the loss of it." He did not run divine sovereignty into blank fatalism as so many do. He saw that God must be sovereign in His gifts, and yet man must be free in his reception and rejection of them. He admitted the mystery without attempting to reconcile the apparent contradiction. He confesses also that the same book, Philip's Life of Whitefield, which had been used of God to kindle such new fires on the altar of his heart, had been also used of Satan to tempt him to neglect for its sake the systematic study of the greatest of books.
Thus, at every step, George Müller's life is full of both encouragement and admonition to fellow disciples. While away from Bristol he wrote in February, 1838, a tender letter to the saints there, which is another revelation of the man's heart. He makes grateful mention of the mercies of God, to him, particularly His gentleness, long-suffering, and faithfulness and the lessons taught him through affliction. The letter makes plain that much sweetness is mixed in the cup of suffering, and that our privileges are not properly prized until for a time we are deprived of them. He particularly mentions how secret prayer, even when reading, conversation, or prayer with others was a burden, always brought relief to his head. Converse with the Father was an indispensable source of refreshment and blessing at all times. As J. Hudson Taylor says,"Satan, the Hinderer, may build a barrier about us, but he can never roof us in, so that we cannot look up." Mr. Müller also gives a valuable hint that has already been of value to many afflicted saints, that he found he could help by prayer to fight the battles of the Lord even when he could not by preaching.
After a short visit to Germany, partly in quest of health and partly for missionary objects, and after more than twenty-two weeks of retirement from ordinary public duties, his head was much better, but his mental health allowed only about three hours of daily work. While in Germany he had again seen his father and elder brother, and spoken with them about their salvation. To his father his words brought apparent blessing, for he seemed at least to feel his lack of the one thing needful. The separation from him was the more painful as there was so little hope that they should meet again on earth.
In May he once more took part in public services in Bristol, a period of six months having elapsed since he had previously done so. His head was still weak, but there seemed no loss of mental power.
About three months after he had been in Germany part of the fruits of his visit were gathered, for twelve brothers and three sisters sailed for the East Indies.
On June 13, 1838, Mrs. Müller gave birth to a stillborn babe,-- another parental disappointment,-- and for more than a fortnight her life hung in the balance. But once more prayer prevailed for her and her days were prolonged.
One month later another trial of faith confronted them in the orphan work. A twelvemonth previous there were in hand seven hundred and eighty pounds; now that sum was reduced to one thirty-ninth of the amount-- twenty pounds. Mr. and Mrs. Müller, with Mr. Craik and one other brother, connected with the Boys' Orphan House, were the only four persons who were permitted to know of the low state of funds; and they gave themselves to united prayer. And let it be carefully observed that Mr. Müller testifies that his own faith was kept even stronger than when the larger sum was on hand a year before; and this faith was no mere fancy, for, although the supply was so low and shortly thirty pounds would be needed, notice was given for seven more children to enter, and it was further proposed to announce readiness to receive five others!
The trial-hour had come, but was not past. Less than two months later the money-supply ran so low that it was needful that the Lord should give by the day and almost the hour if the needs were to be met. In answer to prayer for help God seemed to say, "Mine hour is not yet come." Many pounds would shortly be required, toward which there was not one penny in hand. Then, one day, four pounds came in, the thought occurred to Mr. Müller, "Why not lay aside three pounds against the coming need?" But immediately he remembered that it is written:
"SUFFICIENT UNTO THE DAY IS THE EVIL THEREOF."*
He unhesitatingly cast himself upon God, and paid out the whole amount for salary then due, leaving himself again penniless.
At this time Mr. Craik was led to preach a sermon on Abraham, from Genesis xii, making prominent two facts: first, that so long as he acted in faith and walked in the Light of God, all went on well; but that, secondly, so far as he distrusted the Lord and disobeyed Him, all ended in failure. Mr. Müller heard this sermon and conscientiously plied it to himself. He drew two most practical conclusions which he had abundant opportunity to put into practice:
First, that he must go into no byways or paths of his own for deliverance out of a crisis;
And, secondly, that in proportion as he had been permitted to honour God and bring some glory to His name trusting Him, he was in danger of dishonouring Him.
Having taught him these blessed truths, the Lord tested him as to how far he would venture upon them. While in such sore need of money for the orphan work, he had in the bank some two hundred and twenty pounds, intrusted to him for other purposes. He might use their money for the time at least, and so relieve the present distress. The temptation was the stronger so to do, because he knew the donors and knew them to be liberal supporters of the orphans; and he had only to explain to them the straits he was in and they would gladly consent to any appropriation of their gift that he might see best! Most men would have cut that Gordian knot of perplexity without hesitation.
Not so George Müller. He saw at once that this would be finding a way of his own out of difficulty, instead of waiting on the Lord for deliverance. Moreover, he also saw that it would be forming a habit of trusting to such expedients of his own, which in other trials would lead to a similar course and so hinder the growth of faith. We use italics here because here is revealed one of the tests by which this man of faith was proven; and we see how he kept consistently and persistently to the one great purpose of his life-- to demonstrate to all men that to rest solely on the promise of a faithful God is the only way to know for one's self and prove to others, His faithfulness.
At this time of need-- the type of many others-- this man who had determined to risk everything upon God's word of promise, turned from doubtful devices and questionable methods of relief to pleading with God. And it may be well to mark his manner of pleading. He used argument in prayer, and at this time he piles up eleven reasons why God should and would send help.
This method of holy argument-- ordering our cause before God, as an advocate would plead before a judge-- is not only almost a lost art, but to many it actually seems almost puerile. And yet it is abundantly taught and exemplified in Scripture. Abraham in his plea for Sodom is the first great example of it. Moses excelled in this art, in many crises interceding in behalf of the people with consummate skill, marshalling arguments as a general-in-chief marshals battalions. Elijah on Carmel is a striking example of power in this special pleading. What a zeal and jealousy for God! It is probable that if we had fuller records we should find that all pleaders with God, like Noah, Job, Samuel, David, Daniel, Jeremiah, Paul, and James, have used the same method.
Of course God does not need to be convinced: no arguments can make any plainer to Him the claims of trusting souls to His intervention, claims based upon His own word, confirmed by His oath. And yet He will be inquired of and argued with. That is His way of blessing. He loves to have us set before Him our cause and His own promises: delights in the well-ordered plea, where argument is piled upon argument. See how the Lord Jesus Christ commended the persistent argument of the woman of Canaan, who with the wit of importunity actually turned his own objection into a reason. He said, "It is not meet to take the children's bread and cast it to the little dogs."*
*Cf. Matt. vii.6, xv. 26,27. Not kusin [Greek transliteration], but kunariois [Greek transliteration], the diminutive for little pet dogs.
"Truth, Lord," she answered, "yet the little dogs under the master's tables eat of the crumbs which fall from the children's mouths!" What a triumph of argument! Catching the Master Himself in His words, as He meant she should, and turning His apparent reason for not granting into a reason for granting her request! "O woman," said He, "great is thy faith! Be it unto thee even as thou wilt"-- thus, as Luther said, "flinging the reins on her neck."
This case stands unique in the word of God, and it is this use of argument in prayer that makes it thus solitary in grandeur. But one other case is at all parallel,-- that of the centurion of Capernaum,* who, when our Lord promised to go and heal his servant, argued that such coming was not needful, since He had only to speak the healing word. And notice the basis of his argument: if he, a commander exercising authority and yielding himself to higher authority, both obeyed the word of his superior and exacted obedience of his subordinate, how much more could the Great Healer, in his absence, by a word of command, wield the healing Power that in His presence was obedient to His will! Of him likewise our Lord said: "I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel!"
We are to argue our case with God, not indeed to convince Him, but to convince ourselves. In proving to Him that, by His own word and oath and character, He has bound Himself to interpose, we demonstrate to our own faith that He has given us the right to ask and claim, and that He will answer our plea because He cannot deny Himself.
There are two singularly beautiful touches of the Holy Spirit in which the right thus to order argument before God is set forth to the reflective reader. In Micah. vii.20 we read:
"Thou wilt perform the truth to Jacob,
The mercy to Abraham,
Which thou hast sworn unto our fathers,
From the days of old."
Mark the progress of the thought. What was mercy to Abraham was truth to Jacob. God was under no obligation to extend covenant blessings; hence it was to Abraham a simple act of pure mercy; but, having so put Himself under voluntary bonds, Jacob could claim as truth what to Abraham had been mercy. So in 1 John i.9:
"If we confess our sins
He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins,
and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
Plainly, forgiveness and cleansing are not originally matters of faithfulness and justice, but of mercy and grace. But, after God had pledged Himself thus to forgive and answer the penitent sinner who confesses and forsakes his sins,* what was originally grace and mercy becomes faithfulness and justice; for God owes it to Himself and to His nature to stand by His own pledge, and fulfill the lawful expectation which His own gracious assurance has created.
Thus we have not only examples of argument in prayer, but concessions of the living God Himself, that when we have His word to plead we may claim the fulfillment of His promise, on the ground not of His mercy only, but of His truth, faithfulness, and justice. Hence the holy boldness with which we are bidden to present our plea at the throne of grace. God owes to His faithfulness to do what He has promised, and to His justice not to exact from the sinner a penalty already borne in his behalf by His own Son.
No man of his generation, perhaps, has been more wont to plead thus with God, after the manner of holy argument, than he whose memoir we are now writing. He was of the elect few to whom it has been given to revive and restore this lost art of pleading with God. And if all disciples could learn the blessed lesson, what a period ofrenaissance of faith would come to the church of God!
George Müller stored up reasons for God's intervention. As he came upon promises, authorized declarations of God concerning Himself, names and titles He had chosen to express and reveal His true nature and will, injunctions and invitations which gave to the believer a right to pray and boldness in supplication-- as he saw all these, fortified and exemplified by the instances of prevailing prayer, he laid these arguments up in memory, and then on occasions of great need brought them out and spread them before a prayer-hearing God. It is pathetically beautiful to follow this humble man of God into the secret place, and there hear him pouring out his soul in these argumentative pleadings, as though he would so order his cause before God as to convince Him that He must interpose to save His own name and word from dishonour!
These were His orphans, for had He not declared Himself the Father of the fatherless? This was His work, for had He not called His servant to do His bidding, and what was that servant but an instrument that could neither fit itself nor use itself? Can the rod lift itself, or the saw move itself, or the hammer deal its own blow, or the sword make its own thrust? And if this were God's work, was He not bound to care for His own work? And was not all this deliberately planned and carried on for His own glory? And would He suffer His own glory to be dimmed? Had not His own word been given and confirmed by His oath, and could God allow His promise, thus sworn to, to be dishonoured even in the least particular? Were not the half-believing church and the unbelieving world looking on, to see how the Living God would stand by His own unchanging assurance, and would He supply an argument for the skeptic and the scoffer? Would He not, must He not, rather put new proofs of His faithfulness in the mouth of His saints, and furnish increasing arguments wherewith to silence the cavilling tongue and put to shame the hesitating disciple?*
In some such fashion as this did this lowly-minded saint in Bristol plead with God for more than threescore years, and prevail-- as every true believer may who with a like boldness comes to the throne of grace to obtain mercy find grace to help in every time of need. How few of us can sincerely sing:
I believe God answers prayer,
Answers always, everywhere;
I may cast my anxious care,
Burdens I could never bear,
On the God who heareth prayer.
Never need my soul despair
Since He bids me boldly dare
To the secret place repair,
There to prove He answers prayer.
*Mr. Müller himself tells how he argued his case before the Lord at this time. (Appendix F. Narrative, vol. 1, 243, 244)
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