Part 2 – With Intense Earnestness

Now let us consider another of the four words/phrases used in Acts 12:5 that contain the whole secret of prevailing prayer, the word “earnestly”–”The church was earnestly praying to God for him.” The word “earnestly” comes far nearer giving the force of the original language but even “earnestly” does not give the full force of the Greek word used. The Greek word is “ektenos,” which means, literally, “stretched-out-edly.” The King James translators came to translate it “without ceasing”: they thought of the prayer as stretched out a long time–unceasing prayer. But that is not the thought at all. The Greek word is never used in that sense anywhere in the New Testament, and I do not know of a place in Greek literature outside of the Bible where it is so used. The word is a pictorial word, as so many words are. It represents the soul stretched out in the intensity of its earnestness toward God.

Did you ever see a foot race? The racers are all toeing the mark waiting for the starter to say “Go,” or to fire the revolver as a signal to start. As the critical moment approaches, the runners become more and more tense, until when the word “Go” comes, or the revolver cracks, they go racing down the track with every nerve and muscle stretched toward their goal, and sometimes the veins stand out on the forehead like whipcords–every runner would be the winner! That is the picture, the soul stretched out in intense earnestness toward God in intense earnestness of desire.

It is the same word that is used in the comparative mood in Luke 22:44, which reads, “Being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” The thought is, as I have said, of the soul being stretched out toward God in intense earnestness of desire. Probably the most accurate translation that could be given in a single word would be “intensely”: “The church was intensely praying to God for him.” In fact, the word “intensely” is from the same root, but has a different prefix. In the 1911 Bible the passage is translated, “Instant and earnest prayer was made of the church unto God for him,” which is not a bad paraphrase, though it is not a translation. And “Intensely earnest prayer was made of the church unto God for him” would be an even better rendering.

It is the intensely earnest prayer to which God pays attention, and which He answers. This thought comes out again and again in the Bible. We find it even in the Old Testament, in Jeremiah 29:13, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” We here discover the reason why so many of our prayers are unheard of God. There is so little heart in them, so little intensity of desire for the thing asked, that there is no reason why God should pay any attention to them. Suppose I should ask all of you if you prayed this morning. Doubtless almost every one of you would reply, “Yes, I did.” Then suppose I should ask you again, “For what did you pray this morning?” I fear that some of you would hesitate and ponder and then have to say, “Really, I forget for what I did pray this morning.” Well, then, God will forget to answer. But if I should ask some of you if you prayed this morning you would say, “Yes.” Then if I asked you for what you prayed you could tell me at once, for you always pray for the same thing. You have just a little rote of prayer that you go through each morning or each night. You fall on your knees, go through your little prayer automatically, scarcely thinking of what you are saying, in fact, oftentimes you do not think of what you are saying but think of a dozen other things while you are repeating your prayer. Such prayer is profanity, taking the name of God in vain.

When Mrs. Torrey and I were in India, she went up to Darjeeling, in the Himalayas, on the borders of Tibet. I was unable to go because of being so busy with meetings in Calcutta. When she came back she brought with her a Tibetan praying wheel. Did you ever see one? A little round brass cup on the top of a stick; the cup revolves when the stick is whirled. The Tibetan writes out his prayers, drops them into the cup, and then whirls the stick and the wheel goes round and the prayers are said. That is just the way a great many Americans pray, except that the wheel is in their head instead of being on the top of a stick. They kneel down and rattle through a rote of prayer, day after day the same thing, with scarcely any thought of what they are praying for. That kind of prayer is profanity, “taking the name of God in vain,” and it has no power whatever with God. It is a pure waste of time, or worse than a waste of time.

But if I should ask some of you what you prayed for this morning you could tell me, for as you were in prayer the Spirit of God came on you, and with a great heartache of intensity of desire you cried to God for that thing you must have. Well, God will hear your prayer and give you what you asked. If we are to pray with power we must pray with intense earnestness, throw our whole soul into the prayer. This thought comes out again and again in the Bible. For example, we find it in Romans 15:30, “I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me.” The word translated “struggle” in this verse is “sunagonizo” (Greek). “Agonizo” (Greek) means to “contend” or “strive” or “wrestle” or “fight.”

We hear a great deal these days about “the rest of faith,” by which men usually mean that we should take things very calmly in our Christian life, and when we pray we simply come into God’s presence like a little child and quietly and trustfully ask Him for the thing desired and count it ours, and go away very calmly, and consider the thing ours. Now, there is a truth in that, a great truth; but it is only one side of the truth, and a truth usually has two sides. And the other side of the truth is this, that there is not only the “rest of faith” but there is also the “fight of faith,” and my Bible has more to say about “the fight of faith” than it has about “the rest of faith.” The thought of wrestling or fighting in prayer is not the thought that we have to wrestle with God to make God willing to grant our prayers. No, “our wrestling is . . . against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12), against the devil and all his mighty forces, and there is no place where the devil so resists us as when we pray. Sometimes when we pray it seems as if all the forces of hell sweep in between us and God. What shall we do? Give up? No! A thousand times, no! Fight the thing through on your knees, wrestle in your prayer to God, and win.

Some years ago I was attending a Bible conference in Dr. James H. Brooks’ old church in St. Louis. On the program was one of the most distinguished and most gifted Bible teachers that America ever produced, and he was speaking this day on “The Rest of Faith.” He said, “I challenge anybody to show me a single passage in the Bible where we are told to wrestle in prayer.” Now one speaker does not like to contradict another, but here was a challenge, and I was sitting on the platform, and I was obliged to take it up. So I said in a low tone of voice, “Romans 15:30, brother.” He was a good enough Greek scholar to know that I had him, and what is more rare, he was honest enough to own it up on the spot. Yes, the Bible bids us “wrestle in prayer,” and it is the prayer in which we actually wrestle in the power of the Holy Spirit that wins with God. The root of the word translated “struggle” is “agone” (Greek), from which our word “agony” comes. Oh that we might have more agonizing prayer.

Turn now to Colossians 4:12, 13, and you will find the same thought again, put in other words, “Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you.” The words translated “working hard” is a very strong word; it means intense toil, or, painful labor. Do you know what it means to toil in prayer, to labor with painful toil in prayer? Oh, how easily most of us take our praying, how little heart we put into it, and how little it takes out of us, and how little it counts with God.

The mighty men of God who throughout the centuries have wrought great things by prayer are the men who have had much painful toil in prayer. Take, for example, David Brainerd, that physically feeble but spiritual mighty man of God. Trembling for years on the verge of consumption (TB), from which he ultimately died at an early age, David Brainerd felt led of God to labor among the North American Indians in the early days, in the primeval forests of northern Pennsylvania, and sometimes on a winter night he would go out into the forest and kneel in the cold snow when it was a foot deep and so labor with God in prayer that he would be wringing wet with perspiration even out in the cold winter-night hours. And God heard David Brainerd and sent such a mighty revival among the North American Indians as had never been heard of before, as, indeed, had never been dreamed of.

And not only did God send an answer to David Brainerd’s prayers this mighty revival among the North American Indians, but also in answer to David Brainerd’s prayers he transformed David Brainerd’s father-in-law, Jonathan Edwards, that mighty prince of metaphysicians, probably the mightiest thinker that America has ever produced (the only American metaphysician whose name is in the American Hall of Fame), into Jonathan Edwards the flaming evangelist, who so preached on the subject of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in the church at Enfield, in the power of the Holy Spirit, that the strong men in the audience felt as if the very floor of the church were falling out and they were sinking into hell, and they sprang to their feet and threw their arms around the pillars of the church and cried to God for mercy. Oh that we had more men who could pray like David Brainerd, then we would have more men that could preach like Jonathan Edwards.

I once used this illustration of David Brainerd at a conference in New York State. Dr. Park, the grandson and biographer of Jonathan Edwards, who was in my audience, came to me at the close and said, “I have always felt that there was something abnormal about David Brainerd.” I replied, “Doctor Park, it would be a good thing for you and a good thing for me if we had a little more of that kind of abnormality.” Indeed it would, and it would be a good thing if many of us who are here this morning had that kind of so-called “abnormality” that bows a man down with intensity of longing for the power of God, that would make us pray in the way that David Brainerd prayed.

But a very practical question arises at this point. How can we get this intense earnestness in prayer? The Bible answers the question very plainly and simply. There are two ways of having earnestness in prayer, a right way and a wrong way. The wrong way is to work it up in the energy of the flesh. Have you never seen it done? A man kneels down by a chair to pray; he begins very calmly and then he begins to work himself up and begins to shout and scream and pound the chair, and sometimes he spits foam, and he screams until your head is almost splitting with the loud uproar. That is the wrong way, that is false fire; that is the energy of the flesh, which is an abomination to God. If possible, that is even worse than the careless, thoughtless prayers of which I have spoken.

But there is a right way to obtain real, heart-stirring, heart-wringing, and God-moving earnestness in prayer. What the right way is the Bible tells us. It tells us in Romans 8:26-27, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” That is the right way–look to the Spirit to create the earnestness. The earnestness that counts with God is not the earnestness that you or I work up; it is the earnestness that the Holy Spirit creates in our hearts. Have you never gone to God in prayer and there was no earnestness in your prayer at all, it was just words, words, words, a mere matter of form, when it seemed there was no real prayer in your heart? What shall we do at such a time as that? Stop praying and wait until we feel more like praying? No. If there is ever a time when one needs to pray it is when he does not feel like praying. What shall we do? Be silent and look up to God to send His Holy Spirit, according to His promise, to move your heart to prayer and to awaken and create real earnestness in your heart in prayer: and God will send Him and you will pray with intense earnestness, very likely “with groanings which cannot be uttered.”

I wish to testify right here that some of the times of deepest earnestness that I have ever known in prayer came when at the outset I seemed to have no prayer in my heart at all, and all attempt to pray was mere words, words, empty form. And then I looked up to God to send His Spirit according to His promise to teach me to pray, and I waited and the Spirit of God came on me in mighty power and I cried to God, sometimes with groanings which could not be uttered.

I shall never forget a night in Chicago. After the general prayer meetings for a world-wide revival had been going on for some time, the man who was most closely associated with me in the conduct of the meetings came over to my house one night after the meeting was over and said, “Brother Torrey, what do you say to our having a time alone with God every Saturday night after the other meetings are over? I do not mean,” he continued, “that we will actually promise to come together every Saturday night; but let us have it tonight, anyway.” Oh, such a night of prayer as we had that night. I shall never forget that, but it was not that night that I am especially thinking of now. After we had been meeting some weeks, he suggested that we invite in a few others, which we did; and every Saturday night after the general prayer meeting was closed at ten o’clock we few would gather in some secluded place where we would not disturb others to pray together. There were never more than a dozen persons present; usually there were six or seven. One night, before kneeling in prayer, we told one another the things we desired especially to ask of God that night, and then we knelt to pray and a long silence followed. No one prayed. And one of the little company looked up and said, “I cannot pray, there seems to be something resisting me.” Then another raised his head and said, “Neither can I pray, something seems to be resisting me.” We went around the whole circle, and each one had the same story.

What did we do? Break up the prayer meeting? No. If ever we felt the need of prayer it was then, and quietly we all bowed before God and looked to Him to send His Holy Spirit to enable us to pray to victory. And soon the Spirit of God came on one and another, and I have seldom heard such praying as I heard that night. And then the Spirit of God came on me and led me out in such a prayer as I had never dreamed of praying. I was led to ask God that He would send me around the world preaching the Gospel, and give me to see thousands saved in China, in Japan, in Australia, in New Zealand, in Tasmania, in India, in England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, France, and Switzerland; and when I finished praying that night I knew I was going, and I knew what I would see as well as I knew afterward when the actual report came of the mighty things that God had wrought. That prayer meeting sent me around the world preaching the Gospel. Oh, that is how we must pray if we would get what we ask in prayer–pray with the intense earnestness that the Holy Spirit alone can inspire.