Prayer: Your Praying Hands
I read to you from fifth chapter of the letter of James, beginning to read at the thirteentth verse. This is the Word of God. “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.” Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory.
Let us pray. Now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Albrecht Dürer’s great sketch entitled Praying Hands is printed on the front of your bulletin. As you look at that sketch, it’s quite obvious, I think, that the hands which are portrayed there are working hands. The rough fingernails, the enlarged joints, the thick palms all give evidence of years of hard work. These are hands which had held a scythe or a hoe or a scrub brush. They are working hands. And yet, these rough, twisted, working hands are somehow very beautiful. Why? Well, if you notice, the hands touch only lightly and in only two places. They touch at the fingertips and at the palms. That speaks to me of calmness, of peace, of gentleness, of assurance. As you look at the hands, it’s quite obvious that they are very comfortable in that position. It’s clear that those hands had been in that position very often.
Here was one who knew God and who knew God well, and who knew that God would hear every word that he spoke. Here was one whose relationship to God obviously stood at the very center of his entire existence. And so, his hands, those rough, twisted hands with knotted veins on the back have become not just a classic work of art, but also a very beautiful symbol of the nature and the power of prayer. And I want to suggest to you today that Albrecht Dürer’s Praying Hands can be a help to us in developing our own prayer life. And to show you what I mean, I want you right now to put your hands in the position of Dürer’s Praying Hands without feeling self-conscious at all. Come on. Put your hands in the position of Dürer’s Praying Hands. Do that for me now. Look at your hands in that position, and then retain the mental image of what you see as we then progress through an exercise which I’ve chosen to call Your Praying Hands. Let’s start.
When our hands are in the position of the Praying Hands, the first finger we see is the thumb. That’s the digit which is closest to us when our hands are in that position.
And therefore, the thumb ought to remind us to pray first for those who are closest to us, to pray first for those whom we love best in life: husband, wife, children, mother, father, brother, sister, friend, anyone, anyone at all, to whom we feel very close.
We pray first for those who are closest to us. And let’s remember also that the thumb is the strongest, the most powerful, the most useful finger on our hands, and therefore when we pray for those who are closest to us, we need to pray for them in terms of their becoming strong, powerful, useful instruments in the hands of God.
What I’m saying here is this, that our prayers for our loved ones ought not to be pious coddlings. Now, let’s be honest enough to admit that we do have a tendency to want to coddle those who are closest to us. Some years ago now, a minister in California had a severe mental breakdown. He was institutionalized. When at last he recovered, he proceeded to write a book about his experience. The book is called Light Beyond Shadow. And in that book, Frederick West has this to say. Listen carefully. He says, “It’s your family and your friends you have to watch out for. They are fatal precisely because they love you. But because they love you, if they won’t let you fight your own battles, if they try to shelter you and protect you always, if they refuse to let you test your own mettle, test your own faith, you will never get well.” That’s what he says, you know, and he’s absolutely right.
We do have a tendency, do we not, to want to coddle those whom we love the most in life. We see it in our prayer life when we say to God, “O God, give them health and give them happiness and give them success, and give them this and give them that, and give them this and give them that.” But how we ought to be praying for those who are closest to us is this. We ought to be praying that God will challenge them to greatness, that God will challenge them to become all that God intends them to be in life, and then we ask God to give them the strength to rise up and meet that challenge. That’s the way we ought to be praying for those who are closest to us.
And you know, I think here of the experience of Clark and Daniel Poling. Daniel Poling was a very distinguished Presbyterian minister. His son Clark was a chaplain in the United States Navy. During the days of World War Two, Clark Poling received orders that he was to report overseas for combat duty. Before he left, he went to visit his dad. And he said to him, “Dad, I don’t want you to pray for my safe return. That wouldn’t be fair. I don’t have any premonitions or anything like that, it’s just that I want you to pray that I shall be adequate to face whatever is ahead. That’s how I want you to pray.” It was some months later, on February the 5th, 1943, to be precise, the aircraft carrier the Dorchester was sinking in the Pacific. At 1:15 AM, just minutes before that great ship slipped beneath the waves, four chaplains locked arms and hearts on the deck of the carrier and began to pray and to sing hymns, having already given their life jackets to four other sailors, that they might be saved. One of those four chaplains was Clark Poling. Later on, when Daniel Poling learned how his son had died, he said, “My prayers have been answered. My son was adequate.” Yes. That’s how we should be praying for those who are closest to us, praying that God will use them and use them to the uttermost, and that no matter what they have to face or to bear in His name, that God, by His power, will make them adequate. And you know, it’s that thumb, the first finger on our praying hands, that should remind us to pray in those terms for those who are closest to us.
And then we come to the second finger on our praying hands, and that’s the finger with which we point. That’s the finger with which we give direction.
And that second finger on our praying hands ought to remind us to pray for the Church, which seeks to point the way to Jesus Christ.
Now, you know as well as I do that the greatest joy and privilege we can have in life is bringing someone to the place where the presence of Jesus Christ can surround them and where God’s spirit can bring them into a saving, redeeming, life-changing relationship with our Lord and Master. You know that. And you also know that it is the Church which is consistently and constantly engaged in doing just that, bringing people into the presence of Jesus Christ. And I hope that I don’t have to stand in this pulpit today and tell you how much the Church, this Church and the Church all around the world, how much the Church depends upon your prayers.
Dr. De Witt Talmage was a great preacher of another day. On one occasion he preached a sermon in his own pulpit one Sunday morning. It was a marvellous sermon used mightily by God’s spirit. It blessed many people. That same Sunday evening, he was to be the guest preacher in another congregation. He preached the same sermon. This time it fell completely flat. Afterwards, as he was on the way home, in the company of one of the members of his congregation who had joined him on the journey, this other man said to him, “Dr. Talmage, tell me, how is it that you could preach the same sermon in the morning and in the evening, and in the morning it’s a great blessing, and in the evening it’s a failure?” And Dr. Talmage’s response was instantaneous. He said, “Poor preaching is God’s curse on a prayerless congregation.” And that’s true. Poor preaching is God’s curse on a prayerless congregation. Yes.
And that’s not only true of preaching. Poor teaching is God’s curse on a prayerless congregation. Poor pastoral leadership, poor lay participation, poor stewardship, all of these things are God’s curse on a prayerless congregation. Here’s what I want you to grasp. Spiritual poverty, in whatever form it may take, is the direct result of poor prayer practice. And that’s why I hope that the second finger on our praying hands will always remind us to pray for the Church, which seeks to point the way to Jesus Christ, the one who said, remember, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by Me.”
And then we come to the third finger on our praying hands. And on our hands that’s the longest finger. That’s the most outstanding finger.
And therefore, that third finger on our praying hands ought to remind us to pray for those people who are outstanding, those people who are prominent in our world.
I’m suggesting here that that finger ought to remind us to pray for our national and state and local civic and political leaders. They need our prayers. Not only that, but you know the Bible instructs us specifically to give them our prayers? In many places, just one of them, for example, Paul writing to Timothy says, “Pray for kings and for all in high positions of authority that we may lead a quiet, peaceable life.” Do you hear that? Paul is saying that we are to pray for those who lead us, that they may be enabled to so manage the affairs of society, that we shall live free and at peace. And that means, then, Paul is implying, that we as Christians can then concentrate all of our effort into carrying on the ministry of Jesus Christ in the world. Isn’t that a beautiful thought? And that’s what he’s saying, that we are to pray for our leaders, that they may maintain society, free and peaceful, that we may do the work of Jesus Christ.
That means that we are to pray for our leaders, whether they’re Christian or not. That’s an important thing for us to grasp. Let’s remember, please, that our civic and political leaders are not our spiritual leaders. They are not called to exert spiritual leadership in society. The Bible nowhere teaches that. It’s not even implied in Scripture. The Bible teaches us quite specifically that we, as Christians, are the ones who are to exercise spiritual leadership in society, and our civic and political leaders are to do nothing more than simply to maintain society sufficiently free and peaceful to permit us to do the work of Jesus Christ. That’s so beautiful.
And what it means, practically speaking, is this, that we are not to try to pray our senator or our congressman or our president or our mayor or our governor into our own particular political point of view. We have to have our own political point of view, yes. If we’re going to be responsible citizens in this great land, we’ve got to have a political point of view and we’ve got to exercise that point of view, and we’ve got to seek to elect people who share that point of view. That’s our responsibility as citizens. But, you see, we as Christians are commanded by God to take that whole matter one giant step further. We are commanded by God, as Christians, to pray for all of our leaders, whatever their political or religious persuasion may be. And we are to pray for them in these terms, that their leadership shall be committed to building a world at peace, and that in their leadership they shall be beholden to God and to no one else. That’s the way we are to pray for our leaders. And that third finger on our praying hands reminds us to pray for those who are outstanding, those who are our leaders, all of them, whoever or whatever they may be.
But then, you know, we come to the fourth finger on our praying hands. That’s the weakest of all our fingers. You know how it is when you’re trying to learn how to type or you’re trying to learn how to play the piano, and you can never manage to get that finger to do what you want it to do? That’s the weakest of all our fingers.
And therefore, that fourth finger ought to remind us to pray for those who are weak, to pray for those who are sick, those who are lonely, those who are bereaved, those who are afraid, those who are downtrodden, those who are oppressed, those who are suffering.
Ah, there’s so much suffering in this world of ours, so much. Some people suffer because of their own sin, and some people suffer because of other people’s sin, and some people suffer because of, well, natural circumstance, the working out of the natural laws of the universe that govern life on this planet. But it doesn’t matter what the reason may be, oh, there is so much suffering in this world, and we as Christians are called to pray especially for those who suffer.
I want to make a very practical suggestion at this point. You see, I don’t think it’s good enough for us to pray in general for those who are suffering. It’s not good enough to say, “Lord, feed the hungry.” It’s not good enough for us to say, “Lord, make sick people well.” No, that’s not good enough. I think we have to pray for specific people in specific circumstances with specific needs. And that means that we need to picture in our minds particular individuals in their circumstances where they are. Maybe the individual, for example, is sick in the hospital. Well, then, picture in your minds that person in the bed in the hospital room, and then picture with your own minds Jesus Christ standing right beside that bed. And then visualize, again in your mind’s eye, visualize the Lord Jesus Christ stretching out His hand and placing His hand on that person, and in that moment pray, “Lord God, let the power of God flow down through the master and into that person, making that person well and whole again.” Pray like that.
I want to tell you something. I’ve seen some remarkable things happen as a result of that kind of praying. I’ve seen fevered brows cooled. I’ve seen weeping eyes dried. I’ve seen pain-twisted faces begin to smile again. I’ve seen temptation overcome. I’ve seen the fear of death conquered. I’ve seen some remarkable things happen as a result of that kind of praying, and the amazing thing is that our prayers, yours and mine, can accomplish things like that. That’s right. Believe me. But if you won’t believe me, then believe James. James, who says here in Scripture, “The prayers of the righteous have great power in their effects.” Do you hear that?
Not very long ago, a group of men were gathered together talking in one of the hallways of our church. I just finished preaching at the early service and was on my way back to my office, and I happened to pass by and I overheard the conversation they were having. They were talking about one of their friends who had died just a few days before. And one of the men in that group said, of his friend who had died, he said, “You know, I think I’m going to miss him most because of his prayers, because whenever I knew that he was praying for me I could feel God working in my life in a special way.” I thought then, and I think now, that that is as marvellous a statement as anyone could ever make about another human life. And it makes me wonder if there is anybody anywhere who is saying something like that about you or about me. That fourth finger reminds us to pray for those who have special need, remembering always that the prayers of the righteous have great power in their effects.
Well, then we come to that last finger on our praying hands. It’s the little finger. It’s the least significant of all our fingers, the one we come to last.
And that finger should remind us to pray for ourselves, the one we pray for last, the one upon whom we place the least emphasis.
But that finger is there; it means that we do need to pray for ourselves, and we need to pray for ourselves in terms of asking God to use us as He will in His world. Now I know there are some Christians who are uncomfortable with that. There may be even some of those Christians here today. They’re uncomfortable. They think that that’s selfishness to be praying for one’s self, and they feel guilty about it. I want you to note something down. Here it is. Prayers for self are not necessarily selfish prayers. Jesus spent a considerable amount of time praying for Himself, and if Jesus could do it, so should we.
But let me turn it around and try to express it this way. Let’s just suppose that you’re a parent, and you have a son or a daughter off in a distant land. Wouldn’t you want to hear from your child? I mean, wouldn’t that be the most important thing of all? It wouldn’t matter if what you heard was all personal concerns of that child. It wouldn’t matter if the news was dull and the successes unhistoric and the failures insignificant. It wouldn’t even matter, would it, if all you got was just a little note or a postcard. No, the most important thing, the most important thing of all would be hearing from the one you love. Well, don’t you see? That’s the way it is with God. That’s the way it is with God. The one thing God wants more than anything else in all creation and in all eternity, the one thing God wants more than anything else is to hear from those He loves. He wants to hear from you, and He wants to hear from me. And He wants to hear about you, and He wants to hear about me. And that’s why no prayer is ever complete without that little finger, a prayer for ourselves.
There it is. Your praying hands. I invite you to employ it in your own prayer life. Now, oh yes, I know there are some here – there may even be a lot here – who will say at this point, “That is nothing more than just a childish gimmick.” You’re right. That’s exactly what it is, just a little childish gimmick. But you know something? That little childish gimmick has been a great, great blessing to me in my walk with Jesus Christ, and it just may be that that little childish gimmick will lead you to a personal discovery of the real power of prayer in your life. So try it. In the name of Jesus Christ, try it. I think you’ll like it.
Let us pray. Merciful and most gracious God, lead us to a discovery that what is said in your Word is absolutely true, that the prayers of the righteous have great power in their effects. Lead us so to pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.