The Mystery of Prayer

by Watchman Nee on April 18, 2017

The article below looks at how God, in His sovereignty, chose to make His people co-laborers with Him. One of the ways that is manifested is that many times He chooses to give birth to His purposes through the prayers of His people. This is why past revivals were historically preceded by united prayer. Such perspective underscores the enormous opportunity and privilege that we have, in coming together in one heart and one mind, in one accord, at our united multi-church monthly prayer meetings. It also underscores the perils of giving room to division, and of neglecting the pursuit of unity and united corporate prayer. To the extent we are united or divided, we either have or lack the spiritual authority that God would give us.

The Mystery of Prayer
By Watchman Nee


Prayer: a Mystery

Prayer is a mystery; and after we have considered a few questions on the subject I believe we will appreciate even more the mysterious character that surrounds prayer—for these are questions quite difficult to answer. Yet this observation is not meant to suggest that the mystery of prayer is incomprehensible or that the various problems concerning prayer are inexplicable. It is merely indicative of the fact that few people really know very much about them. In view of this, few are truly able to accomplish much for God in prayer. The power of prayer lies not in how much we pray but in how much our prayers are in accordance with the principle of prayer. Only prayers of this kind are of true value.

The foremost question to be asked is, Why pray? What is the use of praying? Is not God omniscient as well as omnipotent? Why must He wait till we pray before He commences to work? Since He knows, why must we tell Him everything (Phil. 4.6)? Being almighty, why does God not work directly? Why should He need our prayers? Why is it that only those who ask are given, only those who seek find, and only those who knock enter in (Matt. 7.7)? Why does God say: “Ye have not, because ye ask not” (James 4.2)?

Upon asking the above questions we must then continue to inquire as follows: Is prayer contrary to the will of God? What is the relationship between prayer and righteousness?

We know God never does anything against His own will. If opening doors is God’s will, why should He wait until we knock before He opens? Why does He not simply open for us according to His own will without requiring us to knock? Being omniscient, God knows we need to have doors opened; why, then, must He wait for our knocking before He opens? If the door is to be opened and if opening doors is in accordance with God’s will, and if furthermore He also knows that we need it to be opened, why does He wait for us to knock? Why does He not just open the door? What advantage does our knocking give to God?

Yet we must further ask these questions: Since God’s will is to open the door and since opening the door is in accord with righteousness, will God nevertheless open the door if we do not knock? Or would He rather have His will and righteousness delayed without accomplishment in order to wait for our prayers? Will He really allow His will of opening doors to be restrained by our not knocking?

If so, will not the will of God be limited by us? Is God really almighty? If He is almighty, why can He not open the door all by himself—why instead must He wait till we knock? Is God really able to accomplish His own will? But if He truly is able, then why is His opening of doors (God’s will) governed by our knocking (man’s prayer)?

By asking all these questions we come to realize that prayer is a great mystery. For here we see a principle of God’s working, which is, that God’s people must pray before God himself will rise up and work: His will is only to be realized through the prayers of those who belong to Him: the prayers of the believers are to accomplish His will: God will not fulfill His will alone—He will perform only after His people show their sympathy in prayers.

Such being the case, it can therefore be said that prayer is none other than an act of the believer working together with God. Prayer is the union of the believer’s thought with the will of God. The prayer which a believer utters on earth is but the voicing of the Lord’s will in heaven. Prayer is not the expressing of our wish for God to yield to our petition and fill up our selfish desire. It is not a forcing of the Lord to change His will and perform what He is unwilling to do. No, prayer is simply speaking out the will of God through the mouth of the believer. Before God, the believer asks in prayer for the Lord’s will to be done.

Prayer does not alter that which God has determined. It never changes anything; it merely achieves what He has already foreordained. Prayerlessness, though, does effect a change, because God will let many of His resolutions go suspended due to the lack from His people of prayerful cooperation with Him.

“Verily I say unto you, What things soever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and what things soever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18.18). We are most familiar with this word of our Lord, yet it should be realized that this word has reference to prayer. And it is immediately followed by this statement of Christ’s: “Again I say unto you, that if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father who is in heaven” (v.19).

Heaven Governed by Earth

Here is clearly stated the relationship between prayer and God’s work. God in heaven will only bind and loose what His children on earth have bound and loosed. Many things there are which need to be bound, but God will not bind them by himself alone. He wants His people to bind them on earth first, and then He will bind them in heaven. Many things are there also which should be loosed; but again, God is not willing to loose them alone: He waits until His people loose them on earth and then He will loose them in heaven. Think of it! All the actions in heaven are governed by the actions on earth! And likewise, all the movements in heaven are restricted by the movements on earth! God takes great delight in putting all His own works under the control of His people. (Yet it should be pointed out that these words in Matthew are not spoken to carnal people, for such are not qualified to hear them. Let us be very careful here lest the flesh come in, for in that case we shall offend God in many respects.)

There is one passage in Isaiah which conveys the same thought as is found here in Matthew: “Thus saith Jehovah, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker: Ask me of the things that are to come; concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands, command ye me” (45.11). As we consider this word may we truly be pious, allowing no flesh to come in stealthily. God desires humble men such as we to command Him! He commences to do His work at our command! Whatever action God may take in heaven, be it binding or loosing, it is all done according to the command we give on earth.

Earth must bind first before heaven will bind; earth must loose first before heaven will loose. God never does anything against His will. It is not because the earth has bound something that the Lord is then forced to bind that which He has not wished to bind. Not so. He binds in heaven what has been bound on earth simply because His original will has always been to bind what the earth has eventually bound. He waits till His people on earth bind what heaven has aspired to bind, and then He will hearken to their command and bind for them what they have asked. The very fact that God is willing to hear the command of His people and bind what they have bound is evidence that He has already willed to so bind (for all the wills of God are eternal). Why does He not bind earlier? Since it is His will to bind, and His will is eternal, why does He not bind sooner what should be bound according to His own will? Why must He wait for the earth to bind before He will bind in heaven? Is it true that what is not bound on earth cannot be bound in heaven? If there is delay in binding on earth, will there also be delay in heaven? Why must God wait for the earth to bind before He binds that which He has long desired to bind?

Let me say that by answering these questions a believer may become more useful in the hands of God. We already know the reason for man’s creation. God creates man that the latter may be united with Him in defeating Satan and his works. Being created with a free will, man is expected to exercise his will for union with God’s will in opposing the will of Satan. This is the purpose of creation as well as the purpose of redemption. The entire life of the Lord Jesus demonstrates this principle. Though we do not know the reason why, we nevertheless know that God will not act independently. If the people of God fail to show sympathy towards Him by yielding their will to Him and expressing their one mind with Him in prayer, He would rather stand by and postpone His work. He refuses to act alone. He exalts His people by asking them to work with Him. Although He is almighty, He delights in having His almightiness circumscribed by His children. However zealous He is towards His own will, He will temporarily permit Satan to be on the offensive should His people forget His will and fail to show sympathy by cooperating with Him.

Oh that God’s children were not as cold as is evident today, that they were more willing to deny themselves and submit to God’s will—caring more for His glory and keeping His word. Then would the eternal will of God concerning this age be speedily realized, the church would not be in such confusion, sinners would not be so hardened, the coming of the Lord Jesus and His kingdom would sooner arrive, Satan and his forces would be cast much earlier into the bottomless pit, and the knowledge of the Lord would more quickly spread over all the earth.Due to the fact that believers mind too much their own affairs and fail to work together with God, many enemies and much lawlessness are not bound, many sinners and much grace are not released. How greatly restricted is heaven by earth! Since God respects us so much, can we not trust Him that much?

How do we bind what God intends to bind? And loose what God intends to loose? The answer the Lord Jesus gives is this: “Agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask.” Now this is prayer—the prayer of the body of Christ. The peak of our working together with God is in asking with one accord that God will accomplish what He desires to accomplish. The true meaning of prayer is for the one who prays to pray for the fulfillment of the will of the One to whom he prays. Prayer is the occasion wherein to express our desire for God’s will. Prayer means that our will is standing on God’s side. Aside from this, there is no such thing as prayer.

Self and Prayer

How many prayers nowadays truly express the will of God? How much in our prayers is self completely forgotten and the will of the Lord is alone the thing that is sought? How many believers are really working together with God in prayer? How many of us are declaring daily before Him His will and pouring out our hearts in prayer that He may do whatever is His will that He has made known to us? Let it be clearly recognized that selfishness is no less evident in prayer than it is in other areas! How manifold are the askings for ourselves! How strong are our opinions, desires, plans and pursuits! Having so much of self, how can we expect to be able to forget ourselves completely and seek God’s will in prayer? Self-denial must be practiced everywhere. It is just as essential in prayer as in action. We ought to know that we redeemed ones should live for the Lord—He who both died and now lives for us. We must live wholly for Him and seek nothing for ourselves. In our life of consecration, prayer is among the items to be consecrated.

A serious error concerning prayer prevails in our common understanding, which is to say, that we often think of prayer as an outlet for expressing what we need—as our cry to God for help. We do not see that prayer is the asking of God to fulfill His needs. We ought to understand that God’s original thought is certainly not the letting of believers achieve their own aims through prayer, rather is it God accomplishing His purpose through the prayers of the believers. This is not meant to imply that Christians should never ask the Lord to supply their needs. It only is meant to indicate how we need first to understand the meaning and principles of prayer.

Whenever a believer is in want, he should first inquire: Will such lack affect God? Does He want me to be in need? Or is it His will to supply my need? When you see that God’s will is to supply your need, you can then ask Him to fulfill His will by supplying what you need. Having come to know His will, you should now pray according to the will of God which you know. You pray that He will fulfill His will. The question is now no longer whether your need is met but whether God’s will is done. Though your prayer today is not much different from that of the past, nonetheless what you now look for is that the Lord’s will in this particular personal matter of yours may be done and not that your own need may be supplied. How many failures are registered right here: believers frequently assign to their own needs the priority; and even though they know that the Lord’s will is to supply them, they nevertheless cannot forget to mention first in their prayers their own needs.

We should not just pray for our needs. In heaven and on earth there is only one prayer which is legitimate and acceptable to God—which is asking Him to fulfill His will. Our needs should be lost in God’s will. Whenever we see the will of God concerning our need, we should immediately lay down our need and ask Him to fulfill His will. To ask the Lord directly to supply our needs, whatever such needs may be, cannot be considered prayer of the highest level. Prayer for personal need should be touched indirectly by first asking the Lord’s will to be done. This is the secret of prayer, the key to victory in prayer.

God’s purpose is for us to be so filled with His will that we forget our own interests. He calls us to work together with Him for accomplishing His will. The way of working together is prayer. For this reason He wants us to learn in Him what His will is regarding all things so that we can then pray according to His will.

True prayer is a real work. Praying according to God’s will and praying only for His will is indeed a self-denying work. Unless we are completely weaned from ourselves, having not the slightest interest of our own but living absolutely for the Lord and seeking only His glory, we will not like what He likes, nor seek what He seeks, nor pray what He wants us to pray. Without doubt, to work for God with no self-interest is very difficult; but to pray for Him without any self-interest is even harder. Even so, all who live for God must do this.

In past generations the Lord did not do many things which He is able and loves to do because of the lack of cooperation from His children. The failure lies not in God, but in His people. If we review our own personal histories we shall see the same sad state. Had we had greater faith and more prayer our life would not have been so ineffective. What the Lord now looks for is that His children may be willing to be united with His will and declare such union through prayer. No believer has ever fully experienced the greatness of accomplishment through union with God’s will.

Prayer—Preparing the Way of God

A servant of the Lord has well said: Prayer is the rail for God’s work. Indeed, prayer is to God’s will as rails are to a train. The locomotive is full of power: it is capable of running a thousand miles a day. But if there are no rails, it cannot move forward a single inch. If it dares to move without them, it will soon sink into the earth. It may be able to travel over great distances, yet it cannot go to any place where no rails have been laid. And such is the relation between prayer and God’s work. I do not believe it necessary to explain in detail, for I trust everyone can recognize the meaning of this parable. Without any doubt God is almighty and He works mightily, but He will not and cannot work if you and I do not labor together with Him in prayer, prepare the way for His will, and pray “with all prayer and supplication” (Eph. 6.18) to grant Him the maneuverability to so work. Many are the things which God wills to do and would like to do, but His hands are bound because His children do not sympathize with Him and have not prayed so as to prepare ways for Him. Let me say to all who have wholly given themselves to God: Do examine yourselves and see if in this respect you have limited Him day after day.

Hence our most important work is to prepare the way of the Lord. There is no other work which can be compared with this work. With God there are many “possibilities”; but these will turn into “impossibilities” if believers do not open up ways for Him. In view of this, our prayers in one mind with God must be greatly increased. May we pray exhaustively—that is to say, may we pray through in all directions—so that God’s will may prosper at all points. Though our activities among men are important, our working together with the Lord by prayers offered up before Him is much more important.

Prayer is not an attempt to restore heaven’s heart. It is a most erroneous concept to hold that God being hard, we therefore need to engage in combat against Him in prayer so as to subjugate Him and thereby cause Him to alter His decision. Whatever prayer is not according to God’s will is utterly void. Let us see that we strive before God as if in conflict only because His will is being blocked by either men or the devil, and so, we greatly desire Him to execute His will in order that His own determinate will may not suffer because of opposition. By so desiring after God’s determinate will and praying—yea, even striving—against all that oppose His will, we prepare the way for Him to carry out His determinate will without permitting that which comes out of man or of the devil temporarily to prevail. True, we seem to be striving against God; yet such striving is not aimed against God as though to compel Him to change His will to suit our pleasure, but in reality is against all that is opposed to God so that He may fulfill His will. In view of this, let us see that we are unable to pray as fellow-workers of God unless we really know what His will is.

Having now understood somewhat the true meaning of prayer, let us be doubly careful lest the flesh slip in. For please note that if God by himself sends out laborers, then Christ would not have ordered us to pray to the Lord of the harvest that He send forth laborers! If God’s name will quite naturally be hallowed, if His kingdom is to come without any need for our cooperation, and if His will shall be done automatically on earth, the Lord Jesus would never have taught us to pray in such a manner as He did. If He himself shall return without the need of a response from His church, the Spirit of the Lord would not have moved the apostle John to cry out for His quick coming back. If God the Father will just spontaneously make the believers one, would our Lord have ever prayed to His Father to this effect? If working together with God is not essential, what can possibly be the use of the continuous intercession of our Lord in heaven?

Oh let us see that prayer in sympathy with God is more vital than any other thing! For God can only work in matters for which His children have shown sympathy. He refuses to work in areas where there are no prayers and where His people’s will is not united with His will. Prayer with joined wills is real prayer. The highest motive of prayer is not in having it answered. It is to join man’s will with God’s so that He may be able to work. Sometimes we may ask incorrectly and thus our prayer goes unanswered; yet if our will is joined with God’s, He will still gain, for through our sympathy He is still able to work out His will.

(From the book Let us Pray by Watchman Nee)