What is the mark of a genuine faith and conversion?
One of the most important marks of a genuine faith and conversion in Jesus Christ will be prayer, that you practice prayer in your life.
The Christian life is a life of prayer. Prayer is communion with God. Prayer stands at the core of a genuine Christian life. Prayer is the breath of a Christian life. It is not a luxury. It is not something additional. It is not optional or dispensable. It is a necessity.
Prayer arises out of the new life of Jesus Christ that God gives. God makes known to us our needs and our helplessness as His children. And we must arise and go to our Father.
Do you pray? Do you pray privately? Do you know your need of maintaining a life of prayer? Do you call upon God with a true heart through Jesus Christ? Do you know what it is to pour out your needs to Him?
To neglect to pray is to neglect to breathe spiritually. Prayer is the mark of a genuine faith and conversion.
One of the Scriptures which brings this truth out to us is found in Acts 9:11, where we read of Saul of Tarsus, the man who was persecuting the church of Jesus Christ but now was converted on the road to Damascus. Of him we read: “Behold, he prayeth.” That is, God says: “Take note of this.” The man who only days before was riding to Damascus on the devil’s business, breathing out threats and slaughter to Christians, now has repented in dust and ashes. The evidence? He prays. Behold, he prayeth! Not, behold, he sings … behold, he reads the Scriptures … behold, he preaches. Yes, all of those things will also be the sure mark of God’s work in the life of the apostle Paul. But God calls our attention, first of all, to this: he prayeth. This is the mark of spiritual life in a man and woman, in a boy and girl, in a child: they pray.
I find those words “for, behold, he prayeth,” very suggestive for you and for me, especially in the setting in which they are found. When we look a little more closely at this verse we see that it is given as the reason why Ananias should arise and go to Saul. Saul, when he was converted, was blinded. He came to Damascus and stayed in the house of Judas. Ananias, who was a prophet, was called of God to go and place his hands upon Saul’s eyes and restore his sight. God says to Ananias, “Arise and go to Saul for, behold, he prayeth. Ananias, the time is ripe for you to go. Saul is now prepared for your visit. You may be sure that he is ready for you because he is praying. And he has seen in a vision that you are coming. Saul is now in a state of preparedness for your words which I will give you to speak to him. And the proof? Behold, he prayeth.”
First of all, we find then in these words that the evidence of God’s grace, the evidence that the saving grace of God has been worked in our hearts, is that we pray. Ananias, obviously, was very hesitant to go to the man who had done such evil to the saints. Before this, as I mentioned, Saul of Tarsus was the man who was persecuting the church out of devilish vengeance. And he had declared himself to be the enemy of Jesus Christ. He was blaspheming the name of Christ.
Ananias could well have responded: “I must go to him? What if it is all a trap? He is in the house of Judas on the street called Straight, which is the main street of Damascus. Surely he will take me in and then clamp me down in chains and bring me to Jerusalem the moment he has me.”
But God says, “Ananias, arise and go. Inquire for him. Stand before the man who struck such fear in the hearts of the children of God. For, behold, he prayeth.” If the Lord had said to Ananias, “Behold, you may go to him, for he preaches,” Ananias might have responded and said, “Well, a man can do that; he can be a great preacher, but he can still be a deceiver.” Or, if the Lord had said to Ananias, “Behold, Saul has gone to a meeting of the church,” Ananias might have responded, “Yes, he goes to a meeting of the church all right, but perhaps he goes as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But God said, “He prayeth. He worships. He calls out unto Me in the secret places. He offers praise, he bows his knee before Me. He seeks My face humbly and sincerely, privately.” Ah, there is the evidence of the grace of God in his life.
You see, there are aspects of a Christian life which a hypocrite can duplicate, including outward prayer. But one thing a hypocrite cannot duplicate, cannot copy, and that is personal communion with God alone in prayer. To be alone with God and actually to seek the face of God and to cry out, “Lord, have mercy on me. Heal Thou my soul,” to delight oneself in God in secret – these the hypocrite cannot do.
Also, when you and I, as children of God, stray into sin and set our hearts upon evil and lust and harden ourselves in some way of impenitence and give ourselves over to the folly of our own sin, we can keep up a good front. We can continue to attend church; we can preach. We can visit, or stand before our family (parents, wife, and children). We can go through all of the motions. But we cannot come into private fellowship with God in prayer.
I do not want to leave the impression with you today that if prayer is difficult for you then there is something wrong, so you had better doubt. No. We never attain perfection in this life, and we must not think that true prayer is the ability to bring forth beautiful and expressive prayers. No. But this. Saul prayed. Saul sought God’s face personally. Saul saw the need that he had to draw close to God. No hypocrite ever feels that need.
The verse also means that Saul had never prayed before. Oh, yes, as a Pharisee Saul had boasted of the regularity and the length of his prayers. At least twice a day he would go up to the temple to pray. And if you had gone with him, you would have heard him pouring out fine oration to God: “I thank Thee, Lord, that I am not as other men are. I tithe, I give of what I have. I am not like publicans and sinners, you know.” You could see him at noonday on the street corner praying to be seen of men, spreading far his hands. According to human judgment, Saul had been much in prayer. Now the Lord says, “Behold, he prayeth.” That is, this is the first time. All of those other prayers before his conversion were no prayers at all. This is something new to him. Up to that time, Jesus says, he prayed with himself. He prayed formal, proud prayers. His prayers never got beyond the chambers of a proud heart. All that which Saul previously called prayer was never heard of God. Now, as grace has worked in him humility and the sincere cry of confession of sin, sobbing out of his guilt and because of his crucifying of the Son of God afresh by his sins, now he prays.
How often God warns us that it is not the mere folding of our hands and the repetition of words and the outward bowing of our head which pleases Him. It is the broken and contrite spirit before God that is His delight. If anyone were to say to us today, “You never prayed today,” perhaps we would deny it. We prayed at the breakfast table as we hurried up to clear the table so that we could get on our way! Of course we prayed. But did you pray? Did you? It could well be true of you and me that we haven’t prayed at all today. Saul’s first and real prayer was not something which he spoke in Latin or read out of a book or repeated ten times. Saul’s first prayer was not simply orthodox words stuffed in his mind while his mind raced with a thousand details of what he needed to get done. Saul’s true prayer was private. It was through Jesus Christ, the one who had opened the eyes of his heart. That was true prayer.
But these verses teach us more. These words “for, behold, he prayeth” also give to us the fact that now Saul is prepared to receive the word of God to be brought to him by Ananias. He prayeth. That is, “Ananias, he is not raging in fury against the Christians and against Christ. He is not plotting how to capture more saints. He is not stroking himself in pride at how zealous he has been. So long as his heart and mind were upon such things, all of the Old Testament prophets could line themselves up at the door of Saul and it would do him no good. He could hear all kinds of Scripture, but it would do him no good. Grace must first come to the heart before the Word of God can enter into that heart and turn a man unto God. And the evidence that a man is now prepared to receive that Word, an evidence that the grace of God is at work in his heart, is that he prayeth. Ananias, go to him. Tell him from Me that he is My chosen vessel. Inform him of his calling that he will be the apostle unto the Gentiles. Tell him of all the things that he is going to suffer for My sake. He is not going to grit his teeth. He is not going to laugh you to scorn. He is ready to receive your words, for he prayeth.”
Prayer, then, softens the soul unto the Word of God. Prayer is a means of grace. The attitude assumed in prayer as we humble ourselves by God’s grace before Him makes us also now receptive unto His Word. If you have prayed, then you will not arise from your prayer agitated. You will not arise from your prayer dissatisfied, fighting with God, unsubmissive. If you do, you have prayed wrong. But true prayer will tend to quiet your soul, break down your resistance, and fit you for a humble walk with God. Prayer prepares us. Receive that wonderful Word of God.
You see, prayer, by definition, is a confession of our own need and dependence. Prayer is not self-assertive. Prayer is not centered in this: “Give me what I want.” Prayer is not “I claim, in the name of Jesus, health; I claim my will; I claim what I want from God. And because I have faith, I am going to get it. Amen.” That is not prayer.
Prayer is the realization, the knowledge, of your utter dependence before God. And prayer is the reaching of faith for something which is better, stronger, more trustworthy than ourselves: God. Psalm 61:2, when I am “overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” And because prayer is that, the confession of our need and the seeking of that Rock which is higher than ourselves, prayer must always have an effect on us. Prayer does not necessarily change things. It changes us. He or she who truly prays might not be healed from cancer miraculously. He may not get a new mini-van. But prayer, you see, brings us into a humble and devout and restful attitude of soul whereby we cry out to God, “Have Thine own way. Thy will is good, O God. I do not want anything except Thy will!”
In a profound sense, it makes one different from what he would otherwise have been if he had not prayed. Prayer is an act of grace by which we renounce our own self, our own strength, our own way and throw ourselves at the feet of Him who is exalted on high. It puts our souls in the way of submission and humility and it gives us the disposition of heart to walk humbly with God.
You see, prayer brings us into the attitude that we must be in as we stand before God. We come before our Father in order that we might confess our helplessness and our need, and that He might strengthen us.
That is a wonder of grace, is it not? What a wonder it was for the man who was called Saul, who was persecuting the church, now to be praying on his knees before God. For one who by nature hated God and whose skin crawled at the idea of communion with the Holy One. Now he is appearing before God in confession and in praise. What a wonder! But that is always true. To seek the face of God, to feel the need for prayer, to delight in prayer – what a wonder of God’s grace in your life! But that is especially true when one has been so long schooled in pride as was Saul, for one who had for so long prayed the false way, had prayed in self-righteousness, who was for so long content in his self-righteousness. For so long Saul had gone through the motions without ever experiencing the reality. He had gone through the motions of prayer, but he had never prayed! He had never felt the reality of it! For so long he had read the Bible. But he never really read it. For so long he prayed, but he never entered into the courts of God. For so long he repeated words which were simply echoing in an empty heart.
For a man who has worn the rags of self-righteousness and has now parted with those rages and come in true faith before God, oh, what a wonder of grace.
You see, it is easier for us, by our flesh, to go to church 100 times than to offer one sincere prayer. What grace it takes to take proud, self-satisfied sinners as ourselves and bring them on their knees before God in true dependence. What a wonder that God hears our prayers. Do you notice what attention God paid to Saul now? God says, “Behold, Saul prayeth.” God knew where Saul was, He knew what he was doing, He noticed him – a brokenhearted sinner who sighs before God – is heard and understood before God as if all of heaven’s attention is directed to one spot, toward the man, woman, child of God who is on his knees in true prayer. A man who sheds tears of remorse – God is there and God catches all of his tears in His bottle. What a wonder of God’s grace. He hears our prayers!
And He answers. “Saul, you are my chosen vessel. I am going to show you now how great things I am going to do through you. And I am going to show you how great things you are going to suffer for My sake.” Oh, let us pray! Let us draw near to God with an open heart. He will hear us. “Behold, he prayeth.” Is that what is said in heaven about you?
The longing soul that turns to God, God will fully satisfy. When we truly pray we will actually come into communion with God, the God of our salvation. We will abide in His presence. Therefore, the Word of God to you and to me today is: Live steadily, in the midst of all of your life, in prayer. God grant that wherever we might be on this earth it may be described in heaven in these terms: Behold, he prayeth.
Let us pray.
Our Father in heaven, we thank Thee for this word. And we pray that Thou wilt sanctify it, that is, make it holy in our hearts. And work in us genuine, heartfelt, sincere, humble prayer. Amen.