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Prayer and the Empty Hand

Last night our church gathered, divided into small groups, and went door-to-door in the neighborhood surrounding the school in which we meet. We went caroling and delivering copies of a book and an invitation to our Christmas Eve service to each of the homes in the immediate area. On the whole our efforts were well-received. While only a fraction of the people were both home and willing to open their doors, those who did seemed genuinely pleased to hear a Christmas carol and to receive a small gift. As we went through the streets I was struck by two thoughts that have been rattling around in my head over the past couple of weeks.

The first of these is one that came to me as I was thinking about the people in our neighborhood and pondering just how much I desire opportunities to be able to reach out to them with the gospel. I was recently praying by name for some of these people and realized that it is entirely possible, likely even, that many of these people have never been prayed for, or not by someone who is actually a Christian (and thus someone whose prayers are heard by God). As I’ve said in the past, we live in a neighborhood (a townhouse development) with around 100 homes in it. As far as we know, and we have met at least half of the people, we are the only Christians. We have never heard anyone else speak of church and have never seen any of them go to church with the exception of a small migration of the few “Christmas and Easter” Catholics on Christmas Eve. In all the years we have lived here we have been approached countless times by Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, but only once have we had Christians come to our door to invite us to their church. The fact is, Canada is largely a pagan nation. Churches where the gospel is present are few and far between. There are fewer and fewer Christians. And so I wonder who would ever have prayed for people in this neighborhood? Who will pray for them now?

It strikes me as a heartbreaking tragedy that so many people will never have been held up before the throne of grace. It is so sad that so many people have never had anyone to plead for them before the Lord. As we walked through the darkened streets last night, I couldn’t help but wonder how many people have never been brought before God, have never had anyone plead for their salvation. I wonder how many unbelievers live their whole lives without ever once having a Christian ask God to use them to bring these lost souls to Him.

As I thought about this, I was reminded of something which I will share briefly and as an aside in case it interests someone. For a short time there was a man with a gift for evangelism who attended our old church. He would head to the train station many mornings and attempt to sit and talk with people, even if only for a few moments, to share the gospel with them. He was one of these people I admire so much who can evangelize to anyone anywhere and at anytime. At one point he and another man in the church walked through a neighborhood for thirty or forty consecutive days. Every morning they would pause briefly outside each house and pray for the people in that home. At the end of this time they knocked on every door and asked the people to join them for a street party. And when that party came they had an amazing turnout. They had many opportunities to share the gospel with these people. It was brave, unashamed and effective evangelism. I have often wondered how God used their prayers and will continue to use those prayers as these men prayed for individuals who had probably never been prayed for in the past. May God grant me such faith and such courage. And may He continue to burden me to pray for individuals in the homes I can see right now from the window of my office.

There was something else that struck me last night, and this first occurred to me last Saturday when we had many of the people in our neighborhood into our home, the adults just to hang out and talk, and the children to decorate gingerbread houses. We invited people just to come, just to bring themselves, and yet everyone brought something with them, whether a plate of food or a tin of chocolate or even just a card. No one could come empty-handed. And we are the same way. When someone invites us to their home, Aileen’s first question is always “Did you ask them what we can bring?” I typically have to admit that, no, I didn’t ask. I assume that if people are inviting us into their home they are doing so from a desire to extend grace and hospitality to us and that we are not obliged to bring something. Aileen, though, considers it rude to not at least ask if we can bring a salad or dessert or something (anything!).

It seems that humans have a problem with accepting gifts. Humans have a problem with grace. We never want to accept a gift without providing something in return. Last night people would receive the book we gave them and respond by saying, “Are you collecting money? Can we donate to something? Can we at least give you a candy?” So few people were willing to simply accept the gift as a gift, even if it was a gift they did not particularly want. So few could believe that we would give them something and expect nothing in return. They wanted to repay the gift, to repay grace.

And that’s just the way humans are. One of the greatest testaments to the truth of Christianity is in its “otherworldliness.” No human being could conceive of a religion that offered grace and demanded no repayment. No human being could create a religion that was all of grace. Without the work of the Holy Spirit no person can believe, accept and treasure this grace. And even after we have been granted it, so many of us, so often, try to repay grace. We feel that we need to be obedient to God in order to repay Him for the salvation He has given us. But we are not to live lives of obedience in order to repay God. Rather, we live in obedience out of gratitude for his amazing grace. James White writes, “Since faith comes with empty hand, it finds in the grace of God all that it could ever need or want…. Only the empty hand fits into the powerful hand of grace.” We come to God with empty hands, offering nothing, receiving everything.

From Christ’s fullness “we have all received, grace upon grace.” As those who understand grace and who have received it, Christians ought to give and receive grace in return. Grace should mark us as distinct from others just as it distinguishes Christianity from all of the world’s counterfeit paths to God.

I will close with some wise words from the pen of Charles Spurgeon. “Grace is the first and last moving cause of salvation; and faith, essential as it is, is only an important part of the machinery which grace employs. We are saved ‘through faith,’ but salvation is ‘by grace.’ Sound forth those words as with the archangel’s trumpet: ‘By grace are you saved.’ What glad tidings for the undeserving!”