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Either Self Must Die Or Prayer Must Die

By Paul E. Billheimer

    “Let my prayer be set before Thee as incense” (Psa. 141:2).

    Throughout Scripture, incense is used as a symbol of prayer.  In the Temple, incense was kindled by coals of fire from the altar of sacrifice that stood in the outer court.  Each morning and evening the officiating priest, following the offering, brought live coals from the altar into the Holy Place and laid them upon the altar of incense.

    Upon these coals he heaped sticks of incense and the rising of the sweet smelling cloud to heaven teaches the ascent of the soul toward God in prayer, and teaches us that prayer in its essence is the rising of the soul, the drawing near of a life to God.

    The largest element in prayer is not petition but aspiration.  It is impossible for any soul to draw near to God while tolerating conscious sin or unchristlikeness in his life.  No soul can be comfortable in the presence of God while there is conscious disparity between himself and God.  In the very process of drawing near to God in prayer the soul instinctively purges itself of all known faults and shortcomings.

    The nearer a soul draws to God, the more conscious he will become of the dross of his own character, and the greater will be his effort at self-purification.  Any known and unconfessed sin, fault or shortcoming automatically prevents a nearer approach to God, and hinders access to the throne of grace and mercy. 

    Prayer is more than petition.  It is the honest effort of the petitioner to purge out of his life all things which would separate him from God.  This is the place of power in prayer.  It is the life, not the lips, that prays.

    Many of the Lord’s people have their prayers hindered by some broken fellowship which should be restored, or by some unpaid obligation about which they have not been conscientious, or by some other adjustment they have failed to make.  He would be praying more effectively by making adjustments with everything in his life with which the Spirit has a controversy than by spending hours on his knees without correcting his life.

It Is the Life Behind the Prayer that Gives It Its Power with God

    It is the effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man that availeth much (Jas. 5:16).  Are you living where God answers prayer?  Character is power in prayer.  If we want Christ’s power we must approximate His character.  Prayer in Christ’s Name is difficult to offer.  It requires much discipline and watchfulness.  It excludes all self-will and selfishness.

    We seldom yield up our self-life except under pressure.  Therefore God withholds the answers to our prayers and grants them in return for the surrender of some previously unyielded stronghold of the self-life.

    Beloved, do not allow yourself to suffer with the delusion that you have no more self or unchristlikeness to yield.  You may be saved and sanctified and filled with the Spirit, but remember that those experiences, blessed and sweet as they are, are only beginning experiences.  Remember that following them there are many spiritual defects, results of the fall which are removed only by the discipline of life.

    All life long this process will go on.  The more that we cooperate with the divine indwelling Spirit in this work of perfecting Christian character, the greater our conformity to Christ’s likeness, the greater is our power in prayer.

    If you will analyze your previous prayer experience carefully, you will recall that before some outstanding answer to prayer you reached a point of desperation, an agony of desire in which you made a new or deeper surrender.  Some hitherto undiscovered and unyielded citadel of self was discovered and given up and some new realm of your nature was yielded to the Divine Conqueror and fell more fully under His sway.

    Making this new surrender your faith rested in God and His Word, and you claimed the answer.  You prevailed in prayer.   You prayed the prayer of faith, because you reached new depths of submission and new depths of conformity to the image of the Crucified One.

    But it is not the length of your prayer, your agony, tears or suffering that gives power – but the yieldedness at the end of all these that puts us in the place of power and enables us to claim the answer.

    The position of the altar of incense supports the claim that prayer in its deepest essence is the putting away of the self-life.  The altar of sacrifice comes first in order and the altar of incense, second. The sacrifice was offered first and the incense kindled afterward with coals of fire from the altar of sacrifice.  Sin must be dealt with and put away first before the cloud of incense can rise.  All known sin as well as faults, which are sins of ignorance, must be put away as soon as discovered, or they will be a hindrance to the spirit of prayer.

    Always before a fresh kindling of the incense of a new sacrifice was offered and that meant that preceding each renewal of the incense, something had died. And that suggests this deep truth that the spirit of prayer is kindled by the progressive death of our self life. The way to cultivate the spirit of prayer is to progressively slay the self-life.  The spirit of prayer thrives on the death of self.

    One reason so many of us lack the spirit of prayer is we will not yield new strongholds of the self-life.  We refuse to accept self-crucifixion.  One tiny reservation consciously made, one dear Isaac withheld, and our prayer life suffers.  The life of prayer is a life of increasing death to self.

    That there is a progressive dying to self, even following the experience of entire sanctification or the baptism with the Holy Ghost, the best writers agree.  There is a real death to self which comes after the work of sanctification and after the baptism of the Spirit.

    George Watson says, “We detect many manifestations of the creature life, which are not clearly sinful on the one side, nor yet really Christlike on the other side, but a middle zone of creaturely activity and self, which the Spirit shows must be passed beyond or crucified, in order to reach deep abiding union with God, where there is ‘none of self and all of Jesus Christ.’”

    No doubt many of you can recall times when the spirit of prayer has been grieved out of your life by acts of self-will and has not returned until repentance and adjustment have been made.

Cause of Prayerlessness

    Here is the secret of cold hearts and cold prayers.  Remember that before the cloud could rise, the incense had to be kindled.  The coals which kindled the incense and sent the cloud heavenward came from the altar of sacrifice.  The reason our hearts and prayers are so cold and lifeless and rise no higher than our heads is because we have failed to visit the altar of sacrifice, we have refused to die.

    There are countless calls upon us constantly for deeper submission of our wills, deeper abandonment of our desires, tastes, ambitions and aspirations.  To refuse to remain on the cross, to take ourselves off the altar of sacrifice, to assert or reassert our self-life, all of this grieves the spirit of prayer and leaves our hearts cold and our spirits motionless.  The cloud of incense does not rise because the incense has not been kindled.

    It is the fervent prayers of the righteous man that avail much, and self-will slays true fervency.  If our prayers are to be really fervent and therefore effective we must slay self upon the altar of sacrifice.

    “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Psa. 66:18).  Iniquity is anything that belongs to the fallen man and is therefore not of God.  Not to diligently war against all sin, and not only sin but all faults and shortcomings, is to regard iniquity in our hearts.  The Gospel is given to us not only to deliver us from actual outward sin but to change our dispositions as well.

    The great thing that robs the most of us of power in prayer is not our actual transgressions but our uncleansed, unpurged and unchastened dispositions.  Most of us have thought of our inherent dispositions as being subject to the disciplining and cleansing grace of God.  It is true they were born in us.  But sin likewise was born in us. Are we to tolerate sin for the same reason we tolerate an ugly, unlovable disposition which we have inherited?

    Grace wars in us against all that is not Christlike. All complacency, all toleration of known imperfections slay the spirit of prayer and keep the incense from rising.  If we want to kindle the spirit of prayer we must frequently visit the altar of burnt offering with new sacrifices of self.

    Sacrifice of self is the pathway to fervency and power in prayer.  Remember, morning and evening the Temple priest took coals from the altar of Burnt Offering and kindled afresh the fire upon the altar of incense.  All the while the incense lay on the burning coals there was a wreath of fragrance wafting up to the Throne on high.

    The meaning of this sacred symbolism is that there must be definite and frequent seasons of prayer, that the incense must be kindled periodically if it is to rise continually – signifying that prayer is to be diffused through all life and all life is to be prayer.

    No one can live a life of prayer without stated seasons of prayer.  Christ rose early and went out into the mountains to pray.  He often spent whole nights in prayer.  If our Lord and Savior felt the need of solitary communion with the Father, can we safely deprive ourselves of such needful fellowship?

    The incense was kindled afresh every morning and evening.  And without frequent seasons of communion with God, the spirit of prayer will die out of our lives.  Without the constant spirit of prayer, prayer is a useless form. “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).