Christ’s Negative and Positive Prayer

Charles Haddon Spurgeon February 5, 1888 Scripture: John 17:15 From: Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Volume 40

Christ’s Negative and Positive Prayer


“I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.”— John xvii. 15.


NOTICE, in the prayer of our Divine Lord, what honour he always puts upon God the Father. He ascribes to God everything,— the taking the disciples out of the world, or the keeping them from the evil in the world. Let us never neglect to look for God’s hand in all that happens to the saints; and let us not fall into the error of those who deny the Great First Cause, and are always dealing with appearances, forgetting the Mighty God who shapes our ends, and rules our destinies. If we die, it is not by chance, but because God takes us out of the world. Believers fall asleep in Jesus, neither before nor after the predestined time. No disease or accident can cut short their lives; and it would not be possible to prolong their existence beyond the time appointed by the Lord. I like to believe,— whatever it may be to some of you, to me it is very sweet to believe that—

“All must come, and last, and end,
As shall please my heavenly Friend.
“Plagues and deaths around me fly,
Till he bids I cannot die:
Not a single shaft can hit
Till the God of love thinks fit.”

     Our lives are entirely in the keeping of our loving Father. You can see that truth in the text. Jesus speaks of God as taking the beloved ones out of the world; and it is even so. This fact should make us cease to be anxious about when or how we shall die; and it should, at the same time, reconcile us to the time and the manner of the home-going of any whom we love most dearly. They were not snatched away by the robber Death; they were taken out of the world by our dear Father’s gracious hand. Let us say concerning them what Job said of his loved ones, “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

     See, also, how our Lord Jesus honours the Father by ascribing to him the keeping of the saints from evil, for ho says, “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.” Beloved, our escape from evil, at the first, was by the Father’s grace. Our persevering in righteousness until now has been wrought in us by the Father’s hand, through the Divine Spirit; and this day, if we have not apostatized, if we have not denied the faith, and proved traitors to Christ, we must ascribe it entirely to the grace of God. As the psalmist says, “It is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves,” and it is he who keeps us, and not we ourselves; for, again quoting the hundredth Psalm, “We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”

     I want you, as far as you possibly can, to be constantly recognizing God’s overruling hand; God, in our death, taking us out of the world, and God, in our life, keeping us from evil, and upholding us in our integrity. When you get thus near to God, and realize that God is ever present with you, you are in the right frame of mind for prayer. You are also in the state and condition of heart which will give you courage in time of danger; you are, indeed, ready for anything and for everything, whatever may come to you, when God is thus consciously overshadowing your spirit. This much, I think, the prayer of our Lord plainly suggests.

     Observe, again, that God has us absolutely at his disposal. Let us ever remember that great truth. The prayer of Jesus recognizes his Father’s sovereignty; but we ourselves must also recognize that we are entirely in God’s hand. He can take us out of the world; or he can keep us in the world, and preserve us from the evil. We are glad to be at the disposal of our God; as his people, we would have no voice or choice in fixing our own position, but with the psalmist we would say, “He shall choose our inheritance for us.” Whether we stay, or whether we go, depends entirely upon the Lord’s will; and Christ in his prayer recognizes that it is so. He would not pray for a matter which was not in the hand of him to whom he prayed. He felt that his people were absolutely at his Father’s disposal, and Therefore, he presented the prayer which is to be the subject of our meditation to-night.

     Now, in this petition, there are two things. There is, first, the negative prayer: “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world;” and then, secondly, there is the positive prayer: “But that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.”

     I. There is here, first, THE NEGATIVE PRAYER: “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world.”

     At first sight, that seems almost unkind on our Saviour’s part. What could happen better than for those whom the world hated to be taken out of the world? Jesus himself was going out of the world; what could he do that should have greater love in it than to pray that they might go with him? I have often felt as Thomas did when he paid, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Has Jesus gone? Why should we tarry here? Has Jesus entered the glory? Let us be with him where he is, that we may behold his glory. There is nothing left to detain us below since he has ascended to his Father’s right hand; but there is everything to attract us upward, since he is there who is our heart’s Lord, our all in all. Have you not often felt inclined to pray for yourself that the Lord would take you out of the world? I mean, not merely in times of depression, when, like Elijah, who never died, you are ready to pray, “Now, O Lord, take away my life;” but in times of exultation, when you have been near to the gates of heaven in ecstatic joy and holy gladness, have you not wished to slip in? “Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles.” Have you not said so in your heart, if not with your voice? Nay, have you not wished, not to stay on the Mount of Transfiguration, but from that point to take your heavenward flight, and land yourself in the New Jerusalem, to go no more out for ever? I know that, sometimes, on a Sabbathday, when we have been singing, to the tune Prospect,—

“On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaan’s fair and happy land,
Where my possessions lie,”

I have felt that I could from my heart sing the last verse of the hymn—

“Fill’d with delight, my raptured soul
Can here no longer stay:
Though Jordan’s waves around me roll,
Fearless I’d launch away.”

     Yet the Saviour says, “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world.” I am sure, therefore, that it is a better thing for us to stop here till our appointed time than it is for us to be taken out of the world. It may not be better in all respects; but there are some points in which it is an advantage for believers to remain here. Our Saviour loves us so much that he would be certain to ask the very best thing for us. Therefore, for us to be taken out of the world at once, would not be, all things considered, the best disposition of us that the Lord could make.

     How is that? Well, first, if we, who are Christ’s people, were taken out of the world, then the world itself would perish. Do we contemplate, with any pleasure, such a catastrophe as that? “Ye are the light of the world.” Take all the lights away; and the murky atmosphere, which is dark enough even now, would become dense as Egyptian midnight, and life would be intolerable. “Ye are the salt of the earth.” Should the salt be taken away, putrefaction would revel without limit, corruption would then have nothing to contend with it, and the world would reek in the nostrils of God himself, till he would be obliged to destroy it.

     I look along the ages, and I see mankind given up to debauchery, and eaten up with worldliness, yet the sinners are permitted to live on year after year; but I also see a strange-looking ship, that has been built on dry land, and I watch the only family in the earth that fears God, going up into that queerly-shaped vessel, and the door is shut by God himself. I hear it as it closes, and the moment that door is shut, what happens? The world is doomed; God pulls up the sluices of the great deep that lieth under, and he throws open the floodgates of heaven; the fountains gush up from below, and the rains pour down from above, till the whole world is drowned. This awful judgment did not begin till Noah, the one righteous man, was taken away from the rest of mankind, and shut in the ark: “The same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights. In the selfsame day entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah’s wife, and the three wives of his sons with them, into the ark.”

     I look again, and away yonder, I behold, in the vale of Siddim, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. If I go within their gates, I hear and see that which disgusts my soul; things that it were a shame even to speak of, are done in those cities. There is one good man who lives there, and only one; and I see him, early one morning, flying with his wife and daughters out of the city. The moment he has passed beyond the bounds of the condemned cities, and escaped to little Zoar, what happens? Destruction is poured out of heaven upon the guilty people: “The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered into Zoar. Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.”

     Because we do not wish such awful destruction as that, either by water or by fire, to fall upon this guilty world, we ask God to permit the salt to remain in the earth, the light still to burn in it, the Noah still to linger, the Lot still to dwell here yet a little while. When the Lord shall begin rapidly to gather his saints home, as he may do by-and-by, and when the wail is heard, “The faithful fail from among the children of men,” then shall come dark days indeed, and the earth shall know the terrible vengeance of Almighty God.

     This, then, is one reason why Christ does not pray that we should be taken out of the world, because it would be the ruin of guilty men if the saints were removed from the earth which is only preserved for their sake.

     Does not the Lord also wish the righteous to stay in the world a while that they may he the means of the salvation of others? How came Jesus here himself? He came to seek and to save that which was lost; and when he went away, he did not take his disciples out of the world, because their ministry was to be blessed to many of their fellow-creatures. In this very prayer to his Father, he said, “As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world.” They who might be safely housed in heaven, stay here that they may be the means of saving others. Mother is still here, though her son has well nigh broken her heart; she is left on the earth that she may yet win that boy for Christ. And our old grey-headed friend, whose infirmities are multiplying, is still among us, though he would be far happier amongst the harps of angels; but he is detained here that his grandson, or his still unconverted daughter, may hear from his lips once more a loving, living testimony for the Lord Jesus, and may thereby be turned to God. I do think that there are many of you, who do not yourselves love the Lord, who, nevertheless, ought to be very grateful to him for saying, “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world.” Oh, dear man, you do not want to lose that loving wife of yours! She has brought you here to-night, after a good deal of coaxing and tender persuasion; you do not think of her God, or care about the Lord Jesus; but your wife is still living to seek the salvation of your soul. I believe she will win you yet, by God’s grace. There are many who might, long ago, have received their reward, and would have been thrice happy to do so, but they have yet to preach the everlasting gospel, and yet to win more souls to Christ. It is more needful for sinners that Paul should abide in the flesh a little longer, though he himself has a desire to depart, and to be with Christ, which is far better.

     Beloved Christian brothers and sisters, if the Lord is keeping any of us here with the object of using us in the salvation of others, let us take care that we answer the purpose of our continued existence on the earth; let us be up and doing, let us be earnestly seeking the souls of our relatives, let us be zealously endeavouring to bring others to Christ. I am sometimes saddened when I hear of households conducted by professedly Christian people, places where one would think that God’s name would be upon every tongue, and yet servants may live for years in such families, and their masters and mistresses never speak to them about their souls. And many men, employing hundreds of workpeople, will give them their wages as if they had no souls to care about; for they take no interest in the eternal welfare of those who work for them in temporal things. Do not let it be so with you, dear friends. Masters and mistresses, there are occasions in which you can go to your servants, and those employed by you, and without being at all intrusive, can seek to interest them in the things of God. You can call at their homes, perhaps; and the offering of a prayer, and speaking to them about the gospel of Christ, may reach them, and bring them to the Saviour, where our sermons have failed to do so. I charge you, by him who bought you by his blood, either go to heaven and glorify Christ there, or else, if you remain in the world, glorify him here; but whether you live, or whether you die, do see to this matter, that you answer the divine purpose, which is that, being saved yourself, you may become the means of saving others.

     There is a second reason, then, for our Lord wishing his disciples to stop here, that they may be the means of the salvation of others.

     Next, I think the Lord lets his people stay in the world that they may serve him in the place where they sinned against him. If I had been converted just now, and the Lord were to open the gates of heaven, and say, “Come in,” I think that I should step back, and say, “Dear Master, may I stop here just a little while to undo some of the mischief that I did in my ungodly state?” I can fancy that someone here would pray, “Lord, there is my friend, who used to go to the theatre and the music-hall with me, and I taught him much that was mischievous; will it please thee to let me tarry here, and tell him about thy great salvation?” I think that another would say, “Lord, I spent so many years in the service of the devil; now, before I go home to see thy face, let me have a few years in thy service! I would like to undo at least a portion of the evil that I have done before I stand in thy presence amid the eternal splendours of heaven.” It seems to me that it is most gracious of the Lord to let us remain here to serve him where we sinned against him, and not to take us home as soon as we are converted. I think that we shall congratulate ourselves even in heaven that we had some opportunity of contending for the faith, or of bearing reproach for Christ’s sake, or of seeking to win souls for him before we entered upon our everlasting rest.

     Is not that a good reason why the Saviour did not pray that his disciples might be taken out of the world?

     And is not this another good reason why saints are left in the world? The Lord keeps his people here that he may exhibit in them the power of divine grace. Just as he permitted Job to be tempted of the devil, that all the world might see how God can enable a man by patience to triumph, so he keeps us here to let the devil and all men know what his grace can do for his people, and also to let angels, and principalities and powers in the heavenly places, behold what saints God can make out of guilty sinners. He takes those who had gone far away in sin, and brings them nigh by the blood of Jesus. He fashions the rough, knotty timber, that did not seem as if it ever could be shaped, and uses it in the building of his temple. He makes wonders of grace out of sinful men and women, such marvels of mercy that the angels will stand and gaze at them throughout eternity, as they say, “How could God make such perfect beings as these out of such sinful material?” All this will be “to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.” You see, we cannot exhibit patience in heaven; so far as we now know anything about heaven, it does not seem possible that there will be any need of patience there. We cannot manifest strength of faith in heaven, for faith will be lost in sight. We can take our love into glory; there are some flowers that will sweetly open in the land where they have no need of the sun, for Christ is better than the sun. There are certain flowers of less sweet perfume, and those can only be developed in the earth; and the Lord, therefore, bids us tarry here a while, that he may show what grace can do in sustaining us in suffering, upholding us under trial, and protecting us against temptation. O soldiers of the cross, do you want crowns without having contended for them?   

“Must you be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease;
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas?”

Ask no such thing; be satisfied to take your share in the conflict, or else I do not see how you can so sweetly relish the triumph which God will give to his people in due time.

     Thus, the Lord exhibits the power of his grace in us; and that is another reason why we have to tarry here a while.

     Next, I shall have to say many things very briefly where I could have wished to have had time for enlargement. Do you not think that we are kept here to prepare us for heaven? Are we not as yet like children who need education for that truer, higher life? When a boy first goes to school, you do not put into his hand the higher classics. He must plod through his grammar, he must learn many elementary lessons; and then he must work hard on dry and dreary roots, and afterwards you will give him some classic poet that he may read intelligently. So must you and I, here below, go plodding through our primers, we must work hard at our grammars, we must have a slate and pencil still; and when we have become proficient in all we have to learn here, we shall the better enjoy the holy rest and perfect service which make up the heaven of the blessed.

     Let me give you an illustration of what I mean. A boy is sent to school; and his parents pinch themselves to pay for him to have a good education. It is not every boy who will say this to himself; but if he does, he is a first-rate lad: “My poor father and mother are doing all they can to give me a first-class education here. They want to make something of me; and I am going to learn with all my heart, so that I may be worthy of all that my parents design for me, and not waste one single shilling of the money they are spending upon me.” Such a boy is diligent at his books; he labours where others loiter, and treasures up in his mind everything that he learns while others forget it. Now the Lord Jesus Christ is thus putting some of us to school, training us for high employment hereafter. He means to make something of us by-and-by; and our desire now is to be prepared as far as possible for what Christ intends for us, that we may be the more to his praise and glory, and our own completeness for ever and ever.

     I have often been puzzled by those words of the Lord Jesus, “I go to prepare a place for you.” What there was about heaven that was not ready, I do not know; except it was that Jesus himself was not there; but I can easily understand this truth, that we are not ready for heaven yet, for heaven consists more in character than in place. We have to be more completely sanctified, more truly developed in all good things than we are at present. We are not yet fit for the glory land, so Jesus does not pray that we should be taken out of the world; but we are to wait here a little longer till his grace has more fully fitted us for glory.

     Does not the Lord also, by keeping us here, mean us to see more of the wisdom, the power, the grace, and, the truth of God? Within this last month,— a month of remarkable pain and travail to me,— I have had certain experiences which I shall never forget, and I would pass through seas ten times as deep and boisterous, merely for the sake of having those experiences repeated. There are some of them which I could not tell here. There are facts connected with them that would be discreditable to some who had to do with them, though greatly honourable to others; but as to my God, they have shown me his faithfulness, his power, his tenderness, his wisdom; and I believe that, had I been in heaven, I should not have seen as much of some of the attributes of God as I have seen here below. If you had been an angel, for ever praising God in glory, could you tell how faithful he is to a tried saint? Could you say, if you had not experienced it here on earth, how surely he comforts his people in their deepest sorrows? There are some pearls in these troubled waters that the sea of glass itself can never contain. There are some bright eternal lessons that we should never have known, if it had not been for our earthly trials, even if we might have had an archangel for a schoolmaster. Therefore, we must stop here a while, and suffer affliction, temptation, depression of spirit, and slander and abuse, that we may learn thereby the deeper truths of God’s revelation.

     I shall have to abandon the second part of my subject, I see, for my time has nearly gone already. I must, however, make just one more remark upon our first head.

     I think that our Lord Jesus does not pray that we may be called out of the world because he knows that we shall be taken to heaven in due time. He scarcely thinks of that as a matter of prayer; it is so entirely in the Father’s hands that he leaves it there. I would not encourage anybody here to pray that he might die; and, on the other hand, I do not know that I would incite anybody here to pray very earnestly that he might live. Hezekiah prayed that his life might be lengthened, and his prayer was granted. Manasseh would not have been born if Hezekiah had not lived those extra fifteen years; and it would have been a good thing if Manasseh had never been born. Those sins and iniquities, with which he made Judah to sin with his idols, though they were forgiven, yet filled up the cup of the nation’s perversion from God, and fixed the doom of that apostate people. I do not know, if the lifting of our finger could make us live for another twenty years, whether we had not better hesitate to lift that finger. At any rate, I feel quite clear about the other side of the question, we have no business to pray that we may die. As I have already reminded you, the man who did pray that he might die never died at all. How foolish he was to pray that he might die, when God had intended that he should go to heaven by a whirlwind, with a chariot and horses of fire! We shall die all in good time, unless the Lord shall come in the splendour of his Second Advent. If you and I had the choice of the time of our death, there would be just a tinge of the element of suicide about it, and that is the very worst form of murder. This is clearly our duty, to leave ourselves wholly and unreservedly in the hand of him to whom belong the issues of life; it is certainly our best course.

     This, then, is our Lord’s negative prayer: “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world.”

     II. Secondly, if time had permitted, I was also to have spoken to you about THE POSITIVE PRAYER. I will only hint at this.

     What did Jesus pray for his disciples? That God would keep them from the evil. This is the right prayer for you to offer for yourself. Do not pray to get out of the battle; ask of God that you may never be a coward, but that you may bravely play the man in the day of danger. Do not seek to be screened from affliction; but plead that you may never be driven to sin by your affliction. You need not even pray that you may not have prosperity; but you may entreat the Lord that prosperity may not make you proud, or worldly. Let your condition be as God wills it; but let your great anxiety be that you may be kept from all sin in every condition.

     “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.” We need to be kept from the evil of apostasy, the evil of worldliness, from the evil of unholiness, from the evil of getting to be as men of the world are; that is the main point. I do not think that it matters much what the condition of a man is so long as his heart is above his condition. I remember that St. Bernard, as he is usually called,— Bernard, of Clairvaux,— one of the holiest and humblest of men, was one day riding on a mule to a certain monastery; and one who saw him said, “I think Bernard is getting proud, because he is riding on a mule, and sitting upon a cloth which has a fringe of gold lace to it.” Now Bernard was a man who cared nothing for that sort of thing; and when the other charged him with pride, he said, “Perhaps it may be so, but I never noticed that I had any cloth at all.” Someone else had put that fine cloth upon the mule without his knowing anything about it, and he really thought that he was riding on the animal’s bare back, for his mind was taken up with something far more important. If thou art rich, and thou hast a cloth with a gold fringe to it, do not be conscious of its existence; let thy soul rise above it. If thou art poor, and thou hast no saddle at all, do not notice thy lack; but let thy soul soar above such matters. Pray not that thou mayest be taken out of this or that, be it poverty or be it wealth, be it sickness or be it health; but pray that thou mayest be kept from the evil of it, for there is an evil in every case. If you are making money, we ought to have a special prayer-meeting for you, to pray that you may be kept from evil. I said to a brother who was going to a banquet, the other day, “Well, we will pray for you, dear friend, for you are going into a place of peril.” I do not think there was any great risk to such a man in going; perhaps some of those who stopped at home, and complained of him, were in more danger. The great point is, not where you are, not what you are as to circumstances, but that you may be kept by almighty power from the evil which might come out of any circumstances unless you were divinely preserved from the evil. Oh, that the Lord Jesus may say this concerning us to night: “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil”! If so, we can leave everything else in his dear hands.

     But, brothers, do not let us be anxious to get to heaven just yet. Let us seek to fight our way there in valiant fashion. Do not let us be so earnest about the end as about the way, laying hold on Christ, and uplifting his dear cross as our banner. Oh, that all of you would do this, and follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth! We will just bend our thoughts to this one point, and not think so much of going to heaven as of avoiding sin. Lord, keep me out of evil! Then let me live or let me die, hold me up or press me down, let me dance with joy of heart, or let me lie and pine in an agony of pain, with anguish racking every bone in my body, it shall be all the same to me; so long as nothing of the evil of surrounding circumstances enters into me, do with me as thou wilt, O my God!

     God bless you, dear friends, for Jesus’ sake! Amen.