Prayer is the application of need to Him who only can relieve it, the voice of sin to Him who alone can pardon it. It is the urgency of poverty, the prostration of humility, the fervency of penitence, the confidence of trust. It is not eloquence, but earnestness; not the definition of helplessness, but the feeling of it; not figures of speech, but compunction of soul. It is the “Lord, save us, we perish,” of drowning Peter; the cry of faith to the ear of mercy.
Adoration is the noblest employment of created beings; confession, the natural language of guilty creatures; gratitude, the spontaneous expression of pardoned sinners. Prayer is desire; it is not mere conception of the mind, nor a mere effort of the intellect, nor an act of the memory; but an elevation of the soul towards its Maker; a pressing sense of our own ignorance and infirmity; a consciousness of the perfection of God, of his readiness to hear, of his power to help, of his willingness to save. It is not an emotion produced in the senses, nor an effect wrought by the imagination; but a determination of the will, an effusion of the heart.
Prayer is the guide to self-knowledge, by prompting us to look after our sins in order to pray against them; a motive to vigilance, by teaching us to guard against those sins which, through self-examination, we have been enabled to detect.
Prayer is an act both of the understanding and of the heart. The understanding must apply itself to the knowledge of the Divine perfections, or the heart will not be led to the adoration of them. It would not be a reasonable service, if the mind was excluded. It must be rational worship, or the human worshiper would not bring to the service the distinguishing faculty of his nature, which is reason. It must be spiritual worship, or it would lack the distinctive quality to make it acceptable to him who is a Spirit, and who has declared that he will be worshiped “in spirit and in truth.”
Prayer is right in itself as the most powerful means of resisting sin and advancing in holiness. It is above all right, as everything is, in which has the authority of Scripture, the command of God, and the example of Christ.
There is a perfect consistency in all the ordinations of God; a perfect congruity in the whole scheme of his dispensations. If man were not a corrupt creature, such prayer as the Gospel enjoins would not have been necessary. Had not prayer been an important means for curing those corruptions, a God of perfect wisdom would not have ordered it. He would not have prohibited every thing which tends to inflame and promote them, had they not existed; nor would he have commanded every thing that has a tendency to diminish and remove them, had not their existence been fatal. Prayer, therefore, is an indispensable part of his economy, and of our obedience.
It is a hackneyed objection to the use of prayer, that it is offending the omniscience of God to suppose he requires information of our needs. But no objection can be more futile. We do not pray to inform God of our needs, but to express our sense of the needs which he already knows. As he has not so much made his promises to our necessities as to our requests, it is reasonable that our requests should be made before we can hope that our necessities will be relieved. God does not promise to those who “lack”, that they shall have, but to those who “ask;” nor to those who need, that they shall “find,” but to those who “seek.” So far, therefore, from his previous knowledge of our needs being a ground of objection to prayer, it is in fact the true ground for our application. Were he not knowledge itself, our information would be of as little use as our application would be were he not goodness itself.
We cannot attain to a just notion of prayer while we remain ignorant of our own nature, of the nature of God as revealed in Scripture, of our relation to him, and dependence on him. If, therefore, we do not live in the daily study of the Holy Scriptures, we shall lack the highest motives to this duty and the best helps for performing it; if we do, the cogency of these motives, and the inestimable value of these helps, will render argument unnecessary, and exhortations superfluous.
One cause, therefore, of the dullness of many Christians in prayer, is their slight acquaintance with the sacred volume. They hear it periodically, they read it occasionally, they are contented to know it historically, to consider it superficially; but they do not endeavor to get their minds imbued with its spirit. If they store their memory with its facts, they do not impress their hearts with its truths. They do not regard it as the nutriment on which their spiritual life and growth depend. They do not pray over it; they do not consider all its doctrines as of practical application; they do not cultivate that spiritual discernment which alone can enable them judiciously to appropriate its promises and its denunciations to their own actual case. They do not apply it as an unerring line to ascertain their own rectitude or obligations.
In our retirements we too often fritter away our precious moments — moments rescued from the world — in trivial, sometimes, it is to be feared, in corrupt thoughts. But if we must give the reins to our imagination, let us send this excursive faculty to range among great and noble objects. Let it stretch forward, under the sanction of faith and the anticipation of prophecy, to the accomplishment of those glorious promises and tremendous threatenings which will soon he realized in the eternal world. These are topics which, under the safe and sober guidance of Scripture, will fix its largest speculations and sustain its loftiest flights. The same Scripture, while it expands and elevates the mind, will keep it subject to the dominion of truth; while, at the same time, it will teach it that its boldest excursions must fall infinitely short of the astonishing realities of a future state.
Though we cannot pray with a too deep sense of sin, we may make our sins too exclusively the object of our prayers. While we keep, with a self-abasing eye, our own corruptions in view, let us look with equal intentness on that mercy which cleanses from all sin. Let our prayers be all humiliation, but let them not be all complaint. When men indulge no other thought but that they are rebels, the hopelessness of pardon hardens them into disloyalty. Let them look to the mercy of the King, as well as to the rebellion of the subject. If we contemplate his grace as displayed in the Gospel, then, though our humility will increase, our despair will vanish. Gratitude in this, as in human instances, will create affection. “We love him, because he first loved us.”
Let us, therefore, always keep our unworthiness in view as a reason why we stand in need of the mercy of God in Christ; but never plead it as a reason why we should not draw near to him to implore that mercy. The best men are unworthy for their own sakes; the worst, on repentance, will be accepted for his sake and through his merits.
In prayer, then, the perfections of God, and especially his mercies in our redemption, should occupy our thoughts as much as our sins; our obligations to him as much as our departures from him. We should keep up in our hearts a constant sense of our own weakness, not with a design to discourage the mind and depress the spirits, but with a view to drive us out of ourselves in search of the Divine assistance. We should contemplate our infirmity in order to draw us to look for his strength, and to seek that power from God which we vainly look for in ourselves: we do not tell a sick friend of his danger in order to grieve or terrify him, but to induce him to apply to his physician, and to have recourse to his remedy.
Among the charges which have been brought against serious piety, one is, that it teaches men to despair. The charge is just in one sense as to the fact, but false in the sense intended. It teaches us to despair, indeed, of ourselves, while it inculcates that faith in a Redeemer which is the true antidote to despair. Faith quickens the doubting spirit, while it humbles the presumptuous. The lowly Christian takes comfort in the blessed promise that God will never forsake those who are his. The presumptuous man is equally right in the doctrine, but wrong in applying it. He takes that comfort to himself which was meant for another class of characters. The mal-appropriation of Scripture promises and threatenings is the cause of much error and delusion.
Some have fallen into error by advocating an unnatural and impracticable disinterestedness, asserting that God is to be loved exclusively for himself, with an absolute renunciation of any view of advantage to ourselves; but that prayer cannot be mercenary, which involves God’s glory with our own happiness, and makes his will the law of our requests. Though we are to desire the glory of God supremely; though this ought to be our grand actuating principle, yet he has graciously permitted, commanded, invited us to attach our own happiness to this primary object.
The Bible exhibits not only a beautiful, but an inseparable combination of both, which delivers us from the danger of unnaturally renouncing our own happiness for the promotion of God’s glory on the one hand; and, on the other, from seeking any happiness independent of him, and underived from him. In enjoining us to love him supremely, he has connected an unspeakable blessing with a paramount duty, the highest privilege with the most positive command.
What a triumph for the humble Christian, to be assured that “the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity,” condescends at the same time to dwell in the heart of the contrite– in his heart! to know that God is the God of his life; to know that he is even invited to take the Lord for his God. To close with God’s offers, to accept his invitations, to receive God as our portion, must surely be more pleasing to our heavenly Father than separating our happiness from his glory. To disconnect our interests from his goodness, is at once to detract from his perfections, and to obscure the brightness of our own hopes. The declarations of the inspired writers are confirmed by the authority of the heavenly hosts. They proclaim that the glory of God and the happiness of his creatures, so far from interfering, are connected with each other. We know but of one anthem composed and sung by angels, and this most harmoniously combines “the glory of God in the highest with peace on earth and good will to men.”
“The beauty of Scripture,” says the great Saxon reformer, “consists in pronouns.” This God is our God — God, even our own God shall bless us. How delightful the appropriation! to glorify him as being in himself consummate excellence, and to love him from the feeling that this excellence is directed to our felicity! Here modesty would be ingratitude — disinterestedness, rebellion. It would be severing ourselves from Him in whom we live, and move, and are; it would be dissolving the connection which he has condescended to establish between himself and his creatures.
It has been justly observed, that the Scripture-saints make this union the chief ground of their grateful exultation: “My strength,” “my rock,” “my fortress,” “my deliverer!” Again, “let the God of my salvation be exalted!” Now, take away the pronoun, and substitute the article the, how comparatively cold is the impression! The consummation of the joy arises from the peculiarity, the intimacy, the endearment of the relation.
Nor to the liberal Christian is the grateful joy diminished, when he blesses his God as “the God of all those who trust in him.” All general blessings, will he say, all providential mercies, are mine individually, are mine as completely as if no other shared in the enjoyment; life, light, the earth and heavens, the sun and stars, whatever sustains the body and recreates the spirits! My obligation is as great as if the mercy had been made purely for me! as great! no, it is greater — it is augmented by a sense of the millions who participate in the blessing. The same enlargement of personal obligation holds good, no, rises higher in the mercies of redemption. The Lord is my Savior as completely as if he had redeemed only me. That he has redeemed a great multitude, which no man can number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, is diffusion without abatement; it is general participation without individual diminution. Each has all.
In adoring the providence of God, we are apt to be struck with what is new and out of course, while we too much overlook long, habitual, and uninterrupted mercies. But common mercies, if less striking, are more valuable, both because we have them always, and for the reason above assigned, because others share them. The ordinary blessings of life are overlooked for the very reason for which they ought to be most prized because they are most uniformly bestowed. They are most essential to our support; and when once they are withdrawn, we begin to find that they are also most essential to our comfort. Nothing raises the price of a blessing like its removal, whereas it was its continuance which should have taught us its value. We require novelties to awaken our gratitude, not considering that it is the duration of mercies which enhances their value. We want fresh excitements. We consider mercies long enjoyed as things of course, as things to which we have a sort of presumptive claim; as if God had no right to withdraw what he has once bestowed, as if he were obliged to continue what he has once been pleased to confer.
But that the sun has shone unremittingly from the day that God created it, is not a less stupendous exertion of power than that the hand which fixed in the heavens, and marked out its progress through them, once said by his servant, “Sun, stand you still upon Gibeon.” That it has gone on in his strength, driving its uninterrupted career, and “rejoicing as a giant to run his course,” for six thousand years, is a more astonishing exhibition of omnipotence than that he should have been once suspended by the hand which set it in motion. That the ordinances of heaven, that the established laws of nature should have been for one day interrupted to serve a particular occasion, is a less real wonder, and certainly a less substantial blessing, than that in such a multitude of ages they should have pursued their appointed course, for the comfort of the whole system;
Forever singing, as they shine,
The hand that made us is divine.
As the affections of the Christian ought to be set on things above, so it is for those who his prayers will be chiefly addressed. God, in promising to “give to those who delight in him the desire of their heart,” could never mean temporal things; for these they might desire improperly as to the object, and inordinately as to the degree. The promise relates principally to spiritual blessings. He not only gives us these mercies, but the very desire to obtain them is also his gift. Here our prayer requires no qualifying, no conditioning, no limitation. We cannot err in our choice, for God himself is the object of it; we cannot exceed in the degree, unless it were possible to love him too well, or to please him too much.
We should pray for worldly comforts, and for a blessing on our earthly plans, though lawful in themselves, conditionally, and with a reservation; because, after having been earnest in our requests for them, it may happen that when we come to the petition, “your will be done,” we may in these very words be praying that our previous petitions may not be granted. In this brief request consists the vital principle, the essential spirit of prayer. God shows his munificence in encouraging us to ask most earnestly for the greatest things, by promising that the smaller “shall be added unto us.” We therefore acknowledge his liberality most when we request the highest favors. He manifests his infinite superiority to earthly fathers by chiefly delighting to confer those spiritual gifts which they less solicitously desire for their children than those worldly advantages on which God sets so little value.
Nothing short of a sincere devotedness to God can enable us to maintain an equality of mind under unequal circumstances. We murmur that we have not the things we ask amiss, not knowing that they are withheld by the same mercy by which the things that are good for us are granted. Things good in themselves may not be good for us. A resigned spirit is the proper disposition to prepare us for receiving mercies, or for having them denied. Resignation of soul, like the allegiance of a good subject, is always in readiness, though not in action; whereas an impatient mind is a spirit of disaffection, always prepared to revolt when the will of the sovereign is in opposition to that of the subject. This seditious principle is the infallible characteristic of an unrenewed mind.
A sincere love of God will make us thankful when our prayers are granted, and patient and cheerful when they are denied. He who feels his heart rise against any Divine dispensation, ought not to rest until by serious meditation and earnest prayer it be molded into submission. A habit of acquiescence in the will of God will so operate on the faculties of his mind, that even his judgment will embrace the conviction that what he once so ardently desired would not have been that good thing which his blindness had conspired with his wishes to make him believe it to be. He will recollect the many instances in which, if his importunity had prevailed, the thing which ignorance requested, and wisdom denied, would have insured his misery. Every fresh disappointment will teach him to distrust himself and to confide in God. Experience will instruct him that there may be a better way of hearing our requests than that of granting them. Happy for us, that He to whom they are addressed knows which is best, and acts upon that knowledge:
“Still lift for good the supplicating voice,
But leave to Heaven the measure and the choice;
Implore his aid, in his decisions rest;
Secure whatever he gives, he gives the best.”
We should endeavor to render our private devotions effectual remedies for our own particular sins. Prayer against sin in general is too indefinite to reach the individual case. We must bring it home to our own heart, else we may be confessing another man’s sins and overlooking our own. If we have any predominant fault, we should pray more especially against that fault. If we pray for any virtue of which we particularly stand in need, we should dwell on our own deficiencies in that virtue, until our souls become deeply affected with our need of it. Our prayers should be circumstantial, not, as was before observed, for the information of Infinite Wisdom, but for the stirring up of our own dull affections. And as the recapitulation of our needs tends to keep up a sense of our dependence, the enlarging on our special mercies will tend to keep alive a sense of gratitude; while indiscriminate petitions, confessions, and thanksgivings leave the mind to wander in indefinite devotion and unaffecting generalities without personality and without appropriation. It must be obvious that we except those grand universal points in which all have an equal interest, and which must always form the essence of public prayer.
On the blessing attending importunity in prayer the Gospel is abundantly explicit. God perhaps delays to give, that we may persevere in asking. He may require importunity for our own sakes, that the frequency and urgency of the petition may bring our hearts into that frame to which he will be favorable.
As we ought to live in a spirit of obedience to his commands, so we should live in a frame of waiting for his blessing on our prayers, and in a spirit of gratitude when we have obtained it. This is that “preparation of the heart” which would always keep us in a posture for duty. If we desert the duty because an immediate blessing does not visibly attend it, it shows that we do not serve God out of conscience, but selfishness; that we grudge expending on him that service which brings us in no immediate interest. Though he grant not our petition, let us never be tempted to withdraw our application.
Our reluctant devotions may remind us of the remark of a certain great political wit, who apologized for his late attendance in parliament by his being detained while a party of soldiers were dragging a volunteer to his duty. How many excuses do we find for not being in time! How many apologies for brevity! How many evasions for neglect! How unwilling, too often, are we to come into the Divine presence; how reluctant to remain in it! Those hours which are least valuable for business, which are least seasonable for pleasure, we commonly give to religion. Our energies, which were exerted in the society we have just left, are sunk as we approach the Divine presence. Our hearts, which were all alacrity in some frivolous conversation, become cold and inanimate, as if it were the natural property of devotion to freeze the affections. Our animal spirits, which so readily performed their functions before, now slacken their vigor and lose their vivacity. The sluggish body sympathizes with the unwilling mind, and each promotes the deadness of the other: both are slow in listening to the call of duty; both are soon weary in performing it. How do our fancies rove back to the pleasures we have been enjoying! How apt are the diversified images of those pleasures to mix themselves with our better thoughts, to pull down our higher aspirations! As prayer requires all the energies of the compound being of man, so we too often feel as if there were a conspiracy of body, soul, and spirit to disincline and disqualify us for it.
When the heart is once sincerely turned to religion, we need not, every time we pray, examine into every truth, and seek for conviction over and over again; but may assume that those doctrines are true, the truth of which we have already proved. From a general and fixed impression of these principles will result a taste, a disposedness, a love, so intimate, that the convictions of the understanding will become the affections of the heart. To be deeply impressed with a few fundamental truths, to digest them thoroughly, to meditate on them seriously, to pray over them fervently, to get them deeply rooted in the heart, will be more productive of faith and holiness, than to labor after variety, ingenuity, or elegance. The indulgence of imagination will rather distract than edify. Searching after ingenious thoughts will rather divert the attention from God to ourselves, than promote fixedness of thought, singleness of intention, and devotedness of spirit. Whatever is subtle and refined is in danger of being unscriptural. If we do not guard the mind, it will learn to wander in quest of novelties. It will learn to set more value on original thoughts than devout affections. It is the business of prayer to cast down imaginations which gratify the natural activity of the mind, while they leave the heart unhumbled.
We should confine ourselves to the present business of the present moment; we should keep the mind in a state of perpetual dependence. “Now is the accepted time.” “Today we must hear his voice.” “Give us this day our daily bread.” The manna will not keep until tomorrow: tomorrow will have its own needs, and must have its own petitions. Tomorrow we must seek afresh the bread of heaven.
We should, however, avoid coming to our devotions with unfurnished minds. We should be always laying in materials for prayer, by a diligent course of serious reading, by treasuring up in our minds the most important truths. If we rush into the Divine presence with a vacant, or ignorant and unprepared mind, with a heart full of the world; as we shall feel no disposition or qualification for the work we are about to engage in, so we cannot expect that our petitions will be heard or granted. There must be some congruity between the heart and the object, some affinity between the state of our minds and the business in which they are employed, if we would expect success in the work.
We are often deceived both as to the principle and the effect of our prayers. When from some external cause the heart is glad, the spirits light, the thoughts ready, the tongue voluble, a kind of spontaneous eloquence is the result; with this we are pleased, and this ready flow we are willing to impose on ourselves for piety.
On the other hand, when the mind is dejected, the animal spirits low, the thoughts confused, when apposite words do not readily present themselves, we are apt to accuse our hearts of lack of fervor, to lament our weakness, and to mourn that because we have had no pleasure in praying, our prayers have, therefore, not ascended to the throne of mercy. In both cases we perhaps judge ourselves unfairly. These unready accents, these faltering praises, these ill-expressed petitions, may find more acceptance than the florid talk with which we were so well satisfied: the latter consisted, it may be, of shining thoughts floating on the fancy, eloquent words dwelling only on the lips; the former was the sighing of a contrite heart, abased by the feeling of its own unworthiness and awed by the perfections of a holy and heart-searching God. The heart is dissatisfied with its own dull and tasteless repetitions, which, with all their imperfections, Infinite Goodness may perhaps hear with favor. We may not only be elated with the fluency, but even with the fervency of our prayers. Vanity may grow out of the very act of renouncing it; and we may begin to feel proud at having humbled ourselves so eloquently.
There is, however, a strain and spirit of prayer equally distinct from that facility and copiousness for which we certainly are never the better in the sight of God, and from that constraint and dryness for which we may be never the worse. There is a simple, solid, pious strain of prayer in which the supplicant is so filled and occupied with a sense of his own dependence, and of the importance of the things for which he asks, and so persuaded of the power and grace of God, through Christ, to give him those things, that while he is engaged in it he does not merely imagine, but feels assured that God is near to him as a reconciled father, so that every burden and doubt are taken off from his mind. “He knows,” as John expresses it, “that he has the petitions he desired of God,” and feels the truth of that promise, “While they are yet speaking I will hear.” This is the perfection of prayer.