As there is a light of grace in bestowing such incomparably high dignities and excellent gifts on poor sinners, such as, to make them the sons of God who were the children of the devil, and heirs of a kingdom who were heirs of wrath; so there is a depth of wisdom in the Lord's allowance and manner of dispensing his love and grace in this life. For though the love be wonderful, that we should be called the sons of God; yet, as that apostle speaks, it doth not yet so clearly appear what we shall be, by what we are, 1 John iii.1. Our present condition is so unlike such a state and dignity, and our enjoyments so unsuitable to our rights and privileges, that it would not appear by the mean, low, and indigent state we are now into, that we have so great and glorious a Father. How many infirmities are we compassed about with! How many wants are we pressed withal! Our necessities are infinite, and our enjoyments no ways proportioned to our necessities. Notwithstanding even in this, the love and wisdom of our heavenly Father shows itself, and oftentimes more gloriously in the theatre of men's weakness, infirmities, and wants, than they could appear in the absolute and total exemption of his children from necessities. Strength perfected in weakness, grace sufficient in infirmities, hath some greater glory than strength and grace alone. Therefore he hath chosen this way as most fit for the advancing his glory, and most suitable for our comfort and edification, to give us but little in hand, and environ us with a crowd of continued necessities and wants within and without, that we may learn to cry to him as our Father, and seek our supplies from him; and withal he hath not been sparing, but liberal in promises of hearing our cries and supplying our wants; so that this way of narrow and hard dispensation, that at first seems contrary to the love and bounty and riches of our Father, in the perfect view of it, appears to be the only way to perpetuate our communion with him, and often to renew the sense of his love and grace, that would grow slack in our hearts, if our needs did not every day stir up fresh longing, and his returns by this means are so much the more refreshing. There is a time of children's minority when they stand in need of continual supplies from their parents, or tutors, because they are not entered in possession of their inheritance; and while they are in this state, there is nothing more beseeming them, than in all their wants to address to their father, and represent them to him; and it is fit they should be from hand to mouth, as you say, that they may know and acknowledge their dependence on their father. Truly this is our minority, our presence in the body, which because of sin that dwells in it, and its own natural weakness and incapacity, keeps us at much distance with the Lord, that we cannot be intimately present with him. Now, in this condition, the most natural, the most comely and becoming exercise of children, is, to cry to our Father, to present all our grievances; and thus to entertain some holy correspondence with our absent Father, by the messenger of prayer and supplication, which cannot return empty, if it be not sent away too full of self-conceit. This is the most natural breathing of a child of God in this world. It is the most proper acting of his new life, and the most suitable expiration of that Spirit of adoption that is inspired into him, since there is so much life as to know what we want, and our wants are infinite. Therefore that life cannot but beat this way, in holy desires after God, whose fulness can supply all wants. This is the pulse of a Christian, that goeth continually, and there is much advantage to the continuity and interruptedness of the motion, from the infiniteness and inexhaustedness of our needs in this life, and the continual assaults that are made by necessity and temptation on the heart, "But ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry," &c. He puts in his own name in the latter part, though theirs was in the former part. When he speaks of a donation or privilege, he supplies to the meanest, to show that the lowest and most despised creature is not in any incapacity to receive the greatest gifts of God; and then, when he mentions the working of that Spirit in way of intercession, because it imports necessity and want, he cares not to commit some incongruity in the language, by changing the person, that he may teach us, that weakness, infirmities, and wants, are common to the best and chiefest among Christians; that the most eminent have continual need to cry, and the lowest and obscurest believers have as good ground to believe the hearing and acceptance of their cries; that the highest are not above the weakest and lowest ordinance, and that the lowest are not below the comfort of help and acceptation in him. Nay, the growth and increase of grace, is so far from exempting men from, or setting them above, this duty of constant supplication, that by the contrary, this is the just measure of their growth and altitude in grace. As the degrees of the height of the water Nilus in its overflowing, are a sure sign of the fertility or barrenness of that year, so the overflowings of the spirit of prayer in one gives a present account how the heart is, -- whether barren and unfruitful in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, or fruitful and lively, and vigorous in it. It is certain that contraries do discover one another, and the more the one be increased, that is not only the more incompatible and inconsistent with the other, but gives the most perfect discerning of it. When grace is but as twilight in the soul, and as the dawning of the day only, gross darkness and uncleanness is seen; but the more it grow to the perfect day, the more sin is seen, and the more its hated wants are discovered that did not appear; and therefore it exerciseth itself the more in opposition to sin, and supplication to God. To speak the truth, our growth here is but an advancement in the knowledge and sense of our indigency, -- it is but a further entry into the idolatrous temple of the heart, which makes a man see daily new abominations worse than the former. And therefore you may easily know that such repeated sights and discoveries will but press out more earnest and frequent cries from the heart. And such a growth in humility, and faith in God's fulness, will be but as oil to feed the flame of supplication. For what is prayer, indeed, but the ardency of the affection after God, flaming up to him in cries and requests?
To speak of this exercise of an holy heart, would require more of the spirit of it than we have. But truly this is to be lamented, that though there be nothing more common among Christians in the outward practice of it, yet that there is nothing more extraordinary and rare, even among many that use it, than to be acquainted with the inward nature of it. Truly, the most ordinary things in religion are the greatest mysteries, as to the true life of them. We are strangers to the soul and life of these things, which consist in the holy behaviour and deportment of our spirits before the Father of spirits.
These words give some ground to speak of some special qualifications of prayer, and the chief principle of it. The chief principle and original of prayer, is, the Spirit of adoption received into the heart. It is a business of a higher nature than can be taught by precepts, or learned by custom and education. There is a general mistake among men, that the gift of prayer is attained by learning, and that it consists in the freedom and plenty of expression. But O! how many doctors and disputers of the world are there, that can defend all the articles of faith against the opposers of them; yet so unacquainted are they with this exercise, that the poor, and unlearned, and nothings in the world, who cannot dispute for religion, send up a more savoury and acceptable sacrifice, and sweet incense to God daily, when they offer up their soul's desires in simplicity and sincerity. Certainly this is a spiritual thing, derived only from the Fountain of spirits, -- this grace of pouring out our souls into him, and keeping communication with him. The variety of words and riches of expression is but the shell of it, the external shadow; and all the life consists in the frame of the heart before God. And this none can put in frame but he that formed the spirit of man within him. Some through custom of hearing and using it, attain to a habit of expressing themselves readily in it, it may be, to the satisfaction of others; but, alas! they may be strangers to the first letters and elements of the life and spirit of prayer. I would have you who want both, look up to heaven for it. Many of you cannot be induced to pray in your family, (and I fear little or none in secret, which is indeed a more serious work,) because you have not been used, or not learned, or such like. Alas! beloved, this cometh not through education, or learning. It cometh from the Spirit of adoption; and if ye say, ye cannot pray, ye have not the Spirit; and if ye have not the Spirit, ye are not the sons of God. Know what is in the inevitable sequel of your own confessions.
But I haste to the qualifications of this divine work, -- fervency, reverence, and confidence; fervency in crying, reverence and confidence in crying, "Abba, Father;" for these two suit well toward our Father. The first, I fear, we must seek elsewhere than in prayer. I find it spent on other things of less moment. Truly, all the spirit and affection of men runs in another channel, -- in the way of contention and strife, in the way of passion and miscalled zeal, and because these things whereabout we do thus earnestly contend, have some interest or coherence with religion, we not only excuse but approve our vehemency. But O! much better were that employed in supplications to God: that were a divine channel. Again, the marrow of other men's spirits is exhausted in the pursuit of things in the world. The edge of their desires is turned that way, and it must needs be blunted and dulled in spiritual things, that it cannot pierce into heaven, and prevail effectually. I am sure, many of us useth this excuse, who are so cold in it, that we do not warm ourselves. And how shall we think to prevail with God? Our spirits make little noise when we cry all the loudest. We can scarce hear any whisper in our hearts, and how shall he hear us? Certainly it is not the extension of the voice pleaseth him; it is the cry of the heart that is sweet harmony in his ears. And you may easily perceive this, if you but consider that he is an infinite Spirit, that pierceth into all the corners of our hearts, and hath all the darkness of it as light before him. How can you think that such a Spirit can be pleased with lip cries? How can he endure such deceit and falsehood, (who hath so perfect a contrariety with all false appearances,) that your heart should lie so dead and flat before him, and the affection of it turned quite another way? There were no sacrifices without fire in the Old Testament, and that fire was kept in perpetually; and so no prayer now without some inward fire, conceived in the desires, and blazing up and growing into a flame in the presenting of them to God.
The incense that was to be offered on the altar of perfume, (Exod. xxx.) behoved to be beaten and prepared; and truly, prayer would do well to be made out of a beaten and bruised heart, and contrite spirit, -- a spirit truly sensible of its own unworthiness and wants; and that beating and pounding of the heart will yield a good fragrant smell, as some spices do not till beaten. The incense was made of divers spices, intimating to us, that true prayer is not one grace alone, but a compound of graces. It is the joint exercise of all a Christian's graces; seasoned with all. Every one of them gives some peculiar fragrancy to it, as humility, faith, repentance, love, &c. The acting of the heart in supplication, is a kind of compend and result of all these, as one perfume made up of many simples. But above all, as the incense, our prayers must be kindled by fire on the altar. There must be some heat and fervour, some warmness, conceived by the Holy Spirit in our hearts, which may make our spices send forth a pleasant smell, as many spices do not till they get heat. Let us lay this engagement on our hearts, to be more serious in our addresses to God, the Father of spirits; above all, to present our inward soul before him, before whom it is naked and open, though we do not bring it. And certainly, frequency in prayer will much help us to fervency, and to keep it when we have it.