"Ye know not what ye ask."
That God sometimes suffers men to destroy themselves, giving them their own way, although He knows it is ruinous, and even putting into their hands the scorpion they have mistaken for a fish, is an indubitable and alarming fact.
Perhaps no form of ruin covers a man with such shame or sinks him to such hopelessness as when he finds that what he has persistently clamoured for and refused to be content without, has proved the bitterest and most disastrous element in his life. This particular form of ruin is nowhere described with more careful, and significant detail than in the narrative of Israel's determination to have a king over them like other nations. Samuel, forseeing the evils which would result from their choice, remonstrated with them and reminded them of their past success, and pointed out the advantageous elements in their present condition. But there is a point at which desire becomes deaf and blind, and the evil of it can be recognised only after it is gratified. God therefore gave them a king in His anger."
The truth, then, which is embodied in this incident, and which is liable to reappear in the experience of any individual, is this, that sometimes God yields to importunity, and grants to men what He knows will be no blessing to them. "It is a thing," says South, "partly worth our wonder, partly our compassion, that what the greatest part of men most passionately desire, that they are generally most unfit for; so that at a distance they court that as an enjoyment, which upon experience they find a plague and a great calamity." It is astonishing how many things we desire for the same reason as the Israelites sought a king, merely that we may have what other people have. We may not definitely covet our neighbour's house or his wife or his position or anything that is his; but deep within us remains the scarcely-conscious conviction that we have not all we might and ought to have until our condition more resembles his. We take our ideas of happiness from what we see in other people, and have little originality to devise any special and more appropriate enjoyment or success. Fashion or tradition or the necessity of one class in society has promoted certain possessions and conditions to the rank of extremely desirable or even necessary elements of happiness, and forthwith we desire them, without duly considering our own individuality and what it is that must always constitute happiness for us, or what it is that fits us for present usefulness. Health, position, fame, a certain settlement in life, income, marriage; such things are eagerly sought by thousands, and they are sought without sufficient discrimination, or at any rate without a well-informed weighing of consequences. We refuse, too, to see that already without those things our condition has much advantage, and that we are actually happy. We may be dimly conscious that our tastes are not precisely those of other men, and that if the ordinary ways of society are the best men can devise for spending life satisfactorily, these are scarcely the ways that will suit us. Yet, like petted children, we continue persistently to cry for the thing we have not. Sometimes it is a mere question of waiting. The thing we sigh for will come in time, but not yet. To wait is the test of many persons; and if they are impatient, they fail in the one point that determines the whole. Many young persons seem to think life will all be gone before they taste any of its sweets. They must have everything at once, and cannot postpone any of its enjoyments or advantages. No quality is more fatal to success and lasting happiness than impatience.
This being a common attitude of mind towards fancied blessings, how does God deal with it? For a long time He may in compassion withhold the fatal gift. He may in pity disregard our petulant clamour. And He may in many ways bring home to our minds that the thing we crave is in several respects unsuitable. We may become conscious under His discipline that without it we are less entangled with the world and with temptation; that we can live more holily and more freely as we are, and that to quench the desire we have would be to choose the better part. God may make it plain to us that it is childish to look upon this one thing as the supreme and only good. Providential obstacles are thrown in our way, difficulties amounting almost to impossibilities absolutely prevent us for a while from attaining our object, and give us time to collect ourselves and take thought. And not only are we prevented from attaining this one object, but in other respects our life is enriched and gladdened, so that we might be expected to be content. If we cannot have a king like other nations, we have the best of Judges in abundance. And experience of this kind will convince the subject of it that a Providence shapes our ends, even although the lesson it teaches may remain unlearnt.
For man's will is never forced: and therefore if we continue to pin our happiness to this one object, and refuse to find satisfaction and fruit in life without it, God gives in anger what we have resolved to obtain. He gives it in its bare earthly form, so that as soon as we receive it our soul sinks in shame. Instead of expanding our nature and bringing us into a finished and satisfactory condition, and setting our life in right relations with other men, we find the new gift to be a curse to us, hampering us, cutting us off in unexpected ways from our usefulness, thwarting and blighting our life round its whole circumference.
For a man is never very long in discovering the mischief he has done by setting his own wisdom above God's, by underrating God's goodness and overriding God's will. When Samuel remonstrated with Israel and warned them that their king would tyrannise over them, all the answer he got was: "Nay, but we will have a king to rule over us." But, not many days after, they came to Samuel with a very different petition: "Pray for thy servants unto the Lord thy God, that we die not; for we have added unto all our sins this evil, to ask us a king." So it is always; we speedily recognise the difference between God's wisdom and our own. What seemed neglect on His part is now seen to be care, and what we murmured at as niggardliness and needless harshness we now admire as tenderness. Those at least are our second and wiser thoughts, even although at first we may be tempted with Manoah when he saw his son blind and fettered in the Philistine dungeon, to exclaim,
What thing good
Such, I say, may be our first thoughts; but when the first bitterness and bewilderment of disappointment are over, when reason and right feeling begin to dominate, we own that the whole history of our prayer and its answer has been most humiliating to us, indeed, but most honouring to God. We see as never before how accurately our character has been understood, how patiently our evil propensities have been resisted, how truly our life has been guided towards the highest ends.
The obvious lessons are:-
1. Be discreet in your importunity. Two parables are devoted to the inculcation of importunity. And it is a duty to which our own intolerable cravings drive us. But there is an importunity which offends God. There is a spiritual instinct which warns us when we are transgressing the bounds of propriety; a perception whereby Paul discerned, when he had prayed thrice for the removal of the thorn in his flesh, that it would not be removed. There are things, about which a heavenly-minded person feels it to be unbecoming to be over-solicitous; and there are things regarding which it is somehow borne in upon us that we are not to attain them. There are natural disabilities, physical or mental or social weaknesses and embarrassments, regarding which we sometimes cannot but cry out to God for relief, and yet as we cry we feel that they will not be removed, and that we must learn to bear the burden cheerfully.
2. On the other hand, we must not be false in prayer. We must utter to God our real desires in their actual intensity; while at the same time we must learn to moderate desires which we see to be unpleasing to God. We must learn to say with truth:
Not what we wish but what we want
Learn why God does not make the coveted blessing accessible to you, and you will learn to pray freely and wisely. Try to discover whether there is not some peculiar advantage attaching to your present state -- some more wholesome example you can furnish, some more helpful attitude towards others; some healthier exercise of the manlier graces of Christianity, which could not be maintained were your request granted.
3. If your life is marred by the gift you have wrung by your importunity from a reluctant God, be wise and humble in your dealing with that gift. If you have suddenly and painfully learned that in the ordinary-looking circumstances of your life God is touching you at every point, and if you clearly see that in giving you the fruit of your desires He is punishing you, there is one only way by which you can advance to a favourable settlement, and that is by a real submission to God. Perhaps in no circumstances is a man more tempted to break with God. At first he cannot reconcile himself to the idea that ruin should be the result of prayer, and he is inclined to say, If this be the result of waiting on God, the better course is to refuse His guidance. In his heart he knows he is wrong, but there is an appearance of justice in what he says, and it is so painful to have the heart broken, to admit we have been foolish and wrong, and humbly to beseech God to repair the disasters our own self-will has wrought.