TO be a religious man and to pray are really one and the same thing. To join the thought of God with every thought of any importance that occurs to us; in all our admiration of external nature, to regard it as the work of His wisdom; to take counsel with God about all our plans, that we may be able to carry them out in His name; and even in our most mirthful hours to remember His all-seeing eye; this is the prayer without ceasing to which we are called, and which is really the essence of true religion.
As to the benefit of prayer there can be no question. Surely, surely we have all experienced it! If our joys have often remained innocent, while others strayed into ways of sin; if our judgments have been mixed with gentleness and modesty, where pride and arrogance might most easily have gained the day; if we have been guarded from the evil which the judgment of man all too willingly excuses; then we owe this beneficent protection to the power of prayer.
Whether prayer has another kind of power in the world besides this, is a question that may easily be raised, and on which, if we are not to have our minds needlessly disturbed, we must come to some fixed belief.
If we are to bring all our thoughts into harmony with the thought of God, then we may and shall direct our wishes to certain things that we desire may occur to, or be averted from ourselves or others. Now if we regard the fulfilment of those wishes as the aim of our prayers, and connect with this idea what is promised in answer to prayer then, whether we consider this answer, as some do, as a distinct and infallible mark of the divine favour; or if we only believe, as very many do, that our prayers throw some additional weight into the scale; either way, what a narrowing of our mental condition accompanies such a belief; how it sets limits to the reasonableness of our wishes, and even to the humility of our hearts! For thus our minds are filled with hopes, the usually disappointing issues of which disturb our peace, and indeed may bring us into the most painful uncertainty as to our standing with God. Let us therefore consider together this aspect of prayer. The portion of the history of our Lord's passion which we take as our subject is specially suitable for this purpose, as it shows us our Lord Himself engaged in the kind of prayer we are speaking of.
We will consider the nature of His prayer and its results: and you will certainly grant this beforehand, that the disciple is not above his master, and that we cannot expect more from our prayers than Christ obtained by His. For if the granting of our petitions is a token of God's favour, then it would certainly have been given above all to Him in whom God was so supremely well-pleased. If it is only to be given when a man's own strength is not equal to what he seeks, and when there is need of special help, then let me remind you how utterly the Saviour denied Himself all human succour, and what strict limits He set to Himself by the laws which He followed in all His actions. If the success of the prayer depends on the importance, or on the innocence of the thing desired, then you know that no trifle ever occupied His mind, and that though in all points tempted like us, He was without sin.
If, then, we cannot beforehand come to the conclusion that what Christ's prayer effected ours can also effect, this at least is certain, that where His prayer could not prevail neither will ours succeed. This similarity of our position with His must be a soothing thought to us all, whatever may be the result of our inquiry; and therefore I ask the more confidently for your calm and unprejudiced attention.
We have here a direct view of the Saviour, before He fell into the hands of His enemies, in an agitated and anxious state of mind. He knew that there was a plot against His life, which was now on the point of being carried out; and plainly and calmly as He had before talked with His disciples of what was before Him, now that He was to enter on the conflict -- now that all, as it came nearer, looked darker and more certain -- the various feelings that such a prospect could not but excite in His mind threw Him into a state of stronger agitation than was at all usual with him. He sought solitude, and then fled from it; from prayer He went back to His disciples, who were in no condition to comfort or cheer Him; and from them He went back again to prayer. In circumstances like these, oven to those who are furthest from true piety, the old, half-forgotten memory of God comes back, and they turn to Him for help and deliverance; in such circumstances even those whose spirit is bravest, and who are absolutely submissive to the divine will, are yet not quite without anxiety or without wishes; and therefore, in this instance, the prayer of the Saviour took the form of one of the ordinary petitions of men for a result according to their desires.
It is the value and the power of a prayer of this kind that we wish to consider. Let us first examine carefully the case before us, to see what it teaches us, and then, secondly, note any deductions to be drawn from it.
I. First, then, fix it firmly in your minds that you have the privilege of laying before God your wishes about the more important concerns of your lives. It cannot be superfluous, in these times, to strengthen ourselves in this belief. Those who would like to banish everything belonging to religion from the minds of men, by allowing no room for the exercise of it in daily life, do not fail to represent such a prayer as an offence against the Most High. It is irreverent, they say, to express a wish rising out of the narrowness of our intellect and heart, about something which His decree has long ago settled; it is an ill-timed curiosity to say, I wish it might be so and so, when we shall presently learn how He has willed it. Do not be perplexed by such words. Christ did it, therefore we, too, may do it. It is one of the privileges that belong to our position as children of God. That would be a slavish family in which the children were not at liberty to express their wishes in the presence of their wiser father. And is any one able all at once to suppress his desires? If we cannot do so, then let us always speak them out when our heart is moved to do so; for even if we do shut them up within us, they are not hidden from Him. Do not listen to those who tell you that, before you approach God, you must have your mind composed and your heart at peace; that it is unseemly to appear before Him in this agitated state, while the dread of pain and disappointment, the clinging to some good thing which you are on the point of losing, still tosses your heart to and fro, and leaves no room for submission to the holy will of God. If you waited until submission had won the victory, you would feel neither the need nor the inclination for such a prayer, and the privilege of offering it would be useless to you. If the feelings that stir your heart are sinful emotions; if these emotions are kindled by the fire of passion; then the thought of God and prayer to Him can have no place beside them, But that disquietude, so altogether natural to man as God has made him, which agitates us at the touch of loss and misfortune, or when threatened with a check being laid on our activities, or with separation from those we love -- such disquietude should not keep us back from God; for only thus will our hearts not condemn us, and we shall have confidence towards God (1 John iii.21). Christ Himself, as you see here, used no other means to allay this so unusual agitation in His holy soul. Prayer alone was the means He took. In the very midst of His trouble He turned in supplication to His heavenly Father; just when His soul was sorrowful even unto death, He left His disciples to go and pray.
But while I most sincerely encourage you to do this, I just as earnestly entreat you, in the second place, by no means to feel sure that what you ask will of necessity take place because of your prayer. The words of Christ leave no room to doubt that He really and most earnestly prayed that the suffering before Him might be averted; He uses the very same words which He always used in speaking of it; and we know only too well from the close of His history that the event was not according to His prayer. That which He had always foreseen and foretold befel Him; He had the cup of suffering, just as He saw it set before Him in His hour of sorrow and dread, to drain to the last drop. And a result which His prayer did not effect will not and cannot be effected by ours. Do not then infer, as many do, from the promises in certain passages of Scripture, that God always gives what is asked of Him in true faith and out of a pure heart. You will not deny that Christ had a faith that might have been pre-eminently a reason for God's favour, and in His filial and submissive entreaty you will find nothing unbefitting to a pure heart. Such an answer then must have been given to Him above all others; and the words spoken by Himself, "Ask, and ye shall receive," must therefore have some other meaning than that which we have indicated, since this was not the sense in which the promise was fulfilled to Him, the Author and Finisher of our faith. And if not to Him, how should it come to pass that God should fulfil your wishes because of your prayers? Do you think it might be more possible in your case than in His, because His suffering and death was a part of God's great plan for the restoration of the human race? But in reality every thing is taken into account in God's plan, and it is all one plan. Whatever your heart may long for, sooner will heaven and earth pass away than the slightest tittle be changed of what has been decreed in the counsels of the Most High. Or is this your idea: it is true that the Eternal cannot change His purpose, but knowing all things beforehand, He knew when and what His pious and beloved children would ask from Him, and has so arranged the chain of events that the issue shall accord with their wishes? That is to try at once to honour the wisdom of God and to flatter the childish fancies of men. God has not called us to so high a place as that our wishes should be prophecies; but certainly to some thing higher than that the granting of those wishes should be to us the most precious evidence of His favour. This is really among the most perverted of the devices with which people have tried to adorn religion; but it is only an invention of a warped understanding, not a conclusion drawn from the way in which God reveals Himself in the world. It is dishonouring to Christ to think that He should not have been the first in this respect; and it is dishonouring to men that if God had arranged all this, we should so seldom meet with examples of answered prayer.
Let us see then, in the third place, what really is the effect of our prayers, if it is not to be sought in the agreement of the result with the expressed wish. Just the effect that it produced in Christ's own case. Consider, with me, what passed, on that occasion, in His mind. He began with the definite wish that His sufferings might pass away from Him; but as soon as He fixed His thought on His Father in heaven to whom He prayed, this wish was at once qualified by the humble, "if it be possible." When from the sleeping disciples, the sight of whom must have still more disheartened Him and added fresh bitterness to His sense of desertion, He returned to prayer, He already bent His own wish before the thought that the will of the Father might be something different. To reconcile Himself to this, and willingly to consent to it, was now His chief object; nor would He have wished that the will of God should not be done, had He been able by that means to gain all that the world could give.
And when He had prayed for the third time all anxiety and dread were gone. He had no longer any wish of His own. With words in which He sought to impart to them some of the courage He had gained, He awakened His friends from their sleep, and went with calm spirit and holy firmness to meet the traitor.
There you see the effect that such a prayer ought to have. It should make us cease from our eager longing for the possession of some earthly good, or the averting of some dreaded evil; it should bring us courage to want, or to suffer, if God has so appointed it; it should lift us up out of the helplessness into which we are brought by fear and passion, and bring us to the consciousness and full use of our powers; that so we may be able in all circumstances to conduct ourselves as it becomes those who remember that they are living and acting under the eye and the protection of the Most High.
But prayer will more necessarily produce this effect if some point is not entirely lacking in our conception of the Divine Being. If we lay before God a wish that this or that may so happen in the world as it seems to be best for us, we must remember that we are laying it before the Unchangeable, in whose mind no new thought or purpose can arise since the day when He said, "all is very good." What was then decreed will take place; we must not lose sight of the indisputable certainty of this thought. Well, and suppose that which you fear has been decreed? Suppose you are to be torn away from your beloved field of labour, or to lose the friend to whom your heart cleaves, or that the undeserved calumny is still to rest on you? Inevitably our first impulse will be to thrust back those fears. It cannot be, we say; it will not be: it would be too hard; too unfatherly. But the thought, it cannot be, will perish in our hearts when we remember that it is the Unsearchable whom our hope seeks to limit in this way. It may easily be -- it may easily be, is the voice that reaches us from a thousand examples of unmerited and hardly endurable suffering. And if it should be so -- we cannot bend His will; then what remains to us but to bring our will into accord with His?
And we are drawn to do this, and to do it from the heart, by the encouraging thought that He to whom we would present our petition is the Only Wise. You imagine something to be beneficial and good, and you wish that God may allow it to happen. Does not your wish as well as your judgment stand silent at the thought of Him? How far can you see into the consequences and the connection of those events, even as regards your own well-being? He knows the best and the whole. If according to His appointment you must do without what you desire, you have compensation for that in all the good that you see in the world. And thus will be called forth in us distrust of our own wisdom; humility, that looks on ourselves as only a little part of the whole; benevolence, that will find its satisfaction more in consideration of the world than in our own prosperity.
But the Wise is also the Kind. He will not let thee suffer and lack thy desires merely for the sake of others; His will is that to the upright man everything shall serve to his own highest good. And so there comes to us the trust that, little part as we are, account has been taken of us among the whole; and from this comes repose of the spirit; for, whatever befals us, good must come out of it; and thus, at last the quieted and soothed heart can cry, Father, Thy will be done. If we once face the dreaded evil with calmness and submission, we shall readily see in the right light the intention of all that happens to us, and our chief attention will be directed to that. He who prays must remember that everything that befalls us has its end in ourselves, and is intended for our improvement and the increase of good in us. Then he will become conscious that this aim of the Most High, which his excited feelings had for a little while pushed out of sight, is yet in reality his own aim also. And if everything can be, and ought to be, a means to this end, why should he shrink from anything that may come upon him? If both prosperity and adversity draw out and confirm good points of character; if in both he can act worthily and in a way well-pleasing to God; why should he not welcome both as coming from the hand of God and by His direction? When the heart has reached this point it has taken the right attitude. Now we are occupied with some thing else than our feelings; with the question, What will be required of me should this or that befall? what kind of powers shall I employ? what kind of stand shall I make against it? what acts of thoughtlessness must I avoid? And if we find that it always depends on those same qualities which we have often exercised and studied over; that the whole of what we may be able to accomplish consists of single acts which we have often before performed with good results; then the soul that had shrunk in fear comes back to the consciousness of its powers; then we feel ourselves strong enough to walk in the way that God has traced out for us, strong enough to comfort those who are sad on our account and more disheartened than ourselves; and if the hour comes when the evil does befall, we can say, with a mind composed and at peace, Let us rise and go to meet it.
According to the example of the Saviour, these are the right effects of such a prayer. I hope they will appear to you all great and important enough to make you willingly forget the impossible and wonderful which so many regard as the main point in prayer. If you count it a better thing to teach those whose training is in your hands to bear all kinds of trouble and hardships, than always to guard them from it, then praise the divine wisdom which, in giving us prayer, has put into our hands a powerful means to the former, but not to the latter.
In order to enable you still further to consider this important subject, let me add --
II. Some general inferences that may be drawn from what the example of Christ has taught us.
1. If nothing is changed on account of our prayers in the course of things ordained by God, we must not attach any special value to occasional apparent answers that we may receive. There seldom elapses any considerable time in which our health, or our outward prosperity, or our relations with those who are dearest to us in the world, are not threatened by various dangers; and I hope there are few among us who do not make such things subjects of prayer. But whatever may be the issue of these critical circumstances, beware of asking in your prayers for the reason of them, or seeking to know how far God has been pleased or displeased. Besides that this is dishonouring God, as we have already seen, it utterly corrupts your judgment of your own and of other men's merits, and teaches you to attach importance to things that have none whatever.
And yet on this judgment, if you are intelligent and consistent with yourself, depends your whole mode of life and action. And this holds good even as to the fulfilment of our purest and noblest wishes, that is, those which are concerned with the progress of good, whether in general or that in which we are instruments and fellow-labourers. Rejoice if your righteous undertakings are successful; rejoice if God makes use of you as direct instruments for the increase of good in the world; rejoice if at last you are specially successful in what has long been the chief object of your efforts, your anxieties and your prayers; but let not those things lead you to the proud belief that they are a distinctive sign of God's satisfaction with your spiritual condition. Many a one with whom nothing succeeds, and whose work in the world seems to be in vain, not only purposes as honestly, but certainly does his duty as zealously and is as thoroughly devout as you. To measure human merit by such things is a dangerous imperfection of faith, and one of those for which very specially Christ became the Mediator between God and us. See how even He seemed to fail in everything, and yet how God made use of Him in the noblest way! How His request was not granted, and yet He was at that moment, as always, the Son in whom the Father was well pleased.
2. You will now, I hope, admit that there is no true prayer but that which I described in the beginning of our meditation; that is to say, the prayer we offer when we have the living thought of God accompanying, purifying and sanctifying all our other thoughts, feelings and purposes. All other forms which prayer may assume in isolated cases must, if you would really please God, resolve themselves into this one highest aspect, which takes in your whole manner of life. Our prayer of thanksgiving is just our thought of God united with our joy at what has taken place; and it will only be pleasing to Him if it hallows and elevates this joy, if it is the means of raising our interest from earthly to higher things. If it is only thanks, mere joy in the new possession that God has lent us, our thankoffering has no value in His eyes.
And it is the same with our petitions, whether they concern our own circumstances, or are brotherly intercessions. If our prayer has not the effect of moderating the wish that it expressed, of replacing the eager desire with quiet submission, the anxious expectation with devout calmness; then it was no true prayer, and gives sure proof that we are not yet at all capable of this real kind of prayer.
3. In the third place, I will say to you frankly that it seems to me a mark of greater and more genuine piety when this entreating kind of prayer is only seldom used by us, and we do not allow our thoughts to be long occupied with it. For why is it, after all, that our prayer takes the form of entreaty? When we desire something that we ourselves cannot accomplish, and at the same time remember God; then occurs to us first of all the thought of His almighty power in contrast to our weakness, and we would like to try to make that power favourable to us. That is prayer as dictated by the weak human heart. But there lies at the bottom of this a defective idea of God. If we called to mind what should always come most readily to our thoughts -- His holiness and wisdom -- our wish would quickly take the form by which the prayers of pious men must always be distinguished. And, no doubt, the more habitual real piety is with us, the oftener we think of all that we can learn about God, just so much the more quickly will this change take place.
Those who boast that they can persist in prayer, that they do not grow weary in beseeching God to bring about this or that, are still very far from the spirit of true godly fear. It is told us of Christ several times that He retired into solitude, and spent whole nights in prayer. But it was not the fear of anything that might occur, not interest in any event, that drew Him to prayer; but the need of His heart to give Himself up to devout meditation, and to the undisturbed enjoyment of communion with His Father, without a definite wish or a special request. Whereas, when we find Jesus entreating, it is in exceptional and therefore only in rare instances. It needed, indeed, an occasion of strong emotion, such as is not likely to occur very frequently in our lives, to call forth in His holy soul so much that must tend to our comfort in the subject before us. Are you overtaken by such an occasion? Then entreat, until true prayer makes you forget entreaty.
As for those who boast that they often supplicate in this way; that they seek God's presence several times a day to ask about everything, either that has already happened or that they wish to obtain, and to thank Him for every trifle connected with their daily life; it seems to me they have little to boast of. However much they may say of the devotion with which they offer these prayers, I really believe that in such prayers there is no real devotion. At stated times they lay their wants before God; their prayers belong, like other little pieces of business, to the order of the day; and from them they go at once to other employments or pleasures in which no trace of religion can be seen; and in the same way they come from the midst of cares and work and merriment to prayer, with their minds filled and pervaded with earthly things. Does that, to a heart whose intercourse with God is habitual, indicate a good state of things? He who is chiefly aroused to the thought of God" by a sense of dependence certainly does not think really of Him at all, and the true Christian spirit is utterly wanting in him. Whatever assurances such persons may give us of the blessings brought to their hearts by such prayer, these are certainly only incidental and passing emotions. Do they not always speak the same customary words? Do they not, for the most part, pray with their thoughts far away? We all know how little effect such prayer can have on one's inner life. It is in truth no loss to Christianity when such customs fall into disuse. No; with a light heart would I see all these forms and fixed hours of prayer disappear; free as they may be from any superstitious intention, and what ever bearing they may be thought to have on morality and fulfilment of duty. A heart-stirring thought of the Creator, when our eye rests on His works, out of the quiet delight which we take in His creation; a thought of the Ruler of the world, checking our false estimates, amidst our talk of the fortunes and undertakings of men; a sense of Him whose image becomes manifest in us when we feel ourselves overflowing with love and good-will, amidst the social enjoyment of those noble human feelings; a glad sense of His love when we are enjoying His gifts; when we succeed in some good work, a thankful sense of His support; when we meditate on His commandments, the great hope that He wishes to raise us to His own likeness; this is true prayer: the blessings of which I heartily desire we may all abundantly enjoy.