"And ye shall seek Me, and find Me, when ye shall search for Me with all your heart." -- Jer. xxix.13.
IN his fine book on Benefits, Seneca says that nothing is so costly to us as that is which we purchase by prayer. When we come on that hard-to-be-understood saying of his for the first time, we set it down as another of the well-known paradoxes of the Stoics. For He who is far more to us than all the Stoics taken together has said to us on the subject of prayer, -- "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." Now what could possibly be cheaper than just asking? And what could cost us less than just to knock at God's door? And yet, when we see such stern and self-denying souls as Dante and Teresa setting their seals to Seneca's startling words, that makes us stop and think whether there may not be much more in the Stoic's paradoxical words about the cost of prayer than lies on the surface. And when we do stop and think on the whole subject of prayer, and especially on the costliness of prayer, such things as these begin to be impressed upon us.
1. To begin with: Our habits of prayer come to cost us no little time. We usually divide our day of twenty-four hours in this way, -- eight hours for work; eight hours for meals, and rest, and recreation; and eight hours for sleep. You will observe that it is not said where reading, and meditation, and prayer come in. And the reason of that is because, with most men, these things do not come in at all. But, in revenge, when reading and meditation and prayer do once begin to come in on a man, they make great inroads both upon his hours of work, and his hours of recreation, and even upon his hours of sleep. It is not that the Hearer of prayer has any need of our hours: He has no pleasure in taxing our time, either during the day, or during the night. The truth is, -- time does not enter into His side of this matter at all. He has always plenty of time. He inhabits eternity. He is always waiting to be gracious. It is we who need time to prepare our hearts to seek God. And it takes some men a long, and a retired, and an uninterrupted time to get their minds and their hearts into the true frame for prayer and for the presence of God. And it is this that makes the night-time so suitable to some men for sacred reading, for devout meditation, and for secret prayer. Our time is now our own. Our day's work is now done. Our door is now shut. And no one will intrude upon us, or will in any way interfere with us, at this time of night. Till from such experiences as these, as life goes on, we come to discover that time, pure time, is as indispensable and as important an element in all true prayer as is repentance, or faith, or reformation itself. Indeed, without a liberal allowance of time, no man has ever attained to a real life of prayer at all. So much is that the case, that Seneca might quite safely have descended into particulars, and might very well have said that prayer costs so much time that, instead of a few stolen moments now and then, it takes from some men all that remains of their time on this earth. Now that cannot, surely, be said to be bought cheaply, which despoils us of so much of the most precious thing we possess; and a thing, moreover, which is so fast running short with so many of us.
2. Time and Thought. I do not say that a man must bring immense and commanding powers of thought to prayer before he can succeed in it. But I do say that those who do possess immense and commanding powers of thought must bring all their power of thought to bear upon their prayers, if they would be accepted and answered. Almighty God is infinitely the greatest and grandest subject of thought and imagination in all the Universe: and yet there is nothing in all the universe to which most men give less thought and less imagination than to Almighty God. Joseph Butler told Dr. Samuel Clarke that the Being and the Nature of God had been his incessant study ever since he began to think at all. And, further on in life, he said that, to his mind, Divinity was, of all our studies, the most suitable for a reasonable nature. Now, not philosophers, and theologians, and moralists like Bishop Butler only, but all God's people, must cultivate Butler's habits of thought, if they have any ambition to please God greatly, and to make real progress in the life of prayer. Take any man of prayer you like, and you will see Butler's noble habit of mind exhibited and illustrated in that man. Take the Psalmists, -- what wealth of devotional thought there is in the Psalms! Take the 17th of John, -- what heights and depths of heavenly thought there are in that single chapter! Take Paul's intercessory prayers for the Ephesians and the Colossians, -- and what majesty and Christological thought is there also! Take Augustine and Andrewes, and see how they will exercise not your powers of thought only but all that is within you. To come back to Paul -- that man of time and thought in prayer, if ever there was one: "Now unto the King Eternal, Immortal, Invisible, the Only Wise God." And again: "The Blessed and Only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords. Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto: Whom no man hath seen, nor can see." What mortal man has powers of thought at all equal to such doxologies as these? No man, no angel: no, not the Incarnate Son Himself. And what schoolmaster, in Sabbath school, or day school, can himself grasp all this answer to his own question -- "God is a Spirit, Infinite, Eternal, and Unchangeable, in His Being, Wisdom, Power, Holiness, Justice, Goodness and Truth"? Try your own compass and grasp of thought on such matters as these; and say if Seneca was not wholly in the right when he said that nothing is so severe upon a man's powers of thought and imagination and heart as just to approach God, and to abide for a sufficient time before God, in prayer. No wonder that we often fall asleep through sheer exhaustion of body and mind, when we begin to give something like adequate time and thought to meditation, adoration, prayer and praise.
3. But both time and thought are easy, pleasant and costless compared with this, -- Thy will be done. To say "Thy will be done," when we enter our Gethsemane, -- that throws us on our faces on the earth: that brings the blood to our brows. And yet at no less cost than that was God's own Son "heard in that He feared." When some one, far dearer to us than our own souls, is laid down on his death-bed, to say "Not my will, but Thine be done," -- at what a cost is that said in such an hour! What a heart-racking price has to be paid for that prayer! And yet, pay that price we must: pour out our hearts into that prayer we must, if we are, like our Lord, to be made perfect by suffering. And not at death-beds only, but at times that are worse than death, -- times upon which I will not trust myself to put words. Times also, when a great cloud of disappointment and darkness gathers over our life: when some great hope is for ever blasted: when some great opportunity and expectation is for ever gone, and never to return. To lie down before God's feet and say, "Not my will, but Thine be done," at such times -- at what a cost is that said and done! And to say it without bitterness, or gloom, or envy, or ill-will at any one: and to go on to the end of our lonely and desolate life, full of love and service to God and man, -- at such a sight as that, God says, "This is My Beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased! Come up hither. Inherit the kingdom prepared for thee before the foundation of the world!"
4. And, then, as to how we have to pay down all our transgressions and secret sins before our prayers will be heard, -- let one speak who has gone deeper into that matter than any one else I know. "Now," she says, "I saw that there would be no answer to me till I had entire purity of conscience, and no longer regarded any iniquity whatsoever in my heart. I saw that there were some secret affections still left in me that were spoiling all. I passed nearly twenty years of my life on this stormy sea, constantly tossed with the tempests of my own heart, and never nearing the harbour. I had no sweetness in God, and certainly no sweetness in sin. All my tears did not hold me back from sin when the opportunity returned; till I came to look on my tears as little short of a delusion. And yet they were not a delusion. It was the goodness of the Lord to give me such compunction, even when it was not, as yet, acompanied with complete reformation. But the whole root of my evil lay in my not thoroughly avoiding all occasions and opportunities of sin. I spent eighteen years in that miserable attempt to reconcile God and my life of sin. Now, out of all that, I will say to you," -- she continues, -- "never cease from prayer, be your life ever so bad. Prayer is the only way to amend your life: and, without prayer, it will never be mended. I ought to have utterly and thoroughly distrusted, and suspected, and detested myself. I sought for help. I sometimes took great pains to get help. But I did not understand of how little use all that is unless we utterly root out all confidence in ourselves, and place our confidence at once, and for ever, and absolutely, in God. Those were eighteen most miserable years with me." But we do not need to go beyond our own Bibles for all that. For we have in our own Bibles these well-known words of David: "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me. But, verily, God hath heard me: He hath attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God which hath not turned away my prayer, nor His mercy from me."
5. And, not to go the length of gross sins, either secret, or open, or long-continued, prayer when you once take it in dead earnest, and as for your immortal soul, -- such prayer will cost you all your soft, and easy, and slothful, and self-indulgent habits. I will not go on to name any of your soft, and easy, and slothful, and self-indulgent habits. But you know them yourselves and your conscience will not be slow in naming them to you, if you will let her speak out. Seneca is always telling young Lucilius to make up his mind. To make up his mind whether he is to be one of God's athletes or no. To make up his mind as the athletes of the arena do. They make up their mind to deny themselves in eating and drinking: in lounging all day in the Campus Martius and in soaking themselves all night in taverns: and on the day of the arena they have their reward. You have the same thing in the Epistle to the Hebrews: "Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us." And again in Corinthians: "Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown: but we an incorruptible. But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway." "Do I pray," demands Andrewes of himself, "do I pray -- if not seven times a day, as David, yet at least three times a day as Daniel? If not, as Solomon, at length, yet shortly, as the publican? If not like Christ, the whole night, at least for one hour? If not on the ground and in ashes, at least not in my bed? If not in sackcloth, at least not in purple and fine linen? If not altogether freed from all other desires, at least freed from all immoderate, unclean and unholy desires?" O true and self-denying saints of God, -- shall we ever be found worthy to touch so much as your shoe-latchet?
In short, on this whole subject, and to sum up on it, -- prayer, in all its exacting costliness, is like nothing so much as it is like faith and love. It is like Paul's faith, which made him suffer the loss of all things, and made him count all his best things but as so much dung, that he might win Christ, and be found in Him. Prayer is like love also, -- that most vehement and most all-consuming of all the passions of the human heart. Prayer is like the love of the bride in the song: "Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death: jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned." And so it is with prayer. And even with all that, the half of the price of prayer has not been told. For, after we have paid down all that immense price for prayer, and for the things that come to us by prayer, the things we paid so much for are not to be called our own after all. We have still to hold them, and enjoy them, in a life of prayer and praise. Even as we got those good things by prayer at first, so we have to hold them by prayer to the end. It is as Samuel Rutherford has it in his rare classic entitled Christ Dying. "It is better," says that eminent saint, "to hold your lands by prayer than by your own industry, or by conquest, or by inheritance, or by right of redemption. Have you wife, child, houses, lands, wisdom, honour, learning, parts, grace, godliness? See to it how you got them. For, if you got them not by prayer at the first, you do not hold them either righteously, or safely, or with the true enjoyment of them. See that you get a new charter to them all by continual and believing prayer. Hold and enjoy all your possessions by continual and believing prayer and praise."
Stand forth, then, all you who are men of much prayer. Stand forth, and say whether or no the wise Stoic was right when he said that nothing is so costly, so exorbitant, so extortionate, as that is which is bought by prayer. While, on the other hand, nothing is so truly and everlastingly enriching as that is which is gotten and held by prayer, and by prayer alone.
Lord, teach us to pray. Lord! Lord!