From where come wars and fights among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?…
I. THE PROMISE GIVEN TO PRAYER IS CONDITIONAL, AND NOT ABSOLUTE, AS TOUCHING THE THING WHICH IS PRAYED FOR; and therefore we may fail in gaining an answer to prayer in consequence of praying for that which is wrong in itself, or which would be fraught with danger to its possessor. Prayer is not a power entrusted to us, like that of free will, which we may exert for good or evil, for weal or woe; it must be used for good, either present or ultimate. What we pray for, it must be consistent with the Divine perfections to grant. To pray to a Holy God for the fulfilment of some evil desire, and to suppose that He will grant our petition, is to degrade God in a way which He Himself has denounced — "Thou thoughtest wickedly, that I am even such a one as thyself," and to make Him "serve with" us in our "sins." Having seen what we may not pray for, consider what are legitimate subjects for petition. The good things which are given to us by God are either spiritual or temporal; under the former are included our salvation and perfection, and all the means which directly lead to and insure those results — e.g., pardon for sin, strength against temptation, final perseverance; under the latter, "all the blessings of this life." We will take temporal goods first, and spiritual after, reversing the order of importance. Attached to every prayer for temporal things, then, there must be understood or expressed the clause "as may be most expedient for" us, until we know the will of God concerning the thing we are asking from Him. Spiritual goods differ from the former in two great respects. They must be sought primarily, and prayers for them need not be guarded by any implied or expressed condition.
II. THAT THE STATE OF THE PERSON WHO ASKS A BENEFIT IS A MATTER OF CONSEQUENCE may be learnt by analogy from the influence which it possesses with our fellow-men when prayers are addressed to them. We are much affected by the relation of the petitioner to us in granting a favour. To be in a state of grace, to have the privilege of the adopted child, then, is a ground of acceptance with God; whilst, on the other hand, if the heart is set on sin, and has no covenanted relation with God, however right the thing asked for may be, the prayer may be of no avail. Prayer unites the soul to God, but we cannot conceive of that union, unless there is some likeness between the terms of it, "for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?" St. illustrates this truth in the following manner: The fountain, he says, which ceaselessly pours forth its waters will not fill the vessel which has no mouth, or which is inverted, or which is held on one side. In the same way, God is the Fount of all goods, and desires to impart His gifts to all, but we fail to receive them, because our heart is closed against Him, or turned away from Him, or but half-converted towards Him. Whilst the heart is set on earthly possessions, or bent on sin, or has a lingering love for sinful pleasure, it is incapable of receiving and retaining the gifts of God; but to the heart that is whole with Him, He will give out of His fulness.
III. THERE ARE CERTAIN CONDITIONS WHICH OUGHT TO ACCOMPANY THE ACT OF PRAYING, IN ORDER TO ENSURE SUCCESS. Prayer is a momentous action, and must therefore be performed in a becoming manner; and a defect in this respect, though the thing prayed for be right, and the soul that prayed be in a state of grace, may hinder the accomplishment of its petitions.
1. The first of these conditions is faith. "If faith fails," says St. Augustine, "prayer perishes." It must be observed, that the faith which should accompany an act of prayer is of a special kind; it does not consist in the acknowledgment of the Unseen, or in the acceptance of revealed truth generally, but has direct reference to the promises of God which concern prayer. Yet it must not be supposed that, in order to pray acceptably, we must always feel quite certain of obtaining our requests; we must feel quite certain that, as far as God is concerned, He has the power to hear and answer prayer, and that He uses it as an instrument of His providence, but that in temporal things, at least, inasmuch as the bestowal of what we ask may not be expedient for us, therefore absolute certainty of gaining it may not be entertained.
2. Another disposition for praying aright, and one which touches so closely on the first as to render its separate treatment a difficulty, is to be found in the exercise of hope. We must not unduly dwell either upon the magnitude of the thing asked, or the unlikelihood of its bestowal, or our unworthiness to receive it, but rather turn to the merits of our Mediator, "in whom," St. Paul says, "we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of Him"; and to the Fatherhood of God, as our Lord Himself, in the prayer which He has given us for a model, has directed — that this second disposition for praying acceptably may be elicited and sustained. But this confidence must be flanked by another virtue, to hinder it from excess.
3. Though it be true that "the prayer of the timid does not reach the heavens," it is also to be remembered that the prayer of the presumptuous only reaches heaven to be beaten back to earth. Confidence must be held in check by lowliness.
4. There is one disposition more which is necessary, if we would secure the force of prayer — perseverance. God promises to answer prayer, but He does not bind Himself to answer it at the time we think best. There are reasons for delay, some doubtless inscrutable, but others which are in some degree within the reach of our comprehension. Delay may be occasioned by the fact that our dispositions need to be ripened before, according to the Divine Providence, an answer to prayer can be granted; or, again, another time may be better for us to receive the benefit for which we have besought God; or, again, some past sin may for a while suspend the Divine favours, or make them more difficult of attainment, as a needful discipline; or the delay may be for the purpose of heightening our sense of the benefit, when granted, and increasing our gratification in the enjoyment of it. Moreover, the struggle itself in perseveringly pressing upon God our petitions, is lucrative in several ways; it lays up store above, where patient faithfulness is not unrewarded; it has a sanctifying effect, for the inner life grows through the exercise of those virtues which prayer calls into operation. A third effect of persevering and finally successful petition is to be found in the witness it bears to the power of prayer — a witness to ourselves in the soul's secret experience, and, if known, to others also — for, as in seeking anything from one another, it is not in that which is given at once that we find an evidence of the power of our solicitation, but in that which has been again and again refused, and at last is, as it were, almost extorted froth another; so when God grants our requests, after He has long refused to do so, we seem to conquer Him by our entreaties, and thereby the potency of prayer is conspicuously manifested. The conditions of prayer may be summed up in few words — if we turn from sin and seek God, if we turn from earth and seek heaven, if in prayer we exert all our spiritual energies, we shall be heard; and we shall be able from our own experience to bear witness to the power of prayer.
(W. H. Hutchings, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?