And he spoke a parable to them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint;…
I. With regard to the necessity of prayer, THE GERM OF THIS AS OF OTHER REVEALED DOCTRINES, IS TO BE FOUND IN OUR NATURE, and affords one illustration of the truth of that profound exclamation, "O testimony of a soul, by nature Christian!" Of moral truth there is an inward engraving, a light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. "The virtues," says a modern writer, "were like plants half developed in some gloomy shade, till Christ poured His sunshine upon them, and made them flourish with luxuriance." It is important, then, to ground the necessity of prayer on the dictates of nature as well as on the teaching of Revelation, thereby resting it on a double authority, each of which lends support to the other. For anything to be original in our nature, it must possess certain properties; in looking back to the beginning of our race it 'will present itself without any external origin, and it will continue to exist under conditions most diverse and at all times. We examine, then, the history of the past, we take up the book which contains the first records of our race in order to discover whether this communing with God existed from the first — to see what the first human souls did. All the elements of prayer were present in Adam's intercourse with his Maker; man, rational and dependent; God, Almighty, Omniscient, and Good; and — communications between the two. We trace the instinct of prayer continuing in fallen man, else it might have been supposed that it was a part of his supernatural equipment, and had no foundation in his natural life. In Adam's sons this instinct survived; Cain and Abel offered sacrifices, and sacrifices are the outward expression of prayer; there was an ascent of the mind to God, a real ascent at least in one case, for "by faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain." In an unfallen state, the instinct of the soul was to turn to the Author of its life, with joy and thankfulness; in a fallen state, the instinct of the soul is to turn to Him through its need of pardon and its sense of weakness; but in both states there is the instinct to turn to Him, though the leading reasons for doing so may be different. Looking back, then, into the past by the light of the only record which can safely guide us, we find the practice of prayer from the first without any external command or origin, and therefore it preserves one mark of an instinct of nature. But an instinct to be acknowledged must not only be able to claim antiquity on its side but also universality. That which is a genuine part of human nature will always be a part of human nature. If that which marked human life in its earlier stages, disappears in times of advanced civilization and culture, it may be doubted whether it was a pure instinct of our nature, and be attributed either on the one side to an original revelation or on the other to a defective or barbarous condition. It must, however, be admitted that in matters of religion, the mark of antiquity in an instinct has a special value; we can see in it "natural religion" before it has been tampered with. If we want to learn the habits of an animal, we must see it in its native freedom, and not only after it has been trained and domesticated. The instinct of prayer, however, does not lack the second property, universality; we find it both in the highest and lowest states of civilization, in places and races widely sundered both in position and circumstance. If we examine the practices of barbarous nations; if we turn to the ancient religions of the East; if we look at Greece and Rome in the plenitude of their intellectual power, we find that in some form or shape the necessity of prayer and homage to a superior Power is admitted, and in no nation is the instinct entirely obliterated. In the root of human nature there is a sense of dependency, and a sense of guilt; natural religion is based on these two, the correlatives of which are prayer and atonement — the actions respectively proper to the frail, and to the sinful. It is useless to speak of the instinct of prayer as of something imported into our nature: that which is simply imported does not make its home so fixed and sure, that no lapse of time or change of circumstances has the power to dislodge it. I have dwelt at some length on the instinctive character of prayer, because on it I first ground its obligation; we ought to pray out of deference to an instinct with which God has endowed us, for by our higher intuitions and instincts He expresses His will, and to neglect to act in accordance with them, is to disobey His voice within us. Moreover, this instinct of prayer is an imperious one; it is one which will assert itself, even when it has been set aside, and its presence denied. There are moments in life when men are superior to their own principles, and human systems fail to silence the deep cry of the heart; when men pray who have denied the power of prayer. "That men ought always to pray," then, is the teaching of nature, and prayer as a matter of natural religion is an express duty.
II. We pass now from the sphere of the natural to the super-natural, from nature to grace, TO FIND ANOTHER BASIS FOR THE NECESSITY OF PRAYER. Prayer meets us with a two-fold claim in the domain of revealed religion; it is necessary as a means of grace, it is necessary also as a fulfilment of an express command of God; these are two sides, the one objective, the other subjective, of the same truth. It will be observed, that the necessity of prayer viewed in this connection is derived from the prior necessity of grace. "Every man is held to pray in order to obtain spiritual goods, which are not given, except from heaven; wherefore they are not able to be procured in any other way but by being thus sought for." In the New Testament, that grace is a necessity for the supernatural life is an elemental truth. Grace is to that life what the water is to the life of the fish, or the air to our natural life — something absolutely indispensable. "Being justified freely by His grace." "By grace ye are saved." "By the grace of God I am what I am; and His grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain." "Grow in grace." "He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it." In following the operations of grace from the commencement of the spiritual life to its end, five effects have been enumerated — it heals the soul, it produces a good will, it enables the good which was willed to be brought about in action, it makes perseverance in good possible, it leads to glory. Thus grace is, from first to last, the invisible nourishment of the soul's life, and prayer is the means in man's own power of gaining grace; it is through prayer that the different effects of grace are wrought in us. We ask God for spiritual healing — "Heal my soul, for I have sinned against Thee." "O cleanse Thou me from my secret faults." We need Divine help for resisting temptations — "When Christ was baptized and prayed, the heavens were opened, showing that after Baptism prayer is necessary to man in two ways, to overcome the inward proneness to evil, and the outward enticements of the world and the devil." Temptations to be resisted with sanctifying effect must be resisted in the power of prayer; slight temptations may perhaps be vanquished by natural effort, or overthrown by an opposite vice, but such victories are not registered in heaven. Again, in order to advance in the spiritual life, in the development of virtues, prayer is a necessity — the apostles prayed, "Lord, increase our faith." The increase of the interior life simply consists in the growth of different virtues and graces, and these virtues are formed by the combined action of grace and free-will; these are the two factors, the raw material so to speak, from which the fabric is manufactured. A continual supply of grace is needed for the increase of each virtue, and therefore prayer is needed, not only in general, but also with definite reference to the support of the virtue which we have to exercise, or in which we are most conscious of defect. He says "prayer and grace are of the same necessity; grace is necessary for salvation, hence it ought to follow that prayer also is necessary; but why should prayer be ordained in relation to eternity, unless it he for the sake of obtaining grace?" There are, however, two limits to the power of prayer which we must not forget in its relation to grace. Prayer is itself dependent on grace in the spiritual life, and an act of prayer for grace is a correspondence with a grace which has been already given. "The Spirit," St. Paul says, "also helpeth our infirmities; for we know not what we should pray for as we ought." "Grace," St. asserts, "precedes our prayers always." The good thought or desire is a touch from another world; the angels of God descended as well as ascended on "Bethel's Stair." The beginnings of life, whether natural or supernatural, are from God; but the continuation and increase of life depend also on human co-operation. Again, prayer as a means of grace must not take the place of Sacraments. The revelation which proclaims the necessity of the one, also asserts the obligation of the other. Prayer is the respiration of the soul; Sacraments, its medicine and food; both alike necessary, though the one constantly, the other occasionally.
III. The obligation to pray is NOT, however, TO BE VIEWED SIMPLY IN REFERENCE TO OUR OWN BENEFIT. Prayer is also an act of religion, an act of obedience to a Divine precept which we should be bound to perform, even if no grace came to us from its performance. This objective view of the necessity of prayer is one less familiar, but hardly less important. Now from this doctrine flow two results. The omission and neglect of prayer involve not only a loss of grace, but constitute a distinct sin; it is a sin against religion, and against charity. Religion is a moral virtue, whose province it is to show due honour and reverence to Almighty God; to cease to pray therefore, is to fail to exercise a moral virtue, and that the highest. What justice is towards the creature, religion is towards God — that by which we seek to give Him His due. To neglect prayer, is also to sin against charity. Charity presents three objects — God, ourselves, others — all of whom are to be loved: but when prayer is omitted we fail in the exercise of the love of God, for we desire to hold converse with those whom we love; the love of our neighbour we fail in also, for he needs our prayers; and the love of our soul we fail in, by the neglect of a duty upon which our spiritual life depends. It remains for us to notice when this precept of prayer is binding, so that the omission of it becomes a sin. When Christ says, "men ought always to pray," it is evident that He does not mean that no other duty should be fulfilled; but that at all times, whatever we are doing, the spirit of prayer should be preserved.
IV. We have now to view THE NECESSITY OF PRAYER AS A TRANSFORMING INFLUENCE. Those who do not admit that prayer has power with God, yet acknowledge that it has power with us, and allow that it possesses a reflex influence on those who use it. The soul by communing with God becomes like God, receives from His perfections supplies of light, of power, and love according to its needs. The subjective effects of prayer are as manifold as the Divine perfections. It is said that constant intercourse between creatures causes them to resemble one another, not only in disposition and habits, but even in features. Old painters always made St. John like unto his Master in face. They instinctively imagined, that closeness of communion between the beloved disciple and his Lord had occasioned a likeness in features and expression. The first basis of its obligation will remind us that we must not regard our nature as entirely corrupt, and its voice as always misleading, but that in it, fallen as it is, there are vestiges of its original greatness, and intuitions and instincts which are to us an inward revelation of the mind and will of God. The second reason for the necessity of prayer, will explain perhaps the cause of weakness in the hour of temptation — our lack of grace. Further, we must be careful to regard prayer not only as a means of grace but as a duty, and thus fulfil it without reference to our own delight or profit in the act. If, again, we complain of our earthliness and worldliness, and the difficulty which we have in fetching our motives of action from a higher sphere, may it not be that we have failed to realize the importance of prayer in its subjective effect upon character, and have thought to gain a ray of heavenly brightness without the habitual communing with God upon the Mount?
(W. H. Hutchings, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint;