From where come wars and fights among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?…
1. We ask amiss, and consequently without success, when we fail to feel the parental love of God. Your approaches to the mercy-seat have been visits of ceremony, rather than affection; your prayers have been elaborations of language, rather than bursts of strong desire. Cold reserve has taken the place of openhearted confidence; and you have often said only what you thought you ought to feel, instead of saying what you really felt, and asking for what you really wanted. You have treated God as a stranger. You have not confided to Him your secrets. You have not even told Him so much as you have told your father or mother. You have not trusted His mighty love.
2. We ask amiss if, in our prayers, we fail to realise the mediation of Christ. Though children, we are rebels; and there is no rebel so sinful as a rebel-child. We have forfeited the original rights of children, and can approach God no more directly, but only mediately. You close your prayers with the formula, "We ask all these things for Christ's sake"; but in religion meaning is everything, and what do you mean? Do you truly renounce dependence on yourself, and rely alone on the worthiness of Jesus? Do you make His name your grand argument, and only hope? Does the fact of His mediation have to you the force of a reality? Do you put all your prayers into His censer, that they may be offered as His own?
3. We ask amiss when we ask for wrong things. The heart will ever give a bias to the judgment. What we know depends upon what we are. In our case the heart is wrong; the judgment, therefore, is likely to be wrong; and as a further consequence, we are likely to ask for wrong things. In us there is at once the inexperience of childhood, and the darkness of a perverted nature; and, naturally, the things we wish for are not always the things a loving Father could bestow. In this world of illusions, and from this heart of darkness, we often ask for a temptation, or for a sorrow, or for a curse, when, deceived by its wrong name or fascinating aspect, we think it would be a glorious boon. Where and what should we now have been if all our prayers had been answered? There can be no mistake in the judgment of the "only wise"; no unkindness in "love"; no unfaithfulness in Him whose name is "faithful and true." What if your prayers had been heard? Agrippina implored the gods that she might live to see her infant Nero an emperor. Emperor he became, and from his imperial throne plotted that mother's death.
4. We ask amiss, when our prayers are wanting in intensity. "A thing may be good in itself," remarks a Puritan father, "yet not well done. A man may sin in doing a good thing, but not in doing well. When Cicero was asked which oration of Demosthenes he thought best, he said, 'the longest.' But if the question should be, which of prayers are the best, the answer then must be 'the strongest.' Therefore, let all young converts who are apt to think more than is meet of their own enlargements, endeavour to turn their length into strength, and remember the wide difference between the gift and the grace of prayer."
5. We "ask amiss" if we are satisfied with devoting hurried and infrequent periods of time to the exercise of prayer. True, prayer consists not in telling off a long rosary of solemn words; and that length which is simply the result of formal routine, or verbal fluency, is to be condemned without reserve; but this does not render it the less important that we should have seasons, long and frequent as circumstances will allow, which shall be regarded as sacred to prayer; stated seasons, when, like the prophet in his cave, or the priest in the holiest place, the soul is to be alone with God, to speak and to be spoken to, to rise above the life of the senses, and thus to cultivate a sacred intimacy with Him who is invisible. Many a man, if he dared to give his thoughts expression, would say, "I have so much to do that I really have no time for prayer." Luther thought differently when he said, "I have so much to do that I find I cannot get on without three hours a day of praying." No time for prayer! But the scholar must have time to read his books, and the sailor to consult his compass. Every man must have time for his own vocation; and your vocation is prayer. As a man lives by his labour, a Christian lives by his faith, and prayer is but the act by which faith draws the spirit's supplies of life from God, the Source.
6. You should also be reminded that the dominion of some particular sin may often rob your prayers of their efficacy.
7. "We ask amiss" when we ask for a blessing on some sinful deed, or on something which we do for a sinful end. A. Roman robber is said thus to have prayed to the goddess Laverna: "Fair Laverna, give me a prosperous robbery, a rich prey, and a secret escape. Let me become rich by fraud, and still be accounted religious" (Horace, Ep. I., Lib. 1:16, 60). The Pharisees, those Brahmins of ancient Israel, "devoured widows' houses," and yet, "for a pretence, made long prayers," no doubt trying to believe that prayer sanctified their fraud, and had a virtue to secure its prosperity. Many a man, who wears a worthier name than they, will pray, when, if he had but courage to analyse his prayer, he would find that he is virtually asking God's blessing on some sin. He will pray when he sets out on some enterprise which must prove a temptation to himself, or which tends to the injury of others; he will pray as he begins some act of strife or litigation; he will pray when he is about to engage in some commercial dishonesties, made "respectable" by custom, or disguised by some gentle name; and, while he cannot afford, or will not dare to consider the question of their Christian lawfulness, he prays that God may bless him in his deed; and the desire of his heart is that he may still be" counted religious." But even though the thing we seek be intrinsically good, if our motive in seeking it be doubtful, our prayers will be unavailing. Not only must we know what we ask, but why we ask it. You may do right to ask for health; to ask for the powers of industrial efficiency; to ask for social influence; to ask God to "speed the plough" of worldly toil; for there is no evil inherent in the nature of these things; but if you ask simply with a view to purposes of pride or pleasure, God will be silent.
(C. Stanford, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?