Prayer — its Necessity and Power

(An Extract)

1919 265 What is prayer? Is it penance? Is it a part of that various punishment which God has inflicted on our sinful family? Is it so much holy drudgery to which every soul must force himself, under pain of incurring a severer penalty, or sinking at last into a deeper woe? Is it the irksome ordeal through which you are doomed to enter each successive day, and the moping and mournful finale with which you must close it up and leave it off?

Is prayer the sackcloth which you must wear beneath the silk attire of daily joys, the pebble which you must put into the sandals of daily business, — the preliminary thorn which you must break across or pluck away before you reach the downy pillow of this weary night's new slumber?

Is prayer the cold fog which you must scatter over this world's bright landscape, — the "Memento mori" with which you must sober down its merry melodies, the Egyptian coffin at the banquet's close to lengthen every visage, and with quashed delight and bitter fancies to send each rueful guest away?

And yet, I am sure that it is in this sombre aspect that many look on prayer. Are you sure that this is not the aspect in which you yourself regard it? Is it not a task, an exercise, — an endurance? Instead of engaging in it with that alacrity, or resorting to it with that avidity which would bespeak the privilege, do you not betake yourself to secret prayer with coldness and self-constraint, and feel, when the devotions of the family or sanctuary are ended, that it is a great comfort to have this other "duty" done?

What then is prayer?

1. It is communion with God. Brethren, prayer is not an apostrophe to woods and wilds and waters. It is not a moan let fly upon the viewless winds, nor a hopeless behest expended on a passing cloud. It is not a plaintive cry, directed to an empty echo, that can send back nothing but another cry. Prayer is a living heart that speaks in a living ear, — the ear of the living God.

It matters not where the worshipper is, — on a dreary shore; in a noisome dungeon; amidst the filth and ferocity of brutal savages, or the frivolity and atheism of hollow-hearted worldlings; surrounded by the whirr and clash and roaring dissonance of the heaving factory, or toiling in the depths of the lamp-lit mine, — the man of prayer need never feel the withering pangs of loneliness. Wherever you are the Lord is there, and it only needs prayer to bring Himself and you together. Recollect Him, and He is beside your path; resort to Him and He lays His hand upon you.

And who is this ever-present Help, — this never-distant Friend? Words cannot tell. The incarnate "Word" did tell, but few could comprehend, and as few could credit (John 1:5, 18). If you imagine the tenderest affection of your most anxious friend; the mildest condescension and readiest sympathy of your most appreciating and considerate friend; and if you add to this a goodness and a wisdom, such as you never saw in the best and wisest of your friends; and if you do not merge but multiply all this wisdom, all this goodness, and all this kindness towards you by infinity, so as to give this tender and. constant Friend infinite knowledge to watch over you, infinite forethought to provide for you, and infinite resources to relieve or enrich you; if you did not fully realize who the hearer and answerer of prayer is, you would, at least, be a step beyond that "unknown God," whom many ignorantly and joylessly worship.

In prayer you do not address a general law or a first principle, but you address a living Person. You do not commune with eternity, or with infinite space, but you commune with the Father of eternity, with Him "who fills the highest heavens, and who also dwells in the lowliest hearts." You do not hold converse with abstract goodness, but with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; with God in Christ; with Him whose express image Jesus is; with Jesus Himself; with your Friend within the veil; with your Father who is in heaven.

And is there in this ought that should prove repulsive or heart chilling? Is Christ so altered from what He was, that you needs must deprecate His presence? Or are you so earthly, so sensual, so sin-saturated, that though He were talking to you by the way your bosom could not burn? The Saviour and yourself! Is there so little friendship between you? Is He so little a reality that days pass without adverting to Him? Or is He so little loved that you rather deprecate than desire His coming? Have you found so little that is engaging in Him that you wonder how people who loved one another dearly, loved this Saviour more? Or is the whole such a phantom, — to your feelings such a nonentity, — that you cannot comprehend how any one should have such a delight in God as to cry out in desire of His more conscious presence, "O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee, my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land… My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness, when I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the night-watches?"

Yes, brethren, whatever you may fancy — or rather, whatever you may forget — the Lord liveth. There may be objects which fascinate all your soul, and bind in welcome fetters all your faculties; but hidden from your view there is an Object, if you catch a glimpse of Him, fit to deaden the deliciousness of every lesser joy, and darken the glare of every lesser glory. There may be friends deep-seated in your soul, but there is yet one Friend, whom could you but discover, He would make you another man He would give your life a new nobility, your character a new sanctity. He would give yourself a new existence in giving Himself to you, and would give society a new manner of person in giving you to it.

And with this glorious Personage, and withal most gracious Friend, it is possible to keep up an intercourse to which the most rapid communication and the closest converse of earth supply not the equivalent. The twinkling thought the uplifted eye — the secret groan — will bring Him in an instant — will bring Him in all the brightness of His countenance through the midnight gloom in all the promptitude of His interposition through the thickest dangers — in all the abundance of His strength into the fading flesh — and in all the sweetness of His sympathy and assurance of His death-destroying might into the failing heart. And this communion, closer and more complete than that of any creature with another — for dearest friend can only give his thoughts, and desires, and feelings — he cannot impart himself; but in regard to the praying soul and this divine communion, we read of its being "filled with all the fulness of God."

2. Prayer is peace and joy. Two things constitute the believer's peculiarity and make him differ from the rest of men just as two things constitute the sinner's peculiarity, and make him differ from the rest of God's creatures. The two things which form the Christless sinner's peculiar misery, are guilt and vacancy a gloom above him and a void within him. A gloom above him — for he has no confidence in God he has no hopeful and confiding feeling heavenwards — no firm reliance on a reconciling God, and no smiling vista through a pierced and haven-opening sepulchre. A sense of sin in shadowy hauntings or in severe and burning incubus — is hovering over his conscience, and whether it merely mar his occasional joy, or convert his days into habitual misery, this guilt, this conscience of sin is a serious abatement on the zest of existence — a mournful deduction from the total of earthly joy. It makes the unpardoned sinner's walk very different from the seraph's limpid flight, who only knows guilt by distant report, and very different from the newly-pardoned sinner's lightened gaiety, who only knows it by remembrance breaking his daily bread in the sprightliness of a vanished fear, and eating it with the relish of a conscious innocency.

But not only is there a gloom above the Christless soul a brooding guilt, and an impending danger–but there is a void within him. God did not create man at first with a burden on his conscience, and neither did he create him with this aching gap in his bosom. Or rather, we should, say the all-wise Creator has implanted no craving in any of His  creatures, without having provided some counterpart object. When that object is attained, the creature is content. The craving subsides in quiet enjoyment and complacency. It is happy and wants no more. The ox is at home in his rich pasture, and send no wistful thought beyond it; and so is the insect which "expands and shuts its wings in silent ecstasy" on the edge of the sunny flower.

But it is far otherwise with the roaming soul of the sinner. There is no flower of earthly growth in whose nectar bathing he can finally forget his poverty no green pastures of time-bounded blessedness in whose amplitudes he can so lose himself that misery shall find him no more. Wide as is his range, his anxious eye sees too well its weary limits, and sweet as the honeyed petals are, he perceives them dying as he drinks.

Oh I this fugacity of all that is pleasant — this scanty measure and momentary duration of earthly delights was never meant to satiate the soul of man this never is the counterpart which the bountiful Jehovah created for the yearning avidity of an immortal spirit. Cast into the mighty gulf of man's craving soul, a house-full of friendship, a ship's freight of wealth and dainty delights, a world-load  of wondrous objects and lovely scenes, — the deep-sounding abyss will ever echo, "Give, give"; and though you would tumble the world itself into the heart of man, you could not prevent it from collapsing in disappointment, and dying vacant and dreary at last.

There is only one object so mighty as truly to content this capacious desire — only one ultimatum so conclusive that when the soul has reached it, it has nothing more to do than rest in it and rejoice. That object is the living God Himself: that ultimatum is the All-sufficient Jehovah and Father. The gospel meets the two desiderata of our uneasy and anxious humanity by offering a free pardon and an infinite and eternal possession. The affrighted and apprehensive soul finds peace where it finds forgiveness; and the yearning, discontented soul finds joy where it finds a never-dying, all-sufficient Friend. It finds them both where it finds Immanuel. The gloom vanishes and the void is filled the query of existence is answered, and the problem of blessedness solved when the soul ascertains what Jesus really is, and in a Saviour-God discovers its Beloved and its Friend.

Now the peace and joy of conversion it is one great use of prayer to reproduce and perpetuate. It brings the soul into the presence of that Saviour, whom in the day of salvation it found, and renewing the intercourse, it renews the joy. When prayer is what it ought to be — when it is earnest and realizing — it gives the believer conscious fellowship with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. It brings him in contact with those perfections of the Godhead which may at the moment be chiefly revealed to his view: and in the pavilion of prayer beneath the canopy of the sure atonement, and on the safe standing-point of acceptance — the soul surveys the God of majesty, or surrenders itself to the God of grace hearkens to his voice in the thundering power of startling providences, or melts in sweet amazement beneath the full flood of his marvellous mercies — but from every aspect of awful solemnity or benignant endearment, the assuring thought comes home, "And this God is our own God for ever."

And perhaps there is no influence so abidingly tranquillizing — so permanently hallowing and heart-assuring, as this high communion with the great All in All. The pleasures of sin will look paltry, and sin itself disgusting to eyes which have just been gazing on the fountain of light. The tossings of time — mountains of prosperity rooted up, and pinnacles of fortune flung into the roaring sea will look trivial matters to one who has eyed them in their mote-like distance from beneath the sapphire throne. And even the groans of mortality and the wailings of the sepulchre will come diluted and transformed to ears resounding with golden harmonies from the holy place of the Most High.

3. Prayer is the only means of imparting to earth blessings not native to it. There are many commodities not of English growth which ships and wealth and enterprise can fetch from foreign shores. But there are some things which no wealth can purchase, which no enterprise can compass, and with which no ship that ever rode the seas came freighted. Where is the emporium to which you can resort and order so much happiness? Where is the ship that ever brought home a cargo of heart-comfort? a consignment of good consciences? — a freight of strength for the feeble, and joy for the wretched, and peace for the dying?

But what no vessel ever fetched from the Indies, prayer has often fetched from heaven. Our earth is insulated. It is clean cut off from all intercourse with the most adjacent worlds. But even though the nearest world were peopled by holy and happy beings, and though they could cross the gulf that severs them from us, they could accomplish little for us. They could not bind up bleeding hearts — they could not wash stains from guilty souls — they could not infuse their own felicity into gaunt and joyless hearts, and they could not transport their own sweet atmosphere so as to heal the miasma of a polluted race, or the misery of a wretched home. But what they cannot do, the Lord Himself can do.

Prayer is not a message to the moon. It is not a cry for help to the sun, or to the stars in their courses. It is a petition addressed to Him who made the sun and moon and stars. It is recourse to the ever-present and all-sufficient God. It is frailty fleeing to Omnipotence. It is misery at the door of mercy. It is "worm Jacob" at the ladder's foot, and that ladder's top in heaven. It is the dying thief beside a dying Saviour, and the same Paradise already open for them both. The mercy-seat is the ark of the covenant opened, and the legend over it, "Ask, and it shall be given thee." And prayer is just the exploring eye and the believing hand selecting from the "unsearchable riches of Christ" the sweetest mercies and the costliest gifts.

Jacob compared Joseph his son to a fruitful tree inside of a lofty fence; but though he grew in a "garden enclosed," his growth was so luxuriant that his branches ran over the wall, and the wandering Ishmaelites, and the hungry passengers shot their arrows and flung their missiles at the laden boughs, and caught up such clusters as fell outside the fence. The tree of life grows now in such a garden. There is now an enclosure round it, but the branches run over the wall. High over our heads we may perceive the bending boughs, and such fragrant fruits as "peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, assurance of God's love," "gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance" — and prayer is the arrow which detaches these from the bough — the missile which brings these far-off fruits, these lofty clusters, down to the dusty path, and the weary traveller's feet. Happy he whose believing prayer is "like Jonathan's bow, which never came empty back."

1919 279 4. Prayer confers the largest power of doing good to others. "What am I to do with other people's sorrows?" The finest and the gentlest spirits are often the most heavily burdened. Many a one feels that he could pass right easily through the world if he had no griefs to carry but his own. He feels that his sensitive system is just a contrivance for catching up other men's calamities, an apparatus on which everybody fastens his own peculiar vexation his family their's — his neighbours their's — till at last he moves about, the burden-bearer of a groaning world. But after he has got himself thus charged and loaded, he knows not what to do, for he cannot alleviate the twentieth portion of the ills he knows. He cannot heal all the wounds and mitigate all the poverty of which he is the mourning witness. He cannot minister to all the minds diseased, all the aching hearts and wounded spirits whose confidant he is and in the anguish of his own tortured sympathies, he is sometimes tempted to turn these sympathies outside in, and feel for his fellow-men no more.

"What then shall I do with other people's sorrows?" The Christian feels that he has no right to be his own little all-in-all. He feels that he dares not invert the example of his Master, who was a man of sorrows very much because a man of sympathies. He remembers of whom it is said, "Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows"; and this reminds him what to do with the perplexities and disappointments and distresses of his brethren. He takes them to the throne of grace. He deposits them in the ear of the Great High Priest. He urges them on the notice of One who can be touched with a feeling of infirmity, and Who is able to succour them that are tempted.

And in this way a believer who is tender-hearted enough to feel for his brethren, and who is so much a man of prayer as to carry to the mercy-seat those matters that are too hard and those griefs that are too heavy for himself, may be a greater benefactor to his afflicted friends than an Ahithophel who has nothing but sage counsel, or a Joab who has nothing but a stout arm to help them — than a man of fortune who can give nothing but his money, Or a man of feeling who has nothing but his tears.

The Christian has his near relations and personal friends. Parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, God has bound them very closely together, and made it impossible for the joy of one to be full if another's joy is incomplete. Besides these there are friends not of one's house kindred spirits whom God in creating, or the Spirit of God in new-creating, has made congenial with your own those to whom you are drawn by the affinity of identical tastes, or by the discovery of those mental gifts and spiritual graces which cannot be hid, and which cannot be seen without attracting you.

Now one way to sanctify such friendships is to make them the materials and the incentives of prayer. For example, there may be seasons of spiritual languor when you have little heart to pray. The throne of grace seems distant or uninviting. A deep sloth has seized the inner man. You are not inclined to ask any blessing for yourself. You are too carnal to confess any sin, and too sullen to acknowledge any mercy — perhaps so earthly or atheistical that you do not pant — nay, do not breathe after God, the living God.

At such a season of deadness you will sometimes find that you can pray for others when you cannot for yourself. Do even so. Make your solicitude for them a motive for prayer. Begin by laying their wants before the Lord, and you will find out your own. Come in their company, and you may soon find yourself left alone with God. This is not to desecrate prayer, but to consecrate friendship. It exalts and purifies affection, and by making it friendship in the Lord, makes it more lasting now, and more likely to be renewed hereafter.

And lastly, intercession sanctifies the believer's relation to the church. "Our Father" makes all of us who are in Christ one family. But this, too, is oft forgotten. There is little family love amongst us yet — little instinctive affection resulting from our common adoption into the circle of God's dear children — little of that affection towards one another which the Man Christ Jesus feels towards every one — little outgoing sympathy because one Comforter fills us all. If the family relation of the household Of faith be ever realised, it is in social or intercessory prayer. "Abba, Father" — my Father truly, because Father of my Lord Jesus Christ; but if so, Father of many more Father of the whole believing family — "Our Father, which art in heaven." And so the circle widens, till, starting from the individual, or his own little band of immediate brotherhood, it includes all whom the arms of Immanuel enclose.

One who was much given to intercessory prayer writes thus to a Christian friend: "I beseech you to seek earnestly the communion of saints. This is the only progress I have made in the divine life. I have received as a most precious and unmerited gift, the power of feeling the things of the flock of Christ as if they were my own. You cannot imagine the happiness of this feeling. I dedicate an hour every evening to prayer, and principally to intercession. I generally begin with the thanks due to God for having made Himself known to us as our Father, for all that He has done for every one of His own on that day.

"It is impossible for me to tell you the great delight of thus mixing myself up with the people of Christ, and of considering their benefits as my own. The thought which transports me the most, is that of how many souls have been, perhaps this day, added to the church! How many succoured under temptation! how many recovered from their backslidings! how many filled with consolation! how many transported by death into the bosom of Christ! I then try to pray for that sweet 'we,' and to think of the necessities of my Christian friends. Besides, I have a list of unconverted persons, for whom I wish to pray."

And, if there were more of this spirit, how it would alter the tone of Christians to one another! Instead of being so censorious and uncharitable, it would make us feel, "Am I not my brother's keeper?" Instead of a fault-finding, it would make us a fault-forgiving and a fault-healing community. It would make us suffer with the suffering members, and exult with the rejoicing. It would make us like that high-souled apostle who had "continual heaviness" for his unconverted kindred, and who yet never wanted topics of consolation; remembering without ceasing in his prayers his believing brethren, with their work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope. J.H.