« Prev COMMENT FOR THE WEEK Next »

COMMENT FOR THE WEEK

I

If we define praying as "Communion with God," we naturally think of it as fellowship with a friend, and so emphasize its peaceful aspect. When Robert Burns bewailed the fact that he could not "pour out his inmost soul without reserve to any human being without danger of one day repenting his confidence," he expressed a need which is met in the lives of those who habitually commune with God. Prayer means restfulness, quietude; men come from it saying,

"And I smiled to think God's greatness flowed around our incompleteness;

Round our restlessness, his rest."

As Jeremy Taylor described it, "Prayer is the peace of our spirit, the stillness of our thoughts, and evenness of our recollection."

Now, praying is all of this, but none can think of it as dominant desire without seeing that it is more. Prayer is a battlefield. When a man, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, calls God into alliance, he does so because he--has a fight on his hands. He may have set his heart in dominant desire on goodness, but that desire meets enemies 162 that must be beaten. "No man ever became a saint in his sleep." From without, the influences of the world assail his best ambition; from within, the perverse inclinations of his own heart make war on his right resolutions. A fight is on in every aspiring life. Sometimes, like the captain of a ship in mid-sea with a tempest raging and his own crew in rebellion, a man must at once steady his course amid outward temptations, and hold a pistol at the head of his mutinous desires. No one in earnest about goodness has ever succeeded in describing the achievement of goodness except in terms of a fight. "The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh," says Paul, "I buffet my body, and bring it into bondage."

In this moral battle, as in every other, the decisive part of the engagement is not public and ostentatious; it is in secret. Long before the armies clash in the open field, there has been a conflict in the general's office, where pro met con, and the determinations were reached that controlled each movement of the outward war. Even in law, "Cases are won in chambers." So, in the achievement of character there is a hidden battlefield on which the decisive conflicts of the world are waged. Behind the Master's public ministry, through which he moved with such amazing steadfastness, not to be deflected by bribes, nor halted by fears, nor discouraged by weariness, lay the battles in the desert where he fought out in prayer the controlling principles of his life. Behind his patience in Pilate's Court, and his fidelity on Calvary, lay the battle in Gethsemane, where the whole problem was fought through and the issue settled before the face of God. All public consequences go back to secret conflicts. Napoleon sat for hours in silent thought before he ordered the Russian Campaign. Washington, praying at Valley Forge, was settling questions on which the independence of his country hung. We are deceived by the garish stage-settings of big scenes in history. The really great scenes are seldom evident. The decisive battles of the world are hidden, and all the outward conflicts are but the echo and reverberation of that more real and inward war.

To be sure, prayer, which at its best is thus a fight for character, can be perverted to the hurt of character. Because certain temperaments are so constituted that they can experience a high degree of tranquil peace, and sometimes ecstatic delight, 163 in protracted communion with God, the exaggerations of the mystic are always possible. "I made many mistakes," said Madame Guyon, "through allowing myself to be too much taken up by my interior joys." Nothing so hurts genuine piety as that spurious piety which is expressed, at its extreme limit, in the words of the Blessed Angela of Fulginio, "In that time and by God's will there died my mother, who was a great hindrance unto me in following the way of God: my husband died likewise, and in a short time there also died all my children. And because I had commenced to follow the aforesaid Way, and had prayed God that he would rid me of them, I had great consolation of their deaths, albeit I did also feel some grief." The worst enemies of prayer are those who thus speak much of it and revel much in it, but whose lives exhibit in ordinary relationships little of the trustworthiness, the "plain devotedness to duty," the thoughtful generosity and large-heartedness, which are the proper fruits of real communion with God. Jesus himself called his enraptured disciples away from the Mount of Transfiguration, where they wished to prolong their glowing experience, and led them down to save a demoniac groveling in the valley (Matt. 17:2-18). He would be the first to rebuke us for praying, "Lord, Lord," and not doing the things which he says (Matt. 7:21). The real pray-ers, however, have not thus weltered in futile emotion, supposed to be induced by God; they have been warriors who on the inner battlefield fought out the issues of righteousness with God as their ally.

II

As one seeks in the biographies of praying men to discover in terms of actual experience what prayer as a battlefield has meant to them, he sees that for one thing it has been the place where they reconquered faith and reestablished confidence in God and in themselves. Professor Royce, of Harvard, has given us this testimony from a friend: "When things are too much for me, and I am down on my luck, and everything is dark, I go alone by myself, and I bury my head in my hands, I think hard that God must know it all and will see how matters really are, and understand me; and in just that way alone, by understanding me, will help me. And so I try to get myself together, and that, for me, 164 prayer." St. Francis, of Assisi, used to sit in prayer by the hour, with no spoken word except the occasional exclamation, "God." Doubts, it may be, had assailed his faith; the clamor of the flesh had dulled the voice of the spirit; practical perplexities had distracted his life; and he went out from all of these to take a reassuring look at the Eternal. He "got himself together," and came back--"things seen" a little more obscure, "things unseen" vivid. Of how many powerful lives is this the secret!

"As torrents in summer

Half-dried in their channels,

Suddenly rise, though the

Sky is still cloudless,

For rain has been falling

Far off at their fountains;

"So hearts that are fainting

Grow full to overflowing,

And they that behold it

Marvel, and know not

That God at their fountains

Far off has been raining!"

This sort of inward self-conquest to some may seem impractical. They feel about it as a man may feel, who, not understanding what astronomy has done for life, goes into an observatory and sees the astronomer studying the stars. That the world needs ploughs and looms and locomotives is as plain as a pike-staff; that the real wants of men are on the earth, not in the heavens, appears so obvious that this hard-headed man of common sense may wonder what use could be made of a star-gazing tube that looks away from earth and seeks the sky. But the fact is that the star-gazer sets the clock by which we time our simplest tasks; he made the almanac by which we measure all our days. We never caught a train, nor figured time on contracts, nor set ourselves to any common duty, that we did not put ourselves under obligation to the astronomer. Men never understood this earth until they looked away from it. It never was truly seen until it was seen in its infinite relationships. Galileo and Kepler and Copernicus did not idly 165 dream in impractical aloofness from the needs of men: they rather fought out in their observatories a conflict for the truth that, has remade the world. So prayer is an observatory. Even though our only solitude is that of the woman in the tenement who said, "I throw my apron over my head when I want solitude; it is all that I can get," prayer may still be our observatory; and there outlooks are attained that orient life aright, that reveal perspective and give proportion, so that the solitary conflict proves the redemption of every day's most common task.

III

The biographies of praying men show us also that their struggles for right desire were fought out on the battlefield of prayer. We said in the last chapter that prayer is real only when it voices an elevated and purified demand on life, calling God into alliance. But such praying requires in us the very thing we lack. Let a man try as he will to set his heart on righteousness, the course of that desire does not flow smoothly; it is impeded, sometimes halted, by landslides and cross-currents. The profoundest trouble in our characters is our wayward appetites. The old picture of a Judgment Day gains its terror not so much from thunder, lightning, shaken earth, and falling mountains, nor from anything that these may signify. What would cover us with unutterable shame is the fulfilment of the repeated scriptural threat, All secret desires known (Eccl. 12:14; Rom. 2:16; I Cor. 4:5). No one could endure that with equanimity. When one contemplates the possibility, he becomes aware that the deepest need in character is right desire.

Now, prayer has been the battlefield where the war against wrong desire has been fought out. George Adam Smith in a Dwight Hall talk at Yale suggested that no one had so frankly revealed this use of prayer as a battlefield for the conquest of desire as "Chinese" Gordon. A search of his letters to his sister reveals the truth of this. "I can say for my part," writes Gordon, "that backbiting and envy were my delight, and even now often lead me astray, but by dint of perseverance in prayer, God has given me the mastery to a great degree; I did not wish to give it up, so I besought him to give me that wish; he did so, and then I had the 166 promise of his fulfilment." Even more vividly does Gordon put his use of prayer when he speaks of Agag his figure for his own selfish ambition and pride: "My constant prayer is against Agag, who, of course, is here, and as insinuating as ever"; "I had a terrible struggle this morning with Agag"; "I had a terrible half-hour this morning, hewing Agag in pieces before the Lord."

Who can fail to see what Gordon meant? Some impurity was in him and he hauled it before the face of God and slew it there; some selfish ambition, counter to the will of God, he dragged up into the light and hewed in pieces before the Lord. Prayer is so often spoken of as the preparation for the fight of life that it is worth while to note how truly here prayer was the fight itself. Prayer, to Gordon, was no drill, where forms were observed that might add to the army's graces or even to its future efficiency; prayer was the actual battle between a wrong desire and a right one, with God called in as an ally. He went to prayer as to earnest business, saying with the Psalmist, "Lord, all my desire is before thee" (Psalm 38:9). Day by day he returned to cast down unholy passions and selfish aims and to confirm every true ambition in the sight of God. The very fountains of his life, the springs from which all action comes, were cleansed, until that injunction which Hartley Coleridge put into verse became the familiar prose of his daily living:

"Whatever is good to wish, ask that of heaven,

Though it be what thou canst not hope to see;

Pray to be perfect though the material leaven

Forbid the spirit so on earth to be;

But if for any wish thou dar'st not pray,

Then pray to God to cast that wish away."

IV

The biographies of praying men show also that prayer was the battlefield where they fought out the issue between the two conflicting motives that most master human life--the praise of the world, on the one side, and the approval of God on the other. One distinguishing quality of superior souls is their capacity to discount the praise of men and to set their hearts singly upon pleasing God. We catch the 167 note in Socrates before he drinks the hemlock, "We must obey not men, but God"; we hear it in Peter facing persecution, "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). Such men were not so acutely aware of the public opinion of the earth as they were of the Public Opinion of the universe, in the sight of which they set themselves to stand clear and blameless. They lived as Milton sang of Michael:

"This 'was all thy care--

To stand approved in sight of God, though worlds

Judged thee perverse."

At times the vividness with which such souls perceive the will of God for them, and the steadiness with which they do it, despite the condemnation of their fellows, lifts heroism to superhuman heights. Like the boy in school who pitched his best game of ball on the Saturday after his blind father died, because he said it was the first game that his father had ever watched him pitch, so these men live and work in the vivid consciousness of the "Father who seeth in secret." Their dominant motive is to satisfy him.

But such living as this costs a fight. God is not the only one whom we may try to please. Evil assumes its most seductive form when it appeals to this same motive--when some wrong-minded friend requests what good conscience cannot grant, or when popular taste sets the tone of living low and offers us praise if we will join the song. Sin in the abstract is hateful, but when it clothes itself in human flesh and waits to smile approval upon our compliance, it becomes tremendously attractive. Drink and impurity and all their ilk are horrible in theory, but dressed in the invitation of a friend, made alluringly incarnate in a person, what terrific fascination they may gain! Would Herod have slain John if the deed had not been pleasing to Herodias? Would Antipas have killed James and imprisoned Peter if he had not seen that "it pleased the Jews"? Would Charles IX have ordered the massacre of St. Bartholomew if his mother had not wanted it?

To be sure, there are times when to please God and to please some human friend are synonymous. From the time our only possible understanding of our duty was to deserve the approval of our parents, until now when the commendation 168 of our worthy friends is life's highest earthly gratification, duty has assumed its most attractive form when it clothed itself in a person to be pleased. Stopford Brooke tells us that while gathering material for his life of Robertson of Brighton, he stepped into a Brighton bookstore and noticed a picture of Robertson upon the wall. "Yes," said the bookseller, "whenever I am tempted to do anything mean I look at that face, and it recalls me to my better self."

Many a living friend has so served us, and in the satisfaction of that friend's ideal for us we found duty no cold keeping of a law, but the warm pleasing of a person. Indeed, neither right nor wrong is often presented to our choice as an abstract proposition. They are almost always incarnate; they have faces and hands, and blood flows through them; they appeal to us with all the enticement that human flesh and a human voice can give. Because, therefore, to displease people causes us most acute unhappiness, and to win their approval is life's most poignant satisfaction, some of the severest battles in the moral life must be fought about this issue. If there is any commandment in Scripture most difficult of all to keep, it is this: "If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, that is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, . . . thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him" (Deut. 13:6, 8).

This conflict between the desire to please God and those who represent him, and to please the generation in which he lived was the central struggle of the Master's life, and he
fought it out in prayer
. We look at him now, across the centuries, and all his life seems singly set on pleasing God. To satisfy his Father was his motive, the possibility of doing it his joy, the consciousness of having done it his recompense. His great hours, such as his baptism and transfiguration, were blessed with the assurance that he was the beloved Son in whom God was well pleased; his idea of daily duty was defined in his own words, "I do always the things that are pleasing to him" (John 8:29); and when he thought of heaven and reward he dreamed of no golden streets and gates of pearl--he saw only his approving Father saying, "Well done, good and faithful servant." But even with the Master this life involved an inward war. To please God 169 meant to displease his family, the leaders of his nation, the venerable fathers of his people's faith; it meant desertion by his friends and calumny from his enemies; it meant that he would be thought crazy by his household, a traitor by his nation, and a heretic by his church.

This great battle of the Master was waged in prayer, before ever its results were seen in public. In many a secret conflict the engagement was fought out, until in Gethsemane he "offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death" (Heb. 5:7). That sort of praying is a real battle, not a dress parade. Jeremy Taylor may call prayer "the peace of our spirits, the stillness of our thoughts"; but when David Brainerd, colonial missionary to the Indians, comes out from one of his Gethsemanes, saying, "My joints were loosed; the sweat ran down my face and body as if it would dissolve," it is clear that Taylor's definition is inadequate. Prayer is a fight for the power to see and the courage to do the will of God. No man's life can altogether lack that struggle, if he is to achieve dependable integrity that cannot be bought or sacred. The best guaranty of a character that is not for sale is this battlefield of prayer, where day by day the issue is settled that we shall live "not as pleasing men, but God who proveth our hearts" (I Thess. 2:4).

V

To the great pray-ers the practice of prayer has meant this vital struggle of which we have been speaking. On that secret battlefield faith and confidence have been reconquered, right desires have been confirmed, and men have gone from it to live "in the sight of God." When men say that they have no time for praying, they can hardly have seen the truth that prayer is this innermost, decisive business of life. The time involved in the deliberate practice of prayer may indeed be brief or long. Whitefield, the great companion of the Wesleys, used to lie all day prostrate in prayer, and Luther, in the crisis of his life, said, "I am so busy now that if I did not spend two or three hours each day in prayer I could not get through the day." But Spurgeon, quite as good a Christian, when speaking of prolonged prayer said, "I could not do it even if my eternity depended upon it. Besides, 170 if I go to the bank with a check, what do I wait loafing around the premises for when I have got my money!" The length of time is not the decisive matter in prayer. "We may pray most when we say least," as St. Augustine remarked; "and we may pray least when we say most." With many of us time must be divided, as is the land of the United States. The little District given to congress for the Federal Government, would on any quantitative basis be most ill-proportioned. Texas is 4,430 times as large as the District of Columbia, and even Rhode Island would contain it twenty times and over. So one, regarding the brief time that a Christian spends in deliberate prayer, might cry out against such ill proportion, seeing how business and recreation of necessity preoccupy so many hours. But is not the answer clear? In quantity the little District is small, but it is preeminently powerful. The government is there. Nothing goes on in all these states utterly out of the control and influence of that District. Its mandates are over the commerce and legislation of all the states; and every mooted question, not elsewhere resolvable, is taken before its Supreme Court for ultimate decision.

Granted then, that our spiritual District of Columbia must be smaller in area than our State of Texas, have we done with that inward District what our fathers did in the nation? Have we solemnly chosen it and set it sacredly aside? Have we located there the central government, so that all power issues thence and all questions come back to it for settlement? Is it apparent to those who know us best that we would rather any other place in our lives should be taken by the enemy than this Capital of our Country, the place of prayer?

« Prev COMMENT FOR THE WEEK Next »



| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |