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LORD, TEACH US TO PRAY, AS JOHN ALSO TAUGHT HIS DISCIPLES.
THIS has been thought to be an age in which the Christian religion is beset by great dangers and sur rounded by peculiar difficulties . There is said to be a conflict going on between experience and faith, between the old and the new, between the traditions and doctrines of the Church and the critical spirit of modern times. People ask, What is to become of us or of our children in the next generation, or fifty or a hundred years hence, when the foundations which are beginning to loosen have altogether given way; when the doubts which are now whispered in the closet are proclaimed on the housetop; when, as time goes on, the Christian world is divided more and more into two opposing armies of the maintainers of reason and revelation? Shall we be Christians any longer when the facts of Scripture history have been subject 265to the same sort of microscopic criticism as the histories of Greece or of Rome? Shall we be able to pray any longer when the sequence and order of nature are more clearly understood; when the wind and the rain, and the life and the death of man, are observed to follow as certain laws as the stone which falls to the ground or the rivers which find their way into the sea? And there will not be wanting those who will apply to this age the language of Scripture about the latter days in which deceivers ‘will wax worse and worse,’ who will, perhaps, hear in the very advance of knowledge the footfalls of a distant antichrist; who, when in the natural course of human things their own sect or party or opinion begins to decline, will imagine that the world too is coming to an end.
This is not the first, and will not be the last, age in which the Christian faith has seemed to be encircled with peculiar dangers. There have been many ‘latter days’ in the history of the Church: in the times of the Apostles themselves, as we gather from the Epistles of St. Paul and the Book of Revelation; in the tenth century, when men began to think that the world, for its misery, its wickedness, its violence, could no longer go on (in the description of which the great Catholic historian uses the remarkable expression, ‘Christ was still in the ship, but asleep’); at the Reformation too, that great earthquake of Europe and of Christendom, the movement of which has hardly yet ceased, and 266still seems to affect us from a distance; or, in the first French Revolution, when the highest hopes of mankind seemed to be suddenly cast down into the depths of despair. But there is a reflection which may tend to quiet the minds of those who live, or believe themselves to live, in times of trial or difficulty. It is this: All such times of movement and change have appeared different to those who have looked back upon them from afar and to those who were living in the midst of them. They have been seen by after ages more as a part of a larger whole, as having a great, but still only a subordinate, place in the scheme of Providence; the truth that was in them has been separated from the error; the temporary excitement has passed away, and the permanent result has appeared. And, if we could imagine some one living a hundred years hence, and looking back on our own age as we look back on past history, he would certainly see us and our times in a very different light from that in which we regard ourselves. Perhaps he might note that there were some questions which are now deemed very important, and which are not really important at all; he might observe that there were oppositions insisted on by us which were only oppositions of words; he might wonder at the obsolete violence of party spirit with which even good men attacked one another; and still he might recognize that, amid all our errors and divisions, we were being led in a way that we did not understand to 267something deeper and truer than satisfied former ages.
This is one way of putting the question which may calm excited spirits. Let me suggest also an other point of view which seems to reach deeper: Do we really suppose that the course of religion in the world is a return to darkness, not a progress towards light? Do we imagine that God has been governing the world for eighteen centuries since the giving of Christianity, communing with and inspiring the soul of man, and that during all that time He has given us no increased knowledge of the principles of His government, no wider conception of His purposes towards mankind? Have not history and physical science told us a great deal about Him, which could never have been known to former ages? And is God to be regarded as separable from nature, or the knowledge of Him from the knowledge of His works? Are there not rather clear and manifest instances in which the knowledge of nature has added to our knowledge of God?
For example: That nature is governed by fixed laws; that effects flow from causes, that the order of the divine work is visible, not only, as the ancients might have supposed, in the movements of the heavenly bodies, but also in the least things and the things which appear to be the most capricious (‘even the very hairs of your head are all numbered’). This is a very great lesson which is being taught us daily 268and hourly by the commonest observation, as well as by the latest results of science. Everywhere, as far as we can see or observe or decompose the world around us, the pressure of law is discernible. And even if there are some things which we cannot see, which are too subtle to be reached by the eye of man or the use of instruments, still we are right in supposing that the empire of law does not cease with them, but that, in the invisible corners of nature, as they may be termed, the same powers rule, giving order and arrangement to the least things as well as the greatest.
And does this recognition of order in external nature teach us nothing also of the divine nature, and of the moral government of the world? Is not God assuring us in this, by every token which He can give to man, that He will not interrupt His laws for our sakes? He will be with us in spirit, and support us and lead us through the valley and shadow of death, and take us to Himself. But He will not in the least degree alter the external conditions in which He has placed us. He will not change the nature or functions of the human frame, or the influences of dead, involuntary matter, to which we may be exposed. Through those conditions and in them, by the use of means and not without them, we work out our life in His service. Neither in what I have called the invisible corners does He act in any way different from His action in His greater works, such as the 269rising of the sun, or the ebb and flow of the tides: but everywhere He has provided the empire of law, everywhere He is present Himself, in the least things as well as in the greatest, not acting partially or capriciously, but universally, not interfering but ordering; and the same to all men in all ages and countries, though they may have known, or may know, of His natural government no more than of His moral, like helpless children ignorant of the laws under which they live.
I have made these remarks as introductory to the subject of prayer, because prayer is sometimes thought to be inconsistent with any recognition of the order of nature. And, first, I shall endeavour to show that this, which I will not call the most philosophical view, but rather a plain matter of fact, really supplies the only basis of spiritual communion with God. And, secondly, I will consider the nature of prayer, either as the general spirit of the Christian life, or again as contained in special acts of the public and private worship of God. And, thirdly, I will try to say something of the hindrances and difficulties of prayer, whether as arising out of the evil of the human heart, or from peculiarities of temperament or character or education.
(1) What is required for any real prayer to God is not a lower notion of Him, but a higher; first, as the universal Lawgiver who has ordered all things once for all according to His wisdom; secondly, as 270the universal Father who cannot possibly desire that one of His creatures should be favoured at the expense of another, any more than a human father who had the feelings of nature could desire that one of his children should die and another live. In the courts of earthly sovereigns there may be the preference of one person to another; but there are no such preferences with God. He who would make a request of this nature is already out of the presence of God; for he who comes to God must believe that He loves other men as well as himself. If we could imagine some one among us, some one who might be pointed out in this place, to be the special object of God’s favour, he himself would reject such a notion as unworthy of the Being whom he wished to serve. He would not like to serve a god who had his favourites after the manner of an earthly potentate. Nor, again, could he wish that God should break the laws which He has laid down for him and all His creatures; that He should make an exception in his favour, that He should introduce disorder into the world for the sake of doing him some benefit. For he would consider that this exception to the law which was made on his behalf might be made on behalf of others; and then how could all the individual wishes of mankind be reconciled? And there would be no stopping until the world was framed on some different and other model, and wonders and fancies and special interventions to individuals took 271the place of the divine order for all. Or how could he venture to ask that God should do for him what He had told him by every sign that He could give that He could not do for him? How could he dare to say, ‘O Lord, make not Thy will to be mine, but make my will to be Thine’? Was ever such a prayer heard from the mouth of any human being, that the laws of the world should be broken for him, that God should do for him what He would refuse to do for any other?
Well, but some one will say, ‘If you will not allow me to go to God with all my wishes and desires, you take away the nature of prayer.’ What! because I cannot go to God and say to Him, ‘O Lord, give me a fine house and estate; ‘O Lord, make that last venture of mine to succeed; O Lord, give me that preferment or office, which I am so well entitled to, and which I could fill so admirably’—until you come down to the prayer of the beggar, ‘O Lord, please give me eighteenpence’—is that really taking away the nature of prayer? Must I not think a bit before entering the courts of the sovereign, whether the petition is one that I ought to prefer; whether I may not be violating the very laws of the realm in asking that such a petition should be granted? Must I not, when I think of the nature of God, be careful that I ask something which is in accordance with His nature? Instead of lifting up earth to heaven, am I not rather seeking to bring down heaven to earth?272
Well, but some one will say, ‘May I not ask of God the life of some beloved relative who is in danger or at the point of death? I have a son who is fighting with the enemies of his country in India or in China; may I not ask that he shall be shielded, and that the deadly weapon that is aimed at him may not come near him?’ Many a one has offered up such a prayer for an only son, many a father and many a mother, within the last year or two; and it seems hard to deny them this privilege of nature. Still, the voice of reason will be heard saying, ‘Do not ask for your beloved son that which may be the death of the beloved of another’; think of your enemies sometimes as well as of your countrymen, as in the presence of God, who is the Father of them all, and will not take advantage of the sudden death of any of them, or take any of them at a catch, as has been rudely but truly said. Is He the God of the English only? Is He not the God of the Hindoo and the Chinaman? Does His mercy extend to Christians only, and not also to Jews, Turks, Infidels, Heretics, and all those for whom we pray in the collect for Good Friday; of the Soudanese, and of the Egyptian—not like Zeus or Osiris, or some Greek or other national deity, but the God of all nature and of all men? And, if the ambition of monarchs or the pride of nations were again to plunge us into a European war, if we were on the eve of a great conflict, when the continent of Europe was about to reel with the shock of 273arms, and we could imagine the prayers of the two contending parties ascending in a figure before His throne, He could know of no favour to one or other of them except so far as their cause was just; He could not take their part because they prayed to Him; but rather we should think of Him as a father pitying His children in their quarrels, looking with a sort of strangeness on their wild and fierce game.
Nor, I think, can we pray that a pestilence or epidemic be driven from our shores and not also driven from other lands; for God requires us to think of our neighbours as well as of ourselves. Or better, perhaps, we may trust God, not that He will stay the plague in answer to our prayers on any particular occasion, but that He has so ordered these mysterious epidemics that, although their path is unseen like the wind, yet He has placed them to a certain degree in the power of man to prevent and avoid, and has provided that they shall not utterly exterminate man or beast.
Once more, to take another instance. Some one will perhaps say, ‘I have a favourite daughter who is slowly and manifestly sinking into the grave; or, I have a wife or husband who is all in all to me; may I not ask God to spare their lives? May I not batter the gates of heaven with storms of prayer?’ I will not answer this question. For sometimes human feelings cannot be reasoned with, and there would be a sort of impropriety in attempting to resist them. 274But I would remind you that even in this case there may be a more excellent spirit. ‘Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me, nevertheless not My will but Thine be done.’ And, ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’
Thus then we seem to arrive at the conclusion that riches, or honour, or victory in war, or the acquirement of any temporal good, or the avoidance of any temporal evils, or any interference with the laws of nature or alteration in their effects, are not the proper or natural objects of prayer. We may take the means which will attain these objects; we may pray that God will enable us to use them aright, but we must not expect that God will overleap these means, not because He cannot, but because experience shows that this is not His way of dealing with His creatures. I am aware that all will not be willing to agree in this statement. But at any rate they will agree that the greater and more important object of prayer is spiritual rather than temporal good, and that the true field of prayer begins in the relation of the soul to God.
Regarding prayer not so much as consisting of particular acts of devotion, but as the spirit of life, it seems to be the spirit of harmony with the will of God. It is the aspiration after all good, the wish, stronger than any earthly passion or desire, to live in His service only. It is the temper of mind which 275says in the evening, ‘Lord, into Thy hands I commend my spirit’; which rises up in the morning, ‘To do Thy will, O God’; and which all the day regards the actions of business and of daily life as done unto the Lord and not to men—‘Whether ye eat or drink, or whatever ye do, do all to the glory of God.’ The trivial employments, the meanest or lowest occupations, may receive a kind of dignity when thus converted into the service of God. Other men live for the most part in dependence on the opinion of their fellow-men; they are the creatures of their own interests, they hardly see anything clearly in the mists of their own self-deceptions. But he whose mind is resting in God rises above the petty aims and interests of men; he desires only to fulfil the divine will, he wishes only to know the truth. His eye is single, in the language of Scripture, and his whole body is full of light. The light of truth and disinterestedness flows into his soul; the presence of God, like the sun in the heavens, warms his heart. Such a one, whom I have imperfectly described, may be no mystic; he may be one among us whom we know not, undistinguished by any outward mark from his fellow-men, yet carrying within him a hidden source of truth and strength and peace.
This is the life of prayer, or rather the life which is itself prayer, which is always raised above this world, and yet always on a level with this world; the life which has lost the sense or consciousness of self, and is devoted to God and to mankind, which may be 276almost said to think the thoughts of God, as well as do His works. And this is the spirit which must also animate our separate acts of prayer, the spirit of simplicity and truth, the spirit of love and peace, the spirit which says, ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ For acts of prayer are not mere repetitions, shorter or longer, of forms of words, or ceremonies with which we approach the majesty of heaven; but they are real requests which flow out of the nature and needs of man. ‘Give me purity, give me truth; make me to understand knowledge; take from me all ill-will and egotism and selfish care; give me patience. Not my will, O Lord, but Thine be done. In Thee, O Lord, I put my trust, now in the time of my youth when the snares of this world are encompassing me, now again in the time of my age when my strength fails and I go out whither I know not.’ Can a man live too much in this spirit? Or can there be a higher exercise of the reason than this?
I think that we may see this to be the true nature of prayer, because there can never be any excess of such prayers, there can never be any doubt about the answer to them, there can never be any conflict of interests between one man and another. For the fulfilment of the will of God in this world is not a particular thing which may be granted to one man and not to another, not a private good or benefit, but a universal good which is inexhaustible, and, like the ocean, can never be dried up. I do not go on year 277after year praying for something which is never granted me, and then finding a late and unsatisfactory explanation that if my request had been good God would have granted it, when the truth is that I have overlooked the very first conditions of His dealings with His creatures. Such prayers are necessarily hollow and formal; they are always at variance with experience, and we are only half-satisfied with our explanation of them. But the prayer that we may fulfil the will of God, passively in submitting to Him, actively in working with Him, has a real answer, and is the answer to itself; there can never be any doubt that God wills that we should fulfil His will; there can never be any doubt that the prayer to Him, the communion with Him, will draw us to Him.
And, if I may refer once more to those doubts and difficulties which were spoken of at the commencement of this sermon, I think that to a person living in this spirit they will seem to be hardly of more importance than questions of secular knowledge. For he knows that he cannot be robbed of a part who has the whole. Neither can he ever desire that something should appear to be the truth which is not the truth; or that some question of criticism should be decided in this way rather than in that; or that his own church or sect or party should prevail to the exclusion of any other. His soul has too deep a peace to be shaken by such imaginary terrors. And, even if we could imagine a time when ‘neither in Jerusalem nor in 278this mountain should men worship the Father,’ when rival churches and local institutions should be broken up and pass away, still he would feel that God was a Spirit, and that the true worshippers of Him must worship in spirit and in truth, and that under the shadow of His will he would be safe amid the changes of human things.
There is yet another aspect in which prayer may be regarded, as the language which the soul uses to God—the mode of expression in which she pours out her thoughts to Him, just as ordinary language is the expression of our ordinary thoughts and gives clearness and distinctness to them. Let not our words be many, but simple and few; not using vain repetitions or indulging in vague emotions; not allowing ourselves in fantastic practices; but self-collected, firm, clear; not deeming that mere self-abasement can give any pleasure to God any more than to an earthly monarch. And above all let us be truthful, seeking to view ourselves and our lives as in His presence, neither better than we are nor worse than we are, making our prayers the first motive and spring of all our actions; and sometimes passing before God in our mind’s eye all those with whom we are in any way connected, that we may be better able to do our duty towards them and more ready to think of them all in their several ranks and stations as the creatures of God equally with ourselves, each one having a life and being and affections as valuable to himself and 279to God as our own. Neither should we forget some times to pray that God may clear away from our souls all error and prejudice—‘The mind through all its powers Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mists from thence Purge and disperse’; and that, as years go on and our faculties in the course of nature become weaker and narrower, and our limbs are old and our blood runs cold, instead of creeping into ourselves we may still be expanding like the flower before the sun in the divine presence, and cheered by the warmth of the divine love.
But some one will say, ‘I do not understand this language of prayer; I cannot attend when I hear prayers; I never learned to pray when I was young and I am too old to learn now’; or, ‘I have lost the habit and cannot recover it; and yet I truly desire to do the will of God and use the powers which He has given me in His service.’ There are perhaps some in this congregation who may be fairly described in these words. What shall we say to them? I think that we must admit that the habit and use of set times of prayer is partly a Christian duty, but is partly also a matter of temperament and education. Nor must we be too hard in insisting that a man should order his life in this or that particular way; or that the means which are right and natural for most men should be enforced necessarily on all. It is unchristian to judge of a man by this or that part of his life, instead of judging him on the whole. And, if a man’s 280life and actions are Christian, I would rather claim him as a Christian, even though he said he was not, than excommunicate him because he did not follow the religious usages of Christians in general; for there is no one whose life and character in any degree resembles the life and character of Christ who is really His enemy.
Still I would say to such a one, ‘Do not live with out God in the world, even in the sense of duty, even in the strength of right.’ Consider how short and dependent life is, how unfit man is to stand alone, how ignorant of the possibilities beyond. Think of your self in sickness, in sorrow, in despair, when the nearest human ties are broken, when you are passing into the unseen world,—are you prepared to stand alone then? Do you not need some bond of union with your fellow-creatures more expansive, more enduring, than the chance association with them in society or in business? Do you not feel that amid all the jarring influences of opinion, amid all the changing and seemingly opposing paths of knowledge, you need the support of a God of truth to keep your mind fixed upon the light of truth? Is not this a higher ideal of life than the stoicism of merely human virtue? Is not this a new power of thought and action which is imparted to you?
I will not attempt further to determine in detail in what way some one who approaches the religion of Christ from without shall work out his own life. 281Perhaps that is better left to himself. Let him make the actions of his life take the place of prayers if he will; let him find another road, through the order of nature or the sense of right, to the acknowledgement of an Author of Nature. He cannot, perhaps, altogether define his meaning or impression. Let us say Forbid him not; seeking to find in all things and with all men everywhere, not lines of division but bonds of union, not differences but agreements, not the distinctions of Christians or of parties but the love of God fulfilling Himself in many ways.
And once more, returning to ourselves and summing up what has been said, I would ask you to think of prayer, first, as the spirit of the Christian life; ‘More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of’; but they are not temporal benefits or interruptions of the laws of nature. Secondly, I would ask you to think of prayer as the great means which God has given us; the means which sets in motion all other means that are used for the good of man and for the fulfilment of the divine will. Thirdly, as the highest expression not merely of the feelings but of the reason when exercised in the contemplation of the Divine Being.
O Lord, make not my will to be Thine, but Thy will to be mine, O Lord.282
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