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WHERE AND HOW TO PRAY
'I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting.'—1 Tim. ii. 8.
The context shows that this is part of the Apostle's directory for public worship, and that, therefore, the terms of the first clause are to be taken somewhat restrictedly. They teach the duty of the male members of the Church to take public, audible part in its worship.354a
Everywhere, therefore, must here properly be taken in the restricted signification of 'every place of Christian assembly.' And from the whole passage there comes a picture of what sort of thing a meeting of the primitive Church for worship was, very different from anything that we see nowadays. 'Every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath an exhortation.' I fancy that some of the eminently respectable and utterly dead congregations which call themselves Christian Churches would be very much astonished if they could see what used to be the manner of Christian worship nineteen hundred years ago, and would get a new notion of what was meant by 'decently, and in order.'
But we may fairly, I suppose, if once we confess that this is so, widen somewhat the scope of these words, and take them rather as expressive of the Apostle's desire and injunction, for the word that he used here, 'I will,' is a very strong one, to all Christian people, be they men or women, that they pray 'everywhere,' in the widest sense of that expression, 'lifting up holy hands without wrath or doubting.'
I do not attempt anything more than just to go, step by step, through the Apostle's words and gather up the duties which each enjoins.
'I will that men pray everywhere.' That is the same in spirit as the Apostle's other command: 'Pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks.' A very high ideal, but a very reasonable one, for unless we can find some place where God is not, and where the telegraph between heaven and earth is beyond our reach, there is no place where we should not pray. And unless we can find a place where we do not want God, nor need Him, there is no place where we should355a not pray. Because, then, 'everywhere' is equally near Him, and the straight road to His throne is of the same length from every hole and corner of the world; therefore, wherever men are, they ought to be clinging to His skirts, and reaching out their open hands for His benefits; and because, wherever a man is, there he utterly depends upon God, and needs the actual intervention of His love, and the energising of His power for everything, even for his physical life, so that he cannot wink his eyelashes without God's help, therefore, 'In every place I will that men pray.'
And how is that to be done? First of all, by keeping out of all places where it is impossible that we should pray; for although He is everywhere, and we want Him everywhere, there are places—and some of us know the roads to them but too well, and are but too often in them—where prayer would be a strange incongruity. A man will not pray over the counter of a public-house. A man will not pray over a sharp bargain. A man will not pray that God may bless his outbursts of anger, or sensuality and the like. A man will not pray when he feels that he is deep down in some pit of self-caused alienation from God. The possibility of praying in given circumstances is a sharp test, although a very rough and ready one, whether we ought to be in these circumstances or not. Do not let us go where we cannot take God with us; and if we feel that it would be something like blasphemy to call to Him from such a place, do not let us trust ourselves there. Jonah could pray out of the belly of the fish, and there was no incongruity in that; but many a professing Christian man gets swallowed up by monsters of the deep, and durst not for very shame send up a prayer to God. Get out of all such false positions.356a
But if the Apostle wills 'that men pray alway,' it must be possible while going about business, study, daily work, work at home amongst the children, work in the factory amongst spindles, work in the counting-house amongst ledgers, work in the study amongst lexicons, not only to pray whilst we are working, but to make work prayer, which is even better. The old saying that is often quoted with admiration, 'work is worship,' is only half true. There is a great deal of work that is anything but worship. But it is true that if, in all that I do, I try to realise my dependence on God for power; to look to Him for direction, and to trust to Him for issue, then, whether I eat, or drink, or pray, or study, or buy and sell, or marry or am given in marriage, all will be worship of God. 'I will that men pray everywhere.' What a noble ideal, and not an impossible or absurd one! This was not the false ideal of a man that had withdrawn himself from duty in order to cultivate his own soul, but the true ideal of one of the hardest workers that ever lived. Paul could say 'I am pressed above measure, insomuch that I despair of life, and that which cometh upon me daily is the care of all the churches,' and yet driven, harassed beyond his strength with business and cares as he was, he did himself what he bids us do. His life was prayer, therefore his life was Christ, therefore he was equal to all demands. None of us are as hard-worked, as heavily pressed, as much hunted by imperative and baying dogs of duties as Paul was. It is possible for us to obey this commandment and to pray everywhere. A servant girl down on her knees doing the doorsteps may do that task from such a motive, and with such accompaniments, as she dips her cloth into357a the hot-water bucket, as to make even it prayer to God. We each can lift all the littlenesses of our lives into a lofty region, if only we will link them on to the throne of God by prayer.
There is another way by which this ideal can be attained, and that is to cultivate the habit, which I think many Christian people do not cultivate, of little short swallow-flights of prayer in the midst of our daily work. 'They cried unto God in the battle, and He was entreated of them.' If a Philistine sword was hanging over the man's head, do you think he would have much time to drop down upon his knees, to make a petition, divided into all the parts which divines tell us go to make up the complete idea of prayer? I should think not; but he could say, 'Save me, O Lord!' 'They cried to God in the battle—little, sharp, short shrieks of prayer—and He was entreated of them.' If you would cast swift electric flashes of that kind more frequently up to heaven, you would bring down the blessings that very often do not come after the most elaborate and proper and formal petitions. 'Lord, save or I perish!' It did not take long to say that, but it made the difference between drowning and deliverance.
Still further, notice the conditions of true prayer that are here required. I will that men pray everywhere 'lifting up holy hands.' That is a piece of symbolism, of course. Apparently the Jewish attitude of prayer was unlike ours. They seem to have stood during devotion and to have elevated their hands with open, empty, upturned palms to heaven. We clasp ours in entreaty, or fold them as a symbol of resignation and submission. They lifted them, with the double idea, I suppose, of offering themselves to God358a thereby, and of asking Him to put something into the empty hand, just as a beggar says nothing, but holds out a battered hat, in order to get a copper from a passer-by. The psalmist desired that the lifting up of his hands might be as the 'evening sacrifice.'
If a man stands with his open, empty palm held up to God, it is as much as to say 'I need, I desire, I expect.' And these elements are what we must have in our prayers; the sense of want, the longing for supply, the anticipation of an answer. What do you hold out your hand for? Because you expect me to drop something into it, because you want to get something. How do you hold out your hand? Empty. And if I am clasping my five fingers round some earthly good it is of no use to hold up that hand to God. Nothing will come into it. How can it? He must first take the imitation diamonds out of it or we must turn it round and shake them out before He can fill it with real jewels. As for him who continues to clutch worldly goods, 'let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord.' Empty the palm before you lift it.
Still further, says Paul, 'lifting up holy hands.' That, of course, needs no explanation. One of the psalms, you may remember, says 'I will wash mine hands in innocency, so will I compass Thine altar.' The psalmist felt that unless there was a previous lustration and cleansing, it was vain for him to go round the altar. And you may remember how sternly and eloquently the prophet Isaiah rebukes the hypocritical worshippers in Jerusalem when he says to them, 'Your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings,' and then come and pray. A foul hand gets nothing from God.359a How can it? God's best gift is of such a sort as cannot be laid upon a dirty palm. A little sin dams back the whole of God's grace, and there are too many men that pray, pray, pray, and never get any of the things that we pray for, because there is something stopping the pipe, and they do not know what it is, and perhaps would be very sorry to clear it out if they did. But all the same, the channel of communication is blocked and stopped, and it is impossible that any blessing should come. Geographers tell us that a microscopic vegetable grows rapidly in one of the upper affluents of the Nile, and makes a great dam across the river which keeps back the water, and so makes one of the lakes which have recently been explored; and then, when the dam breaks, the rising of the Nile fertilises Egypt. Some of us have growing, unchecked, and unnoticed, in the innermost channels of our hearts, little sins that mat themselves together and keep increasing until the grace of God is utterly kept from permeating the parched recesses of our spirits. 'I will that men pray, lifting up holy hands,' and unless we do, alas! for us.
If these are the requirements, you will say, 'How can I pray at all?' Well, do you remember what the Psalmist says? 'If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me,' but then he goes on, 'Blessed be God, who hath not turned away my prayer nor His mercy from me.' It is always true that if we regard iniquity in our hearts, if in our inmost nature we love the sin, that stops the prayer from being answered. But, blessed be God, it is not true that our having done the sin prevents our petitions being granted. For the sin that is not regarded in the heart, but is turned away from with loathing hath no intercepting360a power. So, though the uplifted hands art stained, He will cleanse them if, as we lift them to Him, we say, 'Lord, they are foul, if thou wilt Thou canst make them clean.'
But the final requirement is: 'Without wrath or doubting.' I do not think that Christian people generally recognise with sufficient clearness the close and inseparable connection which subsists between their right feelings towards their fellow-men and the acceptance of their prayers with God. It is very instructive that here, alongside of requirements which apply to our relations to God, the Apostle should put so emphatically and plainly one which refers to our relations to our fellows. An angry man is a very unfit man to pray, and a man who cherishes in his heart any feelings of that nature towards anybody may be quite sure that he is thereby shutting himself out from blessings which otherwise might be his. We do not sufficiently realise, or act on the importance, in regard to our relations with God, of our living in charity with all men. 'First, go and be reconciled to thy brother,' is as needful to-day as when the word was spoken.
'Without . . . doubting.' Have I the right to be perfectly sure that my prayer will be answered? Yes and no. If my prayer is, as all true prayer ought to be, the submission of my will to God's and not the forcing of my will upon God, then I have the right to be perfectly sure. But if I am only asking in self-will, for things that my own heart craves, that is not prayer; that is dictation. That is sending instructions to heaven; that is telling God what He ought to do. That is not the kind of prayer that may be offered 'without doubting.' It might, indeed, be offered, if361a offered at all, with the certainty that it will not be answered. For this is the assurance on which we are to rest—and some of us may think it is a very poor one—'we know that, if we ask anything according to His will, He heareth us.' To get what we want would often be our ruin. God loves His children a great deal too well to give them serpents when they ask for them, thinking they are fish, or to give them stones when they beseech Him for them, believing them to be bread. He will never hand you a scorpion when you ask Him to give it you, because, with its legs and its sting tucked under its body, it is like an egg.
We make mistakes in our naming of things and in our desires after things, and it is only when we have learned to say 'Not my will but Thine be done,' that we have the right to pray, 'without doubting.' If we do so pray, certainly we receive. But a tremulous faith brings little blessing, and small answer. An unsteady hand cannot hold the cup still for Him to pour in the wine of His grace, but as the hand shakes, the cup moves, and the precious gift is spilled. The still, submissive soul will be filled, and the answer to its prayer will be, 'Whatsoever things ye desire believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.'
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