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A LIFE OF PRAYER A LIFE OF PEACE.
“Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
ST. PAUL, in these words, bids the Christians in Philippi to carry all their sorrows and fears to the throne of Christ. He specially bids them remember the nearness of our Lord; and the freedom we may use in speaking with Him. And in so doing he has taught us a great and blessed truth, needful for all men, in all ages: I mean, that a life of prayer is a life of peace. It is not in times of persecution only, but at all times, 241that the presence and fellowship of Christ are the peace and consolation of the Church. We are born into a world of perturbations; we carry them in our own heart. The world is the counterpart of man’s fallen nature, turbulent, restless, and distracted. Every man gives in his contribution of disquietude; and the life of most men is made up of cares and doubts, perplexities and forebodings, of fruitless regrets for follies past, and of exaggerated thoughts of trials yet to come. On men who live without God in the world these things press sorely. They fret and wear them without alleviation. This is the “sorrow of the world” that “worketh death.” It is a bitter and embittering disquiet of heart. The plague of evil thoughts, inordinate cravings, disappointments and losses, vain hopes and wearing fears, these are by nature the portion of us all. Even religious people have their yoke of cares. But there is this difference between them and others; they know where to carry the recital of their troubles, where to lay down their burden, and Who will bear their griefs and take away their sorrows.
1. St. Paul here tells us, first of all, that there is One, ever near us, who can fulfil all our desire, and over-rule all things in our behalf. “The Lord is at hand.” How soon He may reveal Himself in person we know not; but soon or late, it is certain, 242that although unseen, He is ever near us. His presence departed not from the Church when He ascended into heaven. He is withdrawn from the eyes of our flesh; but in the sight of our hearts He is always visible. Though He be at the right hand of God, yet He is in the Church, and in our secret chamber. Though He is the Lord of heaven and earth, yet He is ever in the midst of us, watching and guiding, disposing all things for the perfection of His kingdom, and, in it, of each one of us. He is both able and willing to fulfil all our hearts’ desires; and nothing is hid from His sight. He knows all; even our most unuttered thoughts, our most concealed desires; and with this assurance we might lay aside all our burdens. It might seem enough for us simply to cast all our care on Him, knowing that He careth for us; to refer ourselves to His love and wisdom, to His all-comprehending knowledge of our wishes and our wants. This would be a sure and sufficient pledge against all the evils we forebode and shrink from. But there is a relief in speaking out our wishes; and even this He does not deny us.
2. Therefore St. Paul tells us further, that we may make all our desires known unto God. We may speak with Him as a man speaks with his friend. We all know the relief, as we say, of unburdening ourselves, and opening our hidden cares, 243even to an earthly companion. We seem to have laid off a weight when we have told our sorrow. When any one we love shares our anxiety, and divides our forebodings with us, we seem, to have either only half the burden, or a twofold strength to bear it. We feel this relief all the more, in the measure in which our friend is wise and compassionate, loved by us, and loves us in return. And yet there is a point beyond which we do not reveal ourselves to our fastest and nearest friend. There is something of imperfection still in them that makes us lay bare only one side, and lay open only one chamber of our heart. There is always something still concealed, some reserved infirmity, something over which we must needs draw a veil and silence; which we would not that any fellow-creature should discern; which we can only shew to the world unseen, and to the eyes of Him “that searcheth the hearts, and trieth the reins.” But with Him, not only is it impossible to conceal, but we do not desire to hide any thing from His sight. Though He be the Holy One of God, and “His eyes as a flame of fire,” so piercing and so pure, yet we do not shrink from making all known to Him: for though He be perfect in purity, He is likewise perfect in compassion: He is as pitiful as He is holy. We may come before Him, and say, “This have I done, and this have I left undone. I am sinful 244and unhappy, beset by temptations, harassed by myself.” We may make known the facts and particulars of our trial, its circumstances and details; and plead, as it were, against ourselves, praying to be delivered from the power of sin which still dwells in us, and draws us aside into darkness and transgression; overclouding our heart by imaginations and visions of evil. We may say, “Thou knowest what I cannot speak, and why I cannot. Thou knowest all things.”
When we are overcome by a sense of what we are, and for shame or sorrow even fear to speak at all, we may place ourselves before Him, passively, and in silence, casting ourselves down under His feet, to be read, searched by His penetrating sight. Though unworthy to ask the least, yet we may make our requests known unto Him by silent humiliation, and by secret appeal to His perfect knowledge.
Now, this is what St. Paul bids us to do. “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.” And the promise is, not that we shall have whatsoever we may ask, but that we shall have peace. “And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” We shall not, indeed, always have what 245we ask; but if we ask in faith, we shall always have peace. Of this we shall never fail.
1. First, because whatsoever we ask which is truly for our good, that He will give us freely. No father so much delights to give the very thing his children ask for, as our Father in heaven. It is well-pleasing in His sight both that we should know what to pray for as we ought, and that He should bestow the thing we ask. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in My name, He will give it you.”132132 St. John xvi. 23. But it is a high grace to know what things to ask in the name of Christ. Men make strange prayers to Heaven, and couple the Name at which every knee shall bow, of things in heaven and things in earth, with foolish and unreasonable prayers. Whatsoever we desire that is in harmony with the Eternal will, with the love of our Redeemer, and with the mind of the Holy Ghost, those things we shall without fail receive. All good things; all good, eternal and created; all blessing, grace, and truth; all the benedictions of the kingdom of God; all the promises of the Gospel, and all the pledged mercies of redemption; all these we may ask importunately, and shall assuredly receive. Even things of this life solace and deliverance, the reversal of threatened chastisement, the restoration of blessings half 246withdrawn; these too, and a multitude of mercies infinite as the changes and chances of man’s life, we may lawfully desire. It may be we shall also receive these very things we ask for. At all events, we may make “our requests known unto God:” leaving with Him to open and to shut His hand as He shall see best for us.
. For whatsoever we ask which is not for our good, He will keep it back from us. And surely in this there is no less of love than in the granting what we desire as we ought. “What man of you that is a father, if his son ask for bread, will he give him a stone?” And if he ask for poison, will he not refuse it? Will not the same love which prompts you to give a good, prompt you to keep back an evil, thing? If, in our blindness, not knowing what to ask, we pray for things which should turn in our hands to sorrow and death, will not our Father, out of His very love, deny us? In this entangled twilight state of probation, where the confines of good and ill so nearly approach, and almost seem to intermingle, there needs a keen and strong spiritual eye to discern and know the nature and properties of all things which encompass us about. They allure us, and we desire them, and ask not knowing for what. How awful would be our lot, if our wishes should straightway pass into realities; if we were endowed with 247a power to bring about all that we desire; if the inclinations of our will were followed by fulfilment of our hasty wishes, and sudden longings were always granted. Such a power in an imperfect being, drawn aside, as we are, by the solicitations of evil from without, and hurried away by impulses of an imperfect and variable heart within, would be an intolerable misery. And yet what but this would it be, if all our prayers were granted—if there were no all-wise, all-holy One to review our imperfect choices, to sift out the poisons, and to keep back the sorrows which we have ignorantly prayed for?
In the commonest things of this world, how valuable is the counsel of a wise and trusty friend, who revises and checks our aims and plans. From what unnumbered errors and falls are we preserved by taking counsel of some tried and discerning adviser. How, on the retrospect of years, we see whole trains of evil consequences lying hid behind some act we were once vehemently bent on taking; from which we were hardly turned aside at the very moment of action. In like manner, what a current of happy and prosperous events has carried us along, as we now can see, since the day when some decision was made at the guidance of another, to whose advice we could hardly be brought, at that time, to consent. And what but this loving care, if it may be reverently spoken, is 248ever taken for us in heaven? Our vehement, blind, tumultuous hearts are continually sending up their wishes and prayers on high, all mingled and infected with our own earthliness. In the golden censer of our great High Priest they are purged by the living fire of His love; the evil separated from the good, and our rash and wayward choices refined till they unite with the wisdom and will of our Eternal Father. One day we shall bless Him, not more for what He has granted than for what He has denied. Though now we think our most needful requests are put aside, we shall then perceive the real meaning of what we asked, and the rashness of our prayer. Alas for us, if all our prayers should be given us: if the meting out and tempering of our own lot were thus left in our own hands; if all we desire were made our own; if the windows of heaven were never shut against us. He gave them their desire, and “sent leanness withal into their soul.”133133 Ps. cvi. 15. Alas, if health, prosperity, prolonged enjoyment of the bright things of life, and freedom from sorrows and deprivations, were continued to us as long as we desire; if the wholesome sharpness of pain, bodily humiliation, the breaking up of hopes, and the over-clouding of our happiness, were kept back as long as we should prescribe. 249Ours would be a blind discipline of healing for sinful hearts. We should be poor physicians of our own maladies. And this is the reason why our Father in heaven uses a loving severity, and at times confounds our wishes with the strokes of His hand. He denies us what we ask, and sends instead what we most recoil from. We ask for bright lights, and He sends us shadows; we crave for soft things, and He sends us hardness for our portion; we pray Him to take away our anxieties, and He turns them into present sorrows; we ask for the allaying of some instant pain, and He sends us a double share; we desire to be free from chastisement, and He besets us on all sides with His correction; we beseech Him to heal some friend over whom we watch in trembling, or to give back to us one that already hangs between life and death, and He seems to read all our prayers backward, and to answer us by contradictions. Yet in all this, what is there but the order and harmony of the wisdom and the will of God? The confusion and perplexity is all our own. It is not that He contradicts our will, but we are contradicting His. We cross Him, not He us. We would be reigning in His kingdom, and making His sway to follow our choice. We would be the granters of our own petitions—make our will the law of His dealings with us. But He has His 250own purpose in all refusals; a purpose deeper than we can reach. It was an apostle and a martyr that said, “For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me; and He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee; for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” And He who gave that answer was even the same who in the days of His flesh “offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto Him that was able to save Him from death, and was heard in that He feared;” “for though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered.”134134 Heb. v. 7, 8. There was a time when He, too, went apart from His disciples a stone’s cast, “and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, O My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me: nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou wilt:”135135 St. Matt. xxvi. 39-44. and even “the third time He prayed, saying the same words.” And yet the cup did not pass from Him: the Father’s will was not so. Nevertheless, “there appeared an angel unto Him from heaven, strengthening Him.”136136 St. Luke xxii. 43.
3. But, besides this, we know certainly that if He refuse us any thing, it is only to give us something better. It may be we asked amiss. We asked for something that would thwart His higher 251purposes of mercy to us. We would have, it may be, the fair things of this life; but He has in store for us better things in His kingdom. You desire to be as others, to have what they have, enjoy what they enjoy: but He has chosen you, perhaps, to be nearer to Himself; to sit at His feet and listen, while others go abroad into the mid-stream of life. For a time it may seem to be sadness and a cross; and you are not able to read its meaning, till some better thing begins to shadow itself out before your inward sight; and you see that what you would have chosen for yourselves would have been a less blessing, instead of a greater; a transitory, instead of an abiding consolation. Sometimes He upbraids our narrowness of heart by His refusals. It may be that we have not asked enough; that we have asked scantily, when He was ready to give largely. When Solomon asked for wisdom, the Lord gave him also “riches, and wealth, and honours.”137137 2 Chron. i. 12. If we ask the great things of His kingdom, He will add unto us the less. If we ask of Him life eternal, He will provide for the life that now is. “Take no thought for to-morrow.” “Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of these things.” “But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.”
Ask not for the right hand or the left hand in 252His kingdom, but for a place, though it be the lowest place, beneath the feet of His elect. Ask of Him a clean heart, that you may see God, that you may trace His hand in all the ways of life; and He will give you not only things of this life, but also your throne and crown in the manifestation of the sons of God.
4. For, lastly, though He should seem to refuse all we ask, He will not refuse to give unto us Himself. The more you converse with God, the more He will manifest Himself to you. The very act of prayer will make you familiar with His presence. Though He be pleased to take from you, one by one, as from His servant Job, all things you cleave to; yet as all other things are withdrawn, He will compass you about with a more sensible presence of His love. Even as at the last, when there was nothing more to be taken away from the man of many sufferings, the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind; so from the darkness and perplexity of His providence, there come forth, to those whom God chastens, such tokens of His presence, that they are constrained to say, “I have heard of Thee with the hearing of the ear;” such was all my past knowledge, hearsay and a dream; “but now mine eye seeth Thee.”138138 Job xlii. 5. Now all is clear; all stands out before 253me in full outline and completeness. So shall it be with those that pray without fainting. By habitual converse with God, they are drawn within the veil through which His providence controls our mortal life. They rise above it; and their “life is hid with Christ in God.”139139 Col. iii. 3. Their “conversation is in heaven.”140140 Phil. iii. 20. They begin to see into the hidden meaning of His government over the Church, and of His dealing with themselves; into the secret of the secret, whereby “to principalities and powers in heavenly places is known by the Church the manifold wisdom of God.”141141 Ephes. iii. 10. Whatsoever befalls them, they know to be better than they could choose; the best that can be chosen. “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”142142 Phil. iv. 11-13. To those who are His, all things are not only easy to be borne, but even to be gladly chosen. All events and changes are the will of God in Christ Jesus. They are also the will of those who have fellowship with Christ, and through Him with God the Father. Their will is united to that 254will which moves heaven and earth, which gives laws to angels, and rules the courses of the world. It is a wonderful gift of God to man, of which we that know so little must needs speak little. To be at the centre of that motion, where is everlasting rest; to be sheltered in the peace of God; even now to dwell in heaven, where all hearts are stayed, and all hopes fulfilled. “Thou shalt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee.”143143 Isaiah xxvi. 3.255
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