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THE GEOMETRY OF PRAYER
“Lord, teach us to pray.”—Luke xi. 1.
“The high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity.”—Is. lvii. 15.
I HAVE had no little difficulty in finding a fit text, and a fit title, for my present discourse. The subject of my present discourse has been running in my mind, and has been occupying and exercising my heart, for many years; or all my life indeed. And even yet, I feel quite unable to put the truth that is in my mind at all properly before you. My subject this morning is what I may call, in one word,—but a most inadequate and unsatisfactory word,—the Geometry of Prayer. That is to say, the directions and the distances, the dimensions and the measurements that, of necessity, enter into all the conceptions of our devotional life. “Man never knows how anthropomorphic he is,” says Goethe. That is to say, we do not enough reflect how much we measure everything by ourselves. We do not enough reflect how much we measure God Himself by ourselves. Nor can we help ourselves in that respect. If we are to measure God 17 at all, we must measure Him by ourselves. We cannot do otherwise. We cannot escape ourselves, even when we think and speak of God. We cannot rise above ourselves. We cannot cease to be ourselves. And thus it is, that when we think or speak of God, if we are to think and speak of Him at all, we must think and speak of Him—as the schools say—“in terms of ourselves.”
Nor are we to take blame to ourselves on that account. For that is our very nature. That is how we have been made by our Maker. That is the law of our creation, and we cannot set that law aside; far less can we rise above it. God Himself speaks to us in the language of men, and not in the language of the Godhead. In our reason, and in our conscience, and in His Word, and in His Son, God speaks to us in the language of men. He anthropomorphises Himself to us, in order that we may see and believe all that, concerning Himself, which He intends-us to receive and believe. And we must go to Him in the same way in which He comes to us. All our approaches to God, in prayer and in praise, must be made in those forms of thought and of speech, in those ideas and conceptions, that are possible to us as His creatures. All the same, it is well for us to keep this warning well in mind, that we never know how anthropomorphic we are, in all our approaches to Him Whom 18 no man can approach unto, Whom no man hath seen nor can see.
The moral and spiritual world is essentially and fundamentally different from the physical and material world. The geographical and astronomical dimensions and distances of the material world bear no manner of relation at all to the dimensions and the distances—so to call them—of the spiritual world. We speak of Roman miles and of German miles and of English miles, we speak of geographical or of nautical, when we take our measurements of the material world. But the distances and the directions of the moral and spiritual world cannot be laid down and limited in such miles as these. When Holy Scripture speaks of the “highest heaven,” it does not speak mathematically and astronomically, but intellectually, morally and spiritually. The highest heaven is not so called because it is away up above and beyond all the stars that we see. It is called the highest heaven, because it is immeasurably and inconceivably above and beyond us in its blessedness and in its glory; in its truth, in its love, in its peace, and in its joy in God. And on the other hand, the deepest hell, that the Bible so often warns us against, is not some dark pit sunk away down out of sight in the bowels of the earth. The true bottomless pit is in every one of us. That horrible pit, with its miry clay, is sunk away down 19 in the unsearchable depths of every evil heart. And again, when it is told us in the Word of God that the Son of God came down from heaven to earth in order to redeem us to God with His own blood, we are not to think of Him as having left some glorious place far “beyond the bright blue sky,” as the children’s hymn has it. Wherein then did His humiliation consist? “His humiliation consisted in His being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the Cross.” That was His descent from heaven to earth; and it was a descent of a kind, and of a degree, that no measuring-line of man can tell the depth of it, or the distress of it, or the dreadful humiliation of it.
Now to expound and illustrate some outstanding Scriptures on prayer,—in the light of this great principle,—take, first, this fundamental Scripture—“Our Father which art in Heaven.” Now Heaven, here, is not the sky. It is not the heaven of sun and moon and stars. Heaven here is the experienced and enjoyed presence of God,—wherever that is. Heaven here is our Father’s house,—wherever that is. Heaven is high up above the earth,—yes; but let it be always remembered and realised that it is high up, as Almighty God is high up, in His Divine Nature, above mortal man in his human nature. It is high up as goodness is high 20 up above evil and as perfect blessedness is high up above the uttermost misery. As often as we kneel down again, and begin to pray, we are to think of ourselves as at a far greater distance from God than we ought to be, and now desire to be. All true prayer is a rising up and a drawing near to God: not in space indeed; not in measurable miles; but in mind, and in heart, and in spirit. “Oh for a mountain to pray on!” thou criest. “A mountain, and a temple on the top of it; high and exalted, so that I might be nearer God, and that God might hear me better; for He dwelleth on high!” Yes, He dwelleth on high; but all the time, He hath respect to the humble. “Wouldst thou pray in His temple?” says Augustine; “then pray within thyself; for thou thyself art the true temple of the living God.” And great authority on these matters as Augustine is, a still greater Authority than he is has said, “Believe Me, the hour cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. The hour cometh and now is when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth; for the Father seeketh such to worship Him. God is a spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” And further on in the same spiritual Gospel, we read this: “These words spake Jesus, and lifted up His eyes to heaven.” The Son of God, who was all the time in Heaven, came so truly 21 down among the sons of men, that He lifted up His eyes when He prayed to His Father just as we ourselves do. Though He knew that the kingdom of Heaven was within Him, and not in the skies above Him, yet, like us, He lifted up His eyes when He prayed. He was in all points made like unto His brethren; and in no point more so than in this point of prayer. It is built deep into our nature, as we are the creatures of Almighty God, that we are to lift our eyes, and look up, when we pray. And the Son of God took on our human nature, and prayed as we pray, kneeling down and looking up, falling down, and lifting up strong crying and tears. So anthropomorphic did the Son of God become, so truly was He made of a woman, and made under the whole law and the whole practice of prayer, as well as under every other law of devout and reverential men.
And then, to take an illustration of all this from the opposite pole of things: “And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.” Every intelligent child, who is paying attention, knows that the far country into which that prodigal son went, was not far away from his home, as China and India, Africa and America are far away from Edinburgh. He did not travel to that far country by any caravan of camels, or by any ship with sails. 22 That far country was far from his father’s house not in miles, but in bad habits. The far country was not so many hundreds of thousands of miles away. Its great distance consisted in so many bad secrets that he never could tell at home; till they had to be told, and paid for by his father, if his son was not to be taken to prison. I myself have known that spoiled and prodigal and now far-away son, oftener than once. I have baptized him; and I have recommended the Kirk Session to admit him to the Table. And I have written him, to Australia, and to America, and have sent him books with his name written upon them, and have never got an answer. The last time I heard of him, he was breaking stones for eighteen pence a day. That, fathers and mothers, is the far country of our Lord’s parable.
Then again, take this for another illustration of my morally geometrical and spiritually topographical argument. “Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord. Out of the belly of hell cried I. Out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay.” Now just what depths were these, do you suppose? Where were those depths dug? And how deep were they? Were they like the dungeon of Malchiah, the son of Hammelech, that was in the court of the prison? Oh no! When Jeremiah sank in that deep mire he was in a clean and a sweet bed compared with that which every sinner digs 23 for himself in his own unclean heart and in his own unclean life. The horrible pit and the miry clay of the sinful Psalmist was dug with his own suicidal hands, deep down in his God-forsaken heart. Oh, take care in time! You men who are still young! Oh, be warned in time, and by those who can testify to you, and can tell you about the wages of sin; for the wages of sin is both banishment from the presence of God here, and it is the second death itself hereafter.
Then again,“Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden.” Now, just how do we come to Christ? We come in this way. Not on our feet, but on our knees. “Not on our feet,” says Augustine, “but on our affections.” When we are burdened in our minds; when we are oppressed with manifold cares and sorrows; when we are ill-used, humiliated, despised, trampled upon; when we are weary of the world and of ourselves; and then, when, instead of rebelling and raging and repining, we accept our lot as laid on us by God, and according to His invitation take all our burden to Christ in prayer,—that is the way to come to Him. That is to say, we come from pride to humility; and from a heart tossed with tempest to a harbour of rest and peace; and from rebellion to resignation; and from a life of unbelief to a life of faith and love. Come unto Me, says Christ to us, for I have all that rest, and all that 24 peace in My own heart; and I will share it all with you: We do not come to Him by changing the land, or the city, or the neighbourhood, or the house, in which we have hitherto lived. We come to Him by changing our mind and our heart and our whole disposition: or rather, by coming to Him in prayer, and in holy obedience, He produces all these changes in our hearts and in our lives. “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. For I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”
And it is in this same spiritual and emotional, and not in any astronomical or topographical sense, that the sorrowful prophets and psalmists cry continually, ”Bow down Thine ear, O Lord, and hear me.” When you are lying, quite prostrate, on your sick bed; and when you can only whisper your wants, and scarcely that; then your doctor and your nurse bow down their ear to hear your whispered prayer. And so it is with your sick soul. “Bow down Thine ear, O God,” you sigh and say. “Bow down Thine ear, and hear me; for I am brought very low. I am full of pain and sores; I am full of sin and death.” “No poor creature,” you say,“was ever so fallen and so broken, and so far beyond all help of man as I am.” And you continue to sigh and cry, night and day; till at last you burst out with this song, “I waited patiently for the Lord, and He inclined unto me 25 and heard my cry. And He hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the Lord.”
And it is in the same moral and spiritual, and neither local nor topographical sense, that it is so often said that God is nigh to such-and-such men, and is far off, and turned away, from such-and-such other men. As in the text: “Thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit; to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.” And again in the 34th Psalm: “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart, and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.” And St. Peter puts the same truth in this way: “Yea, all of you be clothed with humility; for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.”
And again; in the same moral and spiritual and not locomotive sense, David has this: “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in His holy place? He that hath clean hands and a pure heart: who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity nor sworn deceitfully.” And so on, all up and down the Word of God, the attitudes and the movements of the body, and the directions and the distances, the dimensions and the measurements of the material world, are all carried over 26 into the life of the soul and especially into the devotional life of the soul. And when that is once well understood, and always remembered and realised, great light will fall on the Bible teaching, and on the Bible precepts, about prayer. And our own life of prayer will be immensely enriched and refreshed: it will be filled with new interest, and with new intelligence, in many ways; as you will soon experience, if you follow out and practise the teaching that these great Scriptures have offered you.
Now, my brethren, much and long as I have thought on this subject, and with care and labour as I have composed this discourse, I am keenly sensible of how immature and unfinished my treatment of this great topic has been. And then, such subjects can only be set before a specially intelligent and a specially interested and a specially devotional audience. I entirely believe that I have such an audience, to a great extent, and therefore, I hope that you will take away with you these imperfect reasonings and illustrations of mine this morning; and will faithfully and thoughtfully and perseveringly apply them to your own reading of the devotional parts of Holy Scripture, as well as to your own public and private exercises of prayer and praise. The subject demands and deserves all my might and all your might too—both as preacher and hearers; 27 for it is our very life. It came to pass that as He Himself was praying in a certain place, lifting up His eyes and His hands to Heaven,—when He ceased, one of His disciples came to meet Him, and said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Now, he who teaches us a true lesson in prayer, whether it is Christ Himself, or David, or Paul, or Luther, or Andrewes, or our mother, or our father, or our minister, or whosoever; he who gives us a real and a true lesson both how to pray, and how to continue and increase in prayer,—he does us a service such that this life will only see the beginning of it; the full benefit of his lesson will only be truly seen and fully acknowledged by us when we enter on the service of God in that City where they “serve Him day and night in His temple.” For there we shall see His face; and there His name shall be in our foreheads. Amen.28
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