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XIX. CONCENTRATION IN PRAYER
“Lord, teach us to pray.”—Luke xi. 1.
“When thou hast shut thy door.”—Matt. vi. 6.
We shut our door when we wish to be alone. We shut our door when we have some special work to do that must to-day be done, some piece of work that has been far too long put off and postponed. “I have some time to myself to-day,” we say to our household. “Tell those who ask for me to-day that I am so occupied that my time is not my own. Tell them to leave their message, or to write to me. Tell them that I hope to be free, and at their service, any time to-morrow.” We are deep in our accounts; or our every thought is drunk up in some business so serious that we cannot think of anything else. We have put off and put off that imperative duty,—that so distressing entanglement,—till we can put it off not one hour longer. And then it is that we shut our door, and turn the key, and lock ourselves in and all other men and all other matters out, till this pressing matter, this importunate business, is finished and off our hands.229
And then, as soon as it is finished and off our hands, we rise up and open our door. Our hands are free now. Our heart is lightened, and we are the best of company for the rest of the day.
Nothing could be plainer, and more impressive, than our Lord’s words to us in the text. Just as you do every day,—He says to us,—in your household and business life, so do, exactly, in your religious life. Fix on times; set apart times. He does not say how often, or how long. He leaves all that to each man to find out for himself; only He says, When you have, and as often as you have, real business on hand with heaven; when the concerns of another life and another world are pressing you hard; when neglect and postponement will do no longer; then, set about the things of God in a serious, resolved, instant, business-like way. “Thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret.”
Our Lord does not mean that our Father is not in the synagogue, or even in the corners of the streets where the hypocrites of His day were wont to pray—less that He is not present with us why our families meet together morning and evening for prayer. There is no family altar, and no prayer-meeting, and no church and no street corner even, where God is not to be found of them that diligently seek Him. But God is present to 230 His children in a special and in a peculiar way when they enter their closet and shut their door. The shortest, the surest, the safest way to seek God is to seek Him “in secret.” It is not that God is any more really in secret than He is in public: but we are. God is wherever we are. And God is whatever we are, in street, in synagogue, at the family altar, in the closet. It is not that Gcd is one thing on one side of a door of wood, and another thing on the other side of that door: it is that we differ so much according to which side of that door we are on. We all feel it the instant we turn the key, and go to our knees. In that instant we are already new creatures. We feel that this is our proper, and.true, and best place. We say, “This is the house of God: this is the gate of heaven.” And if you keep the door shut, and give things time to work, very soon your Father and you will be the whole world to one another. And if you pursue that; if you lay out your life to be a man of prayer; you will make continual discoveries of practices and expedients of secret devotion; such as will carry you up to heights of heavenly-mindedness that, at one time, would have been neither believable by you, nor desirable to you. You will find out ways that will suit you, and that could not suit anyone else—ways of impressing your own heart with the Being, the Greatness; the Grandeur, the Grace, the Condescension, the Nearness; and then 231 the Inwardness of God. Your imagination, when you are on your secret knees, will sweep through heaven and earth; not so much seeking God as seeing Him and finding Him in all His works. You will drop down Bible history from Adam to yourself, seeing God’s shining footsteps all down the way. You will see Jesus Christ also; and will speak with Him with an intimacy and a confidence and an experience not second to the intimacy and the confidence and the experience of the disciples themselves. You will positively people your place of prayer with Jesus Christ and with His Father: and out of your place of prayer you will people your whole life, public and private, in a way, and to a degree, that would make your nearest friend to think that you had gone beside yourself, if you began to tell Him what God has done for your soul.
If we were to go over our accounts, and to arrange our disordered papers, and to write our most private letters in as short time as we give to our secret devotions, we should not need to shut our door. But our affairs are in such disorder, and in such arrears, that we must allot some time to set them right. And our Loud assumes in the text that the accounts and the correspondence connected with our religious life will need some time, and will take some trouble. We do not need to go farther than our own consciences for the proof of that. There is perhaps no man in this house who would not be 232 put to shame if it were told what time in the day, or in the week, he gives to secret and inward prayer. Godly men go no further than their own closets for the proof of their depravity, and misery, and stupidity. Their restraint of secret prayer; their distaste for secret prayer and a shut door; and with that, their treatment of their Maker, of their children, of their best friends, and of their own souls,—all horrify them when they come to themselves, and think of themselves in this matter of secret prayer.
And, even after we have taken all that to heart, and have begun to shut our door, we do not keep it long enough shut. It is quite true that secret prayer is the most purely spiritual of all human employments. That is quite true. Secret prayer is the last thing to be shut up to places and bound down to times. At the same time we men, as Butler says, are what we are. And it is just the extreme spirituality of secret prayer that makes time, as well as seclusion, absolutely indispensable for its proper performance and for its full fruit. If we rush through a few verses of a familiar psalm, or a few petitions of the Lord’s prayer, and then up and out of our door as we should not be allowed to do in the presence-chamber of our sovereign, then we had as well,—nay, we had better,—not have gone to our knees at all. But if we enter our closet with half the fear, with half the wonder and awe, 233 with half the anxiety to be recognised and addressed with which we would enter the palace of a prince on earth, then, so willing is God to be approached that He will immediately meet with us and will bless us. Hurry, then, in our secret devotions, is impossible. If you are in such a desperate hurry, go and do the thing that so hurries you, and God will wait. He is in ho hurry: He will tarry your leisure. No! Let there be no hurry here. God is God; and man is man. Let all men, then, take time and thought when they would appear before God.
And then, it sometimes takes a long time even to get the door shut; and to get the key to turn in the rusty lock. Last week44(Preached after a holiday at Bronskeid) I became very miserable as I saw my time slipping away, and my vow not performed. I therefore one afternoon stole into my coat and hat; and took my staff, and slipped out of the house in secret. For two hours, for an hour and three-quarters, I walked alone and prayed: but pray as I would, I got not one step nearer God all these seven or eight cold miles. My guilty conscience mocked me to my face, and said to me: Is it any wonder that God has cast off a minister and a father like thee? For two hours I struggled on, forsaken of God, and met neither God nor man all that chill afternoon. When, at last, standing still, and looking at Schiehallion clothed in white from top to bottom, this of David 234 shot up into my heart: “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” In a moment I was with God. Or, rather, God, as I believe, was with me. Till I walked home under the rising moon with my head waters and with my heart in a flame of prayer; naming and describing, first my own children to God, and then yours. Two hours is a long time to steal away from one’s books and companions to swing one’s walking-stick, and to utter unavailing ejaculations to one’s self in a wintry glen: but then; my two hours look to me now—as they tasted to me then—the best strength and the best sweetness of all my Christmas holiday.
And then, when secret, mental, and long-accumulated intercession is once begun, it is like the letting out of waters,—there is no end to it. Why, my children almost made me forget you and your children. And then, our friends! how bad we all are to our friends! how short-sighted, how cruel, how thoughtless, how inconsiderate! We send them gifts. Our children cover their Christmas tree with Christmas presents to our friends. Our friends cost us a great deal of thought and trouble and money , from time to time. We send them sheaves of cards with all manner of affectionate devices and verses. We take time and we write our old friends, at home and abroad, letters full of news and of affection on Christmas Day and on New Year’s Day. But we never pray for them! 235 Or, at best we pray for them in a moment of time, and in a great hurry. Why do we do everything for our friends but the best thing? How few of us shut our door during all the leisure of the last fortnight, and deliberately and particularly, and with discrimination, and with importunity prayed for our dearest and best friends! We discriminated in our purchases for our friends, lest we should slight or offend our friends: but not in our prayers. Who in the family, who in the congregation, who in the city, who abroad, will be surprised with some blessing this year? Surprised—with some uexpected providence, some despaired-of deliverance, some cross lifted off, or left and richly blessed, some thorn taken out of their flesh, some salvation they had not themselves had faith to ask for? And all because we asked, and importuned, and “shut our door” upon God and ourselves in their behalf. A friend of any kind, and to any extent and degree, is something to have in this cold and lonely world. But to have a friend who has the ear of God, and who fills God’s ear from time to time with our name and our case,—Oh, where shall I find such a friend? Oh, who shall find such a friend henceforth in me?
When a minister, going out for a long walk, takes his sick-list in his pocket; or his visiting-book; or his long roll of young comunicants, no longer young; or when an elder or a deacon thinks of the people of his district; or a Sabbath school teacher 236 his class, and the fathers and mothers of his class; or a mistress her servants; or a father his children; or a friend his friends; or an enemy his enemies;—many a knock will come to his door before he is done, many a mile will he have walked before he is done. Our Lord took all night up in a mountain over the names of His twelve disciples. And since the day of His ascension nearly nineteen hundred years ago He has been in continual intercession in heaven for all those who have been in intercession for themselves and for other men on earth. Day and night;—He slumbers not nor sleeps: keeping Israel by His unceasing, particular, discriminating, importunate intercession.
Secret prayer is such an essentially spiritual duty that the Bible nowhere lays down laws and rules as to times or as to places for such prayer. The Bible treats us as men, and not as children. The Bible is at pains to tell us how this saint of God did in his day; and then, that other saint in his day and in his circumstances: how Abraham did, and Jacob, and David, and Daniel, and Jesus Christ, and His disciples and apostles. The Bible is bold to open the shut door of all these secret saints of God, and to let us see them and hear them on their knees. Abraham for Sodom: Jacob at the Jabbok: Daniel with his open window: Jesus on the mountain all night, and in the garden at midnight. Peter on the housetop: and Paul, in the prison and in 237 the workshop, for his hearers and for his readers. And then, we are left free to choose our own times and places,—few or many, open or secret, vocal or mental, just as we need just as we like, and just as suits us. Only,—surely nature itself, common sense itself, old habit from childhood itself, must teach and constrain us to keep our door shut for a moment or two in the morning: a moment or two alone and apart with Him Who is about our path and about our bed. And if we once taste the strength, and the liberty, and the courage, and the light of God’s countenance that always streams down on him who is found of God on his secret knees early in the morning, then that will be a sweet and a happy day that does not send us back to our knees more than once before it is over.
And then at night,—what an indecency it is, what folly! How we shall gnash our teeth at ourselves one day to remember how a dinner-party, or music in our neighbour’s house or in our own; a friend in at supper; a late talk; a storybook to finish before we sleep;—how such things as these should have been let rob us of our nightly self-examination, of nightly washing from the past day’s sin, and of our nightly renewed peace with God! What do the angels, and the saints think of our folly? If our fathers and mothers are let look down to see what their children are doing would anything darken heaven to them like seeing 238 the things that serve their children for an excuse to go to sleep without self-examination, confession of sin, and prayer? Whether they see us or no, there is One who says over us many a graceless and prayerless night:—” Oh! if thou hadst known! even thou in this thy day!” Let us begin this very Sabbath night. Let us shut our door tonight. We are in no hurry of business or of pleasure to-night. Let us go back upon the morning, upon the forenoon, upon the whole day, upon the week, upon the year. Let us recollect for whom, and for what, we prayed in secret this morning,—or did not pray. Let us recall what we read, what we heard, and with what feelings: with whom we conversed, about what: all the things that tried us, tempted us, vexed us, or helped, comforted, and strengthened us. Let us do that to-night, and we shall not want matter for repentance and prayer to-night: nor for prayer, and purpose, and a plan of life for to-morrow. “You are not to content yourself,” says a Queen’s Physician to us concerning the soul, “you are not to content yourself with a hasty general review of the day, but you must enter upon it with deliberation. Begin with the first action of the day; and proceed, step by step; and let no time, place, or action be overlooked. An examination,” this expert says, “so managed, will, in a little time, make you as different from yourself as a wise man is different from an 239 idiot. It will give you such a newness of mind, such a spirit of wisdom, and such a desire of perfection, as you were an entire stranger to before.”
“And thy Father, Which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.” There is nothing that more humiliates us; there is nothing that more makes us blush for shame than the way our Lord sometimes speaks about rewarding us for what we do. His words about our wages and our rewards shock us and pain us exceedingly. We know well,—we shall never forget,—that, after we have done all, we are still the most unprofitable of servants, and the most deep of debtors. At the same time,—there it stands: “Thy Father shall reward thee openly.” Where? When? How shall He reward us openly? Perhaps in our children,—perhaps in our children’s salvation; their eternal salvation, to which they might never have attained but for our secret, unceasing, mental prayer. That would be a reward we could not refuse! Nor feel any humiliation for, other than a most sweet and everlasting humiliation! On the other hand, what would a kingdom be to us if anything had gone wrong with our children? What would heaven itself be to us, if our children were not there with us? And what a reward, what wages, if they are all there!
Or perhaps this may be it,—that when all shut doors are opened, and all secrets told out, we may be let see what we owe to one another’s intercession 240 It may be part of the first joyful surprise of heaven to see what we did for other men and what they did for us. “Pray for them that despitefully use you,” our Lord advises us. Well, what a surprise it will be to you and to him if some one is brought up and introduced to you whose secret prayers for you have been your salvation all the time you were thinking he was your enemy, as you were his.
But who shall tell all that is in our Lord’s mind and intention when He says, “Thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly”? And when He goes on to say, “For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed: neither hid that shall not be known. Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.”241
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