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XXI. THE FORGIVING SPIRIT IN PRAYER
“Lord, teach us to pray.”—Luke xi. 1.
“When ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any.”—Mark xi. 25.
PRAYER is a world by itself, a whole world, and a great world too. There is a science of prayer, and there is an art of prayer. There are more arts than one that rise out of a life of prayer, and that go to make up a life of prayer. Prayer is an education and a discipline: it is a great undertaking and a great achievement. And, like every other art, education, discipline, attainment and achievement, prayer has its own means and its own methods, its own instruments, and its own aids and appliances whereby to attain, and whereby to secure its ends.
There is a whole literature of prayer also. There are some, not small, libraries into which there is nothing else collected but the classics of prayer. There is even a bibliography of prayer. And there are bookworms who can direct you to all that has ever been written or printed about prayer; but who never come to any eminence, or success, in prayer themselves. While, on the other hand, 257 there are men who are recognised adepts and experts in prayer, proficient and past masters in prayer. There is nothing in which we need to take so many lessons as in prayer. There is nothing of which we are so utterly ignorant when we first begin; there is nothing in which we are so helpless. And there is nothing else that we are so bad at all our days. We have an inborn, a constitutional, a habitual, and, indeed, an hereditary dislike of prayer, and of everything of the nature of prayer. We are not only ignorant here, and incapable: we are incorrigibly and unconquerably unwilling to learn. And when we begin to learn we need a lesson every day, almost every hour. A lesson to-day, and a lesson to-morrow; a lesson in the morning, and a lesson at night. We need to have old lessons gone over again, revised and repeated incessantly. We need, as the schoolboys say, to go over the rudiments again and again, till we have all the axioms, and elementary rules and paradigms, and first principles of prayer made part and parcel of ourselves. Such axioms and such first principles as these: “He that cometh to God must believe that He is.” “Him that cometh unto Me I will in no wise cast out.” “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit.” “When ye stand praying, forgive”—these axioms and elements, and such-like.
We have had some lessons in prayer given us of late in this house; and here is another. And, 258 like all our Lord’s lessons, it is impossible to misunderstand it, or to forget it. No,—I must not say that, for such is the depravity and the deceitfulness of our hearts that there is nothing that we will not misunderstand and despise and cast behind our back. Only, prayer—prayer sufficiently persevered in—will at last overmaster even our deep depravity; and, O my brethren, what a blessed overmastery that will be! Speak, then, Lord! Speak once again to us what Thou wilt have us to hear about prayer, and we will attend this time and will obey!
1. I do not think that there is anything that our Lord returns on so often as the forgiveness of injuries. And the reason of that may very will be because our lives are so full of injuries, both real and supposed, and both given and received. As also because the thoughts and the feelings, the words and the deeds, that injury awakens towards one another in our hearts, are so opposed to His mind and His spirit. It is remarkable, and we cannot forget it, that the only petition in the prayer that our Lord taught His disciples,—the only petition that He repeats and underscores, as we say,—is the fifth petition: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” No sooner has He said Amen than He takes His disciples back again to their “trespasses,” and warns them in these solemnising and arresting 259 words: “For, if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” As much as to say that the forgiveness of injuries will be the very hardest of all the holy tempers that I shall ever have to ask of you. The motions of spite and ill-will are the most difficult of all its sinful motions to subdue in the human heart. At the same time, He adds, as long as those so wicked and detestable tempers hold possession of your hearts, your prayers and everything else will be an abomination before God.
2. It is not told us in so many words, but I think I see how it came to pass that we have the text. Our Lord saw His disciples every day employing the prayer He had taught them: He heard them saying night and morning, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” with all their bad passions all the time in a blaze at one another. They were disputing every day who was to be the greatest. The ten “had indignation” at the two brethren because their foolish mother had asked of Christ the two chief seats in His Kingdom for her two sons. They were all trespassing every day against one another, just like ourselves, till their Master stopped them one day in the very middle of their Lord’s Prayer, and said, Stand still! stop! say no more till you have forgiven your offending brother: and then, go on, and finish 260 your prayer with assurance, and with a good conscience. He laid His hand on Peter’s mouth that day, and would not let Peter finish till he had, from his heart, forgiven the two ambitious brethren. And it was that arrest and interdict that his Master put upon Peter’s prayer that made Peter expostulate, and say, “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” And his Master said to Peter, “I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” Yes, Peter, said his Master to Peter that day,—once your conscience is fully awake, and once your heart is fully broken, you will never once be able to say, Forgive me my debts, till you have already forgiven some great debtor of yours. You will always do on the spot what you ask God to do to you. And it will be by so doing that you will be a child of your Father which is in Heaven; Who maketh His sun to rise upon the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.
Do you ever feel that same hand stopping your mouth, my brethren? Is your prayer ever cut in two and suspended, till your heart is searched out, and made quiet, and clean, and sweet to some of these, your offending brethren? Or, better still: has Jesus Christ so penetrated and inspired your heart, and your conscience, and your imagination with His grace and His truth that you never,—either in the church or at home, either among 261 your children or alone on your own knees,—never once say the Lord’s Prayer, without naming in the middle of it, and at the fifth petition of it, some of us who vex you, or offend you, or trespass in some way against you? some one of us towards whom you have an antipathy, or a distaste, or a secret grudge, or some inveterate ill-will? Standing, or sitting, or kneeling, or lying on your face in prayer—is God your Witness, and your Hearer, and your Judge, that you forgive us, as often as you remember that you have ought against us? Do you do that? Well, I am sure if we, not to speak of God, knew that, and could believe it about you, you would not soon have occasion to forgive us again! God bless you, all the same, and hear your prayer!
3. You would, as I think, find this to be helpful when you “stand praying,” and are as yet unable to forgive. Try this the next time. Say this to yourself. Say something like this. “What, exactly, is it that I have against that man?” Put it in words. Put it to yourself as you would put it to a third person. Calm reflection, and a little frank and honest self-examination, is a kind of third person, and will suffice you for his office. And so stated, so looked at, that mortal offence turns out to be not half so bad as it has up till now been felt to be. Our pride, and our self-importance, often blow up a small matter into a mortal injury. Many of our insults and injuries are far more imaginary 262 than real: though our sin and our misery on account of them are real enough. Look at the offender. Look closely at him. Do not avoid him. Do not refuse to have a talk with him. If possible, eat a meal now and then with him. Make a great and noble effort, and put yourself in his place in all this unhappy business. For once be honest, and just, and generous. See yourself as he has seen you. Allow and admit his side of it for a moment. Allow and admit that yon differ from him, as Butler has it, quite as much as he differs from you. Let a little daylight, as Bacon has it, fall on this case that is between him and you. Let a little of the light of love, and humility, and goodwill fall on him, and on yourself—and, already, your prayer is heard! You may go on and finish your prayer now. Your trespasses are already as good as forgiven. They are: since you are all but ready to admit that a great part of your hurt and pain and anger and resentment is due to yourself, and not to your neighbour at all. And once your neighbour has come to your assistance in that way in your prayer, he will come again, and will come often, till you and he, meeting so often in amity before God, will only wait for God’s promised opportunity to be the closest and the best of friends again, not only before God, but before men also. For, “He is our peace; Who hath abolished the enmity, so making peace.”263
4. You will find this to be helpful also in some extreme cases. When there is some one who is trespassing against you “seven times a day”; some one whose tongue works continually against you like a sharp razor; some one whose words are as a sword in your bones; some one who despitefully uses you, and persecutes you; some one who returns you only evil for all the good you have done to him and his,—and so on. There have been such extreme cases. Your own case, in short. Well. What do you wish to have done to him? There are prayers for all kinds of cases in the Bible. And here is one for you. “Let his days be few; and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg. . . . Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out . . . As he loved cursing, so let it come unto him: as he delighted not in blessing, so let it be far from him.” When you stand praying, put up that prayer. Say that: and then say, “For Christ’s sake, Amen!” And, then, out of the same psalm, add this for your so suffering soul: “But do Thou for me, O God the Lord, for Thy name’s sake: because Thy mercy is good, deliver Thou me.” I have known men to be cured of malice and ill-will by offering that prayer morning and night, and at the Lord’s Table. I have known groanings, that could not be uttered 264 before, find utterance in the words of that devoting psalm. Try it on your enemy in the extremity of your injury and ill-will. And it will, by God’s blessing, do for you and for your heart what it has done by God’s blessing for far worse hearts than yours.
How horrible, and how hell-like, is a revengeful heart! While how beautiful, and how like heaven itself, is a humble, a meek, a patient, and a Christ-like heart! I have been refreshing and enlarging and ennobling my heart among Plutarch’s noble Grecians and Romans in my spare hours this past winter,—when you give Plutarch in a present let it be in Thomas North’s Bible English,—and at this point Plutarch’s Pericles comes to my mind. “For he grew not only to have a great mind and an eloquent tongue, without any affectation, or gross country terms; but to a certain modest countenance that scantly smiled: very sober in his gait: having a kind of sound in his voice that he never lost nor altered: and was of very honest behaviour: never troubled in his talk for anything that crossed him: and, many such like things, as all that saw them in him, and considered him, could but wonder at him. But for proof hereof, the report goeth, there was a naughty busy fellow on a time, that a whole day together did nothing but rail upon Pericles in the market-place, and revile him to his face, with all the villainous 265 words he could use. But Pericles put all up quietly, and gave him not a word again, dispatching in the meantime matters of importance he had in hand, till night came, that he went softly to his home, showing no alteration nor semblance of trouble at all, though this lewd varlet followed at his heels with all the villainous words he could use. But Pericles put all up quietly and gave him not a word again. And as he was at his own door, being dark night, he commanded one of his men to take a torch and take that man back to his own house.” An apple of gold in a picture of silver!
But, both in patience and in forgiveness of injuries, as in all else, behold, a Greater than Pericles is here! He Who gave Pericles that noble heart is here teaching us and training us by doctrine, and by example, and by opportunity, to a nobler heart than any of Plutarch’s noblest Greeks or Romans. I know nothing outside of the New Testament nobler in this noble matter than the Ethics, and the Morals, and the Parallel Lives: but I read neither in Aristotle, nor in Plato, nor in Plutarch anything like this: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for My sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven.” Our Master, you see, actually congratulates us on our enemies, and backbiters, and false friends. He lifts us out of all our bitterness 266 and gloom, and despondency, and resentment, up into the sunshine of His own humble, loving, forgiving heart. And as if His heavenly teaching was not enough, He leaves us His example so that we may follow in His steps. And He leaves it—it is beautiful to see—first to Peter, who hands it down, after he is done with it, to us. Hold up, then, your hurt and proud and revengeful hearts, O all ye disciples of Christ, and let Peter, by the Holy Ghost, write this on the hard and cruel tables of your hearts. This: “Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow His steps. Who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not. . . . Who, His own self, bare our sins on His own body on the tree: . . . by whose stripes ye were healed.” Come, then, my brethren, with all your wrongs and all your injuries, real and supposed, great and small; greatly exaggerated, and impossible to be exaggerated. And when you stand praying, spread them all out before God. Name them, and describe them to Him. And He will hear you, and He will help you till you are able, under the last and the greatest of them, to say, “Father, forgive them: for they know not what they do.”267
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