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XXII. THE SECRET BURDEN
“Lord, teach us to pray.”—Luke xi. 1.
“Apart. . .”—Zech. xii. 12.
Down to Gehenna, and up to the throne, He travels the fastest, who travels alone
THAT is to say, secret sin, and secret prayer, have this in common; that they both make a man travel his fastest. Secret sin makes him who commits it travel his fastest down to Gehenna,—that is to say, down into “the fire that is not quenched.” Whereas secret prayer makes him who so prays travel his very fastest up to the throne of God, and up to his own throne in heaven.
Down to Gehenna, and up to the throne, He travels the fastest, who travels alone.
“Apart! Apart! Apart!” proclaims this prophet, ten times, in the text. If he could only get “the house of David, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem” to pray, and to pray apart—the Fountain for sin and for uncleanness would soon be opened; and the Kingdom of God would soon come. “Apart! Apart! Apart!” he cries “Every family apart, and their wives apart!”268
This truly evangelical prophet is very importunate with the people to whom he preaches, to get them to take the fullest and the most universal advantage of this apartness in prayer. Apartness in prayer has immense and incomparable advantages over all other kinds and practices of prayer: and this prophet urges it on his people with all his authority and with all possible earnestness. He would have all ranks, and all classes, and all occupations, and all ages, and both sexes, to begin, and to continue, to pray apart. Indeed, he as good as proclaims to them, with all his prophetic power and passion, that the man who does not pray apart does not properly pray at all. And our Lord supports this prophet and says the same thing in one of His well-known utterances about prayer. Thou, He says, when thou prayest, go apart first. Go away to some retreat of thine, where thou art sure that no eye sees thee, and no ear hears thee, and where no man so much as suspects where thou art, and what thou art doing. Enter thy closet; and, with thy door shut on thee, and on thy Father with thee,— then pray.
There it is—written all over our open Bible so that he who runs may read it,—the sure and certain blessedness of prayer apart, the immediate and the immense advantage and privilege of private prayer. But not only is all that written all over both the Old Testament and the New, it is illustrated and 269 enforced on us out of our own experience every day. Let us just take ourselves here as so many proofs and pictures of the advantage and superiority and privilege of private prayer over public prayer. And take just your minister and then yourselves in proof and in illustration of this. As soon as the church bells stop ringing on the Sabbath morning, your ministers must immediately begin to pray openly and before men—whether they are prepared or no; whether they are in the proper spirit or no; and whether they have recovered their lost sight and lost hold of God that morning or no. It is expected of them that, as soon as the opening psalm is sung, the pulpit should begin to pray.
And you get,—more or less,—every Sabbath morning from the pulpit what you pay your seat for, and demand of us in return. You get a few well-repeated liturgical passages. You get a few well-selected texts taken out of the Psalms. And then a promise or two taken out of the prophets and the apostles,—all artistically wound up with a few words of doxology. But all that, four or five times every Sabbath day, is not prayer. All that is a certain open and public acknowledgment and tribute to the House of Prayer, and to the Day of Prayer; but nobody with an atom of sense or spirit ever supposes that that is prayer. And then we have to stop our Sabbath morning prayer before we have well begun it. You allow, and measure 270 out to us by your watches, our limit. We must say our pulpit prayers before you at the proper moment, in the proper tones, and to the proper length,—on the pain of losing your countenance and patronage. And on the other hand, though our hearts are breaking, we must begin at the advertised hour. And we must not by a sigh, or a sob, or a tear, or by one utterance of reality and sincerity, annoy or startle or upset you. We must please you with a pleasant voice. Our very pronunciation and accent must be the same as yours,—else you will not have it. We may let out our passions in everything else, as much as we like,—but not on Sabbath, and, above all, not in pulpit prayer. These are some of the inconveniences and disadvantages and dangers of public prayer to your ministers. But out of the pulpit, and sufficiently away and apart from you,—we can do what we like. We have no longer to please you to your edification. We can wait as long as we like in our closet, before we attempt to pray. The day is over now, and the duties of the day: we are in no hurry now: we are under no rule of use and wont now. We can watch a whole hour now, if we are not too tired and sleepy. We can sit down and read, and muse, and meditate, and make images of things to ourselves out of our Bible, or out of our Andrewes, till the fire begins to burn! That was what David did. “My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire 271 burned: then spake I with my tongue.” And the minutes toward midnight may run on to hours; and the midnight hours to morning watches; and yet we will run no danger of wearying out Him who slumbers not nor sleeps: He still waits to be gracious. What we ministers, of all men, would do without prayer apart,—I cannot imagine what would become of us! But, with his closet, and with the key of his closet continually in his hand, no minister need despair, even though he is a great orator, with a great gift of public prayer. “Apart! Apart! Apart!” this great prophet keeps ringing in every minister’s ears. “Apart! Apart! Apart! Every minister—of all men,—apart!”
And the very same thing holds true of yourselves, my praying brethren. You have the very same out-gate and retreat in private prayer that we have. You can escape apart from us, and from all our pulpit prayers. God help you if you do not! If all your praying is performed here,—and if it is all performed by your minister for you,—may God pity you, and teach you Himself to pray! But if you are living a life of secret prayer, then you are not dependent on us; and we are not so ruinously responsible for you. And indeed, if you pray much apart, you are already beyond our depth. You are wiser than all your teachers. You could teach us. I sometimes see you, and see what you are thinking about, when you are not aware. You listen to us 272 in our public prayers. And you smile to yourself as you see us attempting a thing in public that—you see quite well—we know next to nothing about in private. We have our reward of others, but not of you: you say nothing. You sit out the public worship and then you rise up, and go home. It is with you as when a hungry man dreameth and; behold, he eateth ; but he awaketh and his soul is empty. Till you get home, and the house is asleep. And then, could we but act the eavesdropper that night! Could we but get our ear close to your keyhole, we should learn a lesson in prayer that we should not forget. You must surely see what I am driving at in all this, do you not? I am labouring, and risking something, to prove this to you, and to print it on your hearts,—the immense privilege and the immense and incomparable opportunity and advantage of private prayer, of prayer apart.
And then, for a further illustration of this argument, take the confession of sin, in public and in private prayer. The feeling of sin is the most personal, and poignant, and overpowering part of your daily and hourly prayer. And, if you will think about it for one moment, you will see how absolutely impossible it is for you to discover, and to lay bare and to put the proper words and feelings upon yourself and upon your sin, in public prayer. You cannot do it. You dare not do it. And when 273 you do do it, under some unbearable load of guilt, or under some overpowering pain of heart,—you do yourself no good, and you do all who hear you real evil. You offend them. You tempt them to think and to speak about you and your prayers, which is a most mischievous thing: you terrify, like Thomas Boston, the godly. And, after all; after all that injurious truthfulness and plain-spokenness of yours in prayer,—with all that, you cannot in public prayer go out sufficiently into particulars and instances, and times, and places, and people. Particularity, and taking instances, is the very lifeblood of all true and prevailing prayer. But you dare not do that: you dare not take an outstanding instance of your daily sinfulness and utter corruption of heart in public or in family prayer. It would be insufferable and unpardonable. It is never done. And you must not under any temptation of conscience, or of heart, ever do it. When your door is shut, and when all public propriety, and all formality, and insincerity is shut out, then you can say and do anything to which the spirit moves you. You can pray all night on your face, if you like, like your Lord in Gethsemane. When you are so full of sin that you are beside yourself with the leprosy of it and with the shame and the pain of it,—they would carry you to the madhouse, if you let yourself say and do in public what all God’s greatest saints, beginning with God’s Son, have continually done in 274 private. But your soul may sweat great drops of blood in secret, and no human being is any wiser. And as for those who watch you and see it all,—“there is joy in heaven” over you from that night. Not one in ten of you have ever done it, possibly not one in a hundred: but when you begin really to look on Him whom you have pierced, as this great prophet has it, then you will begin to understand what it is to be in bitterness, and to mourn apart, as one is in bitterness for his first-born. Then, no pulpit confession, and no family altar, will relieve your heart. For then, there will be a life-long mourning in your heart as the mourning of Hadadrimmon in the valley of Megiddon. “Oh,” you will cry, “oh, that mine head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the Son of God whom I have slain by my sin! Oh, that I had in the wilderness a lodging-place of wayfaring men; that I might leave my people, and go from them to weep for my sin against my God and my Saviour!” And God will provide such a place apart for you, and for Himself with you,—till one day, when your head is, as never before, “waters,” He will say; “It is enough, go in peace. Weep no more.” And He will wipe all tears from your eyes.
And the very same thing holds true of all intercessory prayer. It would be an impertinence and an impudence; it would be an ostentation and a 275 presumption to pray for other men in public, as you are permitted and enabled and commanded to pray for them in private. It would be resented, and never forgiven. In intercessory prayer in public, particulars and instances, and actual persons, and special and peculiar cases, are absolutely impracticable and impossible. You simply dare not pray, in public, for other men,—any more than for yourself,—as they need to be prayed for. You would be arrested and imprisoned under the law of libel if you did it. Were you to see these men and women around you as they are; and were you to describe them, and to plead with God to redeem and renew, and restore, and save them,—the judge would shut your mouth. But in private, neither your friend nor your enemy will ever know, or even guess, till the last day, what they owe to you, and to your closet. You will never incur either blame or resentment or retaliation by the way you speak about them and their needs in the ear of God. The things that are notoriously and irrecoverably destroying the character and the usefulness of your fellow-worshipper—you may not so much as whisper them to your best friend, or to his. But you can, and you must, bear him by name, and all his sins and vices, all that is deplorable, and all that is contemptible about him, before God. And if you do so; and if you persist and persevere in doing so,—though you would not believe it,—you will 276 come out of your closet to love, and to honour, and to put up with, and to protect, and to defend your client the more,—the more you see what is wrong with him, and the more you importune God in his behalf. Intercessory prayer, in the pulpit, usually begins with the Sovereign, and the Royal Family, and the Prime Minister, and the Parliament, and so on. You all know the monotonous and meaningless rubric. But nobody is any better, Sovereign nor Parliament, because nobody is in earnest. We pray for the Sovereign, in order to be seen and heard and approved of men. But in secret,—it is another matter. If you ever—before God and in faith and love—prayed for your Sovereign, or for any great personage sincerely, and with importunity, you then began to feel toward them in a new way; and you began to have your answer returned into your own bosom, if not yet into theirs, in the shape of real honour, and real love, and real good-will, and real good wishes, and more and better prayer, for those you so pray for. “I exhort therefore that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. . . . For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus. . . . I will therefore that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.”277
And, then,—to conclude this great argument,—take thanksgiving, which is, by far, the best and the most blessed part of both public and private prayer. You cannot thank God with all your heart in public. You cannot tell in public—even to them that fear God—all that God has done for your soul. Even David himself could not do it. He tried it, again and again: but he had to give up the attempt. In public, that is, and before the great congregation, he could not do it. You see him attempting it, again and again; but the great congregation is not able to bear it. Here is the best specimen of a true thanksgiving I have ever met with. But then, it is not a public, but a private devotion,—as its title-page bears.
“O God,” this man of prayer said in secret to God once every week, taking a whole night to it: going out into particulars, and giving instances, and names, and dates.
“O God, I thank Thee for my existence: for my life, and for my reason. For all Thy gifts to me of grace, nature, fortune”—(enumerating and naming them, and taking time to do it)—“for all Thy forbearance, long-suffering, long long-suffering to me-ward, up to this night. For all good things I have received of Thy hand”—(naming some of them)—“for my parents honest and good” (recollecting them, and recollecting instances and occasions of their honesty and goodness)—“and 278 for benefactors, never to be forgotten” (naming them). “For religious, and literary, and social intimates, so congenial, and so helpful. For all who have helped me by their writings,—(and at that he rises off his knees, and walks round his library, and passes his eye along its so helpful shelves).—“For all who have saved my soul also by their sermons, and their prayers” (and at this he recalls great preachers of the soul, some dead, and some still alive and open to his acknowledgments). “For all whose rebukes and remonstrances have arrested and reformed me. For those even who have, some intentionally, and some unintentionally, insulted and injured me,—but I have got good out of it all,”—and so on. You could not offer a sacrifice of praise like that before everybody. You could not do it with propriety before anybody! And it would be still more impossible to go on, and to give instances and particulars like this: and, without instances and particulars, you might as well be in your bed. “Thou holdest my soul in life, and sufferest not my feet to be moved. Thou rescuest me every day from dangers, and from sicknesses of body and soul; from public shame, and from the strife of tongues. Thou continuest to work in me, by Thy special grace to me, some timeous remembrance of my latter end; and some true recollection and shame, and horror, and grief of heart for my past sins. 279 Glory be to thee, O God, for Thine unspeakable, and unimaginable goodness to me,—of all sinners the most unworthy, the most provoking, and the most unthankful!” You could not say things like that in the pulpit, no, nor at your own most intimate family altar. And, yet, they must be said. There are men among you whose hearts would absolutely burst, if they were not let say such things: aye, and say them, not once a week, like this great saint, but every day and every night. And it is to them—few, or many among us, God alone knows,—it is to them that this Scripture is selected and sent this morning,—this Scripture: And I will pour out upon them the spirit of grace and of supplications, the spirit of repentance and confession, the spirit of intercession and prayer for all men: and the still more blessed spirit of praise and thankfulness: and they shall pray and praise apart, till their Father which seeth, and heareth, apart and in secret, shall reward them openly.
Down to Gehenna, and up to the throne, He travels the fastest, who travels alone.
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