Thou that hearest prayer, unto Thee shall all flesh come.
Next Friday, the 20th of December, 1871, will be marked in most churches of this province of Canterbury by a special ceremony. Prayers will be offered to God for the increase of missionary labourers in the Church of England. To many persons--I hope I may say, to all in this congregation--this ceremony will seem eminently rational. We shall not ask God to suspend the laws of nature, nor alter the courses of the seasons, for any wants, real or fancied, of our own. We shall ask Him to make us and our countrymen wiser and better, in order that we may make other human beings wiser and better: and an eminently rational request I assert that to be.
For no one will deny that it is good for heathens and savages, even if there were no life after death, to be wiser and better than they are. It is good, I presume, that they should give up cannibalism, slave-trading, witchcraft, child-murder, and a host of other abominations; and that they should be made to give them up not from mere fear of European cannon, but of their own wills and consciences, seeing that such habits are wrong and ruinous, and loathing them accordingly; in a word, that instead of living as they do, and finding in a hundred ways that the wages of sin are death, they should be converted--that is, change their ways--and live.
Now that this is the will of God--assuming that there is a God, and a good God--is plain at least to our reason, and to our common sense; and it is equally plain to our reason and to our common sense that, as God has not taught these poor wretches to improve themselves, or sent superior beings to improve them from some other world, He therefore means their improvement to be brought about, as moral improvements are usually brought about, by the influence of their fellow-men, and specially by us who have put ourselves in contact with them in our world-wide search for wealth; and who are certain, as we know by sad experience, to make the heathen worse, if we do not make them better. And as we find from experience that our missionaries, wherever they are brought in contact with these savages, do make them wiser and happier, we ask God to inspire more persons with the desire of improving the heathen, and to teach them how to improve them. I say, how to improve them. All sneers, whether at the failure of missionary labours, or at the small results in return for the vast sums spent on missions--all such sneers, I say, instead of deterring us from praying to God on this matter, ought to make us pray the more earnestly in proportion as they are deserved. For they ought to remind us that we possibly may not have gone to work as yet altogether in the right way; that there may be mistakes and deficiencies in our method of dealing with the heathen. And if so, it seems all the more reason for asking God to set us and others right, in case we should be wrong; and to make us and others strong, in case we should be weak.
We thus commit the matter to God. We do not ask God to raise up such missionary labourers as we think fit: but such as He thinks fit. We do not pray Him to alter His will concerning the heathen: but to enable us to do what we know already to be His will. And this course seems to me eminently rational; provided always, of course, that it is rational to believe that there is a God who answers prayer; and that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.
Now the older I grow, and the more I see of the chances and changes of this mortal life, and of the needs and longings of the human heart, the more important seems this question, and all words concerning it, whether in the Bible or out of the Bible--
Is there anywhere in the universe any being who can hear our prayers? Is prayer a superfluous folly, or the highest prudence?
I say--Is there a being who can even hear our prayers? I do not say, a being who will always answer them, and give us all we ask: but one who will at least hear, who will listen; consider whether what we ask is fit to be granted or not; and grant or refuse accordingly.
You say--What is the need of asking such a question? Of course we believe that. Of course we pray, else why are we in church to-day?
Well, my friends, God grant that you may all believe it in spirit and in truth. But you must remember that if so, you are in the minority; that the majority of civilized men, like the majority of mere savages, do not pray, whatever the women may do; and that prayer among thinking and civilized white men has been becoming, for the last 100 years at least, more and more unfashionable; and is likely, to judge from the signs of the times, to become more unfashionable still: after which reign of degrading ungodliness, I presume--from the experience of all history--that our children or grandchildren will see a revulsion to some degrading superstition, and the latter end be worse than the beginning. But it is notorious that men are doubting more and more of the efficacy of prayer; that philosophers so-called, for true philosophers they are not--even though they may be true, able, and worthy students of merely physical science--are getting a hearing more and more readily, when they tell men they need not pray.
They say; and here they say rightly--The world is ruled by laws. But some say further; and there they say wrongly;--For that reason prayer is of no use; the laws will not be altered to please you. You yourself are but tiny parts of a great machine, which will grind on in spite of you, though it grind you to powder; and there is no use in asking the machine to stop. So, they say, prayer is an impertinence. I would that they stopped there. For then we who deny that the world is a machine, or anything like a machine, might argue fairly with them on the common ground of a common belief in God.
But some go further still, and say--A God? We do not deny that there may be a God: but we do not deny that there may not be one. This we say--If He exists, we know nothing of Him: and what is more, you know nothing of Him. No man can know aught of Him. No man can know whether there be a God or not. A living God, an acting God, a God of providence, a God who hears prayer, a God such as your Bible tells you of, is an inconceivable Being; and what you cannot conceive, that you must not believe: and therefore prayer is not merely an impertinence, it is a mistake; for it is speaking to a Being who only exists in your own imagination. I need not say, my friends, that all this, to my mind, is only a train of sophistry and false reasoning, which--so I at least hold--has been answered and refuted again and again. And I trust in God and in Christ sufficiently to believe that He will raise up sound divines and true philosophers in His Church, who will refute it once more. But meanwhile I can only appeal to your common sense; to the true and higher reason, which lies in men's hearts, not in their heads; and ask--And is it come to this? Is this the last outcome of civilization, the last discovery of the human intellect, the last good news for man? That the soundest thinkers--they who have the truest and clearest notion of the universe are the savage who knows nothing but what his five senses teach him, and the ungodly who makes boast of his own desire, and speaks good of the covetous whom God abhorreth, while he says, "Tush, God hath forgotten. He hideth away his face, and God will never see it"?
True: these so-called philosophers would say that the savage makes a mistake in his sensuality, and the worldling in his covetousness and his tyranny; that from an imperfect conception of their own true self-interest, they carry their philosophy to conclusions which the philosopher in his study must regret. But as to their philosophy being correct: there can be no question that if providence, and prayer, and the living God, be phantoms of man's imagination, then the cynical worldling at one end of the social scale, and the brutal savage at the other, are wiser than apostles and prophets, and sages and divines.
These men talk of facts, the facts of human nature. Why do they ask us to ignore the most striking fact of human nature, that man, even if he were a mere animal, is alone of all animals--a praying animal? Is that strange instinct of worship, which rises in the heart of man as soon as he begins to think, to become a civilized being and not a savage, to be disregarded as a childish dream when he rises to a higher civilization still? Is the experience of men, heathen as well as Christian, for all these ages to go for nought? Has it mattered nought whether men cried to Baal or to God; for with both alike there has been neither sound nor voice, nor any that answered? Has every utterance that has ever gone up from suffering and doubting humanity, gone up in vain? Have the prayers of saints, the hymns of psalmists, the agonies of martyrs, the aspirations of poets, the thoughts of sages, the cries of the oppressed, the pleadings of the mother for her child, the maiden praying in her chamber for her lover upon the distant battle-field, the soldier answering her prayer from afar off with, "Sleep quiet, I am in God's hands"--those very utterances of humanity which seemed to us most noble, most pure, most beautiful, most divine, been all in vain?--impertinences; the babblings of fair dreams, poured forth into nowhere, to no thing, and in vain? Has every suffering, searching soul which ever gazed up into the darkness of the unknown, in hopes of catching even a glimpse of a divine eye, beholding all, and ordering all, and pitying all, gazed up in vain? For at the ground of the universe is "not a divine eye, but only a blank bottomless eye-socket;" and man has no Father in heaven; and Christ revealed Him not, because He was not there to reveal; and there was no hope, no remedy, no deliverance, for the miserable among the sons of men?
Oh, my friends, those who believe, or fancy that they believe such things, must be able to do so only through some peculiar conformation either of brain or heart. Only want of imagination to conceive the consequences of such doctrines can enable them, if they have any love and pity for their fellow-men, to preach those doctrines without pity and horror. They know not, they know not, of what they rob a mankind already but too miserable by its own folly and its own sin; a mankind which, if it have not hope in God and in Christ, is truly--as Homer said of old--more miserable than the beasts of the field. If their unconscious conceit did not make them unintentionally cruel, they would surely be silent for pity's sake; they would let men go on in the pleasant delusion that there is a living God, and a Word of God who has revealed Him to men; and would hide from their fellow-creatures the dreadful secret which they think they have discovered--That there is none that heareth prayer, and therefore to Him need no flesh come.
Men take up with such notions, I believe, most generally in days of comfort, ease, safety. They find the world so well ordered outwardly, that it seems able enough to go on its way without a God. They have themselves so few sorrows, struggles, doubts, that they never feel that sense of helplessness, of danger, of ignorance, which has made the hearts of men, in every age, yearn for an unseen helper, an unseen deliverer, an unseen teacher.
And so it is--and shameful it is that so it should be--that the more God gives to men, the less they thank Him, the less they fancy that they need Him: but take His bounties, as they take the air they breathe, unconsciously, and as a matter of course.
And therefore adversity is wholesome, danger is wholesome; so wholesome, that in all ages, as far as I can find, the godliest, the most moral, the most manful, and therefore the really happiest and most successful nations or communities of men, have been those who were in perpetual danger, difficulty, struggle; and who have thereby had their faith in God called out; who have learned in the depth, to cry out of the depth to God; to lift up their eyes unto the Lord, and know that their help comes from Him.
I know a village down in the far West, where the 121st Psalm which I just quoted, was a favourite, and more than a favourite. Whenever it was given out in church--and the congregation used often to ask for it--all joined in singing it, young and old, men and maidens, with an earnestness, a fervour, a passion, such as I never heard elsewhere; such as shewed how intensely they felt that the psalm was true, and true for them. Of all congregational singing I ever heard, never have I heard any so touching as those voices, when they joined in the old words they loved so well.
Sheltered beneath the Almighty wings Thou shall securely rest, Where neither sun nor moon shall thee By day or night molest. At home, abroad, in peace, in war, Thy God shall thee defend; Conduct thee through life's pilgrimage Safe to thy journey's end.
Do you fancy these people were specially comfortable, prosperous folk, who had no sorrows, and lived safe from all danger, and therefore knew that God protected them from all ill?
Nothing less, my friends, nothing less. There was hardly a man who joined in that psalm, but knew that he carried his life in his hand from year to year, that any day might see him a corpse--drowned at sea. Hardly a woman who sang that psalm but had lost a husband, a father, a brother, a kinsman--drowned at sea. And yet they believed that God preserved them. They were fishers and sailors, earning an uncertain livelihood, on a wild and rocky coast. A sudden shift of wind might make, as I knew it once to make, 60 widows and orphans in a single night. The fishery for the year might fail, and all the expense of boats and nets be thrown away. Or in default of work at home, the young men would go out on voyages to foreign parts: and often never came back again, dying far from home, of fever, of wreck, of some of the hundred accidents which befal seafaring men. And yet they believed that God preserved them. Surely their faith was tried, if ever faith was tried. But as surely their faith failed not, for--if I may so say--they dared not let it fail. If they ceased to trust God, what had they to trust in? Not in their own skill in seamanship, though it was great: they knew how weak it was, on which to lean. Not in the so-called laws of nature; the treacherous sea, the wild wind, the uncertain shoals of fish, the chances and changes of a long foreign voyage. Without trust in God, their lives must have been lives of doubt and of terror, for ever anxious about the morrow: or else of blind recklessness, saying, "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die." Because they kept their faith in God, their lives were for the most part lives of hardy and hopeful enterprise; cheerful always, in bad luck as in good; thankful when their labours were blest with success; and when calamity and failure came, saying with noble resignation--"I have received good from the hand of the Lord, and shall I not receive evil? Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him."
It is a life like theirs, mixed with danger and uncertainty, which most calls out faith in God. It is the life of safety and comfort, in which our wants are all supplied ready to our hand, which calls it out least. And therefore it is that life in cities, just because it is most safe and most comfortable, is so often, alas, most ungodly, at least among the men. Less common, thank God, is this ungodliness among the women. The nursing of the sick; the cares of a family, often too sorrows, manifold and bitter, put them continually in mind of human weakness, and of their own weakness likewise. Yes. It is sorrow, my friends, sorrow and failure, which forces men to believe that there is One who heareth prayer, forces them to lift up their eyes to One from whom cometh their help. Before the terrible realities of danger, death, bereavement, disappointment, shame, ruin--and most of all before deserved shame, deserved ruin--all the arguments of the conceited sophist melt away like the maxims of the comfortable worldling; and the man or woman who was but too ready a day before to say, "Tush, God will never see, and will never hear," begins to hope passionately that God does see, that God does hear. In the hour of darkness; when there is no comfort in man nor help in man, when he has no place to flee unto, and no man careth for his soul: then the most awful, the most blessed of all questions is: But is there no one higher than man to whom I can flee? No one higher than man who cares for my soul and for the souls of those who are dearer to me than my own soul? No friend? No helper? No deliverer? No counsellor? Even no judge? No punisher? No God, even though He be a consuming fire? Am I and my misery alone together in the universe? Is my misery without any meaning, and I without hope? If there be no God: then all that is left for me is despair and death. But if there be, then I can hope that there is a meaning in my misery; that it comes to me not without cause, even though that cause be my own fault. I can plead with God like poor Job of old, even though in wild words like Job; and ask--What is the meaning of this sorrow? What have I done? What should I do? "I will say unto God, Do not condemn me; shew me wherefore thou contendest with me. Surely I would speak unto the Almighty, and desire to reason with God."
"I would speak unto the Almighty, and desire to reason with God." Oh my friends, a man, I believe, can gain courage and wisdom to say that, only by the inspiration of the Spirit of God.
But when once he has said that from his heart, he begins to be justified by faith. For he has had faith in God; he has trusted God enough to speak to God who made him; and so he has put himself, so far at least, into his just and right place, as a spiritual and rational being, made in the image of God.
But more, he has justified God. He has confessed that God is not a mere force or law of nature; nor a mere tyrant and tormentor: but a reasonable being, who will hear reason, and a just being, who will do justice by the creatures whom He has made.
And so the very act of prayer justifies God, and honours God, and gives glory to God; for it confesses that God is what He is, a good God, to whom the humblest and the most fallen of His creatures dare speak out the depths of their abasement, and acknowledge that His glory is this--That in spite of all His majesty, He is one who heareth prayer; a being as magnificent in His justice, as He is magnificent in His majesty and His might.
All this is argued out, as it never has been argued out before or since, in the book of Job: and for seeing so much as this, was Job approved by God. But there is a further question, to which the book of Job gives no answer; and to which indeed all the Old Testament gives but a partial answer. And that is this--This just and magnificent God, has He also human pity, tenderness, charity, condescension, love? In one word, have we not only a God in heaven, but a Father in heaven?
That question could only be answered by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Truly He said--No one cometh to the Father, but by me. No man hath seen God at any time: but the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath revealed Him. He revealed Him in part to Abraham, in part to Moses, to Job, to David, to the prophets. But He revealed Him perfectly when He said--I and the Father are one. He that hath seen me hath seen the Father. Yes. Now we can find boundless comfort in the words, "Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost"--Love and condescension without bounds. Now we know that there is A Man in the midst of the throne of God, who is the brightness of God's glory and the express image of His character; a high priest who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, seeing that He was tempted in all things like as we are, yet without sin.
To Him we can cry, with human passion and in human words; because we know that His human heart will respond to our human hearts, and that His human heart again will respond to His divine Spirit, and that His divine Spirit is the same as the divine Spirit of His Father; for their wills and minds are one; and their will and their mind is--boundless love to sinful man.
Yes, we can look up by faith into the sacred face of Christ, and take refuge by faith within His sacred heart, saying--If it be good for me, He will give what I ask: and if He gives it not, it is because that too is good for me, and for others beside me. In all the chances and changes of this mortal life we can say to Him, as He said in that supreme hour--"If it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done," sure that He will present that prayer to His Father, and to our Father, and to His God and to our God; and that whatsoever be the answer vouchsafed by Him whose ways are not as our ways, nor His thoughts as our thoughts, the prayer will not have gone up to Christ in vain.
And in such a case as this of missions to the heathen--If we believe that Christ died for these poor heathen; if we believe that Christ loves these poor heathen infinitely more than we, or than the most devoted missionary who ever lived or died for them: shall we say--Then we may leave them in Christ's hands to follow their own nature. If He is satisfied with their degradation, so may we be? Shall we not rather say--Their misery and degradation must pain His sacred heart, far more than our sinful hearts; and if He does not come down again on earth to help them Himself, it must be because He means to help them through us, His disciples? Let us ask Him to teach us and others how to help them; to enable us and others to help them. Let us pray to Him the one prayer which, unless prayer be a dream, is certain to be answered, because it is certainly according to God's will; the prayer to be taught and helped to do our duty by our fellow-men. And for the rest: let us pray in the words of that most noble of all collects, to pray which is to take refuge from our own ignorance in the boundless wisdom of God's love--"Thou who knowest our necessities before we ask, and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our infirmities, and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, condescend to give us, for the worthiness of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."