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Westminster Sermons, 12 - THE REASONABLE PRAYER

By Charles Kingsley

      PSALM CXIX. 33, 94.

      O Lord, teach me Thy statutes, and I shall keep them to the end. I am Thine, O save me; for I have kept Thy commandments.

      Some who heard me last Sunday, both morning and afternoon, may have remarked an apparent contradiction between my two sermons. I hope they have done so. For then I shall hope that they are facing one of the most difficult, and yet most necessary, of all problems; namely the difference between the Law and the Gospel. In my morning sermon I spoke of the eternal law of God--how it was unchangeable even as God its author, rigid, awful, inevitable by every soul of man, and certain, if he kept it, to lead him into all good, for body, soul, and spirit: but certain, too, if he broke it, to grind him to powder.

      And in the afternoon, I spoke of the Gospel and Free Grace of God--how that too was unchangeable, even as God its author; full of compassion and tender mercy, and forgiveness of sins; willing not the death of a sinner; but rather that he should be converted, and live.

      But how are these two statements, both scriptural; both--as I hold from practical experience, true to the uttermost, and not to be compromised or explained away--how are they to be reconciled, I say? By these two texts. By taking them both together, and never one without the other; and by taking them, also, in the order in which you find them, and never--as too many do--the second before the first. At least this was the opinion of the Psalmist. He first seeks God's commandments and statutes, and prays--Give me understanding and I shall keep Thy law, yea, I shall keep it with my whole heart. Make me to go in the path of Thy commandments; for therein is my desire. And then, only then, finding himself in trouble, anxiety, even in danger of death, he feels he has a sort of right to cry to God to help him out of his trouble, and prays--I am Thine, oh save me!

      And why? What reason can he give why God should save him? Because, he says, I have sought Thy commandments.

      Now let all rational persons lay this to heart; and consider it well. There are very few, heathens and savages, as well as Christians, who will not cry, when they find themselves in trouble--Oh save me. The instinct of every man is, to cry to some unseen persons or powers to help him. If he does not cry to the true and good God, he will cry to some false or bad God; or to some idol, material or intellectual, of his own invention. But that is no reason why his prayers should be heard. We read of old heathens at Rome, who prayed to Mercury, the god of money-making--"Da mihi fallere,"--Help me to cheat my neighbours: while the philosophers, heathen though they were, laughed, with just contempt, at such men and their prayers, and asked--Do you suppose that any God, if he be worth calling a God, will answer such a request as that? Nay, in our own times, have not the brigands of Naples been in the habit of carrying a leaden image of St Januarius in their hats, and praying to it to protect them in their trade of robbery and murder? I leave you to guess what answer good St Januarius, and much more He who made St Januarius, and all heaven and earth, was likely to give to such a prayer as that.

      So it is not all prayers for help that are heard, or deserve to be heard. And indeed--I do not wish to be hard, but the truth must be spoken--there are too many people in the world who pray to God to help them, when they are in difficulties or in danger, or in fear of death and of hell, but never pray at any other time, or for any other thing. They pray to be helped out of what is disagreeable. But they never pray to be made good. They are not good, and they do not care to become good. All they care for, is to escape death, or pain, or poverty, or shame, when they see it staring them in the face: and God knows I do not blame them. We are all children, and, like children, we cry out when we are hurt; and that is no sin to us. But that is no part of godliness, not even of mere religion.

      But worse--it is still more sad to have to say it, but it is true--most people's notions of the next world, and of salvation, as they call it, are just as childish, material, selfish as their notions of this world.

      They all wish and pray to be "saved." What do they mean? To be saved from bodily pain in the next life, and to have bodily pleasure instead. Pain and pleasure are the only gods which they really worship. They call the former--hell. They call the latter--heaven. But they know as little of one as of the other; and their notions of both are equally worthy of--Shall I say it? Must I say it?--equally worthy of the savage in the forest. They believe that they must either go to heaven or to hell. They have, of course, no wish to go to the latter place; for whatever else there is likely to be there--some of which might not be quite unpleasant or new to them, such as evil-speaking, lying, and slandering, envy, hatred, malice and all uncharitableness, bigotry included--there will be certainly there--they have reason to believe--bodily pain; the thing which they, being mostly comfortable people, dread most, and avoid most: contrary, you will remember, to the opinion of the blessed martyrs, who dreaded bodily pain least, and avoided it least, of all the ills which could befal them. Wherefore they are, in the sight of God, and of all true men unto this day--the blessed martyrs.

      But these people--and there are too many of them by hundreds of thousands--do not want to be blessed. They only want to be comfortable in this world, and in the next. As for blessedness, they do not even know what it means; and our Lord's seven beatitudes, which begin--"Blessed are the poor in spirit"--are not at all to their mind; even, alas! alas! to the mind of many who call themselves religious and orthodox; at least till they are so explained away, that they shall mean anything, or nothing, save--I trust I am poor in spirit: and nevertheless I am right, and everyone who differs from me is wrong.

      The plain truth is--when all fine words, whether said in prayers or sung in hymns, are stript off--that they do not wish to go to hell and pain; and therefore prefer, very naturally, though not very spiritually, to go to heaven and pleasure; and so sing of "crossing over Jordan to Canaan's shore," or of "Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest," and so forth, without any clear notion of what they mean thereby, save selfish comfort without end; they really know not what; they really care not where. And that they may arrive there or at a far better place; and have their wish, and more than their wish: I for one heartily desire. But whether they arrive there, or not; and indeed, whether they arrive at some place infinitely better or infinitely worse, depends on whether they will give up selfish calculations of loss and gain, selfish choosing between mere pain and pleasure: and choose this; choose, whatever it may cost them, between being good and being bad, or even being only half good; as little good as they can afford to be without the pains of hell into the bargain.

      My friends--What if Christ should answer such people--I do not say that He does always answer them so, for He is very pitiful, and of tender mercy;--but what if He were to answer them, Save you? Help you? O presumptuous mortal, what have you done that Christ should save or help you? You are afraid of being ruined. Why should you not be ruined? What good will it be to your fellow-men if you keep your money, instead of losing it? You are making nothing but a bad use of your money. Why should Christ help you to keep it, and misuse it still more?

      You are afraid of death. You do not wish to die. But why should you not die? Why should Christ save you from death? Of what use is your life to Christ, or to any human being? If you are living a bad life, your life is a bad thing, and does harm not only to yourself, but to your neighbours. Why should Christ keep you alive to hurt and corrupt your neighbours, and to set a bad example to your children? If you are not doing your duty where Christ has put you, you are of no use, a cumberer of the ground. What reason can you shew why He should not take you away, and put some one in your place who will do his duty? You are afraid of being lost--why should you not be lost? You are offensive, and an injury to the universe. You are an actual nuisance on Christ's earth and in Christ's Kingdom. Why should He not--as He has sworn--cast out of His Kingdom all things which offend, and you among the rest? Why should He not get rid of you, as you get rid of vermin, as you get rid of weeds; and cast you into the fire, to be burned up with all evil things? Answer that: before you ask Christ to save you, and deliver you from danger, and from death, and from the hell which you so much--and perhaps so justly--fear.

      And how that question is to be answered, I cannot see.

      Certainly the selfish man cannot answer it. The idle man cannot answer it. The profligate man cannot answer it. They are doing nothing for Christ; or for their neighbours, or for the human race; and they cannot expect Christ to do anything for them.

      The only men who can answer it; the only men, it seems to me, who can have any hope of their prayers being heard, are those who, like the Psalmist, are trying to do something for Christ, and their neighbours, and the human race; who are, in a word, trying to be good. Those, I mean, who have already prayed, earnestly and often, the first prayer, "Teach me, O Lord, Thy statutes, and I shall keep them to the end." They have--not a right: no one has a right against Christ, no, not the angels and archangels in heaven--not a right, but a hope, through Christ's most precious and undeserved promises, that their prayers will be heard; and that Christ will save them from destruction, because they are, at least, likely to become worth saving; because they are likely to be of use in Christ's world, and to do some little work in Christ's kingdom.

      They are God's: they are soldiers in Christ's army. They are labourers in Christ's garden. They are on God's side in the battle of life, which is the battle of Christ and of all good men, against evil, against sin and ignorance, and the numberless miseries which sin and ignorance produce. They are not the profligate; they are not the selfish, the idle; they are not the frivolous, the insolent; they are not the wilfully ignorant who do not care to learn, and do not even--so brutish are they--think that there is anything worth learning in the world, save how to turn sixpence into a shilling, and then spend it on themselves. Not such are those who may hope to have their prayers heard, because they are worth hearing, and worth helping. But they are the people who say to themselves, not once in their lives, not once a week on Sundays, but every day and all day long--I must be good; I will be good. I must be of use; I must be doing some work for God; and therefore I must learn. I must learn God's laws, and statutes, and commandments, about my station, and calling, and business in life. Else how can I do it aright? I dare no more be ignorant, than I dare be idle. I must learn. But how shall I learn? Stupid I am, and ignorant, and the more I try to learn, the more I discover how stupid I am. The more I do actually learn, the more I discover how ignorant I am. There is so much to be learned; and how to learn it passes my understanding. Who will teach me? How shall I get understanding? How shall I get knowledge? And if I get them, how shall I be sure that they are true understanding, and true knowledge? Mad people have understanding enough; and so have some who are not mad, but merely fools. Wit enough they have, active and rapid brains: but their understanding is of no use, for it is only misunderstanding; and therefore the more clever they are, the more foolish they are, and the more dangerous to themselves and their fellow-creatures. Knowledge, too--how shall I be sure that my knowledge, if I get it, is true knowledge, and not false knowledge, knowledge which is not really according to facts? I see too many who have knowledge for which I care little enough. Some know a thousand things which are of no use to them, or to any human being. Others know a thousand things: but know them in a shallow, inaccurate fashion; and so cannot make use of them for any practical purpose. Others know a thousand things: but know them all in a prejudiced and one-sided fashion; till they see things not as things are, but as they are not, and as they never will be; and therefore their knowledge, instead of leading them, misleads them, and they misjudge facts, misjudge men, and earth, and heaven, just as much as the man who should misjudge the sunlight of heaven and fancy it to be green or blue, because he looked at it through a green or blue glass. How then shall I get true knowledge? Knowledge which will be really useful, really worth knowing? Knowledge which I shall know accurately, and practically too, so that I can use it in daily life, for myself and my fellow-men? Knowledge, too, which shall be clear knowledge, not warped or coloured by my own fancies, passions, prejudices, but pure, and calm, and sound; Siccum Lumen, "Dry Light," as the greatest of English Philosophers called it of old?

      To all such, who long for light, that by the light they may see to live the life, God answers, through His only-begotten Son, The Word who endureth for ever in heaven:--

      "Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. For if ye, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, much more will your heavenly Father give His Holy Spirit to those who ask Him."

      Yes, ask for that Holy Spirit of God, that He may lead you into all truth; into all truth, that is, which is necessary for you to know, in order to see your way through the world, and through your duty in the world. Ask for that Holy Spirit; that He may give you eyes to see things as they are, and courage to feel things as they are, and to do your work in them, and by them, whether they be pleasant or unpleasant, prosperous or adverse. Ask Him; and He will give you true knowledge to know what a serious position you are in, what a serious thing life is, death is, judgment is, eternity is; that you may be no trifler nor idler, nor mere scraper together of gain which you must leave behind you when you die: but a truly serious man, seriously intent on your duty; seriously intent on working God's work in the place and station to which He has called you, before the night comes in which no man can work.

      If a man is doing that; if he is earnestly trying to learn what is true, in order that he may do what is right; then he has--I do not say a right--but at least a reason, or a shadow of reason, when he cries to God in his trouble--

      "I am Thine, oh save me, for I have sought thy commandments."

      "I am Thine." Not merely God's creature: the very birds, and bees, and flowers are that; and do their duty far better than I--God forgive me--do mine.

      "I am Thine." Not merely God's child: the sinners and the thoughtless are that, though--God help them--they care not for Him, nor for His laws, nor for themselves and their glorious inheritance as children of God.

      And I too am God's child: but I trust that I am more. I am God's school- child. O Lord Jesus Christ, I claim Thy help as my schoolmaster, as well as my Lord and Saviour. I am the least of Thy school-children; and it may be the most ignorant and most stupid. I do not pretend to be a scholar, a divine, a philosopher, a saint. I am a very weak, foolish, insufficient personage; sitting on the lowest form in Thy great school- house, which is the whole world; and trying to spell out the mere letters of Thy alphabet, in hope that hereafter I may be able to make out whole words, and whole sentences, of Thy commandments, and having learnt them, do them. For if Thou wilt but teach me Thy statutes, O Lord, then I will try to keep them to the end. For I long to be on Thy side, and about Thy work. I long to help--if it be ever so little--in making myself better, and my neighbours better. I long to be useful, and not useless; a benefit, and not a nuisance; a fruit-bearing tree, and not a noxious weed, in Thy garden; and therefore I hope that Thou wilt not cut me down, nor root me up, nor let foul creatures trample me under foot. Have mercy on me, O Lord, in my trouble, for the sake of the truth which I long to learn, and for the good which I long to do. Poor little weak plant though I may be, I am still a plant of Thy planting, which is doing its best to grow, and flower, and bear fruit to eternal life; and Thou wilt not despise the work of Thine own hands, O Lord, who died that I might live? Thou wilt not let me perish? I have stuck unto Thy testimonies: O Lord, confound me not.

      Therefore remember this. If you wish to have reasonable hope when you have to pray--"Lord, save me:" pray first, and pray continually--"Teach me, O Lord, Thy statutes, and I will keep them to the end."

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