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Vol. 4, Sermon 3 - Prayer

By Frederick W. Robertson


      "And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, 0 my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt."-Matt. xxvi. 39.

      No one will refuse to identify holiness with prayer. To say that a man is religious is to say the same thing as to say he prays. For what is prayer? To connect every thought with the thought of God. To look on every thing as His work and His appointment. To submit every thought, wish, and resolve to Him. To feel His presence, so that it shall restrain us even in our wildest joy. That is prayer. And what we are now, surely we are by prayer. If we have attained any measure of goodness, if we have resisted temptations, if we have any self-command, or if we live with aspirations and desires beyond the common, we shall not hesitate to ascribe all to prayer.

      There is therefore no question among Christians about the efficacy of prayer; but that granted generally, then questionings and diversities of view begin. What is prayer? What is the efficacy of prayer? Is prayer necessarily words in form and sequence; or is there a real prayer that never can be syllabled? Does prayer change the outward universe, or does it alter our inward being? Does it work on God, or does it work on us?

      To all these questions, I believe a full and sufficient answer is returned in the text. Let us examine it calmly, and with. out prejudice or prepossession. If we do, it can not be but that we shall obtain a conclusion in which we may rest with peace, be it what it eventually may. We will consider

      I. The right of petition.

      II. Erroneous views of what prayer is.

      III. The true efficacy of prayer.

      I. The right of petition. "Let this cup pass from me." We infer it to be a right-l. Because it is a necessity of out human nature.

      The Son of Man feels the hour at hand: shrinks from it, seeks solitude, flies from human society-feels the need of it again, and goes back to his disciples. Here is that need of sympathy which forces us to feet for congenial thought among relations; and here is that recoil from cold unsympathizing natures, which forces us back to our loneliness again. In such an hour, they who have before forgotten prayer betake themselves to God: and in such an hour, even the most resigned are not without the wish, "Let this cup pass." Christ Himself has a separate wish-one human wish.

      Prayer then, is a necessity of our humanity, rather than a duty. To force it as a duty is dangerous. Christ did not; never commanded it, never taught it till asked. This necessity is twofold. First, the necessity of sympathy. We touch other human spirits only at a point or two. In the deepest departments of thought and feeling we are alone; and the desire to escape the loneliness finds for itself a voice in prayer.

      Next, the necessity of escaping the sense of a crushing fate. The feeling that all things are fixed and unalterable, that we are surrounded by necessities which we can not break through, is intolerable whenever it is realized. Our egotism cries against it; our innocent egotism, and the practical reconciliation* [* Mesothasis.] between our innocent egotism and hideous fatalism is prayer, which realizes a living Person ruling all things with a will.

      2. Again, we base this right on our privilege as children. "My Father"-that sonship Christ shares with us reveals the human race as a family in which God is a Father, and Himself the elder brother. It would be a strange family, where the child's will dictates; but it would be also strange where a child may not, as a child, express its foolish wish, if it be only to have the impossibility of gratifying it explained.

      3. Christ used it as a right, therefore we may.

      There is many a case in life, where to act seems useless-many a truth which at times appears incredible. Then we throw ourselves on Him-He did it, He believed it, that is enough. He was wise, where I am foolish. He was holy, where I am evil. He must know. He must be right. I rely on Him. Bring what arguments you may: say that prayer can not change God's will. I know it. Say that prayer ten thousand times comes back like a stone. Yes, but Christ prayed, therefore I may and I will pray. Not only so, but I must pray; the wish felt and not uttered before God, is a prayer. Speak, if your heart prompts, in articulate words, but there is an unsyllabled wish, which is also prayer. You can not help praying, if God's Spirit is in yours.

      Do not say, I must wait till this tumult has subsided and I am calm. The worst storm of spirit is the time for prayer: the Agony was the hour of petition. Do not stop to calculate improbabilities. Prayer is truest when there is most of instinct and least of reason. Say, "My Father, thus I fear and thus I wish. Hear thy foolish, erring child-let this cup pass from me."

      II. Erroneous notions of what prayer is. They are contained in that conception which He negatived, "As I will."

      A common popular conception of prayer is, that it is the means by which the wish of man determines the will of God. This conception finds an exact parallel in those anecdotes with which Oriental history abounds, wherein a sovereign gives to his favorite some token, on the presentation of which every request must be granted. As when Ahasuerus promised Queen Esther that her petition should be granted, even to the half of his kingdom. As when Herod swore to Herodias's daughter that he would do whatever she should require. It will scarcely be said that this is a misrepresentation of a very common doctrine, for they who hold it would state it thus, and would consider the mercifulness and privilege of prayer to consist in this, that by faith we can obtain all that we wait.

      Now, in the text it is said distinctly this is not the aim of prayer, nor its meaning. "Not as I will." The wish of man does not determine the will of God.

      Try this conception by four tests.

      1. By its incompatibility with the fact that this universe is a system of laws. Things are thus, rather than thus. Such an event is invariably followed by such a consequence. This we call a law. All is one vast chain, from which if you strike a single link, you break the whole. It has been truly aid that to heave a pebble on the sea-shore one yard higher up would change all antecedents from the creation, and all consequents to the end of time. For it would have required a greater force in the wave that threw it there-and that would have required a different degree of strength in the storm-that again, a change of temperature all over the globe-and that again, a corresponding difference in the temperaments and characters of the men inhabiting the different countries.

      So that when a child wishes a fine day for his morrow's excursion, and hopes to have it by an alteration of what would have been without his wish, he desires nothing less than a whole new universe.

      It is difficult to state this in all its force except to men who are professionally concerned with the daily observation of the uniformity of the Divine laws. But where the astronomer descends from his serene gaze upon the moving heavens, and the chemist rises from contemplating those marvellous affinities, the proportions of which are never altered, realizing the fact that every atom and element has its own mystic number in the universe to the end of time; or when the economist has studied the laws of wealth, and seen how fixed they are and sure: then to hear that it is expected that, to comply with a mortal's convenience or plans, God shall place this whole harmonious system at the disposal of selfish humanity, seems little else than impiety against the Lord of law and order.

      2. Try it next by fact.

      Ask those of spiritual experience. We do not ask whether prayer has been efficacious-of course it has. It is God's ordinance. Without prayer the soul dies. But what we ask is, whether the good derived has been exactly this, that prayer brought them the very thing they wished for? For instance, did the plague come and go according to the laws of prayer or according to the laws of health? Did it come because men neglected prayer, or because they disobeyed those rules which His wisdom has revealed as the conditions of salubrity? A when it departed, was it because a nation lay prostrate in sackcloth and ashes, or because it arose and girded up its loins and removed those causes and those obstructions which, by everlasting law, are causes and obstructions? Did the catarrh or the consumption go from him. who prayed, sooner than from him who humbly bore it in silence? Try it by the case of Christ-Christ's prayer did not succeed. He prayed that the cup might pass from Him. It did not so pass.

      Now lay down the irrefragable principle, "The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord." What Christ's prayer was not efficacious to do, that ours is not certain to effect. If the object of petition be to obtain, then Christ's prayer failed; if the refusal of His petition did not show the absence of the favor of His Father, then neither does the refusal of ours.

      Nor can you meet this by saying, "His prayer could not succeed because it was decreed that Christ should die; but ours may, because nothing hangs on our fate, and we know of no decree that is against our wish."

      Do you mean that some things are decreed and some are left to chance? That would make a strange, disconnected universe. The death of a worm, your death, its hour and moment, are all fixed, as much as His was. Fortuity, chance, contingency, are only words which express our ignorance of causes.

      3. Try it by the prejudicial results of such a belief

      To think that prayer changes God's will gives unworthy ideas of God. It supposes our will to be better that His, the Unchangeable, the Unsearchable, the All-wise. Can you see the All of things-the consequences and secret connections of the event you wish? and if not, would you really desire the terrible power of infallibly securing it?

      Consider, also, the danger of vanity and supineness resulting from the fulfillment of our desires as a necessity. Who does not recollect such cases in childhood, when some curious coincidences with our wishes were taken for direct replies to prayer, and made us fancy ourselves favorites of heaven, in possession of a secret spell. These coincidences did not make us more earnest, more holy, but rather the reverse. Careless and vain, we fancied we had a power which superseded exertion, we looked down contemptuously on others. Those were startling and wholesome lessons which came when our prayer failed, and threw our whole childish theory into confusion. It is recorded that a favorite once received from his sovereign a ring as a mark of her regard, with a promise that whenever he presented that ring to her she would grant his request. He entered our rebellion, from a vain confidence in the favor of his sovereign. The ring which he sent was kept back by his messenger, and he was executed. So would we rebel if prayer were efficacious to change God's will and to secure His pardon.

      4. It would be most dangerous, too, as a criterion of our spiritual state. If we think that answered prayer is a proof of grace, we shall be unreasonably depressed and unreasonably elated-depressed when we do not get what we wish, elated when we do; besides, we shall judge uncharitably of other men.

      Two farmers pray, the one whose farm is on light land, for rain; the other, whose contiguous farm is on heavy soil, for fine weather; plainly one or the other must come, and that which is good for one may be injurious to the other. If this be the right view of prayer, then the one who does not obtain his wish must mourn, doubting God's favor, or believing that he did not pray in faith. Two Christian armies meet for battle-Christian men on both sides pray for success to their own arms. Now if victory be given to prayer, independent of other considerations, we are driven to the pernicious principle, that success is the test of right.

      From all which the history of this prayer of Christ delivers us. It is a precious lesson of the cross, that apparent failure is eternal victory. It is a precious lesson of this prayer, that the object of prayer is not the success of its petition; nor is its rejection a proof of failure. Christ's petition was not gratified, yet He was the One well-beloved of His Father.

      III. The true efficacy of prayer-"As Thou wilt."

      All prayer is to change the will human into submission to the will Divine. Trace the steps in this history by which the mind of the Son of Man arrived at this result. First, we find the human wish almost unmodified, that "that, cup might pass from Him." Then He goes to the disciples, and it would appear that the sight of those disciples, cold, unsympathetic, asleep, chilled His spirit, and set that train of thought in motion which suggested the idea that perhaps the passing of that cup was not His Father's will. At all events, He goes back with this perhaps-"If this cup may not pass from me except I drink it, Thy will be done." He goes back again, and the words become more strong: "Nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt." The last time He comes, all hesitancy is gone. Not one trace of the human wish remains; strong in submission, He goes to meet His doom-" Rise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that doth betray me." This, then, is the true course and history of prayer. Hence we conclude-

      1. That prayer which does not succeed in moderating our wish, in changing the passionate desire into still submission, the anxious, tumultuous expectation into silent surrender, is no true prayer, and proves that we have not the spirit of true prayer.

      Hence, too, we learn-

      2. That life is most holy in which there is least of petition and desire, and most of waiting upon God: that in which petition most often passes into thanksgiving. In the prayer taught by Christ there is only one petition for personal good, and that a singularly simple and modest one, "Give us this day our daily bread," and even that expresses dependence far rather than anxiety or desire.

      From this we understand the spirit of that retirement for prayer into lonely tops of mountains and deep shades of night, of which we read so often in His life. It was not so much to secure any definite event as from the need of holy communion with His Father-prayer without any definite wish; for we must distinguish two things which are often confounded. Prayer for specific blessings is a very different thing from communion with God. Prayer is one thing, petition is quite another. Indeed, hints are given us which it seem that a time will come when spirituality shall be so complete, and acquiescence in the will of God so entire, that petition shall be superseded. "In that day ye shall ask me nothing;" "Again I say not I will pray the Father for you, for the Father Himself loveth you." And to the same purpose are all those passages in which He discountenances the heathen idea of prayer, which consists in urging, prevailing upon God. "They think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask Him."

      Practically then, I say, Pray as He did, till prayer makes you cease to pray. Pray till prayer makes you forget your own wish, and leave it or merge it in God's will. The Divine wisdom has given us prayer, not as a means whereby to obtain the good things of earth, but as a means whereby we learn to do without them; not as a means whereby we escape evil, but as a means whereby we become strong to meet it. "There appeared an angel unto Him from heaven, strengthening Him." That was the true reply to His prayer.

      And so, in the expectation of impending danger, our prayer has won the victory, not when we have wandered off the trial, but when, like Him, we have learned to say, "Arise, let us go to meet the evil."

      Now, contrast the moral consequences of this view of prayer with those which, as we saw, arise from the other view. Hence comes that mistrust of our own understanding which will not suffer us to dictate to God. Hence, that benevolence which, contemplating the good of the whole rather than self-interest, dreads to secure what is pleasing to self at the possible expense of the general weal. Hence, that humility which looks on ourselves as atoms, links in a mysterious chain, and shrinks from the dangerous wish to break the chain. Hence, lastly, the certainty that the All-wise is the All-good,and that "all things work together for good," for the individual as well as for the whole. Then, the selfish cry of egotism being silenced, we obtain Job's sublime spirit.

      Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?"

      There is one objection may be made to this. It may be said, If this be prayer, I have lost all I prized. It is sad and depressing to think that prayer will alter nothing, and bring nothing that I wish. All that was precious in prayer is, struck away from me.

      But one word in reply. You have lost the certainty of getting your own wish; you have got instead the compensation of knowing that the best possible, best for you, best for all, will be accomplished. Is that nothing? and will you dare to say that prayer is no boon at all unless you can reverse the spirit of your Master's prayer, and say, "Not as Thou wilt, but as I will?"

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