Project Canterbury

Some Defects in English Religion and Other Sermons

By John Neville Figgis

London: Robert Scott, 1917.
Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1917.

[130] XIV

Problems of Prayer

"Ask, and it shall be given you." ST. MATT. vii. 7.

THIS evening I want to answer one or two difficulties in regard to prayer; for it has been felt by many people as presenting great problems. The first, and, as I believe, most important problem about prayer is: What does it effect? Some people are for saying that the only effect of prayer is on our minds; it composes and calms the mind; it unites us with the will of God; it teaches us resignation to all that is; but it in no way alters the course of events. That, however, I think to be wholly wrong.

People ask: How can prayer change the will of God? They say that it is blasphemous to suppose that our prayers can have any result beyond ourselves, because God's will is unchangeable, that we ought not even to wish to change it.

Now, God's will (willing the good of His creatures and of the world) is constant, it does not change; but the conditions under which that [130/131] good can be brought about are affected by human action of all kinds.

If man is free, then the good of all mankind can never be completely fulfilled until man's freedom is always and invariably exercised aright; that is, so long as sin remains, God's will, which is the perfect good of His creatures, cannot be fulfilled.

So it is with prayer. It may be that God intends and desires for us certain goods, but that He will not give us them unless we are willing to ask for them. God in that way acts precisely like a wise human parent. You may have many boons, gifts, pleasures that you are willing and, indeed, desirous to give to your children, but you will teach them that they are not to have them unless they ask properly.

Our prayers are just that "saying please," without which the will of God for our betterment can never come to fruition. So, then, let us get rid of the notion that our prayer effects nothing, that its results are only subjective, that it does not cause things to happen which without our prayer would not happen, things other than changes in our mind, for no one doubts that prayer affects the mind of the person that prays.

Once we realize that prayer, that asking, is the condition without which God will not in many cases give, the condition, the sine qua non, of the [131/132] fulfilment of His will for our good, then all the objections arising from the immutability of God fall to the ground. We must remember that God's immutability, like His omnipotence, must always be explained by His love. People have got a very wrong idea of His immutability often, which makes them think of God as not love. But love is the most inexhaustible, various, and changeful spirit that there is. God's love never changes, but it expresses itself in various ways; and so His love for us would not be love if there were not matters about which our desiring to ask Him were not the condition of that love's fulfilment.

Having got so far, and swept away that difficulty, we must consider the next. Our Lord says: "Ask, and it shall be given you." "Whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive."

Now here, especially in face of the war, many difficulties are felt. We know, as a matter of fact, that in the literal sense such desires as we have for the safety of all our friends could not be fulfilled. We know that if everybody in this country were to pray hard that his own friends might be preserved, it could not be fulfilled literally in all cases. I do not say but that there may be, and very often is, some special answer to the depth of prayer of some person. But at any rate [132/133] we know that with war going on, unless the war is to stop, there must be some people (and we know how vast the numbers are in this case) there must be some people who are killed and wounded and taken captive.

Also, we know that two sides cannot win the war. We may pray quite sincerely, and we ought to pray (it is nonsense to say we ought not) for victory. And our enemies, also, or some of them, may do the same. But both sides cannot win. Nor can we say that victory is necessarily the reward of justice, because a nation may be in the right in some particular quarrel, and yet through its own sloth or selfishness in the past be unable to make its just cause prevail. Besides, sometimes a cause which is just may be oppressed by the will of God for the benefit of the world. We know very well that the Church has gained and not lost by the death of the martyrs. And it is so in the affairs of nations. We cannot judge the right by the event, and say that the cause which is victorious is the just one. At the same time, no nation is victorious in war without some good quality.

How, then, are we to pray? Are we, as some people say, to leave off praying for any earthly benefit and only to pray for spiritual and moral improvement, which we know to be God's will?

I think that is not the case. It seems to me [133/134] that we are shown the way to pray by our Lord's own example. Our Lord prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane for earthly benefit. He prayed "O, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me." But you see there is a proviso "If it be possible," and we know that it went on, "Nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt." In other words, no earthly benefit, that is, neither health, nor wealth, nor friends, nor success, nor good name for ourselves; nor victory, nor power, nor freedom, nor even existence for our country; none of these things can we certainly say are for our benefit. We do not know, nobody knows, what in the course of the world's changes is good either for the individual or for the nation, and we can only pray, as our Lord Himself prayed, "If it be possible, let this thing we want come to pass," and pray also for resignation: "Nevertheless, not my will but Thine be done." We `must remember that that prayer was prayed in the moment of His agony; had it been fulfilled literally, it would have destroyed the purpose of His life on earth. His prayer meant in His mind: If it were possible that His work could be fulfilled without that condition, without that final passion. It could not. And so His prayer was answered only in the sense that He was united with God's will, and events took their natural course.

[135] All our prayers must be in that way. He tells us to pray in His name. That does not mean tacking on the words "Through our Lord Jesus Christ" at the end of our prayers. Some people seem to think that to pray in Jesus' name they have only to use those words. That is not so. We pray in Jesus' name when we pray in His Spirit, as we might suppose Him praying in our position. And, as I say, for all earthly, for all temporal good, that prayer in Gethsemane gives the model. There is no reason why we should not pray for them. He prayed for temporal good, and our prayer may well be the condition of God's giving us the boon we asked. God is our Father, and we should learn to speak to Him without shyness or reserve, naturally as children, and we cannot do that if we leave out half the needs and interests of our human life. It is quite right for children or schoolboys to pray that they may win a game, and they should not be told it is silly. It is quite right that we should pray for the success of our plans and efforts. So let us pray without reserve, telling God everything we want, but always praying when it comes to earthly boons, with this proviso in our mind, " Not as I will, but as Thou wilt."

Lastly, we come to prayer for spiritual and moral improvement. This we know to be according to the will of God, and so it would seem [135/136] that, if we pray for these things and they do not come, then there must be something wrong with our prayer, that we are not sincere, or that we are not, as our Lord said, believing.

Now that may be so. Very often we are not sincere with ourselves. Still more often we do not really believe. Spiritual changes and moral revolution are more difficult, not less, than the physical; though it is very hard for any one who knows his own weakness really to believe in God's grace to make him better. So it may be that we are not believing. But I think that it is not always the case. Sometimes it is possible that we pray with sincerity and faith for some special grace, that we pray against impurity, or pride, or selfishness, or sloth, and yet we find that we seem to make no progress. I think that may be true. Sometimes, of course, it is not true. But sometimes it is, and I believe the reason to be this: that we only know part of ourselves; we do not know our own character fully, and we cannot tell at what rate it is well that we should make progress. You know very well that this is the case with regard to education. If you have a boy who is very fond of cricket, and likely to be good at it, you will probably find him humble about his faults therein, anxious to be told, ready to go through any drudgery to improve, and, indeed, to give up all other of [136/137] his occupations to that end. If you have a boy or girl fond of music and talented, you will find them willing very often to spend all their time in study, even to spend indoors that period when they ought to be out of doors, to the risk of injuring their health and prospects, so ready are they in that particular respect to improve, so anxious are they to become proficient, whereas in other ways they maybe indolent and unwilling to learn.

Now, everybody knows that it is unwise to let a boy or girl specialize too early and to let them run only on the line of their own interests. It is not wise for any one too early to narrow their interests into one groove, and we know that if you leave a young person alone, that is almost certain to happen.

May not that be true also in our moral and spiritual life? We see in our characters some fault, some weakness, a temptation, for instance, to cowardice or to impurity, and these things trouble us. We cannot bear them, we are distressed, and we pray very ardently that they may be removed. But we do not see the other parts of our characters, and it may be that if we were to conquer that one trouble about which we think, we should never learn of our other weaknesses, and instead of improving we should give way to very great sins of pride. All of us know [137/138] people to whom that has happened; people who are full of pride, of which they are totally unaware because they are not subject to, or because they have conquered, certain sins which in other people lead to much self-contempt. You know the story of Father Stanton and the drunken postman. The drunken postman was converted, and the result of it was that he became extremely unpleasant in his family, disagreeable, proud and self-righteous. So one day Father Stanton sent for the postman and said to him "Tom, go and get roaring drunk to-night." The man replied: "Father, what do you mean? You know very well I gave that up entirely, and you know how God helps me to resist temptation." "Yes," said Father Stanton, "that is true, but you are a much worse man now than before; you are so full of conceit and pride that you are perfectly intolerable and utterly un-Christian. I liked you much better before, and that is why I tell you now to get drunk."

You must remember that that is a sort of symbol of what might go on in any one of us, and it might go on with more acuteness, according as we feel the need of some particular grace; suppose that grace wonderfully to be granted, we might go all to pieces in other respects whilst thinking that everything was right with us. That seems to be the reason why God very often [138/139] allows us to fall, to fall into the sin we most detest, for which we despise ourselves as we do not for our other sins. He allows us to fall in order that by that humiliation we may learn how slow and difficult is the path towards perfection, and how greatly we need the grace and help of Christ Jesus.

At the same time, let us remember that very often in these respects we make much more progress than we suppose. Very often, when we think temptation is as strong in its attraction as ever, we are in error. It may be our consciences are more highly sensitive and that we see things we should have passed over before. Those who have made their confession will realize how they see all kinds of sin in themselves that they had never thought of before in their earlier years, and that the sin they deplore may be the final burst of storm before the sunshine, the darkness before the dawn.

Say not the struggle nought availeth,
    The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy fainteth not, nor faileth,
    And as things have been they remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars,
    It may be in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,
    And, but for you, possess the field.

[140] For while the slow waves, vainly breaking,
    Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
    Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by Eastern windows only,
    When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
    But westward, look, the land is bright!



Project Canterbury