MY Brethren in Christ,--The questions which we have just been considering address themselves to your work; but the enquiry which we have now reached is aimed at what is far deeper than even your work for God in your parishes. It deals with that which must be the one true preparation for all real work,--with the state of your own souls, with the furnishing of your own spirits. It contains within itself two distinct and most important enquiries, into each of which I desire to enter with you separately, and will therefore, for the present, confine myself to the first of these. This is addressed specially to those who seek the higher order of the ministry, and have therefore need of the greatest strength to meet their greater trials. But it belongs in its measure to those also who seek the office of a deacon; nay, though applying above all others to us to whom is entrusted this perilous ministry of souls, yet does it belong to every one, be he clergyman or layman, who would follow Christ, and be a partaker of His glory. It is to the question, "Will you be diligent in prayer?" that I would next call your attention.
Of the meaning of the question I need say very little. Plainly, it refers to all descriptions of prayers,--to private, social, public, stated, occasional, ejaculatory prayers: [143/144] in all it requires from you the promise of diligence. Nor need I say much of what constitutes diligence in prayer. It is not, of course, merely the giving up to them any great length of time: though under ordinary circumstances without length of time given to them, where such time is at our command, there can be no true diligence in prayer. But for true diligence there must be far more than this: there must be that full application of the heart and mind; that lifting up of the soul to God; that drawing out of the affections after Him; that cleaving of the desires to Him; that ardour and yet that patience; that humility and yet that boldness, which time cannot measure; which make long prayers seem short to him who offers them, and short prayers, if necessity shall make them such, count as long prayers with Him who for Christ's sake receives mercifully the soul that followeth hard after Him.
This, then, is what you promise: and, believe me, beloved brethren, there can be nothing of deeper moment for the success of your ministry. Indeed, whilst we may find instances of success, and sometimes of great and most unlikely success, in the ministry of those who have lacked almost every other qualification, there can, I believe, be no instances found of a successful ministry which was not full of prayers. Turn where we may we find the praying ministry the successful ministry. To enumerate the instances which establish this relation between supplication and success would be, indeed, to give you the list of all who in their day have done great things for Christ and for their brethren. We may begin with him who in so many respects is the type of all his fellows in the ministry, the holy [144/145] apostle St. Paul, who in every letter assures his converts that "night and day he is praying for them exceedingly;" that he is "praying always for them;" that "always in every prayer of his for them all, he is making intercession with joy." Who could say to the Roman Christians, "God is my witness . . . that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers;" to the Ephesians, "I cease not to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers;" and to the Thessalonians, "We give thanks to God always for you, making mention of you in our prayers;" and to Timothy, "I thank God . . . that without ceasing I have remembrance of thee in my prayers night and day;" and to Philemon, "I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers." And if we pass on from the apostles' time to that of those who immediately followed them, we find in like manner St. Polycarp, when troubles assailed the Church, "retiring with a few companions from the city, and continuing day and night doing no other thing than praying on behalf of all men, and for the Churches throughout all the world, which was his accustomed use." In this same habitual practice was, no doubt, the strength of that great man, Cardinal Borromeo, who, in spite of the many corruptions of the faith with which the Church of Rome was deformed, reached to a pitch of holiness which few have exceeded, and, without any great natural abilities, wrought everywhere around him a marvellous work of social and spiritual renovation; of whom we are told that "he counted addiction to prayer no [145/146] less the aid of his episcopate than the delight of his soul, and never attempted any great work without specially commending it to the prayers of holy men;" and of whom, again, we read that, being in the habit of giving five hours of the twenty-four to prayer and meditation, if any greater matter than usual threatened either himself or the Church, he would spend the whole of the night which followed his busy day in watching and supplication.
Nor is it difficult to see why the habit of prayer is indeed of the very first importance. For, first, this must be so, from the very constitution of our office. That office is a part of the ministry of the Spirit: it has its rise from the coming of the Comforter and the gifts of Pentecost. Though their designation to the office was from the Lord before His ascension, the apostles themselves "tarried at Jerusalem till they were endued with" this "power from on high." It was when He ascended up on high that He gave gifts to men, "and He gave some apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers." [Eph. iv. 11.]
Here was the origin of the Christian ministry. It is a dispensation of the Spirit. From that is all its authority, all its strength, all its efficacy. When we speak with power, it is because the Holy Ghost speaks by us to hearts which, but that His breath breathed upon them, would be hard beneath our words as the nether mill-stone. When we perform the acts which He has set us to perform, they are effectual acts, and not empty mocking appearances, because He works them by us. Thus it is that in Holy Baptism, though administered by [146/147] our feebleness, infants are regenerated and grafted into Christ: thus it is that we break the bread and pour out the wine, and faithful souls verily and indeed eat spiritually the Flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His Blood: thus it is that when we use, as He directs, the keys of His kingdom, the currents of grace are stayed or poured out upon the souls committed to us: thus it is that, when we declare His pardon to the penitent, the blessed sound of absolution steals through the listening car into the waiting soul. All obtain alike their power from this one great truth,--that we are in the kingdom of His grace; that the Holy Ghost the Comforter is with us; and that our ministry, which would be in itself so poor and helpless, is full of all the mighty and marvellous operations of the powers of the world to come.
Now, then, from this it follows of necessity that a praying ministry must be a powerful ministry. For it is prayer which joins our weakness to God's strength; it is prayer which honours God; it is in answer to prayer that the Blessed Spirit works; it is by prayer that we awaken that breath of His without which all is dry, and dark, and dead.
He, then, that goes without prayer about his ministry defies a host of cruel enemies to instant battle, and leaves behind him all his strength. Samson shorn of his locks of might is a feeble image of such a miserable man; for worse than Philistines are lying in wait against him, and before him is a more shameful overthrow, a darker blindness, and a more hopeless degradation than that which overtook the weakened Nazarite.
But this is not all. For not only must this be so because the whole strength of our ministry depends upon [147/148] the direct personal work of God the Holy Ghost, but further, it is also true in those parts of our office in which we are fellow-workers with God. For, first, the whole of our ministry will more or less be coloured by our own spiritual character. As we are real or unreal, carnal or spiritual, earthly or heavenly, so will also be our ministry. If we are sayers of words, our life will be formal, and it will inevitably tend to engender formalists. If we are cold, dogmatic, dry, exact in outward observances, but withal of an unloving spirit, our people will be cold, quarrelsome, and unloving dogmatizers also. If, on the other hand, we through God's grace have learned to lie low before the Cross of Christ, if our burden has there dropped off from us, if the Blood of sprinkling has fallen on us, if our spirits have been set free, if in the joy of Christ's atonement we have learned with open face to say, "Our Father, which art in heaven," if we "walk in the Spirit," something of all this will commonly, by the working of God's great grace, be stamped on some of those amongst whom we labour. There are, of course, exceptions: for God is a Sovereign, and He works as a Sovereign; and it is ours to watch in meek patience all His working, whether it be as we would have it or not; but as the general rule, the spirit of the pastor's own soul breathes through his ministry. That he should therefore be a man of prayer is of the first importance for its success, for without this He cannot be himself a man of God. And if he would rise to high measures of holiness, he must be a man of much prayer; in this all the saints agree. "If thou wouldst be free from the entanglements of thy passions," says St. Anselm, "rise by night, and seek thy [148/149] freedom in prayers and tears before God." "For though," says St. Bernard, "the love of God tends always towards Him, yet sometimes does it burst forth with intenser longings; above all, at the hour of prayer." [Serm. xlvi., vol. ii. p. 159.] But apart from attaining to great holiness, without diligent prayer the minister of God can least of all men be even safe. For against him, for his office' sake, Satan rages specially, and bends all his weapons. And it is from the coldness and infrequency of our prayers that he succeeds so often. For not to speak now of professedly careless and openly irreligious pastors, from whom may God in His mercy deliver us, every great ministerial fall could doubtless be traced, if we could see all, to the want or the intermission of prayer; or to the allowance of carelessness in its exercise. For this opens the door for the entrance of every kind of evil. How often has the want of watching unto prayer first allowed the wandering gaze, which stirred up the evil imagination, which then remained on the mind as a defiling stain, until at last the evil is accomplished, and "lust hath conceived and brought forth sin." [James i. 15.] How often have worldly principles grown strong within the soul in the slackness of those prayers which once kept them down. For how many a sudden and surprising fall, as they seem to men whose eyes can scan only the bare outside of facts, has retirement neglected and hurried prayer been long secretly preparing: how must the roots of private devotion have been suffered to decay and waste, before the breath of a summer's evening could lay low the mighty tree which had braved unmoved a thousand wintry whirlwinds. How would diligence in prayer have [149/150] kept these men from falling! how would it have stopped the avenues of the heart against carnal imaginations, and laid waste the springing thorns of worldly desires! Vanity and self-consciousness, those sore enemies which are the destruction of so many pastors through their eating out the heart of our public ministrations, would find no room to enter, if in them the soul was drawn up to God, as it would be, if those public offices were but the carrying on of that secret communing with Him in which we had been privately engaged. Such communion, moreover, would fill us with a sense of His majesty for Whom we speak and before Whom we stand to minister. If we came from weeping over our own sins in our secret chamber, we should have a quickness of eye which would shew us how to deal with our people, and a touch so tender that they would bear its necessary handling.
Moreover, as diligent prayer is thus needful for the strength of our ministry as a whole, so is it for all its separate parts.
How, for instance, shall we dare to speak to others, unless we have sought for light and teaching on our knees? "God's minister," says our own Wicliffe, "must be a man of prayer, for he needs the internal instruction of the primary teacher." But, further, it is not only a knowledge of God's truth that we require; we need to be guided into the choice of that truth which is most profitable to our flocks, and to be taught how to utter it aright: and here, too, success is to be won upon our knees, so that, as St. Augustine says, "We may not doubt that this end is to be gained far more by the devotion of our prayers than by any power of eloquence; by our prayers for ourselves and for those to whom [150/151] we are about to speak; so that we should be prayers before we are speakers." "For," he says again, "if Esther prayed before she spoke to the king for the temporal advantage of her people, that God would put a word into her mouth, how much more should they pray to receive a like gift, who labour in the word and doctrine for men's eternal salvation." [De Doctrina, lib. iv. c. 33 and 63.] This, we are told, was the custom of our own saintly Fletcher, whose preaching was perpetually preceded, accompanied, and succeeded by prayer, in which he specially sought to be led to a "subject adapted to the conditions of his people; and asked for himself in treating it wisdom, utterance, and power," for them a "serious frame, an unprejudiced mind, and a retentive heart;" and who ever deemed that he could trace in his after success the coldness or the fervour of his prayers. In which conclusion agrees one whose habitual calmness rarely kindled even into fervour: "At the house of prayer," says Erasmus, "let the preacher give himself to profound prayer, and seek wisdom and speech from Him who openeth the mouths of babes and sucklings. It is beyond belief how much light, and vigour, and strength, and readiness Hows hence to the preacher."
Who that has tried it will not confirm his words? Who knows not how, as he kneels before God in prayer, seeking for some instructive subject, or the power to handle it, the shadows fly away, the light breaks in, and where all was disorder and darkness, the confused elements now arrange themselves in order and perspicuity before him? Who that has tried knows not what it is to have knelt down with a dry unfeeling spirit which [151/152] will not care for others, which looks coldly even up to the cross of Christ, which seems so inwardly congealed that no power can melt it, and to find, as he intercedes for others, that the evil spirit does depart from him, and angels come and minister instead.
As to every part of our ministry all this is true. How can we make our pastoral visits profitable unless the Spirit of the Lord give us eyes of living insight, hearts of tender feeling, and words dipped, before we speak them, in heavenly wisdom? How can we enter into the spiritual trials of our people, unless God teach our own minds spiritual realities? and how are these to be learned but in that union of "prayer, meditation, and temptation" which, in the words of Luther, "make a minister?" How can we intercede for our people unless God give us the spirit of prayer? How can we go on striving with and for the obdurate unless we can, like the holy St. Bernard, turn ourselves to what, under a like trial, he calls his "accustomed arms of prayers and tears on their behalf?" [Epist. 222.] How can we walk consistently before them unless He hold us up? In what turn of our ministerial life can we be safe without this help? How can we bear its successes without our head being turned and vain-glory springing up, unless in answer to our prayers He keep us humble? How can we endure all the anxiety, troubles, disappointments, and bitter griefs of this service, unless we can fly to Him as our refuge and our strength; unless we can say, with St. Anselm of old, "But if it be not in the counsels of Thy eternal Will that Thou shouldest by me feed and bless Thy sheep, what do I here? Why do I tarry amongst these tumults, [152/153] if I am not, through Thy grace, to promote the salvation of my brother? Grant me, then, I beseech Thee, by all Thy pity, Thy heavenly consolation; for this heavy weight, which Thou hast laid upon me, I know not how to bear, and I dare not lay aside. O God, the helper of all that trust in Thee, let not Thy grace forsake, let not Thy mercy leave me."
If, then, a life of prayer be thus essential to our safety and to our success, surely our Church acts tenderly and wisely in pledging us, at the solemn hour of our ordination, to strive earnestly to make it ours.
But there are other reasons, also, why we should be led to make this engagement; and amongst the chief of these is one as to which I wish to speak to you in some detail. It is well, then, that we should be solemnly engaged to lead a life of prayer, because, rich in blessing, nay, even essential to us as it is, it is one which we can never lead without overcoming many and grievous hindrances. Let us, then, consider for a little what these hindrances are, and how they are to be overcome.
First amongst them stands that which is indeed at the root of all, that we have earthly hearts which naturally start aside from communion with God. Which of us have ever tried to pray, and not found out for himself the reality and the strength of this hindrance? There is, of course, no difficulty in devoting a certain space of time to going through certain forms of devotion. But how hard is it, not once or twice in our lives, but alas! often and often, to do more than this. Merely to realize thoroughly the presence of God is no slight difficulty; harder still is it to believe that the voice of our prayer reaches Him; that in praying we are [153/154] doing anything more than practising a certain art upon ourselves,--seeking to attune, so to speak, our own spirits by putting them for a season into a certain attitude, and awakening in them certain desires, that they may receive and retain a certain impress. But how utterly unlike is this to real prayer. For in prayer the soul should indeed breathe itself out in aspirations after the personal God. And as prayer attains to its true character of reaching forth after God, there should be an absolute forgetting of self. In petitions indeed for earthly mercies, or even for the pardon of sin, or for power to resist temptation, or to overcome evil within ourselves, or for the direct gift of special graces,--in these and the like there must be much of self, as the object, mingling with our prayers: we are, as it were, bringing ourselves consciously before God, with our fears, our wants, and our desires, and our mind must therefore dwell much upon ourselves; and when, therefore, the first difficulty of realizing God's presence has been in any degree overcome, if our desire of what we ask for is strong, it does impart of itself a sort of earnestness to our prayers. But this, if our prayers end in this and reach no higher, if they do not mount up to the glory of God as their ultimate object, is, after all, but a dangerous earnestness, which we shall do well to suspect. Baal's worshippers cried unto him from morning until evening, and cut themselves with knives and lancets, in the passionate paroxysms of their earthly earnestness, as they cried importunately unto him, "O Baal, hear us!"
With such earnestness almost all forms of false worship abound; marking plainly that the true object of prayer, God, in His Person and His Holiness, hardly enters into [154/155] the cause of this vehemence; shewing that it is the passionate longing for some other end, and not the following hard of the soul after God as its greatest object, which blows into a furnace-heat the breath of this importunity. But from the higher exercises of worship these lower ends are necessarily excluded, and it is in these, therefore, that we find clearly how palsying and benumbing to the soul is its prevailing earthliness. When we would lie low before the Holy One in simple self-abasement; when we would look up and adore the everlasting Father, the co-eternal Son, our ever-blessed Redeemer, the co-equal Spirit, our Sanctifier; nay, even when we would "praise God in His Holiness," when we would simply supplicate that His will be done in us and by us, then how often do we find closed against us, as by walls of brass, the firmament of His power. How hard is it to shut the world out. How soon does adoration drop into mere earthly musing. How, when we have fixed for a moment our thoughts on these everlasting verities, do we find, on self-inspection, that before we were well aware of it, some creeping mist of the earth had overspread our spirit, and shut out from it all the glories of the heavenly vision. Or if we have set ourselves to pray for our people, for our Church's revival, for the breathing over her of the breath of the Spirit, for the awakening of souls that are asleep, for the conversion of souls dead in trespasses and sins, for the baring of the Lord's Arm, for the lifting up of the cross of Christ in its life-giving power and glory, how languid do we find our spirits, how cold our desires, how formal our petitions, how short-breathed our intercessions, as though the very [155/156] atmosphere of those heavenly heights were too pure and keen for our grosser nature. Here, then, is our first besetting hindrance. An earthly heart in its dulness and its coldness continually seems as if it would not and could not be wakened up to pour out before God the melody of a contrite, trusting, loving, worshipping spirit.
But further, this first difficulty is aggravated by others. Thus with many of us it really is hard to find time for prolonged, continuous, constant prayer. To say nothing of other interruptions,--which, alas! in spite of the comparative shelter afforded to us by our separated life, do yet abound,--even our ministerial occupations seem often to stand in our way. We are, perhaps, in a large parish, and its claims on our time, and thought, and attention are incessant and harassing; or we are in a small one, and the call and charge of every charitable as well as directly moral or religious interest in it devolves upon us personally; we must in effect keep the school, or it will not be kept; we must manage the clothing-club, and the coal-club, and the lending library; we must tend the sick bodies of our poor, and advise them in their difficulties; then there are sermons to be written, and reading to be kept up, and perhaps constant public services to be conducted, and so there is very little time left for real, secret, undisturbed, concentrated communion with God. About all these hindrances, moreover, there is this special danger, that they are all compounded out of work which must be done, and that they all have about them a savour of directly serving God, and so we are easily persuaded to let these Martha-like engagements stand instead of sitting ourselves at the feet of Jesus, hearing His words, and living in secret [156/157] communion with Him. Whence it follows that the more direct is the apparent service in these distractions, the more dangerous they are as hindrances of secret prayer. For whatever it be which hinders that, does really breathe over our souls the drought of death.
For nothing can supply its place. Without it not only our services to others will become perfunctory, or selfish, or busy with externals, and wanting in the holiness and unction of heart-work where Christ has healed the heart; but even beyond this, our public prayers themselves will become cold, formal, and unreal. This is a special danger, the extent of which it is impossible, without experience and much self-watchfulness, to estimate at all aright. When we are first led to take part frequently in public prayers, we seem to be brought into a new atmosphere of devotion. And so indeed we are; and if we are able to offer up our souls to God in them, we shall learn more and more the blessedness of possessing such opportunities of service. But there is about them, as about all spiritual advantages, a special character of danger. Formality lies ever in wait for us under cover of such devotions. We may too soon grow to substitute presence at, or the repetition of, prayers and praises for praise and prayer. We may even be tempted to abbreviate private prayer, under the excuse that we give so much time to public prayer. Whereas I believe that the experience of every one who watches himself closely will prove to him that an increase of the opportunities of public prayer makes an increase in private prayer only the more necessary, unless those public prayers are to be let to grow into formality. Depend upon it, there must be a certain proportion between the [157/158] two. You must keep alive the essential habit of setting your soul alone with God through the Mediator, of uniting your own soul's cry with His intercessions in hours of secret communion with Him, if you would keep the heart of your public offices living and sound. Here then, again, is a great danger, which makes it right that you should be pledged of specific obligation to a life of prayer.
But again; our danger herein springs not only from a worldly heart, nor only from ministerial and other occupations, but also from idleness. This is a great snare; often, too, a snare when it is the least suspected. Many of those who seem the busiest are, in the deep of their hearts, the idlest men. There is no other such impregnable fortress in which idleness can entrench itself as business. There are really few more common dangers than a busy idleness. For idleness is not really the opposite of occupation, but of the energetic exertion of our faculties. Now prayer, to be real, must be the concentrated energy of our whole spirit. We must open our whole selves; and we must open ourselves to God. There is nothing which, is at once so re-animating and so exhausting as prayer. This pouring out of ourselves, this resolute holding of our souls in a fixed attitude, be it of surveying sin for confession, or listening for absolution, or of intercession, or of supplication, or of praise, requires the fullest tension of our powers; and the realizing God's presence, the laying hold by faith of Him as our portion, the casting ourselves indeed upon Christ the Lord, the committing the whole stream and utterance of thought, longing, feeling, to blend with His prevailing intercessions; the guarding against anything [158/159] coming between Him and us; the watching, above all, against the intrusion of self between ourselves and Him, against the growing up of a morbid self-contemplation under a religious light, instead of the simple fixing of the eye of faith on Him,--all this, depend upon it, taxes to the utmost all the faculties of our souls. From this, then, it is that idleness tempts us to shrink. We are tempted to muse, to lose ourselves in abstractions, to waste our time of devotion in an endless flitting of the soul from thought to thought; settling nowhere, mastering nothing, exhausting nothing; or else to be contented with the mere hearing, or reading, or repeating of the words of prayer, or with the glow of mind which attends on social prayer, or with the pleasure which the decent or gorgeous externals of devotion call up in some minds; we are tempted, that is, by every conceivable temptation to escape from the tension, and closeness, and exhaustion of wrestling till the day break with the man who appears unto us, of saying to Him with the inner voice of the spirit He is holding up to strive with Him, "I will not let Thee go except Thou bless me." [Gen. xxxii. 26.] Yet this, and this only, is true, real prayer. And as our natural indolence of spirit must shrink back from this, here again is a new and great danger, and a new reason why, in our solemn ordination hour, we should be pledged to this difficult but yet absolutely essential habit.
But there is yet another cause of difficulty within ourselves, which I may not pass over wholly without notice. The want of practice makes prayer difficult. Though every good thing within us is the direct working of the grace of God, though our very prayer is but the breath [159/160] of the soul's desire which He has Himself kindled, though our aspiration after Him is but the expression from our soul of His drawing us unto Himself, yet is it true that every one of our graces, and pre-eminently this of prayer, are, whenever they are real, habits, and not separate acts. From which it follows that we can no more pray aright than do anything else aright, unless in practice our separate acts grow up into habits. No one, therefore, who is short, or infrequent, or hurried, or slovenly in his prayers, can really win or retain the great grace of prayerfulness. And to interrupt our forming habits of prayer, all the hindrances which we have already considered exert their full power. The earthly heart pleads for pauses and intermissions; business and occupation break in upon the hour of devotion; and idleness, with its softness and its opiates, resolves the separate acts of supplication into such formalities or such self-indulgences, that they cannot by an endless multiplication of themselves form any habit of true prayer. So that for this reason, too, we are brought at our ordination face to face with the difficulty, that we may see and know it beforehand, and set ourselves in God's strength in very deed to overcome it.
But even yet we have not exhausted all our hindrances to this most needful habit. For besides those which arise from ourselves, there are those which are stirred up by our great spiritual enemy. And these are neither few nor light. He bends, indeed, the whole force of his temptations to impede us here; for he well knows the strength of the weakest servant of God who flies in his weakness to prayer. He knows that all mighty works for God are done by God's saint upon his knees; [160/161] that it is from his hour of prayer that the preacher draws his true power for converting the careless, for awakening the drowsy, for comforting the downcast, for confirming and stirring up the saint. He knows the insight into God's truth, the love of God's word, the self-knowledge, the humility, the faith, the ardent thirst after God, the repose on Christ, the simple trust to His Cross, the value of His atonement, the dread and hatred of sin, the tenderness of conscience, and the patience and gentleness towards others which are bred in God's servants as they commune face to face with their Lord; and so, above and beside all other temptations, he haunts their hours of prayer with his pestilent presence, and his most numerous and most dangerous darts. He works upon us through every one of our own natural weaknesses; stirring up at one time all the natural corruption of the earthly heart, that he may raise so thick a cloud of worldliness that the breath of our fainting prayer may be beaten by it back to the earth. He acts at another time through the weakness of those around us, enticing us, through their lower standard of practice, to deem our warmer desires extravagant, and so to drop our own higher aspirations to the established level of short, or rare, or cold devotions. Specially, too, I think, may any one who watches himself closely trace to his devices the hindrances to prayer which spring from the abundance of other occupations. For who has not known how some other duty rises at times suddenly before our eyes, when we are on our knees, with an urgency of importunity for its immediate discharge, and a pictured necessity for everything being set aside to secure its being instantly attended to, which bear no [161/162] sort of relation to the estimate we should form of its importance when we are off our knees? who cannot trace in all this one of the cunning sleights of the enemy to lead us away from that communion with God in which only we can indeed find the common basis for the performance of any duty. And so it is with every other form of difficulty or temptation which may hinder our prayers. He only, who knows every avenue of the heart of man, because He is the true man, and because for our sakes He too endured the breathing over His pure soul of the poisonous whisper of the great enemy's lies,--He only knows through what secret channels the evil one is permitted, for our trial, and for God's final glory, to harass our prayers. He only can, and He assures us that He will, for every one who in His strength seeks indeed to resist the enemy, so utterly rebuke him that he shall flee from us.
Great need have we of this help. For there are special evils which deface and weaken the prayers even of the most earnest Christian, if he is left even for a season to himself. There is the great evil of an unholy boldness. How many men manifestly confound a rash familiarity with a childlike confidence! How do they speak to God as if He were not in heaven, or as if they were not upon the earth! What rash utterances burst from their unchastened lips! what daring expressions of their religious opinions, hardly veiled under the decent formality of an address to the Most High! What indevout repetitions of their favourite views pervade what they call their prayers! How little in all this is there of that deep prostration of the whole being before God, which leads beings who approach nearest to [162/163] the eternal throne, while with two wings they fly, with twain to cover their faces, and with twain their feet!
Or if this danger is escaped, what timidity is there in the prayers of many. Often they seem to be painful deprecations of a being terrible only for His power, rather than the breathings of a child's heart, pouring into the bosom of infinite love its cry of "Abba Father."
Or if this timidity is overcome, how often is it replaced by coldness and formality. The warmth of prayer is so soon chilled down; the very atmosphere of the earth seems to congeal it into the frost-work of formalism; it is too often regarded by us as an act which is appointed to be done, and which we need not therefore fear to do, and from which, when done, certain results will follow. There must, we know, be a right intention, and what attention there can be, and then the end will be obtained. But oh! how unlike is this to the soul breathing out its sorrow, laying down its burden, and drawing in, from the Face of the Almighty Father, the radiance of holy brightness, which is to be seen, even upon the commonest features of him who has indeed prayed, when he comes down from the mountain of communion with his God.
Such, my brethren, are our difficulties; but let me not close with this somewhat discouraging enumeration. Let me rather suggest to you a few words at once of encouragement and counsel as to the mode in which they may be met and overcome.
First, then, for encouragement.
Many, subtle, and recurring as these hindrances arc, the life of every saint of God proves that they may be over-mastered. They have beset every child of God, [163/164] and by every one they have been in the end successfully resisted. We may be assured that we, too, may over them be made "more than conquerors."
Only let us strive aright. And, first, as the root of all our difficulty lies in the hindrance to communion with God which must be found in an earthly heart, we must begin by striving against the rule of this master-evil. Here, as elsewhere, we are met by the paradox of the Christian life; by man's weakness and man's strength. We must overcome the earthly heart if we would pray, and it is by prayer that it must be overcome. Communion with God must raise our affections heavenwards, but we must watch as well as pray, if we would commune with our Lord. No man can rise from a slothful, or self-indulgent, or worldly life, into the heights of heavenly contemplation. As well might the snared bird, with the clinging lime upon his wing, expect to soar upward to the skies, as the soul which is heavy with earthly cares, and pleasure, and indulgences, mount up to the pure atmosphere of God's revealed presence. The man who would indeed, in his hour of prayer, find the presence of God, and hold communion with his Lord, must live in habitual watchfulness; must taste lightly and with self-recollectedness even of lawful pleasures. The same rule, too, must govern his business as his pleasures. He may, indeed, fearlessly discharge whatever duty God puts upon him, and he may do it with all his might; but he must be careful not to lade himself with the thick clay of unnecessary occupations. And in the busiest life there must be pauses and retirements; times for thought and self-examination; times when the overheated wheels of continual motion may rest and cool; [164/165] times when the dust which will settle on the soul amidst even necessary worldly business may be swept aside; times when in the stillness of the spirit the dews of God's grace may fall with refreshing power upon its drooping verdure.
Nor is this enough: if we would be men of prayer, we must watch as carefully against idleness as against over-occupation. The soul must be braced up by holy resolutions and earnest efforts for the severe reality of converse with God, and it must be kept from slothfulness by work for God. There is a dreamy, listless, morbid condition of soul, the sure consequence and the curse of indolence, which is most utterly opposed to true prayer. Many, alas! are its victims, and often most unconscious of their state. In such souls prayer degenerates into an unreal self-contemplation. The man thinks himself growing in spirituality, when he is only practising on himself with increasing power the delusion of the hypochrondriac, who mistakes the morbid fancies of his own sickened nerves for the verities of external reality. Prayer must make a life of action spiritual, and action must make a life of prayer real. Here, as elsewhere, we must "strive" (energize) "to enter in at the straight gate, for many shall seek to enter in and shall not be able." Practice, too, will help you, if you will force yourself to use it; no activity in work for God need prevent your doing so; you may fill up the inevitable chinks of the busiest life with continual prayer. Mingle it thus with all you do. Before all ministerial exertion, before study, before preaching, before visiting the sick, pray evermore; never dare to approach these holy things but with a soul which has been just before calmed, cleansed, elevated, and strengthened by [165/166] communion with God. And then, in your work, as well as before it, pray. Shoot up from the midst of the busiest employments, these arrows of the Lord's deliverance; yea, and follow your work with prayer; let secret prayer harrow in the seed of God's Word whensoever you have sown it, whether broadcast in preaching, or by dropping its living truth into separate souls. And then set apart some special times for more special prayer; your birthday, your ordination-day, your days of thanksgiving for great mercies, your anniversaries of sadness, may all afford you such opportunities; and as you thus resolutely practise it, you will gain the true power of prayer. Only let no difficulty daunt you. Resolve to overcome, and you will succeed. Difficulties in prayer are a mark of the need of practice, and it is by God's blessing upon resolute practice that they must be overcome. If at your hour of prayer you feel disinclined to devotion, conquer that disinclination, not by reasoning with yourself, but by beginning to pray. Henry Martyn records that his heart was often warmed in its utmost coldness by his beginning to intercede for those whom he loved. If when you are rising from your knees you look sadly back on wandering thoughts, on desires which have been beaten down to the earth, and upon scattered imaginations, instead of yielding in the conflict, kneel down and pray again your unprayed prayer with a more earnest effort to lay all your wants, and above all, your want of the spirit of prayer, before your God. It is not written in vain, as the one law of our success here, "Continuing instant in prayer." [Rom. xii. 12.]
Here, too, must be your strength against the temptations of the enemy. Pray for the spirit of prayer; pray [166/167] for the power to pray. Prayer is eminently the gift of God. Not more directly does the sun in heaven draw out the fragrance of the spicy grove than does the light of God's countenance waken out of the waiting heart the breath of its desire. Your very prayer is given you by God--it is His work in you--His before it is yours--the working of His grace within you, without which you could never have prayed. Ask, then, continually from Him the power to ask. "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened." [Matt. vii. 7.]
Lastly, join all your prayers with a conscious intention to the intercession of your Lord. It is through Him only that you can approach unto the Father; into that presence you can only enter sprinkled with His Blood. He takes you by the hand and leads you in; He offers up for you the poor earth-bound prayer, which scarcely struggles upward from your heavy heart; but joined to His intercession it mounts at once to God. He bears the golden censer, and much incense is there in it, even the prayers of all saints. And with that prevailing breath your creeping supplications intermingle. "He ever liveth to make intercession for us." [Heb. vii. 25.] Fear not, then; for the intercession of the Eternal Son must lose its power and prevalence before the faintest whisper of the penitent heart can be repulsed or overlooked. Think of this in your hour of weakness and despondency; think of this, and lift up your head, for your prayers, even yours, offered up by Christ, shall enter into the ears of the Lord God of Sabaoth, "and whatsoever ye ask, believing, that ye shall receive." [Matt. xxi. 22.]