S. Lambert. September 17.
"YE KNOW NOT WHAT YE ASK."--S. MATTH. XX. 22.
WE shall hear this text the day after to-morrow in the course of the lessons: and it is very well fitted for the Saint of this day. S. Lambert was a holy Bishop, who lived about eleven hundred years ago, and whose one great and earnest prayer to GOD was, that he might be the means of converting all the idolaters in his province to the true faith. Nothing less. He was hardly a Bishop, when he was driven for seven years into banishment; and he had scarcely been brought back again, when he was cruelly slain by a nobleman, whom he rebuked for living in adultery. Thus it seemed as if his prayer had not been heard. He asked to spread the knowledge of the true faith, and GOD so ordered his life that he never could. GOD did better for him than he could have done for himself. He asked to be useful to one province,--GOD made him an example to the whole Church. He sought to be a missionary,--GOD willed that he should be a Martyr.
"Ye know not what ye ask." How difficult it is to believe that! What, when we have thought of a thing day and night, when we have asked GOD again and again to give it us, when we have laid out all our plans if we could but get it,--to be told, "Ye know not what ye ask!" So it is. Take the history of Rachel for an example. "Give me children, or else I die," she said to her husband Jacob. It was all in vain that he said: "Am I in GOD'S stead?" It was all in vain that he comforted her with his own love; still it was the same impatience, "Give me children, or else I die." And notice that she said not, a child, but children. One child she had, Joseph; and all went well. But as soon as her second child, Benjamin, was born--that is, as soon as her wish was accomplished, and she had children, then we read that, "as her soul was in departing, for she died, she called his name Benoni, that is, the son of my sorrow."
But yet, what are we to say to our LORD'S promise, "Ask, and it shall be given you: seek, and ye shall find?" How many persons have we all known, who when they were in sickness, earnestly cried to GOD to make them well, but they died; when they were miserably poor, prayed that they might become rich, but they never did; when a friend was in danger, besought that he might be spared to them, but he was taken away. How can these things be? Now notice what our LORD does really tell us. He says, "Ask, and it shall be given unto you." He does not say, "Ask, and that which ye ask shall be given;" but, it shall be given: that is, IT, the thing which we should ask, if we knew all. He goes on: "What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? or, if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?" Or, as it is in another Gospel, "will he for a fish offer him a scorpion?" And so He treats us as kind fathers treat their children. We ask for a stone, we ask for a serpent, we ask for a scorpion; that is, we ask for something which, like a stone, can do us no good; like a serpent, may do us harm; like a scorpion, will sting us to death. We think that what we are asking will make us happy; but GOD says: "No; I will hear what you mean to pray for; but I will not give you that which you do pray for."
And be very sure of this: it is no mark of GOD'S favour to give us worldly things that we ask for. The same S. Augustine of whom I was speaking to you the other night, says, "GOD sometimes gives us, because He is angry, what He would not give us, if He were pleased." Take an example.
The devil came before GOD with a request that he might have power to hurt holy Job. GOD granted his request. "Behold, he is in thine hand." S. Paul prayed earnestly, prayed three times, that the thorn in his flesh, which most people think was a disease in his eyes, might be taken away. GOD said, No: "My grace is sufficient for thee." What! shall GOD give to Satan and refuse S. Paul? Yes: because Satan, by getting that which he desired, should increase his damnation; and S. Paul, by being refused that for which he asked, should work out his salvation.
"Oh, how hard we often try, how earnestly we often ask, for that which, if we could get it, would destroy our souls for ever! We do it? Yes; and saints have done it before us. Look at the text. "Then came to Him the mother of Zebedee's children with her sons, worshipping Him, and desiring a certain thing of Him. And He said unto her, What wilt thou? She saith unto Him, Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on Thy right hand, and the other on Thy left, in Thy kingdom." She thought that our LORD would reign like the princes of this world: that He would have His great men seated on this side of Him and on that. She meant to pray that her sons should be among His chief servants, and nearest to Him. And what did she ask? Why, there was never a more awful petition in this world: "Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on Thy right hand, and the other on Thy left, in Thy kingdom." On the left hand in His kingdom! "Then shall the King say unto them on His left hand, Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels." This is what this mother really asked: that one of her sons should hear that terrible voice of most just judgment, Depart; that one of her sons should have fellowship with the devils; that one of her sons should be condemned to the worm that dieth not, and the fire that never shall be quenched. And our LORD, like a most wise and kind master, answers: No, "Ye know not what ye ask." It is not Mine to give. It shall be given to them for whom it is prepared. The left hand is prepared for My enemies,--for Judas, Annas, Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate,--not for you. "Ye know not what ye ask."
How many there are of us who are just as eager for the left hand, just as desirous of our own damnation, as those blessed Apostles then were! If we could but get that money, or this place, or that honour, how happy we should be; it would be all we want, we should need nothing further, we should thank GOD night and day for His goodness! But He sees that this money, or place, or honour, would lead us to hell, and He refuses it with "Ye know not what ye ask."
Listen to what S. Paul says: "We know not what we should pray for as we ought, but the SPIRIT Itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered." Groanings! and why? For this very reason: the HOLY GHOST sees how vain, how mad our prayers often are. He mends them, so to speak. Such an one is begging hard for damnation,--the HOLY GHOST changes his prayer: such an one desires to run headlong into danger,--the HOLY GHOST makes supplication that his request may be denied him: "Ye know not what ye ask."
Hear a story on this very matter. One of the greatest saints of these last ages was a missionary in India. He had much influence with the king who had sent him out, and who dearly loved him. A nobleman in India came to him and said, "I am going to return home, and I have a petition to make of the king; I wish you would write to him in my favour, for I know, that whatever you ask, he will do." "Well," said the saint, "I will write to him." And accordingly he did, and gave the letter into the man's hand. While he was on his return home, it came into this gentleman's mind to open the letter, and see what the saint had said. Well, he did; and there he read thus: "The gentleman who will bring this letter to your Majesty is a particular friend of mine, and has been very useful to the Church and to the missionaries. Therefore, I most earnestly beseech your Majesty not to grant him that which he asks; for I have noticed that those who get on well in their affairs in India, get on well also in the road to hell."
What then, are we not to ask GOD for any blessings of this world? I will tell you. A very wise heathen said that we ought to pray thus: "O GOD, grant me that which Thou seest to be good for me, even though I ask it not: and deny me that which Thou seest to be bad for me, even though I ask it." Much more should we Christians say so. LORD, this thing which I desire, Thou knowest whether it be for my salvation or not: I think I am asking for bread, I may be asking for a scorpion: I think I am desiring that which is for my happiness, I may be beseeching Thee to place me on Thy left hand. Grant it to me, or refuse it to me, as Thou seest to be for my good; and "Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven."
If you honestly and heartily pray thus, then you may be satisfied either way. If you get what you ask, take it thankfully as a proof of GOD'S love: if you do not get what you ask, then take the refusal as a proof of GOD'S love also. It is better to be refused with S. Paul, than to be heard with Satan.
Wise men have sometimes desired their fellow-men not to give them what they ask, if it be for their harm. Here is an example.
The great gaol of Newgate took fire: the prisoners ran down to the gate that divides it from the Court, and cried out, ''We shall be burned! We shall be burned! Send for the governor." The governor came, and assured them that there was no danger, that the fire was in a distant part of the building, and would soon be got under. Still they would not be satisfied: and he told them that he himself would come in and stay with them. Then he turned to the other gaolers; "And now," he said, "my men; it is possible that when they have got me in there, the prisoners may threaten to tear me in pieces, if I do not give orders to throw down the gates, and to let them go. If I should be weak enough to yield, I command you beforehand not to obey me; let me be torn in pieces, if it be so, but do not let me fail in my duty." Having said this, he went in and stood with the prisoners. That governor was a wise and brave man. And they did him no harm.
If we only put our trust in GOD, if we believe in Him as we say we do, we shall be well content to leave the granting or the not granting us what we ask, in His hands. He knows us better than we know ourselves; He loves us more than we can love ourselves; and He will give us, if we leave ourselves and all we have in His hands, His grace here, and hereafter the reward of grace, which is glory.
And now to GOD the FATHER, GOD the SON, and GOD the HOLY GHOST, be all honour and glory for ever. Amen.