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Through Fire and Water
And Other Sermons, Preached in St. Ignatius' Church, New York
by the Rev. Arthur Ritchie

New York; the Guild of St. Ignatius, 1898.

Conditions of Prevailing Prayer.

"Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth His will, him He heareth."--ST. JOHN, IX. 31.

Any one who has had much experience of human nature must have noticed the way in which it is often permitted the foolish of this world to confound the wise. I mean that there is a homely wisdom begotten partly of native shrewdness, partly of much dwelling upon things in a practical way, which may rise superior to the theoretical wisdom of scholars, and those of extraordinary intellectual development. There is more than one instance on record of the unlearned peasant confounding the philosopher. A notable example of this sort is the story from which I have gotten our text. A man that was born blind had been given his sight by our Lord, though at first the Master was not known by him as divine, only as a wonder-worker called "Jesus." The Pharisees were greatly disturbed by the miracle and sought in every way to discredit it. They were unable to deny the fact that the man's eyes had been opened; the evidence was overwhelming upon that point. But said they to him, "Give God the praise; we know that this man (that is our Lord) is a sinner." The healed one answered shrewdly enough, "Whether He be a sinner or no, I know not: one thing I know, that where I was blind, now I see." After some further parley with him, the Pharisees finished by saying, "As for this fellow we know not from whence He is." The man answered and said unto them, "Why herein is a marvellous thing, that ye know not from whence He is, and yet He hath opened mine eyes. Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth His will, him He heareth. Since the world began was it not heard that any one opened the eyes of one that was born blind. If this man were not of God, He could do nothing." The argument was unanswerable; all that the Pharisees in their rage could do was to revile him and cast him out of the synagogue. But his saying may well make us stop and ask ourselves how far it is true that "God heareth not sinners"?

I. Of course it cannot be true absolutely, for we must all confess that we are sinners, in all sorts of ways, yet we do humbly and heartily believe that God hears us. Very often it may seem to us that our prayers are not only unanswered but unheeded, yet our faith tells us that we must be mistaken, and our hearts declare that we have been many times vouchsafed most gracious and overflowing answers to our petitions. With all his complaining about the indifference of God to many of the supplications of His people, man has always believed in prayer. All religions, so far as I have ever heard, acknowledge and avail themselves of the instinctive feeling that the world is ruled by a heavenly Father Who cares for the welfare of His creatures, and hearkens to their supplications. Most of the heathen religions have believed in answers from heaven delivered oracularly perhaps by dreams, perhaps by omens, perhaps by prophetic utterances in the mouths of inspired priests and priestesses.

It is quite plain in the Old Testament that God answered His people oracularly, whether by dreams and prophets, or by the mysterious Urim and Thummim, which no one quite understands. I suppose we often wish that we could get the same sort of clear and direct responses to our prayers as we read of in the Bible. When our Lord came, and had gathered His Apostles about Him, we observe that although He taught there, to pray, saying "Our Father," yet little by little they got into the way of going to Him personally in all their questionings. They were unconsciously, as one may say, recognizing His divinity. When He was about to be separated from them outwardly He spoke of this, and told them that now they should henceforth ask the Father in His name. And He assured them very positively that all things so asked should be granted; "Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in My name, He will give it you." He goes on, "Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full." I think this a very significant thing, that petition in His name is always to be granted.

II. It is rather the fashion in modern thought to decry prayer. To say that if it has any value at all it is only a subjective value; it trains the soul in the notion of dependence, which is most necessary. It is felt that the idea of the infinite Deity being swayed one way or the other by the supplications of His creatures and amending the rules whereby He governs the universe accordingly, is a childish and unreasonable one.

i. With reference to the laws of the universe we ought probably to think of these as laws only for us. We cannot change or amend them; but if the imposer of them be the Father of the universe, Whose will is the only law for Himself, we ought not to find any difficulty. Fancy the owner of some great mill or factory acting as its superintendent himself. He sets in motion the ponderous machinery which does resistlessly its own work in its own sphere. He assigns to each operative his own particular task. Everywhere there is law. The operative has power indeed to shirk his work, slight his task, and the great machine does not overwhelm him; for he takes care to use his freedom of action in a sphere into which the engine does not intrude. Yet so far as the operatives are concerned they are under law which they have no power to dispense. What if one or the other has some petition to ask of the mill-owner; what if there is some thing which involves the stoppage of a part of the machinery if it is to be effected? It does not seem hard to think of the great superintendent as doing that which is asked of him, if he has a kindly heart, and doing it in away which involves no catastrophe, though what is ordinarily the law of the mill at other times be set aside.

2. However it may at this point be urged that if God is truly kind, and all-wise, He ought not to need any asking on our part to give us good things, but should spontaneously do so; and forasmuch as His knowledge of what is good is infinite and infallible, no change of course in response to our requests could really be advantageous, but the reverse. As to that several things are to be said. It may be necessary for our moral development that we should pray, and therefore He has made the praying a condition preliminary to His bestowal of this or that good thing. Again the things which it is good for us to have in answer to prayer may be of such sort that they could not have profited us unless we had first desired them; they only became good things in our case after we had begun to seek them. After all however such speculations must be profitless because they can never in this world get beyond the realm of speculations. Only when we see the facts of earth by the light of heaven shall we be able to understand them.

3. It is to be noted however that the good God has lavished all sorts of bounties upon His children, creation, redemption, the possibility of heaven, a thousand and one joys of this life, good gifts in comparison of which all the things which we so piteously crave in our prayers are as nothing. The power to attain to eternal life must alone outweigh any other possible consideration.

4. And then it is a truth most plainly insisted upon in Holy Scripture that God hears and heeds all devout prayers of all men, whether they be Christians or not. So St. Peter says very plainly, "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation lie that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him."

III. I want you to observe that in whatever is said upon this point of the universal fatherhood of God in the Bible, there are always conditions mentioned. The Church goes as far as any one in saying that the heavenly Father loves all His children, that He desires the salvation of all, so much indeed that He gave up His divine Son to die for them; nevertheless He promises to hear their prayers only on condition that they comply with the terms of worthy prayer. As the man that had been born blind expressed these terms, "If any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth His will, him He heareth:" or as St. Peter puts it, "He that feareth God, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him." It is self-evident that the worshipping of God and doing His will; the fearing of Him and working of righteousness, must vary in all sorts of degrees according to the light and opportunities vouchsafed to each one.

1. It ought not to be hard for any one to acknowledge that true loyalty of heart towards God must be a fundamental condition of acceptable prayer. If we invoke the help and favour of our King and Lord, we ought certainly to be in some sort acknowledging His royal dominion over us in our lives. Rebel subjects do not go to the monarch whose authority they are setting at nought for favours. A child who is consciously acting disobediently towards his parents has small reason to fancy those parents are going to give him presents until he shows some sort of contrition for his misconduct. We do not go to those who were once our friends, to invoke their good offices, after we have ceased to treat them as friends. If God be such as we assume Him to be when we ask favours which He alone can grant, we owe Him the heartiest allegiance, the most devoted obedience. Yet who is there who is thus loyal? So far from it our lives are full of disobediences, disrespects, wanton impieties towards our Maker. No doubt He is very generous, and always ready to make up when we show the smallest real sign of penitence and amendment. But why should any one of us, when he thinks of himself as God's child and servant, suppose that he has any valid claim to be heard and answered when he prays? We deserve no answers.

2. Another condition of acceptable prayer is that the petitioner should have a clean heart. Integrity of conscience, freedom from wilful sin, is an absolute essential in approaching the throne of grace. God says over and over again in the Bible that He will not hearken to the prayers of sinners; by which He means no doubt not those who through weakness often fall into sin, and then truly repent of their misdeeds, but those who consciously persist in their wrongdoing and make no genuine effort to amend their ways. God loathes sin, and while He does not hate sinners as persons, yet when they willingly acquiesce in their sinfulness they must share in His abhorrence of their deeds. Here is a man who has persisted for many years in a certain miserable habit of sin. He has no desire of giving it up, he does not intend to give it up; yet with strange inconsistency he prays to God. Something comes up which interests him very deeply, and he prays with extraordinary fervor and frequency, yet there is no sign of any answer, nothing to make him think God even hears. Why should God hear? The petitioner approaches His throne all defiled with things which God hates, and without any penitence for them. Never let us think our prayers ought to be heard if we are not honestly striving to live without sin.

3. Again it is the commonest thing in the world for people to fancy they can approach God acceptably while they have uncharitableness in their hearts. We have neighbours who we believe have wronged us. They have done much against us very cruelly, and we cannot forgive them. We have no desire to forgive them. There are people who feel wrongs keenly and cannot forget what they have suffered at the hands of their fellows. Nevertheless they know the absolute necessity of Christian charity to true discipleship in Christ and they strive very honestly to forgive wrongs and not to cherish resentment. Such people can approach God in prayer without impiety on that score. But if they still long for revenge, if they still harbour resentment, and are not willing to forgive those who have done them evil, they certainly only mock the Saviour Who forgave the whole guilty race, when they come beseeching favours of Him in prayer. Of course their prayers ought not to be answered, why should they expect it?

4. Still others there are who have their own notions of what is good and profitable here; who will not be contented unless they attain to a certain .deal of this world's prosperity and good things, and who therefore have no real notion of acquiescing in the divine will. They are constantly murmuring at the hardness of their lot; they are in their hearts, if not with their lips, accusing their heavenly Father of lack of interest in their matters, or else of unjust discrimination against them. They never pray "Thy will be done" with any full consent. The heavenly will must accord with their personal will if they are to accept it cordially. Such people always approach the throne of grace with a certain reserve, a holding back. They do not mean to be grateful for anything God sends them, but only for that which they have made up their minds they want and ought to have. Such people cannot pray acceptably for they are not submissive to the divine will. Why should God answer their prayers? I do indeed believe that He is far more tenderly compassionate and indulgent towards us than we have any right to expect; that He does overlook a thousand things in us which altogether vitiate the worthiness of our petitions, and answers us out of the prodigality of His pity when we deserve rebuke rather than answer. Nevertheless we are now considering what we may reasonably look for, not the miracles of the divine compassion.

5. He has made it a further condition of prevailing prayer that we supplicate supremely for the divine things; that the underlying thought in all our asking should be our final salvation; so much so that if any of the temporal blessings for which we beseech Him should be hurtful rather than helpful to our eternal bliss, we would not desire them. We are sure that His wisdom can overrule all the inadequacy of our asking, but we seldom seem to keep in mind that the one desire of all desires which our prayers ought to express, is that we might be saved. If this be not uppermost in our minds, as the chiefest of our petitions, we have not the true notion of the object of prayer; we are not in touch at all with the Lord Who answers prayer, Who has taught us that the one thing needful is "the kingdom of God and His righteousness."

6. And there is one thing more which to me seems a very important condition of acceptable prayer, yet which is very commonly overlooked by Christian people. We ought to have a genuine willingness to accept trials and sufferings. A large part of our praying is made up of agonizing petitions to be spared adversity and trial. We may of course pray this without sin if we keep always behind it the realization that we deserve far more of suffering and trial than we can ever have in this world because of our sins, and therefore if it is God's good will for us that we should endure it and not escape it, we are quite content to have it so. In this way our Lord prayed in Gethsemane, "If this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, Thy will be done." God often grants prayers for deliverance from temporal adversity not by taking away the adversity but by giving us strength to bear it. And we must always be quite willing to have it so, if we would pray worthily, otherwise there is an element of rebellion in our very petitioning.

IV. One may say, perhaps, that if such conditions as these are all fundamental to the offering of acceptable prayer, no one need ever look for answers to his petitions, for who could comply with them. As to that I have already said that God's mercy always far outstrips His justice and He does answer millions of prayers which have no reason to look for any consideration at His hands. It yet remains a difficulty with many people that Christians who are plainly trying very hard to live devout and worthy lives find or appear to find far less of notice taken of their prayers on high than do many merely nominal believers who manifestly make no effort to comply with that which God asks of them. Certainly the loyal ones, even if their prayers be not perfect, deserve more answers than the disobedient and indifferent.

Now I believe that if one could get the testimony of a large number of prayerful Christians he would discover that they are satisfied that God answers His servants in thousands of ways which they can plainly recognize and delight in, yet which do not take the form of direct response to any of their petitions. The divine answers come in the shape of mercies which we perceive in our hearts to be better than the things for which we had asked; mercies which give unspeakable comfort and peace; and which somehow bring home to us gradually that the matters which once seemed to us to be all important, without which life would not be worth living, are really of very small consequence indeed, and that genuinely precious things, as we now understand them, have been vouchsafed us most marvellously and all bountifully.

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