IN the two previous chapters we have been talking about service,--the service we can and ought to be rendering to men, both in our national life and in our personal lives. That stressing of service was rather more in accord with the popular notions of our day than the message of this chapter, which is to be about prayer directed definitely to God Himself.
There is a tendency among our contemporaries to say, "The best way to serve God is not by supplicating Him or by offering Him direct acts of worship, but by ministering to His brethren everywhere about us." That way of serving God through His brothers is indeed the greatest way. Christ has said that when we minister to those in need, when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, comfort the sorrowful, we are in very truth serving Him. As Lowell makes God say, "Who gives himself with his gift feeds three: himself, his hungering neighbor, and Me."
I think that in that famous couplet from the Vision of Sir Launfal we have the key to the vital connection which exists between brotherly service and prayer. It is necessary that we give ourselves with our gifts. When we minister, if we are to do it effectively, there must be, in addition to the material assistance we wish to bestow, a personality of our own which is helpful. The reason why we are so partially effective in our endeavors for the poor, the outcast, the discouraged, the submerged, and the despairing, is that even more than material things they need and hunger for warm, true, loving, personal comradeship,--from helpers who are serene, clear-thinking, warm-hearted men and women. The charity which is modern, though highly scientific, is usually a most repellent thing. It is hard, cold, full of pride. The difference between modern charity and Christ's charity is that the former is not salted with the grace of true humility. The people we wish to help are naturally resentful of this pride and lack of love. Very often they curse the hand which feeds them, even while they receive its doles. If we would efficiently serve the brethren, we must be of those who first have gained from the Eternal God such character, such an attitude toward life and toward our fellows, as shall make us, and not our deeds and gifts, the primary source of helpfulness.
Men used to know that well enough. Formerly the message of Christian men to others they sought to serve was, in substance, about like this, "The material aid which I bestow is but an earnest of my true love for you. Christ loved me and gave Himself for me, and from Him I have learned how to love the brethren. A greater gift than this material thing I desire to give to you. If you will learn with Me what it means to feel Christ loving you so hard that you long to serve Him and His in humility and affection, then you will be truly happy, as I am now in helping you." It was not necessary to say all this. People felt it in Christian acts of service. When men were helped thus in their difficulties, they looked on their helpers, took knowledge that they had been with Jesus, and felt truly strengthened. That was the true method of Christian social service.
But alas, nowadays we try to get results with the outward shell of the old helpfulness still retained but the inner thing signified, true comradeship with the Eternal One, left out. Consequently it is a sad mess we make with all our good intentions. If we wish really to be helpful people it is imperative that we reintroduce spirit into our helpfulness, that we redevote ourselves to the task of getting personally acquainted with our dear God, Jesus Christ.
There are two methods of doing this, the Sacraments and Prayer.
What is Prayer? It is not, as many people suppose it is, a magical method of incantation whereby one seeks to force God to do for him what he is unable to do for himself. It is not a way whereby we can wrest the will of the Eternal One to obedience to our will. Its center is not us. Prayer is rather a method whereby we seek to give ourselves and our lives, with their duties and their problems, wholly into the hand of God, removing all our strivings from the way of His desire. The center of prayer is God.
We can see this from Christ's own example. Take that mighty prayer He uttered in Gethsemane in the night of His betrayal. He had indeed something terrifying to pray about. Before Him lay,--and He knew it,--possible torture, exquisite agony, sure death. He knelt there in the place apart and said, "O Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me. Nevertheless, Thy will, not My human one, be done." Yes, prayer is a way we seek to give our wills to God, not a way we seek to bend His will to ours.
It is perfectly true that when we pray God often does great things for us, confers upon us mighty benefits we should never have had if we had not prayed. But whenever a man prays with the feeling primarily in his mind that he is trying to get something, that man's prayer is utterly unheeded by God. It is only when there is evident willingness, true and unfeigned, to leave the whole matter prayed about with God, that He pays attention to the request. No sick man who prays for health with a desire to get well whether God wishes him to die or not ever gets healing. No barren woman who prays for children with a feeling that she must have them whether God designs her to or not is ever heard. Nobody who prays for success without a feeling that he is perfectly willing to be unsuccessful if Christ desires that to be, for some purpose known alone to Christ, has a prayer to which God pays attention.
Therefore we may truly say that the chief value of prayer is subjective, interior to us. Its chief value is as a means of bending our weak, ignorant, wilful human lives and desires to His eternal purposes. Its objective benefits, the things which we may get, are purely incidental. When we do get them, it is because God perceives our willingness to do as He desires, and gives them as a reward for unpretended trust in Him. God can so reward trust on our part, and He does do so.
Does that seem incredible? Many a young collegian has asked me if I really thought that God, in answer to prayer, would violate His great laws for our personal advantage. Of course God does no such thing. When Divine Omnipotence makes laws, they must be good enough laws to need no breaking.
It is not necessary, however, that He should break His laws, in order that He may "answer prayer". We must never forget that we human beings, limited as we are in intelligence, do not know and understand all the law of God. 'We know only a very small part indeed of that law. That part which we do understand we call natural law. That part which we do not understand we call supernatural law. The boundary line between them is somewhat vague. Three hundred years ago the laws governing electricity were all unknown to us, and the manifestations of electricity were regarded by everyone as supernatural. When lightning struck it was a mysterious interposition of the direct hand of God. Then we learned some of the laws governing electricity. We know many of them now, although even yet no living man knows what electricity is. Its manifestation we now recognize as controlled by natural laws. That simply means we now know something about them. At this present time certain laws governing thought transference are in the process of being incorporated into "natural law" from "supernatural law." God's law is one. To us it has two parts, that we know and that we do not know.
A miracle, so called, is not an impossibility at all. That miracles should be is the most scientific of statements. A so-called miracle is merely the putting by God, over against forces the laws governing whose operation we at least partially understand, certain other forces the laws governing whose operation we do not comprehend. I can, in a limited way, act similarly myself. Here is a book. Suppose I drop it out of my hand. It will drop down and hit the ground, by operation of the law of gravitation. But when it is half way down I thrust my hand and catch it. Rave I broken the law of gravitation? Is it violated? Do the sun and the moon and the stars stop acting according to gravitation's law and fly into everlasting chaos? They do not. The old law of gravitation is still working. I have, however, interposed a force, my arm moved by my will, the law of which supercodes in this instance the lower law of gravitation. Personality has overcome impersonal force. So is it in infinite degree with God. He has at His command innumerable laws the nature of which we do not comprehend, according to which His Supreme Personality can interfere with normal effects of lower laws without destroying those lower laws in the least degree.
It is this which God often does for those who trust Him. When He finds a loving, humble, simple soul coming to Him in trouble and difficulty, not demanding favors but putting the whole in His hands and being willing to abide by His decision, often He does things for such a person which are quite beyond our comprehension.
If one admits that God is, and that God loves us, then follows the inevitability of God doing often just this sort of thing. The trouble with people who do not believe in miracles is not that they are too logical or too scientific. Either they do not believe in God at all or else they believe that God does not care,--that He is a cruel, ghastly, mechanistic monstrosity. The experience of millions of people and the inner promptings of our own hearts alike tell us that God does care. 1iVe can confidently believe Him, therefore, when He says, "Ye seek, and strive, and yet have not, because ye ask not." We may carry our lives to Him, our problems, our plans, our temptations, our sins and failures, our hopes and fears,--and carry also to 1-lim those whom we love, humbly desiring Him to deal with us as seems to Him best. He may not always do what we desire done, with our poor human wisdom to guide us in the asking; but always He will give us strength for any situation, and often He will do for us, seeing our love and trust, things beyond our human understanding.
To pray then is consciously to offer our human wills to be conformed to that of Christ our God, that He may mold our lives according to His own desire.
When a man prays much, in that attitude, He becomes of some use to his fellow-men in this world, for his service is sanctified by character as he becomes calm, healthy-minded, serene, simple, kindly, sacrificing, and humble,--a joy for his fellows to look upon, and a benediction to the brethren.