Sermon XV. On Prayer. [A Sermon for Lent.] Job xxii. 27. Thou shalt make thy prayer unto him, and he shall hear thee.
THE connexion between things in earth and things in heaven, is one about which little can be discovered by the light of reason. Heaven is so high above this globe of earth, that our thoughts, when they attempt to rise, are lost in the vastness of the intervening space, and wander in uncertainty among its countless orbs. After all our loftiest speculations, our most subtle conjectures, our most adventurous flights, we return to this humble but inevitable conclusion, "we know but in part."
Nor is it strange that we are unable to scan the secrets of the skies, when we reflect, what mysteries lie within the little empire of our own existence. Who can tell how the soul within him exists; by what aliment it is sustained in [216/217] vigour; how it thinks, and perceives, and wills; and by what hidden process volition becomes action, thought inspires motion, and the desire or intention, scarcely conceived, pervades, animates, and controls, these material faculties, of themselves inert as the dust from which they are made? How is it also that the spirit, which gives motion to the body, is, in its turn, so governed by it; not merely suffering from its diseases, but submitting to its purposes? "What sort of being must this be," says St. Austin, "which inspires a lump of dead flesh with life and activity, and yet, when most desirous so to do, cannot confine its thoughts to holy exercises! What sort of creature is this that knows so much of other things and so little of itself, that is so ingenious in matters abroad, so perfectly in the dark to what is done at home!" Where the thing created is thus mysterious to itself, how vain and presumptuous must it be, to carry up its baffled powers from this field of its humiliation, to investigate the operations of the Being who created! The inquiry in what manner the desires of our hearts, hidden from the knowledge of men, and Whispered only in the secrecy of our retirement, rise before the throne of the Eternal in the vast distance of his courts of light; how our wishes are permitted to influence the designs of the Most High; and how our prayers are returned to us in more than the richness of the blessing we [217/218] implored; this inquiry involves things which we cannot comprehend, until we can explain what is the nature of the wondrous soul within us; and what the nature of God from whom it is derived.
These are among the secret things which belong to him. But his revelation makes known to us all that concerns our duty, in the high privilege of addressing him: for it declares that God is the hearer of prayer. "Thou shalt make thy prayer unto him, and he shall hear thee." "For the Lord is nigh unto all that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth." "He will fulfil the desire of them that fear him. He also will hear their cry, and will save them." Nor is he offended with the importunity of the sincere and humble suppliant; but in every part of his word holds out inducements to bring us to the foot of his mercy-seat, earnestly and confidently to seek his blessing. He bids us come, with all our apprehensions, our wants, our sorrows; that there, recollecting the omnipotence of his power, the boundlessness of his love, and the watchfulness of his providence, we may cast upon him our care, and comfort our feeble hearts with this assurance, that he who is almighty is our friend.
When under the burden of our anxieties and fears, we have opened our hearts in confidence, even to an earthly friend, a frail and mortal being like ourselves, and have received the assurances of his sympathy and regard, it is impossible not [218/219] to feel, in a great degree, relieved from the weight which oppressed us. When, with some enterprise in view, which we deem important to our happiness, we have secured the influence and co-operation of one who is able to forward our success, it is impossible not to give ourselves with more alacrity to the pursuit of our schemes, and to be more strengthened under discouragements and obstacles. Indeed, in the very communication of our purposes and desires, in the very recital of them to one from whom we expect no assistance, these purposes and desires acquire strength; they become more familiar to our own minds; the means of accomplishing them are suggested; we increase our power to perform, by a more accurate knowledge of our object; and animate our resolution by anticipating our reward. All these particulars form only a part of what is included in setting forth our wants before God; and all these advantages, being therein realized in their highest degree, present very strong motives to earnest prayer.
But in addition to these, there is a great moral improvement to be derived from holding communion with that superior nature, from whom all holiness and goodness flow. If we converse with an earthly friend, whose piety is sincere and ardent, we cannot avoid catching something of his spirit; and our own devotions and good purposes become more active and fervent. But God [219/220] is the fountain of all wisdom, of all goodness, and of all truth. And it cannot be that a mortal being, however borne down and depressed by the weight of infirmities and sins, should be admitted into his presence, without imbibing some degree of his purity, partaking in some degree of his benevolence, and rising in some degree in reverence for virtue and goodness.
Another reason for prayer may be found in that constant sense of the presence and inspection of God, which this duty so strongly impresses upon the mind. The Being whom, on our knees, we supplicated, and before whom we poured out our hearts, we saw not. Yet we knew and felt that he was present with our souls. We knew it from the reverence with which we approached him, from the confidence with which we trusted in him, from the peace and tranquillity which he shed upon our spirit. We felt his presence in that hush of the passions which we could not understand; in that submission which disposed us to suffer, and that resolution which inspired us to perform, his will; in our lofty and consoling views of the goodness of his character; and especially in the fulness of that blessed assurance, that whether he granted our petitions, or in wisdom overruled our desires, he would still effect only our best interest, and greatest good. From all this we knew and felt that he was present with us. Yet we saw him not. And if, [220/221] therefore, when rising from our knees, and going out into the world, we see him not, yet are we assured that he is still with us there; that his eyes behold the evil and the good we do; that he is about our path, and about our bed, and spieth out all our ways. Such a sense of God's presence and inspection is the necessary result of a spirit and habit of prayer. And how restraining and salutary must that sense of his presence be, when our hearts would tempt us to sin against him! How consoling and sustaining, when despondency sinks our spirit in apprehension and fear! And how animating and encouraging, when we are seeking to do his will, and humbly striving t6 approve ourselves faithful in his sight! These are some of the general inducements to cultivate a spirit of prayer. Let us consider more particularly the necessity which exists, why we should pray, and the encouragement we have for the performance of this duty. The former is founded in our weakness and wants; the latter arises from the power and goodness of God, and from his grace and mercy as revealed in Jesus Christ. To speak of our weakness and wants in temporal things alone, would open a wide and boundless field. But there are other concerns, in comparison of which all worldly requirements are the most inconsiderate trifles; and it is in reference to these more especially that we should desire and seek the blessing of God. We have eternal [221/222] interests at stake; and such, my brethren, is our weakness with regard to them, that without the grace of God we can do nothing to secure them. He has indeed mercifully proffered that assistance; and only requires that we should sincerely desire and pray for it, that it may be plentifully bestowed. But we are regardless of his invitations, and of our own need. Not only are we careless of those great interests, because they belong to things unseen; but we are continually opposed in securing them, by the most powerful enemies.
This world arrays itself against us. Our own passions and desires, like internal and traitorous enemies, unite with the world. And above all, the great enemy of our happiness, the spirit that worketh in the children of disobedience, seeks to make our souls his prey. To be foiled by these adversaries, is a disaster which nothing can retrieve. It is to lose joys, compared to which all temporal advantages are less than nothing; to forfeit privileges and honours purchased for us by the Son of God, and mercifully placed within our reach, as the prize and reward of our exertions.
This little life is the theatre of our trial. la, baptism the strife begins; and as the fearful contest opens, on which is suspended misery or joy eternal, our weakness and danger are acknowledged in the prayer of the faithful, that we "may [222/223] have power and strength to have victory, and to triumph against the devil, the world, and the flesh." How often, alas! is this the first, the last, and only prayer, which ascends for the aids of heavenly grace! Of the many who are called to the conflict, how few are chosen? The rest, with equal power to gain the prize, neglecting to "lead the rest of their lives according to this beginning," ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and refusing to fight under his banner, never reminded of their need of grace, or perversely disdaining to pray for it, miserably forfeit their happiness for ever.
Dreadful as is this catastrophe, it is not strange. If we reflect upon the strength of temptations to which we give an awful preponderancy by our indulgence, the glare of the world, captivating all our senses, deluding our better reason, and beguiling us into the broad but downward road, the tendency to procrastinate, concerns which seem to belong to a future too distant to be realized; and in the midst of all this danger, observe how backward and reluctant men are in coming to God by prayer; we can scarcely wonder that so few climb the steep and difficult ascent of virtue, that so few walk in the narrow path, that so few arrive at eternal life.
My brethren, we are surrounded by such a spell of constant allurement; we are so artfully entangled in the web of this world, which is [223/224] continually weaving for our enthralment; and we are ourselves so ready to yield to sin, that unless we call to our aid the whole force of that reason which God has given us; unless we listen to the added voice of his good and gracious Spirit; unless we deliberately weigh the future with the present, eternity with time, and joys which are endless, with the vanities of a day; we shall not even feel a desire to repent, nor make a single resolution to reform. Nay, when we have arrived, at that decision which reason and Scripture alike approve, and have resolved to be governed by their dictates, and to seek first the kingdom of God, postponing all considerations to the welfare of our souls; and when in our own strength we have made the effort to reform, then how manifestly does our weakness appear! How soon are we taught that a higher power is necessary for our rescue; that we are the slaves of passions, from whose bondage we of ourselves cannot escape, and of desires which we cannot control! While with David we cry out, "Hold thou up my goings, that my footsteps slip not;" or with Peter, "Lord, save me, or I perish;" we feel assured that unless God listen to our prayer, we shall strive in vain; unless he vouchsafe to hear us, we shall still be lost.
Such is a view of our weakness, and the necessity that exists why we should pray. Let us consider, in the next place, the encouragements to [224/225] the duty of prayer. These are founded on the power, the goodness, and the willingness of God, and upon his grace and mercy as revealed in Jesus Christ.
The declarations and promises which the Scriptures contain for our assurance on this head, are frequent, explicit, and abundant. The Most High is represented as constantly beholding the things that are done in heaven and on earth. He never slumbers nor sleeps. His eyes are ever upon the righteous, and his ears open unto their cry. If any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth. The blessings of reconciliation and access to God have been purchased by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. And now whatsoever we shall ask in his name, that will he do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. Not only is it declared that in him God is well pleased, and that for his sake he will supply all our need, but we are also assured that he ever liveth to make intercession for us; and we are therefore invited to come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. Thus the benefits of grace and salvation are plainly suspended on our sincere and earnest prayer. Ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find, are the sure and explicit encouragements to this duty. All things that ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.
We are expressly urged to importunity by the [225/226] parable of one who arose at midnight, and went to his friend to borrow bread, and was heard for his importunity alone; as well as by that of the unjust judge, who, though he feared not God, nor regarded man, was yet induced to grant a continued request through fear of being wearied. We have also the example of the Canaanitish woman, who refused to be dismissed, and at length obtained the blessing which she desired. And our Saviour further takes occasion, from an earthly father's kindness and indulgence towards his offspring, to assert the much greater freedom and willingness with which God imparts his more inestimable spiritual blessings. "If ye, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him!" Such are the promises, such the encouragements, which the Scriptures contain, to induce men to pray. But they stop not here. The gifts of grace are brought still nearer. They are even pressed upon our acceptance. "Behold," says the Spirit, "I stand at the door and knock, if any man will hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." How inexcusable then are they who, after all these encouragements and entreaties, keep far from God; who neglect so great salvation, and slight that grace, without which they must inevitably perish! The Saviour tasted death for [226/227] every man. He invites all men to come unto him, declaring that whosoever cometh unto him, he will in no wise cast out. And they that will not come, what do they but tread under foot the blood of the Son of God! The Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father, brings this salvation near, and offers to lead men into all truth, to make them holy in their desires and in their lives, and to fit them for the inheritance of the saints in light. And they that resist and grieve this gracious Spirit, what do they but prepare for themselves contempt, and shame, and everlasting remorse! But wise and happy are they, who, captivated by such mercy, and confiding in these assurances, bow before the throne of grace, and seek these blessings in humble prayer. The Spirit helps their infirmities. The Saviour himself intercedes for them. And the Father pities and forgives. Their guilt is exchanged for innocence; their danger for safety; and gradually delivered from the manifold infirmities and corruptions of a sinful nature, they are clothed with a robe of righteousness and peace, made white in the blood of the Lamb.
These blessings, the purchase of Christ's death, may be realized by every one of us. They become ours by faith; and faith, the gift of God, is withheld from none who ask.
Prayer, then, is the only means to appropriate these blessings; the only resource of those who [227/228] are too poor to buy, and too feeble to command.
A short and transient day is granted to each of us, in which to secure our safety. It is called our day of grace; for in it grace will be given. It is an accepted time; for while it lasts God is waiting to receive us. It is our day of salvation; because, if improved, our eternal happiness will be secured. Like every other day, it is rapidly departing, and soon the night will come. How earnest then, should be our supplications for grace, and how sincere our endeavours to improve it, while we have time, lest our advantages be lost, our day suddenly brought to a close, and we not be saved!
With the Christian, prayer is the very breathing of the soul, the atmosphere in which he lives. "I keep the Lord always before me," is his language, "for he is on my right hand, therefore shall I never be moved." Especially under the pressure of affliction and of suffering, this has always been the consolation and the refuge of the righteous. Our Almighty Saviour, when pressed down with the weight of our sins, he bare our griefs, and carried our sorrows, prayed fervently and frequently; nor ceased until, having consummated our deliverance, he was enabled to exclaim, "It is finished." The early Christians, followers of their Master in tribulation and suffering, found their only safety in calling upon God. [228/229] "It is he," said Tertullian, "to whom we Christians address our prayers, with eyes lifted up to heaven, with hands opened in token of our simplicity, and with heads uncovered, because we have nothing to blush for in our devotions. Thus, then, whilst we are stretching forth our lifted hands to heaven, let irons pierce our flesh, let gibbets crucify us, fires consume us, swords sever our heads, beasts devour us. For a Christian while upon his knees in prayer to God, is in a posture of defence against all the evils you can crowd upon him."
My brethren, if we would have a perfect refuge and defence against the troubles and adversities which oppress this mortal life, there is no better way than to make God our friend, by opening to him our wants, seeking his guidance and protection, and holding a constant intercourse with him in acts of fervent and humble prayer. Much more, if we would secure for our immortal existence, those high rewards which are promised to faith and obedience, and which Jesus Christ, by his precious blood-shedding, hath obtained for us; we must make use of the encouragements which the Scriptures offer to bring us near to God, confessing our sins, pleading our Saviour's merits in place of our imperfect services, and supplicating the constant aids of the Holy Spirit, that our lives may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy through Jesus Christ our Lord.