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Austin Phelps
The Still Hour

Ch. 3: The Romance of Prayer

Key Thought: "Many of the prime objects of prayer enchant us only in the distance. Brought near to us, and in concrete forms, and made to grow lifelike in our conceptions, they very sensibly abate the pulse of our longing to possess them, because we cannot but discover that, to realize them in our lives, certain other darling objects must be sacrificed, which we are not yet willing to part with."
The Romance of Prayer

"If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me. Ps. 66:18
We often affront God by offering prayers which we are not willing to have answered. Theoretical piety is never more deceptive than in acts of devotion. We pray for blessings which we know to be accordant with God's will, and we persuade ourselves that we desire those blessings. In the abstract, we do desire them. A sane mind must be far gone in sympathy with devils, if it can help desiring all virtue in the abstract. The dialect of prayer established in Christian usage, wins our trust; we sympathize with its theoretical significance; we find no fault with its intensity of spiritual life. It commends itself to our conscience and good sense, as being what the phraseology of devout affection should be. Ancient forms of prayer are beautiful exceedingly. Their hallowed associations fascinate us like old songs. In certain imaginative moods, we fall into delicious reverie over them. Yet down deep in our heart of hearts, we may detect more of poetry than of piety in this fashion of joy. We are troubled, therefore, and our countenance is changed.
Many of the prime objects of prayer enchant us only in the distance. Brought near to us, and in concrete forms, and made to grow lifelike in our conceptions, they very sensibly abate the pulse of our longing to possess them, because we cannot but discover that, to realize them in our lives, certain other darling objects must be sacrificed, which we are not yet willing to part with. The paradox is true to the life that a man may even fear an answer to his prayers.
A very good devotee may be a very dishonest suppliant. When he leaves the height of meditative abstraction, and, as we very significantly say in our Saxon phrase, comes to himself, he may find that his true character, his real self, is that of no petitioner at all. His devotions have been dramatic. The sublimities of the closet have been but illusions. He has been acting a pantomime. He has not really desired that God would give heed to him, for any other purpose than to give him an hour of pleasurable devotional excitement. That his objects of prayer should actually be inwrought into his character, and should live in his own consciousness, is by no means the thing he has been thinking of, and is the last thing he is ready just now to wish for. If he has a Christian heart buried up anywhere beneath this heap of pietism, it is very probable that the discovery of the burlesque of prayer of which he has been guilty, will transform his fit of romance into some sort of hypochondriacal suffering. Despondency is the natural offspring of theatrical devotion.
Let us observe this paradox of Christian life in two or three illustrations.
An envious Christian — we must tolerate the contradiction: to be true to the facts of life, we must join strange opposites — an envious Christian prays, with becoming devoutncss, that God will impart to him a generous, loving spirit, and a conscience void of offence to all men. His mind is in a solemn state, his heart is not insensible to the beauty of the virtues which he seeks. His posture is lowly, his tones sincere, and self-delusion is one of those processes of weakness which are facilitated by the deception of bodily habitude. His prayer goes on glibly, till conscience grows impatient, and reminds him of certain of his equals, whose prosperity stirs up within him that 'envy which is the rottenness of the bones.'
What then? Very probably, he quits that subject of prayer, and passes to another, on which his conscience is not so eagle-eyed. But after that glimpse of a hidden sin, how do the clouds of estrangement from God seem to shut him in, dark and damp and chill, and his prayer become like a dismal pattering of rain!
An ambitious Christian prays that God will bestow upon him a humble spirit. He volunteers to take a low place, because of his unworthiness. He asks that he may be delivered from pride and self-seeking. He repeats the prayer of the publican, and the benediction upon the poor in spirit. The whole group of the virtues kindred to humility, seems to him as radiant as the Graces with loveliness. He is sensible of no check in the fluency of his emotions, till his conscience, too, becomes angry, and dashes the little eddy of goodness which is just now covering up the undertow of selfishness that imperils his soul. If then he is not melted into tears at the disclosure of his heartlessness, that prayer probably ends in a clouded brow, and a feverish, querulous self-conflict.
A revengeful Christian prays that he may have a meek spirit; that he may be harmless as doves; that the synonymous graces of forbearance, long-suffering, patience, may adorn his life; that he may put away bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil-speaking, with all malice; that that mind may be found in him which was also in Christ. At the moment of this devotional episode in his experience, he feels, as Rousseau did, the abstract grandeur of a magnanimity like that of Jesus. There is no doubt about the fervor of his theoretic love of such an ideal of character; and he is about to take courage from his rapture, when his conscience becomes impertinent, and mocks him, by thrusting upon his lips the words which are death to his conceit — 'Forgive me as I forgive.' If then he is not shocked into self-abhorrence at the ghastliness of his guilt, he probably exhausts that hour of prayer in palliations and compromises, or in reckless impositions upon the forbearance of God.
A luxurious Christian prays, in the good set phrases of devotion, for a spirit of self-denial, that he may endure hardness as a good soldier of Christ; that he may take up the cross and follow Christ; that he may be ready to forsake all that he hath, and be Christ's disciple; that he may not live unto himself; that he may imitate Him who went about doing good, — who became poor that we might be rich, and who wept over lost souls. In such a prayer there may be, consciously, no insincerity, but a pleasurable sympathy, rather, with the grand thoughts and the grander feeling which the language portrays. The heart is buoyant with its gaseous distension to the bounds of its great swelling words.
This lover of the pride of life does not discover his self-inflation, till conscience pricks him with such goads as these: 'Are you living for the things you are praying for?'—‘What one thing are you doing for Christ which costs you self-denial?' —'Are you seeking for opportunities to deny yourself, to save souls?' —‘Are you willing to be like Him who had not where to lay his head?' —'Can you be baptized with the baptism that He is baptized with?' If then this effeminate one is not roused to a more Christ-like life by the uncovering of his hypocrisy, what a sickly murmuring of self-reproach fills his heart at the collapse of that prayer!
Such is human nature; such, but by the grace of God, are we all. We must be dull inspectors of our own hearts, if we have never discerned there, lurking beneath the level at which sin breaks out into overt crime, some single offence — an offence of feeling, an offence of habit in thought, which for a time has spread its infection over the whole character of our devotions. We have been self-convicted of falsehood in prayer; for, though praying in the full dress of sound words, we did not desire that our supplications should be heard at the expense of that one idol.
Perhaps that single sin has woven itself like a web over large spaces of our life. It may have run like a shuttle to and fro in the texture of some plan of life, on which our conscience has not glared fiercely as upon a crime, because the usage of the world has blindfolded conscience by the respectability of such sin. Yet it has been all the while tightening its folds around us, repressing our liberty in prayer, stopping the life-blood and stiffening the fibre of our moral being, till we are like kneeling corpses in our worship.
That is a deceptive notion which attributes the want of unction in prayer to an arbitrary, or even inexplicable, withdrawment of God from the soul. Aside from the operation of physical causes, where is the warrant, in reason or revelation, for ascribing joylessness in prayer to any other cause than some wrong in the soul itself? What says an old prophet? 'Behold, the Lord's ear is not heavy that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated between you and your God. Your sins have hid his face from you. Therefore, we wait for light, but behold obscurity; for brightness, but we walk in darkness. We grope for the wall like the blind; we grope, as if we had no eyes; we stumble at noonday as in the night; we are in desolate places, as dead men.' Could words describe more truthfully, or explain more philosophically, that phenomenon of religious experience which we call the ' hiding of God's countenance?'
It does not require what the world pronounces a great sin, to break up the serenity of the soul in its devotional hours. The experience of prayer has delicate complications. A little thing, secreted there, may dislocate its mechanism and arrest its movement. The spirit of prayer is to the soul what the eye is to the body, — the eye, so limpid in its nature, of such fine finish and such intricate convolution in its structure, and of so sensitive nerve, that the point of a needle may excruciate it, and make it weep itself away.
Even a doubtful principle of life, harbored in the heart, is perilous to the peacefulness of devotion. May not many of us find the cause of our joylessness in prayer, in the fact that we are living upon some unsettled principles of conduct? We are assuming the rectitude of courses of life, with which we are not ourselves honestly satisfied. I apprehend that there is very much of suspense of conscience among Christians upon subjects of practical life, on which there is no suspense of action. Is there not a pretty large cloud-land covered by the usages of Christian society? And may not some of us find there the sin which infects our devotions with nauseous incense?
Possibly our hearts are shockingly deceitful in such iniquity. Are we strangers to an experience like this—that when we mourn over our cold prayers as a misfortune, we evade a search of that disputed territory for the cause of them, through fear that we shall find it there, and we struggle to satisfy ourselves with an increase of spiritual duties which shall cost us no sacrifice?
Are we never sensible of resisting the hints which the Holy Spirit gives us in parables, by refusing to look that way for the secret of our deadness — saying, 'Not that! Oh no, not that! But let us pray more'?
Many a doubtful principle in a Christian mind, if once set in the focus of a conscience illumined by the Holy Spirit, would resolve itself into a sin, for which that Christian would turn and look up guiltily to the Master, and then go out and weep bitterly.