Austin Phelps
The Still Hour

Ch. 6: Specific and Intense Prayer
Key Thought: "
We lose many prayers for the want of two things which support each other, - specificness of object, and intensity of desire."

As the Hart Panteth After the Water-Brook Ps. 42:1

Specific and Intense Prayer

We lose many prayers for the want of two things which support each other, - specificness of object, and intensity of desire. One’s interest in such an exercise as this, is necessarily dependent on the coexistence of these qualities.

In the diary of Dr. Chalmers, we find recorded this petition: ‘Make me sensible of real answers to actual requests, as evidences of an interchange between myself on earth and my Saviour in heaven.’ Under the sway of intense desires, our minds naturally long to individualize thus the parties, the petitions, the objects, and the results of prayer.

Sir Fowell Buxton writes as follows: ‘When I am out of heart, I follow David’s example, and fly for refuge to prayer, and he furnishes me with a store of prayer. . . . I am bound to acknowledge that I have always found that my prayers have been heard and answered; . . . in almost every instance I have received what I have asked for. . . . Hence, I feel permitted to offer up my prayers for everything that concerns me. . . . I am inclined to imagine that ‘there are no little things with God. His hand is as manifest in the feathers of a butterfly’s wing, in the eye of an insect, in the folding and packing of a blossom, in the curious aqueducts by which a leaf is nourished, as in the creation of a world, and in the laws by which planets move. I understand literally the injunction: “In everything make your requests known unto God;” and I cannot but notice how amply these prayers have been met.’

Again, writing to his daughter on the subject of a ‘division’ in the House of Commons, in the conflict for West Indian Emancipation, he says: ‘What led to that division? If ever there was a subject which occupied our prayers, it was this. Do you remember how we desired that God would give me His Spirit in that emergency; how we quoted the promise, “He that lacketh wisdom, let him ask it of the Lord, and it shall be given him”; and how I kept open that passage in the Old Testament, in which it is said, “We have no might against this great company that cometh against us, neither know we what to do, but our eyes are upon Thee” - the Spirit of the Lord replying, “Be not afraid nor dismayed by reason of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours, but God’s.” If you want to see the passage, open my Bible; it will turn of itself to the place. I sincerely believe that prayer was the cause of that division; and I am. confirmed in this, by knowing that we by no means calculated on the effect. The course we took appeared to be right, and we followed it blindly.’

In these examples is illustrated, in real life, the working of these two forces in a spirit of prayer, which must naturally exist or die together, - intensity of desire, and specificness of object.

Let a man define to his own mind an object of prayer, and then let him be moved by desires for that object which impel him to pray, because he cannot otherwise satisfy the irrepressible longings of his soul; let him have such desires as shall lead him to search out, and dwell upon, and treasure in his heart, and return to again, and appropriate to himself anew, the encouragements to prayer, till his Bible opens of itself to the right places - and think you that such a man will have occasion to go to his closet, or come from it, with the sickly cry, ‘Why, oh! why is my intercourse with God so irksome to me?’ Such a man must experience, at least, the joy of uttering hopefully emotions which become painful by repression.

On the contrary, let a man’s objects of thought at the throne of Grace be vague, and let his desires be languid, and from the nature of the case, his prayers must be both languid and vague. Says Jeremy Taylor: ‘Easiness of desire is a great enemy to the success of a good man’s prayer. It must be an intent, zealous, busy, operative prayer. For, consider what a huge indecency it is, that a man should speak to God for a thing that he values not. Our prayers upbraid our spirits, when we beg tamely for those things for which we ought to die; which are more precious than imperial sceptres, richer than the spoils of the sea, or the treasures of Indian hills.’

The scriptural examples of prayer have, most of them, an unutterable intensity. They are pictures of struggles, in which more of suppressed desire is hinted than that which is expressed. Recall the wrestling of Jacob, -’I will not let thee go except thou bless me;’ and the ‘panting’ and ‘pouring out of soul’ of David,- ‘I cried day and night; my throat is dried; . . . I wait for my God;’ and the importunity of the Syro-Phenician woman, with her ‘Yes, Lord, yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs;’ and the persistency of Bartimeus, crying out ‘the more a great deal,’ ‘Have mercy on me;’ and the strong crying and tears of our Lord, ‘If it be possible -if it be possible!’ There is no ‘easiness of desire’ here.

The scriptural examples of prayer, also, are clear as light in their objects of thought. Even those which are calm and sweet, like the Lord’s prayer, have few and sharply denned subjects of devotion. They are not discursive and voluminous, like many uninspired forms of supplication. They do not range over everything at once. They have no vague expressions; they are crystalline; a child need not read them a second time to understand them. As uttered by their authors, they were in no antiquated phraseology ; they were in the fresh forms of a living speech. They were, and were meant to be, the channels of living thoughts and living hearts.

Let a man, then, be negligent of both scriptural example and the nature of his own mind; let him approach God with both vagueness of thought and languor of emotion ; and what else can his prayer be, but a weariness to himself and an abomination to God? It would be a miracle, if such a suppliant should enjoy success in prayer. He cannot succeed, he cannot have joy, because he has no object that elicits intense desire, and no desire that sharpens his object. He has no great, holy, penetrative thought in him, which stirs up his sensibilities; and no deep, swelling sensibility, therefore, to relieve by prayer. His soul is not reached by anything he is thinking about, and, therefore, he has no soul to pour out before God. Such a man prays because he thinks he must pray; not because he is grateful to God that he may pray. There is an unspeakable difference between ‘must’ and ‘may.’ It is his conscience that prays; it is not his heart. His language is the language of his conscience. He prays in words which ought to express his heart, not in those which do express it. Hence arises that experience, so distressful to an ingenious mind, in which devotion is prompted by no vividness of conception, rolling up a force of sensibility to the level of the lips, so that it can flow forth in childlike, honest speech.

Such an experience, so far from rendering prayer a joy either sweet and placid, or ecstatic, can only cause the time spent in the closet to be the season of periodical torture to a sensitive conscience, like that of a victim daily stretched on a rack. For it is in such prayer, that such a conscience is most vehement in its reproaches, and guilt seems to be heaped up most rapidly. Oh, wretched man that he is! Who shall deliver him?