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Austin Phelps
The Still Hour

Ch. 9: Idolatry in Prayer
 
Key Thought: "
When good men are ensnared in this sleek idolatry, before the decline of old age, or the infirmities of disease render rest a necessity, God often breaks in upon it with the blows of His hard hand. He fights against it ‘with battles of shaking'; and in part with the design of recalling His mistaken friends, into closer communion with Himself. He thwarts their plans of life. He sends troubles to plague them. He knocks out from under them, the props of their comfort. He does this, in part, for the sake of startling their torpid minds, and thus reaching their stagnant hearts, by giving them something to think of, which they feel they must make the subject of living, agonizing prayer."

Ye Have Brought that Which was Torn, and the Lame, and the Sick.
Should I Accept This of Your Hand? Mal. 1:13


Idolatry in Prayer
 
Our mental indolence may poison the very fountain of prayer. Are we not often reminded of our need of an effort of intellect, to enable us to realize to ourselves the personality of God, and to address to Him the language of supplication, as if to a friend who is invisibly with us? What is left of prayer, if these two things are abstracted from it — a sense of the personal presence and of the personal friendship of God? He that cometh unto God, must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder.

Subtract these from our ideal in prayer, and all that remains the Polish peasant possessed, when he strung his prayers upon a windmill, and counted so many to the credit side of his conscience, with every turn of the wheel.

A plain man once said: ‘Before my conversion, when I prayed in the presence of others, I prayed to them; when I prayed in secret, I prayed to myself; but now I pray to God.' But your experience has doubtless taught you, long before this time, that one of the most difficult things involved in an act of devotion, is to secure to it this reality of intercourse between the soul and a present friend.

Does it cost us no effort to feel, in the silence and solitude of the closet, the truthfulness of language like this? —perhaps we are sometimes assisted by uttering it audibly, —'God is here, within these walls; before me, behind me, on my right hand, on my left hand. He who fills immensity has come down to me here. I am now about to bow at His feet, and speak to Him. He will hear the very words I utter. I may pour forth my desires before Him, and not one syllable from my lips shall escape His ear. I may speak to Him as I would to the dearest friend I have on earth, whose hand I should grasp, and whose eye I should watch, and in the changes of whose speaking countenance I should read the interest which he felt in my story. Yes; I am about to speak to God, though I do not see Him; no image of Him aids my vision or my faith: though I do not hear His footfall around me; He is not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. Yet He is here as truly as if clothed in a refulgent body, and these eyes could look upon Him, and these ears could hear the sound of His tread.'

'Jesus, these eyes have never seen

That radiant form of Thine!
The veil of sense hangs dark between
Thy blessed face and mine!

'I see Thee not, I hear Thee not,

Yet art Thou oft with me;
And earth hath ne'er so dear a spot
As where I meet with Thee.'

In this manner, to feel the reality of God's spiritual presence, and then to speak the language of adoration, confession, petition, thanksgiving, with a continuous sense of its being, as Chalmers longed to feel it, an actual interchange between ourselves and God, a real conference of friends,— this, surely, is not at all times, in all states of the body, in all moods of sensibility, under all varieties of circumstance, natural to fallen minds like ours. It is not a state of mind to which, without culture, without discipline in Christian life, we spring spontaneously, involuntarily, as we spring to conscious thinking when we wake from sleep. A process of intellect is involved in it which demands exertion.

The difficulty is that which idolatry was invented to meet, by furnishing an image of God to aid the mind; that is, by giving it an object of sense, to relieve it from the labor of forming the conception of a spiritual Deity.

Is it not evident, then, what effect must be produced upon our devotional hours, if we squander them, through a habit of intellectual indolence? It has been said that we are all born idolaters. We truly are very like idolaters in indolent prayer. Pursue this thought, for a moment, into the details of individual experience, and let us have courage to look the evil in the face, and call it by its right name; for this is a matter which, to be felt as it deserves, needs to be permitted to pierce to the most secret habits of the closet.

Imagine, then, that you go to your place of retirement reluctantly, listlessly. Your mind, perhaps, is in a state of reaction from the excitements of the day. You are indisposed to thought of any kind. You have an eagerness to search after God; it is not the struggling cry of your heart, ‘Oh that I knew where I might find Him!' From sheer reluctance to endure the labor of thinking, you neglect preparatory meditation. You read the Scriptures indolently; you do not expect, or seek for a spur to your own conceptions, in the words of inspired thinkers. Your indolent mind infects the body with its infirmity; you instinctively choose that posture in your devotions, which is most tempting to physical repose.

Imagine that, in the act of prayer, your mind dreams its way through a dialect of dead words; it floats on the current of a stereotyped phraseology, which once leaped with life from the lips of holy men who originated it; but some of which, your memory obliges you to confess, never had any vitality in your own thoughts. It was never original with you; you have never worked it out in your own experience; you have never lived it; it has never forced itself into expression, as the fruit of self-knowledge or of self-conflict.

Or, imagine that you invariably, or even habitually, pray inaudibly, because the luxuriousness of silent thought is more facile to an indolent spirit, than the labor of expressing thought with the living voice. You cannot often say, with David, ‘I cried unto the Lord with my voice; with my voice unto the Lord did I make my supplication.' You do not pause, and struggle with yourself, and gird up your loins like a man, and ejaculate a cry for Divine aid, in the mastery of thoughts which wander like the fool's eyes. And you close your prayer, with a formula which touches the very soul of faith, and hope, and love, and all that is grand and mysterious and eternal in redemption, — a formula hallowed by centuries of prayer; yet, in uttering it, when you say: ‘For Christ's sake, Amen,' your mind is not conscious of a single definite, affecting thought, of either the history or the meaning of that language.

Imagine this as a scene of real life in the closet. Is this a caricature of some possible modes of secret devotion? And if it is not, is it marvelous that such devotion should be afflicted, with a want of enjoyment of the Divine presence? ‘Should I accept kids of your hand? saith the Lord.'

The truth is, that an indulgence of sluggishness of mind is sometimes the secret sin of good men. It is the iniquity which they regard in their hearts, and because of which God will not hear them. Mental ease is a refined and seductive idol, which often beguiles men who have too much Christian principle, or too much delicacy of nature, or too much prudence of self-control, or it may be too much pride of character, to fall into a physical vice.

When good men are ensnared in this sleek idolatry, before the decline of old age, or the infirmities of disease render rest a necessity, God often breaks in upon it with the blows of His hard hand. He fights against it ‘with battles of shaking'; and in part with the design of recalling His mistaken friends, into closer communion with Himself. He thwarts their plans of life. He sends troubles to plague them. He knocks out from under them, the props of their comfort. He does this, in part, for the sake of startling their torpid minds, and thus reaching their stagnant hearts, by giving them something to think of, which they feel they must make the subject of living, agonizing prayer.

Oh! God's thoughts are not as our thoughts. Dear as our happiness is to Him, there is another thing within us, which is more precious in His sight. It is of far less consequence, in any Divine estimate of things, how much a man suffers, than — what the man is.

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