A sermon preached at Kuling, China, at the close of a ten day convention in 1904.
Is it not absurd to suppose that where the human will is so potent, the Divine will is powerless?My human friend can hear my prayer, and give me help in response to my petitions; but God, the Divine Friend, the God in whom I live, move, and have my being, is so bound by nature and the laws of nature, that He can do nothing for me, however great my need, and however distressful my cry. Anything more absurd than that it is impossible to imagine; as it is impossible to imagine anything more opposed to the teachings of our Lord.
Our Lord does speak of difficulties in connection with prayer, and very serious difficulties; but the scientific difficulty is not among them. The difficulties of which He speaks are on man's side. He speaks of the want of faith as a difficulty, of the want of perseverance as a difficulty, of the want of union with Himself as a difficulty. According to His teachings, it is the absence of these that causes prayer to remain unanswered, never by reason of science which makes it impossible.
The Source of Power
“And He spake a parable unto them to the end that they ought always to pray, and not to faint.”—Luke xviii. 1.
This parable is called the Parable of the Importunate Widow. The duty enforced in the parable is that of persevering prayer. The subject to which I wish to invite your attention on this occasion is prayer, and importunity in prayer. We all believe in work. Do we all believe in prayer? Or rather, do we all believe in prayer as we do in work? We have had a very helpful convention. But what is to be the value of the convention to us in the coming months. That will greatly depend, I think, on the place which prayer is to have in our daily work, and that again will depend on the value we attach to prayer in its bearing on our spiritual life and work. If I can say anything here this morning that shall deepen our sense of the reality and importance of prayer in this respect, the time devoted to our morning meditation will not be misspent.
Prayer may be defined as communion with God, manifesting itself in the various forms of adoration, praise, thanksgiving, confession, and petition. These several parts of prayer are intimately connected one with another. You cannot approach God, as the infinitely great and holy, without adoring Him; you cannot adore Him without being penetrated with a sense of unworthiness and confessing your sins; you cannot confess your sins without pleading for forgiveness; and you cannot realize the blessings of forgiveness without offering up to God the sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise. The Bible abounds in all these forms of prayer. In the book of Psalms, the grandest book of prayer in the world, you have all these forms ever recurring, and often brought together in their most intimate connection. You cannot read these wonderful hymns and songs without feeling that you are breathing the very atmosphere of prayer in all its various forms.
In order to pray at all, two things are absolutely necessary, namely, faith in the existence of God and a firm conviction with regard to the personality of God. An atheist cannot pray. “He that cometh to God must believe that He is.” To the atheist there is nothing higher than blind, resistless nature. How would it be possible for anyone holding this view of the universe to pray? It is a mental impossibility. The pantheist, or the man who believes that there is nothing but God, can no more pray than the atheist. How can a man who believes that God is everything, The All, the sum total of Being, and that he himself is a part of Him, pray intelligently and earnestly? This also is a mental impossibility. An appeal to an infinite something, destitute of all personal attributes, is not prayer. It may be poetry, but it is not prayer as taught by Jesus Christ. “After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven.” That is not a prayer to The All, but to the God and Father of all.
But there are those who are neither atheists nor pantheists, who feel a difficulty with regard to one element in prayer. All who believe in God as a personal being can have no difficulty in accepting the elements of adoration, praise, thanksgiving, and confession. They believe in the subjective effect of prayer, in its reflex influence on the soul; and believing in this, they have no difficulty in attaching much value to it as a spiritual exercise and habit. Let the soul, they say, hold daily communion with God in these various ways, and a spiritual change must follow. A man cannot live in an atmosphere of holy communion with his Father in heaven without being gradually changed into the Divine image. Old things must pass away and all things become new. And there can be no doubt as to the value of prayer in this respect. It is undoubtedly a means of spiritual development, of promoting the full and harmonious unfolding of our spiritual sympathies and powers, of strengthening the moral nature in its conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil. It tends, as someone has said, to raise us above the world, to fill the mind with the idea of God, and to keep us from lapsing into a lower sphere, and becoming identified with the lower order of things.
But whilst all this is plain enough to them, they find a real difficulty when they come to deal with the fifth element in prayer, the element of petition. This element implies faith, not only in the subjective efficacy of prayer, but also in its objective efficacy, as a means appointed by God for obtaining definite blessings—blessings for ourselves and blessings for others. It implies belief in the susceptibility of God to human appeals, and in the possibility of obtaining good things from God, both temporal and spiritual, by prayer, that cannot be obtained without. Ask, and ye shall receive; ask not, and ye shall not receive.
How many feel a real difficulty. Probably there are some among ourselves who know to some extent, at least, what the difficulty is. Does God really hear prayer? Does God in very deed answer the petitions of His children? Is it true that God does pay any attention to the supplications of His own elect, who cry unto Him day and night? What is the use of my praying? What is the use of it to me personally, to my family, to my country, to the church, to the world at large? Questions such as these have occurred to most of us at one time or another, and some of us may have been greatly tried and perplexed as we have endeavoured to escape the difficulties by which the subject is surrounded. It must be confessed that there are difficulties, and to some minds very serious difficulties. The nature of the difficulty will greatly depend on mental training and habit. Let us look at some of these difficulties for a minute or two.
There is the scientific difficulty. When we ask for physical blessing, the fixity of natural law confronts us. We live under general laws, and these laws in all cases must be fulfilled unalterably. How can the reign of law and the uniformity of nature be interfered with? Natural law is fixed. What can man do, whether by word or thought, to direct its movements? Brought up in the scientific atmosphere, many find it extremely difficult to think that man, by his desires and prayers, however intense and passionate, can in any way affect the natural course of things. Prayer for the removal of illness, prayer for rain, prayer for fair weather, prayer for a good harvest, and all such prayers, appear to many to be nothing less than gross superstition.
There is the metaphysical difficulty. The Divine mind is infinite, the Divine will is perfect, the Divine purposes are infallible. How can we hope to influence that mind, or change that will? How can we hope to modify the plans and purposes of the Eternal? Moreover, the fixity of law is best. How dare we question the Divine wisdom, or interfere with the Divine order?
There is the experimental difficulty. Many of my petitions have not been granted. This I know from actual experience. I have asked for definite blessings. I have asked for myself, I have asked for others; but the blessings have never come. I have waited long, but waited in vain. True, on the other hand, I have asked and received. But had the asking anything to do with the receiving? Was it not a mere coincidence? Would it not have been the same had I not asked at all? “Ask, and ye shall receive.” Is it really so? Is there a real connection between the two? If it be so in some cases, why not in all cases? If it be so sometimes, why is it not so at all times?
And then there is the Divine method of delay. This difficulty is brought out in the parable. We all know how this tends to weaken faith in prayer and to discourage perseverance. “When the Son of Man cometh shall He find faith on the earth?” Shall He find that kind of faith which can stand the test of long delay? Shall He find the faith which endures in importunate prayer in spite of weary waiting and adverse appearances?
Some Answers to Difficulties
Such are some of the difficulties. What is the answer? In answer to these objections I might dwell on what is called the universal instinct of prayer. That the instinct exists is certain, and that the instinct is universal is certain. A little girl was asked why she prayed to God. “I pray to God,” she replied, “because I know He hears me, and I love to pray to Him.” “But how do you know that He hears you?” Putting her little hands to her heart, she said, “I know He does, because there is something here that tells me so.” In all lands and in all ages men have been praying, and they have been doing so because there is something here that urges them to do so. Whatever their beliefs or disbeliefs, men will pray. Mr. Frederick Harrison, who has no God but humanity, an abstraction which cannot possibly answer his petitions, is constantly advocating the organization of worship, and urging us not to give up prayer even though we have given up God. Now, the object of worship may be false, and the motive in worship may be low and degrading, but the instinct is true, and is ever compelling the soul to go out of itself in a felt sense of want. This instinct is from God, and forms a bond of union between man and his Maker. But if the instinct is from God, prayer must be a reality. God would not have implanted it in me in order to mock me. If He has so made me that I must pray, then He must be a God who hears and answers prayer.
The GREAT Argument: Jesus Commanded Us to Pray!
Now, this is a good argument as far as it goes. But to me, as a disciple of Christ, it is not the argument. The great argument is this: Jesus Christ knows God, and He commands us to pray, and to pray earnestly and unceasingly. We are not to be discouraged in our endeavours to obtain anything from God which we believe to be in accordance with His will. The one element in prayer which our Lord inculcates in this parable is the element of petition; and this is the one grand element in the prayer which He taught His disciples to pray. In that prayer, the model prayer, we have one invocation and seven petitions. It is made up of petitions. While the principle that our Heavenly Father knoweth what we need before we ask Him is plainly enunciated by our Lord, the duty of prayer is solemnly enforced in all His teachings.
But our Lord does not enter into any explanation of the mystery involved in the subject. As is usual in the case of such mysteries, the two apparently opposite truths are emphasized, but the reconcilement is not revealed. Neither is it necessary that it should be revealed in order to convince the Christian disciple that prayer is a reality. The fact that our Lord commands us to pray, and that He enforces the command by promises of the clearest and most satisfactory character, is to my mind an all-sufficient proof that God does answer prayer, and that prayer has a place among the forces designed by God for the working out of His purposes. Jesus Christ knows God, and He commands us to pray. This is enough in itself. We, as Christians, as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, really need no other argument.
There are, however, certain facts connected with prayer, which we must bear in mind if we would deal successfully with the difficulties by which the subject is surrounded. Let us look at these facts for a few minutes.
A. God Has Promised to Answer According to His Will
First: God has never promised to give us anything in answer to prayer that is not in accordance with His will. “And this is the boldness which we have toward Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He heareth us.” Nothing lies beyond the reach of prayer, except that which lies outside the perfect will of God. What is contrary to that perfect will, for that we ought not to pray. To pray for that is useless.
B. God has Promised to Respond to Our Asking
Second: It is God's will that we should ask, and that blessings should be bestowed in answer to our asking. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” Such is the Divine will; such is the Divine order. There are blessings which cannot be bestowed except in response to the asking. Take spiritual blessings for ourselves as an illustration. The forgiveness of sins, the sanctification of our natures, the gifts of the Spirit—all these blessings come to us in response to the asking. “Draw nigh to God and He will draw nigh to you.” “Ye receive not, because ye ask not.” “If any one lacks wisdom, let him ask of God.”
The same remark may be made with regard to spiritual blessings for others, for the Church, and for the world. Suppose all Christians were to give up praying. What, think you, would be the result? What would be the result to themselves individually? Would not their spiritual life die down? What would be the result to the Church? Would not the Church lose her spiritual vitality and become powerless for good? And what would be the result to the world? Would it not sink deeper and deeper in moral and spiritual degradation? Would not its salvation become hopeless? Nay, would it not become impossible? “God's will,” it has been said by someone, “will be done with our help or without it.” Is that true? Is it true in the physical realm? God has His will with regard to the harvest; but it will never be done without the help of the husbandman. God has His will with regard to the progress of the race in material prosperity; but it will never be done without the co-operation of man. And so it is in the spiritual realm. God has His will with regard to the evangelization of the world; but the world will never be evangelized without the co-operation of the preacher and the teacher.“It must be done by both; God never without me, and I never without God.” And hence the need of work and prayer; not work without prayer, and not prayer without work.
Some would have us look upon work as the one thing needful. The value of work is obvious to them, but they cannot see why prayer should be regarded as indispensable. “As soon as a man is at one with God,” says Emerson, “he will not beg. He will see prayer in all action.” That every true action is, in a certain sense, a prayer, we may readily admit. But why should not a man beg? Why should he not ask as well as work? Work and prayer are not mutually antagonistic. They go hand in hand, and both are necessary.Jesus was one with God, and yet He did beg. He begged for Himself and He begged for His disciples. Paul lived in close fellowship with God, and yet he was ever begging— begging for himself, and begging for the churches. Luther was a tremendous worker, and he was a man mighty in prayer. With what earnestness did George Müller work for the orphans of England! Yes, and with earnestness did he beg for them! What could George Müller have accomplished without prayer? In fact, the man who lives near to God, and who is ever striving to serve God, cannot but beg—beg constantly, beg persistently. He has learnt by personal experience how much depends upon begging, how the most precious gifts of heaven are at the disposal of the man who can beg aright, who can beg well. There is not a man among us who would not have been much richer in nobility of character and wealth of good deeds if he had learnt the art of begging of God more thoroughly. “Looking back at the end,” says Andrew A. Bonar, “I suspect there will be great grief of our sins of omission— omission to get from God what we might have got by praying.” Thus it is the will of God that we should ask, and that blessings should be bestowed in answer to our petitions.
c. Every Prayer is to Be Offered In Submission to God’s Will.
Third: It is the will of God that every prayer should be offered up in perfect submission to the Divine mind. It has been said that “the true blessedness and power of every prayer lies in the fact that the soul of all genuine prayer is simply asking that God's will may be done.” “Thy will be done.” Apart from Thy will I have no will. Whatever desires I may have, there is one desire that dominates them all, namely, the desire that Thy will be done. I have read of a case in which a minister, praying over a child, apparently dying, said:
“If it be Thy will, spare. “ The poor mother, interrupting, exclaimed: “It must be His will, it must be His will. I cannot bear 'ifs.’” In that mother you have an example of a state of mind in which no true prayer can possibly be offered up. “Ah, God, I fall on my knees and beg Thee not to oppose this happiness. I beg Thee not even to help me, but only allow me to work without too many obstructions.” In that prayer of Marie Bashkirtseff, which I read some years ago, you have an illustration of the exact opposite of what a true Christian prayer is. Let us take it for granted that all such prayers are worthless, and worse than worthless. We do not really pray when we do not ask in perfect submission to the Divine will.
But let us bear in mind that Christian submission to the Divine will does not mean a sort of passive yielding to an irresistible power, or non-resistance to the inevitable. It does not mean a sort of can't-help-myself-ism. It does not mean not willing at all, or simply ceasing to oppose a higher will or a stronger force. That would be a very poor thing indeed. It means the bringing of my will into active sympathy with the will of God, so that I shall find it impossible not to will what God wills, and seek what God seeks. It means to trust the Divine will at all times and in all circumstances, deeming that higher will the best.
D. Answers Require Perseverance and Importunity.
Fourth: It is the will of God that the answer, in some cases, should be conditional on the perseverance and the importunity of the man who prays. Some object to this element in prayer. “State your case calmly,” they say, “and leave it with God.” Why plead? Why struggle? Why agonize? The reason why is this: Importunity is, in some cases, an absolute condition of success. We have a striking illustration of this in that remarkable scene in the life of Jacob, recorded in Genesis, 32nd chapter. The angel of the covenant appeared unto Jacob in the form of a man, and Jacob wrestled with him all night. And the angel said, “Let me go, for the day breaketh.” And Jacob said, “I will not let thee go except thou bless me.” The wrestling went on all night, and the blessing did not come till the breaking of the day. In this victorious struggle with the angel we have an example of earnest, importunate, successful prayer. But why the struggle and the delay? Was it God who needed the struggle? Was it necessary in order to overcome a reluctance in the Divine mind to bestow the blessing? Not at all. It was to test and strengthen the faith of Jacob; it was to intensify his yearnings and aspirings; it was to help him to become a fit recipient of the blessing and honour which God was waiting to confer upon him. It was Jacob who needed the struggle, not the angel. And do we not need it too? God is willing to bestow His highest blessings upon us. It is not a question of God's willingness to give, but of our preparedness to receive. May it not be necessary in the case of some of us, at least, that we should pass through an experience similar to that of Jacob's at Peniel in order to become fit recipients of God's highest gifts? Think you that God will bestow the best gifts of heaven upon a man who has no appreciation of their value? The pearl of great price can never become ours unless we are prepared to sell all that we have and buy it. Again, God wants to save China. But let me tell you what I think. It is my firm conviction that if China is ever to be saved, the missionaries in China, and God's people throughout the world, must pass through a Peniel experience on behalf of China. The pleading, the wrestling, nay, the agonizing element will have to enter more powerfully into our prayers if we would see this great people turning to God. It is very much easier to work than it is to pray. Most of the missionaries are earnest workers. But are we all that we should be in the matter of prayer? Let us not suppose that any sort of praying will do for China. We must all wrestle with God. “I will not let Thee go unless Thou bless China.” It must come to this if the conversion of the Chinese is ever to be an accomplished fact. Such is my conviction.
Let me remind you that the greatest importunity is not incompatible with the profoundest submission to the Divine will. You remember the prayer of our Lord in the garden. And He kneeled down and prayed, saying, “Father, if Thou be willing, remove this cup from Me; nevertheless, not My will, but Thine, be done.” “And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became as it were great drops of blood falling down upon the ground.” Here we have the intensest importunity; and here we have also the most perfect submission to the Father's will. “If it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt.”
There are men who will tell you that the two are not compatible. They will tell you that perfect resignation is opposed to all manifestation of feeling, that the perfectly resigned man is a man in whose breast all private desires and all natural affections are dead. Such is not the lesson I learn from the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. That may be stoicism, but it is not Christianity.
Consider Further Scientific Difficulties
With these facts and principles before us, let us once more look at the difficulties. And, first, let us consider the scientific difficulty—the uniformity of nature and the reign of law. But why should nature and her laws stand in God's way in the matter of answering prayer? God is personal, God is infinite, God is above nature, nature is His creation. Whilst we believe in the Divine immanency in all nature, we are equally convinced of the divine transcendency beyond it. This being the case, why should not God be able to answer prayer? Man is able to use nature's laws, and work out results far beyond the power of unaided nature. Take this church in which we are now assembled as an illustration. Nature could never have built up this place of worship. If man can use nature's laws, and work out results beyond the power of nature, why should not God be able to do so? And why should not God be able to work out results far beyond the power and capacity of man? Nay, why should it be deemed impossible for God to lay these laws aside altogether, and work independently of them? If there is any truth in our Lord's miracles, it is certain that He answered prayer again and again in a way that was both superhuman and supernatural. Why should not God be able to do so now? Why should He not be able to do so always? Once postulate God, once assume that God is personal, that God is infinite, that God is not only in but above nature, that God is love, and all things come within the plane of the credible. Let us grasp this great truth, and the scientific difficulty will vanish.
I do not deny the reign of law, or the uniformity of nature. If there were no such order, there could be no science, and no certainty about anything. But I do deny that what we define as the order of nature is so fixed and so all-embracing, that we have the right to regard it as the limit set to the Divine action. Our scientific generalizations are useful in their way; but they do not cover the whole mystery of being, neither have they any claim to infallibility. The generalization of yesterday is repudiated to-day, and the generalization of to-day will be repudiated to-morrow. A very interesting article appeared some time ago in the London Spectator on “The Widening of Man's Horizon,” in which the writer refers to the undoubted fact that recent discoveries in science have apparently contradicted or reversed what have hitherto been supposed to be natural laws. Allow me to give you one or two extracts from this article. The writer says: “The last few years have brought us discoveries which, if only because of the rapidity with which one has followed upon another, and because of the apparent contradiction or reversal of what have hitherto been supposed to be natural laws, certainly deserve to be called unparalleled. They need not all be enumerated here; but the liquefaction and solidification of air, the light cure of lupus, the Rontgen rays, the Marconi system of wireless telegraphy, and, lastly, the discovery of the properties of radium—all these make up a list unequalled, we should suppose, by the discoveries of other decades.” Then the writer goes on to say: “It happens in the case of every fresh discovery in physics that there is a certain subversion of our ideas as to what is and what is not possible. In the latest case of discovery, namely, the mystery of radium, the subversion is greater than has been common. Radium appears to be a substance that subverts, as far as they are at present comprehended, the laws of heat. It seems to be able to attract and generate heat in a method peculiarly its own, and as yet it is not fully understood exactly what the new law may be which it will be necessary to frame.” Thus, things which would have been declared impossible ten or twenty years ago, as contradicting natural law, are found today to be among the verified facts of nature. Our knowledge of nature is ever extending; and this increasing knowledge is a stern rebuke to those who see in their ever-shifting generalizations an absolutely fixed order of law, which sets a limit to the Divine action, and excludes prayer as unscientific and worthless.
And I do deny that, whilst every human will, every personality, is ever interfering with what we call the order of nature, ever modifying it and adapting it, and ever producing results which nature, left to herself, could never produce—whilst all this is the case, whilst man can do so much, I do deny that God can do nothing. Shall God be less than man? Is it not absurd to suppose that where the human will is so potent, the Divine will is powerless?My human friend can hear my prayer, and give me help in response to my petitions; but God, the Divine Friend, the God in whom I live, move, and have my being, is so bound by nature and the laws of nature, that He can do nothing for me, however great my need, and however distressful my cry. Anything more absurd than that it is impossible to imagine; as it is impossible to imagine anything more opposed to the teachings of our Lord.
Have you observed that the scientific difficulty has no place in the teachings of Jesus Christ? He does not refer to it even. Indeed, it is impossible to conceive how He could have referred to it. To His mind there could be no difficulty on the Divine side. The Father to His vision is Lord of heaven and earth. Nature and nature's laws are under His sway. There is nothing impossible to Him. Our Lord does speak of difficulties in connection with prayer, and very serious difficulties; but the scientific difficulty is not among them. The difficulties of which He speaks are on man's side. He speaks of the want of faith as a difficulty, of the want of perseverance as a difficulty, of the want of union with Himself as a difficulty. According to His teachings, it is the absence of these that causes prayer to remain unanswered, never by reason of science which makes it impossible.
Consider Further Metaphysical Difficulties
Now let us look at the metaphysical difficulty. How can we hope to influence the Divine will? How can we hope to change the Divine mind? In answer to this question it is sufficient to state that the objection is based on a misconception of the meaning of prayer. In prayer it is not God's mind that is changed. It would be a sad thing for us all if the Divine mind could be changed by any effort of the human will. Think of mortal man being able to hypnotize God, of being able to turn God into a machine with which to work out his own plans and purposes! But whilst man cannot change the mind of God, I hold that there is in God's dominion room given for the play of the human will, and for the exercise of prayer. Within this sphere there is abundance of scope for work and prayer, for the one as truly as for the other. Within this sphere the language of God to you and to me is: “You do this, and I will do that; ask, and I will give; knock, and I will open the door unto you.” God's mind is fixed on this condition. It is the man's mind that is changed in prayer, and brought up to the mind of God.
Consider Further Experimental Difficulties
Let us now look at the experimental difficulty. “Many of my petitions have never been answered.” Now, I maintain that God does listen to every sincere prayer, and that every true prayer is answered. It is a mistake to speak about God as answering so many prayers, and not answering so many prayers, according as He gives or does not give the very things we ask for. That is the heathen way of looking at the matter. We, as Christians, ought to know better. I, in my ignorance, ask for a stone, and my Heavenly Father gives me bread. Is that not an answer to my prayer? Is it not the true answer? If He in His wisdom and love does not give according to my asking, but dealt with me according to His knowledge of what is best for me, shall I say He does not answer my prayer? “There was to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me. Concerning this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” The apostle's prayer was not answered literally—not in the exact form in which he presented it. But was it not answered, and answered gloriously, in the assurance given him of grace sufficient to support him in the trial which he was feeling so keenly? Was not that a true answer? Was it not the highest and best answer? Let the apostle himself tell us what he thinks: “Most gladly, therefore, will I rather glory in my weakness, that the strength of Christ may rest upon me.” If this thorn, if this weakness, is a condition of bringing the strength of Christ as a glory down upon me, then let it remain. Instead of wishing it away, I will glory in it, and not in this weakness only, but in all the weaknesses I am called upon to bear, that the strength of Christ may rest upon me, tabernacle upon me, cover me all over. That is Paul's view of the answer given to his prayer. How true! And how beautiful!
Consider Further Delay Difficulties
And, lastly, let us look at the difficulty arising from the Divine method of delay. On this point there is only one remark that I think it necessary to make, namely, that the delay is always for some wise purpose. There is always a reason for it in the mind of God. It may be for my own good, it may be for the good of others. The interests of Christ's kingdom may require it, the glory of God may require it. “And the sisters sent unto Him saying, Lord, behold he whom Thou lovest is sick. When Jesus heard it, He said, this sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son may be glorified thereby. Now, Jesus loved Martha and her sister, and Lazarus. When, therefore, He heard that he was sick, He abode at that time two days in the place where He was.” How strange! Why did He not hasten to Bethany in response to the urgent petition of the sisters whom He so much loved? That is what we should have done. But that is precisely what He did not do. And why? There is only one answer to this question. The glory of God required the delay. Besides our praying, besides our working, there is another great factor—the will and purpose of God. The reason of the delay may not be revealed to me, but whether revealed or not, I know that it is thus in the mind of God, and that is enough. God knows what is best, and He alone knows what is best—best for me and best for all concerned, best for to-day and best for all the days that are to come, best for time and best for eternity. The man who knows God, and believes in His imperishable love, will trust Him implicitly, both with regard to the gift itself and the time of its bestowal.
“Choose for us, God! Nor let our weak preferring
Cheat our poor souls of good Thou has designed;
Choose for us, God! Thy wisdom is unerring,
And we are fools and blind.”
Let me, in conclusion, make three remarks. And, first, God hears and answers every true prayer. “Good prayers,” says someone, “never come weeping home. I am sure I shall receive what I ask, or what I should ask.” Ask, and ye shall receive, if not the very thing asked for, then something higher and better. God's ear is ever open to the cry of His children. He wants them to look up to Him as their Father, and tell him everything. He wants them to be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, to make known their requests unto Him.
Again, God gives good things, and only good things. He will not give us what is not good for us, however earnestly we may, in our blindness, ask for it.
“When, yesterday, my boy, with childish glee,
Came into the garden bold and free,
He begged that I would give to him
The pruning knife, so bright, so keen,
So gleaming in the sun.
Knowing full well those tender fingers
Were unskilled to use the blade,
I gently, but firmly, his request declined,
And on the grass in passion he threw himself,
And sobbed, and sighed, and blamed
So many times we make request to Heaven,
But God, in answer to our prayers,
Gives not what we ask, but what we need.
We have asked amiss—the way seems hard,
But He has saved us from the care
By kind denial of our childish prayer.”
“If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give good things to them that ask Him?” How much more! I cannot tell how much more. Infinitely more! If there be a Father in heaven, He must listen to the cry of His child. The child may not know what he wants, but the Father knows, and that is enough. “No good thing will He withhold from them that walk uprightly.”
Once more. Among the good things which our Father gives, the best things of all are spiritual blessings, and these are the things we ought to covet most, and seek with greatest ardour. The highest petitions are for spiritual blessings—for likeness to God, for communion with God, for the entire sanctification of our being, for power in service, for the salvation of men, for the triumph of Christ's kingdom in the world. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” That is the Divine order. Let it be ours, and God will never fail us.
Let us, then, pray and never be discouraged—pray always and never faint. “Let prayer be,” as Matthew Henry says, “the key of the morning and the bolt of the evening.” Let us pray for ourselves and pray for others; pray for our own lands and pray for all lands; pray for our own church and for all churches; pray for our own mission and for all missions; pray for our own people and for all the peoples that on earth do dwell. Let us take the whole world into our hearts, and let us take the whole world into our prayers. “I need not tell you,” said Horace Bushnell on one occasion, “for whom we prayed, or for what we prayed. Suffice it to say that we forgot nothing which we loved, or what we could think of as dear to Christ.” “What we could think of as dear to Christ.” What a scope for prayer!
Let us, then, pray on—kneel on. “Prayer,” says someone, “is the greatest thing in the world.” And so it is. It brings us face to face with God, it transforms us into the image of God, it links our earthly feebleness to the very might of God. Prayer brings health to the soul. The prayerless soul is a sickly soul. Disease, we are told, is contagious. But is not health contagious too? And what so contagious as the health of God's countenance! By communion with God in prayer we become partakers of the Divine holiness, we become partakers of the very health, the very wholeness of God.
The prayerless man is necessarily a Godless man. “God,” says someone, “fades out of the life of the man who does not pray.” The prayerless man is a weak man, and doomed to failure. But that man wields a mighty power who has learnt the secret of instantly and directly going to God, and of holding face communion with Him. The enemies of Luther were wont to say that he could obtain anything from God, and Mary, Queen of Scots, was accustomed to say that she feared the prayers of John Knox more than she did the fleets and armies of Elizabeth. Brethren, what think you would be the result if the whole Church of God were to resolve to make proof of the last possible efficacy of prayer on behalf of the heathen world? The result, I verily believe, would be astounding.
Again, I say, let us pray on. Heed not the difficulties by which the subject is surrounded, but pray on. Heed not the disappointments connected with the work, but pray on. Heed not the doubts of the skeptic, the contempt of the proud, or the sneer of the fool, but pray on. Pray on! Kneel on! Let us do this, and prayer will become a greater reality to us, and a greater joy to us, day by day. It will become to us as the very atmosphere in which we live, as the very air we breathe. We cannot live without prayer. Cease to pray, and, as a Christian, you cease to live.
“Prayer is the Christian's vital breath,
The Christian's native air;
His watchword at the gate of death,
He enters Heaven with prayer.”
Griffith John, A Voice From China, (London: James Clark & Co., 1907), 164-186