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THE NATURE OF PRAYER
Luke xviii, 1. “Men ought always to pray."
In these words our Savior inculcates the habitual and unremitting discharge of the duty of prayer. He obviously contemplates it as of importance so indispensable as that it admits of no suspension or serious interruption of its discharge. The reason of this is sufficiently evident. Prayer is a duty of universal significance. There can be no religion without it, and the degree of practical piety must always correspond with the extent to which it is performed. It may be said to be the prime duty of all religion, whether that of nature or of the Gospel of Christ. Not only does it possess an intrinsic value of its own which is absolutely immeasurable, but it is the essential concomitant, the necessary stimulus and support of all other religious duties. It goes hand in hand with the cultivation of Christian graces, and the performance of legal obligations. As it is passive, it is the grand recipient of that divine grace and strength which energize the soul, and as it is active, it re-acts most salutarily upon the fervor of religious emotions, is positively influential in the production of the most important results, and powerfully propels the suppliant in the path of spiritual obedience.
NOTE.—The five following sermons on prayer were delivered late in 1865, in Zion Presbyterian Church, Glebe street, Charleston. A note by Dr. Girardeau says: “Daily prayer was offered by crowds of worshippers for the success of the Confederate struggle In consequence of its disastrous result, many of God's people were, by Satanic influence, tempted to slack their confidence in prayer. These sermons were an humble attempt to help them under this trial.”
A just and scriptural consideration of this vitally important subject can at no time be inappropriate, or suited to promote other than beneficial ends, but there are certain exigencies in the experience of God's people when it claims more than ordinary attention. Especially when confidence in its efficacy has been weakened if not impaired by the occurrence of afflictive and disastrous events against which its aid had been invoked, and the sneer of the skeptic is, Where is now thy God who professes to be the hearer of prayer, it becomes us to re-examine its nature and its grounds, and to settle afresh our faith in its divinely-appointed force. It has probably struck us all, my brethren, that under just such circumstances we now find ourselves actually placed; and anxious as I am to accommodate the ministrations of the pulpit to your present necessities, I have thought it not inappropriate to take up, in several discourses, this great duty of prayer, and to endeavor, with God's blessing, to indicate its nature, its grounds, its spirit, and its efficacy, and then to answer, if possible, the objections which skepticism or a flagging faith may urge against its continued discharge. And I am impelled to this course by the profound conviction that we need all our religion to sustain us now, and that without the active exercise of prayer, though the principle of religion may not cease to exist, it will be practically dormant and inoperative either as to the performance of duty or the supply of consolation.
Your attention will first be directed to the question, What is the nature of prayer? It need scarcely be observed that prayer has a wider and a narrower signification. In its wider sense, it comprehends the elements of adoration of God, confession of sin, and a thankful
acknowledgment of the mercies which we may receive. In its narrower acceptation, it is simply petitionary or supplicatory in its character. In this point of view it is the preferment of our request to God for the blessings which He, and He alone, is competent to bestow. It is to this latter aspect of it that these remarks will be mainly devoted.
I would here take occasion to remind you, my friends, that there are certain great and fundamental truths which, at the outset of the discussion, will be taken for granted. It is assumed that God is, and that He is the rewarder of such as diligently seek Him. I shall not for the present, at least, pause to discuss with the Atheist the question of the divine existence, or with the Pantheist that of the divine personality, supposing God to exist, nor with the professed believer in the sole reign of naked, abstract law, that of the possibility of prayer as addressed to an intelligent Being who is capable of communing with us and who invites us to hold communion with Him. These things, which it is admitted lie at the very bottom of the subject, must for the present be assumed as truths which are conceded. Nor can any fair objection be urged against this course, since the utterances of the pulpit are simply the reflections of the deliverances of Scripture. The Bible does not elaborately expound, in formal shape, the great doctrines of God's existence and personality. It enounces them authoritatively as entitled to immediate reception, and ever proceeds on the supposition that their bare enouncement is sufficient to call forth an affirmative response to them from man's essential structure, or is itself an adequate revelation of their truth. The pulpit, therefore, is entitled to assume what the Scriptures—its sole authority—always take
granted. This, however, will not debar us, at a future stage in the treatment of the subject, from comparing the objections of the skeptic with those principles of our nature, or those convictions of reason which are themselves sanctioned and supported by the Divine Word. Conceding, then, that God exists, that He is possessed of personal attributes which render communion with Him possible, and that He is both willing and competent to answer our petitions for His blessing, the question which now solicits our consideration is, What is prayer?
I. In the first place it is clear that true prayer must include, as its first great element, the offering up of our real desires unto God. There may be the form of prayer without the desires of the heart, but there cannot be true prayer without them. All petition supposes a condition of want which requires to be relieved. It is the experimental sense, or the intellectual conviction, of need, which originates desire. The hungry man prays for bread, and the thirsty man prays for drink, because they desire them to supply their wants. He who is not hungry may ask for bread, and he who is not thirsty may beg for drink, but as the petitions they offer are not prompted by desire springing from a real want they are destitute of sincerity and are not worthy of being answered. In like manner the wretched man desires happiness, the guilty pardon, the impure holiness, and the lost salvation, when they experience in their souls a want of these invaluable blessings. But it is conceivable that formal petitions may be offered to God for these benefits without that desire for them which is grounded in a sense of need. In these cases the professed suppliant tampers with the majesty of God, which is offended by his insincerity; or trifles with
the omniscience of God, which he must all the while be conscious is able to detect the hypocrisy and to unmask the pretence. It is not sufficient, then, that the attitude and gesture, the look and tone of supplication be assumed; it is not sufficient that a certain formula of devotion be employed in accordance with the demands of custom or in obedience to motives which are simply mercenary or selfish; it is not sufficient that a clamorous repetition of empty words be used under the impression that the Deity must needs be affected with such a quantity of entreaty; it is absolutely essential that the real desires of the heart should urge the prayers which we offer to the Giver of every good and perfect gift, or all our petitions, arrayed though they be in language ever so sublime, are offensive to God and barren of beneficial results. They are nothing but sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. It is then only we “draw near” to God when we come with the conviction of want and the language of sincere desire. The heart must speak or the ear of God is deaf to the voice of the petition.
II. It deserves, also, to be considered that the desires which we experience and the prayers which they prompt should be for things that are agreeable to the will of God. Otherwise no true prayer is presented. It is hyprocrisy to ask for blessings which we do not desire, it is presumption to pray for those which are contrary to the divine will. If the objects of prayer be unlawful, the prayer itself is illegitimate. The will of God is the expression of His holy nature and perfections, and wherever it is made known to us it becomes the standard of reference and the rule of action. It is evidently possible that we may transgress this will in our prayers, both in regard to the things which we