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ON THE NATURE AND THE DUTY OF
MEN in general think it an honour to be admitted into the company of those who are distinguished by their rank, their power, or their attainments. They feel it a privilege to converse with a man of the first consequence in the State, a man eminent in wisdom or knowledge, or the monarch of a mighty empire. A Christian justly reckons it no small privilege, to be permitted, for a season, to associate with a person of peculiar piety. And if, while the greatest good may be obtained from a distinguished person, there be only a limited time in which we can go to him, the importance of using an opportunity that is offered, is evidently greatly increased. If we can say, 'now the way of access is open, but it will soon be closed; now you may hold converse, and walk, and get intimately acquainted with him; you may obtain all you want; you may secure a lasting interest in his affections; he has invited you to come to him, and you will never have this privilege offered again: surely no other arguments need be urged, to induce a man wanting his help to go to him, without delay.
When the Lord of Glory dwelt on earth, we often read of the great multitudes who assembled together and crowded around him, to see and to hear him. On one occasion, we find even a rich man, Zaccheus, unable to approach him, and climbing a tree to have a transient glimpse of so remarkable a character. Had we lived at that time, and possessed any thing of our present knowledge, we should doubtless have thought it a high honour to be in his company, and, like Mary, to sit at the feet of Jesus, and hear his words.
This privilege was counted the more valuable in seasons of difficulty. When any were in sickness, or danger, and believed that if they could see our Lord, he would help them, they then desired his presence with peculiar earnestness. When Lazarus is, dying, then his sisters send a special message to their Lord. When the disciples are in the storm, they awaken him, saying, Carest thou not that we perish? When the people are sick, they break through the roof of a dwelling to come to him or press through the crowd to touch the hem of his garment.
It is the NATURE of prayer, that it gives to needy and sinful men, in the limited time of this life, every day, yes, every hour, this great privilege of access to the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, to the Most High and the Most Holy, and this with the utmost freedom and confidence; the access, not merely of a servant to a master; or a subject to a king; but of a child to a tender Parent.
Prayer is, then, a holy intercourse with God." It is," -as the martyr Bradford expresses it, "a simple, unfeigned, humble, and ardent offering of the heart before God, wherein we either ask things needful, or give thanks for
benefits received. Acceptable prayer is the desire of the heart, offered up to God, through the influence of his Spirit, in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, for things according to his will, and in confidence that he hears us, and will answer us. There is no prayer without the exercise of holy and suitable dispositions and affections. "The true worshippers," says our Lord, "shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeketh such to worship him." John iv, 23.
Prayer is not the mere posture of the body.-A man may kneel till he wear out the stones; like the Mahomedans, he may put himself into every variety of posture, throw himself on the earth and lie in the dust; like Ahab, he may put on sackcloth and ashes; or like the monks of modern times, kneel till his knees become horny, and yet never pray at all.
It is not the mere expression of the mouth.-A man may repeat a hundred times in a day that comprehensive and affecting prayer which our Lord hath taught us to use; or he may SAY, My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth after thee, and yet not offer up one prayer
It is not the mere invention of the mind.-Many have a peculiar gift of prayer in this respect, and can pour out fluently, perspicuously, and at length, a form of words; but, both the mind and the tongue may be thus employed, while the heart neither feels the sentiments expressed, nor longs for the blessings implored.
Nor is the mere act of joining in family, social, or public worship, acceptable prayer. Uniting with others, in the most earnest petitions, where your own heart is unmoved, will avail you nothing.
All these things may be as the mere husk and shell without the kernel: the body without the spirit. God
expects the desire of the heart. Your devotions should be a sacred bond knitting the soul unto God, a holy converse with him.
Dr. Watts thus expresses himself on this subject."When a holy soul comes before God, he has much more to say than merely to beg. He tells his God what a sense he hath of the divine attributes; and what high esteem he pays to his majesty, his wisdom, his power, and his mercy. He talks with him about the works of creation, and stands wrapt up in wonder. He talks about the grace and mystery of redemption, and is yet more filled with admiration and joy. He talks of all the affairs of nature, grace, and glory; he speaks of his works of providence, of love, and vengeance, in this and the future world. Infinite and glorious are the subjects of this holy communion between God and his saints."
Mrs. More observes, "Prayer is a term of great latitude, involving the whole compass of our intercourse with God. St. Paul represents it to include our adoration of his perfections, our acknowledgment of the wisdom of his dispensations, and of our obligations for his benefits, providential and spiritual; the avowal of our entire dependence on him, and of our absolute subjection to him; the declaration of our faith in him; the expression of our devotedness to him; the confession of our own unworthiness, infirmities, and sins; the petition for the supply of our wants, and for the pardon of our offences, for succours in our distress, for a blessing on our undertakings, for the direction of our conduct, and the success of our affairs."*
“Prayer,” says the same writer, "is the application of want to Him who only can relieve it: the voice of sin to Him who only can pardon it. It is the urgency of
* See Essay on St. Paul, vol. ii, p. 227.
poverty, the prostration of humility, the fervency of penitence, the confidence of trust. It is not eloquence, but earnestness; not the definition of helplessness, but the feeling of it; not figures of speech, but compunction of soul. It is the Lord save us, we perish of drowning Peter; the cry of faith to the ear of mercy.'
This is acceptable prayer. But how often are our devotions a mere form to satisfy our conscience. We know it is our duty to pray; we know that none go to heaven but men of prayer; we have been taught to pray in our youth, and therefore we go through the outward form; but is it not too often without the inward motion and desire of the heart towards God? Let us remember, that the mere form is not only unprofitable to the soul, but brings guilt upon it, and when trusted in, is a dangerous delusion. It may gain us a religious name in the world, it may pacify an alarmed conscience for the moment, but it gains nothing from God. Our Lord says, "this people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me" and what follows;-" in vain do they worship me." Matt. xv, 8.
From this description of the nature of prayer, it must be obvious, that with the gift of the spirit of grace and supplications, two things are essentially necessary to enable us really to pray.
1. THE KNOWLEDGE OF OUR WANTS.-As the needy only will stoop to ask for alms, so a real, deep, and abiding sense of our indigence, is the first spring of a true and earnest desire to obtain help from God. The prodigal son thought not of returning to his father,
* See Practical Piety, vol. i. p. 102: