The Hidden Life of Prayer
"It will never be altogether well with us till we convert the universe into a prayer room, and continue in the Spirit as we go from place to place....The prayer-hour is left standing before God till the other hours come and stand beside it; then, If they are found to be a harmonious sisterhood, the prayer is granted."-George Bowen.
"But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thine inner chamber, and having shut thy door, pray."
"Of this manner of prayer," says Walter Hilton of Thurgarton, "speaketh our Lord in a figure, thus: 'Fire shall always burn upon the altar, which the priest shall nourish, putting wood underneath in the morning every day, that so the fire may not go out.' That is, the fire of love shall ever be lighted in the soul of a devout and clean man or woman, the which is God's altar. And the priest shall every morning lay to it sticks, and nourish the fire; that is, this man shall by holy psalms, clean thoughts, and fervent desire, nourish the fire of love in his heart, that it may not go out at any time."13
The equipment for the inner life of prayer is simple, if not always easily secured. It consists particularly of a quiet place, a quiet hour, and a quiet heart.
1. A Quiet Place
With regard to many of us the first of these, a quiet place, is well within our reach. But there are tens of thousands of our fellow-believers who find it generally impossible to withdraw into the desired seclusion of the secret place. A house-mother in a crowded tenement, an apprentice in city lodgings, a ploughman in his living quarters, a soldier in barracks, a boy living at school, these and many more may not be able always to command quiet and solitude. But, "your Father knoweth." And it is comforting to reflect that the very Prince of the pilgrims shared the experience of such as these. In the carpenter's cottage in Nazareth there were, it appears, no fewer than nine persons who lived under the one roof. There were the Holy Child, Mary His mother, and Joseph. There were also the Lord's "brothers"-four of them-and at least two "sisters." The cottage consisted, let us suppose, principally of a living room, the workshop, and an inner chamber-a store-closet in which the provision for the day, the kitchen utensils, the firewood, etc., were laid. That gloomy recess had a latch on the inner side, placed there, it may be, by the carpenter's Son, for that dark chamber was His oratory, not less sacred than the cloud-wrapt shrine of the Presence in the Temple.14
Afterwards, when our Lord had entered on His public ministry, there were occasions when He found it difficult to secure the privilege of solitude. He frequently received entertainment from those who showed Him the scantiest courtesy, and afforded Him no facility for retirement. When His spirit hungered for communion with His Father, He was to bend His steps toward the rough uplands:
And when, a homeless man, He came up to Jerusalem to the Feasts, it was His custom to "resort" to the olive-garden of Gethsemane. Under the laden branches of some gnarled tree, which was old when Isaiah was young, our Lord must often through the soft summer night have outwatched the stars.
Any place may become an oratory, provided that one is able to find in it seclusion. Isaac went into the fields to meditate. Jacob lingered on the eastern bank of the Brook Jabbok, after all his company had passed over; there he wrestled with the Angel, and prevailed. Moses, hidden in the clefts of Horeb, beheld the vanishing glory which marked the way by which Jehovah had gone. Elijah sent Ahab down to eat and drink, while he himself withdrew to the lonely crest of Carmel. Daniel spent weeks in an ecstasy of intercession on the banks of Hiddekel, which once had watered Paradise.
And Paul, no doubt in order that he might have an opportunity for undisturbed meditation and prayer, "was minded to go afoot" from Troas to Assos.
And if no better place presents itself, the soul which turns to God may clothe itself in quietness even in the crowded concourse or in the hurrying streets. A poor woman in a great city, never able to free herself from the insistent clamor of her little ones, made for herself a sanctuary in the simplest way. "I threw my apron over my head," she said, "and there is my closet."15
2. A Quiet Hour
For most of us it may be harder to find a quiet hour. I do not mean an "hour" of exactly sixty minutes, but a portion of time withdrawn from the engagements of the day, fenced round from the encroachments of business or pleasure, and dedicated to God. The "world's gray fathers" might linger in the fields in meditation on the covenant-name until darkness wrapt them round. But we who live with the clang of machinery and the roar of traffic always in our ears, whose crowding obligations jostle against each other as the hours fly on, are often tempted to withdraw to other uses those moments which we ought to hold sacred to communion with heaven. Dr. Dale says somewhere that if each day had forty-eight hours, and every week had fourteen days, we might conceivably get through our work, but that, as things are, it is impossible. There is at least an edge of truth in this whimsical utterance. Certainly, if we are to have a quiet hour set down in the midst of a hurry of duties, and kept sacred, we must exercise both forethought and self-denial. We must be prepared to forgo many things that are pleasant, and some things that are profitable.16 We shall have to redeem time, it may be from recreation, or from social interaction, or from study, or from works of benevolence, if we are to find leisure daily to enter into our closet, and having shut the door, to pray to our Father who is in secret.17
One is tempted to linger here, and, with all humility and earnestness, to press the consideration of this point. One sometimes hears it said, "I confess that I do not spend much time in the secret chamber, but I try to cultivate the habit of continual prayer. And it is implied that this is more and better than that. The two things ought not to be set in opposition. Each is necessary to a well-ordered Christian life; and each was perfectly maintained in the practice of the Lord Jesus. He was always enfolded in the Divine love; His communion with the Father was unbroken; He was the Son of Man who is in heaven. But St. Luke tells us that it was His habit to withdraw Himself into the wilderness and pray (Luke v. 16). Our Authorized Version does not at all give us the force of the original in this verse. Dean Vaughan comments on it thus: "It was not one withdrawal, nor one wilderness, nor one prayer, all is plural in the original-the withdrawals were repeated; the wildernesses were more than one, the prayers were habitual." Crowds were thronging and pressing Him; great multitudes came together to hear and to be healed of their infirmities; and He had no leisure so much as to eat. But He found time to pray. And this one who sought retirement with so much solitude was the Son of God, having no sin to confess, no shortcoming to deplore, no unbelief to subdue, no languor of love to overcome. Nor are we to imagine that His prayers were merely peaceful meditations, or rapturous acts of communion. They were strenuous and warlike, from that hour in the wilderness when angels came to minister to the prostrate Man of Sorrows, on to that awful "agony" in which His sweat was, as it were, great drops of blood. His prayers were sacrifices, offered up with strong crying and tears.
Now, if it was part of the sacred discipline of the Incarnate Son that He should observe frequent seasons of retirement, how much more is it incumbent on us, broken as we are and disabled by manifold sin, to be diligent in the exercise of private prayer!
To hurry over this duty would be to rob ourselves of the benefits which proceed from it. We know, of course, that prayer cannot be measured by divisions of time. But the advantages to be derived from secret prayer are not to be obtained unless we enter on it with deliberation. We must "shut the door," enclosing and securing a sufficient portion of time for the fitting discharge of the engagement before us.
In the morning we should look forward to the duties of the day, anticipating those situations in which temptation may lurk, and preparing ourselves to embrace such opportunities of usefulness as may be presented to us. In the evening we ought to remark upon the providences which have befallen us, consider our attainment in holiness, and endeavor to profit by the lessons which God would have us learn. And, always, we must acknowledge and forsake sin. Then there are the numberless themes of prayer which our desires for the good estate of the Church of God, for the conversion and sanctification of our friends and acquaintances, for the furtherance of missionary effort, and for the coming of the kingdom of Christ may suggest. All this cannot be pressed into a few crowded moments. We must be at leisure when we enter the secret place. At one time at least in his life, the late Mr. Hudson Taylor was so fully occupied during the hours of the day with the direction of the China Inland Mission that he found it difficult to gain the requisite freedom for private prayer. Accordingly, he made it his rule to rise each night at two o'clock, watch with God till four, then lie down to sleep until the morning.
In the Jewish Church it was customary to set apart a space of time for meditation and prayer three times daily-in the morning, at noon, and in the evening (Psa. 55:17; Dan. 6:10). But in Bible lands there is a natural pause at mid-day which we, in our cooler climate, do not generally observe. Where it is possible to hallow a few moments in the mid-stream of the day's duties it ought surely to be done.18 And nature itself teaches us that morning and evening are suitable occasions of approach to God. A question which has been frequently discussed, and is not without interest is: Whether we should employ the morning or the evening hour for our more deliberate and prolonged period of waiting upon God? It is probable that each person can answer this question most profitably for himself or herself. But it should always be understood that we give our best to God.
3. A Quiet Heart
For most of us, perhaps, it is still harder to secure the quiet heart. The contemplationists of the Middle Ages desired to present themselves before God in silence, that He might teach them what their lips should utter, and their hearts expect. Stephen Gurnall acknowledges that it is far more difficult to hang up the big bell than it is to ring it when it has been hung. Mc'Cheyne used to say that very much of his prayer time was spent in preparing to pray.19 A new England Puritan writes: "While I was at the Word, I saw I had a wild heart, which was as hard to stand and abide before the presence of God in an ordinance, as a bird before any man. And Bunyan remarks from his own deep experience: "O ! the starting-holes that the heart hath in the time of prayer; none knows how many bye-ways the heart hath and back-lanes, to slip away from the presence of God."20
There are, in particular, three great, but simple acts of faith, which will serve to stay the mind on God.
(a) Let us, in the first place, recognize our acceptance before God through the dying of the Lord Jesus. When a pilgrim, either of the Greek or of the Latin Church, arrives in Jerusalem, his first act, before ever he seeks refreshment or rest, is to visit the traditional scene of the Redeemer's passion. Our first act in prayer ought to be the yielding of our souls to the power of the blood of Christ. It was in the power of the ritual sacrifice that the high priest in Israel passed through the veil on the day of atonement. It is in the power of the accepted offering of the Lamb of Divine appointment that we are privileged to come into the presence of God. "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by the way which He dedicated for us, a new and living way, through the veil, that is to say, His flesh; and having a Great High Priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart, in fullness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our body washed with pure water: let us hold fast the confession of our hope that it waver not; for He is faithful that promised" (Heb. 10:19-23, R.V.).
(b) It is important also that we confess and receive the enabling grace of the Divine Spirit, without whom nothing is holy, nothing good. For it is He who teaches us to cry, "Abba, Father," who searches for us the deep things of God, who discloses to us the mind and will of Christ, who helps our infirmities, and intercedes on our behalf "according to God."21 And we all, "with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord" (2 Cor. 3:18). When we enter the inner chamber we should present ourselves before God in meekness and trust, and open our hearts to the incoming and infilling of the Holy Ghost. So we shall receive from the praying Spirit, and commit to the praying Christ, those petitions which are of Divine birth, and express themselves, through our finite hearts and sin-stained lips, in "groanings which cannot be uttered." Without the support of the Holy Spirit, prayer becomes a matter of incredible difficulty. "As for my heart," said one who was deeply exercised in this engagement, "when I go to pray, I find it so loath to go to God, and when it is with Him, so loath to stay with Him, that many times I am forced in my prayers, first to beg of God that He would take mine heart, and set it on Himself in Christ, and when it is there, that He would keep it there. Nay, many times I know not what to pray for, I am so blind, nor how to pray, I am so ignorant; only, blessed be grace, the Spirit helps our infirmities."
(c) Once more, as "the Spirit rides most triumphantly in His own chariot," His chosen means of enlightenment, comfort, quickening, and rebuke being the Word of God, it is well for us in the beginning of our supplications to direct our hearts towards the Holy Scriptures. It will greatly help to calm the "contrary" mind if we open the sacred volume and read it as in the presence of God, until there shall come to us out from the printed page a word from the Eternal. George Müller confessed that often he could not pray until he had steadied his mind upon a text.22 Is it not the prerogative of God to break the silence? "When Thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto Thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek" (Psa. 27:8). Is it not fitting that His will should order all the acts of our prayer with Himself? Let us be silent to God, that He may fashion us.