The Hidden Life of Prayer
The Direction of the Mind
"Satan strikes either at the root of faith or at the root of diligence."-John Livingstone.
"The sum is: remember always the presence of God; rejoice always in the will of God; and direct all to the glory of God."-Archbishop Leighton.
In Essex, in the year 1550, a number of religious persons who had received the Word of God as their only rule of faith and conduct, and who therefore differed in certain particulars from the dominant party in the Church, met to confer on the ordering of worship. The chief point in debate related to the attitude which one ought to observe in prayer-whether it were better to stand or kneel, to have the head covered or uncovered. The decision arrived at was that the material question had reference not to the bodily posture, but to the direction of the mind. It was agreed that that attitude is most seemly which most fitly expresses the desires and emotions of the soul.
Those words of our Lord which we have prefixed to this volume indicate not obscurely that attitude of spirit which befits our approach to God.
1. Realize the Presence of God
In the first place, it is necessary that we should realize the presence of God.23 He who fills earth and heaven "is," in a singular and impressive sense, in the secret place. As the electric fluid which is diffused in the atmosphere is concentrated in the lightning flash, so the presence of God becomes vivid and powerful in the prayer-chamber. Bishop Jeremy Taylor enforces this rule with stately and affluent speech: "In the beginning of actions of religion, make an act of adoration; that is, solemnly worship God, and place thyself in God's presence, and behold Him with the eye of faith; and let thy desires actually fix on Him as the object of thy worship, and the reason of thy hope, and the fountain of thy blessing. For when thou hast placed thyself before Him, and kneelest in His presence, it is most likely all the following parts of thy devotion will be answerable to the wisdom of such an apprehension, and the glory of such a presence."
Our Father "is" in the secret place. Then we shall find Him in the inwardness of a "recollected" spirit, in the stillness of a heart united to fear His name. The dew falls most copiously when the night-winds are hushed. The great tides lift themselves "too full for sound or foam." The suppliant who prays with a true direction of spirit, "Our Father, who art in heaven," is oftentimes taken up into heaven before ever he is aware. "But, oh how rare it is !" cries Fénelon, "How rare it is to find a soul quiet enough to hear God speak !" So many of us have mistrained ears. We are like the Indian hunters of whom Whittier speaks, who can hear the crackle of a twig far off in the dim forest, but are deaf to the thunder of Niagara only a few rods away. Brother Lawrence, who lived to practice the presence of God, speaks thus: "As for my set hours of prayer, they are only a continuation of the same exercise. Sometimes I consider myself there as a stone before a carver, whereof he is to make a statue; presenting myself before God I desire Him to form His perfect image in my soul, and make me entirely like Himself. At other times, when I apply myself to prayer, I feel all my spirit and all my soul lift itself up without any care or effort of mine, and it continues as it were suspended and, firmly fixed in God, as in its center and place of rest.
The realization of the Divine presence is the inflexible condition of a right engagement of spirit in the exercise of private prayer.
John Spilsbury of Bromgrove, who was confined in Worcester jail for the testimony of Christ, bore this witness: "I shall not henceforward fear a prison as formerly, because I had so much of my Heavenly Father's company as made it a palace to me." Another, in similar case, testified: "I thought of Jesus until every stone in my cell shone like a ruby." And for us, too, in our measure, the dull room in which we talk with God, as a man may speak with his friend, will burn at times like a sapphire and a sardius stone, and be to us as the cleft rock in Sinai, through which the un-created glory poured, until the prophet's steadfast gaze was dimmed, and his countenance kindled as a flame.
Our realization of the presence of God may, however, be accompanied with little or no emotion. Our spirits may lie as if dead under the hand of God. Vision and rapture may alike be withdrawn. But we ought not therefore to grow sluggish in prayer. So far from interupting the exercise at such times, we ought to redouble our energy. And it may be that the prayer which goes up through darkness to God will bring to us a blessing such as we have not received in our most favored hours. The prayer which rises from "the land of forgetfulness," "the place of darkness," "the belly of hell," may have an abundant and glorious return.
At the same time, there are seasons of special privilege when the winds of God are unbound about the throne of grace, and the breath of spring begins to stir in the King's gardens. The Scottish preachers used to talk much of gaining access. And it is related of Robert Bruce that when two visitors presented themselves before him on a certain morning, he said to them, "You must go and leave me for some time. I thought last night when I lay down I had a good measure of the Lord's presence, and now I have wrestled this hour or two, and have not yet got access." It may be that in his solitude there was a disproportionate subjectivity, yet the eagerness of his desire was surely commendable. To what profit is it that we dwell in Jerusalem, if we do not see the King's face? And when He comes forth from His royal chambers, accompanied with blessing, are to hold ourselves at leisure that we may yield Him worship and offer Him service? Jonathan Edwards resolved that whenever he should find himself "in a good frame for divine contemplation," he would not allow even the recurrence of the mid-day meal to interrupt his engagement with His Lord. "I will forgo my dinner," he said, "rather than be broke off." When the fire of God gleamed upon Carmel, it was Ahab who went down to eat and drink: it was Elijah who went up to pray.
2. Honesty in Prayer
Again, He who "is" in the secret place "seeth" in secret, and honest dealing becomes us when we kneel in His pure presence.
In our address to God we like to speak of Him as we think we ought to speak, and there are times when our words far outrun our feelings. But it is best that we should be perfectly frank before Him. He will allow us to say anything we will, so long as we say it to Himself. "I will say unto God, my rock," exclaims the psalmist, "Why hast Thou forgotten me?" (Psa. 42:9). If he had said, "Lord, Thou canst not forget: Thou hast graven my name on the palms of Thy hands," he would have spoken more worthily, but less truly. On one occasion Jeremiah failed to interpret God aright. He cried, as if in anger, "O Lord, Thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived: Thou art stronger than I, and hast prevailed" (Jer. 20:7). These are terrible words to utter before Him who is changeless truth. But the prophet spoke as he felt, and the Lord not only pardoned him, He met and blessed him there.
It is possible that some who read these words may have a complaint against God. A controversy of long standing has come between your soul and His grace. If you were to utter the word that is trembling on your lips, you would say to him, "Why hast Thou dealt thus with me?" Then dare to say, with reverence and with boldness, all that is in your heart. "Produce your cause, saith the Lord; bring forth your strong reasons, saith the King of Jacob" (Isa. 41.21). Carry your grievance into the light of His countenance; charge your complaint home. Then listen to His answer. For surely, in gentleness and truth, He will clear Himself of the charge of unkindness that you bring against Him. And in His light you shall see light. But, remember, that this is a private matter between you and your Lord, and you must not defame Him to any one. "If I say, I will speak thus; behold, I should offend against the generation of Thy children" (Psa. 73:15). John Livingstone of Ancrum, in a day of darkness, made a most excellent resolution: "Finding myself, as I thought, surely deserted, and somewhat hardly dealt with in my particular state, I made a promise to God not to tell it to any but Himself, lest I should seem to complain or foster misbelief in myself or others."
But there is another region in which honesty in prayer must operate. There have been times, no doubt, in the life of each one of us, when the Spirit of God granted us enlargement of affection and desire. Our prayers soared through heavenly distances, and were about to fold their wings before the throne. When, suddenly, there was brought to our remembrance some duty unfulfilled, some harmful indulgence tolerated, some sin unrepented of. It was in order that we might forsake that which is evil, and follow that which is good, that the Holy Spirit granted us so abundantly His assistance in prayer.24 He designed that, in that good hour of His visitation, we should be enabled to purify ourselves from every stain, that henceforth we might live as His "purchased possession." And, perhaps, in such a case, we shunned the light, and turned back from the solicitation of God. Then darkness fell upon our face; the Divine Comforter, "who helpeth our infirmities," being grieved, withdrew. And to that hour, it may be, we can trace our present feebleness in the holy exercise of prayer. "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me" (Psa. 66:18). "He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination" (Prov. 28:9, R.V.). "Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear" (Isa. 59:2). "And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear" (Isa. 1:15). In wireless telegraphy if the receiver is not attuned to the transmitter communication is impossible. In true prayer God and the suppliant must be "of one accord." Cavalier, a Huguenot leader, who had lived for years in the enjoyment of unbroken communion with God, deceived by vanity, forsook the cause to which he had devoted his life. Finally, he came to England, and entered the British army. When he was presented to Queen Anne, she said, "Does God visit you now, Monsieur Cavalier?" The young Camisard bowed his head and was silent. Christmas Evans tells of an eclipse of faith which he experienced. A time of powerlessness and decay followed. But the Lord visited him in mercy. "Lazarus had been four days dead when Jesus came that way." Immediately he began to plead that the fervor and gladness of earlier years might be restored. "On the Caerphilly mountain," he related, "the spirit of prayer fell upon me as it had once in Anglesea. I wept and supplicated, and gave myself to Christ. I wept long and besought Jesus Christ, and my heart poured forth its requests before Him on the mountain." Then followed a period of marvelous blessing.
On the other hand, "If our heart condemn us not, we have boldness toward God; and whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do the things that are pleasing in His sight" (I John 3:21, 22, R.V.).
The devotional writers of the Middle Ages were accustomed to distinguish between "a pure intention" and "a right intention." The former, they said, was the fruit of sanctification; the latter was the condition of sanctification. The former implied a trained and disciplined will, the latter a will laid down in meek surrender at the Master's feet. Now, what God requires of those who seek His face is "a right intention"-a deliberate, a resigned, a joyful acceptance of His good and perfect will. All true prayer must fall back upon the great atonement, in which the Man of Sorrows translated into "active passion" the supplication of His agony, "O My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt" (Matt. 26:39). He has transmitted to us His own prayer: we offer it in the power of His sacrifice. "When ye pray, say, Our Father...Thy will be done" (Luke 11:2).
Once more, it is necessary that when we draw near to God we should come in faith: "Pray to thy Father." "When we pray say, Our Father." "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32). "Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of" (Matt. 6:8). "The Father Himself loveth you" (John 16:27). The whole philosophy of prayer is contained in words like these. "This word 'Father,'" writes Luther, "hath overcome God."
(a) Let it be once admitted that with God, no miracle is impossible. Let it be acknowledged that He is the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him, no true prayer will remain unblessed. But faith in God is by no means a light or trivial thing. Robert Bruce of Edinburgh used sometimes to pause in his preaching, and, bending over the pulpit, say with much solemnity, "I think it's a great matter to believe there is a God." Once he confessed that during three years he had never said, "My God," without being "challenged and disquieted for the same." "These words, 'My God,'" said Ebenezer Erskine, "are the marrow of the Gospel." To be able to hold the living God within our feeble grasp, and say with assurance, "God, even our own God, shall bless us" (Psa. 67:6), demands a faith which is not of nature's birth.
But it is comforting to remember that even a feeble faith prevails to overcome. "Is it not a wonder," says Robert Blair, "that our words in prayer, which almost die in the coming out of our lips, should climb so well as to go into heaven?" It is indeed a wonder, but all the doings of God in grace are wondrous. Like the miner, whose trained eye detects the glitter of the precious metal sown in sparse flakes through the coarse grain of the rocks, He observes the rare but costly faith which lies imbedded in our unbelief. Standing somewhere on the slopes of that goodly mountain Hermon, our Lord said to His disciples, "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, remove hence to yonder place, and it shall remove: and nothing shall be impossible unto you" (Matt. 17:20). The mountain which the word of faith was to pluck up and cast into the sea was the immeasurable mass which fills the horizon to the north of Palestine, whose roots run under the whole land of Immanuel, whose dews refresh the city of God.
When the pilgrims came to the Delectable Mountains, the shepherds showed them a man standing on Mount Marvel who "tumbled the hills about with words." That man was the son of one Mr. Great Grace, the King's champion, and he was set there "to teach pilgrims to believe down, or to tumble out of their ways what difficulties they should meet with, by faith."
(b) But this God who is ours is our Father. Our Lord confers on us His own rights and privileges. He puts into our hand the master-key, which unlocks all the doors of the treasury of God. "For however many be the promises of God, in Him is the yea: wherefore also through Him is the Amen" (2 Cor. 1:20, R.V.). In Him we draw nigh to God. In Him we plead with boldness our requests. Ralph Erskine tells us that, on a certain Sabbath evening, he had unusual liberty in prayer through the name of the Lord Jesus; "I was helped to pray in secret with an outpouring of the soul before the Lord, owning my claim to the promise, my claim to pardon, my claim to grace, my claim to daily bread, my claim to a comfortable life, my claim to a stingless death, my claim to a glorious resurrection, and my claim to everlasting life and happiness: to be, only, only in Christ, and in God through Him as a promising God."
When we pray to our Father we offer our prayers in the name of Jesus with His authority. We must not think, however, that the name of Jesus may be used by us as we like. God can in no wise deal with His children as Ahasuerus dealt with Mordecai when he handed him the great seal with the words, "Write as you like, in the king's name, and seal it with the king's ring: for the writing which is written in the king's name, and sealed with the king's ring, may no man reverse" (Esther 8:8). John Bunyan shows his accustomed spiritual discernment when, in his Holy War, he discourses of the petitions which the men of Mansoul sent to Emmanuel, to none of which did He return any answer. After a time "they agreed together to draw up yet another petition, and to send it away to Emmanuel for relief. But Mr. Godly-Fear stood up, and answered that he knew his Lord, the Prince, never did, nor ever would, receive a petition for these matters from the hand of any unless the Lord Secretary's hand was to it. 'And this,' quoted he, 'is the reason you prevailed not all this while.' Then they said they would draw up one, and get the Lord Secretary's hand to it. But Mr. Godly-Fear answered again that he knew also that the Lord Secretary would not set His hand to any petition that He Himself had not a hand in composing and drawing up."25
The prayer of faith is a middle term between the intercession of the Holy Spirit and the intercession of Christ.26 It is the divinely appointed means by which the unutterable groanings of the Spirit, who dwells within His people as in a temple, are conveyed and committed to the exalted Mediator, who "ever liveth to make intercession" for us. And thus in a peculiar and especial manner those who make mention of the Lord are graced to become fellow-laborers together with God.