The Hidden Life of Prayer
The Hidden Riches of the Secret Place
In the Revised Version of the New Testament the ear misses the familiar ending of the text which in these pages we have kept before us. Instead of the words "shall reward thee openly," we now read, "shall recompense thee," The return of prayer is, in the first instance, personal and private; it is "the hidden riches" of the secret place (Isa. 45:3). Then, as it passes out into life and action, it is made manifest. The Father who is in secret, and who seeth in secret, rewards His servants "openly."
We read that when the Pilgrims had come almost to the end of the enchanted ground, "they perceived that a little before them was a solemn noise, as of one that was much concerned. So they went on, and looked before them; and, behold, they saw, as they thought, a man upon his knees, with his hands and eyes lifted up, and speaking, as they thought, earnestly to one that was above. They drew nigh, but could not tell what he said; so they went softly till he had done. When he had done, he got up, and began to run towards the Celestial City.
This is the first reward of the secret place; through prayer our graces are quickened, and holiness is wrought in us. "Holiness," says Hewitson, "is a habit of mind-a setting of the Lord continually before one's eyes, a constant walking with God as one with whom we are agreed." And in the attainment and maintenance of unbroken communion, "Prayer is amongst duties, as faith is amongst graces." Richard Sibbes reminds us that "Prayer exercises all the graces of the Spirit," and Flavel confirms the sentence: "You must strive," he writes, "to excel in this, forasmuch as no grace within or service without can thrive without it." Berridge affirms that "all decays begin in the closet; no heart thrives without much secret converse with God, and nothing will make amends for the want of it." On the other hand, he acknowledges, "I never rose from secret prayer without some quickening. Even when I set about it with heaviness or reluctance the Lord is pleased in mercy to meet me in it." Similarly, Fraser of Brea declares, "I find myself better and worse as I decay and increase in prayer.
If prayer is hindered, even though it be hindered by devotion to other duties of religion, the health of the soul is impaired. Henry Martyn laments in his diary that "want of private devotional reading and shortness of prayer, through incessant sermon-making, had produced much strangeness" between God and his soul. Communion with God is the condition of spiritual growth. It is the soil in which all the graces of the divine life root themselves. If the virtues were the work of man, we might perfect them one by one, but they are "the fruit of the Spirit," and grow together in one common life. When Philip Saphir embraced Christianity, he said, "I have found a religion for my whole nature." Holiness is the harmonious perfection, the "wholeness" of the soul.
While we abide in Christ we ought not to allow ourselves to be discouraged by the apparent slowness of our advancement in grace. In nature, growth proceeds with varying speed. Sibbes compares the progressive sanctification of believers to the increase in herbs and trees," which "grow at the root in winter, in the leaf in summer, and in the seed in autumn." The first of these forms of increase seems very slow; the second is more rapid; the third rushes on to full maturity. In a few days of early autumn a field of grain will seem to ripen more than in weeks of midsummer.
Communion with God discovers the excellence of His character, and by beholding Him the soul is transformed. Holiness is conformity to Christ, and this is secured by a growing intimacy with Him. It is evident that this consideration opens up a vast field for reflection. We shall merely indicate one or two of the many directions in which it applies.
(a) And first, the habit of prayerfulness produces a singular serenity of spirit. To use Bengel's phrase, we are "built up into a recollected consciousness of God."
When one looks into the quiet eyes of Him that sitteth upon the throne, the tremors of the spirit are stilled. Pharaoh, king of Egypt, is but a noise; and the valley of the shadow of death is tuneful with songs of praise. Storms may rave beneath our feet, but the sky above is blue. We take our station with Christ in heavenly places; we dwell in the Sabbath of God. "Here I lie," said Thomas Halyburton when his death-hour was drawing near, "pained without pain, without strength yet strong." Seguier, a French Protestant, who was sentenced to death, was mockingly asked by one of his guards how he felt. He replied, "My soul is as a garden, full of shelter and fountains." There are towns in Europe which would be almost insupportably hot in midsummer were it not that rivers, issuing from the ice-fields of Switzerland, diffuse a cool and refreshing air even in the sultry noon. And so the river of the water of life, which flows from under the throne of God and the Lamb, makes glad the city of God. "Prayer is the peace of our spirits, the stillness of our thoughts, the evenness of our recollection, the seat of our meditation, the rest of our cares, and the calm of our tempest."39
(b) Again, those who continually exercise themselves in prayer are taught to rule their lives according to the will of God. This effect follows naturally upon the former, for "all noble, moral energy roots itself in moral calm."
Prayer is the avowal of our creature-dependence. For the believer also it is the acknowledgment that he is not his own, but is, by reason of the great atonement, the "purchased possession" of the Son of God. Pius IV, hearing of Calvin's death, exclaimed: "Ah, the strength of that proud heretic lay in this, that riches and honour were nothing to him." David Livingstone, in the heart of darkest Africa, writes in his Journal, "My Jesus, my King, my Life, my All, I again dedicate my whole self to Thee." Bengel spoke in the name of all the children of faith when he said, "All I am, and have, both in principle and practice, is to be summed up in this one expression-"The Lord's property." My belonging totally to Christ as my Saviour is all my salvation and all my desire. I have no other glory than this, and I want no other." Afterwards, when death drew near, the following words were pronounced over him, "Lord Jesus, to Thee I live, to Thee I suffer, to Thee I die. Thine I am in death and in life; save and bless me, O Saviour, for ever and ever. Amen." At the words "Thine I am," he laid his right hand upon his heart, in token of his full and hearty assent. And so he fell asleep in Jesus.
Such is the normal attitude of the redeemed soul, an attitude which prayer acknowledges and confirms.
Further, in prayer we present ourselves to God, holding our motives in His clear light, and estimating them after the counsel of His will. Thus our thoughts and feelings arrange themselves into classes (as in a process of polishing or smoothing); those that rise towards the honour of God taking precedence of those that drift downward towards the gratification of self. And so the great decisions of life are prepared. In prayer, Jacob became Israel; in prayer, Daniel saw Christ's day, and was glad; in prayer, Saul of Tarsus received his commission to go "far hence" among the Gentiles; in prayer, the Son of Man accomplished His obedience, and embraced His cross. It does not always happen, however, that the cardinal points of life are recognized in the very place and hour of prayer. Helmholtz, the celebrated physicist, used to say that his greatest discoveries came to him, not in the laboratory, but when he was walking, perhaps along a country road, in perfect freedom of mind. But his discoveries merely registered themselves then; they were really brought to the birth in the laboratory. And whether it be in the place of prayer, or elsewhere, that life's great decisions frame themselves, undoubtedly it is in the silent hour that characters are molded and careers determined.
In his Autobiography George Müller gives a striking testimony: "I never remember, in all my Christian course, a period now (in March, 1895) of sixty-nine years and four months, that I ever SINCERELY and PATIENTLY sought to know the will of God by the teaching of the Holy Ghost, through the instrumentality of the Word of God, but I have been ALWAYS directed rightly. But if honesty of heart and uprightness before God were lacking, or if I did not patiently wait before God for instruction, or if I preferred the counsel of my fellow-men to the declarations of the Word of the Living God, I made great mistakes." As we present ourselves before the Lord in prayer, we open our hearts to the Holy Spirit when we yield to the inward impulse, and the Divine energy commands our being. Our plans, if we have formed them at the dictation of nature, are laid aside, and the purpose of God in relation to our lives is accepted. As we are Spirit-born, let us be Spirit-controlled: "If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit." (c) Through the acceptance of the will of God for us, we are led out into a richer influence and a wider usefulness.
Montalembert once complained to Lacordaire, "How little it is that man can do for his fellows ! Of all his miseries this is the greatest." It is true that we can effect little for one another by ordinary human means, but much may be done by prayer-
Prayer brings the Divine omnipotence into the occasions of life. We ask, and receive; and our joy is full.
An English scholar has told us that those who have helped him most were not learned divines nor eloquent preachers, but holy men and women who walked with God, and who revealed unconsciously the unadorned goodness which the blessed Spirit had wrought in them.
Those saintly persons had looked on Christ until they were changed into His likeness; they had tarried on the Mount of God until the uncreated glory shone upon their brow. Tradition affirms that Columbia the Celtic missionary, Ruysbroek the recluse of Groenendaal, John Welsh of Ayr, and many others, were wrapped in a soft and tempered radiance as they prayed. Such legends, no doubt, were created by the remembrance of lives that had been transfigured.
But a changed life is not the only gift which God bestows upon us when we stand in the unseen presence. When Moses came from the Mount he was, as it were, transfigured in the eyes of the children of Israel; but he also bore in his hands the tables of testimony-the pledges of that covenant, ordered and sure, which had been sealed to him for them. His prayer had saved the people of election, and the law-tablets were the sign. John Nelson, hearing one comparing John Wesley, unfavorably, with a pulpit celebrity of the time, replied, "But he has not tarried in the Upper Room as John Wesley has done." It is this tarrying in the Upper Room that secures the enduement of power.
But this line of thought leads out into the theme of our closing chapter-The Open Recompense.