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REMARKS ON PRAYER.
(Continued from page 330.) It is always to be understood that the thing asked for, is a proper thing to be asked for, that it is asked for in a right spirit, and for the purpose of being applied to a right object, and always in entire submission to the will of God. Ye ask and receive not, becuuse ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.
But may we always, in every case, when our prayer is acceptable, expect the very thing which we ask for ?
The mother of Augustine was a woman of devoted piety, but her son was a youth of wild and dissipated habits. She prayed earnestly and long for his conversion, but apparently without success. At length he resolved to visit Rome. She supposing that the temptations of that abandoned city would be his ruin, most earı
arnestly begged of God to thwart his purpose. She felt a quiet assurance that God had heard her prayer, and that her desire would be granted ; but to her amazement her son went to Rome. There he fell in with christian society, and was converted. His mother then acknowledged that, though the particular thing she asked for was withholden, yet the deep desire of her heart, the desire which had prompted all her prayers, was granted. What was the fault in the prayers of this woman? Simply an ignorance of the means which God would use for her son's conversion, a thing she could not have known without special revelation. She prayed according to the knowledge which she had, and God answered her according to the desire of her heart.
This is a historical fact. Let us now suppose an example. A pious man in the city of Erfurt, in the reign of Maximilian, mourns over the corruptions of the church, and most earnestly longs for a reformation, He prays day and night, that the emperor may be converted, and feels, that his prayer is accepted, and that his request will be granted. A charity student at law in the university, the son of a poor miner in a neighbouring village, is walking with a friend that evening, when a sudden flash of lightning throws them both to the ground. He recovers, but finds that his friend is dead. This awful visitation is the means of his conversion to God, and he resolves on the spot to devote his whole life to the service of Christ in the ministry of the gospel. Is this an answer to the good man's prayers ? He is praying for the conversion of the emperor as a means of reforming the church; but this young charity student is Martin Luther, a man whom God has qualified to do more for the reformation of his church than twenty such emperors as Maximilian could have done, had they been converted ever so thoroughly. We do not know, and we cannot always know, what are the best means which God can employ for the accomplishment of his work; but we do know the great ends he has to accomplish, and while we are praying sincerely and acceptably for Him to set in motion a particular instrumentality, the accomplishment of these purposes, he may in answer to our prayers set in motion another which is a thousand times more efficient.
But does not the Holy Spirit sometimes excite in christians a particular
desire for a particular object ? and incite them to pray for it with a full belief that this particular object will be gained ?
Such cases unquestionably may occur, and if we may trust the experience of christians, they have occurred not unfrequently. In such cases, the desire is undoubtedly excited in order to lead christians to pray more, and more earnestly, and thus prepare them for the reception of the particular blessing implored. The mistake consists in supposing that all acceptable prayer is of this distinctive character, and that this is the only prayer which deserves the name of the prayer of faith.
Some people talk and reason as if they supposed two or three christians might, if they were only holy enough, go into a particular town, and there
that every individual in that town might be immediately converted, and fully believe that their prayer would be literally answered, and that in consequence of this prayer and this faith, every individual in that town would be immediately converted, and that the only reason why the whole world is not thus converted at the present time, is, that christians are not holy enough, or do not pray and believe in just this manner.
This idea, it appears to me, is unscriptural and fanatical. If this be the correct idea of prayer, our Lord Jesus Christ, while he was upon earth, had holiness enough and faith enough to pray the whole world into the kingdom of heaven instantaneously, if it had been the will of God that the world should be so converted : and surely, he was not wanting in the exercise of prayer, rising up a great while before day and praying, and sometimes spending whole nights in prayer to God; and it is but reasonable to suppose that he often prayed for those for whom he came to suffer and die, and for whom he was continually laboring. And undoubtedly, too, his prayers were heard, for he said to his father, “I know that thou always hearest me.”
There are several instances in the bible, where acceptable prayer has been offered, and God has heard and answered it, and yet the particular thing asked for has not been granted.
Gen. xvii. 18—21. Abraham prays that Ishmael may inherit the promises which God had given him; God accepts the prayer, and tells him that it is accepted ; and yet adheres to his previous determination that Sarah shall have a son who shall be the heir of the promises, and this, when it occurred, gave Abraham greater joy than if he had received the very thing he asked for.
Gen. xviii. 16–33. Abraham intercedes for Lot. Who can read this narrative and not believe, that Abraham's intercession, though the thing he asked for was withholden, was both acceptable to God, and profitable to himself?
2 Cor. xü. 7-9. Paul prayed that a particular annoyance might be removed. What it was he does not inform us, and it is idle for us to conjecture. His prayer was accepted, the annoyance was not removed, but he had strength given him to bear it, and turn it to good account ; so that he gloried in the very infirmity which had before troubled him, and from which he had thrice prayed to be delivered. He now feels it far better to have the infirmity, with the grace of God in enabling him to bear it, so that the power of Christ might be manifested in him.
The case of our Saviour is very remarkable, and well worthy our attention, Math. xxvi. 39—42. Mark xiv. 35. Luke xxii. 42. It was not the mere agony of crucifixion that our Saviour so much dreaded, but the untold, unutterable sorrow, connected with the hidings of his Father's face from him in that dreadful hour, and the other sufferings connected with his death as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. When the hour approached, his human nature sunk, and he earnestly desired, if any other way were possible, he might be spared the agony.
Some have contended that Jesus feared he should die of his agony in the garden before he came to the cross, and he prayed to be saved from dying there; and the particular thing asked for was granted. In support of this interpretation, --Heb. v. 7,-he was heard in that he feared, is quoted. The expression in the original is, απο της ευλαβειας, and ευλαβεια in the New Testament does not mean dread of death, but it signifies Godly fear, (as it is translated in Heb. xii. 28,) or piety. Compare Luke i. 25. Acts ü. 5.-viii. 2. 'Aro with the genitive means on account of, or because of. See Math. xviii. 7. Luke xix. 3. Accordingly the meaning of the text is, he was heard on account of his piety. The passage indeed proves that his prayer was heard and accepted, but it does not prove that the particular thing asked for was granted.
Against this interpretation of our Saviour's prayer there are innumerable objections, both of a critical and moral nature.
I. It is by no means the obvious interpretation. No one, on first reading the passage, would ever imagine that Christ was praying to be saved from dying in the garden. Something else besides the narrative must put this idea into the reader's mind, or he would never have it.
II. It is contrary to the terms employed in the narrative. According to Mark xiv. 35. Christ prayed, Father, if it be possible let this HOUR pass from me. Now, hour is the word generally used to signify the time of his death on the cross, as may be seen by consulting the following passages : John vii. 30,—viii. 20.-xii. 23--27.-xiï. ). xvii. 1. Luke xxii. 53. He prayed to be spared, if possible, the agonies of the atoning death. He was heard and answered by receiving strength to bear all that was laid upon him. Luke xxii. 43.
III. The second time Jesus went away to pray he said, My Father, if it be not possible that this cup pass from me except I drink be done, Math. xxvi. 42. According to the interpretation we are considering, the meaning of this petition, divested of its figurative language, must be, My Father, if it be not possible for me to survive this agony in the garden, if it be thy will that I never reach the cross, thy will be done. Can any one suppose that Christ, as the words thus understood must imply, very nearly relinquished all hope of ever reaching the cross, concluded it was his Father's will that he should die in the garden, and composed himself to resignation ?
IV. The expressions which Christ uses, Father, if it be possible, let it be so--if it be not possible, thy will be done, not as I will, but as thou wilt, show that he was praying for what he scarcely expected would be literally granted. The petition, is changed from the first form as if he were sure that could not be granted. The progress of thought in the successive petitions, given by the different Evangelists, is a decisive proof,
thy will to any one who will attentively consider it, that our interpretation is the correct one. But why should our Saviour pray for what he did not expect to get ?
In all points, Christ was tried as we are, though without sin, Heb. iv. 15--16. This was one great object of his coming into the world, that he might feel just as we feel under our severest and heaviest trials, that we may have the comfort of knowing that he has perfect sympathy with us in our greatest distresses, Heb. ii. 16–18.
Now we often feel, in our heaviest trials, precisely as our Saviour must have felt in view of the cross, if our interpretation of these passages is correct. The father, when he sees his only child about to be torn from him by death, when all human hope is past, still cries out in agony, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me ; but with sweet submission adds, but if it be not possible, if this cup may not pass from me except I drink it, thy will be done. He
prays to be spared the blow if possible; it is a relief to him thus to pour out his heart in prayer, his heart would break if he were not permitted to do it. The particular thing asked for cannot be granted, but his prayer is heard and it is answered by giving him strength to bear the pangs from which he cannot be delivered. With such a prayer God is not offended; he is pleased with it. And what a relief it is thus to give utterance to our grief, and feel that we are pouring our sorrows into the ear of a kind-hearted Father, who would grant what we desire if it could be done consistently with our good, to feel that our blessed Saviour had the same intenseness of suffering and found the same mode of' relief!
But what encouragement have we to pray, and how do we know our prayers are answ
swered, if we receive not the very things we petition for ? We know that our prayers are answered by the calm, sweet, submissive state of mind which acceptable prayer always produces. The christian knows when God accepts and answers his prayer; for he feels the answer in the depths of his soul, and is sweetly at rest.
Supposing we should petition the legislature of Ohio for one thousand acres of land in the north-west part of the State, for the benefit of an institution in Cincinnati, like that of Franke in Halle. The legislature reply that this land is too distant for our inspection and care, and the profits of it exceedingly precarious ; but they will give us in lieu of it, twenty thousand dollars worth of real estate in Cincinnati, directly under our own eye, and the profits of which are certain and immediately available. Sbould we feel that the legislature had denied our request ? Would it diminish our confidence in them? Would it make us despair of the efficacy of petitioning?
The obedient and affectionate child just recovering from a fever, feels a strong appetite, and asks his father with proper feelings, and in a proper manner for a particular article of food, which the father knows (though the child does not) to be injurious. The father kindly receives the request, and in answer to it, gives a wholesome kind of food which the child gratefully accepts. In such a case, does the father feel, and does the child feel that the request was unavailing? Is not the thing really desired granted, though the particular thing asked for is withholden. The child's hunger is satisfied, and satisfied too in answer to his request ; his health is promoted, and both father and son are happy, the one in giving, the other in receiving a blessing.
Acceptable prayer, and even the prayer of faith, does not always imply a perfectly definite conception in the mind in respect to the object of prayer, at least, not a conception which the petitioner is able clearly to embody in words. Indeed the devotional christian, in his highest state of devotion often has desires in his heart too big for expression, pulsations towards God which surpass the mind's conception. Like Paul, he hears words unutterable, (2. Cor. xii. 4.)
Observe carefully the words in Rom. viii. 26–27. “ Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities, for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints, according to the will of God.” There are times when we know not ourselves how to pray. The Spirit within us intercedes for us. But is it with definite thoughts and full expressions? No, but with sighings unutterable. With feelings which no language can express, no mind clearly comprehend. But is not this praying in vain ? beating the air? What! pray when we ourselves do not clearly comprehend our own prayer ? Is not this an absurdity? No, for God, he who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit in those ecstatic moments, even though we may not, for the Spirit maketh intercession for us according to the will of God.
It was in reference to such a state of devotional feeling as this, that I once heard Dr. Payson of Portland say, that he pitied the christian who never had desires in prayer which he could not clothe in language.
Another passage worthy of notice in this connexion is 1 John v. 1415. “And this is the confidence that we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will he heareth us. And if we know that he hear us whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions we desired of him.” The apostle here affirms that, if we ask anything according to the will of God, he heareth us. If we know this, then we know that, though we may make mistakes both in the matter and manner of our petitions, yet God will so hear us that we shall receive what we in our inmost heart really and deeply desired, though it be not the very thing that was in our mind and upon our tongue while engaged in prayer. The Holy Spirit breathes into us a devotional life, and in the excitement of it, we pray according to the knowledge we have, and God accepts the prayer, not in proportion to our knowledge, but in proportion to our devotional feeling, which may far exceed our knowledge.
We have the same kind of assistance in prayer that we have in preaching. In preaching, the Holy Spirit does not furnish us with words nor with arguments, but excites us to a right state of feeling, and then we speak and argue according to our knowledge of language and reasoning. So it is in prayer. This erroneous idea respecting the prayer of faith seems to have arisen from interpreting passages peculiar to the apostles' circumstances, and properly applicable to them only, as though they were of universal application. That there are promises peculiar to the apostles no one can doubt. Such are those which direct them not to