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Bible says, “God hath spoken once, twice have I heard this, that power belongeth unto God” (Psalm 62: 11); or “Jehovah is my strength and my shield; my heart hath trusted in him, and I am helped” (Psalm 28:7); or “To them that love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28)— it is saying nothing that the most thorough believer in the reign of law may not say too. There are many prayers that God must not answer, but there are no good prayers which God cannot answer. He is the master of all laws, known to us and unknown. When God utilizes his knowledge of his own laws, who can say in advance what may happen? God is free, so far as the mere possibilities are concerned, to answer any petition whatsoever; and if a prayer is left unanswered it is not because the reign of law prevents. It is because there are vast realms where God must not substitute our wish for his plan.
This last statement deserves emphasis. We may prefer to have the sun rise earlier, or to have a dozen colors in the spectrum, or to think without association of ideas, or to sin and not suffer; but we may as well spare our pains. God does not remake his world for the asking, not because he cannot, but because he must not. It may be convenient for us to substitute rain for sunshine or sunshine for rain, but we are likely to be vainly substituting presumption for faith when we try to control the weather. As the old rabbis put it: A mother had two sons, one a gardener and the other a potter. Said the gardener, “O mother, pray God for rain to water my plants.” Said the potter, “O mother, pray God for sunshine to dry my pots.” Now the mother loved them equally well. Shall she pray for rain or sun? Nay, she would best leave it in the hands of God.
When entire confidence has been established, therefore, in the power and liberty of God to utilize any force at any time, a due humility will restrain us from making a presumptuous application of this truth to prayer. Within the realm of personal relationships the effect of prayer is so clear that our faith in prayer's efficacy has assured ground in experience, but the power of prayer to affect the objective processes of nature is incapable of scientific demonstration.
We never can so completely isolate an event, like a change in the weather, as to prove that nothing but our prayer could have caused it. To be sure no can draw a clear boundary, saying, “Within this we may expect God to use his laws in answer to our prayers, and without we may look for nothing of the kind.” Professor Bowne's word is sane and helpful: “To pray about everything, in submission to God's will, would be both more human and more Christian than a scrupulous limitation of our prayers to what we might think permissible subjects of petition.”
But it must be obvious that we should never presumptuously demand the use of natural forces in the objective world to serve our personal purpose, and then confidently expect our prayer to work the change. Before sun and rain, as Jesus said, the just and unjust seem to fare alike (Matt. 5:45). Lyman Beecher's public claim that the burning of an unorthodox church was due to the special judgment of God on false doctrine was shown to be perilous, as well as untrue, when the next week Lyman Beecher's church burned down. The forces of the external world are in the hands of God to do with them as he wishes, but that does not necessarily mean that he must do with them as we wish. God must not surrender his sovereignty on demand. It is far better that man should learn the discipline of law than be exempt for the asking. Prayer distinctly is not “a machine warranted by the theologians to make God do what his clients want !"
In all our praying therefore, we need to remember the distinction, to use Trumbull's phrases, between "faith in prayer and "prayer in faith.” Faith in prayer may be presumptuous and clamorous; it may present ultimatums to the Almighty demanding his acquiescence; it may try to make of prayer a magic demand on God. But prayer in faith asks everything in entire submission to the will of God. It desires never to force its wish on the Eternal Purpose but always to align its wish with the Eternal Purpose. It pleads passionately for its needs; but it closes its petition, as the Master did, “Thy will be done." Prayer in faith rejoices in God's sovereignty, is confident that all forces are in his leash, and that to those who love him all things work together for good. Prayer thus becomes meaningful because God is free to do what he will in his world; but prayer does not on that account become presumptuous as though God must do what we will in his world.
There is a realm, however, where none need be hesitant in expecting answer to prayer. Prayer is the law of personal relationships. It is important to see clearly that all laws do not apply in all realms. Gravitation for example is not universal; it obtains without exception in the objective physical world, but it does not range up into the personal, spiritual world. We come there into a new realm where we deal with realities that cannot be caught in test-tubes, measured by yardsticks, or weighed in scales. In that new realm new laws are at work. Gravitation cannot break up into the world of spirit, although spirit can break down and use the force of gravitation. Laws are thus arranged in regimes. When one leaves the inorganic world for the organic, he leaves behind him laws that are now no longer applicable; when he leaves the world of plants for the world of men, he moves up to laws that do not concern plants but do apply to men; and in this higher realm where men deal with one another and with God, there are conditions of communion, laws of fellowship and prayer. One cannot imagine Jesus asking for an objective change in the physical world, without entire willingness to submit to a negative answer; but when he goes up into the mountain alone to commune with God, he goes with absolute assurance that the strength and peace and vision which he needs will come. Personal relationship is the unique realm of prayer. As one reads the great prayers of the church he sees that in this realm supremely the people of God have prayed with confidence, have expected answer and have not been disappointed.
“Lord, what a change within us one short hour
Spent in Thy presence will avail to make!
What heavy burdens from our bosoms take;
We rise, and all the distant and the near
Stands forth in sunny outline, brave and clear!
That we are ever overborne with care;
That we should ever weak or heartless be,
And joy and strength and courage are with Thee?"
SUGGESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
If things are going to happen in any case according to fixed
law, what is the use in petitioning for change? What effect does knowledge of the reign of law have upon a man's attitude toward prayer? How far can personal volition control the operation of
natural forces? What is the difference between violating a natural law and using a law-abiding force to accomplish something which would not have happened in the ordinary course of nature?
How far is the injection of a personal will into the operation of natural laws a violation of such laws?
To what degree is the Psalmist's faith in the controlling presence of God in his world justified ?
How far could parents meet the need of their children if they were bound rigidly by the reign of law?
To what extent is doubt about the possibility of answer to prayer due to the belief that it violates law, and to what extent to lack of understanding of the operation of law?
How far is confidence in God's control of natural forces inconsistent with a belief in the reliability of law ? To what extent does the reign of law prevent the answer to
prayer? Are there any prayers which God cannot answer?
How far is the Bible's confidence in the power and willingness and liberty of God to help his children justified ?
How do you think God's plans for the world affect his response to individual prayers?
What is the difference between law in the realm of nature and law in the personal, spiritual world? What is the difference between faith in prayer and prayer in
First Day, Seventh Week
Consider this cry of distress with which Habakkuk opens his book:
The burden which Habakkuk the prophet did see. O Jehovah, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear? I cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save. Why dost thou show me iniquity, and look upon perverseness? for destruction and violence are before me; and there is strife, and contention riseth up. Therefore the law is slacked, and justice doth never go forth; for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore justice goeth forth perverted. . . . Thou that art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and that canst not look on perverseness, wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy peace when the wicked swalloweth up the man that is more righteous than he? -Habakkuk 1:1-4, 13.
The weekly comment will take up the reasons for such an experience as is revealed here, but in the daily readings let us consider the unreasonableness of allowing such experiences to cause the abandoning of prayer. For one thing, unanswered petition ought not to cause the abandonment of all praying because much of the greatest praying is not petition at all. Even the pagans in their polytheism have occasionally perceived this truth; as, for example, in an ancient book, De Mysteriis Aegyptorum, “Prayer is not a