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Book as they are of the soul. Petition is only one province in the vast Kingdom of Prayer. Whatever our difficulties there, the wide ranges of prayer are not closed to us.
Nevertheless this province of petition is important. It is not the whole of prayer, but it is the original form of prayer and never can be nor ought to be outgrown. Men cannot be content simply to praise God, confess to him, thank him, make vows of devotion, and enjoy communion with him. Men have desires, all the way from the long-sought coming of the Kingdom to the welfare of their loved ones and the prosperity of their daily business, to whose furtherance they instinctively call the help of any god in whom they really believe. "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,' and "Give us this day our daily bread," are both petitions; and they belong in the Lord's Prayer, together with "Hallowed be thy name." Petition, in its lower forms, trying to make God a mere means to serve some selfish, external end, is the result of ignorant, unspiritual immaturity. But petitions that well up out of mankind's deep desires for real good, are an integral part of prayer. They are to the whole domain what the thirteen original states are to America; not the whole of it, nor the major portion of it, but the primary nucleus of it and the initial influence in it.
Moreover, the Bible, with all its emphasis upon the other aspects of prayer, uses words very explicit, sweeping, and confident about petition: "Call unto me, and I will answer thee" (Jer. 33:3); “Ask, and it shall be given you” (Matt. 7:7); “All things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive" (Matt. 21:22); “All things whatsoever ye pray and ask for, believe that ye receive them and ye shall have them" (Mark 11:24); "If two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father" (Matt. 18:19). What expectations such words awaken! And what a puzzling, baffling obstacle to active faith is the repeated denial of our requests! What is the use of proving that prayer can bring results if our experience shows that it does not?
One obvious reason for our unanswered petitions is, of course, the ignorance of our asking. Piety is no guarantee
of wisdom. One has but to consider the spectacle of all sorts and conditions of men at prayer, voicing to God their various and often contradictory desires; praying vehemently on opposite sides of the same war; some even praying, like the Bourbon king, that they may be allowed to sin once more; and almost all of us praying in ignorance of our profoundest needs, to see that many petitions must be denied. Indeed, instead of calling prayers unanswered, it is far truer to recognize that "No" is as real an answer as "Yes," and often far more kind. When one considers the partialness of our knowledge, the narrowness of our outlook, our little skill in tracing the far-off consequences of our desire, he sees how often God must speak to us, as Jesus did to the ambitious woman, "Ye know not what ye ask" (Matt. 20:22). This suggestion is no special pleading, superficially to evade a difficulty. Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet, was not constructing a Christian apologetic, but was stating a profound human experience, when he wrote:
"My desires are many and my cry is pitiful, but ever didst thou save me by hard refusals; and this strong mercy has been wrought into my life through and through."
This suggestion gains force when we perceive that often, if God granted the form of our petition, he would deny the substance of our desire. In one of the most impressive passages in his "Confessions," St. Augustine pictures his mother, Monica, praying all one night, in a sea-side chapel on the north African coast, that God would not let her son sail for Italy. She wanted Augustine to be a Christian. She could not endure losing him from her influence. If under her care, he still was far from being Christ's, what would he be in Italy, home of licentiousness and splendor, of manifold and alluring temptations? And even while she prayed there passionately for her son's retention at home, he sailed, by the grace of God, for Italy, where, persuaded by Ambrose, he became a Christian in the very place from which his mother's prayers would have kept him. The form of her petition was denied; the substance of her desire was granted. As St. Augustine himself puts it: "Thou, in the depth of thy counsels, hearing the main point of her desire, regardedst not what she then asked, that thou mightest make me what she ever de
sired." It would be a sorry world for all of us, if our unwise petitions did not often have “No” for their answer.
Another plain reason for our denied requests is that we continually try to make prayer a substitute for intelligence and work. We have already seen that there are three chief ways in which men cooperate with God: thinking, working, and praying. Now, no one of these three can ever take the place of another. Each has its peculiar realm. No human mind may be acute and penetrating enough exactly to trace the boundaries, but it is clear that the boundaries must be there. When our petitions cross over into the realms where results must be achieved, not by asking, but by working and thinking, the petitions cannot be granted.
There are prayers, for example, which attempt to achieve by supplication what can be achieved only by effective thinking. Consider what this world would become if everything could be accomplished by prayer. What if men could sail their ships as well by prayer alone as by knowledge of the science of navigation; could swing their bridges as firmly by petition only as by studying engineering laws; could light their houses, send their messages, and work out their philosophies by mere entreaty? Is it not clear that if, as in fairy-tales, we had the power of omnipotent wishing conferred upon us, we never would use our intelligence at all? If life is to mean development and discipline, some things must be impossible until men think, no matter how hard men pray. If a boy asks his father to work out his arithmetic lesson because he wishes to play, will the father do it? The father loves the boy; he could work out the lesson, but he must not. The boy's prayer must never be made a substitute for his intellectual discipline. The father, in answer to the boy's request, may encourage him, assist him, stand by him and see him through; but the father must not do for the boy anything that the boy can possibly do for himself. Harsh though at times it may seem, God surely must require us as individuals and as a race to endure the discipline of painful enterprise and struggle, rather than find an easy relief by asking.
There are prayers, also, which attempt to accomplish by
supplication what can be accomplished only by work. In one of the most dramatic scenes of the Exodus, where the Israelites are caught with the unfordable Red Sea in front and the pursuing Egyptians behind, Moses goes apart to pray. The reply which he receives from Jehovah is startling. It is nothing less than a rebuke for having prayed: "Wherefore criest thou unto me? speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward" (Ex. 14:15). It is as though God were saying, "I have everything prepared for your aggressive action. I have done the last thing that I can do, until you resolutely take advantage of it. It is your move! You cannot obtain by prayer what comes only as the reward of work." Such a rebuke many of our prayers deserve. We forget the proverb: "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride."
When one studies the great servants of the Kingdom at prayer, he always finds in them this sturdy common-sense. If ever an enterprise was begun, continued, and ended in prayer, it was Nehemiah's reconstruction of the Hebrew commonwealth; but Nehemiah always combined prayer and work, without confusing them: "I prayed unto the God of heaven. And I said unto the king" (Neh. 2:4, 5); "We made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night" (Neh. 4:9); "Remember the Lord . . . and fight" (Neh. 4:14). So Cromwell prayed, but when he faced a weak and flaccid piety that made prayer a substitute for practical devotion, he put his feeling into a phrase as hard as his bullets: "Trust God and keep your powder dry." Such men have understood that God has three ways of accomplishing his will through men, not one way only. "Pray to God," said Spurgeon, "but keep the hammer going."
Still another reason for ungranted petition may be noted: we are not ready for the reception of the gift which we desire. The trouble is not with the petition but with us who offer it. We need not be wilfully wicked. We may simply lack that eager readiness to receive which voices itself in earnest, persistent prayer. The note of Jacob's wrestling with the angel, "I will not let thee go, except thou bless me" (Gen. 32:26), is lacking in our supplication. We are
lackadaisical in our desires and therefore are not importunate in our prayers.
At first it may be surprising, in view of all that has been said about the individual love of God, that we should insist on importunity in prayer. If God is good and wishes to give us the best, why must we clamor long after a real good, eagerly and patiently and with importunity seeking it?
At this point many of Jesus' sayings are difficult to understand. He clearly insisted on importunate prayer. "He spake a parable unto them to the end that they ought always to pray, and not to faint" (Luke 18:1), and the parable recorded a woman's tiresome, reiterated petitioning of a judge until he cried in despair, "I will avenge her, lest she wear me out by her continual coming." He who believed so fully in the utter willingness and power of God to help, even illustrated prayer by a man's arousal of a sleepy neighbor and his pestering persistence in calling for bread until "because of his importunity" he won his request (Luke 11:5f). We must allow for the picturesque exaggeration in these vivid parables; we must remember that they were supposed to illustrate only one aspect of prayer, not the whole of it; we must balance these passages by Jesus' own condemnation of those who think they shall be "heard for their much speaking" but we must not thin out, until we lose it, the obvious meaning here. Jesus was insisting on tireless praying. He said prayer was seeking (Luke 11:9); and if one considers what intellectual search means, as when Copernicus questioned the heavens year after year to discover the truth, or what geographical search means, as when Peary tried undiscourageably for the Pole, he es at least a idea of the Master's thought of prayer as an unwearied seeking after spiritual good. "For twenty-four years," said Peary, "sleeping or awake, to place the Stars and Stripes on the Pole had been my dream." That is the spirit of seeking, and that, the Master said, is the spirit of prayer.
The necessity of this sort of prayer is not difficult to understand. Boys on Hallowe'en ring bells and run. So, many of us pray. But any one who has serious business will wait for an answer to his summons and if need be, will ring again. The patient waiting, the reiterated demand are an expression and a test of our earnestness. When we said that both "No" and "Yes" were real answers to prayers, we did