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occupy the center of attention, a man for his friends' sake may well pray against the emptiness and uselessness of his life, and may well seek power to be worth as much as possible to others. Unselfishness is clearly the motive of such a cry for blessing as we have in the sixty-seventh Psalm: “God be merciful unto us, and bless us, and cause his face to shine upon us; that thy way may be known upon earth, thy salvation among all nations." Wherever real friendship and devotion come, prayer takes on this quality. When Quintin Hogg, with his Polytechnic Institute on his heart, during his last illness, wrote, “I would that I could be of some use to my boys, instead of the barren, dried up old scarecrow that I am!” he revealed the inevitable result of true friendliness. His desire to be at his best was motived by his love for "his boys.” Here we face the real trouble with our prayers. Not for lack of a satisfying philosophy do our prayers run dry, but for lack of love. We do not care enough about people and causes to pray for ourselves on their account. Let any one be possessed by a genuine devotion, and necessarily he will rise toward that union of love and prayer which Mrs. Browning put into rememberable words:
“And when I sue God for myself
Unselfishness in prayer, however, never has been and never can be fully satisfied with praying for ourselves for others' sakes. It involves specifically praying for others, and the more deep and constraining the love, the more natural is the definite entreaty for God's blessing upon our friends. The Master is our example here. The prayers of Jesus verbally reported in the Gospels, are not many in number and are few in words; but the indications of his habit of intercession are abundant and convincing. He prays for the children—“Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should lay his hands on them, and pray” (Matt. 19:13); for the sick—when a blind man is to be healed, we find the Master "looking up to heaven” (Mark 7: 34); for
his disciples—“Simon ... I made supplication for thee, that thy faith fail not” (Luke 22:31, 32); for his enemies“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23: 34); for laborers in the harvest, since he must have practiced his own injunction-“Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he send forth laborers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2); and for the whole community of his followers to the end of time—“For them also that shall believe on me through their word” (John 17:20). That the most unselfish life ever lived would be unselfish in prayer was to have been expected, and the evidence that he was so is clear.
When one, endeavoring to catch the Master's spirit, considers the various effects that may be expected from this kind of praying, he sees immediately that such intercession sincerely and habitually practiced, will have notable result in the one who prays. How much experience with vicarious prayer is summed up in that revealing verse with which the book of Job draws toward its close, “Jehovah turned the captivity of Job, when he prayed for his friends” (Job 42: 10). Such prayer does liberate. It carries a man out of himself; it brings to mind the names and needs of many friends, making the heart ready for service and the imagination apt to perceive ways of helping those else forgotten and neglected; it purges a man's spirit of vindictive moods and awakens every gracious and fraternal impulse. As William Law put it, “Intercession is the best arbitrator of all differences, the best promoter of true friendship, the best cure and preservative against all unkind tempers, all angry and haughty passions.”
For another thing intercession will often have effect in the lives of those on whose behalf the prayer is made, if only for this reason, that the knowledge that his friends are praying for him one of the finest and most empowering influences that can surround any man. For Peter to know that the Master was interceding for him was in itself what a source of sustenance and strength! They say that Luther when he felt particularly strong would exclaim, “I feel as if I were being prayed for”; and in illustration of the same truth, John G. Paton, the missionary to the New Hebrides, writes in his autobiography, “I have heard that in long after years the worst woman in the village of Torthorwald, then
leading an immoral life but since changed by the grace of God, was known to declare that the only thing that kept her from despair and from the hell of the suicide, was when in the dark winter nights she crept close up underneath my father's window, and heard him pleading in family worship that God would convert the sinner from the error of wicked ways and polish him as a jewel for the Redeemer's crown.
'I felt,' said she, “that I was a burden on that good man's heart, and I knew that God would not disappoint him. That thought kept me.''
Many lives have been kept by knowledge of intercessions continually offered for them; and one need know only a little of Christian leaders, with their urgent requests for the support of their friends' prayers, to see what encouragement they always have found in the assurance that supplications were offered on their behalf. Melanchthon here is typical, rejoicing over his accidental discovery that children were praying for the Reformation. Paul writes, “Brethren, pray for us” (I Thess. 5:25); “Ye also helping together on our behalf by your supplication” (II Cor. 1:11); “I beseech you, brethren,
that ye strive together with me in your prayers to God for me” (Rom. 15:30). Cromwell writes to his. admirals at sea: “You have, as I verily believe and am persuaded, a plentiful stock of prayers going for you daily, sent up by the soberest and most approved ministers and Christians in this nation; and, notwithstanding some discouragements, very much wrestling of faith for you; which is to us and I trust will be to you, a matter of great encouragement.”
In addition to these two effects, however, Christians have looked to intercession for a far more vital consequence. When trust in God and love for men co-exist in any life, prayer for others inevitably follows. Deepening intimacy with God, by itself, may find expression in quiet communion; enlarging love for men, alone, may utter itself in serviceable deeds; but these two cannot live together in the same life without sometimes combining in vicarious prayer. Now, such prayer always has been offered, not as a formal expression of well-wishing, but as a vital, creative contribution to God's good purposes for men. The genuine intercessors, who
in costly praying have thrown their personal love alongside God's and have earnestly claimed blessings for their friends, have felt that they were not playing with a toy, but that they were somehow using the creative power of personality in opening ways for God to work his will. They have been convinced that their intercessions wrought consequences for their friends.
In this generation, however, with its searching doubts, its honest unwillingness to act without knowledge, its refusal even when faith would be a comfort to accept faith without good reason, this projectile power of intercession has to many become dubious. One reason for this doubt lies in the inadequate way in which intercession has been conceived and preached. To some people it seems to mean that one person may persuade a thoughtless or unwilling God to do something for another person. A popular analogy has tended to keep alive this misconception. God in many ways, so runs the analogy, refuses to work his will save as some man operates with him. The home life suffers, the government becomes corrupt, the non-Christian world goes unevangelized until men come to God's help. So intercessory prayer may be another way in which God waits for our assistance. If he will not do some things for my friend until I work, it may be that he will not do other things until I pray.
There is an element of truth in this analogy, but the limited application of the comparison is clear. God cannot save my family life without my cooperation, because he cannot take my place as son or husband or father; he must work through me. He cannot save the government without men, because he cannot take the voter's place; he must work through the citizens. And in the evangelizing of China, he cannot go as a missionary; he must find some man to go. There is nothing artificial about this necessity of human cooperation; it belongs to the nature of the case. But that God should deliberately withhold from a man in China something that he is free to give to him, and should continue to withhold it until it occurs to me to ask him to bestow it, looks like an arbitrary proceeding. It argues imperfect goodness in God. No true father would keep from one child a blessing that the child has a right to and that the father is free to give, simply because he waits for another child to ask for its bestowal. The trouble with such an idea of inter
cession is not simply intellectual; it is moral.
That one individual, myself, should try to persuade another individual, God, to do for a third individual, my friend, something which the second individual, God, had not thought of, or was intending otherwise, or was arbitrarily withholding until I asked to have it given, plainly involves a thought of deity with pagan elements in it. And many people feeling this have given up intercession as unreasonable.
V This surrender of reality, however, because it is explained in an inadequate form of thought, is never a solution of any problem. With or without adequate interpretations of vicarious prayer, earnest Christians in their intercessions are about a serious and reasonable business, whose sources lie deep in the needs of human life. A clear and rational belief in intercession must start with two truths: first, the Christian Gospel about God; and second, the intimate relationships that make the world of persons an organic whole.
As to the first, the Christian God desires the welfare of all men everywhere; his love is boundless in extent and individual in application; his purpose of good sweeps through creation, comprehending every child of his and laboring for a transformed society on earth and in the heavens. This, as Paul says, is “the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ.” Nothing that we ever dreamed of good for any man or for the race has touched the garment's hem of the good which he purposes and toward which he works. He is not an individual after the fashion of a pagan deity, who, like Baal, must be awakened from his sleep and besought to do good deeds for men. Rather every dim and flickering desire our hearts ever have known for mankind's good has been lighted at the central fire of his eternal passion for the salvation of his children. As Whittier sang it:
“All that I feel of pity thou hast known
All that I feel when I am nearest thee!”