Difficulties Concerning Prayer. II

Henry Churchill King, D.D., Ll.D.

President of Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio


II. Difficulties from a False Conception of Prayer

Besides the difficulties which arise in part from certain unwarranted prepossessions due to a mechanistic view of the world, there are difficulties which arise from a false conception of prayer itself.

It is here, it seems to me, that Tyndall's famous proposal of a prayer-gauge lies, rather than in the field of scientific difficulties. Tyndall's idea seems to be that of applying a gauge to prayer, in the same sense in which one might apply a gauge to steam. It ought hardly to be necessary to say at all that such a conception is utterly beside the mark from the Christian point of view. Prayer, for Christ, is no force put simply in man's hands to be measured by the number of prayers or the number of persons or the length of time in prayer. There are no units of compulsive force on God to be so gauged. Prayer is no compulsion or command on God. God does not abdicate his throne and simply allow the human will to determine results. Else we should not dare to pray. We are many times clearly aware, even in the case of interests that seem very precious to us, that we simply do not know what results are really best. We dare to pray because we come to one who loves us, and has the infinite wisdom to express that love as it may best be expressed. If there is prayer at all in the Christian sense, therefore, it is prayer offered always in glad and necessary submission to the wisdom and love of God. So that from the Christian point of view a prayer even for direct results may be "answered" just as truly in the refusal as in the granting of the specific request. And to gauge prayer in this larger sense would require nothing less than infinite wisdom.

There is besides, of course, the practical impossibility of any such test as that that Tyndall proposed, since prayer as a spiritual force, as has been suggested, cannot be measured by the number of prayers or the number of persons or length of time in prayer. No measurable test is possible. Spiritually valued, the prayer of one might outweigh the prayer of many. And whatever previous agreements were made concerning the patients in a hospital that were to be prayed for and those that were not, the dumb desire of the patient himself or of his friends might well be, in the thought of God, as eloquent praying as the most elaborately voiced petitions. If there be a God at all he can be no mere passive mass, subject to the pressure of human determination. He has, himself, infinite purposes of love and wisdom to work out in the world and in relation to men quite beyond our gauging in any possible mechanical fashion.

A second difficulty, arising from a false conception of prayer, is sometimes expressed in the form: God knows what I need, why, therefore, should I pray? It is interesting to see that Christ himself, in his own teaching, seems to argue in exactly the other way: "Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. After this manner therefore pray." Let one see the real implication of the objection here urged against prayer. God must either know or not know what we need. Would it be a better reason for prayer to reverse the statement of the objector and say: God does not know what I need, therefore I will pray? Certainly we are not likely to seek help from a God who does not know what our needs are.

Christ seems to be really arguing, in his teaching concerning prayer, in Matthew, somewhat in this fashion: We are to pray, not because God is reluctant and because his will must be battered down by incessant repetition-" Use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do." Nor are we to pray as a short cut to things, making prayer largely selfish and material. Our great need in every personal relation is the need of the person himself, not primarily of the things that the relation may carry with it. We need God and communion with God. If prayer is to have any reality worth talking about, it must be the reality of a divine association, involving continuous mutual self-revelation and answering faith. When prayer is so personally conceived, it is seen to be the achievement and gift of a lifetime, though the simplest of things. But we obviously cannot drift into it. Here, too, the best is a growth-the growing expression of a deep inner life, where the conditions of a satisfying personal relation are fulfilled. Christ seems therefore to be urging with men positively that it is because God knows and loves and cares that we dare to pray and may pray. If he did not know, there would be no use in praying; and if he did not love and care, we should not dare to pray. In all this, Christ is answering that inherent and inevitable need of prayer to which Professor James referred. Whatever our theories about prayer, we must pray. We cannot help the instinctive cry to the universe, to any God in whom we blindly believe, when we are thinking of the things that deeply concern us. Where work to which we have given our life, where our intrinsic honor, where the friends whom most we love, are concerned, there we must pray. And to this need Christ responds, You may pray.

One who rightly conceives the personal relation involved in prayer can hardly fail to realize, too, that the objection we are considering stops in a very shallow conception of prayer. As in any personal relation, God cannot give himself and his best blessings except to responsive hearts. The deepest self-revelation can be made only to the reverent, and prayer is this response to God, this opening of ourselves to him. As surely as the best gifts of friendship cannot be made available to the purely selfish person, so surely must there be some active response in our human hearts to God's own self-revelation, if he is to bestow all that he would upon us.

Moreover, because respect for the personality of another is the deepest condition of right personal relations, we may be certain that God's attitude is always that of reverence for the human personality. He does not thrust himself upon us; he does not force his way into our lives. He stands at the door of the human heart to knock; it is for us to open the door. The effective relation between God and men must always be a work of co-operation. And prayer is this opening of the door.

It must also be added, of course, that the objection we are now considering seems to think of prayer as purely of the nature of request, and quite ignores the whole great range of personal relations in the communion of spirit with spirit, quite independent of things asked for. Doubtless the thought that God knows my need and has me in his loving care, will keep me from urging with importunate anxiety requests for things concerning whose good I cannot be sure, and therefore may well affect the proportion of prayer to be given to doubtful requests. But it ought not to determine the entire question of what prayer is to be to me.

III. Difficulties from the Supposed Improbability of Prayer

But though certain initial difficulties concerning prayer may be thus set aside, the human heart is concerned with the main question: What, after all, is the probability of effective relations between God and men? Are we just deceiving ourselves here? Is prayer a fond delusion? Are there any spiritual forces, any relations of appeal and response, between God and man? Ultimately we must be willing fully to face the facts, for it is no gain for any of us that we should be finally deceived. Is it easier, then, to deny the reality of prayer? We live in an age with a "stupendous reliance on machinery," in an age of enormous material conquest, in an age in which knowledge of the material world is enormously extended, in a business, commercial, and organizing age. And it is peculiarly easy in such an age that the spiritual factors in life should be somewhat hidden. Let us ask ourselves, therefore, what the probability concerning prayer is.

The probabilities of the case can perhaps be briefly summarized. In the first place, and for myself, I cannot doubt that we must affirm the inherent probability of prayer. God is; we are. The interrelation of God and the human soul is to be expected. The reasons would need to be very strong that would set aside such inherent probability. Moreover, we need God. All the deeper knowledge of human nature makes us feel that man cannot be satisfied simply with the finite. And Augustine's great word has been so frequently quoted just because it answers so completely to the instinctive judgment of men: "Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee." If we are to recognize the existence of God at all we must believe that he seeks our best good, and that what, therefore, is necessary to our highest development will not be denied us.

Nor can we leave out of account the further fact that all men are impelled to pray. The practically universal fact of religion has everywhere meant prayer. Has this instinct no response? John Fiske carries one's conviction when he says:

If the relation thus established in the morning twilight of Man's existence between the Human Soul and a world invisible and immaterial is a relation of which only the subjective term is real and the objective term is non-existent, then, I say, it is something utterly without precedent in the whole history of creation. All the analogies of Evolution, so far as we have yet been able to decipher it, are overwhelmingly against any such supposition.

     .     .     .     .     .     .     .    

The lesson of evolution is that through all these weary ages the Human Soul has not been cherishing in Religion a delusive phantom, but in spite of seemingly endless groping and stumbling it has been rising to the recognition of its essential kinship with the ever-living God. Of all the implications of the doctrine of evolution with regard to Man, I believe the very deepest and strongest to be that which asserts the Everlasting Reality of Religion.

It is probably not too much to say, either, that the best in the race have tended to make the most of prayer. Certainly the great moral and spiritual seers and leaders of the race have given, on the whole, emphatic testimony at this point.

Christ's own practice and example here are still more convincing to the Christian. The Christian man feels that one might well rest the entire argument for prayer upon this great single fact. For if we are to regard Christ simply as the supreme character of the race, the man of clearest moral and spiritual discernment, we cannot overlook the fact that he is pre-eminently a man of prayer. Prayer evidently was his one great source of strength, of solace, and of courage. He flees to God. It may well be doubted whether any of his disciples have given sufficient weight to this example of Christ himself. If he needed such recourse to prayer, and found such life in it, we may be very sure that we need it still more. We are not likely to make any mistake in following Christ's example.

It is perfectly plain, moreover, that Christ does not regard this communion with the Father as something in which he has a part where men have none; for he encourages and urges and commands prayer on the part of his disciples. Christ's unmistakable example and teaching suggest much more than the mere probability of the reality of prayer. Whether the matter of prayer is entirely clear to us or not, it evidently was an unquestioned fact for him. He knew. He felt that he could bear testimony out of his own experience, and the testimony is the expert testimony of a master in the realm of the moral and spiritual. If the revelation of God in Christ means anything, it surely means the reality of prayer.