Difficulties Concerning Prayer. III

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

President of Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio


IV. Difficulty from the Lack of a Felt Presence and a Definite Response in Prayer

Perhaps the difficulty that is most felt by those trying to find their way into the religious life is what they take to be the lack of a felt presence and a definite response from God in prayer, such as they feel that they obtain in relation to the outer world or to another person in the body. The complaint is of a sense of seeming unreality, that seems to them quite different from what they experience in these other relations.

Concerning this really comprehensive difficulty, it is to be said, first of all, that there is no doubt that God's relation to us is not intended to be an obtrusive relation—a relation that forces itself upon us and from the sense of which we are unable to escape. As I have elsewhere argued, the very possibility of moral choice on our part, and of a normal development in the moral and religious life, seems to require that God should sacredly respect our freedom and not make his relation to us an obtrusive or dominating or inescapable one. We need here imperatively the invisible God. And this consideration deeply affects the whole problem. We shall return to it a little later.

Moreover, it is to be said that God must be known like any other personality, through his self-manifestations. If we are right in thinking at all of a God immanent in the whole universe, these self-manifestations must be manifold: in the constitution of nature, in our own natures and experience, in human history, in the touch of other lives, and particularly in the great personalities who have seen and lived most truly.

The religious man may well remind himself that he cannot wholly mistake the working of God in his historical leading of the race, for example, and especially as traced in the Old and New Testaments. If we see reason to believe that God was here in real relation to men, we ought not to find it impossible to believe in his continued on-working through the generations.

The Christian man, too, has reason to believe not only that God has in general expressed himself in the world as a whole, but that men have had the need of concrete, definite, human, unmistakable manifestation already peculiarly and supremely met in the historical life of Jesus. As he puts himself in the presence of this historical life of Christ, he is likely to discover that God is able to find him in and through Christ as nowhere else. God knew our need of such a definite and concrete manifestation and met that need. With that need supremely met, the problem becomes one of a life of faith; but a life of faith based on evidence, not without evidence. It is to be remembered also that it is hard to appreciate any great character and his work when one stands close to it.

It is particularly true that it was impossible for men to see the full significance of the character and the life of Christ as a revelation of God, without the perspective of a longer time and without the testing of history. The full significance of any personality is not to be grasped at once. We may be sure that the law holds in relation to Christ and God's revelation in him. Christ's life has gained, not lost, in significance, as his weight in human history has become plain.

Nor is it to be forgotten that the final forces even in external nature, as modern science seems to teach us, are all unseen. They are not as they seem to us in the first testimony of the senses. The real facts concerning air pressure, the motion of the earth, the atomic constitution of nature, the ether vibrations, and many other similar phenomena, are not present to us in the direct evidence of the senses. They are reached by inference and experiment, and accepted by us on such a basis. Even the material facts, in other words, are not here so immediately given as we are in the habit of thinking.

Moreover, our knowledge of the outer world through sensations is not so different from the knowledge of the spiritual world that comes through the inner data of our psychic life, as we often suppose. There is no immediate knowledge or revelation in either case. Both require a long time in the building up; both involve comparison, memory, reason. Neither the outer world nor the spiritual meaning of our inner experiences can be given to us outright. There is certainly no literal transfer of definite thoughts from external nature to the minds of men. Their own inner activity, reflection, and inference are required even there. And if there, we need not be surprised to find the same law holding in the realm of the spirit.

Even in the closest personal intercourse, it is well to notice that there is no literal transfer of thought or feeling from one mind to the other. The self-revelation of one person to another cannot be made by words only, however carefully and accurately words are used by the revealing personality. The words at best are but signs of inner mental processes, which the other must interpret out of a somewhat different experience. There must be, thus, a creative, co-operative activity on both sides, and the result is quite certain to be the production in the second person, not of an exact replica of the mental state of the first, but only a measurable approximation to that state. This necessity for active co-operation on our part in any personal revelation suggests how impossible the common conception of an absolutely passive reception of a personal revelation from God must be. We are thus often expecting, in relation to God, what occurs nowhere else in our experience, not even in the closest personal relations. It is, indeed, in this way that a truly living revelation from God is possible—a revelation that changes and grows with our growth. There must be, in any case, in revelation from God, active co-operation on our part; and we need not be disturbed to find this true. It is in line with a true understanding of all our experience. Even if we thought of God as speaking to us in definite words, these would require interpretation. The active interpretive element in religion is thus unavoidable.

Moreover, if there be a God at all, and religion have any genuine justification, God can be no merely incidental and occasional factor in the life of men. If the reason of the case and men's needs are to be truly met, God's co-operation and guidance must be constant, not simply here and there by some marked intervention; just as there can be no adequate and fundamental religious interpretation of evolution that does not recognize that God is essentially active at every stage and not alone at certain apparent breaks in the evolutionary series. A God who is only occasionally needed is no God at all. Our conception of divine revelation and relation to God, therefore, must be consistent with some thought of his constant activity in human life; though this does not mean that all stages of revelation are to be put on a dead level, any more than we are to deny the existence of certain critical points in the evolution process.

But, while men need the sense of God's constant relation to human life, it is still true, as was implied at the beginning of this article, that the best association even between men, for character and happiness, is not an obtrusive one. It should be constant, indeed, and intimate, but should still guard most jealously our freedom and our individuality, never desiring to force its way or its will. Every personal relation requires such care on the part of the stronger personality. It is pre-eminently necessary that this should be the case in God's relation to us. If our freedom is not to be quite overridden and true moral character made impossible for us, God must even take pains to hide his working, as would a wise, strongly influential friend. This consideration is fundamental in its bearing on our problem.

It is thus literally true to say that we need an invisible God. We are to walk by faith, not by sight. The fact seems to be that, as we mount higher in any sphere, our life is and must be increasingly one of faith. In the intellectual, the aesthetic, the moral, the religious life, we have our occasional times of clear vision of our goal, followed by longer periods when we have to go forward in faith in the goal once seen. As Rendel Harris says, we cannot avoid "the dark night of faith, when every step has to be taken in absolute dependence upon God, and assurance that the vision was truth and no lie." We have to learn to believe in the unseen spiritual forces, in the constant working of the invisible God. This unobtrusiveness of God seems then to be necessary to our spiritual training. There would else be such excess of motive as would virtually annul our freedom and our character. We need to learn fidelity to the lesser light.

Another consideration deserves attention. It is worth while for one to make clear to himself just what kind of answer he really wants to his prayers, when he thinks the matter through. He may find his need here quite other than he first imagined it to be. For if one is truly praying for the fulfilment of Christ's supreme purposes concerning himself and other men, if he is truly praying the Lord's Prayer, the answer plainly must be found chiefly in life, in character. It cannot possibly be given simply in any kind of emotional experience, though such an experience in a given case may be a useful help to character. The best and completest answer to a truly Christian prayer means time, growth, and many human choices of the right. Our point of view as to prayer is quite too likely to be too low, too personal, too selfish, too much concerned with things and with pleasant experiences, instead of with the final goal of "union with the will of God." So that we may fail to give due weight to the most direct and important answers of all.

We are, then, perhaps not looking in the right direction for the answers to our prayers, for evidence of real relation to God. Are there no indications that God has been at work in our lives, not only at the time of prayer and in conscious feelings that we seemed able to connect with the prayer, but in more constant and fundamental ways? Have there not been the thousand different quickenings, glimpses, times of vision, and "sober and strenuous moods"? Have there been no leadings, no changed attitudes and longings, no altered purposes, no growth, no increasing assurance of spiritual things and of Christ's supreme significance, no enlarging place in our lives for the motives coming from Christ's life and teaching, no deepening of unselfish sympathy and enthusiasm for the great social goals of the Kingdom? Is the relation to God not coming to mean more and more as we go on? The fruit of the Spirit is the best evidence of the working of the Spirit of God.

A word should be added concerning the difficulty many feel about intercessory prayer. It is not possible to doubt Christ's practice of intercessory prayer. The demand for it too is grounded in our very natures. We simply cannot help praying for those whom we love. Is there any peculiar difficulty involved in intercessory prayer? As I have dealt with this question somewhat at length elsewhere, I may very briefly say here that intercessory prayer seems to me only to carry to its legitimate conclusion the well-recognized condition of a moral world—that we are members one of another. We do, as a matter of fact, condition one another's lives at multiplied points. May I through God in prayer continue to count for good in the life of my friend, even when distance or misunderstanding separates us? It would seem a very impotent and inadequate God who could not make that true. And that it should be true would be only to carry through to the end the common law of the moral universe, of our constant mutual influence. If this be true, intercessory prayer seems to involve no peculiar intellectual difficulty.