By Adam Clarke
PRAYER has been defined, "an offering of
our desire to God for things needful, with an humble confidence to
obtain them through the alone merits of Christ, to the praise of the
mercy, truth, and power of God." And "its parts are said to be
invocation, adoration, confession, petition, pleading, dedication,
thanksgiving, and blessing." Though the definition be imperfect,
yet, as far as it goes, it is not objectionable; but the parts of
prayer, as they are called, (except the word petition, ) have
scarcely any thing to do with the nature of prayer. They are, in
general, separate acts of devotion; and attention to them in what is
termed "praying," will entirely mar it, and destroy its efficacy.
It was by following this division, that long prayers have been introduced among Christian congregations, by means of which the spirit of devotion has been lost: for, where such prevail most, listlessness and deadness are the principal characteristics of the religious services of such people; and these have often engendered formality, and frequently total indifference to religion. Long prayers prevent kneeling, for it is utterly impossible for man or woman to keep on their knees during the time such last; where these prevail, the people either stand or sit. Technical prayers, I have no doubt, are odious in the sight of God; for no man can be in the spirit of devotion who uses such: it is a drawing nigh to God with the lips, while the heart is, almost necessarily, far from him.
A proper idea of prayer is, "the pouring out the soul before God, with the hand of faith placed on the head of the sacrificial offering; imploring mercy, and presenting itself a free-will offering unto God; giving up body, soul, and spirit, to be guided and governed as may seem good to his heavenly wisdom, desiring only perfectly to love him, and serve him with all its powers, at all times, while he has a being."
It is not merely to tell God our wants, or to show him our state, that we are to pray; (for he knows this state and these wants much better than ourselves;) but to get a suitable feeling of the pressure of these wants, and the necessity of having them supplied: and this we obtain by looking into our own hearts and lives; for here, particularly, the eye affects the heart, and, from the urgency of the necessity, we feel excited to pray earnestly to God for his mercy; and our confessing them before him affects us still more deeply; induces us to be more fervent; and shows us that none but God can save and defend.
Prayer is not designed to inform God, but to give man a sight of his misery; to humble his heart, to excite his desire, to inflame his faith, to animate his hope, to raise his soul from earth to heaven, and to put him in mind that there is his Father, his country, and inheritance.
Prayer is the most secret intercourse of the soul with God, and, as it were, the conversation of one heart with another.
Prayer is the language of dependance; he who prays not is endeavouring to live independently of God; this was the first curse, and continues to be the great curse of mankind.
Prayer requires more of the heart than of the tongue. The eloquence of prayer consists in the fervency of desire and the simplicity of faith. The abundance of fine thoughts, studied and vehement motions, and the order and politeness of the expressions, are things which compose mere human harangue, not an humble and Christian prayer. Our trust and confidence should proceed from that which God is able to do in us, and not from what we say to him.
Unmeaning words, useless repetitions, and complimentary phrases in prayer, are, in general, the result of heathenism, hypocrisy, or ignorance.
A fluency in prayer is not essential to praying: a man may pray most powerfully, in the estimation of God, who is not able to utter even one word. The unutterable groan is big with meaning, and God understands it, because it contains the language of his own Spirit. Some desires are too mighty to be expressed; there is no language expressive enough to give them proper form and distinct vocal sound: such desires show that they come from God; and as they come from him, so they express what God is disposed to do, and what he has purposed to do.
"Wherefore criest thou unto me?" We hear not one word of Moses' praying, and yet here the Lord asks him why he cries unto him: from which we may learn that the heart of Moses was deeply engaged with God, though it is probable he did not articulate one word; but the language of sighs, tears, and desires is equally intelligible to God with that of words. This consideration should be a strong encouragement to every feeble, discouraged mind: thou canst not pray, but thou canst weep; if even tears are denied thee, (for there may be deep and genuine repentance where the distress is so great as to stop up these channels of relief,) then thou canst sigh; and God, whose Spirit has thus convinced thee of sin, righteousness, and judgment, knows thy unutterable groanings, and reads the inexpressible wish of thy burthened soul,—a wish of which himself is the Author, and which he has breathed into thy heart with the purpose to satisfy it.
Prayer is the language of a conscious dependance on God; and he who considers that his being is an effect of the divine power, the continuance of that being an effect of an ever active Providence, and his well-being an effect of infinite grace and mercy, will feel the necessity of praying to God, that the great purpose for which this being was given may be accomplished, and his soul saved unto eternal life. And he will feel this necessity the more forcibly when he considers this: his Maker, Preserver, and Redeemer is under no obligation to continue those exertions of his power and goodness by which his being is continued, his life preserved, or his soul saved. Did it comport with the requisition of divine justice, we might expect to see every prayerless soul blotted out of the list of intelligent beings, or annihilated from the place it occupied in the creation of God. To see such ungodly, unthankful, unholy, profligate, and perishing from the blessedness of both worlds, vessels of wrath fitted for destruction, can be no matter of surprise to those who know that they who pray not cannot be saved.
He who has the spirit of prayer has the highest interest in the court of heaven; and the only way to retain it, is to keep it in constant employment. Apostasy begins in the closet. No man ever backslid from the life and power of Christianity who continued constant and fervent, especially in private prayer. He who prays without ceasing is likely to rejoice evermore.
Where Abram has a tent, there God must have an altar, as he well knows there is no safety but under the divine protection. How few who build houses ever think on the propriety and necessity of building an altar to their Maker! The house in which the worship of God is not established cannot be considered as under the divine protection.
"I will therefore that men pray everywhere:"—In every place; that they should always have a praying heart, and this will ever find a praying place. This may refer to a Jewish superstition. They thought, at first, that no prayer could be acceptable that was not offered at the temple at Jerusalem; afterward this was extended to the Holy Land; but, when they became dispersed among the nations, they built oratories, or places of prayer, principally by rivers, and by the seaside; and in these they were obliged to allow that public prayer might be legally offered, but nowhere else. In opposition to this, the apostle, by the authority of Christ, commands men to pray everywhere; that all places belong to God's dominions; and, as he fills every place, in every place he may be worshipped and glorified. As to ejaculatory prayer, they allowed that this might be performed standing, sitting, leaning, lying, walking by the way, and during their labour.
God is the object of prayer; and the word of God, and especially his promises, are also the objects of prayer.
God on his mercy-seat is the object of prayer; and to fix the mind, and prevent it from wavering, the supplicant should consider him under such attributes as are best suited to his own state and wants. There are three general views which may be taken of this divine object: infinite wisdom, infinite power, infinite goodness. There are few blessings which we want that do not come from one or other of these three sources: We are either ignorant, and want instruction; weak, and need power; wretched, and need mercy. As we feel, so we should pray; and in order to feel aright, and pray successfully, we should endeavour to find out our state, to discover our most pressing wants; and to find these, we need much light, which the Holy Spirit alone can impart. Hence, strange as it may appear, we must pray before we begin to pray. We must pray for light to discover our state, that our eye may affect our heart, in order to go successfully to the great object of prayer. To get our wants summarily supplied we must pray first to see what we need; and then we shall pray to get our wants supplied.
Prayer to God is considered among the Mohammedans in a very important point of view. It is declared by the Mosliman doctors to be "the corner stone of religion, and the pillar of faith." They hold the following points to be essentially requisite to the efficacy of prayer: 1. That the person be free from every species of defilement. 2. That all sumptuous, gaudy apparel be laid aside. 3. That the attention accompany the act, and be not suffered to wander to any other object. 4. That the prayer be performed with the face toward the temple of Mecca.
What can any man think of himself, who, in his addresses to God, can either sit on his seat or stand in the presence of the Maker and Judge of all men? Would they sit while addressing any person of ordinary respectability? If they did so, they would be reckoned very rude indeed. Would they sit in the presence of the king of their own land? They would not be permitted so to do. Is God, then, to be treated with less respect than a fellow-mortal? Paul kneeled in praying, Acts xx, 36; xxi, 5. Stephen kneeled when he was stoned, Acts vii, 60. And Peter kneeled when he raised Tabitha, Acts ix, 40. I suppose the grossly absurd and perfectly ungodly custom of sitting during prayer is out of the question. It was so perfectly unlike every thing that was becoming in divine worship, and so expressive of a total want of reverence in the worshipper, and of that consciousness of his wants and deep sense of his own worthlessness which he ought to have, that the church of God never tolerated it: a custom that even heathenism itself had too much light either to practise or sanction. Among the most ancient and most enlightened nations, kneeling was ever considered to be the proper posture of supplication; as it expressed humility, contrition, and subjection.
At a public meeting a pious brother went to prayer; I kneeled on the floor, having nothing to lean against, or to support me. He prayed forty- eight minutes. I was unwilling to rise, and several times was nigh fainting. What I suffered I cannot describe. After the meeting was over, I ventured to expostulate with the good man; and, in addition to the injury I sustained by his unmerciful prayer, I had the following reproof: "My brother, if your mind had been more spiritual, you would not have felt the prayer too long." More than twenty years have elapsed since this transaction took place, but the remembrance of what I then suffered still rests on my mind with a keen edge. The good man is still alive, will probably read this paper, will no doubt recollect the circumstance, and I hope will feel that he has since learned more prudence and more charity.
What satisfaction must it be to learn from God himself, with what words, and in what manner, he would have us pray to him, so as not to pray in vain!
Even they who use the Lord's Prayer in their public devotions, seem to use it in the wrong place. Should we not begin our addresses to God with this prayer? and then after that manner continue our requests to a reasonable length? But whether used in the beginning, middle, or end, let it never be forgotten.
Can he who sees himself a slave of the devil, beg with too much earnestness to be delivered from his thraldom?
"This is the confidence,"—the liberty of access and speech, "that if we ask any thing according to his will;" that is, which he has promised in his word. His word is a revelation of his will, in the things which concern the salvation of man. All that God has promised we are justified in expecting; and what he has promised, and we expect, we should pray for. Prayer is the language of the children of God. He who is begotten of God speaks this language. He calls God, "Abba, Father!" in the true spirit of supplication. Prayer is the language of dependence on God; where the soul is dumb, there is neither life, love, nor faith. Faith and prayer are not boldly to advance claims upon God; we must take heed that what we ask and believe for, is agreeable to the revealed will of God. What we find promised, that we may plead.
Come with confidence to the throne of grace. Know that it is such; and that He who sits on it is gracious. When you approach, you have an Intercessor there: he will introduce you: he will recommend your suit, plead in your behalf, give you full liberty to use his name, to appropriate to yourselves the infinite merit of his passion and death, his resurrection and mediation; and to avail yourselves of that indescribable nearness he has to the Father, as his beloved Son, in whom he is well pleased; and his affinity to you, as "God manifested in the flesh." It is impossible that any thing can be added, to strengthen this confidence; or by a more powerful argument to ensure a success which, from the above considerations, must be certain and absolute.
"In the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee." Here seems to be a metaphor taken from an archer. He sees his mark; puts his arrow in his bow; directs his shaft to the mark, that is, takes his aim; lets fly; and then looks up, to see if he has hit his mark. Prayers that have a right aim will have a prompt answer: and he who sends up his petitions to God through Christ, from a warm, affectionate heart, may confidently look up for an answer: for it will come. If an immediate answer be not given, let not the upright heart suppose that the prayer is not heard. It has found its way to the throne, and there it is registered.
In approaching the throne of grace, we keep Jesus, as our sacrificial victim, continually in view. Our prayers should be directed through him to the Father: and, under the conviction that his passion and death have purchased every possible blessing for us, we should, with humble confidence, ask the blessings we need; and, as in him the Father is ever well pleased, we should most confidently expect the blessings he has purchased.
The prayer that is not sent up through the influence of the Holy Ghost is never likely to reach heaven.
Worldly men, if they pray at all, ask for temporal things: "What shall we eat? what shall we drink? and wherewithal shall we be clothed?" Most of the true religious people go into another extreme; they forget the body, and ask only for the soul: and yet there are "things requisite and necessary as well for the body as the soul," and things which are only at God's disposal. The body lives for the soul's sake; its life and comfort are in many respects essentially requisite to the salvation of the soul; and therefore the things necessary for its support should be earnestly asked from the God of all grace, the Father of bounty and providence.
"Ye have not, because ye ask not," may be said to many poor, afflicted religious people; and they are afraid to ask, lest it should appear mercenary, or that they sought their portion in this life. They should be better taught. Surely to none of these will God give a stone if they ask bread; He who is so liberal of his heavenly blessings will not withhold earthly ones, which are infinitely of less consequence. Reader, expect God's blessing on thy honest industry; pray for it, and believe that God does not love thee less, who hast taken refuge in the same hope, than he loved Isaac. Plead not only his promises, but plead on the precedents he has set before thee. "Lord, thou didst so and so to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, and to others who trusted in thee; bless my field, bless my flocks, prosper my labour, that I may be able to provide things honest in the sight of all men, and have something to dispense to those who are in want." And will not God hear such prayers? Yea, and answer them too, for he does not willingly afflict the children of men. And we may rest assured that there is more affliction and poverty in the world than either the justice or providence of God requires. There are, however, many who owe their poverty to their want of diligence and economy; they sink down into indolence, and forget that word," Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might;" nor do they consider that "by idleness a man is clothed in rags." Be diligent in business, and fervent in spirit, and God will withhold from thee no manner of thing that is good.
We must ask only what is necessary for our support; God having promised neither luxuries nor superfluities. Daily support for our bodies, and daily support for our souls, is all that we need; and this we should pray for; and this we have reason to expect from a bountiful and merciful God; and then leave it to him to care for that body and that soul as he pleases. We are his servants: he calls us to labour; and no man will expect his servants to fulfil their task, if they have nothing to eat. God, our heavenly Master, will give us bread for both worlds.
He who prays for "riches," prays for snares, vanity, and vexation of spirit. He who prays for "poverty," prays for what few can bear: and should his prayer be heard, and he become poor, he will most probably steal, and take the name of the Lord in vain.
God's way is ever best. We know not what we ask, nor what we ought to ask, and therefore often ask amiss when we petition for such secular things as belong to the dispensations of God's providence. For things of this kind we have no revealed directory; and when we ask for them, it should be with the deepest submission to the divine will, as God alone knows what is best for us. With respect to the soul, every thing is clearly revealed, so that we may ask and receive, and have a fulness of joy; but as to our bodies, there is much reason to fear that the answer of our petitions would be, in numerous cases, our inevitable destruction. How many prayers does God in mercy shut out!
When a man has any doubts whether he has grieved God's Spirit, and his mind feels troubled, it is much better for him to go immediately to God, and ask forgiveness, than spend any time in finding excuses for his conduct, or labouring to divest it of its seeming obliquity. Restraining or suppressing prayer, in order to find excuses or palliations for infirmities, indiscretions, or improprieties of any kind, which appear to trench on the sacred limits of morality and godliness, may be to a man the worst of evils: humiliation and prayer for mercy and pardon can never be out of its place to any soul of man, who, surrounded with evils, is ever liable to offend.
Prayer is a part of the worship which God expects from his creatures. "Ask," says he, "and you shall receive; seek," says he, "and you shall find: knock," he adds, "and it shall be opened unto you." This is the voice of a Father: now, would any man that had the heart of a parent give his hungry dying child a stone when he asked for bread? would he give him a serpent when he asked for fish? or would he give him a scorpion when he entreated for an egg? Surely, no! And would God, the Father of the spirits of all flesh, do otherwise? His word says, "No:" his Spirit says, "No:" his church says, "No:" and his own eternal and loving nature says, "No." God the Father will, for Christ's sake, for his own name's sake, and for his truth's sake, "give his Holy Spirit to them that ask him." Have not the fathers of our flesh cared for us, laboured for us, fed us, clothed us, instructed us, and defended us? Have they not even risked their lives for us? And what will not our heavenly Father do? Is it not from him that all love, all bounty, all affection, all parental tenderness proceed? And when the streamlets are abundant, what may not be expected from the fountain,—rather from the shoreless, bottomless, inexhaustible ocean of eternal love! He is seeking for those who pray and adore; seeking for an opportunity to do them good; seeking to save them, to pardon, sanctify, and seal them heirs of eternal life.
As God has graciously promised to give salvation to every soul that comes unto him through his Son, and has put his Spirit into their hearts, inducing them to cry unto him incessantly for it; the goodness of his nature and the promise of his grace bind him to hear the prayers they offer unto him, and to grant them all that salvation which he has led them by his promise and Spirit to request.
He who does not pray is not humble; and an un-humbled searcher after truth never yet found it to the salvation of his soul.
God never inspires a prayer but with the design to answer it. What goodness is there equal to this of God?—to give not only what we ask, and more than we ask, but to reward even prayer itself!
The only return that God requires is, that we ask for more! Who is like God? One reason why we should never more come to a fellow mortal for a favour is, we have received so many already. A strong reason why we should claim the utmost salvation of God is, because we are already so much in debt to his mercy. Now, this is the only way we have of discharging our debts to God; and yet, strange to tell, every such attempt to discharge the debt only serves to increase it. Yet, notwithstanding, the debtor and Creditor are represented as both pleased, both profited, and both happy in each other! Reader! pray to Him, invoke his name; receive the cup; accept the abundance of salvation which He has provided thee, that thou mayest love and serve him with a perfect heart.
It is a modern refinement in theology which teaches that no man can know when God hears and answers his prayers but by an induction of particulars, and by an inference from his promises. And on this ground, how can any man fairly presume that he is heard or answered at all? May not his inductions be no other than the common occurrences of providence? And may not providence be no more than the necessary occurrence of events? And is it not possible that, on this skeptic ground, there is no God to hear or answer? True religion knows nothing of these abominations; it teaches its votaries to pray to God, to expect an answer from him, and to look for the Holy Spirit to bear witness with their spirits that they are the sons and daughters of God. God has put it in the power of every man to know whether the religion of the Bible be true or false. The promises relative to enjoyments in this life are the grand tests of divine revelation. These must be fulfilled to all them who, with deep repentance and true faith, turn unto the Lord, if the revelation which contains them be of God. Let any man, in this spirit, approach his Maker, and plead the promises that are suited to his case, and he will soon know whether the doctrine be of God. He shall taste, and then see, that the Lord is good, and that the man is blessed who trusts in him. This is what is called "experimental religion," the living operative knowledge that a true believer has that he is passed from death to life; that his sins are forgiven him for Christ's sake, the Spirit himself bearing witness with his spirit that he is a child of God.
Prayer is always heard after one manner or another. No soul can pray in vain that prays as Christ directs. The truth and faithfulness of the Lord Jesus are pledged for its success. Bring Christ's word and Christ's sacrifice with thee, and not one of Heaven's blessings can be denied thee.
One person full of faith and prayer may be the means of drawing down innumerable blessings on his family and acquaintance.
How true is that word, "The energetic faithful prayer of a righteous man availeth much!" Abraham draws near to God by affection and faith, and in the most devout and humble manner makes prayer and supplication; and every petition is answered on the spot. Nor does God cease to promise to show mercy till Abraham ceases to intercede! What encouragement does this hold out to them that fear God to make prayer and intercession for their sinful neighbours and ungodly relatives! Faith in the Lord Jesus endues prayer with a species of omnipotence; whatsoever a man asks of the Father in his name he will do it.
Prayer has been termed "the gate of heaven;" but without faith that gate cannot be opened. He who prays as he should, and believes as he ought, shall have the fulness of the blessing of the gospel of peace.
Prayer not only necessarily supposes the being of a God, (for he that cometh unto God must believe that he is,) but also the providence of God. For why should we pray to him to avert evil, if we do not acknowledge that he exercises a universal providence in the world! Why should we pray to be preserved in and from dangers, if we be not convinced that he has sway everywhere, and that all things serve the purposes of his gracious will? And why should men in every place who pray and make supplication expect to be heard, unless it be an incontrovertible truth that God is omnipotent, and that he can and will so interfere with, and interpose in, the matters that concern them? And should evil be coming against them in direct course, he can divert it, turn it entirely back, so that it shall have no operation near them; or, if he permit it to come on, convert it to their great spiritual advantage, by counter-working the bad effects which it would otherwise produce, and thus, by his providence (in answer to their prayers) working together with his grace, cause all those things which would otherwise be mischievous to work for their present good and future happiness.
"Hear what the unjust judge saith." Our blessed Lord intimates that we should reason thus with ourselves: "If a person of such an infamous character as this judge was, could yield to the pressing and continual solicitations of a poor widow for whom he felt nothing but contempt, how much more ready must God be, who is infinitely good and merciful, and who loves his creatures in the tenderest manner, to give his utmost salvation to all them who diligently seek it!"
"Which cry day and night unto him," &c. This is a genuine characteristic of the true elect, or disciples of Christ. They feel they have neither light, power, nor goodness, but as they receive them from him; and as he is the desire of their soul, they incessantly seek that they may be upheld and saved by him.
The reason which our Lord gives for the success of his chosen is, 1. They cry unto him day and night. 2. He is compassionate toward them. In consequence of the first, they might expect justice even from an unrighteous judge; and, in consequence of the second, they are sure of salvation, because they ask it from that God who is toward them a Father of eternal love and compassion. There was little reason to expect justice from the unrighteous judge: 1. Because he was unrighteous; and 2. Because he had no respect for man: no, not even for a poor desolate widow. But there is all the reason under heaven to expect mercy from God: 1. Because he is righteous, and he has promised it; and 2. Because he is compassionate toward his creatures; being ever prone to give more than the most enlarged heart can request of him.