Concerning prayer the Scripture phraseology is, pray always, pray continually, pray without ceasing, pray with perseverance. Mr. Wesley describes it as “a spiritual respiration, by which the life of God is kept alive in the soul.” The soldier may have his weapons, and the bird its wings, but they may not be always using them in the fighting and flying sense; there should be in us a gracious aptitude to pray, although we cannot be always upon our knees. “Praying always,” says the apostle, “with all prayer and supplication in the spirit; and watching thereunto with all perseverance.” I remember reading a remark somewhere equivalent to this, — that, when the saint is likely to be foiled by the world, the flesh, or the devil, prayer is the letter which he sends post to heaven, for fresh supplies of the Spirit, whereby he becomes more than conqueror. That was a fine saying of a good man, now with God, “God looketh not so much on the elegancy of our prayers, how neat they are, — nor on the geometry of our players, how long they are, — but to the sincerity of our prayers, how hearty they are.” The heart should always be in tune; ready, upon the least touch of the Holy Spirit, to discourse in the ears of God the sweetest music.
“O may my heart in tune be found,
Like David’s harp of solemn sound!”
As to “language,” who wants a display of eloquence from a needy beggar? Love and sincerity in the heart, and the deep necessities of the soul, never fail to “set off,” and render agreeable to the Lord, the most blundering language. When in Leeds, Yorkshire, I was told of a poor ignorant peasant, who got awakened to a concern about his soul, and was in great distress. He was at work one day, upon the top of a high hill, which encouraged his heart much, because the old man thought “Surely, I am now nearer heaven than in the lowlands, and therefore I must be nearer God.” But he was sorely exercised and buffeted by the devil, notwithstanding; and on this account partly, — that God seemed, to his apprehension, to be still a great way off; and being surrounded with a bulky material, he raised a great heap, clambered to the top of it, and considering that it was not possible to get any higher, he steadied himself upon his knees, and cried with a loud voice, “God Almighty, and his Son, Jesus Christ, baith on ye [both of ye], hear me!” His supplications entered into the ears of God, and the distressed sinner then and there found mercy, and descended from his elevation freely justified through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
I have heard many singular and coarse prayers offered to the Divine Majesty during the last few years, and have wondered at the condescension of God; but it was easy to perceive that the heart of the supplicator was sound, and full of faith and love. When we hear a bell ring, we can readily tell whether it be “sound or cracked,” or what kind of metal it is made of. The bellman may ring it badly, and the clapper may be none of the best, and the framework very indifferent; but, however awkward the toll, there is no difficulty in deciding whether the bell itself be sound or the contrary. A spiritual mind may often make this distinction in regard to a praying brother; but with God there can be no uncertainty, however we may be deceived. If many “Christians of taste” would but allow such a consideration to weigh with them, they might obtain much more good from the prayers of the poor, who are often rich in faith and love.
Prayer must be sincere. Jacob said to his mother, “If I dissemble, my father will find me out, and I shall receive a curse, instead of a blessing.” It is written in the seventy-eighth Psalm that backslidden Israel “flattered God with their mouth, and lied unto him with their tongues,” and no doubt made many long and eloquent prayers. But it is said in the one hundred and forty-fifth Psalm, “The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon him; to all that call upon him in TRUTH.” I was told, the other day, of a good man, in a certain place, who was kneeling beside an individual in a prayer-meeting. The latter began to pray by addressing a long list of elegant compliments to the Almighty. At length, giving the coat of the praying brother a sharp twitch, the good man said, “Ask him for something, brother!”
War must be declared in the heart against all sin, though dear and [supposedly] necessary as a right eye, or foot, or hand (Matt. 5 29, 30), or the Lord will not answer prayer. Hence, the cautionary reflection of the psalmist, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.”
Prayer must be ardent. “Prayer without a heart,” says one, “is like a body without a soul; what a deformed, loathsome thing is a body without a soul! truly, so is thy prayer without a heart.” And it must be persevering. Instance that remarkable prayer of Daniel, ninth chapter; how earnest the following words: “O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, hearken, and do; defer not for thine own sake, oh my God; for thy city and thy people are called by thy name.” I have read of one Paulus Aemilius, who, on the eve of a battle with the Macedonians, would not give over sacrificing to his god, Hercules, until he imagined there were signs of victory. What a lesson is here for Christians! “Every good prayer,” says Bishop Hail, “knocketh at heaven for a blessing; but an importunate prayer pierceth it, and makes way into the ears of God.”
I have likened, before now, to the clock when striking; how actively and nimbly the wheels within seem to be going! It is even thus with the converted heart, and even with the true penitent, -there is a stir within.
“Prayer ardent” draws out the whole soul after the blessing sought. When this is continued some time, for any special object, it is then supplication. Both terms are used in Ephesians 6:18; but they are not synonymous. Prayer is the simple desire of the heart expressed in words, and may be immediately answered, — or may gradually subside, in the same hour, into a silent and patient submission to the will of God, accompanied with the comforting promise, “My grace is sufficient for thee. Supplication is prayer continued; it follows God up and down, as it were, day and night, begging, crying, entreating, and will give him no rest, — will not let him go, until he says, “Be it unto thee even as thou wilt.” The great and good Mr. Cecil used to say, when one of his children cried, he would remain in his study, thinking that some toy or other might probably satisfy it; but when it continued to cry, and nothing would do but his presence, then he came to the child immediately. This is supplication.
You may probably remember the anecdote of Demosthenes and the client. One came to him in a court of law, where an important case was pending, and whispered in his ear that, unless he undertook his cause, he feared he should lose his suit: “I am already beaten,” said the client. The orator replied, “I don’t believe you.” At last the man cried out, in great distress. “Ay! now I feel your cause,” said Demosthenes. He only whispered before, and the statesman could not believe his cause was so desperate, and consequently had no feeling for him; but when he “cried,” the effects were of quite a different character. Have you never observed the motions of a mother toward her child? When it whimpers and whines a little, she will not run to it immediately, although she may cast many an anxious look in that direction; but when it cries outright, she drops all, and is with it in a moment. We lose much for want of earnestness. James 5:16. “A low voice,” says one, “does not cause a loud echo; neither doth a lazy prayer procure a liberal answer. Sleepy requests cause but dreams, — mere fancied returns. When there is a cushion under the knees, and a pillow of idleness under the elbows, there is little work to be done. A lazy prayer tires before it goes half way to heaven. When Daniel was fervent all day, an angel was sent at night with the answer.” Prayer must be according to the charter in 1 John 5:14; nor need we desire a larger. “If we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us,” etc. Prayer, like a building in course of erection, must keep on the foundation of the word and promise of God, else the whole fabric must come to the ground. The psalmist understood this when he said, “Remember the word unto thy servant, upon which thou hast caused me to hope.” “God,” in the language of another, “like a wise father, denies us liberty to cry for the candle that would burn us, and the thorns that would prick our fingers;” though the hedges are in the bloom of spring, and every thorn has its flower; “but he gives us liberty, nay, commands us to besiege and storm heaven; day and night to give him no rest to be instant, urgent, fervent, that our persons may be justified, our natures sanctified, and our souls and bodies glorified eternally.”
We should look for answers to prayer. This proves our sincerity, while it honors the veracity of God. There is a fine allusion in Psalm 5:3, — some think it relates to archery, “I will DIRECT my prayer unto thee,” take aim, “and will look up.” “I will watch the arrow, and see where it lights, or whether it hit the mark.” Others have supposed a martial idea implied: “I will direct,” — “set in order,” as a general would say, — “I will rise early, set my requests toward God, as soldiers in battalion; in rank and file: I will so marshal them that they be not routed, by being out of order; I will see that they stand in their places, and keep their ground. When I have so done. I will go to my watchtower, and see the fight and observe what execution they will make upon my adversaries; whether my troops [prayers] have power with God, lose ground, or win the day.” 2 Sam. 19:24, 28. “Prayer,” says one, “is both a charm to enchant, and a scourge to torment Satan; it engageth Christ in the combat, and assureth the soul of conquest.”
Come, then, my dear sir. Come to the throne of grace. You need a blessing. Come boldly,
“Heaven is never deaf but when man’s heart is dumb;
Heaven finds an ear when sinners find a tongue.”
“The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” Matt. 11:12. Fear not to agonize and cry to God. The mercies of God may be like fruit upon a tree, though fully ripe, they may want a shaking to bring them down; pray fervently, and in faith, and this will cause them to descend in blessings on your soul.
Your views of drawing near to God are perhaps correct enough, only they would seem to carry the idea that God is cold, distant, and immovable. If such was your meaning, nothing can be more incorrect. “Beware of too much refining.” A writer, some years ago, attempted to illustrate prayer thus: A man in a small boat grapples a large ship with a boat-hook, and draws himself alongside, but he never stirs the ship; therefore, it is by prayer we draw ourselves to God, — not God to us. Another uses the same figure, but substitutes a rope for the boat-hook, by which he pulls the boat to the ship, and not the ship to the boat. It is quite true we approach God by prayer; and he who never prays has no right to expect any favor from God; and, dying a prayerless sinner, the separation between him and his Maker must be perpetuated throughout eternity. But I do not like the idea, however ingeniously carried out, that God is as stationary with regard to the returning sinner, or praying believer, as the ship to the boatman. It seems to make against the analogy of Scripture: “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you.” James 4:8. This seems like a proposal to meet us half way; and if we take the example of the father, in the case of the prodigal son (Luke 15), as illustrative of the willingness of God to receive returning sinners, our Heavenly Father performs the largest part. The prodigal did not run to meet his father, but the father ran to meet the repenting son, “and fell upon his neck and kissed him.”