1 THESSALONIANS 5:17.—“Pray without ceasing.”
THE apostle Paul, in enjoining the duty of unceasing prayer upon all Christians, does not bind upon them a heavy burden which he himself will not move with one of his fingers. He does not regard it as a burden but a privilege, and he presents them an actual example of continual supplication to a faithful and prayer-hearing God, in this world of temptation and this valley of tears. He tells the Roman brethren, that “God is his witness, whom he serves with his spirit, in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing he makes mention of them always in his prayers.” To the Thessalonian church he says: “We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers, remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labor of love, and patience of hope.” And in another paragraph of this same Epistle, he assures them that he “thanks God without ceasing, because when they received the word of God, which they heard first from him, they received it not as the word of men but of God.” To his dearly beloved pupil Timothy, he writes: “I thank God, whom I serve from my forefathers with pure conscience, that without ceasing I have remembrance of thee in my prayers day and night.”
A man who could bear such testimony respecting himself, in the matter of prayer, surely can speak out in bold and stimulating tones to all Christians, as he does in the text: “Pray without ceasing.” He has done so himself. He knows the preciousness of the privilege. He has “tasted and seen that the Lord is good. In the day when he cried, God answered him, and strengthened him with strength in his soul.”
The subject of Prayer, which is suggested by the text, is a comprehensive one.
The theme is fertile. Perhaps no topic has engrossed more of the thought of wise and good men, than the communion which the soul of man is permitted to hold with its Maker. We purpose to consider two aspects of the general subject: First, that prayer must be incessant from its very nature; and, secondly, that unceasing prayer is feasible.
I. Observe, in the first place, that prayer must be unceasing, from the nature of the act.
Prayer is intercourse with God, and God is the being in whom the creature lives and moves. To stop praying, therefore, is to break the connection that is established between the feeble and dependent worm of the dust, and the almighty One. We perceive immediately that a man must breathe without ceasing because by the function of breathing his lungs, and thereby his whole physical system, are kept in right relation and connection with the atmosphere. His body lives, moves, and has its being, in atmospheric air, and therefore the instant the process of inspiration and expiration is stopped, it is cut off from the source of physical vitality and dies. For this reason, if a man breathes at all, he must breathe all the while. From the very nature of breath, we infer the necessity of constant breathing.
We are too apt to forget that such comparisons as these, instead of losing their force when applied to religious and spiritual subjects, are truer than ever. When I say to you, that a man’s body lives, moves, and has its existence in atmospheric air, and that it must swim in it as a fish swims in the sea, in order to live and breathe, you take me literally. You believe and are certain, that continual communication must be kept up between the human lungs and the outward air, in order to human life. But when the apostle Paul tells you, as he did the philosophers of Athens, that the human soul lives, moves, and has its being in God, why are you, and why are all men so much inclined to take him figuratively, and to put such an interpretation upon the language as shears it of its full and literal force?
It is as strictly true that the religious being and the eternal wants of the soul depend upon communication with God, and will suffer and die without it, as that the physical nature and needs of the body depend upon communication with the vital air, and will suffocate without it. Each statement is literally true within its own sphere, and with reference to the specific things to which it refers.
But it may be objected that if such is the fact, why is it that mankind do not invariably and constantly suffer distress, when this communion with God ceases to take place?
Why are not prayerless men in unceasing anguish of mind? If the human body is removed from the free open air of heaven, and shut up in the Black Hole of Calcutta, the report comes instantaneously from the entire physical organization, that the established relationship between the fleshly nature and the material world has been interfered with. The lungs begin to heave and pant, the perspiration oozes out of every pore, the face is flushed with crimson, and the eyes glare and stare in their sockets. But the human soul exists from day to day without intercourse with its Creator, and yet we perceive no indications of mental distress.
The worldling puts up no prayer, and is out of all communication with God; but we do not see in his mental experience any signs or tokens of spiritual agony, corresponding to those which we have mentioned in the instance of physical suffocation. This worldling, in the Scripture phrase, is “without God in the world,” and yet for aught that appears he is enjoying existence, and would be willing to live on in this style indefinitely. Ask this carnally minded man, if he would take a lease of prayerless, godless life for one hundred years, and he answers, Yea. How does this tally with the doctrine that the human soul needs intercourse with God, with as pressing and indispensable a necessity as the lungs need air?
To this we reply, that as man is composed of two natures, so he is capable of living two lives.
By his body he is connected with earth and time; by his soul he is connected with God and eternity. He is capable, therefore, and it is his original destination, to be associated with both of these worlds at one and the same time, in a just and proper manner, cherishing a pure, and temperate, and happy life in the body, and a holy and blessed life in the soul. This would have been his condition had he not apostatized; and in this case his double and complex being would have been thoroughly alive, in all its parts. There would have been no death of any kind in him, and no death could have assailed him.
But for the very reason that he possesses two natures, and can live two lives, it is possible for him to gratify the desires of only one nature, and to lead only one life, here upon earth. It is possible in this state of existence, for the flesh to live on and enjoy itself, while the spirit is dead in trespasses in sins. It is possible for three-score years and ten, for a man to put himself in absorbing communion with earth and time, and to cut himself loose from all intercourse with God and heaven, and yet not be in mental distress, for the reason that the lower nature is living on and enjoying itself. One life temporarily takes the place of the other, and thus it is that a human creature, here upon earth, can pamper his body while he starves his soul; can live in worldly pleasure, while the nobler part of him is out of all connection with its appropriate objects.
There is a class of animals that are amphibious. They are capable of living both in the sea and upon the land. They are related by their physical structure both to the air and the water. If therefore the beaver, for example, is for a season debarred from the river, he can exist upon the shore; or if he is temporarily driven from the shore, he can live in the river. These amphibious creatures can dispense with communication with one of the worlds with which they are constitutionally connected, because they have communication with the other one. So is it with man here in time. If he can absorb his lower nature in the objects and pursuits of sense, he is able to dispense with intercourse between God and his higher nature, without distress. If the amphibious animal can breathe upon the land, he need not gasp and pant upon the land, like the fish when taken from his native element.
But while this is so, it is nonetheless true, that the soul of man is the principal part of him, and that therefore he cannot permanently escape distress, if out of communication with God and heaven.
This halfway life, of which we have spoken, is not possible in eternity. No man can live happily in sense and sin forever and ever. These amphibious animals, to which we have alluded, cannot dwell year after year in only one element. This halfway life of theirs is possible only for a short time. The whale can exist for a while in the unfathomed depths to which the harpoon has driven him, but he must sooner or later come to the surface to blow. The beaver cannot, like the fish, remain permanently in the watery element to which he has fled from his pursuer. Each nature asserts its rights ultimately, and if its wants are not met ultimately, suffocation and agony are the consequence.
And so it is with man’s double nature, and the two worlds to which they are related. For a few short years, man can live a halfway life without great inconvenience or distress. For three-score years and ten, he can restrain prayer and stifle the soul, and not feel misery, because the body is thriving and happy. But he cannot live in this way in only one of his natures, and that the lowest and meanest, forever and ever. He must at some time or other come to the surface for breath. The wants of the immortal spirit must ultimately make themselves felt, and no gratification of the bodily desires can then be a substitute.
It is in this manner, that we prove that the soul of man needs God in the same organic, and constitutional way, that his body needs air.
It will not do to judge of the primitive and everlasting necessities of a rational being, by looking at his pleasures and pains in this brief and transitory mode of existence. We must take him into eternity, in order to know whether he can suffocate his soul and be happy, while he gives only his body light and air. We must look at him beyond the tomb if we would know whether he can be blessed while he is alive to sin, and dead to righteousness. We must remove him altogether from the earth, to see whether he can live in only one of his natures and that the lowest of them.
Returning now to the subject of prayer,
We see, after this brief discussion of the true relation that exists between the soul of man and the Everlasting God, that prayer is its vital breath, and that therefore it must be unceasing from its very nature. We cannot appeal to the experience of a prayerless person upon the point, because he has none; but we appeal confidently to the consciousness of a Christian, and ask him whether a complete and final cessation of prayer, in his own case, would not work the same disastrous consequences in his mental condition, that the stoppage of breath would in his physical.
Suppose that a cloud should overshadow you, and a voice should come out of the cloud, saying: “Pray no more; the ear of God is heavy and cannot hear;” suppose, in other words, that that calming, sustaining, strengthening, and comforting intercourse which your spirit has been permitted to enjoy with God, in the time that is past, were absolutely foreclosed and shut off. Would not your soul begin to gasp and struggle, precisely as your body does when the atmospheric air is expelled, or vitiated by a deadly gas? Blessed be the mercy of God, we have never been put to the trial, and therefore can only conjecture what our mental distress would be, if we were absolutely precluded from prayer and supplication.
What a sinking sensation would fill the heart of a mourning believer, if, at the very moment when death had come into his household, and cut down a life to save which he would gladly have given up his own, he should find it impossible to pray; if he should discover that the heavens above him were brass, and the earth beneath him was iron, and that no cry from his wailing, sorrowing spirit could ever pierce the heavens again.
What an agony would swell the soul of a convicted sinner, if, at the very instant when the moral law was coming in upon him, and the convictions of guilt and the fears of judgment were rising and surging within him like waves lashed by the storm, he could not cry out: “God be merciful to me a sinner,” because there was no longer any intercourse between the creature and the Creator.
Man has become so accustomed to this blessing and privilege, that he does not know the full meaning and richness of it. Like other gifts of God, nothing but the complete and absolute deprivation of it would enable him to apprehend the infinity of the good which is granted to a feeble, helpless creature, in permitting him to enjoy the society and intercourse of the great and glorious Creator.
A second and further proof that prayer is unceasing in its nature is found in the fact, that God is continually the hearer of prayer.
An incessant appeal supposes an incessant reply. God does not hear his people today, and turn a deaf ear to them tomorrow. He who prays to God without ceasing finds that God hears without ceasing. Such is the declaration of God himself, upon this point. When Solomon had erected the temple, and had dedicated it as a house of prayer, the Most High, so to speak, localized Himself in it, and promised to give continual audience to all sincere worshippers and suppliants there. “The Lord appeared to Solomon by night, and said unto him, I have chosen this place to myself for a house of sacrifice. Now mine eyes shall be open, and mine ears attend unto the prayer that is made in this place. For now have I chosen and sanctified this house, that my name may be there forever; and mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually.” (2 Chron. 8:12–16.) Had there been from that time to this an unceasing volume of sincere supplication ascending unto God within that temple, there would have been an unceasing audience upon the part of God within that temple from that time to this.
Jehovah is faithful to his promise, and had the Jewish nation been faithful to the covenant which God made with Abraham; had they continued to observe the statutes and commandments of the Lord, and to worship in his temple in the beauty of holiness down to the present time; they would in that very temple, down to this very moment, have found that God is immutably the hearer of prayer. There is not, now, one stone left upon another, of that magnificent structure which Solomon built for the honor of Jehovah, and the Jewish nation are scattered to the four winds of heaven; but this does not disprove the Divine faithfulness in the least.
If there is no prayer, there can of course be no answer to prayer. If the creature ceases to pray, God of necessity ceases to hear. If the worshipper ceases to go into the temple, God, of course, goes out of it. But so long as the Jew, or the Gentile, pours out his soul in supplication, he will find that God is the constant hearer of supplication, and that he changeth not. And had that chosen and highly favored people continued to pray like Moses, and Samuel, and David, and Nehemiah; had they remained true to the teachings of the Law and the Prophets; had they known the day of their visitation from the Most High, when the promised Messiah, the Incarnate God, came down among them; had they welcomed the Redeemer, and found in the gospel of the New Testament only the blossom and bright consummate flower of the religion of their fathers; their temple would be still standing, and prayer would still be offered in it as of old.
They would have been preserved a chosen generation and a royal priesthood, down to the present time. Jehovah himself would have kept them as the apple of the eye, amidst all the mutations and downfall of empires. The stars in their courses would have fought for them. Persia, Macedon, Rome, and all other kingdoms, might have gone to ruin, but Israel would have stood, to show that the Lord is upright, that he is a rock, and that there is no unfaithfulness in him.
It is this truth that enables us to interpret rightly those positive and unqualified declarations in the Old Testament, concerning the everlasting continuance of the Jewish Church and State. Consider the following, which is a part of the message that Nathan the prophet was commissioned to deliver to David the King: “Thus shalt thou say unto my servant David, thus saith the Lord of Hosts, I took thee from the sheepcote, even from following the sheep, that thou shouldest be ruler over my people Israel; and I have been with thee whithersoever thou hast walked, and have cut off all thine enemies from before thee, and have made thee a name like the name of the great men that are in the earth. Also I will ordain a place for my people Israel, and will plant them, and they shall dwell in their place, and shall be moved no more: neither shall the children of wickedness waste them anymore as at the beginning. And it shall come to pass when thy day shall be expired, that thou must go to be with thy fathers, that I will raise up thy seed after thee which shall be of thy sons; and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build me an house, and I will establish his throne forever. I will settle him in mine house, and in my kingdom forever: and his throne shall be established forevermore.” (1 Chron. 17:7–14.)
The primary reference in all this is to the spiritual kingdom of the Messiah, who was to be born in the line of David and Solomon, and the prophecy in this particular is in the process of fulfillment, and will be fulfilled. But there is also a secondary promise of a temporal kingdom, and a continuance of the Jewish people in power and honor to the end of time. And had they been faithful to the covenant with their fathers, every jot and tittle of this positive and unqualified promise of perpetual earthly prosperity would have been performed.
The spirit of prayer, had it inspired the heart of the Hebrew nation down to the present time, as it inspired Moses, Samuel, Daniel, and Nehemiah, would have met with a continual answer from Him who sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and who has revealed Himself as the hearer of prayer.
That answer would have related to the temporal as well as the eternal welfare of the covenant-keeping people—for godliness has the promise of the life that now is, as well as of the life that is to come—and whatever changes might have occurred in other nations of the earth, Israel would have remained a standing monument of the Divine power and faithfulness, and Jerusalem would still have been the city of the Great King. Nay, in this case, the whole history of the world would have been altered. Jerusalem upon earth, like the Jerusalem which is above, would then have been the “mother of us all.” The worship of the true God, and of Jesus Christ his Son, would have overcome the idolatry of the secular monarchies and emperors, and the world would have been evangelized many centuries since.
And what is true of a people is true of an individual.
The believer who prays without ceasing finds that God hears without ceasing. In his own experience, he discovers that the Divine ear is constantly attending to the voice of his supplication. The faintest desire meets a response. The Being with whom he seeks intercourse stands perpetually waiting. The immutability of God is demonstrated to him in the fact, that go whenever he will to the throne of grace he finds a listening ear, and an outstretched hand. “The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger; but they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing. The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry.”
God as the Creator has established such a relation between the body of man and the vital air, that there must be a continual supply of air; and therefore he has encompassed him with a whole atmosphere which is surrounding him upon all sides, and pressing upon him at every point. The instant he inhales with his lungs, he finds the invigorating element ready for him. And God as the Saviour has established such a relation between the renewed soul and himself, that there must be an unceasing intercommunion; and therefore, in the gospel of his Son, he proffers himself to his redeemed creature, and whenever the heart pants out its desire, it finds its ever-present supply. The unceasing prayer is met by the unceasing answer.
II. We pass now, in the second place, to inquire into the feasibility of unceasing prayer.
How is a man to pray without ceasing? Before proceeding to the immediate answer to this inquiry, it is obvious to remark, that the fact that prayer is the only mode by which the creature here upon earth can hold intercourse with his Maker, goes to prove that such an intercourse must be practicable. It must be a possible thing for man to enter into communication with God. It cannot be, that the great and wise Creator has called a finite and dependent creature into existence, and cut him off from all access to Himself. So far as God is concerned; so far as the original arrangements in and by creation are concerned; it must not only be possible, but a duty for the human soul not only to converse with God, but to hold an uninterrupted converse with him. We can no more suppose that our Creator would have made a rational and immortal spirit in his own image and likeness, without any power and privilege of communing with his Maker, than that he would have created a pair of lungs without any atmosphere in which they could expand.
One of the most profound and spiritual divines, of one of the most thoughtful and spiritual periods in the history of the Church—we mean John Howe—has written at length upon what he denominates the “conversableness” of God; namely, those characteristics in the Deity that incline him to hear prayer, to listen to praise and adoration, and to receive from the whole rational universe the homage which is due to his infinite and glorious nature and name. He shows conclusively that the Creator, from his very constitutional qualities, delights to put himself in communication with his rational creation; that he does not shut himself up in the isolation of his trinity, and his eternity, and enjoy his own absolute self-sufficiency, but overflows, with the fulness of his being, into the craving and recipient natures of angels and men. This he does, not because he is dependent upon his creatures for his own enjoyment, but simply that he may make them holy and happy.
St. Paul taught this to the philosophers of Athens. “God that made the world, and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things. And hath made of our blood all nations of the earth, for to dwell on all the face of the earth; and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him and find him, though he be not far from any one of us: for in him we live, and move, and have our being.” (Acts 17:24–28.)
This “conversableness;” this benevolent and condescending willingness to hold intercourse with a race of finite creatures who cannot by any possibility do anything to benefit God, and add either to his happiness or his power, and who cannot by any possibility make themselves profitable to the Most High; this spontaneous and generous readiness to give to the creature everything beneficial, and receive from the creature nothing that is beneficial in return, is shown by this most excellent thinker to be the very nature and character of the Infinite and Eternal Godhead.
This being so, it follows of course, that so far as God is concerned, and so far as all his arrangements in the original constitution and character of man are concerned, prayer is not only feasible, but feasible in the highest degree. If the intercourse is broken off, it cannot be by any action upon the part of God. If man finds it difficult or impossible to pray, and to pray without ceasing, it must be owing to some change that has taken place in his own nature and inclination. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is just as conversable, just as friendly, and just as ready to give out everything while he receives nothing in recompense, as he ever was. It is apostasy and sin, alone, that have stopped the intercourse between man and his Maker; and apostasy and sin are man’s work and agency.
1. Taking up, then, the question, How is a man to pray without ceasing?
It is obvious, in the first place, that he must have an inclination to pray. Constant supplication implies a habit of the mind and heart, and this implies a steady disposition to hold intercourse with God. We do not suppose it to be possible to perform any act, and especially any religious act, continually and unceasingly, by the mere exercise of volitions without any inclination. A man does not follow even an earthly calling, day after day, and without interruption through his whole life, unless his heart is in the work. How long, think you, would the merchant continue to prosecute a line of business which he utterly disliked, and to which he must force himself by a violent resolution every time that he engaged in it? Nothing is done in this world for any great length of time, that is not done spontaneously, easily, and from a settled inclination.
The distinction between a man’s volitions and his inclination is very great and important, and many errors both in the theory and practice of religion arise from overlooking it. They differ from each other, as the stream differs from the fountain; as the rays of the sun differ from the solid orb itself; as the branches differ from the root of the tree. A man’s volitions, or resolutions, spring out of his disposition, or inclination, and in the long run do not go counter to it. The stream cannot be sweet, if the fountain be bitter; and a man’s resolutions cannot be holy, if his heart or inclination is sinful. The stream cannot change the character of the source from which it flows, and neither can a man’s volitions alter the natural disposition from which they all issue, and of which they are the executive and index.
Our Lord directs attention to the difference between an inclination and a volition, when he says: “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, thefts, and such like; a good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good, and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil.” Here he represents the particular act of murder or theft, which is performed by a particular resolution or decision of the man’s will, as issuing out of a deep central disposition of his will lying back of it. If there be no murderous inclination, then no single act of murder can be committed. So long as there is nothing but a “good treasure of the heart,” full of love to God and man, no single wrong act can be done; and so long as there is nothing but an “evil treasure of the heart,” full of selfishness, and enmity towards God and man, no single right act can be performed. “A good tree,” says our Lord, “cannot bring forth evil fruit; neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.”
The inclination determines all the particular volitions and choices; and hence Christ teaches his disciples, and all mankind, that the change from sin to holiness must begin at the center and source of all individual transgressions—must begin, not by making a resolution, but by receiving a new inclination from God the Spirit. “Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt.” As if he had said: “It is vain and futile to attempt to produce a moral change, by altering the volitions of the will; the inclination of the will, out which these all spring and by which they are all determined, must be entirely converted and reversed.”
And among the many reasons that might be assigned for this, is the fact that there can be no steady and unceasing action in religion, unless there be an inclination. And here we are brought back again to our subject, and see the bearings upon it of this brief discussion of the difference between an inclination and a volition. We are asking how a man can pray without ceasing. We desire to know, in what method he can keep up a continual intercourse with God. It is plain that if there is no foundation for it in the tendency of his mind, and the disposition of his heart, such an incessant prayerfulness as we have been speaking of—a praying that is as uniform and unbroken as breathing itself—cannot be maintained.
Suppose an entire destitution of the inclination to draw near to God, and then ask yourself the question: “Can I pray without ceasing, by lashing myself up to the unwelcome service; by sternly forcing my will up to the disagreeable work, by dint of resolutions and volitions?” Even supposing that the prayer, so far as its quality is concerned, could be made acceptable upon this method; even supposing that God would listen to a prayer in which there was no spontaneous inclining of the heart and affections; could the prayer become an unceasing one by this method? Would not the man grow inexpressibly weary, and soon end the useless effort?
We lay it down, therefore, with all confidence, that nothing but a praying disposition of the heart can enable anyone to obey the apostle’s injunction to pray without ceasing. And if this does exist, supplication will be constant and uniform. If it is true that an evil tree cannot bring forth good fruit, it is equally true that a good tree cannot but bring forth good fruit. Can you prevent a living, thriving tree from putting forth its buds and blossoms in the spring? You may employ all the mechanical appliances within the reach of human power, and in spite of them all the sap will rise in the tubes, and run out to the rim of every leaf, and the bud will swell, and the blossom will put forth, and the fruit will mature, because it is the nature of a good tree so to do. And this process will be repeated year after year; the tree will bud, blossom, and fructuate “without ceasing;” because there is a foundation laid for all this in the root and heart of the tree.
In like manner, if the human soul craves intercourse with God; if it is inclined and drawn towards him as its best friend, its support at all times, and its eternal portion; no power in heaven or earth can prevent it from approaching nigh to him. Nothing can separate between a praying heart, and the Hearer of prayer. Neither death, nor life, nor principalities, nor powers; neither height, nor depth, nor things present, nor things to come; are able to preclude and shut off the intercourse between such a soul and its Maker. This has been the strength and joy of God’s people in all time. They have been shut up in dungeons, like Paul and Silas at Philippi; but they have found God nearer than ever to them. They have been plunged into earthly trial and sorrow; but this only caused them to take yet greater delight in prayer. They have drawn near to death, and have gone down to the grave; but the ear of their Maker and Redeemer was open and sensitive to their cry. And therefore the people of God pray on, pray ever, and pray without ceasing.
2. But this inclination to prayer may be strengthened by cultivation, and the use of means; and it is to this second part of the answer to the question that we direct attention.
It is of great importance to understand the appointed connection between an implanted principle in the heart, and the use of means, and to act accordingly. Because religion is the product of the Holy Spirit within our souls, and consists in a new inclination or disposition, it does not follow that we may neglect those instrumentalities that are adapted to strengthen and develop it. It is indeed true that no human power can originate the principle of spiritual life in the natural man, but after it has been originated by the Spirit of God, it can be cherished and nourished by human faculties aided by divine grace.
The flower that hangs in the sunlight in your window contains a mysterious principle of vegetable life which you could no more originate, or call into being, than you could create the planet Saturn. But having been originated by the Maker of all things, you can then supply it with the earth and moisture which its roots require, with the light and heat which its leaves drink in, and can protect it from the frost and the insect, and make it a thing of beauty and of joy in your dwelling. Should this ministry of yours be withdrawn; should you cease to apply to the mysterious germ and principle of vegetable life which dwells in the rose or camellia the appropriate nutriment, it would wane away and finally die out. It would indeed continue for a little while to show its wonderful vitality, by endeavoring to endure the drought, or the sterility, or the darkness, which your neglect had thrust upon it. But there would be a limit to its power of endurance, and that beautiful life which neither you nor the highest angel could summon into being would eventually be quenched in death, by your carelessness.
Precisely so is it with the life of God in the soul of man. The new heart, the obedient disposition, the heavenly affection, the praying inclination—all that is included in that principle of spiritual vitality which is originated in the regeneration—will wane away, without the use of the appointed means of growth in grace. And if we should suppose a final and total cessation of Christian culture in a given instance; if we could suppose as an actual fact that a renewed person forever ceases to pray, forever ceases to meditate upon the truth of God, forever ceases to discharge any of the duties of a Christian profession; then we might suppose a final and total cessation of the Christian life within him.
All this applies with force to our subject. The foundation for intercourse with God, which has been laid in regeneration, must be built upon. The disposition to draw nigh to God, which has been wrought in the believer’s heart, must be strengthened by cultivation and the use of means.
We briefly notice two of them.
In the first place, the Christian deepens and strengthens his inclination to pray, by regularity in the practice of prayer. The Psalmist says: “As for me I will call upon God; evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud.” When Darius the king had made it a capital offense to offer any petition to any god or man save himself, Daniel “went into his house, and his windows being open in his chamber toward Jerusalem, he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as he did afore time.” These holy men observed stated times and seasons of prayer. Man is a creature of habit and routine, and therefore whatever he leaves to the chances of time, place, and opportunity, is very certain to be either ill-performed or neglected altogether. He who has no particular time for winding up his watch will find it very often run down. The man of business who should select no particular hours for his transactions, but should attempt to conduct them at any time in the day or the night, would discover that the world does not agree with him.
It is here, that we perceive the fallacy of those who would abolish the Sabbath as a day of special religious worship, upon the specious plea that every day ought to be a Sabbath, because the whole of human life should be consecrated to God. What would be thought of a banking institution that should adopt this theory; that should announce to the public, that inasmuch as it was their desire to accumulate wealth unceasingly, at one time as much as at another, therefore they should set no particular time for banking, but leave the transaction of business to their own convenience, and that of their customers?
In the secular world, he will accomplish the most who does not allow his affairs to drag their slow length along through all the hours of the day, subject to accident and caprice, but concentrates them in definite portions of time. And in the religious world, he will make swiftest progress in the divine life who observes times and seasons; upon the principle of the wise man, that there is a time for everything—a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time for religious duties, and a time for secularities. That man, therefore, will be most likely to make every day a holy day, who makes every seventh day a Sabbath day, as he is commanded to do. And that Christian will be most likely to pray without ceasing, and to breathe through his whole daily walk and conversation the blessed and elevated spirit of heaven, who at certain particular times, like David and Daniel, enters his closet and shuts the door, and prays to his Father who seeth in secret.
Intimately connected with this, in the second place, is the practice of ejaculatory prayer. This also tends to deepen and strengthen the believer’s inclination to draw nigh to God. Prayer does not depend so much upon its length, as its intensity and importunity; and hence a few moments of real absorbing address to God, in the midst of worldly avocations, and particularly in the midst of sharp temptations, will accomplish wonders in the way of arming the Christian with spiritual power.
Sometimes in a single moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the eye of the believer catches the eye of his Saviour, and glances are exchanged, and the Divine grace flows down in a rill into his heart. It is this direct vision of God, and this direct instantaneous appeal to him, which renders the brief broken ejaculations of the martyr so supporting, and so triumphant over flesh and blood, over malice and torture. There is a power in prayer that is beyond any other power. Reading and meditation are invaluable in their own time and place, but they cannot be a substitute for supplication. The martyr might reflect never so profoundly, and long, upon the omnipotence and wisdom of God, and still be unable to endure the flame and the rack. But the single prayer: “Lord Jesus receive my spirit,” lifts him high above the region of agony, and irradiates his countenance with the light of angelic faces.
The church of the present day, and particularly those churches in whose membership the reserved English nature prevails, are shorn of much power by an undue suppression of their religious feeling. “My lips shall utter praise; my lips shall greatly rejoice when I sing unto thee; O Lord open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.” Such is the determination, and such the desire of the Psalmist. How frequently does he call upon his tongue, which he denominates the “glory” of his frame, to awake and give utterance to prayer and praise. “Awake up, my glory; awake psaltery and harp.” In this, the Psalmist has been followed by the great and devout men who have been called, in the providence of God, to “stand in the gap, and fill up the hedge,” in times of great moment to the church.
Martin Luther was noted for the urgency and frequency of his prayers, and particularly of his ejaculatory petitions. So easy and natural, nay, so irrepressible was it for him to cry out to God, that even in company with friends, and in the midst of social intercourse, he would break forth into ejaculations. This was often the case in times of trouble to the cause of the Reformation. God was then constantly present to his anxious and strongly exercised soul, and he pleaded with him as a man pleads with his friend.
And this power is within the reach of every believer. In the house and by the way, in the crowd or in solitude, the Christian may whisper in the ear of the Almighty. How marvelous it is that at any instant, and though surrounded by hundreds of his fellow creatures, a child of God may carry on the most private and secret transaction with his Father who seeth in secret. Standing in the marketplace, and hearing the busy hum of men all around him, the Christian can nevertheless hold communication with that Being who is sovereign over all, and take hold of that hand which moves the world. What a privilege is this, did we prize it and use it as we ought. We are not compelled to go to some central point, some Jerusalem or Mecca, to hold intercourse with heaven. “The hour cometh, and now is,” says our Lord, “when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. The hour cometh, and now is when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth. God is a Spirit.” In any section of space, and at any point of time, the ejaculation of the soul may reach the Eternal Mind, and be rewarded by the Hearer of prayer.
This discussion strongly urges upon the Christian, the sedulous cultivation of the spirit of prayer. If he be indeed a Christian, a renewed man, he has already received this spirit. It is not to be originated; but it is to be nurtured and developed. Culture is the great work before a generate person. That holy thing which has been wrought within his heart by the renewing grace of God is now made over to him, to take care of and cherish by God’s assisting grace.
Cultivate therefore the spirit of prayer and supplication, by uniformity and regularity in private devotions, and by frequent ejaculations to God. Do not be afraid of system and particularity, in this matter of learning to pray. There is little danger of undue formality, in our free Protestant methods. The whole Protestant world might learn something from the Papist, and even from the Mohammedan, in respect to the faithful observance of set times and seasons of prayer. More of conscientious attention to the offices of private and public devotion, in our churches, would beyond all question deepen and strengthen their piety. And were the closet more regularly entered, the habit of ejaculatory prayer more common, the private worship in the family and the public worship in the sanctuary more uniformly rendered, the spirit of supplication, and the inclination to pray, would be developed in a manner that would surprise and bless the impenitent world.
After the death of that remarkable English writer, Sir Thomas Browne, the following resolutions were found in one of his common-place books; and we here cite them, as a specimen of the piety of that seventeenth century which has left the world such a rich legacy of profound and devout literature, and as an example for a Christian man in all time. This thoughtful and God-fearing person resolves:
“To be sure that no day pass, without calling upon God in a solemn prayer, seven times within the compass thereof; that is, in the morning, and at night, and five times between; taken up long ago from the example of David and Daniel, and a compunction and shame that I had omitted it so long, when I heedfully read of the custom of the Mahometans to pray five times in the day. To pray and magnify God in the night, and my dark bed, when I could not sleep: to have short ejaculations whenever I awoke. To pray in all places where privacy inviteth; in any house, highway or street; and to know no street or passage in this city which may not witness that I have not forgot God and my Saviour in it; and that no parish or town where I have been may not say the like. To pray daily and particularly for sick patients, and in general for others, wheresoever, howsoever, and under whose care soever; and at the entrance into the house of the sick, to say, The peace and mercy of God be in this place. After a sermon, to make a thanksgiving, and desire a blessing, and to pray for the minister. In tempestuous weather, lightning, and thunder, either night or day, to pray for God’s merciful protection upon all men, and his mercy upon their souls, bodies, and goods. Upon sight of beautiful persons, to bless God in his creatures, to pray for the beauty of their souls, and to enrich them with inward graces, to be answerable unto the outward. Upon sight of deformed persons, to send them inward graces, and enrich their souls, and give them the beauty of the resurrection.”
Such unceasing supplication as this must result in great spirituality. The growth of a Christian is in nothing more apparent, than in the tone of his prayers. An increasing humility, earnestness, comprehensiveness, conciseness, and heavenly glow in the devotions of a believer, are a sure sign that he is drawing nearer to glory, honor, and immortality—that he is rapidly preparing for a world where every spiritual want will be fully supplied, and where consequently prayer will pass into praise. Therefore, “pray without ceasing,” that you may hereafter worship and adore without ceasing.
William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man