Prayer

by
Charles Hodge

from
Systematic Theology, III:700-709

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The Object of Prayer.

As prayer involves the ascription of divine attributes to its object, it can be properly addressed to God alone. The heathen prayed to imaginary beings, or to idols, who had eyes that saw not, and hands that could not save. Equally unscriptural and irrational are prayers addressed to any creature of whose presence we have no knowledge, and of whose ability either to hear or answer our petitions we have no evidence.

In the Old Testament, the prayers therein recorded are uniformly addressed to God, as such; to the one Divine Being, because the distinction of the persons in the Godhead was then but imperfectly revealed. In the New Testament, prayer is addressed either to God, as the Triune God, or to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as distinct persons. In the Christian doxology, used wherever the Bible is known, the several persons of the Trinity are separately addressed. The examples of prayer addressed to Christ, recorded in the New Testament, are very numerous. As prayer, in the Scriptural sense of the term, includes all converse with God either in the form of praise, thanksgiving, confession, or petition, all the ascriptions of glory to Him, as well as all direct supplications addressed to Him, come under this head. The Apostles prayed to Him while He was yet with them on earth, asking of Him blessings which God only could bestow, as when they said, "Lord, increase our faith." The dying thief, taught by the Spirit of God, said, "Lord, remember me, when thou comest into thy kingdom." The last words of the first martyr, Stephen, were, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Paul besought the Lord thrice that the thorn in his flesh might depart from him. So in 1 Timothy 1:12, he says, "I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry." In Revelation 1:5, 6, it is said, "Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever, Amen." Revelation 5:13, "Every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, 'Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, forever and ever.'" As the Bible so clearly teaches that Christ is God manifest in the flesh; that all power in heaven and earth is committed to his hands; that He is exalted to give repentance and the remission of sins; as He gives the Holy Ghost; and as He is said to dwell in us, and to be our life; it does thereby teach us that He is the proper object of prayer. Accordingly, as all Christians are the worshippers of Christ, so He has ever been the object of their adoration, thanksgivings, praises, confessions, and supplications.


Requisites of Acceptable Prayer.

1. The first and most obviously necessary requisite of acceptable prayer is sincerity. God is a Spirit. He searches the heart. He is not satisfied with words, or with external homage. He cannot be deceived and will not be mocked. It is a great offence, therefore, in his sight, when we utter words before Him in which our hearts do not join. We sin against Him when we use terms, in the utterance of which the angels veil their faces, with no corresponding feelings of reverence; or use the formulas of thanksgiving without gratitude; or those of humility and confession without any due sense of our unworthiness; or those of petition without desire for the blessings we ask. Everyone must acknowledge that this is an evil often attending the prayers of sincere Christians; and with regard to the multitudes who, in places of public worship, repeat the solemn forms of devotion or profess to unite with those who utter them, without any corresponding emotions, the service is little more than mockery.

2. Reverence. God is an infinitely exalted Being; infinite in his holiness as well as in knowledge and power. He is to be had in reverence by all who are round about Him. This holy fear is declared to be the first element of all true religion. His people are designated as those who fear his name. We are required to serve Him with reverence and godly fear. And whenever heaven is opened to our view, its inhabitants are seen prostrate before the throne. We offend God, therefore, when we address Him as we would a fellow creature, or use forms of expression of undue familiarity. Nothing is more characteristic of the prayers recorded in the Bible than the spirit of reverence by which they are pervaded. The Psalms especially may be regarded as a prayer-book. Every Psalm is a prayer, whether of worship, of thanksgiving, of confession, or of supplication. In many cases all these elements are intermingled. They relate to all circumstances in the inward and outward life of those by whom they were indited [written]. They recognize the control of God over all events, and over the hearts of men. They assume that He is ever near and ever watchful, sustaining to his people the relation of a loving Father. But with all this, there is never any forgetfulness of his infinite majesty. There is a tendency sometimes in the best of men, to address God as though He were one of ourselves. Luther's familiar formula was, Lieber Herr, or Lieber Herr Gott (dear Lord, dear Lord God). As Lieber Herr is the usual mode of address among friends (equivalent to our Dear Sir), it sounds strangely when God is thus addressed. In Luther it was the expression of faith and love; in many who imitate him it is the manifestation of an irreverent spirit.

3. Humility. This includes, first, a due sense of our insignificance as creatures; and secondly, a proper apprehension of our ill-desert and uncleanness in the sight of God as sinners. It is the opposite of self-righteousness, of self-complacency and self-confidence. It is the spirit manifested by Job, when he placed his hand upon his mouth, and his mouth in the dust, and said, I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes; by Isaiah when he said, Woe is me! because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; and by the publican, who was afraid to lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, and said, God be merciful to me a sinner. Such language is often regarded as exaggerated or hypocritical. It is, however, appropriate. It expresses the state of mind which cannot fail to be produced by a proper apprehension of our character as sinners, in the sight of a just and holy God. Indeed there is no language which can give adequate expression to that rational sense of sin which the people of God often experience.

4. Importunity. This is so important that on three different occasions our Lord impressed its necessity upon his disciples. This was one evident design of the history of the Syrophenician woman, who could not be prevented from crying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David." (Matt. 15:22.) Thus also in the parable of the unjust judge, who said, "Because this widow troubles me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto Him, though He bear long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily." (Luke 18:5-8.) Again in Luke 11:5-8, we read of the man who refused to give his friend bread, of whom Christ said, "Though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needs." God deals with us as a wise benefactor. He requires that we should appreciate the value of the blessings for which we ask, and that we should manifest a proper earnestness of desire. If a man begs for his own life or for the life of one dear to him, there is no repressing his importunity. He will not be refused. If the life of the body is to be thus earnestly sought, can we expect that the life of the soul will be granted to those who do not seek it with importunate earnestness?

5. Submission. Every man who duly appreciates his relation to God will, no matter what his request, be disposed to say, "Lord, not my will but thine be done." Even a child feels the propriety of subjecting his will in all his requests to his earthly father. How much more should we submit to the will of our Father in heaven. He alone knows what is best; granting our request might, in many cases, be our destruction. Our Lord in the garden of Gethsemane set us an example in this matter that should never be forgotten.

6. Faith. We must believe, (a.) That God is. (b.) That He is able to hear and answer our prayers. (c.) That He is disposed to answer them. (d.) That He certainly will answer them, if consistent with his own wise purposes and with our best good. For this faith we have the most express assurances in the Bible. It is not only said, "Ask, and ye shall receive; seek and ye shall find," but our Lord says explicitly, "Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do." (John 14:13.) And again, "If two of you shall agree on earth, as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven." (Matt. 18:19.) All the promises of God are conditional. The condition, if not expressed, is implied. It cannot be supposed that God has subjected Himself in the government of the world, or in the dispensation of his gifts, to the short-sighted wisdom of men, by promising, without condition, to do whatever they ask. No rational man could wish this to be the case. He would of his own accord supply the condition, which, from the nature of the case and from the Scriptures themselves, must be understood. In 1 John 5:14, the condition elsewhere implied is expressed. "This is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to his will, He hears us." The promise, however, gives the assurance that all prayers offered in faith, for things according to the will of God, will be answered. The answer, indeed, may be given, as in the case of Paul when he prayed to be delivered from the thorn in the flesh, in a way we do not expect. But the answer will be such as we, if duly enlightened, would ourselves desire. More than this we need not wish. Lack of confidence in these precious promises of God; lack of faith in his disposition and readiness to hear us, is one of the greatest and most common defects in the prayers of Christians. Every father desires the confidence of his children and is grieved by any evidence of distrust; and God is our Father; He demands from us the feelings which children ought to have towards their earthly parents.

7. The prayers of Christians must be offered in the name of Christ. Our Lord said to his disciples: "Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive." (John 16:24.) "I have chosen you . . . . that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, He may give it you." (15:16.) "Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do." (14:`13.) By "the name of God" is meant God himself, and God as manifested in his relation to us. Both ideas are usually united. Thus to believe "in the name of the only begotten Son of God" is to believe that Christ is the Son of God, and that as such He is manifested as the only Saviour of men. To act in the name of any one is often to act by his authority, and in the exercise of his power. Thus our Lord speaks of the works which He did "in his Father's name;" that is, by the Father's authority and in the exercise of his efficiency. And of the Apostles it is frequently said that they wrought miracles in the name of Christ, meaning that the miracles were wrought by his authority and power. But when one asks a favour in the name of another, the simple meaning is, for his sake. Regard for the person in whose name the favour is requested is relied on as the ground on which it is to be granted. Therefore, when we are told to pray in the name of Christ, we are required to urge what Christ is and what He has done, as the reason why we should be heard. We are not to trust to our own merits, or our own character, nor even simply to God's mercy; we are to plead the merits and worth of Christ. It is only in Him, in virtue of his mediation and worth, that, according to the Gospel, any blessing is conferred on the apostate children of men.


Different Kinds of Prayer.

As prayer is converse with God, it includes those spiritual exercises, those goings forth of the soul towards God in thought and feeling, which reveal themselves in the forms of reverence, gratitude, sorrow for sin, sense of dependence, and obligation. In this sense, the man who lives and walks with God prays always. He fulfils to the letter the injunction "Pray without ceasing." It is our duty and high privilege to have this constant converse with God. The heart should be like the altar of incense, on which the fire never went out.

It is, however, a law of our nature that we should clothe our thoughts and feelings in words. And therefore, prayer is in one form speech. Even when no audible utterance is given, words as the clothing or expression of inward states are present to the mind. There is power, however, in articulate words. The thought or feeling is more distinct and vivid even to ourselves, when audibly expressed. Prayer, in this sense, is usually distinguished as secret, social, and public. It would be a great mistake if a Christian should act on the assumption that the life of God in his soul could be adequately preserved by that form of prayer which consists in habitual communion with God. The believer needs, in order to maintain his spiritual health and vigour, regular and stated seasons of prayer, as the body needs its daily meals. "When thou prayest," is the direction given by our Lord, "enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father, which sees in secret, shall reward thee openly." (Matt. 6:6.) The Bible presents to us the example of the people of God, and of our blessed Lord himself, as a rule of conduct on this subject. We read that Christ often retired for the purpose of prayer, and not infrequently spent whole nights in that exercise. If the spotless soul of Jesus needed these seasons of converse with God, none of his followers should venture to neglect this important means of grace. Let each day, at least, begin and end with God.


Prayer as a Means of Grace.

Means of grace, as before stated, are those means which God has ordained for the end of communicating the life-giving and sanctifying influences of the Spirit to the souls of men. Such are the word and sacraments, and such is prayer. It has not only the relation which any other cause has to the end for which it was appointed, and thus is the condition on which the blessings of God, providential or spiritual, are bestowed; but it brings us near to God, who is the source of all good. Fellowship with Him, converse with Him, calls into exercise all gracious affections, reverence, love, gratitude, submission, faith, joy, and devotion. When the soul thus draws near to God, God draws near to it, manifests his glory, sheds abroad his love, and imparts that peace which passes all understanding. Our Lord says, "If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him." (John 14:23.) In such fellowship, the soul must be holy and must be blessed.


The Power of Prayer.

The course of human events is not controlled by physical force alone. There are other powers at work in the government of the world. There is the power of ideas, true or false; the power of truth; the power of love and human sympathy; the power of conscience; and above all, the Supreme Power, immanent in the world as well as over it, which is an intelligent, voluntary, personal power, cooperating with and controlling the operations of all creatures, without violating their nature. This Supreme Power is roused into action by prayer, in a way analogous to that in which the energies of a man are called into action by the entreaties of his fellow-men. This is the doctrine of the Bible; it is perfectly consistent with reason, and is confirmed by the whole history of the world, and especially of the Church. Moses by his prayer saved the Israelites from destruction; at the prayer of Samuel the army of the Philistines was dispersed; "Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit." These facts are referred to by the Apostle James, for the purpose of proving that the prayer of a righteous man avails much. Paul constantly begged his Christian brethren to pray for him, and directed that prayer should "be made for all men: for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty." This of course supposes that prayer is a power. Queen Mary of Scotland was not beside herself when she said she feared the prayers of John Knox more than an army. Once admit the doctrine of theism, that is, of the existence of a personal God and of his constant control over all things out of Himself, and all ground for doubt as to the efficacy of prayer is removed, and it remains to us, as it has been to the people of God in all ages, the great source of spiritual joy and strength, of security for the present and confidence for the future. The Forty-sixth Psalm still stands: "The LORD of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge."

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