Perfect Prayer, by Chauncey Giles

from Chauncey Giles Perfect Prayer. How Offered: How Answered  (Philadelphia: Lippincott 1903)

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Perfect Prayer.
How Offered: How Answered

by Chauncey Giles

II. The Nature and Use of Prayer

Ask, and it shall be given you.” — Matthew vii. 7

The subject of prayer deeply concerns the vital interests of every human being. There is embodied in man's nature a tendency to look to the source of his life, which creates a necessity for prayer. If man had retained his original perfection it would be as natural for him to pray as it is to eat when he is hungry, to seek relief when he is in distress, or to communicate his thoughts and affections to those whom he loves. There is a sense in which every creature prays. But how prayer helps us, and in what way the good attained by it comes, remains one of those open secrets about which there is much discussion, and but little generally known.

When the opinion prevailed that the Lord acted in an arbitrary way like an irresponsible sovereign, there was no difficulty in believing that He could be moved by entreaty, and give a direct and immediate answer to any petition that pleased Him. But as men learned that the universe was governed according to immutable law, that all things are related, and that effects are dependent upon their causes, questions began to arise about the efficacy of prayer for special objects.

There are other causes of doubt, also, about the use of prayer. If the Lord is a being of infinite love and desires to confer blessings upon His children, why should He withhold them until He is asked, and even importuned? If He will only give us what seems to Him to be best however fervently we may pray, and will give it whether we ask Him or not, what is the use of praying?

These questions cannot be answered without some knowledge of our relations to the Lord. We must know what asking is. Millions of prayers are spoken in which no good is asked. They are merely the mechanical actions of the memory, repeated from habit without any thought of their meaning.

If we desire a rational answer, we must go beneath appearances, and gain a broad and comprehensive idea of prayer. We must know something of the state of the soul in the act of prayer, and of its attitude towards the Lord. We must have some knowledge of the Lord’s purpose in our creation, and how His purposes and our purposes can be united. We must see how life is received, or repelled. In the measure and degree we can understand our true relations to the Lord we may be able to discover the essential uses of prayer. To get the subject fairly before us, however, it may be necessary to clear away some false ideas which have prevailed with regard to the nature and efficacy of prayer, by considering what they are not.

1. It is not the use of prayer to give the Lord information or to remind Him of His knowledge or promises. He knows our sins, and how vile and false we are. He knows how blind and ignorant and foolish we are better than we do. He knows what hindrances lie in our path to heaven, how poor and miserable and weary and faint-hearted we are. He knows our spiritual condition in all its causes and relations. Our knowledge of ourselves is as nothing compared with His. It is useful to us to confess our sins but not for the purpose of giving the Lord information. We cannot tell Him anything He does not know infinitely better than we do, or ever can.

2. It is not the use of prayer to change His feelings or purpose towards us. If it were possible to do that, it would harm rather than help us. He has only one purpose with regard to every human being, and that is to do him all the good in His power. What the Lord can do for us, however, depends upon our willingness and ability to receive good from Him. If the Lord seems to be hostile to us, it is because we propose to ourselves ends of life which are selfish and worldly, and, therefore, destructive of our highest good. We identify ourselves with those purposes, and think our happiness depends upon our success in effecting them. The Lord opposes them because He knows how harmful they are, and we conclude that He must be hostile to us because He opposes our selfish and worldly desires. But this is a fatal fallacy, which has caused the most unjust and cruel misconceptions of the Lord’s character, and of His attitude towards sinful men. We regard the infinitely perfect and merciful Lord through the perverting medium of our false principles and evil passions, and attribute to Him the distortions caused by them. But “The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works.”

3. It is not a use of prayer to persuade the Lord by our importunities to grant our requests. There is a feeling, if not a clearly defined belief by Christians, that the Lord is somewhat reluctant to bestow blessings upon men; that He regards them with some degree of indifference, and even aversion, and that His indifference can only be overcome, and His ear gained, by the most urgent and importunate entreaties. But this is a mistake. While the Lord regards every human being with infinite and unchanging love, He has none of the weaknesses of natural parents, who yield to the importunities of their children, and grant requests which are hurtful to them. Swedenborg says the Lord does not hear prayer in temptation on account of the end. He means that the Lord does not remove the temptation and save us from the conflict and suffering at our request while we are in it, but permits us to go through it, and sustains us in it, that we may see the evil which causes the conflict, learn its true nature, and voluntarily overcome it. The prayers of the universe could not change the purposes of infinite love, the methods of infinite wisdom, or win a more prompt and favorable regard or tender and helpful service from the Lord than He constantly accords us.

If prayer has no avail in giving information to the Omniscient, if it cannot change the purpose or methods of the Immutable, if it has no power of suasion to win a more favorable regard, and gain more efficient help in time of need from infinite love and wisdom, what is the use of it? What does it effect? Whom does it affect? How are its effects produced? Mere assertions in regard to these questions are of no special value. They may be true, or they may be false. We need some rational knowledge upon the subject; we must regard these questions from some central point of view; we must see them in the light of our relations to the Lord. Let us, therefore, consider, for a moment, what those relations are.

Man is primarily and essentially related to the Lord as a recipient of life to the source of life. He has other relations which are important, but they are secondary. This one is primary. Man is related to the Lord as the stream to the fountain, as the motions of an engine to the force which propels it. This relation is constant. “In Him we live and move and have our being.” We have no inherent, underived power of any kind, spiritual, mental, or physical. All the prevalent theories of man’s relation to the Lord are based on the assumption that man has some powers of his own. They may have been the gift of the Lord to the first man, but they are not constantly given to every man. They are like money or an estate bequeathed by a father to his sons. The act of transfer was a simple one, and when once completed, needed no repetition. The father dispossessed himself and his sons came into absolute ownership and control of the inheritance.
But this is not a true idea of our relations to the Lord. Everything we possess is a constant gift, a constant transfer. It is like the gift of a fountain to a stream. If the fountain withholds its gift, the stream disappears. It is like the gift of the sun to the plant. The plant has no power stored up in itself to grow independently of the action of the sun. If the sun should withhold his light and heat, the growth of every plant would be instantly arrested.

Look at another fact. The quantity of life, or power, or substance of any kind a vessel or an organic form receives, is measured by its capacity. It is impossible to put into any vessel more than it will contain, or a substance which it cannot hold. The effect of a constant cause will vary, therefore, with the nature and capacity of the recipient form, and will always be determined by it. Let me illustrate. Take the atmosphere as one example.

When it flows into the lungs it produces a very different effect from what it does when it flows into the ear, or into the pipe of an organ. The air is a constant cause. It must act every moment or the effect ceases. The effect, also, varies with the recipient form. Take the light as another example. The colors of all objects are caused by the light constantly acting. Put out the light and color is annihilated. The color varies, also, with the quality of the object which reflects it. In all these cases the cause is constant, but the effects are various, and the variety depends upon the recipient vessel.

Let us apply these analogies to man. The Lord is the constant cause. All life, all power to exist, to grow, to feel, think, love, act, comes from the Lord, as light and heat from the sun, by a constant inflowing. But it is variously received, according to the capacity and organic form of the mind, for the mind is an organic form in the same sense that the lungs and the heart are.

As no change in the plant increases or diminishes the heat and light of the sun, as the air remains the same whether the lungs are sound or diseased, whether the pipes of an organ are large or small, few or many, so the Lord remains the same whether men are good or evil, whether they receive life in large or small measures. The use of all means for the improvement of human character, and the increase of human happiness, must, therefore, consist in its effect upon men. If we desire to improve the quality of a plant we do it by better culture, not by changing the quality of the sun; if we desire to get richer harmonies from an organ, we change its pipes and not the air. So we can only remove human imperfections, improve the quality of human character, and gain larger measures of human happiness by acting upon man himself. All changes must be made in the recipients of life, none in the life itself. It is from this central, organic, substantial, and constant relation of man to the Lord that we can discover the use of prayer, and see whom it helps, and how it renders its service. Let us consider the subject from this point of view.

Prayer is asking. Can you not think of any other kind of asking than with the lips? The eye can ask, the face can ask, the hands can ask, the whole body can ask. A dumb man can ask, a dog can ask, even a plant can ask. The postures of the body and vocal utterance only express the real prayer within. Everything that receives asks, and it only receives what it asks, and it does receive what it asks. Every one that asketh receiveth. Asking is not merely making known a want; it is an effort to gain the means of supplying it. But what a man is will determine his prayer and the answer.

Prayer is converse with the Lord. Take the lowest and most external form of it. It is an expression of some thought or affection, if it is not wholly mechanical. In this act we do think of the Lord. We turn, for the moment, at least, to Him. There is some acknowledgment of Him. Is there no use in that? Take the prayer of a little child, for example, who has only the most natural conceptions of the Lord. Is it not of some use to the child to turn its thoughts to a being above itself? Does it not turn its face and set its tender feet in the right direction? Does it not have some effect in making its nature, while it is soft and yielding, pliant to the sweet attractions of the Divine love? The influence may be very slight, it may be no more than a tendency; but it must have some effect, and that effect must be useful. It must tend to place the child in a state to receive more and richer blessings from the Lord.

Is there no relief and no help in expressing our thoughts and affections to others? We go to dear friends and tell them our difficulties, trials, wants, sorrows; not, it may be, with any expectation of getting direct help from them. We unburden our souls. What does that mean,— unburden? It means to cast off our burden. Does it not lighten the weight a little? Even if our friends cannot remove it, we get strength from their sympathy to support it. How many sorrowing souls would have given up in despair, their life crushed out of them, if it had not been for the sympathy and encouragement of friends? If we find such help from converse with our fellow-men, shall we get none from the Lord when we “pour out our souls” to Him?

Here it is important to observe that the use does not consist in giving information, even to our friends, much less to the Lord. The use consists in its effect upon us. It loosens the hold of sorrow upon us; it lifts up the burden and throws it from our shoulders. It brings us into a state in which the Lord in some measure can help us.

All genuine prayer is attended with humiliation. It has a tendency to humble us, and it does it in the degree that we have any true feeling and conception of our condition and needs. As the true light begins to shine into our understandings and hearts, it reveals the darkness which prevails there. It shows our ignorance, our stupidity, our deformities, our enmities, and impurities, and no man or woman can see their own evils and falsities without some degree of shame and humiliation. The more clearly we see them in heavenly light the deeper must be our self-abasement. Our alienation from the Lord, and our spiritual deformities are too great for utterance. We feel more like putting our “hands upon our mouths, and our mouths in the dust.” Instead of justifying ourselves, we cannot lift our eyes to heaven. We can only smite upon our breast and cry, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” We come as prodigals, and our prayer is, “I am no longer worthy to be called thy son, make me as one of thy hired servants.”

This is a state of surrender to the Lord. So far as we come into it, we yield ourselves to His guidance and power. We cease to dictate to Him; we cease to claim anything for ourselves; we give up our wills and understandings to be governed and moulded by the Divine Wisdom. In this denial of our own self-derived intelligence, and surrender of ourselves to the Lord, consists the use of humiliation. The Lord has no desire to see us prostrate and terrified like slaves before Him. On the contrary, He desires to make us sons, and not slaves or hired servants. He desires to have us stand upon our feet and act like free men. Humiliation is the abasement of the natural man; it is putting the sensual desires and passions under our feet; it is the denial of our love of self and the world, and abhorrence of error and sin. So far as we do that we come into a state in which the Lord can help us; we remove the obstacles to the reception of those forces which give us life. Humiliation is really the effect of some true knowledge and love of the Lord; it is due to heavenly principles and powers. They drive out the vile, disorderly, corrupt inhabitants of our mental house, and open the door for the Lord to come in and “sup with us and we with Him.”

Prayer has a tendency to cause this humiliation. It brings us face to face with the Lord on the one hand and our own corrupt natures on the other. We see the contrast, and in the degree we see it we must abhor the evil, we must be humbled at the thought that we have loved and cherished and become the embodiment of principles which are repugnant to everything which is good and true. So prayer tends to bring us into such relations to the Lord that He can forgive our sins, wash us and make us clean, and remove all obstacles to the full possession of our souls.

Prayer is lifting up the eyes and turning the heart to the Lord. The natural plane of our natures, in which resides our consciousness, and which is the theatre of our acquired and habitual life has become inverted. It has been turned away from heaven and the Lord, and bent downward to the earth; it has been closed to the direct and orderly influx of Divine, sanctifying, and living forces, and opened to the world. The mind is an organized form, and is subject to all the laws of organization. When I speak of it as inverted, bent from its original uprightness, its vessels closed to the inflowing of the pure water of life, and opened to the standing pools and polluted streams of sensual and worldly influences, I do not use a figure. I utter a fact. Prayer is an effort to restore it to its original order; to lift it up from the earth; to open its closed and withered vessels to the vivifying power of the Holy Spirit. This is a slow and painful process. It can only be gradually effected, especially when the natural mind has become hard and fixed by habit. It must be bent, not broken. We could not bear the strain of a sudden conversion.

Is there no use in this effort? If we can turn our thoughts towards the Lord and raise them from the earth a little, is there no use in that? If we can catch a glimpse of the heavenly light; if we can inhale a vivifying breath of the heavenly atmosphere; if we can even get a taste of the pure water of the river of life; if we can get a drop of its water on our parched tongues to cool the fever of earthly, passions even for a moment is there no saving efficacy, no gain in that?

If we consider the source of the influence which leads us to the closet and bends our knees in prayer, we may see some possibility of its use. The prayer is due to Divine influence. The moving cause in the soul is the Divine life working there in its secret closets, brooding over the chaos of worldly affections struggling through the dense clouds of sensual illusions. The prayer we voice comes from the Lord, and is given to us to make our own. It is His voice speaking with our lips. He teaches us how to pray, and we cannot pray without His teaching. How faint the voice from within is! It is almost drowned in the clamors of our worldly passions. It may come from the fading memories of childhood; it may seem to be an echo from a mother’s influence; it may seem to come from without; but it is the Divine love calling to us; it is the power of His Spirit working in us, to mould our distorted natures into the Divine likeness; it is the attraction of His power lifting us up and bending us towards Him. Every true prayer voices the working of the Lord in us. Do we say “Our Father” with any filial affection, we cooperate with the Lord in making Him more fully our father. Do we implore with any sincerity, “Forgive us our debts,” we express what He is trying to do, and by the expression help Him in His work. Do we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” with an honest desire. It is coming. We could not ask it if it were not, and by asking we hasten its coming. Prayer is a revelation; it shows what the Lord is doing, or trying to do in us and for us. Prayer welcomes His coming, prepares a place to lay His Divine head, and helps Him in His work of saving and blessing us.

Prayer is communion with the Lord. This is something more than speech. It may exist without it. Communion is exchange of gifts; it is the sharing of a common blessing; it is the blending of the life of one being with another while each preserves its distinct personality. This is the relation of the branch and the vine. This is what our Lord means when He says, “Abide in me, and I in you.” “If ye abide in me and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.” There is an actual opening of the inmost vessels of the affections to the Divine forces which give us life. Those forces, which are in reality the substances of which our spiritual bodies are woven, are received and appropriated; they are taken up and become a part of our being, as the substances of which the blood is composed are taken up by the various organs of the body and become a part of them. This communion is eating the Lord’s flesh and drinking His blood by which we have eternal life. The Divine life is communicated to us. It penetrates our life, softens the hardness of our spiritual natures; imbues them with some of its own qualities; finites in them some of its infinite perfections; tends to impart its motions and order to their activities, and to bring their forms and movements into voluntary accord with its infinite harmonies. So far as we yield to the brooding warmth of these influent Divine forces, we receive refreshment and vigor from them. They vitalize our affections and clarify our understandings, and we carry this renewal of our strength into all our duties and relations of life. We get help in resisting evil and power to overcome in temptation; our understanding becomes so luminous and true that we can see the path which leads to eternal life through all the labyrinths of worldly interests and the illusions of sensual desires. The Lord has gained such a powerful hold upon us that He can raise us up by the attractions of His love and draw us towards Himself, as the magnet separates the particles of iron from the sand and draws them to its own embrace.

This communion may come to our consciousness as a calm, inward joy, as peace and rest. But the effect may not be discernible immediately. These Divine forces, received when we open our hearts to the Lord in sincere prayer, may require many years before they can speak loud enough to be heard amid the discords and clamors of worldly passions; before they can soften the hardness of our natures sufficiently to make an impression upon them which can be felt. But every sincere prayer is a yielding to them; gives them a little advantage; and the ground they gain they hold. As they advance in bringing our natures into harmony with the Divine nature, the seasons of peace and rest become more frequent and of longer continuance, the rest is more complete, and the peace sinks into blessedness. This is the rest and peace of heaven. It comes by communion with the Lord. We taste, and we do see that the Lord is good. We experience the great peace which those enjoy who love the law of the Lord. It is a rest, and a peace, and a joy, which fills the soul when it comes into the harmonies of the Divine order.

If prayer puts us into the proper attitude to receive such influences, to obtain such help in our conflicts with evil, and opens the door of entrance into such pure and endless blessings, is it not a most powerful means of our regeneration, and of inestimable use in gaining heaven? It prepares the way and leads to the end for which all other things are given us. In answering the prayer that our sins may be forgiven and that we may become one with the Lord, does He not answer all prayers?

These are the real uses of prayer. They comprehend all particulars. They accord with the Lord’s purpose in our creation. Their real effect is not upon the Lord, but upon ourselves. They tend to put us into such relations to the Lord that He can do more for us than He could if we did not pray. They may cause such a change in us that those around us, both on the spiritual and the natural side of life, can help us. The Lord provides everything possible for our highest good. But what He can do for us depends our capacity of receiving good from Him. He cannot do for the infant just born so much as He can for the youth. He cannot give to the youth the affections and thoughts and physical strength of an adult man. He cannot give to a rock the virtues and graces, the transcendent beauty and glowing love of an angel. He cannot give to a false, perverted, corrupt nature the sweetness and purity, the wisdom, joy, and peace which He can bestow upon those who bear His own image and likeness. Any act or attainment by man which removes the obstacles to the reception of the Divine life, or enlarges his capacities, is of great use to him.

As man is the only one who requires to be changed, it is not difficult to see that it may be far more useful to man that his prayers should be answered through his instrumentality than directly without it. The answer may be more effective and lasting. Take a pestilence as an example. The belief was once general that plagues and cholera were scourges sent by the Lord in anger as a punishment for man’s sins, and prayers were offered up in all churches that they might be stayed by a direct interposition of almighty power. Suppose such prayers could have been, and had been answered. It would have caused a thousand-fold more suffering and death than the pestilence. It would have prevented men from looking for the natural causes of disease, and removing them. Thousands of lives are gradually destroyed by filth and the violation of the laws of health to one which is swept away by pestilence. Carry out the principle into all human relations, and it would take away from man all prudence, all foresight, all motives to obtain knowledge, all stimulus to human effort. If the Lord will stay a pestilence at the request of men, why should he not heal all diseases? or prevent them in the beginning? If He will send rain, moved by the prayers of Christians, why will He not regulate the seasons with special reference to every location and every want? Why will He not keep all men in perfect health, and supply all human needs and desires without any effort or thought on man's part? Why will He not correct all wrong, save from all suffering, however unwise and sinful men may act?

The answer is evident. If the Lord made such special provisions for every human want, and protected man from the consequences of ignorance, error, and sin, He would destroy all the pleasures of activity, all the rewards of conduct. He would reduce every man to the same level, and all to the condition of the brute.

Our prayers and the Lord’s method of answering them are apart of this universal method of the Divine order. He incites us to ask that we may come into a state to receive an answer. But He answers us through our own efforts when those efforts are of such a nature that He can grant our request by means of them. Millions of prayers are offered every day for the salvation of men. The Lord is answering them as fast and as fully as He can. We pray that the “Lord’s will may be done on the earth as it is in heaven.” It is useful to us to make the prayer, because if we offer it in sincerity, it will lead us to do what we can to aid in the establishment of the Lord’s kingdom upon the earth. He is answering the prayer as fast as possible; but He can only do it by means of the men and women who constitute that kingdom.

From these considerations we conclude that the use of prayer consists in awakening our own interests in the object of our petition, in calling forth our efforts to obtain it, and in bringing us into such orderly and intimate relations with the Lord, who is the source of all power and life, that He can work through us and bless us in granting our requests.

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