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

3. Hypocritical and Vain Prayer

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites: are for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you They have their reward.

“But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions as the heathen do: for they think that they will be heard for their much speaking.

“Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him.” — Matthew vi. 5, 7, 8

The Lord not only bestows upon us every good which we possess, but He instructs us how to get it, how to use it, how to increase it, and how to avoid the obstacles which hinder its reception and enjoyment and cause us to miss the true ends of life. As man is in evil and falsity by nature, the first essential truth for him to learn is, what to avoid. When we are going in the wrong direction, we must discover our error and change our course before can reach the goal we seek. The Lord, therefore, begins His instruction concerning alms, prayer, and fasting by telling us what we must avoid. Eight of the ten commandments are prohibitory. In the work of regeneration and the formation of a spiritual and heavenly mind, thou shalt not must always precede thou shalt.

In considering the subject of prayer let us follow the same order, and first learn how we must not pray. It will be a great help to us to understand the false forms and evil motives of prayer. It will free the subject from misconceptions, and false methods, and forms, and simplify it in every respect. When we know what to avoid we can easily learn what to do. There is no part of religious worship, of private or of public devotion, which is more misunderstood than prayer. Its nature is not generally known; there are many misconceptions of its use, and of the manner in which that use is effected. Let us try to discover what these false notions are; then we shall be able to learn how to pray, for what to pray, and what good we may hope to gain by prayer.

First, our Lord instructs us with regard to the motives of prayer. We must not pray from any selfish worldly motive. “When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites:” they pray “to be seen of men.” What is a hypocrite? A hypocrite is one who feigns to be what he is not; he assumes a character which he does not possess. He acts from different motives from those which he professes. When he pretends to worship God, he is worshipping himself. When he appears to be seeking the Divine favor, he is looking for the favor of men. He is seeking to gain credit for a love and a regard for the Lord which he does not possess. Hypocrisy has many forms and degrees of baseness, but a religious hypocrite is the vilest and most contemptible of all. He assumes the highest and purest virtues for the lowest ends; he clothes himself with the spotless garments of heaven to cover the deformities and malignities of hell. He comes to his Divine Master in the character of a devoted and loving disciple, but betrays Him with a kiss. But our Lord has given us some of his characteristics and methods which, when analyzed and unfolded in spiritual light, will exhibit his animus and genuine nature in true colors, and reveal the wickedness and the uselessness of vain repetitions and a merely formal devotion.

Hypocrites love to pray. No men are more devout in attitude, deferential in tone, earnest in manner, and punctilious in the performance of their devotions. They love to do it. It gives them the odor of sanctity; it gratifies their vanity; it lulls their consciences to sleep; it makes them conspicuous in the public eye; it tends to gain the favor of men. See what a devout and holy man! the multitude will exclaim. But this love is not the love of God or of man. It is the love of themselves. They pretend to be worshipping the Lord, but in reality they are adoring themselves. They give homage to the Lord with their lips, but they are claiming it for themselves in their thoughts. They ask favors of the Lord in form, while in their intentions they are seeking them from men. The apparent purpose of their prayers is to gain a hearing and favorable notice from the Lord, their real end is to be seen of men. What mockery must such a prayer be! To stand up conspicuously in an assembly of men and with the lips offer supplications to our heavenly Father, while we are thinking only of the praise of men! With what infinite pity must the Lord regard the mere semblance of man who is guilty of such folly and wickedness. Whatever may be the success in deceiving men, and gaining a momentary reputation for a sanctity which they do not possess, must not the inevitable and final result be a greater damnation?

Hypocrites love to pray “standing in the synagogues.” The natural meaning and the reason for selecting a public and conspicuous place for their prayers is evident when we know what favor they hope to gain by them. But these words have a spiritual and consequently a universal meaning. Every human being who has any religion, or who pretends to possess any, has a synagogue in his own mind, in which he offers his prayers and performs his devotions. These words therefore apply to us as well as to the Pharisees who lived in Jerusalem when our Lord trod its streets with weary feet, and taught in the synagogues of the Jews with a wisdom and power which filled the dead formalists with amazement.

A synagogue was a house devoted to worship and religious instruction. By a very common law of the human mind the material instrument becomes a symbol of the use to which it is applied. We see an example of this law in the common use of the word “church.” Its material meaning is the building in which the men and women who constitute the church assemble. The people are the real church; but they are only so far a church as they have become the embodiment and living forms of the doctrines which make those who acknowledge and live according to them a church. A synagogue, then, in its universal and genuine meaning, is the doctrine which men believe. To stand and pray in them is to pray according to the doctrines of religion they have learned and accepted. Therefore it is that we all have our synagogue where we offer our prayers. Standing at the corners of the streets has the same general meaning, only a more external and special one. A city as well as a synagogue represents doctrine, and a street is some special truth which, with others, composes the doctrine. A corner is formed by the intersection of the streets, and represents their connection with one another. This conjunction affords the means of seeing and of being seen in material streets. In spiritual streets, which are the paths our thoughts and affections pursue to the attainment of their ends, they show the relations and confirmations of the various truths which taken together constitute our doctrine. Therefore corners denote firmness. As they bind together the sides of a building and give firmness and stability to it, so they are the points where truth is joined to truth in logical order, and give solidity and strength to the whole system of faith. They are also centres towards which various truths converge, and from which those who accept them can see and be seen. To pray standing in the corners of the streets, represents a state of mind in which we act according to principles which we have adopted from various considerations. We take our mental position where truths or falsities converge and confirm one another, where their relations can be seen, and by means of which the love of self and the world can win over the understanding to its delusions.

Doctrine teaches us whom to address, how to pray, and what to pray for, because doctrine teaches us concerning the Lord, our own natures, and our relations to Him. Every one must, therefore, pray in the synagogue or in the corners of the streets in his own mind. He must do it in a good sense, even when he enters his closet and shuts the door. But hypocrites pray only from doctrine or faith alone, and every prayer offered from truth or doctrine alone is more or less hypocritical. There are various forms and degrees of such prayer, which it may be well to consider:

1. Intellectual prayer. Prayer consists essentially in asking. It is a sincere, earnest desire for some good, or what seems to the suppliant to be good. It is a turning of the soul to the Lord, as the plant turns to the sun. It is an opening of the affections to the reception of the Divine Love. It can be made without words, without distinct thought even. A true prayer is before thought, before speech. Thought is only the form of it; speech is only the expression of it. A petition made from doctrine alone, from a merely intellectual conception of the Divine nature and our relations to the Lord, lacks the essential elements of prayer. It is merely the form of it, the clothing of it put on for the occasion. The intellect cannot pray; it cannot ask. Asking is not its office. Its business consists in seeing, in collecting materials to give body and form and permanent existence to the affections. Such is the nature of the human mind that the form can exist without any life in it.

All prayer from doctrine or from truth alone is hypocritical. It is not what it appears to be. There may be appropriate ascriptions of praise to the Lord, but no praise is given to Him. There may be the most humble confession of sin in words, but no sins are confessed. There is no humiliation of heart, no shame for sins committed, no loathing of a vile, corrupt nature, no sorrow because we have sinned against infinite love and wisdom. On the contrary, the hypocrite is proud of his verbal humility. Men will think well of him, because he pretends to think so meanly of himself. The form of the prayer may be appropriate to the occasion, beautiful and eloquent, but it is addressed to the audience and not to the Lord. We sometimes hear it said of ministers and others that they are gifted in prayer. It is probable that from a human and merely intellectual point of view the praise is worthily bestowed, and that the subjects of it think so too. But viewed from the Lord, no prayer may have been offered to Him. If it was made to be eloquent, if the suppliant was well pleased with it, it was offered standing in the synagogue, or in the corners of the streets to be seen of men.

Prayer to the Lord must have the Lord, not self nor man, in view. It must go to the point. There must be some special favor desired, and that must be sought with simplicity and directness. Earnestness and sincerity do not seek for elegant phrases they do not deal in vague generalities. Elegant phrasing and a skilful play of words are contrary to its nature. The Lord is not moved by eloquent verbiage, especially when He does not enter into the thought of the supplicant. If He were not infinitely merciful and kind, He might be moved to indignation by such hypocrisy.

Perhaps we can more fully appreciate the essential quality of a merely doctrinal prayer, however beautiful in form it may be, by regarding it from the relations of parent to child. Suppose a child who had been disobedient and desired forgiveness, or who sought a favor, should address his father in the language and style of many of the prayers we read in books of devotion and hear in public worship. He begins with ascriptions of praise; tells his father how kind and wise and good he is; expresses his astonishment that he has borne with him as long as he has; prays that he will forgive him and his brothers and sisters, and all the bad little boys and girls in the whole world and make them obedient and good, and finally bestow all his property upon them and make them happy. Suppose a prayer to this effect was written out or committed to memory and repeated every morning and evening, repeated with roving eyes and wandering thoughts, or with an air of conceit and an evident regard for its effect upon others, could any quality be found in such a devotional exercise to commend? Would it indicate any love for the father, any sorrow for disobedience? Would there be any heart, any sincerity, in it? Does the child really ask anything? What would you, as a father or mother, think of such a child, especially if he went on in the same course of disobedience and praying from week to week and year to year? Such a practice could not appear otherwise than absurd, hypocritical, and wicked. Is not that what multitudes of professed Christians are constantly doing? They ask nothing, they confess nothing, they desire nothing which the words they use imply. They stand in a false attitude before the Lord and men. “When ye pray be not as the hypocrites.”

2. Prayer from doctrine, or faith alone, becomes formal and mechanical and essentially hypocritical, though there may not be any conscious desire “to be seen of men.” It is hypocritical because there is no meaning in it. We continue to pray because we have formed a habit of praying or because others pray. Neither the affection nor the thoughts rise to the Lord. No honor is ascribed to Him, no sins are confessed to Him, no help is asked from Him. There is no spiritual, and but little, if any, natural life in this formal devotion. If the words could have been uttered by a machine there would have been just as much prayer in them. They are repeated by machines.

But even in this mechanical and soulless prayer there is some regard for the opinion of men. Multitudes go to the house of prayer to see and to be seen, not to worship the Lord, or to learn anything concerning their obligations to Him, and how they may fulfill them. They go because their acquaintances go; they go because it is respectable to do so. They read and respond, or sit in respectful silence, because it is the fashion, because it is the right and proper thing to do. It has the appearance of being devout; it saves them from the suspicion of unbelief or of indifference to religion. It is also often a passport by which they gain entrance into coveted social circles, or a means of securing financial favors, or influences favorable to professional success. In some way they desire to be seen of men rather than to be seen of the Lord and gain heavenly blessings from Him.

3. There is a prevalent opinion that there is some efficacy in prayer itself to procure the Divine favor; that prayer commends us to the Lord, and induces Him to bestow blessings upon us which He would otherwise withhold. According to this idea, when we have gone through with the routine of our devotions, we have done our duty; we have shown our respect for the Lord; we have given Him the tribute of our praise; we have confessed our sins, and disposed Him to forgive us. We have satisfied our consciences, and we can rest with some degree of gratification and peace. We may not have had a motion of gratitude in our hearts for favors received; there may not have been a pang of sorrow, or a sense of shame for an idle, frivolous, and evil life; there may not have been an aspiration for meekness, humility, purity, and a genuine spiritual character. But we have repeated the prescribed prayers in a perfunctory way; we have complied with the prescribed forms; and the Lord must regard us with some degree of favor.

Herein lies the danger of a ritualistic form of worship, whether public or private. Whatever we do habitually, we are in danger of doing without thought or affection. We act mechanically. There is but little room for doubt that much of our public worship is of this character. It can be seen in the listless manner of the worshippers, in the roving eye, in the automatical way in which the prayers and responses are repeated. Words, the most weighty and solemn the lips ever utter, do not express a thought or embody an affection. If we addressed the same words in such an indifferent manner to a human being, we should at once be regarded as hypocrites. And yet there is a feeling of self-satisfaction in such formal worship, as though we had performed some worthy service.

On the other hand, it is supposed by many that the efficacy of prayer depends upon natural fervor and vociferation. Consequently those who are of this opinion work themselves up into an artificial excitement. They pray loud and long in forced and unnatural tones. They agonize, or try to do it; they beseech and implore for favors which, at heart, they do not want. They wrestle with the Lord, as they suppose, like Jacob. But there is no agony in their hearts; there is no burning love of the Lord or the neighbor exalting and intensifying their desires. The Lord is not so remote or deaf that He cannot hear. He is not reluctant to forgive our sins and bestow the blessings of His love and wisdom upon us. This forced fervor and apparent earnestness is hypocritical. It does not flow from the heart. Let us heed the Lord's words, “When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites.”

4. Our Lord also warns us against multiplying words in our prayers. “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be ye not therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask Him.” In these words our Lord teaches us that the effect of praying is not in the volume of it, nor in the repetition of our requests. The practice of repeating many prayers may not be hypocritical, but it is the result of a total misconception of the Lord's character and of His relations to men. There is no necessity of telling Him what He knows for the purpose of giving Him information. He understands our condition infinitely better than we do. There is no necessity for importunity. He is not like a weak or selfish earthly parent who must be persuaded to grant a favor. He is more willing to give the richest blessings than we are to receive them. He does not need to be won over to regard us with favor and to forgive our sins by incessant pleading. He is in the constant effort to forgive us. No change is required in Him.

If we had a true idea of the Lord and knew how He regards every human being, the uselessness and folly of using “vain repetitions” and of “much speaking” would appear in the most convincing light. We should see that it would be impossible for any man or woman with such knowledge to pray as multitudes do at the present day. How can we implore the Lord to regard us with favor when we know that He loves us with an infinite and unchanging affection? How can we beseech Him in varied phrase to forgive our sins, when we know that there is nothing in the universe He so ardently desires? How can we ask the Father to have mercy upon us, and then turn to the Son and beg Him to have mercy upon us, and then beseech the Holy Spirit to have mercy upon us, when we know that there is but one Divine Being? It is as absurd as it would be for a child to ask her father’s heart to grant her a favor, and then to beseech his head to have mercy, and end by imploring his power or life to grant the request. A child has too much sense to do this. How could we ask the Father to grant us a favor for the sake of His Son? How could we ask the Son to intercede for us with the Father, when there is only one Divine Being in existence; when in Jesus Christ “dwells the fullness of the Godhead bodily”? When we see Him we see the Father; when we address Him we address the Father, as we see the man in his material body and address him in it. When we worship Him we adore the only proper object of worship. There is no access to the Father but by the Son, as there is no access to a man’s affections but by his body and intellectual faculties. But even if there were three Divine Persons in the Trinity, what reason, propriety, or sense can there be in asking one Divine Person to do a favor for the sake of another, when each one must be equally desirous of conferring the blessing? Can there be any vainer repetitions than appealing to one and then to another, and then another, when by the verbal confession of all Christians there can be only one God?

It is “a vain repetition” to ply the Lord with motives or reasons for granting the favors we ask. In the famous Litany which is repeated every week in all Christian lands, the Good Lord is implored to deliver us, “by the mystery of His holy Incarnation, by His holy nativity and circumcision; by His Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation; by His Agony and Bloody Sweat; by His Cross and Passion; by His Precious Death and Burial; by His glorious Resurrection and Ascension; and by the coming of the Holy Ghost.” These, it would seem if they have any meaning, are presented as motives by the suppliant to excite the Divine compassion and secure a favorable hearing. The ground for this enumeration of incidents in the life and death of our Lord, must be that they will have a cumulative effect upon Him; that He will be more moved, and disposed to grant deliverance from evils mentioned by being reminded of what He has suffered and done for us. This is the motive of the whole Litany. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are implored separately and then together, and many particulars are enumerated, some of which, at least, are founded upon total misconception of the nature of the Lord, of our relations to Him, and of what is essential to our salvation from sin and eternal happiness.

5. Our Lord warns us against the frequent repetition of the same prayer. In some rituals His own prayer is repeated several times in a rapid mechanical manner clearly indicating that the words do not express any desire of the hearts of those who use them. If there is any motive for such repetition, it must be the belief that there is more efficacy in repeating a prayer twice than once, and that whatever good is gained by it comes as a reward for repeating it, and not in answer to any sincere desire of the heart. In one branch of the Christian Church it is customary to keep an account of the number of times certain prayers are repeated, and the supposition is that the greater the number the greater the virtue. They think they will be heard for their “much speaking.”

This is the opinion and practice, our Lord says, of the heathen or Gentiles. The Jewish nation represented the Church. All other nations they called heathen or Gentiles. The Gentiles, therefore, represent those who do not belong to the Church. They may be external members of it, but if the principles and life of heaven are not in them, they are not really members of it; they are Gentiles in principle and practice; they are heathen. These vain repetitions, therefore, and the idea that those who make them will be heard for their much speaking, are heathenish. Those who practice them are ignorant of the true principles of Christianity. They are essentially idolaters, and their prayers and worship are based upon the same principles as those who worship idols,—the principle that the Being whom they worship is hostile to them and needs propitiating: that He regards His worshippers as servants, and is pleased with servility and adulation; that He punishes those who neglect Him, and bestows His favors upon those who are assiduous in their devotions; that He loves to see the people prostrate before Him, and to hear His own praise and glory sounded from their lips; that He is reluctant to bless, easily irritated by neglect, and enraged by opposition.

A great number of the prayers offered in our churches today are the outbirth and expression of this idea of the Lord, of the service He exacts of men, and the way to secure His favor. According to this idea, prayer is not the communion of a loving child with a revered and beloved Parent; it is not an outpouring of gratitude for favors constantly received; it is not ascriptions of praise from a reverent and adoring heart; it is not the confession of sin from sincere penitence; it is not a petition for help to overcome evils which are clearly seen and abhorred; it is not an aspiration of the soul for a higher, purer, sweeter, nobler life. If it were, the petitions could not be multiplied and wordy, and repeated in a cold, mechanical manner. Sincere, deep, and earnest feeling does not express itself in that manner. A deep and loathing sense of sin cannot reiterate in measured tones, in varied and precise form, a petition for mercy. It is more likely to be mute or an inarticulate cry, or with the eyes bent to the earth for shame, the appeal of the publican, while smiting upon his breast, an appeal wrung from a breaking heart, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”

There is no warrant in reason, in the nature of man, or of the Lord for the roundabout indefinite praying for all sorts and conditions of men to be saved from evils and calamities which do not threaten us, for blessings which we do not desire, for graces which we will not receive, for the accomplishment of objects to effect which we will not lift a finger. We never ask men for grace or favor in this way. There are no such examples of prayer in the Sacred Scriptures. When our Lord was upon the earth, and men came for favors, they had something definite to ask. Blind Bartimeus knew what he wanted, and to the question, “What wouldst thou that I should do unto thee?” his prompt and earnest cry was, “Lord, that my eyes may be opened.” Jairus knew what he wanted. He knew that his beloved daughter, the light of his house and the joy of his heart, was dying. When he saw the Lord he fell at His feet and besought Him greatly, saying, “My little daughter lieth at the point of death, come and lay thy hands upon her that she may be healed, and she shall live.” There was nothing hypocritical in their prayers. They did not pray to be seen of men. They had no formal and stereotyped and indefinite request to make. They used no “vain repetitions;” they were not heard for their “much speaking.” It was their sincerity and confidence in the Lord which brought them into such relations to Him that His Divine power could take effect upon them.

This subject is one of present, personal application to us. Our Lord says to each one of us today, “When thou prayest, thou shall not be as the hypocrites.” “When ye pray, use not vain repetitions.” Those who pray in these ways against which our Lord warns us, have their reward. The hypocrite is seen of men, and for a brief space gains a reputation from those who only see him standing in the synagogue, or at the corners of the streets, for sanctity and devotion. Those who use vain repetitions get their reward. But with both classes it is a poor and transitory one. It comes from men who cannot assuage our sorrows, save from death, or raise us up into everlasting life. “When ye pray be not like the hypocrites,” the formalists, the ignorant and misguided Gentiles, and think not that He who looks only upon the heart, and can answer only those prayers which come from the heart, can be influenced by lip service or “vain repetitions.”

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