Continue in prayer, and watch in the same. COLOSSIANS 4:2.
THE basis of prayer is the promise of God. The philosophy of prayer is another thing. We are not troubled about the philosophy it is the experience that concerns us now. The philosophy of many things in common life is not understood by multitudes who live in right relation to them, and thus obtain the benefits they are intended to confer. The promise of God is philosophy enough. Ask, and ye shall receive. We ask, and God gives. If we ask any thing according to his will, it shall be done for us. According to his will that is to say, according to his word. His word rd tells us in what spirit we must pray, and what are proper subjects for prayer. The Lord's Prayer is a general model as to the manner. God's glory is to be desired, his will is to be submitted to, his providence is to be recognized, his grace implored, his protection sought. When it is said by the apostle, "We know not what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit itself maketh Intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered," his meaning may be this: That between the things that are explicitly revealed as proper subjects for prayer on the one hand, and the secret things that belong to God on the other, there is a sort of middle ground. Without an explicit warrant to pray, with a direct promise of an answer, there is such a connection between the heart of the suppliant and the subject of his prayers, and the Holy Spirit moves so powerfully upon the praying soul, that it is drawn out with extraordinary earnestness and faith in its approaches to the throne of grace. We have known many devout men and women who have had this experience in intercessory prayer. They have had a "liberty" at times in praying for others that seemed to be (and who will say it was not?) the special leading of the Holy Spirit. There might be danger here to a person of fanatical tendency. The word is the final arbiter in all such questions. By it try the spirits whether they be of God. Humility is in no danger in this matter. A diseased egotism is usually the cause of fanaticism. The folly of the fanatic is that of the fool who exaggerates his personal importance and relations to sacred things. He claims that he hears voices that. tell, him strange things. He says the Holy Spirit tells him to do this or that absurd thing -an inordinate vanity, mixed with vague religious sentimentality, taking the place of the humility that listens to the voice of God, and the clear perception of cardinal Christian truths. that hold the mind within the limits of what is revealed. There is a blessing here that maybe grasped by humility and faith. There is a danger here that may ensnare fanaticism. The true possessor of the secret of the Lord will walk here with uncovered head and unsandaled feet, for the ground is holy. The fool will rush in where an angel might fear to tread. Lord, teach us how to pray!
Leaving this point with the judicious reader, we proceed to consider other aspects of prayer as a means of promoting growth in the Christian life.
You should have regular habits of prayer. There is more in this matter of habit than many persons think. The law of periodicity pervades the world of mind as well as that of matter. It applies to the religious as well as to the physical sphere; to the activities of the soul as well as the movements of the body. Daniel's habit of praying three times a day had much to do with the maintenance of his faith and hope in the midst of 'antagonizing and depressing influences. It prevented any backward movement of his soul, keeping him braced up against reactionary tendencies. The habit of doing a thing makes it both easy and pleasant. A story is told of a State's-prison convict who, being a hard case, was forced to work a tread-mill in order to tame him. At first he was enraged and profane, but at length, from force of habit, he came to like the exercise, and declared if he lived to get out of prison he would have a tread-mill of his own. This is an extreme case, but it illustrates the power of habit. God put this law of habit into our natures that it might bless our lives. The praying habit is the very main spring of the Christian life. It regulates its whole movement.
Habit means regularity, not haphazard. You should have stated times for prayer. Each one must determine for himself how ofter he ought to pray daily. There is no absolute rule prescribed. To have done this would have been destructive of the freedom and spontaneity of the new life. There is no technical limit to praying or giving in the New Testament. As in the Old Testament one-tenth seems to have been the minimum of giving for religion, so three times a day seems to be the minimum for praying. When we fall below Old Testament practice in either our gifts or our prayers, we will do well to pause and consider. The holiest and most fruitful Christian lives have been lived by men and women who thus prayed not less than three times a day. The universal adoption of such a habit would fill millions of hearts with new life, and bring a baptism of power upon the Church that would shake the world. The adoption by you of such a habit would lift you at once to a higher plane -endue you with such spiritual power as you never possessed before, and clothe your spirit with the beauty of 'holiness to a degree beyond your present conception.
You can pray anywhere if you are in the spirit of prayer. You can (blessed truth) hold audience with God at your own option. The place is not essential to the efficacy of prayer. Yet there is something in the law of association. Daniel knelt daily in the same chamber consecrated to devotion. There was a help in this. The hallowed associations of that room reacted upon the man of God when he came in from the excitement of the court, shut the door, and, kneeling, prayed to his God. His window opened toward Jerusalem not accidentally, but by special arrangement. As his eye swept over the western hills until vision was lost in the distance, his imagination swept onward until he stood in the courts of the Lord's house on Zion's hill, heard its holy songs, and inhaled the incense that rose from its sacred altars. The law of association is the friend of religion, if we will have it so. The old Bible that we have read and reread in joy and in sorrow-pencil-marked and tear blotted-somehow speaks to us in a deeper and tenderer tone, for its pages are like a phonograph, holding yet the voices of the past. The leaves are turned for us by hands that have struck the harps of God in heaven, and the blessed words have to us special meanings that have been put into them by experiences that identify themselves in memory with the very form of the pages and the shapes of the letters of the sacred volume. Enter into thy closet-if thou past one. That is the best place. There you avoid the sights and sounds that divert the thought from sacred things and untune the soul for the touches of the Holy Spirit. God will hear a true prayer anywhere, whether it be from a shipwrecked sailor drifting on a plank in the storm on a midnight sea, or a wanderer dying of thirst on the desert sands, or a malefactor under the gibbet. But we are not independent of the influence of mental associations. When Jesus said that neither at Mount Gerizim nor at Jerusalem was it necessary to worship God, but that worship must be in spirit and in truth, he did not intend to condemn or discourage the setting apart of particular places for devotion. He was found on the Sabbath in the synagogues, and on the mountain alone at night in solitary prayer. The quiet of the cottage at Bethany was dear to him. Was there a "prophet's chamber" in that sweet little home, hallowed by his occupancy, where, out of hearing of the roar of the teeming city, he communed with his Father in prayer? Ten minutes spent alone with God in the middle of the day will sweeten all the intervening hours until the evening prayer is offered, and you lie down and sleep, because it is he that maketh you to dwell in safety. It is good to have not only stated times, but also stated places, for prayer. The instinct of the soul-hungry calls for this, and the difficulties in the way will, in most cases, be surmounted by the ingenuity inspired by strong desire. Whoso has once been hidden in the pavilion of God, and knelt in the awe and ecstasy of prevailing prayer, will remember the spot forever.
You should concentrate in prayer. Do not pray for every thing in general and nothing in particular. There are many things desirable at all times-many things that are proper subjects of petition to the throne of grace; but they are not, therefore, necessarily to be made a part of every prayer that you offer in public or in private devotion. When a prayer takes in a great number of things, it is often a sign of languid devotion. When there is in reality that deep sense of need which inspires a true prayer, the one thing needed is urged with intense earnestness and directness. A child comes home from school, or from play, and says, "Mother, I am hungry-give me some bread and meat, and some pie, and some pickle, some cake and some preserves, some candy and some nuts, some fruit and some custard." The mother will smile, and say, "Go, my child, and play-you are not hungry." But let the child come into the house with a rapid step, and say, "Mother, I am very hungry indeed-give me some bread and butter, and give it to me right now "-then the mother knows that the child really wants what it asks for, and its prayer is granted.
In the more joyful seasons of the Christian life the prayer of a true believer will at times take the form of thanksgiving. If it be the genuine expression of a heart overflowing with gratitude to God, the thanksgiving will be rendered not in the vague and general way that obtains when the heart is cold, but it will glow and melt in view of special mercies and direct manifestations of the divine goodness. It was enough for the publican to say, "God be merciful to one a sinner." It was enough for Peter to say, when sinking in the sea, "Save, Lord, I perish." When Paul sought the removal of the thorn in his flesh, he prayed the same prayer thrice, prayed till he got an answer-not the answer he wished, yet a true and gracious answer. This is waiting upon the Lord. This is knocking and still knocking until the door is opened.
The length of a prayer is of no consequence. It is not always the longest prayer that is the most successful. The prayer that prevails is of the right length, whether it be as short as that of the thief on the cross, or as long as that of Jacob at Jabbok.
Do not be greatly distressed if at times, in spite of all your efforts, there may be dullness and wandering of thought in your prayers. The body clogs the movement of the mind. Not always, but sometimes, it so happens that a state of bodily depression is attended with great spiritual exaltation, as if the frail house of clay could scarcely hold the rejoicing soul. The Apostle Paul gloried in his infirmities, that the power of Christ might rest upon him. The physical feebleness or suffering that you think a chief impediment in your way, may be the very channel through which the Lord pours the richest blessings of his grace into your receptive and obedient heart. Bat oftener it is found that the intimate sympathy between the soul and body causes the one to react on the other; and this will be so until the redeemed and glorified body shall, after the general resurrection, be reunited to the redeemed and glorified soul, and become its fit vehicle and agent for the higher experiences and sublime achievements that await it in the world of spirits. Earnestness of purpose, and sincerity of motive in approaching God, will do much to make our prayers prevalent even under the most adverse conditions.
But the thought will wander sometimes, and the tendency must be combated. A modest, saintly, and very successful minister of the Tennessee Conference has found great help in preventing wandering thoughts in his private devotions by praying aloud. This is worth considering. There is a law of the mind by which a thought expressed in words becomes more distinctly defined to our consciousness. The momentum of articulated speech, so to speak, gives it a more direct and vigorous movement in a particular channel. God acts with and through the laws which he has put into the human mind, not independently of them or contrary to them. In praying to him, you may most properly use all possible expedients to put your soul into the best attitude toward him, and to order your cause aright, No obstacles can prevent his answering the prayer of faith, but he would have you employ all available helps to dispose your heart to receive the grace he is always willing to give. There is a wisdom of holy habit that may be cultivated, and which will facilitate the access of the soul to God in prayer. Lord, teach us how to pray!