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Addresses - The Moral Limits Of Prayer

PRAYER we may distinguish into two great divisions, adorational and petitionary. There is prayer that is talking with God spiritual intercourse; it is praise, it is adoration, it is thanksgiving; and such prayer may employ many words or few. I re

call the memorable example of Saint Francis of Assisi on the Mount Alverno, where he was accustomed to pace back and forth for hours uttering but the one word, "God!"

First of all, is there any limitation to such prayer? I think there is; that is, even such prayers of adoration and spiritual intercourse can never be made a substitute for common, every-day human duties. Time may not be appropriated from that which by reason of things and by the circumstances of the case is the duty first in order be it only a matter of commonplace obligation. I think it would surprise us, my friends, if we should look at some expressions of our Lord and see with what boldness He puts even common duties rightly in front of those which the leaders of His day were prone to think more especially religious, and therefore at all times to have preference. You remember that picture of the man on the way to the Temple "If thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee" [some mark of kindness you ought to do him, no matter who he is, something that you owe him] "leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift." There is a duty to man that goes before that duty to God first make yourself right with your fellow. As St. John says, "He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how" in the name of common sense "can he love God whom he hath not seen?"

It is when we come to the second division, that of petitionary prayer, that serious debate really begins today, and as Christians we must face it. There is no manner of doubt to-day that there are many high-minded, conscientious, firm, sincerely reverent people who are ready to condemn petitionary prayer, in the first place as irrational, and further than that, as essentially presumptuous. In other words, they question not only the efficacy and power of petitionary prayer in view of universal law and order, but they question the propriety of such prayer, the morality of such prayer, if you please, in view of the revealed character of God.

Let us look briefly at these objections: Prayer is called irrational in the name of natural law, in the name of the invariable sequence of facts and events in the world, and, let us note, some are ready to carry this reign of law right over into the spiritual realm and claim that the sequence of mental events emotions and all that furniture of desire and resolve within us, are just as subject to invariable sequence and the rule of Law and Order as are the planets in their courses or the adjustments of the atoms in chemistry. The only difference being that it is infinitely more difficult for us to define or discover that law in the one case than in the other. Such teaching to be consistent must deny utterly the moral freedom of man. And indeed, let us observe that the moral freedom of man the freedom of man's will and the rationality or justification of prayer, stand or fall together. Rob man of his moral freedom, and prayer becomes nothing more than a mechanical pastime.

But further, there are many who admit that within the spiritual sphere we may pray for love, we may pray for faith, for the spirit of patience and thanksgiving, and for personal forgiveness; for these we may pray at all times with unqualified assurance. Why? Because we know that it is in accordance with the Divine will; therefore we need not even condition such prayer with the "if it be Thy will," for we know as we know our own existence that such spiritual blessings are in accordance with the declared (revealed) Divine will.

But beyond this: when we go beyond the range of the purely spiritual, when we trench upon the material the material in our bodies and in the world of nature about us there the debate today becomes strenuous and fierce. Beyond the realm of the purely spiritual, they argue, prayer can have absolutely no effect. Every Christian believer must challenge that assertion. We hear so much to-day about "Natural Law" that deference for the term has become a veritable obsession. A very distinguished scientist of our time has frankly admitted .that "Natural Law" has become for the common man, and very largely for the scientific man, a kind of fetich. Jeremy Bentham, however, said very truly and many are coming to recognize the truth of his saying that "Natural Law" is simply "a metaphor founded upon another metaphor."

That conception of the world as ruled mechanically by "Natural Law" as if it were a fixed, cast-iron, impersonal framework that stood by itself, and God a mere spectator, or as if the physical world were simply a great machine, God having wound it up once and now having no further concern with its on-going we can dismiss today in the name of science itself. Further, let us observe, that without breaking natural law man can and does adjust the sequence of events in the natural world, can and does adapt them to the accomplishment of his purposes; they are, in a word, flexible. We speak of having discovered the "laws of nature." I presume, my friends, if we had a handful of sand and stood by the seashore, it would be just as fair to say, "Here is the sand of the seashore," as to say of the whole range of science to-day, "Here are the laws of nature." There may be, there must be, millions of invariable sequences of which, even as yet, in the experience of the human race, there has been no knowledge.

Suppose fifty years ago, for instance, one should have said, "I am going to speak so that my voice shall be heard in New York or Buffalo," how busy the physicists and mathematicians would have been to deplore or even to stop the experiment. Why? They would say, "We think that in order to produce wave vibrations of the air that would reach New York City or Buffalo you would have to produce a concussion here that would absolutely level to the ground every building in this city. A hundred tons of dynamite exploded would not produce a shock of sufficient violence to carry those wave pulses that far." And yet I can go to a room in the Parish House and I can speak through the wire, and my voice is heard and recognized at a point five times farther off. Am I breaking a law of nature? I am simply bringing to bear another law that was discovered a little while ago.

But, says one, the deflecting or the bending of these laws of nature requires force to do that, and when you speak of adding any degree of force to the force already existing, you are coming right counter to the great doctrine of the conservation of energy. That is a big word. My friends, what are the terms "energy," "force," "power?" Absolutely nothing but symbols. There is but one power, the will of God, that works through the universe. As a distinguished scientist has said, when you name such names as energy, force, and power, looking at them as independent entities "doing things," you are as far wrong as the savage who supposes that his words of incantation actually hasten the passing of the eclipse.

There is one power, and that power is of God. "Well," but say some, "take care, take care! Do you forget the old revered distinction between what God actually performs in nature and what He only permits?" Let us say that the venerableness of this distinction cannot save it from utter rejection. The teaching of Scripture is clear that the Almighty does not wish us to fabricate any kind of excuse which shall seek to shift from His shoulders the responsibility for the on-going of the universe. There is no need to attempt to "prove an alibi for God." All energy, all power, are but names for His will and that will is not fettered, enslaved, by any invariable pre-established order. He can bring about the most tremendous changes, not by any direct and down-right smashing, so to speak, of any order recognized, but by means of infinitesimal, insignificant deviations. Take one illustration: Upon the death of King Edward of England the present King was at once proclaimed, as his father had been, both King of England and Emperor of India. How did the title of "Emperor" come to be his? Simply, as has been pointed out, because a despondent and desperate young English clerk in India twice tried to take his own life, and twice the powder refused to explode. That would-be suicide became the great administrator who brought to the Crown of England the great domains of India. How easily we might imagine the process by which Providence brought that event about without any infraction of so-called natural law. Suppose that the man who made the powder had a mixing-table by a window; some passing objects divert his attention for a moment; in consequence he does not put in the exact proportions of the elements making the mixture. The result is the imperfect powder in the flash-pan of that pistol which failed to explode Clive's life is saved and that saves the King of England an empire.

We have time to but touch briefly upon the second objection to petitionary prayer. There are good, high-minded men to-day who claim that "apart from all question whether petitionary prayer may have or can have any possible effect, this thing is clear, that such prayer is and must be at best a presumption an impertinence. God knows what is best; He knows the how and the why and the best that should be given or withheld, and, more than that, He is infinitely more ready to give the best gifts than we are to receive them. Hence, in any form of petition, even for spiritual benefits, what are we doing, say they, but pitting our feebleness and ignorance against the wisdom and the power of God?"

I answer that by saying that while God is Almighty, yet there is in human nature a limit even to the power of Almighty God. He will not invade personality by force. When God gave me the power of choice, He gave me that mysterious power, that wonderful power, of shutting the heart against the Divine invasion. Prayer is the opening of the doors of the heart to let in the divine power and the divine blessing. This attitude of super-humility and resignation, so far from being an attitude of meekness, is really an attitude of pride and arrogance.

May I, in conclusion, just say a word that is suggested by the fact that in the Old Testament, while we have many examples of prayer, I am not aware that we have a single explicit command or requirement to pray, and yet when we come to the New Testament, how different! The Master has laid it down again and again; and after Him His apostles again and again; pray, pray, pray. It seems to me we have there a striking instance and evidence of our Lord's prevision of the very times in which we live. With the progress of man's knowledge, revealing the invariable order and sequence of things in the world of nature,' He knew that doubts and difficulties would arise as to prayer. But beyond this fact, that the domain of prayer is narrowing with the advances of man's knowledge, there is another great truth that has come to counteract that; and that is the immanence of God, God dwelling in this world. To my mind one of the greatest and most momentous of changes is being wrought in man's conception of God's relation to the world and to life. The old "carpenter" theory of a world that was formed and made complete at once is gone for good. The world was never made, but is still in the making.

"Ever fresh the broad creation,
A Divine improvisation,
From the heart of God proceeds."

Standing in the relationship, so frequently emphasized in Scripture, of the child to the Father, the Father who lives with us and in us now and here, and who has not deserted His child for a moment, we recall the words of the Christ: "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."* And those other words, "Lo! I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world."

This is not the farewell of a departing, but the salutation of an ever-present, Friend.

"Speak to Him, then, for He hears, and Spirit with Spirit may meet:
Closer is He than breathing nearer than hands or feet."

( Originally Published 1914 )

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