Is There Reason or Profit in Prayer?
William Bacon Stevens
"What is the Almighty that we should serve Him? And what profit should there be if we pray unto Him?" Job 21:15
Thus spoke skeptical men in the days of Job. Thus speak skeptical men now. The doctrine that prayer has power with God and secures special blessings for men, has ever been assailed by the rationalist as contrary to reason; and by some scientists as contrary to the law of nature. The argument of the former is — that God is too great, and too far removed above us, and too much occupied with the vast movements of suns and systems, to take heed to the requests of the little creatures of this little world. The argument of the other is — that nature being organized and governed by fixed and immutable laws, no amount of human petition can cause God to deviate from his uniform law, for the gratification of individual requests.
Both of these lines of objection start from a wrong basis, and each takes for granted a condition of things which we are not willing to concede.
We do not grant to the rationalist, that the great God is so removed from us by reason of the vast universes which He governs — that He can not attend to the little needs of the dwellers on this globe; for the very minuteness of God's creative power, shows the minuteness of His superintending power. The presence of God in the lower and almost invisible forms of life, as seen only through the microscope — proves that nothing is too small to be beneath His notice, and daily personal supervision and government. For the same God who gave the laws of life to the microbes under the microscope — gave the laws of life and motion to the planetary systems of the telescope. This fact the Bible distinctly asserts, when it assures us that He who "in the beginning created the Heaven and the earth," is the same God who gives beauty to the lilies of the field, who notes the fall of each sparrow, and who numbers "the very hairs of our head."
We do not grant to the scientist, that the laws of nature are so uniform and immutable, that, therefore, the prayer of a human being cannot avail to cause any deviation in those laws; because, what are called "the laws of nature" are but the actings of God's will upon the works of God's hand. Until we have ascertained exactly how God's will works in and through an instrumentality which He has ordained, we are not able to say whether prayer itself may not be a recognized factor in the workings of nature, just as any other agent, such as light, heat, or gravitation. Until we know all of God's will, we cannot say that prayer is against His will, and the assertion that it is so, is presumptuous ignorance.
God has not left us to mere inferences as to what His will is on this subject. We have among the various recognized and authenticated revelations of God's will, His distinct command that we should pray to Him. His distinct promises of good to those who do pray, and the divine example of Christ Himself who at times spent whole nights in prayer to God.
If prayer is unscientific, then is our religion unscientific — for one of its essential elements is prayer. If prayer is unscientific, then is our Bible unscientific — for that is full of exhortations to prayer. If prayer is unscientific, then is our blessed Lord, He of whom it is written that "in Him dwells all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge," unscientific — for He was eminently a man of prayer. If prayer is unscientific, then is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit "who searches all things even the deep things of God," and who is specially revealed to us as the Spirit of grace and supplication, unscientific — for it is He who, when we know not what to pray for, "makes intercession for us with groanings which can not be uttered." If prayer is unscientific, then is God Himself, I speak it reverently, unscientific — because He has revealed Himself as a prayer-hearing and a prayer-answering God.
The question of prayer, is not a question of natural science; it comes within the domain of moral science. The very men who object most to prayer on scientific grounds, are guilty of the absurdity of testing a moral question by scientific rules. They take the question out of the realm of morals — and seek to test it by the criteria of scientific investigation. Such a practice is destructive of all fair dealing and opposed to all sound laws of science.
Moral questions must be judged of by moral evidence; mathematical questions must be judged by mathematical evidence; botanical questions must be judged by botanical evidence.
Prayer, is a question which lies entirely between God and the soul of man, and is consequently quite removed from the field of scientific research, and out of the region of scientific analysis.
The points we desire to be satisfied upon, are these:
Is the soul of man so constituted as to make prayer an essential element of his spiritual being?
And, secondly, Has God made known to us His mind and will in reference to prayer?
To the first question — we have but to look into our hearts to find an ever-present answer. Man's soul is made for prayer. It seems to be a part of its nature to seek aid, protection, and comfort — from something higher and greater than itself. There is this yearning in every bosom. It is the instinct of universal humanity. There cannot be found in the entire human family, a man, who, in time of alarm or danger, does not in some manner seek the interposition of a higher power. Upon this instinct, are founded nearly if not all the religions of the world; for the prayer element of religion, is that which is its controlling element; and no religion has yet been discovered where supplication to some superior power or being, does not exist as an important part of that religion.
When we look then at the universality of this instinct for supplication, and learn that only by prayer (and that too at times by "groanings which cannot be uttered," that is, by the yearnings and longings of the soul which are too deep, too strong, too tumultuous to be formulated into words) can the higher aspirations of the soul find their outlet — are we not warranted in saying that the soul is as much made for prayer — as the eye is made for light, the ear for sound, and the lungs for air? Most assuredly we are! Prayer and the soul are fitted to each other just as life is fitted to the human body, so that it is indeed true that "Prayer is the Christian's vital breath."
As to the second question, Has God made known to us His mind and will in reference to prayer? I answer emphatically, Yes! The Bible, which is the only book that reveals to us the will of God, is full of His thoughts on this point. Here let us remember that this volume, the Bible, is God's voice speaking to us in the world of morals and in the domain of spiritual life; just as much, and just as authoritatively, as the volume of nature is God's voice speaking to us in the world of material things, and in the domain of physical life.
If the man of science plants himself on the authority of the one — we plant ourselves on the authority of the other; with this important difference, that we recognize both as the manifestations of the one living and true God. His physical characteristics shining through the works of nature, as revealed to the scientist; His spiritual attributes, shining through the words of Revelation, as made known to us by holy men of old "who wrote as they were moved of the Holy Spirit."
But, leaving argument, let us go to facts. Each person of the ever-blessed Trinity has made known His will on the subject of prayer.
God the Father, in a multitude of passages, direct and indirect, shows that He hears and answers prayer. He declares that "His ears shall be intent unto the prayer" of His people; that the prayer of the priests, the Levites, and the people "came up to His holy dwelling-place even unto Heaven;" that His house "shall be a house of prayer for all nations."
God the Son, commands us to pray — taught us by a special form how to pray, and what to pray; set us the example of prayer; told us that certain blessings could only be obtained by prayer, and assured us, that "whatever we would ask in His name — He would give it unto us."
God the Holy Spirit, is specially made known to us as "the Spirit of grace and supplication"; as "the Spirit that helps our infirmities" in prayer; as the being who Himself makes intercession for us.
Here then, in brief, we have the clear and definite utterances of the triune God on the subject of prayer. And now then who is to be believed — the scientist, with his finite mind, his short span of time, and his narrow knowledge; or the Infinite, the Eternal, the Omniscient God? Who shall be believed — the philosopher, who is not able to unfold the full principles of his own life; or the Divine Redeemer who so knew the nature and the worth of the soul as to redeem it with His own blood? Who is to be believed — the man who can master only a small segment of the small circle of human knowledge (for that is all that the most profound scholars and thinkers can do); or the Holy Spirit, that Divine Spirit, "who searches all things, even the deep things of God," whose special function, as the Spirit of truth, is "to guide you into all truth"?
These questions furnish their own answers. And now the question comes back to us, "What profit shall we have if we pray unto Him?" To answer this question aright, we must go to Him who first instituted prayer, and see what promises He annexed to its due performance. In the Bible, where God's directions and promises are fully recorded, we find words like these: "Before they call — I will answer; and while they are yet speaking — I will hear." "You shall go and pray unto me — and I will hearken unto you." "Thus says the Lord: Call upon me — and I will answer you." "Whoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be delivered." "The Lord is rich in mercy to all those who call upon Him." "You are good and ready to forgive, and plenteous in mercy to all those who call upon Him." "He will be gracious at the voice of your cry — he will answer you." "In everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known unto God." "Pray without ceasing." "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much."
These verses, which are but a sample of what the Scriptures say upon the subject of prayer — show what great benefits and blessing result from it; guaranteed to us by a God who can not lie, by a God who is unchangeable, and all of whose promises are "yes, and amen in Christ Jesus."
We may answer the question of the text, "What profit shall we have if we pray unto Him?" by appealing to the personal experience of multitudes of all past ages.
Here history and biography come in as witnesses to the profit and value of prayer. When a large number of scientific men, who have had ample time and opportunity for rigid examination, affirm with united voice, any given scientific truth — we readily accept the truth on the authority of competent men able to verify it by full observation. Thus, all our astronomical knowledge is based on the telescopic observations and mathematical calculations of a very few observers and calculators, scattered here and there in a few observatories. The common mind is not capable of testing the truth of these observations and calculations; yet the world readily accepts them; and our clocks, and our almanacs, and our arrangement of civil time, and all our navigation at sea, and a hundred other things — are based on these observations of these few star-gazers. Here the testimony of a few, is received and acted upon by the many; because they have confidence in the ability of these few, to speak upon this subject. In this case the whole question comes down to one of competent witnesses; and indeed every assertion of scientific men, on scientific subjects, is resolvable into a matter of competent observers, and competent testifiers.
Apply this test to prayer. Call in witnesses, competent witnesses, men whose testimony is unimpeachable; men who have had large personal experience and observation on this subject; men who have witnessed its effects on families, tribes, and kingdoms. Summon these witnesses not from one land — but from all lands; not from one nation — but from all nations; not from one age — but from all ages; not from one class of society — but from all classes. Gather up their united testimony and give it voice — and it is clear, uniform, and universal as to the comfort and profit of prayer.
On this subject, we have this great advantage, that while the asserters and observers of any given scientific truth in any one department of natural science, are necessarily few — and while the testimony of these few is often conflicting; on the subject of prayer, the number of witnesses to its profit is innumerable — and the unanimity of their testimony is complete.
Summon witnesses from the patriarchal dispensation, and Abraham "the father of the faithful" and "the friend of God"; Isaac, through whom all the nations of the earth were to be blessed; Jacob, who received the surname of Israel because he wrestled with the angel and prevailed in prayer; Joseph the governor of all Egypt — will each testify to the power and profit of prayer.
Summon witnesses under the Mosaic dispensation, and Moses himself, the great lawgiver; and Joshua the great captain; and David the sweet psalmist of Israel; and Solomon the wisest of kings; and Elijah the prophet of fire; and Isaiah the evangelical prophet — testify with one accord, that there is joy and comfort and profit in prayer.
Call up witnesses from the New Testament worthies, and a great cloud of witnesses rise up from almost every page, to assure us that prayer is a privilege and a blessing. So that as a question of history, and observation — the proof is ample to establish the doctrine, that prayer is in accordance with God's will and profitable to man.
We can answer the question of the text, lastly, by appealing to the personal experience of the children of God now and here. This, of course, varies with individual piety; yet there are certain common effects, which belong to all Christians who kneel before the mercy-seat.
In looking back over our own religious history, how many instances rise up to the mind of temporal blessings; either in the shape of direct mercies, or averted evils, which we have received through prayer! How often, when threatened with calamities — personal, domestic, or social — has prayer dissipated the threatened trial, or enabled us to bear it in sweet submission! How often in hours of sickness and sorrow, has prayer like the breath of the morning driven away the murky cloud, or painted a rainbow on its bosom!
In every event of our lives, we are conscious that prayer has altered, molded, guided, and controlled our doings. That the unseen — but really spiritual influences which prayer has called down upon us, have, as by a holy alchemy, turned the very evils which beset us into sources of joy, and made our very trials minister to our growth in grace.
One of the most eminent of the scientists who has written against prayer, and who proposed what has been termed "a prayer gauge" to test the physical value of prayer, reduces all prayer in times of sorrow and danger, to the "simple impulse to pour out the feelings in sound"; "similar in kind," as has been said, "to the cry of the rabbit, when the greyhound is almost upon her; or the bleating of a sheep, that has lost her lamb; or the cry of a dog, under the lash. A voice convulsively sent out into space, whose utterance is a physical relief."
Is this so? Has God thus mocked us? Tell me, you mother, watching by the bed of a sick child! Tell me, you mourner, just bereaved of a beloved friend! Tell me, you child of God, struggling with poverty and trials! Tell me, you disciple of Jesus in the hour of death! — are your cries, your supplications, your agonizing pleas for mercy, for light, for comfort, for acceptance — are they but "the simple impulse to pour out your feelings in sound?" Are your prayers but as the inarticulate moanings of the brute creation? Everything that is deep and true in our nature, rejects such a theory. We know by experience, that it is not so. We feel that prayer at such times, is something more than a voice convulsively sent out into space, for securing physical relief. We know that prayer is but the vocalizing of deep, inner emotions of the soul — that the words thus uttered, have an ear expressly fitted to hear those cries — the ear of the Lord Almighty; and that He who bends His ear to listen to the prayer of the lowliest — will answer those prayers in the fullness of His divine grace, and with all the tenderness of a father's love.
We sometimes learn the value of a blessing by its being taken away, even as the poet says — "How blessings brighten — as they take their flight!"
How better, for example, could we show the value of light — than by supposing that there were no sun or moon or stars? Or the inestimable worth of water — than by imagining that all the fountains and rivers were dried up? How vividly and practically would this withdrawal of light, and water, make us realize, as we never felt before, the value of these common and every-day blessings; which, because they are so common, and so intertwined with all the thoughts and words and deeds of our life, are too often unheeded or undervalued.
So what would be the moral condition of the world — were there no prayer? Suppose, that in all our churches, the service of prayer should be hushed! that in all our households, the family altar should be abolished! that no human lips should utter a personal supplication! No prayer in times of sickness, danger, or death; none in days of trial and sorrow and bereavement; none in hours of prosperity and gladness — what a dreadful world would this be! How long could our religion would exist without prayer? Shut off from God, from the mercy-seat, from communion with Christ — and the soul would soon be a shriveled, hopeless, godless spirit, fettered to earth; its wings of prayer broken, and its heavenward soarings forever restrained.
Blessed be God, we are not left to this condition of hopeless wretchedness. We have the pledged promises of God; the evidence of all past history since the creation; the testimony of patriarchs, prophets, kings, priests, apostles, martyrs, confessors, for nearly six thousand years; and the individual experience of each Christian of the present day — concurring to establish the efficacy, and profit, of prayer. Having then . . .
a prayer-hearing God;
a throne of grace to which we are invited to come "with boldness";
a divine Intercessor, before the mercy-seat on high;
the Holy Spirit as the spirit of grace and of supplication
— having these, let us hold fast our faith in prayer, and use it as a divinely appointed instrument for obtaining the best and noblest blessings, for the soul, and for the body; for time and for eternity!