The Well-Spring in the Desert
by James Buchanan
"This is my comfort in my affliction." Psalm 119:50
"Is any among you afflicted? Let him pray." James 5:13
The Bible opens a spring of comfort for the afflicted, by giving them free access to the throne of grace, and inviting them to enjoy the privilege of prayer.
This is, indeed, the Christian's privilege at all seasons; and never will he feel himself to be in a right or comfortable state, whatever may be his outward prosperity if he allows himself to neglect that blessed ordinance, by which fellowship is maintained between Heaven and earth, and fellowship enjoyed by the creature with the Creator. And he who, whether in prosperity or adversity, makes it his daily practice to go to the throne of grace, and in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, makes his request known unto God will, from his own experience, bear testimony to the truth of the promise, that "the peace of God which passes all understanding, shall keep his heart and mind through Christ Jesus."
But while prayer is a duty incumbent at all seasons, and a privilege which the highest prosperity affords no reason for neglecting it is, in many respects, peculiarly seasonable in the time of affliction.
Affliction is favorable to the spirit of prayer. For, wherein does the true nature of prayer consist? It consists in the desire of the heart, offered up to God; and what is better fitted to awaken earnest desire than the pressure of affliction? In the day of prosperity, when every need or appetite of our nature is supplied, we may not be conscious of any very strong desire, and are too apt to forget the fact of our dependence upon God, in respect to the supply of our temporal needs. And even in regard to our spiritual necessities, we are prone, when surfeited with worldly prosperity, to become cold and lukewarm in our desires after the communications of divine grace by which alone they can be supplied. Is there one Christian who has not experienced the deadening effect of uninterrupted prosperity on the spiritual desires and holiest affections of his nature?
And if even Christians are too often lulled asleep by its influence, how much more may those be cradled into profound forgetfulness of God, who have never known the necessity, nor made the deliberate choice, of a better and more enduring portion?
But when their prosperous course is broken by severe affliction the minds of both classes are brought into a new state! The Christian is then thrown back on the inward resources of his religion, and will then feel their necessity and value. And even in an unsanctified bosom, such strong natural longings will spring up, as may, under the blessing of God, lead the worldling himself to seek after a better portion than the world.
In so far as affliction is the means of awakening earnest desire, and exciting a sincere feeling in the heart it is favorable to the spirit of prayer; for that feeling, or that desire, if directed towards God, is prayer.
Again, prayer is an expression of our dependence on God and it is in affliction that we are most sensible of our helplessness. It is by affliction that we are made to feel how little of what most nearly concerns our happiness is under our own control and how absolutely our interests are at the disposal of God's higher control. What, for instance, can impress the mind with so deep a sense of helplessness, as the pressure of disease in our own people, which no human skill can arrest or cure; or the gradual decay and final dissolution of a beloved friend, at whose couch we watch by day and by night; and are only more and more confirmed in the conviction, that unless God interposes vain is the help of man?
In so far as affliction teaches us our dependence on God, it is favorable to the spirit of prayer; for why, in such circumstances, should we refrain from expressing that dependence which we feel, and acknowledging that helplessness which we cannot deny especially when we know that God has a sovereign control over all events and that, if we procure his aid, we obtain the benefit of unerring wisdom and almighty power?
Again, affliction is favorable to the spirit of prayer, because, when it is either sudden or severe, it is usually associated in the minds of men with a sense of guilt, and an apprehension of divine displeasure. We insist not on the reasons of it but on the bare fact that such an apprehension is universally felt by those who are exposed to imminent danger, or plunged in deep distress; and that, by the constitution of our nature, such a connection is established between suffering and sin as that the former cannot be, to any great extent, endured, without being accompanied with a deep sense of personal demerit and guilt.
That such a connection does exist, is evident from the dreadful apprehensions which are experienced and expressed by the most ungodly and careless, when they are suddenly brought into imminent danger. Many will then tremble, and think of God, who cared nothing for reflection before. Have we not seen a family, enjoying a long course of prosperity, and as unmindful of God and religion, as if they were ignorant that they had a God to worship, and souls to be saved; but when one of their number was suddenly seized by the hand of death, the whole of that mirthful household were also seized with religious fear, and none more anxious than they to procure the aid of a minister's consolations, and a minister's prayers! Have we not known a crude and thoughtless sailor, spending every hour of fair weather and prosperous winds in jovial mirth night after night retiring to his cot without thinking of the God above, or of the Hell beneath him and even, when the first gale arose that was to founder his ship, reckless of the coming storm; but when the crash was heard, and when, from the force of habit, the first word upon his lip was an oath, that oath died away into a prayer, when the foaming waters burst across the deck, and lashed him into the mighty deep!
In the 107th Psalm, we find the tendency of affliction to produce prayer, illustrated by many beautiful examples as in the case of the Jews wandering in the wilderness, in a solitary way, hungry and thirsty, and their souls fainting within them. Or in the case of those who, by reason of personal distress, "sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, being bound in affliction and iron, because they rebelled against the words of God." Or in the case of those who go down to the sea in ships, whose soul is melted because of trouble in each case, it is added, "they cried unto the Lord in their trouble."
It is true, that in all these cases, prayer may, in the first instance, be nothing more than the cry of nature in distress; the desires of such people may not, at the outset, be purely spiritual; and the sense of guilt which they experience, may be characterized more by the terrors of remorse, than by the tenderness of true repentance. Be it so; this does not hinder the usefulness of affliction, as a means in God's hand, of leading them to pray.
God acts on the minds of men by rational inducements; and seeing that, in their natural state, they are dead to the influence of higher and more spiritual motives he has recourse to their sentient nature; their hopes and their fears are addressed in the promises and threatenings of Scripture and their love of happiness, and aversion to suffering, are appealed to in the absence of holier principles. When God sends affliction, he appeals to their natural feelings; and the lessons which it is fitted to teach, are so many motives to a religious life motives which, although, in the first instance, addressed to the mere natural feelings, and hopes, and fears of the sufferer may, nevertheless, through these arrest the attention, and reach the conscience, and ultimately renew the heart.
The impressions which are made during a season of affliction, may be the result, in a great measure, of mere natural feeling; but they may, nevertheless, be the means which the Holy Spirit has chosen for the commencement of a saving change; and if they lead the sufferer to pray, they bring him under a new influence, whereby the sentient feelings which at first prompted him, may gradually and imperceptibly rise into gracious and devout affections. At all events, let no sufferer be debarred from the throne of grace, because he is in doubt as to the spirituality of his affections, or depressed by a sense of guilt; let him remember, that as a sinner he is invited, and that his present affliction is designed to induce him to pray; and should he still question his warrant or his prospect of acceptance let him remember the words of the apostle to Simon Magus, "You are in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity; but pray to God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you."
As affliction prepares the mind for prayer so prayer relieves the mind in affliction.
Prayer is often the means of averting the evils with which we are threatened, and of delivering us from those under which we labor. Its efficacy, both for defense and delivery is frequently stated in express terms, and illustrated by striking examples in the Sacred Writings.
It is recorded of Hezekiah, that when he heard the message of God by the mouth of Isaiah the prophet, saying, "Set your house in order for you shall die, and not live!" he "turned his face toward the wall, and prayed unto the Lord, and said, Remember now, Lord, I beseech you, how I have walked before you in truth, and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in your sight! And Hezekiah wept sore. Then came the word of the Lord to Isaiah, saying: Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father, I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears behold, I will add to your days fifteen years." "And Isaiah said: Take a lump of figs; and they took and laid it on the boil, and he recovered."
Thus was a sore disease removed, and early death prevented by the efficacy of prayer; and Hezekiah had reason to sing for joy: "You have, in love to my soul, delivered it from the pit of corruption, for you have cast all my sins behind my back! The Lord was ready to save me, therefore we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments, all the days of our life, in the house of the Lord."
The history of the people of Israel affords many interesting examples of the effect of prayer in delivering from outward trouble, as well as of the tendency of affliction to impress the most careless with the necessity and value of prayer. These examples are thus beautifully referred to in the 107th Psalm: "give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good; for his mercy endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom he has redeemed from the hand of the enemy. They wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way; they found no city to dwell in. Hungry and thirsty, their souls fainted in them. Then they cried unto the Lord in their trouble and he delivered them out of their distresses. For he satisfies the longing soul, and fills the hungry soul with goodness."
Nor was the efficacy of prayer, in preventing or removing trouble, confined to the Jewish people, although they lived under a dispensation which was in many respects supernatural and miraculous. We are taught, on the contrary, to regard the examples which their history presents, as so many indications of the unalterable principles on which the general government of the world is conducted; and in so far as the point now before us is concerned, the same principle is recognized and embodied in a promise in the New Testament itself: "If any man is afflicted, let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he has committed sin, it shall be forgiven him."
And in more general terms, our Lord has said to all his disciples, "Ask, and you shall receive; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." "Whatever you ask in my name, believing, you shall receive."
To this, many may be ready to oppose their own experience, and may be unwilling to admit the efficacy of prayer in preventing or removing outward calamity, when they remember with what frequency and earnestness they supplicated for mercies which before, nevertheless, withheld, and deprecated trials which were, nevertheless, sent or continued with them. They may remember that, when threatened with bereavement, they wept sore, and besought the Lord to spare and restore the object of their fond affections; and yet, that he allowed disease to take its course, until it terminated in death.
These facts, which no Christian minister will seek either to deny or to conceal, may have had the effect of staggering the belief of many in the efficacy of prayer; and where they have not had this effect, they may occasionally puzzle even the minds of believers, and overwhelm them with deep anxiety, by suggesting the awful thought, that, since their prayers have received no direct answer they must either not be of the number of God's people at all, or they must "have prayed amiss."
But these conclusions are not warranted by Scripture, and they arise from a misapprehension, not so much of the promise annexed to prayer, as of the very nature of prayer itself. No prayer is scriptural, which does not express a desire in unison with the will of God; and where the purpose of God is, as in most cases it must be, secret or unknown to us no prayer is scriptural in which the expression of our own desire is not limited by a holy acquiescence in his will. We are not entitled, for example, to pray absolutely that God's chastening hand may be withdrawn from us, or that the life of a relative may be spared, or that we may be blessed with worldly prosperity. All these desires, however natural and however strong, must be limited by, and subordinated to, the will of Him who knows what is best for us, and who has graciously taken the management of our case into His own hands.
This is strikingly implied in the very structure of that form of prayer which our Lord himself gave to his disciples; for it is a very remarkable fact, that the three first petitions of that prayer are expressive of . . .
a desire for God's glory,
acquiescence in God's will, and
zeal for the extension of His kingdom.
And it is not until after we have thus ascribed sovereignty to Jehovah, and cast ourselves absolutely into His hands that we are permitted to broach one petition for our own particular interest, even to the extent of daily bread!
It is only, therefore, when our desires are in unison with the divine will that we have reason to expect a direct fulfillment of our requests. And this consideration is fraught with much interesting instruction, and with great practical comfort in regard to the efficacy of prayer; for it assures us, that if we should happen to pray in a right spirit but, from ignorance, should ask what is not really good for us that God will not take advantage of our ignorance or weakness, so as to visit us with a curse, when we are seeking a blessing. There can be no doubt that, were every desire which we express in prayer to meet with a direct and literal fulfillment, the efficacy of prayer might, through our ignorance of what is really for our good, become a source of calamity rather than of comfort!
As it is related of one who, being possessed of great wealth, and having an only son, and that son laboring under a very sore disease, and being repeatedly counseled to resign him into God's hand, and to acquiesce in his appointment, even should God be pleased to take him away, did, nevertheless, so far yield to his natural affections, as resolutely to refuse any act of submission, and could not bring himself to utter one word of acquiescence in such a result. But this same man, many years after, was seen dishonored and beaten in his old age, by that very son whom he was so loath to lose; and mourning, in the bitterness of his heart, over filial ingratitude and disobedience, as the heaviest curse of his gray hairs!
But when our petition is limited by acquiescence in the sovereign disposal of Almighty God even should we ask amiss, God will neither withhold what is truly good for us, nor give what he knows to be bad. And thus the omniscient wisdom of God is our security against the effect of our own ignorance, or weakness in prayer.
It is chiefly in reference to external comforts or privileges, that we are ignorant of God's will and our own interest; for, on that subject, we have no Scripture revelation to guide us. But for spiritual blessings, in so far as these are necessary for the safety of the soul we have a stronger assurance of an answer, in proportion as we have better evidence both of its being God's will to bestow, and of its being our interest to receive them.
It may be doubtful how far God will be pleased to grant, or how far it would be for our real welfare to obtain exemption from outward trials, or the uninterrupted enjoyment of worldly prosperity. But we know from Scripture, that the blessings of God's grace are of such a nature, that He must at all times be willing to dispense them, and that we cannot pray for, or receive them without being substantially benefitted. We have greater confidence, therefore, of a literal fulfillment of our petitions, when we supplicate the grace of a penitent spirit than when we pray for a prosperous outward estate, since the former must, at all times, be an object of delight to God, and a real blessing to ourselves; whereas the latter may be fraught with danger to our higher interests, and may, therefore, by God's unerring wisdom, be withheld.
In this view, also, our prayers may be really answered although the special evil which we deprecate is, nevertheless, inflicted, and the good which we supplicate is, nevertheless, withheld. For what is our prayer? Why, that God would deal with us according to the counsels of unerring wisdom, and give or withhold according to his sovereign will. That being our prayer, it is answered even though it should be by crosses. And, in this, God magnifies his grace, by bringing the substantial blessings which we need out of the unlikeliest means, nay, out of those very evils which we are most eager to avoid! We see, hence, not only that the prayers of his people are answered but that they cannot fail to have their fulfillment! For the desires of their hearts are going forth in unison with the divine will and that will is omnipotent!
In these circumstances, however, the unbelieving mind will be ready to reason against the utility of prayer altogether, and to say that God's will, being omnipotent, must have its effect, whether we pray or not. But, by those who can entertain this idea, it is not duly considered, that prayer is in the moral world, what any other ordinary cause is in the physical world a means established by God himself a link in the grand chain of cause and effect, which not only comprehends both the physical and moral departments of his government but combines the two, and establishes a very intimate relation between their several parts a cause, in fact, which is not less regarded by God than any other secondary agent in nature. It might, therefore, with the same propriety be affirmed, that God's omnipotent will must cause the pre-determined harvest to spring up from the earth, without the agency of manual labor as that God's will must cause the fulfillment of such of our desires as are in unison therewith, without the agency of prayer.
And, be it observed, that even were we unable to obviate the difficulty, we cannot fail, at least, to perceive, that it is founded on a principle directly the reverse of that on which our Lord argued; for, so far from regarding the infinite knowledge, or the sovereign will, or the almighty power of God as superseding the necessity of prayer on the part of man he refers to these as the very ground and reason, nay, as the strongest motive and encouragement of prayer! "For your heavenly Father knows that you have need of these things."
Were we to act on any other principle, we must virtually declare that we will not pray unless we are allowed to dictate to God, or assured that our desires shall overrule the decision of omniscient wisdom!
Even when prayer is not effectual in averting or removing the evil which we fear or endure yet it imparts to the believing mind the strongest of all consolation that which arises from the persuasion that God's will is answered by the event, and that any other result would have been, in the judgment of unerring wisdom, neither so good in itself, nor so beneficial to our real interest.
Besides its effect in averting threatened calamity, or procuring positive blessings at the hand of God prayer exercises a beneficial influence on the mind and thus fits it for suffering, and relieves it when calamity comes.
The degree of sorrow which is occasioned by affliction, depends a great deal more on the state of mind in which it finds the sufferer than on the amount of the calamity itself. The same trial which overwhelms one person may be sustained with composure and comfort by another; and that, too, although both are equally sensitive in their feelings. This difference depends on the preparation which they have respectively made for the event. If the one has been careless, while the other was thoughtful; and, above all, if the one has been negligent in fortifying his mind by prayer and supplication, while the other, under a deep sense of his liability to affliction, and his dependence on God, has betaken himself, in the exercise of humble trust and confidence, to the throne of grace, and has been enabled there to repose the burden of his anxieties on the Lord it cannot but be, that the latter will feel very differently from the former, when the event occurs. And that event, however calamitous in itself, will be the less overwhelming to him in proportion as he was the better prepared to meet it, and the more accustomed to regard it in connection with the will of Him, who is at once the God of Providence, and the hearer of prayer.
And as prayer, offered up in anticipation of sufferings, puts the soul in a right state of preparation so, by virtue of its natural influence, it has the effect of relieving the mind of those feelings, which severe calamity, when it does come, must, in all cases, in a greater or less degree, awaken. Prayer before affliction fits the mind for suffering; prayer under affliction relieves the mind of its sorrow. So long as the feelings of the sufferer are restrained and pent up within his own bosom, they prey upon his internal peace. But when they find a channel through which they obtain utterance and expansion, their depressing power is mitigated, and the heart is, in part at least, relieved of its burden. Hence excessive grief is often mitigated by copious weeping much more by communion with a dear and confidential friend but most of all by prayer, which is the heart's communion with God, the best and nearest of friends.
Those who have witnessed the strong agony of grief, occasioned by some sudden and unexpected calamity, and have watched, with intense concern, its progress and results can best appreciate the benefit of such outlets to human feeling, and they will testify, that as soon as the grief of their friend found vent in tears or in free conversation they felt that the worst was already past. And, above all, if the sufferer retired to his chamber, and, on his bended knees, poured out his soul to God in the confidence of prayer a calm serenity and composure ensued, which showed that the crisis was over, and that, too, although he may have prayed with strong crying and tears.
It may be difficult to account for the relief which a suffering spirit derives from the gushing of tears, unless it is resolved into a natural harmony between the physiology of the body, and the deep emotions of the mind. It may be difficult, also, in some cases, to account for the relief that is derived from the mere utterance of the heart's fullness into the ear of another, unless it be referred to the principle of sympathy, whose law seems to be, "that it redoubles joys and cuts griefs in halves; for, as there is no man that imparts his joys to his friend but he rejoices the more; so there is no man that imparts his griefs to his friend but he grieves the less."
But, whatever difficulty may be felt in ascertaining the reason why such outlets of feeling are so proverbially the means of relieving sorrow surely there can be none in accounting for the relief which a pious mind experiences in unbosoming its sorrows in the very presence and ear of its God! For there, at his footstool who dare arraign the wisdom, or blame the rectitude, or question the sovereignty of Him from whom affliction comes?
In prayer, the mind is brought into immediate contact with the Supreme Will; the sovereignty of God is recognized and felt; the wisdom of his dispensations acknowledged; and the very misery which leads the sufferer to the throne of grace, is the means of placing him in a position in which he feels that he must adore the divine goodness, and trust in it still, notwithstanding all that has occurred, otherwise he has neither help nor hope. By the very act of bending the knee before his footstool, the Christian makes all these acknowledgments, and gives a practical expression of his confidence in God's faithfulness and love he repairs to God as his friend a friend that will not leave him nor forsake him. And if such acknowledgments are made, and such feelings are awakened, in the hour of prayer is not his spirit thereby placed in the best condition for at once procuring the mitigation of his sorrow, and improving by the calamity which has called it forth?
It is, indeed, wonderful, how the mind clears up its views of God's dispensations, while engaged in prayer. At first, thick clouds may seem to darken his prospect but, as he proceeds, streaks of light break through, and shine in upon his spirit, and, "while he sits in darkness the Lord is a light to him." "While David kept silence, his bones waxed old, through his roaring all the day long;" while "he restrained prayer, his spirit was straitened;" but no sooner did he pour out his heart before God, than he "was compassed about with songs of deliverance."
In such a case, much sorrow may still remain but the bitterness of grief is past. The subdued and humble feeling which affliction is designed to produce, and by which it operates, in part, its beneficial results will characterize the sufferer, long after the agony of grief has subsided into calm resignation. His soul will no longer resemble the troubled sea which cannot rest but will be like "a weaned child." And this wholesome conversion of the excitement of violent sorrow into the mild virtue of suffering affliction with patience is best produced by the agency of prayer.
"On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity!" Zechariah 13:1
Come to Calvary's holy mountain,
Sinners! ruined by the fall;
Here a pure and healing fountain
Flows to you, to me, to all
In a full, perpetual tide.
Opened when the Savior died.
Come, in poverty and baseness.
Come, defiled without, within;
From infection and uncleanness,
From the leprosy of sin,
Wash your robes and make them white;
You shall walk with God in light.
Come, in sorrow and contrition,
Wounded, impotent, and blind;
Here the guilty, free remission,
Here the troubled peace may find;
Health this fountain will restore;
He who drinks will thirst no more.
He who drinks shall live forever:
'Tis a soul-renewing flood;
God is faithfulGod will never
Break his covenant in blood,
Signed when our Redeemer died,
Sealed when he was glorified!