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If they were dutiful children, they would be more concerned for his honor than for their own gratification. While they were modest, and humble, and reverential, they might manifest great earnestness in their desires, yet not forgetting the right of their parent to withhold what they asked, and if he should withhold it, being ready to acquiesce in his decision. If he had made an absolute promise respecting any particular thing, they might plead that promise, with great propriety. But where he had not made such a promise, how desirable soever the favor might appear to them, dutiful and affectionate children would certainly feel more confidence in the superior wisdom of a wise and good parent, than they would in their own. This shows us what is essential to right prayer. The distance between a holy God and his sinful creatures is immense; and those who have a proper sense of his infinite majesty, and of their own vileness, will approach him with the deepest reverence. They will be far, very far, from that familiar mode of address with which our ears are sometimes shocked, and which betrays a feeling quite the reverse of that holy fear and reverend awe which is essential to true piety. Where God has made an absolute promise, as he did to Jacob, they will feel at liberty to plead that promise, with a truly
But where he has made no such promise, how desirable soever the thing they ask may appear to : them, and with how much perseverance soever
, and humble, reverential importunity they may be disposed to urge their request, they will do it with a deep sense of their own incompetence to decide what is best, and with full confidence in the superior wisdom of their Heavenly Father. They will have faith in his wisdom, to discern, better than they can, what is most for his glory; faith in his goodness, to choose what he sees to be best adapted to promote it, and faith in his power, to do that which is wisest and best : “ for he that cometh to God, must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him." And in the exercise of this faith in God, they will be ready to acquiesce in the decision which he shall make, and be willing to be denied the particular thing they have requested, and choose to have it denied, if God shall see that to be best.
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This, I think, is the prayer of faith. It is an expression of a truly filial temper. And every child of God must be conscious that he possesses something of this temper, and offers some prayers like these. On the contrary, a prayer that has not these essential qualities, a prayer that expresses no reverence for God, a prayer that is couched in the language of demand, and assumes to dictate to the Most High, a prayer that is destitute of humility, that does not regard the glory of God as the ultimate end, that claims the identical thing asked, though there is no absolute promise in the case, and that refuses to submit the matter of
request with a will, but thine be done;" a prayer that manifests full confidence in our own wisdom to discern what is best, and an unwillingness to be denied ; such a prayer, though improperly called prayer, is the prayer of unbelief, and must be offensive to a holy God.
Thus far, perhaps, there will be no essential disagreement among Christians, in their view of this subject. But it is necessary to make further inquiries. Have Christians reason to expect they shall obtain, in all cases, the identical thing they ask for? Is such an expectation essential to right prayer ? Does it constitute the faith which renders prayer prevailing ? May we urge Christians to pray in the exercise of this belief, 'and assure them that if they will, they shall obtain, in all cases, the particular favors they ask? Is all prayer to be condemned, as essentially defective and absolutely sinful, which is not made with this belief, and which does not obtain the thing asked for ? If a sinner remains unconverted, is it a certain proof that he has not been prayed for as he ought to have been ?
I cannot adopt the theory which answers these questions in the affirmative. One reason is, that I find several prayers recorded in the Scriptures, which I cannot condemn, but which did not obtain the thing asked for. Moses prayed to be allowed to enter the promised land, but was only permitted to see it from a distance. The Lord Jesus prayed that the cup might pass from him, but was only strengthened to drink it. Paul prayed that the thorn in his flesh might be removed, but only obtained divine support to endure it. I do not see any reason to
condemn these prayers, but must believe they were acceptable to God.
If I should adopt this theory, I see not how I can believe there are any Christians in the world, or ever have been. There can be no Christians without prayer. There can be no Christian who does not pray for the success of the gospel, and the conversion of the world. If all right prayer obtains the thing asked for, and there had been any right prayer for the conversion of the world, the world would have been converted. The Lord Jesus as a man was bound to perform every duty. If it is my duty to pray for the conversion of every sinner, believing that he will be converted, it was his duty to make the same prayer. And if my performance of my duty in this respect would issue in the conversion of every sinner, the same result would have followed from the performance of the same duty by the Lord Jesus Christ.
I cannot adopt this theory, and urge it upon others as a duty to pray for the conversion of every sinner believing that it will be done, and assuring them that, if they do so pray, it will be done, because the inconsistency between my principles and practice would be so great, that I should not expect to be believed, nor even to obtain credit for sincerity. For I should expect they would say to me If your principles are correct, why do you call upon us to do what you can so easily do yourself ? Why do you not pray thus for the conversion of all men, and secure their salvation at once ? Such an inquiry would close my lips. I could not reprove others for not praying thus, when the reproof itself would be an admission that I never did it myself
. I cannot adopt this theory, because it sets out with wrong principles. We cannot believe anything, without some evidence, real or supposed, that the thing we believe is true.
To believe without evidence, is not faith, but presumption. If I should exhort you to pray for the conversion of an individual, believing that it will take place, and should tell you that if you will so pray he will be converted, you may ask me what evidence there is that this individual will be converted ? If there is evidence in existence that he will be converted, sufficient to warrant your belief when it shall be made known to you, it proves that he will be converted, whether that evidence is made known to you, or remains concealed from you, and whether you believe it or not. If the thing is true, it cannot be made untrue by your failing to believe it. If the thing is untrue, your believing it will not make it true. You may deceive yourself, and you may deceive the individual for whom you pray, by believing it without evidence. And I fear that very many are thus fatally deceived. Can I tell you that there is evidence sufficient to warrant your belief? Is there evidence, in the case of any individual now in his sins, 'that he will be converted ? evidence sufficient to warrant your belief that he will be ? You call upon me for it. Where can I find it ?
The Bible nowhere mentions his name and predicts that he will be converted. If it did, I could show you the place, and you could believe it. And if it did, your unbelief, and the unbelief of others could not hinder it.
But, do not the Scriptures contain many promises that prayer shall be heard and answered ? Certainly ; promises enough to afford all the encouragement a true Christian can desire. Why, then, is not the belief of those promises the same as a belief that the very thing asked for will be granted ? In the first place, those promises, except in the case of particular predictions, do not contain an assurance that the very thing we ask shall be done; but only that it shall be done, if it is best; and if not best, that something else which is better shall be done in its stead. Paul's prayer, that the thorn in his flesh might be removed, was answered in this way. And this must satisfy every true child of God. For, he knows that he is not so wise as his Heavenly Father, and cannot know what is best, in all cases.
But secondly, if the general promise to hear and answer prayer, was, as it is not, a promise to grant the very thing asked for, this would not be a warrant for our belief, at the time, and in the place, where, according to this theory, that belief is needed. For that promise is doubtless made to right prayer, and to no other. We must, then, in the first place, make a right prayer, that is, we the prayer
of faith. In the second place, we must reflect upon what we have done, and find evidence
that our prayer was rightly made. Then, in the third place, and not till then, we might believe that the thing would be done. But this is too late. The faith must be exercised in the first step of the process, in order to make the prayer right. But there is no warrant for it, to be derived from the promise, till we come to the third step. If the faith required were a belief that God would hear and answer all right prayer, by doing that which Infinite Wisdom sees best, that faith could be exercised in the first step; for it has the promises of the Bible for its foundation. But if the faith required is a belief that the thing we ask will be done, it is clear that those promises contain no warrant for it, and nothing on which it can be founded, till after the right prayer is made, and is known to have been made. Where, then, is the evidence that we can have, before we begin to pray, which will warrant us in believing that the thing we are about to pray for will be done, and in view of which it will be possible for us to pray with such a faith? It cannot be in the Bible, but must be derived from some other source.
From what other source can it be derived ? Does the Holy Spirit reveal to individuals what is about to be done, by the impressions he makes upon their minds? This opinion has had many advocates. It was entertained by many in the days of President Edwards. And he thought it so dangerous in its tendency that he took much pains to refute it. In his Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England, he mentions this as principle, than which scarcely any has proved more mischievous to the present glorious work of God.” And he says, “ By such a notion the devil has a great door open for him; and if once this opinion should come to be fully yielded to, and established in the church of God, Satan would have opportunity thereby to set up himself as the guide and oracle of God's people, and to have his word regarded as their infallible rule, and so to lead them where he would, and to introduce what he pleased, and soon to bring the Bible into neglect and contempt.” And he further observes, “ It is enough to astonish one, that such multiplied plain instances of the failing of such supposed revelations, in the event, does not open every