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OF THE DUTY OF PRAYER.
I THESSALONIANS, CHAP. V.-VERSE 17.
Pray without ceasing.
It is the manner of St. Paul in his epistles, after that he hath discussed some main points of doctrine or discipline, (which occasion required that he should clear and settle,) to propose several good advices and rules, in the observance whereof the life of Christian practice doth consist. So that he thereby hath furnished us with so rich a variety of moral and spiritual precepts, concerning special matters, subordinate to the general laws of piety and virtue; that out of them might well be compiled a body of ethics, or system of precepts de officiis, in truth and in completeness far excelling those which any philosophy hath been able to devise or deliver. These he rangeth not in any formal method, nor linketh together with strict connexion, but freely scattereth them, so as from his mind (as out of a fertile soil, impregnated with all seeds of wisdom and goodness) they did aptly spring up, or as they were suggested by that holy Spirit which continually guided and governed him.
Among divers such delivered here, this is one, which shall be the subject of my present discourse; the which, having no other plain coherence (except by affinity of matter) with the rest inclosing it, I shall consider absolutely by itself, endeavoring somewhat to explain it, and to urge its practice.
Pray without ceasing. For understanding these words, let us first consider what is meant by the act enjoined,
praying;' then, what the qualification or circumstance adjoined, ' without ceasing,' doth import.
1. The word prayer' doth, in its usual latitude of acception, comprehend all sorts of devotion, or all that part of religious practice, wherein we do immediately address ourselves to God, having by speech (oral or mental) a kind of intercourse and conversation with him. So it includeth that praise which we should yield to God, implying our due esteem of his most excellent perfections, most glorious works, most just and wise dispensations of providence and grace; that thanksgiving whereby we should express an affectionate resentment of our obligation to him for the numberless great benefits we receive from him; that acknowlegement of our intire dependence on him, or our total subjection to his power and pleasure ; together with that profession of faith in him, and avowing of service to him, which we do owe as his natural creatures and subjects; that humble confession of our infirmity, our vileness, our guilt, our misery, (joined with deprecation of wrath and vengeance,) which is due from us as wretched men and grievous sinners; that petition of things needful or convenient for us, (of supply in our wants, of succor and comfort in our distresses, of direction and assistance in our undertakings, of mercy and pardon for our offences,) which our natural state (our poor, weak, sad, and sinful state) doth engage us to seek ; that intercession for others, which general charity or special relation do require from us, as concerned or obliged to desire and promote their good. All these religious performances prayer, in its larger notion, doth comprise; according whereto in common use the whole body of divine service, containing all such acts, is termed prayer; and temples, consecrated to the performance of all holy duties, are styled houses of prayer;' and that brief directory, or pregnant form of all devotion, which our Lord dictated, is called his prayer;' and in numberless places of Scripture it is so taken.
In a stricter sense, it doth only signify one particular act among those, the petition of things needful or useful for us.
But according to the former more comprehensive meaning, I
choose to understand it here ; both because it is most commonly so used, (then, especially, when no distinctive limitation is annexed, or the nature of the subject matter doth not restrain it,) and because general reasons do equally oblige to performance of all these duties in the manner here prescribed : nor is there any ground to exclude any part of devotion from continual use; we being obliged no less incessantly to praise God for his excellencies, and thank him for his benefits, to avow bis sovereign majesty and authority, to confess our infirmities and miscarriages, than to beg help and mercy from God. All devotion therefore, all sorts of proper and due address to God, (that roa mporeux), "all prayer and supplication,' which St. Paul otherwhere speaketh of) are here enjoined, according to the manner adjoined, without ceasing,' ádraheittws, that is, indefinitely, or continually,
2. For the meaning of which expression, we must suppose that it must not be understood as if we were obliged in every instant or singular point of time actually to apply our minds to this practice; for to do thus is in itself impossible, and therefore can be no matter of duty ; it is inconsistent with other duties, and therefore must not be practised; yea, will not consist with itself; for, that we may pray, we must live; that we may live, we must eat; that we may eat, we must work; and must therefore attend other matters : so that actual devotion neither must nor can swallow up all our time and care. The deliberate operations of our mind are sometimes interrupted by sleep, sometimes will be taken up in satisfying our natural appetites, sometimes must be spent in attendance on other reasonable employments, commanded or allowed by God; whence there can be no obligation to this practice according to that unlimited interpretation. This precept therefore (as divers others of a like general purport and expression) must be understood not in a natural but moral sense, according as the exigence of things permitteth, or as the reason of the case requireth ; so far as it is conveniently practicable, or as it is reasonably compatible with other duties and needs. But we must not so restrain it as to wrong it, by pinching it within too narrow bounds. How then it may be understood, and how far it should extend, we shall endeavor to declare by propounding divers senses whereof
it is capable, grounded on plain testimonies of Scripture, and enforcible by good reason ; according to which senses we shall together press the observance thereof.
I. First then, 'praying incessantly' may import the maintaining in our souls a ready disposition or habitual inclination to devotion; that which in Scripture is termed the spirit of supplication. This in moral esteem, and according to current language, derived thence, amounteth to a continual practice; a man being reckoned and said to do that, to wbich he is ever prompt and propense : as it is said of the righteous man, that • he is ever merciful, avd lendeth,' because he is constantly disposed to supply his neighbor with needful relief; although he doth not ever actually dispense alms, or furnish his neighbor with supplies for his necessity. The words may signify this; they do at least by consequence imply so much : for if we do not in this, we can hardly perform the duty in any sense ; without a good temper fitting, and a good appetite prompting to devotion, we scarce can or will ever apply ourselves thereto. If there be not in our heart a root of devotion, whence should it spring ? how can it live or thrive? If the
prayer are out of kelter, or out of tune, how can we pray? If we be not accincti, have not the loins of our mind girt,' and 'our feet shod in preparation to the service, when shall we set forward thereto? My heart,' said David, “is fixed, I will sing and give praise ;' fixed, that is, readily prepared, and steadily inclined to devotion. So should ours constantly be. As a true friend is ever ready to entertain his friend with a frank courtesy and complacency; as he ever is apt on occasion for advice and assistance to have recourse to him : so should we be always disposed cheerfully and decently to converse with God, when he freely cometh to us, or we have need to apply ourselves to him. If there be (from stupidity of mind, from coldness of affection, from sluggishness of spirit, from worldly distraction) any indisposition or averseness thereto, we should, by serious consideration and industrious care, labor to remove them; rousing our spirits, and kindling in our affections some fervency of desire toward spiritual things : otherwise we shall be apt to shun, or to slip the opportunities inviting to devotion ; our
hearts will be so resty, or listless, (that hardly we shall be induced to perform it, when it is most necessary or useful
II. · Praying incessantly'may denote a vigilant attendance (with earnest regard, and firm purpose) employed on devotion : such attendance as men usually bestow on their affairs, whereof although the actual prosecution sometime doth stick, yet the design continually proceedeth; the mind ever so directing its eye toward them, as quickly to espy, and readily to snatch any advantages of promoting them. This is a kind of continuance in practice, and is commonly so termed : as we say, that such an one is building a house, is writing a book, is occupying such land, although he be at present sleeping, or eating, or following any other business ; because his main design never sleepeth, and his purpose continues uninterrupted. This is that which is so often injoined under the phrase of watching
Watch ye therefore, and pray always,' saith our Lord. •Continue in prayer, and watch in the same,' saith St. Paul. Be ye sober, and watch unto prayer,' saith St. Peter. Which expressions import a most constant and careful attendance on this duty: that we do not make it a trápepyov, or bye-business in our life, (a matter of small consideration or indifference, of curiosity, of chance,) to be transacted drowsily or faintly, with a desultorious and slight endeavor, by fits, as the humor taketh us; but that, accounting it a business of the choicest nature and weightiest moment, we do adhere thereto with unmoveable purpose, regard it with undistracted attention, pursue it with unwearied diligence, being always on the guard, wakeful and expedite, intent on and apt to close with any occasion suggesting matter thereof. That we should do thus reason also doth oblige: for that, as in truth no business doth better deserve our utmost resolution and care ; so none doth more need them; nature being so backward, and occasion so slippery, that if we do not ever mind it, we shall seldom practise it.
III. Praying incessantly' may signify that we do actually embrace all fit seasons and emergent occasions of devotion. This in moral computation doth pass for continual perform