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THE ORDINARY ME
OF GRACE. THE USEFULNESS OF PRAYER
1 TAESSALONIANS V. 17.Pray without ceasing
In the preceding discourse, I considered the Nature, and Seasons, of Prayer, and the Obligations which we are under to pray. I shall now discuss, at some length, the fourth subject proposed at that time; viz. the Usefulness of Prayer.
The observations which I shall make concerning this subject, will be included under the following general heads :
The Usefulness of Prayer by its own proper Influence; and,
The first of these heads, viz. The Usefulness of Prayer by its own proper Iufluence, I shall consider, as it respects
In this discourse, it is my intention, to exhibit the Usefulness of Prayer to Individuals by its proper Influence on themselves.
Before I proceed to the direct discussion of this subject, it will be useful to observe, that the personal concerns of an individual are the proper subjects of secret prayer. The propriety of such Prayer is wholly derived from the fact; that we have many important interests, which are only personal, and require to be transacted between us and our Maker. In their very nature, they are incapable of being disclosed to our fellow-creatures, without material disadvantages. Often they are such, as we would not, on any account, reveal to any human being whatever. Often the disclosure, although not injurious to our moral or intellectual character, would wound our delicacy, or involve us in other kinds of distress. In a multitude of instances, where they are already partially known, we are still unable to disclose them entirely, and with that freedom, which is indispensable to the due performance of this duty. Before our Maker, strange as it may seem, we can use a freedom of communication, which cannot be exercised towards any created being. We know, that he is already acquainted with whatever we have experienced, done, or suffered, either within or without the mind. We know that he is infinitely removed from all the partialities, and prejudices, from all those cold, unkind, and contemptuous sentiments, which are so generally cherished by
our fellow-men. We know, that he will not betray us; but, however unworthy we have been, will regard us, if sincere and penilent, with kindness and mercy. We approach Him, therefore, with a freedom, a confidence, of communication, which can be used towards no other being in the Universc.
Besides, God is nearer to all men, than any man to another. If. we are willing to choose him as our friend; he is infinitely the nearest, the best, the most affectionate, of all friends. With Him, therefore, a communion can, and does, exist, which no crcature can hold with a fellow-creaturc.
In consequence of these facts, à frecdom, and a fervency also, exists in secret prayer, when the subject of it is our personal concerns, which cannot exist in the presence of others.
With these things premised, 1 observe, that the Usefulness of Prayer to individuals is found,
First, In the peculiar Solemnity which it naturally induces on the mind,
In secret prayer, a man comes directly into the presence of God. This great and awful Being is the source of all solemn thoughts and cmotions in his creatures; and the Object in which such thoughts ultimately terminate. Every thing in His Character, every thing in our character and circumstances, every thing in our relations to Him, and in the situation in which we are thus placed; the end, for which we have entered our closcls ; the duty which we are performing; the retirement from the world ; the presence of God, and the consciousness that his eye is on our hearts; all these conspire to drive away every trifling thought, and to banish every improper emotion. It is scarcely possible, that the man, who has withdrawn to his closet, for the purpose of meeting God face to face; and who here remembers bcforc whom he stands, on what business he has come, and of what importance that business is to himself; should fail to fix his thoughis in solemnity and awe, and hush every tendency to an unbecoming emotion.
To all men, this state of mind is eminently useful, and indispensably necessary. Spiritual and immortal concerns demand, of course, and most obviously, this state of mind. We cannot attend to them, in any other state, with advantage; nor without scrious disadvantage. We cannot see them as they are, nor feel them as they are. We cannot be influenced to attend to them, nor to provide for them, as they indispensably demand. As they are of all possible consequence to us; so this state of mind; the only one, in which we can uscfully attend to them ; becomes of proportional importance.
Thus forgiveness of sin, a restoration to holiness, resolutions to perform our duty, the cffectual pursuit of salvation, and the final escape from ruin, can never be useful objects of attention, and ef. fort, to him whose mind is not settled in that state of solemnity,
which these mighty concerns require. The soul, which is given up to levity, regards them, of course, with habitual indifference; and not unfrequently with habitual contempt. By a man of this character, therefore, they will be neglected and forgotten.
Secondly. Prayer is useful to an individual, as it enlightens, and quickens, the conscience.
Conscience is the Judgment of the Mind concerning its moral conduct, both internal and external. By this Judgment of the mind, we are, and of necessity must be, ultimately directed in every case of a moral nature. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance, that it should be formed aright.
Conscience, also, is used both in Scriptures and elsewhere, with a direct reference to those emotions, or feelings, which we experience, when this judgment is formed; and which usually have more or less influence upon the formation of the judgment itself, and upon the conduct, by which it is follozoed. When these are just and vigor. ous, we are not only directed, but prompted, to act aright. Whet they are dull and lifeless, we are apt, how just soever the judg. ment may be, either not to act at all, or to act in direct violatior of its dictates. In every such case, our conduct is sinful; and often, when, under the influence of a conscience more tender ano susceptible, it would have been virtuous. Hence the plain neces. sity of having our consciences quickened, or made alive to oui duty. A seared conscience denotes not the want of a capacity to judge, but an insensibility to the importance of moral good and evil.
Among the means, placed in our power, of enlightening an' quickening the conscience, Prayer, after the Scriptures, is, in my view, the first; and far superior to any other. It is, also, the chies mean of rendering the Scriptures themselves effectual to this ende
When we stand in our closels, immediately before God, are secluded from the world, and withdrawn from every eye but his ; when we feel the awe, inspired by a clear view of his character, and realize in an affecting manner his presence and inspection; it can hardly be possible for us not to entertain, concerning our Creator, ourselves, and all moral objects, views, exceedingly different from those gross apprehensions, which we experience in ordinary circumstances. We can hardly fail to discern our sinful charac. ter, and to regard sin as a real and great evil. God, in spite o all our ordinary stupidity, will then appear to be an awful, per: fect, and glorious Being; his Law to be holy, just, and good; it extent to comprehend all our thoughts and actions alike ; its na ture, demands, and penalties to be unchangeable; and ourselve to be condemned, and, if left in our present condition, to be ruin ed. In this situation we further discern, of course, that man: things are sinful, which we have customarily regarded as innocene and that many things are duties, to perform which, we have here tofore felt little or no obligation.
These views are particularly enlarged, and rendered more distinct, by means of our confessions, and petitions. When we confess our sins before God; we are compelled to such a sincerity of thought, as well as of speech, as must induce us to throw aside a multitude of prejudices, self-justifications, and self-flatteries; usually, and very pleasingly, cherished. We know, that we cannot leceive God; and are certain, that even our inmost thoughts are naked to the All-seeing eye. Little inducement is presented to us, therefore, to think falsely of our conduct. So far as our views extend, they naturally become just, and scriptural. In this state, every sin, which we confess, is apt to be seen as it is; as a sin; as a violation of the Law of God; as an act of opposition to his Will; and as a source to us of guilt and condemnation. The vanity strongly appears of attempting to hide our guilt from his sighi'; and of course, the necessity, as well as the duty, of acknowledging it before bim. Hence, while the confession of all our sins is forcibly prompted, the confession of each is naturally rendered sincere. Hence, also, the sinner sees many things to be sinful, which he has usually thought innocent; perhaps virtuous; and the whole number of his sins to be far greater, than he has before mistrusted.
In our Petitions, we ask for the blessing of God. If we ask for forgiveness, we ask for t'ie forgiveness of our sins; and of course discern, that we have siv- to be forgiven. This forgiveness is necessary for every sin. While the eye of the mind is employed in wandering with solemn anxiety over this interesting subject, and inquiring with deep solicitude what, and how numerous, are the cases, in which this forgiveness is needed; it is impossible for us not to perceive, that we have many, very many, sins to be forgiven.
If we ask for sanctification; we ask it for sinners, to whom this blessing is necessary. In the same character, we ask for justification, for adoption, for increase of grace, and for perseverance unto the end. In a word, our guilty character will recur, and present itself before our eyes, with every petition which we make.
Nor will the necessity, and excellence, of holiness appear with less evidence. Sin is our ruin : holiness is our recovery. Both are alike important: the one being as dreadful, as the other is desirable. Of all the blessings, for which we ask, holiness is the basis, the means, and the end. To cvery one of them it inseparably adheres: with every one it is intimately blended. Our views, therefore, will be as naturally, and as extensively, engaged by it; and be as naturally rendered clear, and impressive.
As these two great attributes are the only ones, which characterize our moral conduct; so the clearer and brighter our views of these things are, the more enlightened, of course, is our Conscience, or the judgment of our minds concerning that conduct. When we ask God for his blessing on any thing, which we are about to do, we shall in this way discern with more certainty its
real nature; especially as it appears to our own view; than in any other situation. We often, as we think, convince ourselves by reasoning, that a proposed pursuit is lawful and right; when we in fact believe it to be otherwise. In inost, if not all, such cases, the first judgment of our minds, that which we usually denominate the decision of Conscience, has already determined it to be wrong. On the future reasoning, inclination has, usually, had no small share of influence; and has warped the judgment of the mind so, as to lead it to false conclusions. With these conclusions, however, we are but too prone to feel satisfied.
But, if we attempt to ask the blessing of God upon such conduct in our closets, we shall often find our attempts to be vain. Our mouths will be stopped, and our efforts to pray annihilated. Some persons declare, and appear to believe, that Gaming is lawful and justifiable. But no one ever asked, no one can ever seriously ask, the blessing of God on a design to game. There are persons, who declare Lewdness to be lawful. But no person can ask God to bless a lewd purpose. An attempt of this nature would choak the utterance even of a profligate.
When we ask the same blessing on similar conduct, already past; the same consequences will follow; and we shall be forced, in spite of ourselves, to acknowledge, and feel, the guilt of that, which is sinful. Notwith-tan by his utmost efforts, the sinner will be checked in all his attempts to pray, so long as he justifies, so long as he does noi confess, and lament, his guilty conduct; however satisfied with himself he was in the perpetration. Until he becomes willing to forsake his sins, they will hinder his prayers. Nor can he continue to sin, and continue to pray.
This doctrine St. Peter teaches in the third chapter of his first Epistle. In the 7th verse, he directs husbands to live with their wives, as in the preceding verses he had directed wives to live with their husbands, in the performance of all the duties of conjugal affection, and in a general obedience to the precepts of the Gospel. For these directions, he subjoins his reason in the following words: that your prayers be not hindered. According to this decision of the Apostle, disobedience to the Gospel, and the neglect of the duties required by it, hinder, of course, the prayers of mankind. In other words, Sin is the direct hindrance of prayer. Every person, who prays to God, will continually find, by his own experience, that this account of the subject is true; and that, whenever he sins, his prayers are hindered. Of course, he will be obliged to relinquish his sins, or desist from his prayers. Should he continue to pray, all the views, which I have mentioned, and all others like them, will continually recur; and will soon become habitual. They will soon constitute the general current of his thinking on moral subjects. But the more clear, distinct, and habitual our thoughts concerning moral subjects become, the more stronglv. and the more uniformly, shall we feel these subjects. Their