BY FREDERICK W. ROBERTSON
And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt (Matthew 26:39).
No ONE WILL refuse to identify holiness with prayer. To say that a man is religious, is the same thing as to say he prays. For what is prayer? It is to connect every thought with the thought of God, to look on
everything as His work and His appointment, to submit every thought, wish, and resolve to Him to feel His presence so that it shall restrain us even in our wildest joy. That is prayer. And what we are now, surely we are by prayer. If we have attained any measure of goodness, if we have resisted temptations, if we have any self-command, or if we live with aspirations and desires beyond the common, we shall not hesitate to ascribe all to prayer.
There is, therefore, no question among Christians about the efficacy of prayer; but even when that is granted generally, then questionings and diversities of view begin. What is prayer? What is the efficacy of
prayer? Is prayer necessarily words in form and sequence; or is there a real prayer that can never be verbalized? Does prayer change the outward universe, or does it alter our inward being? Does it work on
God, or does it work on us?
To all these questions, I believe a full and sufficient answer is returned in the text. Let us examine it calmly, and without prejudice or prepossession. If we do, we shall obtain a conclusion in which we may rest with peace, no matter what we conclude. We will consider: 1) The right of petition, 2) erroneous views of prayer, and 3) the true efficacy of prayer.
The Right of Petition
“Let this cup pass from me.” We infer prayer to be a right because it is a necessity of our human nature.
The Son of Man feels the hour at hand: shrinks from it, seeks solitude, flees from human society, feels the need of it again, and goes back to His disciples. Here is that need of sympathy which forces us to desire
congenial thought among others, and here is that recoil from cold unsympathizing people which forces us back to our loneliness again. In such an hour, they who have before forgotten prayer flee to God, and in
such an hour, even the most resigned are not without the wish, “Let this cup pass.” Christ Himself has a separate wish-one human wish.
Prayer, then, is a necessity of our humanity rather than a duty. To force it as a duty is dangerous. Christ did not; He never commanded it and never taught it until asked. This necessity is twofold. First, there is the necessity of sympathy. We touch other human spirits only at a point or two. In the deepest departments of thought and feeling, we are alone, and the desire to escape that loneliness finds for itself a voice in prayer.
Next, there is the necessity of escaping the sense of a crushing fate. The feeling that all things are fixed and unalterable, that we are surrounded by necessities which we cannot break through, is intolerable whenever it is realized. Our egotism cries against it-our innocent egotism. As a result the practical reconciliation between our innocent egotism and hideous fatalism is prayer, which realizes a living Person ruling all things with a will.
Again, we base this right on our privilege as children. “My father”-the sonship that Christ shares with us reveals the human race as a family in which God is a Father and He is the elder brother. It would be a
strange family where the child’s will dictates; but it would also be strange where a child may not, as a child, express its foolish wish, even if it is only to have the impossibility of gratifying it explained.
Christ used it as a right, therefore we may. There are many cases in life where to act seems useless and many truths which at times appear incredible. Then we throw ourselves on Him-He did it, He believed it,
that is enough. He was wise where I am foolish. He was holy where I am evil. He must know. He must be right. I rely on Him.
Bring what arguments you may. Say that prayer cannot change God’s will. I know it. Say that prayer ten thousand times comes back like a stone. Yes, but Christ prayed, therefore I may and I will pray. Not only so, but I must pray; the wish felt and not uttered before God, is a prayer. Speak, if your heart prompts, in articulate words, but there is an unverbalized wish, which is also prayer. You cannot help praying if God’s spirit is in yours.
Do not say I must wait until this tumult has subsided and I am calm. The worst storm of spirit is the time for prayer; the agony was the hour of petition. Do not stop to calculate improbabilities. Prayer is truest when there is most of instinct and least of reason. Say, “My Father, thus I fear and thus I wish. Hear thy foolish, erring child. Let this cup pass from me.”
Erroneous Views of Prayer
Wrong notions are contained in that conception which He made negative, “As I will.”
A common popular conception of prayer is that it is the means by which the wish of man determines the will of God. This conception finds an exact parallel in those anecdotes with which Oriental history abounds
in which a sovereign gives to his favorite some token on the presentation of which every request must be granted. For example, Ahasuerus promised Queen Esther that her petition should be granted, even to the half of his kingdom. Also, Herod swore to Herodias’ daughter that he would do whatever she should require. It will scarcely be said that this is a misrepresentation of a very common doctrine, for they who hold this misconception would state it this way and would consider the mercifulness and privilege of prayer is that by faith we can obtain all that we want.
Now in the text it is said distinctly this is not the aim of prayer nor its meaning. “Not as I will.” The wish of man does not determine the will of God. Try this conception by four tests.
1. Test it by its incompatibility with the fact that this universe is a system of laws. Things are thus rather than thus. Such an event is invariably followed by such a consequence. This we call a law. All is one vast chain from which, if you strike a single link, you break the whole. It has been truly said that to heave a pebble on the seashore one yard higher up would change all antecedents from the creation, and all consequent to the end of time. For it would have required a greater force in’ the wave that threw it there, a different degree of strength in the storm, a change of temperature all over the globe, and a corresponding difference in the temperaments and characters of the men inhabiting the different countries.
The result is that when a child wishes a fine day for the following day’s excursion and hopes to have it by an alteration of what would have happened without his wish, he desires nothing less than a whole new universe.
It is difficult to state this in all its force except to men who are professionally concerned with the daily observation of the uniformity of the divine laws. But when the astronomer descends from his serene
gaze upon the moving heavens, or when the chemist rises from contemplating those marvelous affinities, the proportions of which are never altered, realizing the fact that every atom and element has its own mystic number in the universe to the end of time, or when the economist has studied the laws of wealth and seen how fixed they are and sure, then for us to hear that it is expected that, to comply with a mortal’s convenience or plans, God shall place this whole harmonious system at the disposal of selfish humanity, seems little else than impiety against the Lord of law and order.
2. Test it next by fact.
Ask those with spiritual experience. We do not ask whether prayer has been efficacious; of course, it has been. It is God’s ordinance. Without prayer the soul dies. But we ask whether the good derived has been that prayer brought them the very thing they wished for? For instance, did the plague come and go according to the laws of prayer or according to the laws of health? Did it come because men neglected
prayer, or because they disobeyed those rules which His wisdom has revealed as the conditions of salubrity? And when it departed, was it because a nation lay prostrate in sackcloth and ashes, or because it
arose and girded up its loins and removed those causes and those obstructions which, by everlasting law, are causes and obstructions? Did the catarrh or the consumption go from him who prayed, sooner than
from him who humbly bore it in silence? Try it by the case of Christ-Christ’s prayer did not succeed. He prayed that the cup might pass from Him. It did not so pass.
Now lay down the undeniable principle, “The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord.” What Christ’s
prayer was not efficacious to do, that ours is not certain to effect. If the object of petition is to obtain, then Christ’s prayer failed; if the refusal of His position did not show the absence of the favor of His Father, then neither does the refusal of ours.
Nor can you answer this statement by saying, “His prayer could not succeed because it was decreed that Christ should die, but ours may succeed because nothing hangs on our fate, and we know of no decree
that is against our wish.”
Do you mean that some things are decreed and some are left to chance? That would make a strange, disconnected universe. The death of a worm as well as your death and the hour and moment of both are all fixed as much as His was. Fortune, chance, and contingency are only words which express our ignorance of causes.
3. Test it by the prejudicial results of such a belief.
To think that prayer changes God’s will gives unworthy ideas of God. It supposes our will to be better than His, the Unchangeable, the Unsearchable, the All-wise. Can you see the totality of things-the consequences and secret connections of the event you wish? If not, would you really desire the terrible power of infallibility in order to secure it?
Consider also the dangers of price and lazy inactivity resulting from the fulfillment of our desires as a necessity. Who does not recollect such cases in childhood when some curious coincidences with our wishes
were taken for direct replies to prayer and made us fancy ourselves favorites of heaven, in possession of a secret spell. These coincidences did not make us more earnest, more holy, but rather the reverse. Careless and vain, we fancied we had a power which superseded exertion; we contemptuously looked down on others. Those were startling and wholesome lessons which came when our prayer failed, and threw our
whole childish theory into confusion. It is recorded that favorite once received from his sovereign a ring as a mark of her regard, with a promise that whenever he presented that ring to her she would grant his
request. He entered on rebellion, from a vain confidence in the favor of his sovereign.
Arrested and in prison he sent, by messenger, the ring to her, expecting amnesty. The ring which he sent to her was not delivered by his messenger, and he was executed. So would we rebel if prayer were
efficacious to change God’s will and to secure His pardon.
If we think that answered prayer is a proof of grace, we shall be unreasonably depressed and unreasonably elated-depressed when we do not get what we wish, elated when we do; besides, we shall uncharitably judge other men.
Two farmers pray. The one whose farm is on light land prayed for rain; the other, whose contiguous farm is on heavy soil, for fine weather. Plainly one or the other must come, and that which is good for one may
be injurious to the other. If this be the right view of prayer, then the one who does not obtain his wish must mourn, doubting God’s favor, or believing that he did not pray in faith.
Two Christian armies meet for battle as Christian men on both sides pray for success. Now if victory is given to prayer, independent of other considerations, we are driven to the pernicious principle that
success is the test of right.
From all false ideas the history of this prayer of Christ delivers us. It is a precious lesson of the Cross that apparent failure is eternal victory. It is a precious lesson of this prayer that the object of prayer is not the success of its petition, nor is its rejection a proof of failure. Christ’s petition was not gratified, yet He was the one well-beloved of His Father.
True The Efficacy of Prayer
All prayer is to change the human will into submission to the divine will “as thou wilt.” Trace the steps in this history by which the mind of the Son of Man arrived at this result. First, we find the human wish
d, that “the cup might pass from him.” Then He goes to the disciples, and it would appear that the sight of those disciples, cold, unsympathetic, asleep, chilled His spirit, and set that train of thought in motion which suggested the idea that perhaps the passing of that cup was not His Father’s will. In any case He goes back with this perhaps, “If this cup may not pass from me except I drink it, Thy will be done.” He goes back again, and the words become stronger now: “Nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” The last time He comes, all hesitancy is gone. Not one trace of the human wish remains; strong in submission, He goes to meet His doom- “Rise, let us be going: behold he is at hand that cloth betray me.” This, then, is the true course and history of prayer. Hence we conclude:
1. That prayer which does not succeed in moderating our wish and in changing the passionate desire into still submission-is no true prayer, and such a prayer proves that we have not the spirit of true prayer.
Hence, too, we learn:
2. That life is most holy in which there is least of petition and desire and most of waiting upon God, that in which petition most often passes into thanksgiving. In the prayer taught by Christ there is only one petition for personal good, a singularly simple and modest one, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and even that expresses dependence much more than anxiety or desire.
From this we understand the spirit of that retirement for prayer into lonely tops of mountains and deep shades of night of which we read so often in His life. It was not so much to secure any definite event as
the need of holy communion with His Father-prayer without any definite wish; for we must distinguish two things which are often confounded. Prayer for specific blessings is a very different thing from communion
with God. Prayer is one thing, petition is quite another. Indeed, hints are given us which make it seem that a time will come when spirituality shall be so complete, and acquiescence in the will of God so entire,
that petition shall be superseded. “In that day ye shall ask me nothing” (John 16:23). “Again I say not I will pray the Father for you, for the Father Himself loveth you” (John 16:26,27). And to the same purpose are all those passages in which He disapproves of the heathen idea of prayer, which consists in urging, prevailing upon God. “They think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him” (Matthew 7:7,8).
Practically then, I say, Pray as He did, until prayer makes you cease praying. Pray until prayer makes you forget your own wish, and leave it or merge it in God’s will. The divine wisdom has given us prayer, not
as a means whereby we escape evil, but as a means whereby we become strong to meet it. “There appeared an angel unto Him from heaven, strengthening Him.” That was the true reply to His prayer.
And so, in the expectation of impending danger, our prayer has won the victory, not when we have warded off the trial, but when, like Him, we have learned to say, Arise, let us go to meet the evil.”
Now contrast the moral consequences of this view of prayer with those which, as we saw, arise from the other view. By contrast, we learn that mistrust of our own understanding which keeps us from dictating to God. We also learn that benevolence which, when we contemplate the good of the whole rather than self-interest, dreads to secure what is pleasing to self at the possible expense of the general good. We learn that
humility which looks on ourselves as atoms, links in a mysterious chain, and shrinks from the dangerous wish to break the chain. Finally, we learn the certainty that the All-wise is the All-good and that “all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28), for the individual as well as for the whole. Then, the selfish cry of egotism being silenced, we obtain Job’s sublime spirit, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10).
There is one objection that may be made to this. It may be said, if this is prayer, I have lost all I prized. It is sad and depressing to think that prayer will alter nothing and bring nothing that I wish. All that was precious in prayer is struck away from me.
But one word in reply. You have lost the certainty of getting your own wish; you have got instead the compensation of knowing that the best possible, best for you, best for all, will be accomplished. Is that
nothing? Will you dare to say that prayer is no good at all unless you can reverse the spirit of your Master’s prayer, and say, “Not as Thou wilt, but as I will?”
Frederick W. Robertson (1816-1853) wanted to be a soldier, but he yielded to his father’s decision that he take orders in the Anglican church. The courage that he would have shown on the battlefields, he displayed in the pulpit, where he fearlessly declared truth as he saw it. Never strong physically, he experienced deep depression, he questioned his faith, and he often wondered if his ministry was doing any good. He died a young man, in great pain, but in faith and courage. He had ministered for only six years at Trinity Chapel, Brighton, but today his printed sermons have taken his brave message around the world. This one is from his Sermons, Fourth Series, published in 1900 in London by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Company.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS TAKEN FROM CLASSIC SERMONS ON PRAYER, PAGES 40-49. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.