The Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.)

Francis Wayland


Of Prayer

IN the present chapter, we shall treat of the nature the obligation, and the utility, of prayer.

I. The nature of prayer.

Prayer is the direct intercourse of the spirit of man with the spiritual and unseen Creator. “God is a spirit, and those that worship Him, must worship Him in spirit and in truth.”

It consists in the expression of our adoration, the acknowledgment of our obligations, the offering up of our thanksgivings, the confession of our sins, and in supplication for the favors, as well temporal as spiritual, which we need; being always accompanied with a suitable temper of mind.

This temper of mind presupposes, —

1. A solemn conviction of the character and attributes of God, and of the relations which He sustains to us.
2. A conviction of the relations which we sustain to Him, and of our obligations to Him.
3. An affecting view of our sinfulness, helplessness, and misery.
4. Sincere gratitude for all the favors which we have received.
5. A fixed and undissembled resolution to obey the commands of God in future.
6. Unreserved submission to all His will.
7. Unshaken confidence in His veracity.
8. Importunate desires that our petitions, specially for spiritual blessings, should be granted.
9. A soul at peace with all mankind.

Illustrations of all these dispositions, from the prayers recorded in the Holy Scriptures, as well as the precepts by which they are enforced, might be easily adduced. I presume, however, they are unnecessary. I will only remark, that it is not asserted that all these dispositions are always to be in exercise at the same time, but only such of them as specially belong to the nature of our supplications.

Inasmuch as we are dependent on God, not only for all the blessings which we derive directly from His hands, but also for all those which arise from our relations to each other, it is manifestly proper that we confess our sins, and supplicated His favor, not only as individuals, but as societies. Hence, prayer may be divided into individual, domestic and social.

Individual Prayer. As the design of this institution is, to bring us, as individuals, into direct communion with God, to confess our personal infirmities, and to cultivate personal piety, it should be strictly in private. We are commanded to pray to our Father in secret. It should, moreover, be solemn, unreserved, and, in general, accompanied with the reading of the Holy Scriptures. As, moreover, this direct communion with the unseen Creator, is intended to be the great antagonist force to the constant pressure of the things seen and temporal, it should be habitual and frequent.

Domestic Prayer. As the relation sustained by parents and children, is the source of many and peculiar blessings; as the relation involves peculiar responsibilities, in the fulfilment of which we all need special guidance and direction, there is a peculiar propriety in the acknowledgment of God, in connection with this relation. The importance of this duty is specially urged upon us, by its effect upon the young. It associates with religion all the recollections of childhood, and all the sympathies of home. It gives to parental advice the sanction of religion, and, in after life, recalls the mind to a conviction of duty to God, with all the motives drawn from a father’s care and a mother’s tenderness.

Social Prayer. Inasmuch as all our social and civil blessings are the gift of God, it is meet that we should, as societies, meet to acknowledge them. This is one of the most important duties of the Sabbath day. It will, therefore, be more fully treated of, under that branch of the subject.

Since prayer is the offering up of our desires, etc., with a suitable temper of heart, it is manifest that the question whether a form of prayer, or extemporary prayer, should be used, is merely one of expediency, and has no connection with morals. We are under obligation to use that which is of the greatest spiritual benefit to the individual. Private prayer should, however, I think, be expressed hi the words of the supplicant himself.

II. The duty of prayer.

The duty of prayer may be seen from the conditions of our being, and from the Holy Scriptures.

I. The conditions of our being.

1. We are utterly powerless, ignorant of the future, essentially dependent at the present and for the future, and are miserably sinful. We need support, direction, happiness, pardon and purification. These can come from no other being than God, who is under no obligation to confer them upon us. What can be more manifestly proper, than that we should supplicate the Father of the universe for those blessings which are necessary, not only for our happiness, but for our existence, and that we should receive every favor with a devout acknowledgment of the terms on which it is bestowed?

2. Inasmuch as we are sinners, and have forfeited the blessings which we daily receive, what can be more suitable, than that we should humbly thank that Almighty power, from whom comes such an inexhaustible supply of goodness, to us so utterly undeserving? and what more obligatory, than to ask the pardon of our Creator, for those sins of omission and of commission, with which we are every hour justly chargeable?

3. Specially is this our duty, when we reflect, that this very exercise of habitual reliance upon God, is necessary to our happiness in our present state, and that the temper which it presupposes, is essential to our progress in virtue.

That such is the dictate of our moral constitution, is evident from the fact, that all men who have any notion of a Supreme Being, under any circumstances, acknowledge it as a duty, and, in some form or other, profess to practice it. And besides this, all men, even the most abandoned and profligate, when in danger, pray most eagerly. This has been the case with men who, in health and safety, scoff at religion, and ridicule the idea of moral obligation. But it is evident, that it can be neither more proper nor more suitable to pray when we are in danger, than to pray at any other time; for our relations to God are always the same, and we are always essentially dependent upon him for every thing, both temporal and spiritual, that we enjoy at the present, or hope for in the future. It is surely as proper to thank God for those mercies which we receive every moment, as to deprecate those judgments by which we are occasionally alarmed.

II. The duty of prayer, as taught in the Scriptures.

The Scriptures treat of prayer, as a duty arising so immediately out of our relations to God, and our obligations to Him, as scarcely to need a positive precept. Every disposition of heart which we are commanded to exercise towards God, presupposes it. Hence, it is generally referred to, incidentally, as one of which the obligation is already taken for granted. Precepts, however, are not wanting, in respect to it. I here only speak of the general tendency of the Scripture instructions.

1. It is expressly commanded: “Pray without ceasing.” “In every thing giving thanks, for this is the will of God, in Christ Jesus, concerning you.” “In all things, by prayer and supplication, let your request be made known unto God.” Phil. 4:6. “I exhort that supplications and prayers, intercessions and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for this is good and acceptable in the sight of God, our Savior.” 1 Tim. 2:1-3.

2. God declares it to be a principal condition on which He will bestow favors. “If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him.” James 1:5. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or, what man is there of you, whom, if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone, or, if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father, that is in heaven give good things to them that ask him!” Matthew 7:7-11. Now, it is too obvious to need a remark, that God would not have connected so important consequences with prayer, unless He meant to inculcate it as a universal duty.

3. The Scriptures make the habit of prayer the mark of distinction between the righteous and the wicked; between the enemies and the friends of God. Thus, the wicked say: “What is the Almighty, that we should serve Him? or, what profit shall we have, if we call upon Him?” Job 21:15. “The wicked, through the pride of his countenance, will not seek after God. God is not in all his thoughts.” Psalms 10:4. On the contrary, righteous persons, those whom God approves, are specially designated as those who call upon Him.

4. Examples of the prayers of good men, are, in the Scriptures, very abundant. In fact, a large portion of the Bible is made up of the prayers and praises of those whom God has held up for our imitation. To transcribe these, would be to transcribe a large portion of the sacred books.

5. The Bible abounds with examples recorded by God, of special answers to prayer of every kind that can be conceived. There are examples of the successful prayer of individuals for temporal and for spiritual blessings, both for themselves and for others; of individual prayers for nations, and of nations for themselves; of individuals for societies, and of societies for individuals; and, indeed, of men in all the circumstances in which they can be placed, for every blessing, and under every variety of relation. Now, what God has, at so great length, and in so great a variety of ways, encouraged us to do, must be not only a privilege. but a duty.

In a word, the Bible teaches us, on this subject, that our relation to God is infinitely nearer, and more universal, than that in which we can possibly stand to any other being. He allows us, with the simplicity and confidence of children, to unbosom all our cares, to make known all our wants, and express all our thanks, with unreserved freedom to Him. He assures us, that this exercise, and the temper from which it springs, and which it cultivates, is most acceptable to Him. And, having thus condescended to humble Himself to our situation, He holds us as most ungrateful, proud, insolent and sinful, if we venture to undertake any business, or receive any favor, without holding direct and child-like communion with Him.

6. Under the remedial dispensation, a special encouragement is given to prayer. We are there taught, that though we are unworthy of the blessings which we need, yet we may ask and receive, for the sake of the Mediator. “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, He will give it you.” The death of Christ is also held forth as our special ground of confidence in prayer: “He that spared not His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how shall He not, with Him, freely give us all things?” And. vet more, we are informed, that it is the special office of the exalted Mediator, to intercede for us before the throne of God. Greater encouragements than these, to prayer, could not possibly be conceived.

III. The utility of prayer.

This may be shown, 1. From the nature and attributes of God: He would not require any thing of us which was not for our good.

2. The utility of prayer is seen from the tempers of mind which it presupposes. We have already shown what these tempers of mind are. Now, it must be evident to every one, that the habitual exercise of these dispositions must be, in the nature of the case, in the highest degree beneficial to such creatures as we.

3. The utility of prayer is also evident from its connection with our reception of favors from God.

1. In the government of this world, God establishes such connections between cause and effect, or antecedent and consequent, as he pleases. He has a perfect right to do so. The fact, that one event is the antecedent of another, involves not the supposition of any essential power in the antecedent, but merely the supposition that God has placed it in that relation to something that is to follow.

2. The bestowment of favors is one event. God has, a right to ordain whatever antecedent to this event he chooses. We are not competent to say, of any event, that it cannot be the antecedent to the bestowment of favors, any more than that rain cannot be the antecedent to the growth of vegetation.

3. Since, then, any event whatever may be the antecedent to any other event whatever, we are, surely, not competent to say that prayer cannot be the antecedent to the bestowment of favors, any more than to say this of any thing else. It is, surely, to say the least of it, as good as any other antecedent, if God saw fit so to ordain.

4. But, since God is a moral Governor, and must, therefore, delight in and reward virtuous tempers, there is a manifest moral propriety in his making these tempers the antecedent to his bestowment of blessings. Nay, we cannot conceive how he would be a righteous moral Governor, unless he did do so. And, hence, we see, that the supposition that God bestows blessings in answer to prayer, which he would not bestow on any other condition, is not only not at variance with any of his natural attributes, but that it is even demanded by his moral attributes.

5. But, inasmuch as God has revealed to us the fact, that this is the condition on which he bestows the most valuable of his gifts, and as he has bound himself, by his promise, to reward abundantly all who call upon him, the utility of prayer, to creatures situated as we are, is as manifest as our necessities are urgent, both for time and for eternity.

4. And, finally, there can be no clearer evidence of the goodness of God, than just such a constitution as this. God promises favors in answer to prayer; but prayer, as we have seen, is one of the most efficient means of promoting our moral perfection; that is, our highest happiness; that is to say, God promises us favors, on conditions, which, in themselves, involve the greatest blessings which we could possibly desire. Bishop Wilson beautifully remarks, “How good is God, who will not only give us what we pray for, but will reward us for going to him, and laying our wants before him!”

That a man will, however, receive every thing he asks for, and just as he asks for it, is by no means asserted, in an unlimited sense; but only that which he prays for, in a strict sense. True prayer is the offering up of our desires, in entire subjection to the will of God; that is, desiring that he will do what we ask, if He, in His infinite wisdom and goodness, sees that it will be best. Now, if we ask thus, our prayer will be granted, for thus He has promised to do for us. Hence, our prayers respecting temporal blessings, are answered only contingently; that is, under this condition; but our prayers respecting spiritual blessings, are answered absolutely; for God has positively promised to give His Holy Spirit to them that ask Him.

If God have allowed us thus to hold the most intimate and unreserved communion with Him; and if He have promised, on this condition, to support us by His power, to teach us by His wisdom, to purify us by His Spirit, and to work in us all those tempers which He sees will best prepare us for the highest state of future felicity, what can be more ennobling and more lovely than a prayerful life? and what more ungrateful and sinful, than a life of thoughtless irreverence and impiety? Is not the single fact, of living without habitual prayer, a conclusive evidence that we have not the love of God in us; that we are living in habitual violation of every obligation that binds us to our Maker; and that we are, therefore, under the solemn condemnation of His most holy law?