by Alexander Whyte
The last sermon by Alexander Whyte to be read is from a series of sermons he preached on the great Puritan Thomas Shepard. The titles for his sermons were taken from quotes in Shepard's writings (either his journal, sermons, or treatises). The three volume works of Thomas Shepard have been republished by Soli Deo Gloria. Shepard is well worth the considerable effort it takes to read him.
To Dr. Whyte the heart of the spiritual life was prayer. Prayer was the saint pouring his heart out upon God and God likewise pouring His heart out upon His child in intimate communion.
"He never failed to distinguish the God-ward from the man-ward aspect of religion. No spiritual teacher of his time and land preached with the same insight on penitence or on prayer. Much as he valued the privilege of public worship-yet to him the typical and the highest form of devotion was secret prayer." (G. F. Barbour, The Life of Alexander Whyte D. D., p. 307)
For further precepts on prayer by Alexander Whyte his series of sermons on this subject has been published in the book Lord, Teach Us to Pray.
It Is Sometimes So With Me That I Will Rather Die Than Pray
by Alexander Whyte
(Concerning Thomas Shepard, Pilgrim Father and Founder of Harvard; His Spiritual Experience and Experimental Preaching, pp. 53-64)
Suppose for a moment that we had been left without hope in our fallen estate of sin and misery. Just suppose that we had been left as a race with nothing before us but a fearful looking for of judgment. And then suppose we were told that there was another race of sinful and miserable men exactly like ourselves in one of those wonderful worlds that we see in our midnight sky. And suppose we were told also that to them in their fallen state their Maker had Himself become their Redeemer and had prepared His throne in the heavens, so that by simply approaching that throne they could command His ear and His heart and His hand at any hour of the day and in any watch of the night. Suppose all that had been told us about those happy creatures, with what holy wonder and with what holy desire would we have gone out of our house at night and looked up at that far-off star! How would we have envied those highly favored sons of God! O that my lot had been cast among them, and not on this God-forsaken earth! What Sabbath days they must have up there! What communion seasons! What meetings for prayer and praise! And what family worship! How happy it must be to be a father up there! How sweet and blessed, above all words, to be a mother! But suppose we were also assured that with all that, those so privileged people simply despised and neglected their Maker and Redeemer and absolutely hated so much as to kneel down before Him. Suppose we were assured that ninety-nine out of every hundred of those redeemed men actually rose every morning and lay down every night as if there were no God and no mercy-seat -- what would you have said about such men? You would have said that they must be madmen, if the tenth part of what you have been told about them is true.
Now, not only is it all true, but more than that, this world of ours is that wonderful star. And we who are assembled in this House of God this Sabbath evening, we are those suicides. It is we who say, What is the Almighty that we should serve Him? And what profit should we have if we prayed to Him? Now, if all that is so, can any explanation be given of that so fearful state of matters? -- a state of matters so fearful that one of the most prayerful men that ever lived here confesses to us that it is sometimes so with him that he will rather face death and judgment than abide for long before God in secret prayer. Now can that awful state of matters be at all explained? And if so what can that explanation by any possibility be?
Well, at bottom and to begin with, there is some absolutely unaccountable alienation of our sinful hearts away from our Maker and our Redeemer. There is some utterly inexplicable estrangement from God that has, somehow, taken possession of your heart and mine. There is some dark mystery of iniquity here that has never yet been sufficiently cleared up. There is some awful 'enmity against God,' as the Holy Ghost has it: some awful malice that sometimes makes us hate the very thought of God. We hate God, indeed, much more than we love ourselves. For we knowingly endanger our immortal souls; every day and every night we risk death and hell itself rather than come close to God and abide in secret prayer. This is the spiritual suicide that we could not have believed possible had we not discovered it in our own atheistical hearts. The thing is far too fearful to put into words. But put into words for once, this is what our everyday actions say concerning us in this supreme matter of prayer. 'No; not tonight,' we say, 'I do not need to pray tonight. I am really very well tonight. And besides I have business on my hands that will take up all my time tonight. I have quite a pile of unanswered letters on my table tonight. And before I sleep I have the novel of the season to finish, for I must send it back tomorrow morning. And besides there is no such hurry as all that. I am not so old nor so frail as all that. Go thy way for this time, when I have a convenient season I will call for thee.'
But even when it is not so bad with us as that, at our very best there is a certain backwardness in prayer to which all praying men have to confess. I find that same sad confession in men so different both in their doctrines and in their experiences as Jeremy Taylor and John Newton. These are the very words of the eloquent Bishop in his Holy Living: 'There is no worse sign of our spiritual danger than the backwardness we have to pray. So weary are we of the duty, so glad are we to have it over, and so witty are we to find an excuse to evade it.' And these are the exact words of John Newton in his fine book, The Cardiphonia: 'I find in my own case an unaccountable backwardness to pray. I can read, I can write, I can converse with a ready will, but secret prayer is far more spiritual than any of these. And the more spiritual any duty is the more my carnal heart is apt to start away from it.' Both of those prayerful men, you see, confess to a sad backwardness in prayer -- to call that state of mind and heart by no worse name.
Now in a state of matters like that it is quite evident how next to impossible it will be for any man to put his whole heart into his prayer, even when he compels himself to pray. And yet without the whole heart it is not true prayer at all. It is only when we seek God with our whole heart, that we have any assurance from Him that we shall find Him. The men of Judah, we read, swore to God with their whole heart. They sought God with their whole heart's desire and He was found of them and He gave them rest round about. And a psalmist sings of the great blessedness of them that keep God's testimonies, and that seek Him with their whole heart. And again, With my whole heart have I sought Thee, O let me not wander from Thy commandments. And again, When you seek Me with your whole heart, then shall you find Me. Even the old Stoics, who lived in an outside dispensation, said that nothing cost them so much as the things which they purchased by prayer. Because they had to give up their whole heart to their prayer before they could gain
anything from God in that way. And our own New England [Thomas] Shepard has this same experience in the New Testament dispensation. 'August 13. I saw that my heart was prone to neglect prayer. I soon thought that I had prayed enough for one night. Till I came to see that all I could pray was little enough to help down all the mercy I needed. And till I came to see also that God would have me to get my mercy from Him at some cost to myself.' Yes; this is one of the great difficulties of a life of prayer to such men as we are, that it demands from us our whole heart.
Then again, sometimes, and to some people, there is the great difficulty they have in praying along with some other people. For instance, you will have an insurmountable difficulty sometimes in entering with your whole heart into public worship. Your minister does not carry you with him in his pulpit devotions. His language, his voice, his accent, his intonation, his manner, his composition, or some other unacceptableness of his to you, throws you wholly out of step with him till you lose all the help of public prayer. Then again, those who conduct family prayers at home do not help you, rather otherwise. They are so familiar to you, they so little interest you, they are so lengthy, and they so weary you, and so on. Till family worship is no worship at all to you, but the very opposite, and till you escape away from it as often as you can. Then again, and still more distressful, when a husband and his wife attempt to pray together, or a father and his son, or a mother and her daughter, their personal needs at the moment, their personal experiences at the moment are so unlike, their innermost lives are so different and so unshared, that it is impossible for them to agree together in what they ask and in the way they ask for it. Till all their attempts at united prayer only bring out the more painfully how far away they are from one another, and thus from God. So many, so real, and sometimes so absolutely unavoidable are the difficulties that lie in the way of a life of true and prevailing prayer.
And once more, why do the most devout of men and the most long-exercised of men sometimes so fall away from their life of prayer and from all liberty and comfort and power in prayer, and that after they have for years so enjoyed all that? Well, that is a question in personal and experimental religion that I cannot answer satisfactorily to myself, as yet. I have tried hard to find out some of the reasons for that declension, both in myself and in other men, but I am not satisfied with what I have found, as yet. If I succeed in my study of that painful matter, I shall tell you more about it another time.
From all that let us proceed to ask how that awful state of matters is
to be met and overcome by us. For it would be too terrible to think that our dislike of prayer and our neglect of God is to go on till death and till we are suddenly summoned to give an account of our life of prayer, as of all else.
1. Well, for one thing -- 'I thought on my ways,' says the devout and much experienced psalmist, 'and I turned my feet into Thy testimonies.' Let us be like him in this matter of prayer. Let us think on our ways in prayer. Let us think on the place that prayer holds in Holy Scripture, and on the place that prayer has always held in the lives of all God's outstanding people. Let us think of the urgency and the grace of God's commands laid on us to live a life of prayer. Let us think that the Almighty is actually waiting for us to begin to pray in order that He may begin to be gracious to us in answer to our prayers. Let us think how we must look in His eyes in this matter of prayer. Let us think what He must think and say to Himself about us. Let us think if we were in His place what we would think of any one who treated us and our son as we treat Him and His Son. We could not fail to cry to God for the spirit of grace and of supplication if we would only begin to think Who and What He is, and who and what we are, and what prayer is appointed by Him to be between Him and us.
2. And then, when once you begin to think and to pray, be sure you persevere in it to the end. Never never in this world give up prayer. And the more distaste and difficulty you find in beginning to pray the more liberty and sweetness you will taste if you only persevere. 'Men plead difficulty,' says Shepard, 'I plead advantage. For he that overcometh his indisposition to pray shall eat of the hidden manna. Have you not yourselves,' he asks, 'eaten of this same hidden manna. Have there not been times when you were very unwilling to begin to pray, but after you began and persevered but a little you could not leave off?' Yes; that is the recorded experience of one who sometimes would rather risk dying in his sin than begin to pray. What Pascal said of composition is still more true of prayer, the difficulty is to make a good beginning.
3. Then again, go on in your prayer in spite of your want of present gusto, so Santa Teresa is continually counseling her spiritual children. Samuel Rutherford shall explain to us what the Spanish saint means by gusto in prayer. When the devout parishioners of Kilmacolm complained to Rutherford concerning their too little sweetness in prayer this was the counsel he returned to his correspondents. 'The less sweetness in prayer the more pure spirituality. A sweet service has not seldom its sweetness and gusto from some other source than the spiritual world? I believe,' wrote Rutherford, 'that many think that prayer is formal and lifeless unless the wind is in the west, and unless all their sails are filled with spiritual joy. But I am not of their mind who so think,' said that great counselor of Scottish souls in their distresses and in their apprehensions.
4. 'July 2,' writes Shepard, 'I saw it to be my duty not only to pray from time to time, but actually to live by prayer. To live by prayer for myself, and for my family, and for my church. And I saw that my heart was at last conformed to the mind and the will of God in that respect. And I went on to consider in what ways I might henceforth live by prayer alone.' 'Pray often,' says Taylor, 'and you will pray oftener, till you will end in praying without ceasing.'
5. Again, always make hay when the sun shines. As thus: And the Lord
descended and proclaimed the name of the Lord. And when Moses heard the name of the Lord, he made haste, and bowed his head to the earth, and worshipped God, and said, If now I have found grace in thy sight, pardon our sin and our iniquity, and take us for Thine inheritance. Yes; make haste to make hay when the sun shines.
6. Again if you are an experienced man in these spiritual matters you will be able to turn both your past transgressions and your present temptations to your greater prosperity in the life of prayer. 'My sin is ever before me,' said David, when he was engaged on the composition of his greatest psalm. 'I am always sinning,' said Luther, 'and I am always reading the Epistle to the Romans, and am always praying.'
7. And again, when you ask the advice of the old experts in this matter they will all tell you to set apart a special time for prayer, and even a special place. James Durham, the laird of Pourie Castle, gave himself much to spiritual reading. And he caused build a study for himself on the head of the stair in his house in the country, three miles out the Forfar road on the way out of Dundee. In this little chamber that great scholar, great divine, and great saint gave himself continually to reading and meditation and prayer, and he was so close a student that he often forgot to eat his bread even after his servant had set it on his table. And like Durham the New England Fathers were wont to build their houses with a secret room for secret prayer. And Shepard looked on it as a sure sign of declension when the New England architects got no orders to put such secret rooms in their plans for new houses.
8. Speaking about secret rooms and secret prayers, a friend of mine has this devotional device put up on his most shut-in wall. He has a long picture-frame with the portraits of all his family fixed into the frame from the oldest to the youngest. And then hanging above that frame he has a fine head of Jesus Christ, which is so hung that the Intercessor looks down night and day on the children's portraits below as if He were making continual intercession for them, as indeed He is. And instead of that standing in room of his own prayer for his children and thus discharging him from it as we might think the danger was, my friend assures me that the sight of that wall night and morning draws him down to his knees, when but for that reminding and quickening wall he would often forget to pray. You might try some such device yourselves, as many of you as have a bad conscience both toward God and toward your children in this matter of secret and intercessory prayer in their behalf.
What are these, and whence came they? These are they who were born and brought up in a baptized home, but were never prayed for, to call prayer, and were never taught to pray for themselves. They took a high place at school and at college but they were never taught to pray. Their fathers and their mothers were church members, but they never took the trouble to teach their children to pray. And when they became fathers and mothers themselves the entail of prayerlessness and neglect of God descended to their children also. Therefore they are where they are. And therefore it is with them and with their children as it is. My brethren, if prayer is anything at all it is everything. And that is exactly what the whole Word of God says about prayer; it is everything, absolutely everything.