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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 3a

Truth for the Time. Is Prayer Compatible with General Laws?

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Truth for the Time

Is Prayer Compatible with General Laws?

M. L. Hutchison, Glasgow Book Warehouse 305 Little Collins Street, Melbourne

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Whether Prayer be a reality or a make-believe is a serious question, for a man or a community. That we should have access to the august Centre of the Universe, must, if true, be of inconceivable moment. If prayer be a real thing, then, to neglect it will be a loss; while, to disdain it, must be offensive to Him to whom it should be addressed.

But why should the working of prayer be incredible, any more than the sending of a message in a few minutes to the opposite end of the earth? That a man should stand beside a wall, take a little instrument off a hook, and, putting it to his ear, listen to the very tones of a voice many miles away, would, not long ago have been held to be impossible: but yet it is fact to-day. Is it then unbelievable that the ear of the Omnipotent should attend the petitions of the humble believer, and grant or refuse them according to what is best for him?

That it is denied is notorious, and the following pages are offered to meet one point of difficulty, sincerely existing in many minds, namely, the alleged inconsistence of prayer with the principle of general laws in the Universe.

What is prayer? Whatever else it may be, Prayer is an intelligent creature's expression of dependence upon the Creator. God alone is sufficient to Himself : every creature, whether he acknowledge it or not, is a dependent being. Man, revolted, has lost the sense of page 4 this dependence : he has slipped his moorings, got away from the Blessed Centre of the Universe, and, wandering in darkness, thinks it the finest and grandest thing to be independent. On the other hand, the Gospel comes to effect a reconciliation : it encourages the confidence of man and restores him to intelligent and becoming intercourse with his Maker, one mode of which is—Prayer.


August 1904. Address : Irenæus, Care of the Publisher, 305 Little Collins Street, Melbourne.
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Is Prayer Compatible with General Laws.

Rationalism has not been afraid to lay its finger upon Prayer, alleging that the existence of general laws precludes the possibility of requests being granted for particular objects. But this overlooks a very simple principle, namely, that God, if supreme, must necessarily be superior to laws of His own making. Rationalists would persuade us that He has divested Himself of power to intervene in His own Creation; that He has thus become subordinate to His own handiwork, and virtually resigned His supremacy.

"With them God—hallowed be His name—is a dead God: the Almighty Being who created the Universe has exhausted His powers in the effort, and now can do nothing! He has made a Universe, but cannot interfere with it. Your artisan shall make me a clock which he can control—it shall go for its limit of time : he can quicken, retard it : he can stop its action; can smash it to pieces—God alone has become powerless! It is useless to pray to Him or humble our souls before Him. His Creation has got out of hand, and He cannot touch it."*

This notion that God cannot answer prayer is based on assumption. It assumes :—
1.That its author knows everything as to the powers that subsist in God; and
2.That in instituting general laws, the Creator made no reservation to Himself, of authority or power with respect to those laws.
Now a set of views based on assumption may be clever,

* "Truth for the Time on the 'Subject of Death and Beyond." London : A. Holness, Paternoster Row. Melbourne : M. L. Hutchinson, Little Collins Street. Price 3d.

page 6 imaginative, or bold; but they are not rational. For assumptions may be wrong; and if they be, then anything built upon them, is but a house of cards. The so-called Rationalist, like the Sadducee of old, errs through "not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God" (Matt. 22: 29). Thus it is stated that God could not cause the sun and moon to stand still for a day, because He had made a general law for their motion. The man of humble mind, however, reflects that the same power which caused the motion, could also stop it. But, it is replied, that would derange the entire mundane system, if not the celestial. Certain effects flow from the sun's apparent motion, and to stop that movement would produce results incalculable. The Christian replies: The same power and wisdom which created this great Universe, with all its marvellous inter-lockings of cause and effect, can certainly provide for any and every consequence which would arise from interrupting a portion of its mechanism.*

* The following remarks, drawing attention to a point generally overlooked in this notable miracle, are well worth attention :—

"Another thing not a little remarkable is that on this occasion Joshua addresses not merely the sun (a bold enough thing to do, to bid the sun stand still), but the moon also. It was not that the moon could give any appreciable increase of light when the sun thus ruled the prolonged day. There must therefore have been some other and worthy motive why the moon should be joined along with the sun in Joshua's command, if, as I have not the slightest doubt, Joshua was guided by God in so singular an appeal to the sun and moon, when divine power was exerted to arrest the apparent course of the sun. We all know, of course, that it is the earth that moves; but Scripture does not speak in the technical language of science which not only would have been unintelligible to those for whom it was intended, but unnatural in the ordinary language of the greatest philosophers. Sir Isaac Newton talked about the sun's rising and setting just as much as the simplest countryman, and quite right. The man who does otherwise has no common sense. Here then Joshua employed so far the only language proper to his purpose. But this does not explain his call to the moon. Not only was no knowledge then possessed by Jews or Gentiles, but one may doubt whether our men of science would have thought of it even now: at any rate one has never heard of it from them. Yet, if there had not been an action of the power of God with regard to the moon as well as the sun, the whole course of nature must have been deranged. How could Joshua, or any Jew who wrote the Scripture, have known this? There was no astronomic science for two thousand years afterwards adequate to put the two things together; and mere observation of phenomena would certainly have been content with the light of the sun alone. But so it was. He whose power wrought in answer to the call guided his voice, and the pen of the writer of the book. If there could have been an interference with the sun without the moon; if the moon's course had not been arrested as well as the earth's, so as to give this appearance to the sun, there would have been confusion in the system. It seems to me therefore that, so far from the sentence affording a just ground of cavil against God's word, it is none of the least striking instances of a wisdom and power incomparably above science. So faith will always find in Scripture."

Lectures Introductory to the Earlier Historical Books of the Old Testament. By W. Kelly. London: T. Weston, 53 Paternoster Row.

"The object was not simply a means of discomfiting the army; it was a public testimony before the world that God interfered for His people, and would answer and put honour upon Joshua. And the sacred writer speaks of it in this way: 'The like was never known,' he says, that the Lord hearkened to the voice of a man; for the Lord fought for Israel.' The miracle is as plainly stated as physically true.

Moreover, it can hardly be doubted, that Joshua was ignorant of the rotation of the earth; and it is remarkable that he should have claimed not the stopping of the sun, but of sun and moon, the necessary effect of that which was wholly unknown to him, and yet he asks for that which, unless indeed God had disturbed the whole creation by unnecessary miracle, must have been the effect of the intervention of His power. Untaught by God, Joshua would have said, Sun, stand still. Taught of God, he asks for sun and moon to do so, which is just what God's power acting in the simplest way would do; He could not have answered precisely as to a man fully taught of God, if Joshua had asked for the sun to stop and not the moon, without a very extraordinary derangement of the celestial system. To make the moon go on in its just apparent course when the earth was stopped, would have put the moon really out of its place. To have stopped the moon unasked, as well as the sun, would not have been the same testimony to Joshua, though a wonder. But Joshua is taught to ask both. The rotation of the earth is arrested, and all is done at his word, though Joshua never knew the earth turned round, and that sun and moon would thus stop together."

The Irrationalism of Infidelity. By J. N. Darby. London: G. Morrish, War wick Lane, Paternoster Row.

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It is however, not alone by stopping the action of law in a given case, that God can answer prayer. He page 8 can act within the limits of the laws themselves. He can employ their workings in the way He wishes; can accelerate or retard their operation, vary their incidence, diminish their force, or impart additional force. Thus then, there are two distinct ways—apparent even to our minds—in which God may, if He see fit, answer prayer, to say nothing of ways and modes which we do not know of and cannot conceive. That is :—
1.He may be pleased to interrupt the action of laws in particular cases: Or,
2.He may work through the instrumentality of the laws themselves, to bring about a different result, from what would have been, if He had not interfered.
The latter of these is seen in the case of Elijah's famous historic prayer for rain, after Israel had been afflicted with three years of drought, as a judgment from God. (See James 5: 17, 18; I Kings 18: 42 et seq.) When rain was given, no miracle was wrought: God acted through natural instrumentalities: He did not miraculously cause rain to fall from a clear sky; but, after prayer, Elijah said to his servant :—

"Go up now, look toward the sea. And he went up, and looked, and said, There is nothing. And he said, Go again seven times. And it came to pass at the seventh time, that he said, Behold, there ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a man's hand. And he said, Go up, say unto Ahab, Prepare thy chariot, and get thee down, that the rain stop thee not. And it came to pass in the mean while, that the heaven was black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. (1 Kings 18 : 43-45).

Thus, in answer to prayer, existing means are used to accomplish the desired effect—the cloud, small at first; a wind which spreads the cloud until the heavens are black; and there is a great rain.

Both modes however, are illustrated in the case of Hezekiah, as recorded in 2 Kings 20: I-II. When the shadow was made to go back on the dial, a law of Nature was, in that case, reversed. When he was sick unto death, and he prayed, the prayer was answered, and he was recovered; but there is no need to suppose that, in doing so, God went beyond the limits of natural law, which was page 9 utilized to accomplish His will. He is the Master of His own machine, surely as fully as an engine-driver is of his. Suppose a train is started to go at a certain speed. It is in full force for the purpose, when a man appears on the track with a danger flag : now the driver can apply a break, can shut off steam, can cease coaling. The law of steam engines is not changed; but at the request of a man with a flag in his hand, all that mighty force is stayed, and two hundred people in carriages behind, are interrupted in their progress, they know not why. Again: when, say an obstacle upon the line has been removed, and the train is re-started on its way, the driver can apply greater force by increased coaling, so as to obviate the loss of time on the journey, which otherwise would have resulted from the stoppage. Has God less power over His Universe than an engine-driver over a train? Let the devout Christian then, not be dissuaded from prayer, but rather encouraged. God can, and if consistent with His purposes, will interfere, even in temporal affairs, at the humble deferential prayer of His child.

Hezekiah's case in 2 Kings 20: I-II, is an example full of meaning, as showing the actual working of prayer, its potent influence with the Divine Governor of the Universe, and the value which He gives to the heart-exercises of the humble. Notice that Hezekiah is cast for death: "Thou shalt die and not live" is the message of the Prophet Isaiah (verse I). Had this been received in the fatalistic spirit of Modern Philosophy, the history would have closed: Hezekiah would have died. But the element of prayer enters the case, and all is changed. The decree had indeed gone forth; but Hezekiah prays and weeps; and before Isaiah had reached the middle city (i.e. from the inner city, the city of David on Mount Zion) he is told by the word of the Lord to return to Hezekiah with the comforting answer:

"I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold I will heal thee : on the third day thou shalt go up unto the house of the Lord. And I will add unto thy days fifteen years." (2 Kings 20 s 1-6).

Notwithstanding this definite prediction, Isaiah employs a page 10 remedy—a lump of figs was to be laid on the ulcer (verse 7). That is, no miracle is wrought, but God acts within the limits of already existing means, imparting an efficacy, but not changing the law. The lump of figs would have been all-unavailing without Hezekiah's deep exercise of heart, without his prayer, and God's gracious response.

How much more probable, more rational, is such communion with our Creator; how much more consonant with the nature of man, and any idea we can form of a living God, than the prayerless, dumb, fatalism of so-called science! Better for the heart and soul, signed indeed with the signature of Divinity, is the declaration of the Bible:—

"Thus saith the High and Lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones." (Isaiah 57: 15).

Amidst the complex agencies—spiritual or material—at the command of the Almighty; forces of Nature which He has created, or can create; instrumentalities and powers perhaps utterly unknown to us, what presumption it is for mortal man to say what God can, or cannot do!

To whatever disabilities then, the man of Science, or of the World, may subject himself, the Christian sees no difficulty about praying, nor in expecting that he will have his petition, if he ask anything according to the Divine will. He recognizes God as supreme; that laws and created things, are under His feet; from eternity to eternity He is God (Psalm 90: 2). Such is the God whom Christians worship; but the deity of Rationalists is bound hand and foot, a captive in His own Creation!

So far, as to objections drawn from the physical constitution of the Universe: the brief answer to all of that class, is—God's Omnipotence. But there is a pro-founder difficulty which the philosophers have never discovered. God can indeed make worlds upon worlds, or unmake them; but there is one thing which He cannot do: He cannot deny Himself. "God is Light." page 11 (I John I: 5.) His nature is holy: how then can He, as the Holy One; as moreover, righteous Governor of the Universe, dispense good to sinners? Doing so, inconsistently with justice, would be giving countenance to evil. Philosophers make great ado about the stopping of the sun and moon—a mere exercise of physical power—but how the mountain of sin can be removed which stands between every child of Adam and his Maker; how the stained life can be cleansed, which otherwise cannot appear in the Courts of Holiness—these are things they never trouble about. But unless means had been found of meeting the dread claims of Justice, blessing could never have been granted to sinful man; and the most sincere prayer ever breathed, would then have been but an anguished and unavailing wail.

Here however, Christianity triumphs: it shows the difficulty, yet meets it. It reveals an obstacle that men of science had not dreamt of, but announces that God has provided for it. He gave His Son, who became Man, in order to offer in human nature, a sacrifice such as God could accept. That sacrifice is so vast, that upon it, as a basis, God can enrobe with glory, honour and peace, every sinner who believes in Jesus. The barrier raised by Righteousness is gone, and now, divine favour at present, and sublime hope for eternity, are the portion of everyone who does not remain in his distance and enmity, but who becomes reconciled to God through Christ. Faith is needed to lay hold of this, but the work of Christ upon the Cross supplies the righteous basis, without which, even the prayer of faith could not be answered. Neither faith, nor humility, nor any amiable quality in us could have drawn down an answer to prayer while Righteousness stood in the way to forbid it. But by the work of the Cross, Righteousness is more than satisfied; and with that wonderful propitiation before Him, God can accept the returning sinner, and hearken to his prayer. Hence all prayer must be in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. "I am the Way . . no man page 12 cometh unto the Father but by Me" (John 14: 6).

It is a most marvellous thing, this meeting, on the side of God, of all real difficulties regarding man's approach to Him. But more than marvellous it is, that when He has done this mighty work for our behoof, men should raise quibbles about His power to answer prayer, assuming to limit the capabilities of Omnipotence! Let us notice in passing, that as all difficulties between God and man are removed in respect of those who approach through Christ, so also the reverse holds true, that difficulties remain, confirmed and intensified, as regards those who ignore Him. He who presumes to address God otherwise than through Christ, violates the immutable principles of the Universe: he disrespects God's righteousness, and acts in defiance of His very nature, for "God is Light." Strange is it not—that 'man should be so particular about physical law, so indifferent about the moral!

It has been said however, If God is willing to act in a certain manner, why should we need to pray Him to do so? This brings us to a point which it is important to see—the moral end of all His dealings with us, namely, to have man restored to loving, intelligent communion with Himself. Intercourse with God is the privilege of moral and spiritual beings; at least of those upon their normal plane. Inanimate creation naturally is incapable of this. It may passively reflect the glory of its Maker, according to the Psalm:—

"The heavens declare the glory of God

* * * * *

Day unto day uttereth speech,

And night unto night sheweth knowledge" (Psalm 19).

Which of course is figurative. Likewise the merely animal creation cannot know God. The life (or soul) of an animal may include affections, and in some, a most appreciable intelligence; but a brute has not the spiritual nature by which alone communication can be held with the Creator. "God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth" (John 4: 24). But in man are combined, the three constituents of spirit, page 13 soul and body* (I Thessalonians 5: 23). In Paradise he held converse with God, who visited, and spoke with him (Genesis 3:8 et seq). But he has fallen, and lost the knowledge of God, though not the capacity to know Him. In Christianity this divine knowledge is recovered, through repentance and believing the Gospel.

"And this is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent." (John 17: 3.)

Now the idea that man cannot pray to, or know God, would really degrade him from that which is the highest privilege of his being, and place him, in this respect, on a level with the brutes, or even the inanimate creation. But from the stand-point here presented, prayer is an exercise of the highest element of man's constitution. The opposite view would make of him, a mere joint in a piece of mechanism.

The Christian however—restored to God—perceives the hand of his Divine Father in the good he receives : he takes it, not as the blind working of a machine called Nature, but traces it up to its Source, and gives thanks accordingly; his very meal-table becomes a table of thanksgiving: thus God is glorified: He and His intelligent creature are in happy relationship; and the Christian, having actual knowledge of the living God, naturally goes to Him about his wants, his desires, his trials and difficulties: hence prayer; and hence He

* It is worth remark that the creation of man was not only separate, but different in mode from that of the mere animals. These were simply the product of the earth, under the fiat of the Almighty : "Let the earth bring forth." (Gen. 1: 24). In the creation of man, the material part was formed out of the dust of the earth, but Jehovah Himself breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. (Gen. 2: 7). It was in that way that man received life: he is not merely matter made living by creative edict, as the brutes : his existence has a different origin : not indeed evolution from anthropoid apes, but a creation both distinct and different. No evolution could bridge the gulf which separates man from brutes. They are described in the inspired word as "the beasts that perish" (Psalm 49: 12); by implication therefore, man does not so perish : for ill or well he exists for ever, and is capable of communion with his Creator, though, through sin he may become, morally, like the beasts that perish. (Psalm 49: 12).

page 14 will be moved to bless, by the prayers of His people. In other words, in hearing and answering our prayers, God is dealing with us as His beloved and intelligent children. And what man that is a parent does not understand this ? His child comes to him with a request: does not demand impudently but submissively, and with intelligence. A father is delighted to hear his child thus pleading: far from being an offence, its naive confidence in him is, really, a compliment to his paternal character; to give audience to the entreaty is a pleasure, and to grant it is another, if only it can be done with advantage to the petitioner. And if we have come to the Saviour, God is our Father—how welcome then to Him are the voices of His children coming before Him in prayer! This is finely shewn by the inspired figure of the Apocalypse:

"Golden bowls full of odours, which are the prayers of the saints." (Rev. 5 : 8 Gr.)

—And, as regards ourselves, the exercise is blessed in itself, independent of the granting of our requests.

But prayer is also one of the first symptoms of true repentance. Thus when good Ananias was sent to Saul of Tarsus, the reason of the sending, the unmistakable evidence of new life in Saul, was, that he prayed:

"Arise, and go . . and enquire . . for one called Saul of Tarsus; for behold he prayeth." (Acts 9: II).

The new life in man's soul—the normal life of a moral creature—is a dependent life: indisputable proof therefore," of that life in Saul, is the record "Behold, he prayeth." Yesterday he was breathing out threatening and slaughter! Now he is upon his knees. Man, in this instance, has got back to his bearings: the creature is humbled before, and reconciled to his Creator. Thus, prayer is one of the earliest, truest instincts of divine life in man; and in this view it may be said that the first genuine breathing of the soul to God, is the beginning of an eternal communion. A stream has started which will flow, and flow, for ever; like that water which Christ gives the soul, and which is in him, a well of water springing up into everlasting life. (John 4: 14).

Such is Prayer! fruitful and sweet in the devout page 15 Believer, and sign of grace in the returning Sinner! Let us not only refuse false theology and sceptical objections, but beware lest the spirit of them unconsciously infect our minds, and cramp our hearts in this holy exercise.

"Go when the morning shineth,
Go when the noon is bright,
Go when the day declineth,
Go in the hush of night;
Go with pure mind and feeling,
Fling earthly thoughts away,
And in thy chamber kneeling
Do thou in secret pray."

W. Ransom, Printer, Brunswick, Vic.

W. Ransom, Printer, Brunswick, Vic.