What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? and what profit should we have, if we pray to him?
You will see at once on looking at the context in what spirit this question is asked. Job puts the words into the mouth of ungodly men, whose prosperity he could not understand, "Wherefore," he asks, "do the wicked live, become old, yea, wax mighty in power?" Describing their outward condition he says, "Their seed is established" (vers. 8-13). But blessings such as these, instead of evoking some such thanksgiving as "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits," make them forgetful, even defiant of Him. It is an extreme and offensive utilitarianism which prompts the inquiry, and in these days if it could be proved to a mathematical demonstration that praying always produces material advantage, if prosperity and prayer were invariably associated, as fortunately they are not, the number of knees bent in outward worship would be indefinitely increased, and to all outward appearance we should become a praying nation. But perplexities gather around the subject of prayer to men of a far nobler type than those contemplated in the words before us. The uniformity of so-called nature, the absence of any expression of sympathy visible to human eye, or audible to human ear from either nature, or the God of nature, in times when we are faint with fear or overwhelmed with anxiety; the unchangeableness of God, even the sublime truth of the reality of the Divine Fatherhood lead some to think, "Well, if God is in reality my Father, He is sure to do the very best possible thing for me, whether I pray to Him or whether I do not." So let us try and lift up the question of our text into a higher and purer atmosphere than that which, as asked by a godless, material prosperity, surrounds it.
I. Now, in order to give any answer to the question, WE MUST BE ABLE TO SAY TO WHOM WE PRAY, and must have some clear idea of what we mean by prayer. Let us address ourselves to these questions first. When we speak of prayer, to whom do we pray? Now it is quite plain that prayer can only be addressed to a personal Being. If we resolve God into an inexorable fate, from the relentless grip of which escape is impossible, then the question of our text is meaningless. Fate implies an inevitable destiny which can in no way be altered. Or if we resolve God into a mere force or energy or tendency, which works mechanically and blindly without thought or feeling or will, the question is equally meaningless. It is simply an absurdity to pray to a force, an energy, or a tendency. Or if God is an unknown God, of whom and of whose character we cannot speak with any certainty, then in no full Christian sense of the word can we pray unto Him. Or, if whilst ascribing such attributes as omnipotence and omniscience to Him, we think of Him as far removed from this world, having delegated its affairs to certain forces which, quite apart from Him, work according to certain laws, as we say, laws which He has established, but with which He has no further connection, then it is simply absurd to pray. Or if we think of Him as arbitrarily working out His own will, that will having nothing whatever to do with the welfare of His creatures, it is manifestly absurd to pray. Now all will admit that such conceptions, so current amongst us, are as contrary as they can be to what Jesus taught us about God. But whilst we may reject them, does our conception of God rise to the level of what Jesus taught us? To many the central thought about God is that which underlies the expression, to many perhaps the most common of all, and that commonness to which we owe, perhaps, more to the influence of the Prayer book than to any other cause, the expression "Almighty God." A power which cannot be limited, a pressure from which there is no escape, a nature which knows no change, are the main elements of the conception which many entertain about God. But such physical attributes lay no sufficient basis for prayer. They may exist, to a large extent, in combination with other attributes which render prayer an absurdity. And even if we add intellectual attributes, such as infinite knowledge, a wisdom which cannot possibly err in thought or deed, we are far from having reached the central conception of God as Jesus revealed Him to us. His avowed object in coming into the world being, as He repeatedly assured us, to reveal God, surely the fact is full of significance that He never emphasised these attributes, which we put into the forefront, such attributes as infinity, unchangeableness, eternity, omnipotence, and so on? The great question is, Who is He to whom such attributes belong? To speak of God as the Almighty One, the Eternal One, the Unchangeable One, in inquiring who God is, is about as accurate and full of meaning as if in defining the rose, we were to speak of it as "the sweet" or "the red." We want to know who it is who is infinite, who it is who is eternal, who it is who is omniscient, who it is who is unchangeable. And this is the question which Christ answers. He reveals to us God's nature, not merely His attributes. He tells us who it is who is almighty, who it is who is unchangeable, and so on. And there is no uncertainty whatever in what He taught. Fatherliness is no mere attribute of God. Father is the one and only word which sets forth His nature; He of whom all these attributes are affirmed is the righteous Father, the Holy Father, the ideal Father. It is the Father, then, who is at the helm of the universe, over all and in all, constrained in everything He does by no law whatever save and except the law of His holy will. It is He to whom the welfare of everyone, without exception, is unspeakably dear, dearer than the welfare of your beloved child is to you.
II. Now let us ask WHAT WE MEAN BY PRAYER. As used in a general and less exact sense, it often includes all that is comprehended in communion with God — adoration, confession, thanksgiving, intercession. In its narrower and more exact sense, it means simply asking, as when our Lord said, "Ask, and ye shall receive." The best definition I ever saw of prayer is by the late T.H. Green, of Oxford, when he says, "Prayer is a wish referred to God." Now, manifestly, what we ask from God must be regulated largely by what we think about Him. And if we pray to the God and Father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, there are certain thoughts about Him which will never be absent when we ask anything from Him. The first is that the Father can grant anything we ask. Here is the true place for omnipotence. His power is not hemmed in by any bounds at all, excepting only those of physical or moral impossibilities. No force limits, for there is no force in which He is not. Force is merely the mode of His working. No law limits Him, for law is simply a term which we use to express what we have learned in apparently the inviolable mode of His action. There is no entity, no being with nature which is outside of Him which controls Him in any measure. Apart, then, from that which is physically and morally impossible, God can do everything. It is not a thing incredible that He should raise the dead. There is no sickness which He cannot heal. There is no calamity which He cannot avert. "He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we can ask or think." Again, there is no limit on the side of God's willingness to give us what we desire to have. This is simply an axiom if the great central truth of Christianity is conceded. But all this seems to be completely at issue with the facts which stare us in the face. It seems to be denied point blank by the experiences of life. With unutterable anguish written on uplifted face, and the body bathed in bloody sweat, the cry is extorted from us at all times, "Oh, Father, do take this cup away," but it has to be drunk to its very dregs. The breadwinner in some dependent family, who has hardly known an idle hour, who has spent his little all, both of means and strength, on the small country farm he has tilled, obliged to sell everything that he might retain the honesty of his name, drifts into some metropolitan centre. Early and late, week after week, he strives to find employment by which to keep the wolf away from his home, but in vain. As he returns home at night he sees hunger and despair printed on the countenance he loves far better than life. What intensity does the agony of love give to his prayer. But no hand is outstretched, and he dies of a broken heart. If there is no limit on the side of the Father's willingness to answer prayer, then why, oh! why does He not answer prayers such as these, and save His children from such crushing sorrows? Thomas Erskine, who, being before his age, was of course misunderstood, somewhere asks, "If it has taken God untold ages to make a piece of old red sandstone, how long will it take Him to perfect a human soul?" Elsewhere he writes, "The depth of our misery now is an earnest of the immensity of that blessing which is to make all this worth while." I know of no standpoint whatever, save the one contained in such words as those, from which any light whatever can be seen playing upon the darkness. Nothing can dispel that entirely. It belongs to the primal fact of human freedom. But if it be true that the present life is but the mere tiniest fragment of a fragment in the life of any of us; if it be true that life is unending, that God's education of us will never cease in any case until we are perfect, then there is no darkness here which may not intensify the brightness to come. So that the one and only answer, and the only limit to God's answer to prayer is that implied in the words, "This is the will of God, even your sanctification"; or, in the words which you have in the Epistle to the Hebrews, "For our profit, that we might be partakers of His holiness." Now let us in the light of these truths, remembering to whom we pray, remembering that the only limit to His answers to our prayer is not inability or unwillingness to answer, but the purpose of His holy love to make us perfect as He is perfect, let us in the light of these truths consider the question, "What profit shall we have if we pray unto Him?" It is perfectly plain from what has been said, that if prayer is true prayer, let it be for what it may, it will have attached to it, if not in word, at any rate in spirit, "Not what I will but what Thou wilt." It cannot be otherwise if we have any worthy conception of Him to whom we pray. If that limit is attached to our prayer, there is nothing at all we cannot appropriately make the subject of prayer. Then are we to pray for success in our worldly calling, that God would bless us in our basket add in our store? By all means; only let it be remembered that success in the form in which we should choose it would very probably be about the worst thing for us, and certainly we shall not have it if it would. Are we to pray for restoration to health, when it seems as though life were about to be brought to a premature close, or when someone intensely loved by us seems to be withering away? By all means; only even then we must not forget that in all that is baffling medical skill, God is probably preparing us for the blow, which, just because He is love, He must let fall upon us. The supreme prayer is "Thy will be done." Any prayer that overlaps the limits there laid down is the prayer of presumption, not the prayer of true faith. I have not spoken, nor is it needful, of prayer for what are commonly called spiritual blessings. We pray, and properly so, for growth in grace, for purity of life, for joyousness of heart, for control of self, that we may be delivered from uncharitableness, envy, evil speaking, covetousness, that we may be transparently truthful, that we may be patient, generous, brave and strong. But even here we must not forget that the answer to prayer may come just as certainly through failure as through success. It may come through the revelation of evil that is in us, as well as through the subjugation of such evil — that the prayer, "Lead us not into temptation," can only be fully answered when we have passed through experiences such that we count it all joy when we fall into direst temptations. That there is profit in such prayer who can doubt, especially for people who have passed the meridian of life, and I trust younger people will realise it by and by. I say that there is profit in such prayer. We may not get the very thing we ask for, undoubtedly often shall not, but is there no profit? If when a father is obliged to say "no" to his child, he looks with love into that child's eyes, and lays his hand affectionately upon that child's head, is there no profit? We may feel most sensibly the Divine touch, and we may see most clearly the Divine face when the Divine love says "no." Some one has said, "The man who does all his praying on his knees does not pray enough." Undoubtedly. The Apostolic injunction is, "Pray without ceasing." "What profit shall we have if we pray unto Him?" It will be in a tone of gratitude which becomes deeper and deeper until the end. In that may each of us ask the question we have been considering this morning.
(Caleb Scott, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? and what profit should we have, if we pray unto him?