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NEW SERIES-No. 18.
For November and December, 1821.
THE great purpose of prayer is the attainment of spiritual blessings, by which is here meant right dispositions and affections, and strength to perform our duty. These blessings, as has been often. observed, result from it as a natural consequence. A man cannot pray sincerely and earnestly to be enabled to resist temptation, without having his power to resist it increased by the contemplations on which the act itself has led him to dwell, and by the feelings which it has called up and strengthened. The habitual performance of the duty of prayer produces that habitual sense of the presence and inspection of God, and of our entire dependance upon him, which is the foundation of a virtuous and holy life. Praying will make us leave off sinning;' and it is apparent in what manner it produces this effect, conformably to the common principles of our nature. This being the case, there can be no doubt of the efficacy and great value of prayer; and in these views of its nature, a person, if he can advance no further, may, I think, rest satisfied.
But in reference to these views, it may be said, that prayer is the direct petition for some favour; and that it is incongruous to address such petition to a Being, who, we do not expect, will be prompted to any new mode of action in consequence of our prayers, and when the whole result, for which we look, is a change which is to take place within ourselves. I answer, that this notion, or this feeling, arises partly from a false analogy. In addressing entreaties or petitions to a human being, we may indeed expect to give him new conceptions or feelings, and thus to change his purpose or produce a new one. This is a conseNew Series--vol. III.
quence arising from the imperfection of the being addressed. But it does not follow that prayer may not be useful, when addressed to a Being not imperfect, and when no such consequence is expected. On the contrary, we may see clearly that it is useful, and in what manner it is so. Nor is there any incongruity in asking for blessings which flow by natural consequence, as it is called, from the act of petition itself, when properly performed. These blessings are from God. The changes which take place within ourselves, take place in conformity to his will, and to the laws which he has appointed. That the blessings which we ask and receive, follow, by natural consequence, the act of prayer itself, that they are essentially connected with it by God, or, in other words, that they are dispensed by him according to regular and established laws, does not render them the less blessings from him, for which we may reasonably address our petitions to him. That we are certain to obtain if we ask, is surely no reason for not asking. We do not expect to effect any change in him or in his modes of action; but we do expect to receive through prayer blessings from God, which we should not receive without it, and this, in conformity to his unchangeable character, and to his uniform and permanent modes of action; in conformity to those powers and laws of our nature, which he has ordained, and which depend upon his will and his energy for their continu
But, in addition to what has been said, there seem to be good reasons for believing in the direct and immediate operation of God upon the mind in answer to prayer; for the purpose of strengthening and advancing us in virtue and holiness. Such an opinion is, I think, strongly countenanced by the language of our Saviour on different occasions, and by arguments which may be drawn from his own prayers. We have, I believe, clear examples of such direct influences from God in the case of the first converts to Christianity. It is a fact which, if it really exist, is adapted to establish a much more intimate sense of connexion with and dependance upon God; and for which therefore, there is a sufficient final cause to lead us to expect that it may exist. If we believe that God will hereafter advance the good in virtue and holiness, much more than they could advance themselves by the unassisted exercise of their natural powers, there seems to be no reason for believing that a similar constitution of things may not exist in the present world. It answers better to our notions of the paternal character of God to suppose, that when we pray to him, as we are taught to do, for strength to resist temptation, he will directly grant us help, than to suppose that he will not. Undoubtedly, however, these direct influences from God, if
given at all in answer to prayer, are not dispensed capriciously, but in conformity to general laws; I do not mean, of course, the general laws of the human mind before spoken of, but those general laws of action, which the infinite wisdom and goodness and equity of God impose upon himself.
But what, it may be asked, is the efficacy of prayer in procuring the common blessings of life? Undoubtedly prayer will procure us nothing from God but real blessings; and what are commonly considered the goods of life may be far from possessing this character. He who asks only for these, might be cursed with every granted prayer.' Viewed in relation to the whole of our existence, health and riches may be evils, and sickness and poverty may be blessings. "Happy are they that mourn;" said our Saviour; and there may be many beside his first disciples, of whom the same declaration has been or may be equally true. But the goods of life may be favourable, or at least may not be unfavourable, to our future happiness; and when this is the case, and when they are asked for under this condition, I do not know that they are not proper subjects of prayer, and that prayer is not a proper means of obtaining them. The opinion that this is the case, is supported, I think, by the language and example of our Saviour. It is reasonable to suppose that God will bestow blessings of any sort upon those who recognise their dependance on him, and look to him for these blessings, rather than upon those who do not. The fact supposed, granting its existence, is adapted to produce a more habitual and stronger sense of gratitude and dependance toward God; and this, as in the case last mentioned, is a reason for believing that it does exist.
'But such a belief implies a particular providence in the strictest sense of the words.' I do not think this any objection to it. But a particular providence is inconsistent with the fact that the world is governed by general laws.' I answer that perhaps it is not; and that it certainly is not inconsistent with the belief that the material universe obeys general laws. We may, in that case, suppose a direct influence of God upon the mind, in suggesting thoughts and purposes, which will so guide the conduct of any individual in reference to those general laws, that they shall operate for his benefit, or without injury to him, when they might otherwise have occasioned him evil. When the loose mountain totters from on high,' though 'gravitation may not cease,' yet thoughts and purposes suggested to the mind of him who is in danger, may delay or hasten his passage by it, and thus preserve his life.
But the supposition that the material world is uniformly governed by general laws, seems to me to have been adopted
wholly without proof. As far as it is cognizable by our senses, perhaps it is. I say perhaps it is, for some of the most distinguished naturalists of the present day are disposed to favour the doctrine of the equivocal or spontaneous production of plants and animals, which would, as it seems to me, be a glaring exception. And here, I may observe incidentally, this doctrine, if true, does not, in my opinion, affect the argument from the light of nature for the existence of God. For myself, I should say that cases of such production if any exist are cases of original creation. But I am not at all disposed to insist upon this supposed fact; and am very ready to concede, that as far as our senses take cognizance of the proximate causes of natural phenomena, the natural world (with the exception of the case of miracles) is governed by general laws. But what reason is there for supposing that these laws extend beyond the sphere which I have defined?-a sphere, it may be remarked, which is a very narrow one. I shall be told, analogy. But I answer, that there is a wide difference between those phenomena, the proximate causes of which lie within the limits assigned, that is, come within the cognizance of the senses, and those, whose causes lie beyond these limits. With regard to the former, it is necessary for the well-being of man, in order to afford him rational ground for calculation, that they should be subject to general laws. With regard to the latter, this reason entirely fails. If it be for the good of his creatures, that God, in regard to phenomena, the causes of which are not perceived by man, should act by different laws from those which we witness; or if the expression be preferred, should suspend or control the ordinary laws of the material world, no reason can be perceived, it seems to me, to prevent him from so doing. But the case supposed is one, which, it is in the highest degree probable, may be of frequent occurrence. So far as the observance of general laws is necessary as a foundation for human calculations, so far they are observed. But when the causes of phenomena, partly or wholly, elude the notice of man, I see no ground for believing that these laws have such intrinsic sanctity, that they are still rigorously observed in secret, whatever may be the result. There seems to be therefore nothing irrational in the belief, that the lightning does not always fall, where the laws of electricity might direct it; and that the bullet does not always strike where it would, if only human muscles, and the laws of motion governed its course ;— that health does not breathe, nor the pestilence lay waste, nur the storm ravage, nor the sunshine gladden, only as inevitable consequences of unalterable laws, holding on their steady course, blind to the good or evil that may follow their operation.
This philosophy then leads to the conclusion, that there may be innumerable instances of departure from the general laws of physical nature, in the government of the world. The supposition, however, is not necessary to a belief of a particular provi dence, which may, as before shown, operate only by impulses on the human mind. There is no reason, therefore, for doubting the efficacy of prayer in respect to the good things of this life, because it implies a particular providence. But the principal end of prayer is the attainment of spiritual blessings, and its principal value consists in its being a means of obtaining them.
The material world is often conceived of as a vast machine, constructed by the Deity with certain powers, and obeying certain laws by which he at the beginning directed its operations; but left by him, as it were, after its creation, to produce such effects as would follow from the natural operation of those powers and laws. But of matter we know nothing, except as a collection of certain powers, existing without us in a certain part of space. I perceive what is called a portion of matter; that is, my senses are affected by a power, which produces a perception of colour, another power, co-existent with the former, which produces the perception of a certain form, another, which gives the perception of resistance; and so on. This is the whole. I have evidence for nothing but the existence of such powers. I receive fully the testimony of my senses, as far as it goes; and they give testimony to nothing more, than the existence of certain powers without them, capable of affecting them in certain ways. To these powers, coexisting, as they do, together, I give the name of matter. But why should we not refer the powers themselves immediately to the Deity, rather than to some unknown being or substance, denoted by this name, matter, of which it is wholly impossible to form a conception; our conception being solely of the powers themselves, or, as they are commonly called, attributes. If we do thus refer them to the Deity, we shall regard matter and its phenomena, as nothing but a manifestation of his powers in various modes and acts. We shall regard ourselves as surrounded only by one vast display of the power of God; and may believe with strong reason on our side, that this power operates by general laws, so far as is necessary for the well-being of his human creatures, but that where their observation of the mutual relation and connexion of the acts of God terminates, and where, of consequence, this final cause terminates with it, these general laws terminate also. We cannot believe that God ever acts in such a manner, that the result of his action will be evil, and not good; and yet there is a probability which borders close upon certainty, that the result of the mere operation of general laws would in many cases be evil and not good, or