|In everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God.| -- PHIL.4:6.
MY DEAR SISTER,
The subject of this letter is one of vital interest to every Christian. It is, therefore, of the utmost consequence, that it be both well understood and diligently practised. It seems hardly necessary to urge prayer upon the Christian as a duty. Every true Christian must feel it to be a soul-exalting privilege. It is his breath; without it, he can no more maintain his spiritual life, than animal life can be sustained without breathing. Prayer is an intimate communion with God, by which we unbosom our hearts to him, and receive communications of his grace, and fresh tokens of his love. What Christian, then, whose soul burns with divine love, will be disposed to apply to this holy employment the cold appellation of duty? Yet, God sees so much the importance of prayer, that he has not only permitted, but commanded us to pray. Our Lord frequently directed his disciples, and us through them, to |watch and pray.| He also teaches us to persevere in prayer: |Men ought always to pray, and not to faint.| The apostle Paul is frequent in exhorting Christians to pray: |Pray without ceasing.| |I will that men pray everywhere.| |Praying always, with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit.| |I exhort, therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men.| |Continuing instant in prayer.| The duty of prayer is also enforced by the example of all the holy men whose biography is given in Scripture. Moses, Samuel, David, Elijah, and all the prophets, were mighty in prayer. So were also the apostles. But, above all, the Lord Jesus, our blessed pattern, has set before us a life of prayer. You will find it very profitable to read the lives of these holy men, but especially that of our blessed Saviour, for the special purpose of noticing how much they abounded in prayer. Our Lord never undertook anything of importance, without first observing a special season of prayer. Oft we find him retiring into the mountains, sometimes a great while before day, for prayer. Indeed, on several occasions, he continued all night in prayer to God. If, then, it became the Lord of life and glory to spend much time in prayer, how much more, such weak and sinful creatures as we, who are surrounded with temptations without, and beset with corruptions within! Prayer is necessarily so intermingled with every duty, that the idea of a prayerless Christian is an absurdity.
Prayer not only secures to us the blessings which we need, but it brings our minds into a suitable frame for receiving them. We must see our need, feel our unworthiness, be sensible of our dependence upon God, and believe in his willingness to grant us, through Christ, the things that are necessary and proper for us. An acknowledgment of these things, on our part, is both requisite and proper; and, without such acknowledgment, it might not be consistent with the great ends of his moral government for God to grant us our desires.
Prayer is the offering up of the sincere desires and feelings of our hearts to God. It consists of adoration, confession, supplication, intercession, and thanksgiving. Adoration is an expression of our sense of the infinite majesty and glory of God. Confession is an humble acknowledgment of our sins and unworthiness. By supplication, we ask for pardon, grace, or any blessing we need for ourselves. By intercession, we pray for others. By thanksgiving, we express our gratitude to God for his goodness and mercy towards us and our fellow-creatures. All these several parts are embraced in the prayers recorded in Scripture, though all of them are not generally found in the same prayer. The prayer of Solomon, at the dedication of the temple, commences with adoration, and proceeds with supplication and intercession. The prayer of Daniel, in the time of the captivity, commences with adoration, and proceeds with confession, supplication, and intercession. The prayer of the Levites, in behalf of the people, after the return from captivity, commences with thanksgiving and adoration, and proceeds with confession, supplication, and intercession. The prayers of David are full of thanksgiving. The prayer of Habakkuk consists of adoration, supplication, and thanksgiving. The prayer of the disciples, after the joyous return of the apostles from the council of their persecutors, consists of adoration, a particular rehearsal of their peculiar circumstances, and supplication. The apostle Paul particularly enjoins |prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving.| If you wish to learn how to pray, I would advise you to look out and study all the prayers recorded in Scripture. Although most of them are probably but the substance of what was said on the several occasions when they were offered, yet you will find them much better patterns than the prayers of Christians at the present day. There is a fervent simplicity about them, very different from the studied, formal prayers which we often hear. There is a definiteness and point in them, which take hold of the feelings of the heart. The Lord's prayer furnishes a comprehensive summary of the subjects of prayer: and you will take particular notice what a prominent place is assigned to the petition for the coming of Christ's kingdom. This shows that, in all our prayers, the glory of God should be the leading desire of our hearts. But, it is evident that Christ did not intend this as a particular form of prayer, to be used on all occasions; although it includes all that is necessary. We are so made as to be affected with a particular consideration of the subjects in which we are interested. We find our Lord himself using other words to suit particular occasions; although the subjects of his prayers were all included in this. The same thing, also, we observe in the practice of the apostles and early Christians. This is only intended as a general pattern; nor is it necessary that all the petitions contained in the Lord's prayer should ever be made at the said time.
Prayer must always be offered in the name of Christ. There is no other way by which we can approach God. There is no other channel through which we can receive blessings from him. Jesus is our Advocate and Intercessor. Our blessed Lord, speaking of the time of his glorification, says to his disciples, |Verily, I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.| This, however, does not forbid us to pray directly to Christ, as God manifest in the flesh, which was a common practice with the apostles.
When the power of prayer is properly understood, it becomes a subject of amazing interest. I am persuaded there is a vast amount of unbelief, in relation to this matter, among Christians. If it were not so, the chariot wheels of God's salvation would roll on with mighty power. There would be a glorious movement in every part of the world. The Spirit of the Lord would be shed forth like a |mighty rushing wind.| The promises of God to his people are so large and full, that the utmost stretch of their faith cannot reach them. The great and eternal God has condescended to lay himself under obligation to hear and answer the prayers of mortal worms. If we collect the promises relating to this subject, we shall be astonished at the amount of assurance which is given. So confident was David on this point, that he addresses God as the hearer of prayer, as though that were a distinguishing trait in his character. Again, he says, |He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and not despise their prayer.| Solomon says, |The prayer of the upright is his delight;| and again, |He heareth the prayer of the righteous.| The apostle James Bays, |The effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.| The apostle Peter says, |The eyes of the Lord are open to the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers.| And Christ himself has assured us, in the strongest possible terms, of the willingness of God to give spiritual blessings to those that ask for them. He says, |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 he opened.| But, as if this assurance were not sufficient to convince us of this most interesting truth, he appeals to the tenderest sympathies of our natures. He asks if any father would insult the hungry cries of his beloved son, when fainting for a morsel of bread, by giving him a stone; or, if he ask an egg, to gratify his appetite, will he give him a venomous scorpion, to sting him to death?[B] He then argues, that if sinful men exercise tender compassion towards their children, how much more shall our heavenly Father, whose very nature is love, regard the wants of his children who cry unto him. Is it possible to conceive a stronger expression of the willingness of God to answer the prayers of his people?
[Footnote B: The scorpion is a little animal, of the shape of an egg, whose sting is deadly poison.]
And these precious promises are confirmed by striking examples, in every age of the church. Thus, Abraham prayed for Sodom; and, through his intercession, Lot was saved. His servant, when sent to obtain a wife for Isaac, received a direct answer to prayer. When Jacob heard that his brother Esau was coming against him, with an army of four hundred men, he wrestled all night in prayer, and prevailed; so that Esau became reconciled to him. Moses prayed for the plagues to come upon Egypt, and they came; again, he prayed for them to be removed, and they were removed. It was through his prayers that the Red Sea was divided, the manna and the quails were sent, and the waters gushed out of the rock And through his prayers, many times, the arm of the Lord was stayed, which had been uplifted to destroy his rebellious people. Samuel, that lovely example of early piety, and the judge and deliverer of Israel, was given in answer to the prayer of his mother. When the children of Israel were in danger of being overthrown by the Philistines, Samuel prayed, and God sent thunder and lightning, and destroyed the armies of their enemies. Again, to show their rebellion against God, in asking a king, he prayed, and God sent thunder and lightning upon them in the time of wheat harvest. In order to punish the idolatry and rebellion of the Israelites, Elijah prayed earnestly that it might not rain; and it rained not for three years and six months. Again; he prayed that it might rain, and there arose a little cloud, as a man's hand, which spread and covered the heavens with blackness, till the rain descended in torrents. Again; when wicked Ahab sent a band of men to take him, he prayed, and fire came down from heaven, and consumed them. Hezekiah, upon the bed of death, prayed, and God lengthened his life fifteen years. Jerusalem was invaded by the army of Sennacherib, and threatened with destruction. Hezekiah prayed, and the angel of the Lord entered the camp of the invader, and in one night slew one hundred and eighty-five thousand men. When all the wise men of Babylon were threatened with destruction, because they could not discover Nebuchadnezzar's dream, Daniel and his companions prayed, and the dream and its explanation were revealed. Jonah prayed, and was delivered from the power of the fish. It was in answer to the prayer of Zacharias, that the angel Gabriel was sent to inform him of the birth of John the Baptist. It was after a ten days' prayer-meeting, that the Holy Ghost came down, on the day of Pentecost, |like a mighty rushing wind.| Again; while the disciples were praying, the place was shaken where they were assembled, to show that God heard their prayers. It was in answer to the prayers of Cornelius, that Peter was sent to teach him the way of life. When Peter was imprisoned by Herod, the church set apart the night before his expected execution, for special prayer in his behalf. The Lord sent his angel, opened the prison doors, and restored him to the agonizing band of brethren. And when Paul and Silas were thrown into the dungeon, with their feet fast in the stocks, they prayed, and there was a great earthquake, which shook the foundations of the prison, so that all the doors were opened.
But the faithfulness of God to his promises is not confined to Scripture times. Although the time of miracles has passed, yet every age of the church has furnished examples of the faithfulness of God in hearing the prayers of his children. But these are so numerous that it is difficult to make selections from them. However, I will mention a few. When the Arians, who denied the divinity of Christ, were about to triumph, the Bishop of Constantinople, and one of his ministers, spent a whole night in prayer. The next day, Arius, the leader of his party, was suddenly cut off, by a violent and distressing disease. This prevented the threatened danger. Augustine was a wild youth, sunk in vice, and a violent opposer of religion. His mother persevered in prayer for him nine years, when he was converted, and became the most eminent minister of his age. The life of Francke exhibits the most striking and signal answers to prayer. His orphan house was literally built up and sustained by prayer. If you have not already read this work, I would advise you to obtain it. It is a great help to weak faith. Mr. West (afterwards Dr. West) became pastor of the Congregational church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, while destitute of vital piety. Two pious females often lamented to each other that they got no spiritual food from his preaching. At length, they agreed to meet once a week, to pray for his conversion. They continued this for some time, under much discouragement. But, although the Lord tried their faith, yet he never suffered them both to be discouraged at the same time. At length, their prayers were heard. There was a sudden and remarkable change in his preaching. |What is this?| said one of them. |God is the hearer of prayer,| replied the other. The Spirit of God had led Mr. West to see that he was a blind leader of the blind. He was converted, and changed his cold morality for the cross of Christ, as the basis of his sermons. A pious slave in Newport, Rhode Island, was allowed by his master to labor for his own profit whatever time he could gain by extra diligence. He laid up all the money he earned in this way, for the purpose of purchasing the freedom of himself and family. But, when some of his Christian friends heard what he was doing, they advised him to spend his gained time in fasting and prayer. Accordingly, the next day that he gained, he set apart for this purpose. Before the close of the day, his master sent for him, and gave him a written certificate of his freedom. This slave's name was Newport Gardner. He was a man of ardent piety; and in 1825, he was ordained deacon of a church of colored people, who went out from Boston to Liberia. Instances of surprising answers to prayer, no less striking than these, are continually occurring in the revivals of religion of the present day.
With the evidence here presented, who can doubt that God hears and answers prayer? But, the objection arises, |If this doctrine be really true, why is it that Christians offer up so many prayers without receiving answers?| The apostle James gives some explanation of this difficulty: |Ye ask and receive not, because ye ask amiss.| It becomes us, then, seriously and diligently to inquire how we may ask aright so as to secure the blessings so largely promised in answer to prayer. In relation to this subject, there are several things to be observed:
1. We must sincerely desire the things which we ask. If a child should ask his mother for a piece of bread, when she knew he was not hungry, but was only trifling with her, it would not he proper for her to give it. Indeed, she would have just cause to punish him for mocking her. And do we not often come to the throne of grace, when we do not really feel our perishing need of the things we ask? God sees our hearts; and he is not only just in withholding the blessing we ask, but in chastising us for solemn trifling.
2. We must desire what we ask, that God may be glorified. |Ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.| We may possibly ask spiritual blessings for self-gratification; and when we do so, we have no reason to expect that God will bestow them upon us.
3. We must ask for things AGREEABLE TO THE WILL OF GOD. |And this is the confidence that we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us.| The things that we ask must be such, in kind, as he has indicated his willingness to bestow upon us. Such are, spiritual blessings on our own souls; the supply of our necessary temporal wants; and the extension of his kingdom. These are the kind of blessings that we are to ask; and the degree of confidence with which we are to look for an answer must be in proportion to the positiveness of the promises. Our Lord assures us that our heavenly Father is more willing to give good things, and particularly his Holy Spirit, to them that ask him, than earthly parents are to give good gifts to their children; and he declares expressly, that our sanctification is agreeable to the will of God. The promises of the daily supply of our necessary temporal wants are equally positive. What, then, can be more odious in the sight of God, than for those who profess to be his children to excuse their want of spirituality on the ground of their dependence upon him? And what more ungrateful, than to fret and worry themselves, lest they should come to want? We may also pray for a revival of religion in a particular place, and for the conversion of particular individuals, with strong ground of confidence, because we know that God has willed the extension of Christ's kingdom, and that the conversion of sinners is, in itself, agreeable to his will. But we cannot certainly know that he intends to convert a particular individual, or revive his work in a particular place; nor can we be sure that the particular temporal blessing that we desire is what the Lord sees to be needful for our present necessities.
4. We must ask in faith. |But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea, driven with the winds, and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord.| A difference of opinion exists among real Christians, as to what constitutes the prayer of faith spoken of by the apostle. Some maintain that we must believe that we shall receive the very thing for which we ask. This opinion is founded on some promises made by our Lord to the apostles, which those who hold the contrary opinion suppose to have been intended only for them. I shall not attempt to determine this point; nor do I think it very important which of these theories is embraced; because, in examining the history of those persons whose prayers have received the seal of heaven, I find some of them embraced one, and some the other; while many who embrace either of them seem not to live in the exercise of prevailing prayer. The main point, therefore, seems to be, that we should maintain such a nearness of communion with God as shall secure the personal exercise of the prayer of faith. Two things, however, are essential to this: (1.) Strong confidence in the existence and faithfulness of God. |He that cometh unto God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.| (2.) The prayer of faith must be dictated by the Holy Spirit. Faith itself is declared to be |the gift of God;| and the apostle says, |The Spirit also helpeth our infirmities; for we know not what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us, with groanings which cannot be uttered.| |He maketh intercession for the saints, according to the will of God.| When this wonderful truth is made known, we are no longer astonished that God should assure us, by so many precious promises, that he will hear and answer our prayers. We are called the temples of the Holy Ghost. If the Holy Ghost dwell in us, to guide and direct us in all our ways, will he forsake us in so important a matter as prayer? O, then, what a solemn place is the Christian's closet, or the house of prayer! There the whole Trinity meet in awful concert. The Holy Spirit there presents to the everlasting Father, through the eternal Son, the prayers of a mortal worm! Is it any wonder that such a prayer should be heard? With what holy reverence and godly fear should we approach this consecrated place!
5. We must ask in a spirit of humble submission, yielding our wills to the will of the Lord, committing the whole case to him, in the true spirit of our Lord's agonizing prayer in the garden, when he said, |Not my will but thine be done.| If I had a house full of gold, and had promised to give you as much as you desire, would you need to be urged to ask? But, there is an inexhaustible fulness of spiritual blessings treasured up in Christ; and he has declared repeatedly that you may have as much as you will ask. Need you be urged to ask? Need you want any grace? It is unbelief that keeps us so far from God. From what has been said on this subject, I think you may safely conclude that your progress in the divine life will be in proportion to the real prayer of faith which you exercise.
But I come now to give a few practical directions respecting the exercise of prayer. Several things are necessary to be observed by every one who would live near the throne of grace.
1. Maintain a constant spirit of prayer. |Pray without ceasing.| |Continuing instant in prayer.| |Praying always, with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit.| |And he spake a parable unto them, to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint.| The meaning of these passages is not that we should be always upon our knees, but that we should maintain such a prayerful frame, that the moment our minds are disengaged, our hearts will rise up to God. Intimately connected with this is the practice of ejaculatory prayer, which consists of a short petition, silently and suddenly sent up from the heart. This may be done anywhere, and under all circumstances. Frequent examples of this kind of prayer are recorded in Scripture. It has also been the practice of living Christians in all ages. It is a great assistance in the Christian warfare. It helps us in resisting temptation; and by means of it, we can seek divine aid in the midst of the greatest emergencies. To maintain this unceasing spirit of prayer is a very difficult work. It requires unwearied care and watchfulness, labor, and perseverance. Yet no Christian can thrive without it.
2. Observe staled and regular seasons of prayer. Some professors of religion make so much of the foregoing rule as to neglect all other kinds of prayer. This is evidently unscriptural. Our Saviour directs us to enter into our closets, and, when we have shut the door, to pray to our Father who is in secret. And to this precept he has added the sanction of his own example. In the course of his history, we find him often retiring to solitary places, to pour out his soul in prayer. Other examples are also recorded in Scripture. David says, |Evening and morning, and at noon, will I pray.| And again; |Seven times a day do I praise thee.| And it was the habitual practice of Daniel, to kneel down in his chamber, and pray three times a day. But this practice is so natural, and so agreeable to Christian feeling, that no argument seems necessary to persuade real Christians to observe it. It has been the delight of eminent saints, in all ages, to retire alone, and hold communion with God.
With regard to the particular times of prayer, no very definite rule can be given, which will suit all circumstances. There is a peculiar propriety in visiting the throne of grace in the morning, to offer up the thanksgiving of our hearts for our preservation, and to seek grace for the day: and also in the evening, to express our gratitude for the mercies we have enjoyed; to confess the sins we have committed and seek for pardon; and to commit ourselves to the care of a covenant-keeping God, when we retire to rest. It is also very suitable, when we suspend our worldly employments in the middle of the day, to refresh our bodies, to renew our visit to the fountain of life, that our souls may also be refreshed. The twilight of the evening is also a favorable season for devotional exercises. But, let me entreat you to be much in prayer. If the nature of your employment will admit of it, without being unfaithful to your engagements, retire many times in the day to pour out your soul before God, and receive fresh communications of his grace. Our hearts are so much affected by sensible objects, that, if we suffer them to be engaged long at a time in worldly pursuits, we find them insensibly clinging to earth, so that it is with great difficulty we can disengage them. But, by all means, fix upon some stated and regular seasons, and observe them punctually and faithfully. Remember they are engagements with God.
For your devotional exercises, you should select those times and seasons when you find your mind most vigorous, and your feelings most lively. As the morning is in many respects most favorable, you would do well to spend as much time as you can in your closet, before engaging in the employments of the day. An hour spent in reading God's word, and in prayer and praise, early in the morning, will give a heavenly tone to your feelings; which, by proper watchfulness, and frequent draughts at the same fountain, you may carry through all the pursuits of the day.
As already remarked, our Lord, in the pattern left us, has given a very prominent place to the petition, |THY KINGDOM COME.| This is a large petition. It includes all the instrumentalities which the church is putting forth for the enlargement of her borders and the salvation of the world. All these ought to be distinctly and separately remembered; and not, as is often the case, be crowded into one general petition at the close of our morning and evening prayers. We are so constituted as to be affected by a particular consideration of a subject. General truths have very little influence upon our hearts. I would therefore recommend the arrangement of these subjects under general heads for every day of the week; and then divide the subjects which come under these heads, so as to remember one or more of them at stated seasons, through the day, separate from your own personal devotions. Thus, you will always have your mind fixed upon one or two objects; and you will have time to enlarge, so as to remember every particular relating to them. This, if faithfully pursued, will give you a deeper interest in every benevolent effort of the times. The following plan of a daily concert of prayer was, some years since, suggested by a distinguished clergyman in New England. It gives something of the interest of the monthly concert to our daily devotions.
SABBATH. Sabbath duties and privileges; -- as preaching, Sabbath-schools, family instruction, &c. Eph.6:18-20.2 Th.3:1.
MONDAY. Conversion of the world; -- the prevalence of peace, knowledge, freedom, and salvation. Ps.2:8. Isa.11:6-10; 62:1-7; 66:8, 12.
TUESDAY. Our country; -- our rulers, our free institutions, our benevolent societies; deliverance from slavery, Romanism, infidelity, Sabbath-breaking, intemperance, profaneness, &c. Ez.9:6-15. Dan.9:4-19
WEDNESDAY. The rising generation: -- colleges, seminaries, and schools of every description; the children of the church, the children of the ungodly, and orphan children.
THURSDAY. Professing Christians; -- that they may much more abound in all the fruits of the Spirit, presenting their bodies a living sacrifice, and offering gladly of their substance to the Lord, to the extent of his requirement; that afflicted saints may be comforted, backsliders reclaimed, and hypocrites converted; that Zion, being purified, may arise and shine. Isa.62:1. Rom.1:8. Col.4:12.
FRIDAY. The ministry, including all who are looking forward to that office, and also the Education Society.1 Thess.5:25. Luke 10:2.
SATURDAY. The Jews. Isa.54:8.59:20. Ezek.36:27. Rom.11:11-31. Also, our friends.
3. Observe special seasons of prayer. Before engaging in any important matter, make it a subject of special prayer. For this you have the example of the blessed Jesus. When he was baptized, before entering upon his ministry, he prayed. Before choosing his twelve apostles, he went out into a mountain, and spent a whole night in prayer. The Old Testament saints were also in the habit of |inquiring of the Lord,| before engaging in any important enterprise. And the apostle Paul enjoins upon the Philippians, |in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God.| Also, whenever you are under any particular temptation or affliction; whenever you are going to engage in anything which will expose you to temptation; whenever you perceive any signs of declension in your own soul; when the state of religion around you is low; when your heart is affected with the condition of individuals who are living in impenitence; or when any subject lies heavily upon your mind; -- make the matter, whatever it is, a subject of special prayer. Independent of Scripture authority, there is a peculiar fitness in the course here recommended, which must commend itself to every pious heart.
In seasons of peculiar difficulty, or when earnestly seeking any great blessing, you may find benefit from setting apart days of fasting, humiliation and prayer. This is especially suitable, whenever you discover any sensible decay of spiritual affections in your own heart. Fasting and prayer have been resorted to on special occasions, by eminent saints, in all ages of the world. The examples recorded in Scripture are too numerous to mention here. If you look over the lives of the old Testament saints, you will find this practice very common. Nor is the New Testament without warrant for the same. Our Lord himself set the example, by a long season of fasting, when about to endure a severe conflict with the tempter. And he has farther sanctioned the practice, by giving directions respecting its performance. We have also examples in the Acts of the Apostles. The prophets and teachers, in the church at Antioch, fasted before separating Barnabas and Paul as missionaries to the heathen. And when they obtained elders in the churches, they prayed, with fasting. Paul, in his epistle to the Corinthians, speaks of their giving themselves to fasting and prayer, as though it were a frequent custom. You will find, also, in examining the lives of persons of eminent spiritual attainments, that most of them were in the habit of observing frequent seasons of fasting and prayer. There is a peculiar fitness in this act of humiliation. It is calculated to bring the body under, and to assist us in denying self. The length of time it gives us in our closets also enables us to get clearer views of divine things. But there is great danger of trusting in the outward act of humiliation, and expecting that God will answer our prayers for the sake of our fasting. This will inevitably bring upon us disappointment and leanness of soul. This is the kind of fasting so common among Roman Catholics, and other nominal Christians. But it is no better than idolatry. Most of the holidays which are usually devoted by the world to feasting-and mirth are very suitable occasions for Christians to fast and pray; and this for several reasons: (1.) They are seasons of leisure, when most people are disengaged from worldly pursuits. (2.) The goodness of God should lead us to repentance. Instead of spending these days in mirth over the blessings we have enjoyed, we should be looking into our hearts, to examine the manner in which we have received them; humbling ourselves on account of our ingratitude; and lifting up our hearts and voices in thanksgiving for them. (3.) The first day of the new year, birth-days, &c., are very suitable occasions for renewing our past lives, repenting of our unfaithfulness, making resolutions of amendment, and renewing afresh the solemn dedication of ourselves to God.
When you set apart a day of fasting and prayer, you ought to have in view some definite and particular objects. The day should be spent in self-examination, meditation, reading the Scriptures, confession of sin, prayer for the particular objects which bear upon your mind, and thanksgiving for mercies received. Your self-examination should be as practical as possible; particularly looking into the motives of your prayers for the special objects which bear heavily upon your heart. Your confession of sin should be minute and particular; mentioning every sin you can recollect, whether of thought, word, or deed, with every circumstance of aggravation. This will have a tendency to affect your heart with a sense of guilt, produce earnest longings after holiness, and make sin appear more hateful and odious. Your meditations should be upon those subjects which are calculated to give you a view of the exceeding sinfulness of sin, and the abounding mercy of God in Christ. Your reading of the Scriptures should be strictly devotional. Your prayers should be very particular, mentioning everything relating to the object of your desires, and all the hindrances you have met in seeking after it. Carry all your burdens to the foot of the cross, and there lay them down. Your thanksgiving, also, should be very minute and particular, mentioning every mercy and blessing which you can recollect, with your own unworthiness, and every circumstance which may tend to show the exceeding greatness of God's love, condescension, and mercy.
4. Come to the work with a preparation of heart. The best preparation at all times is to maintain an habitual spirit of prayer, according to the first direction. But this is not all that is necessary. We are unavoidably much occupied with the things of this world. But when we come before the great Jehovah, to ask his favor and seek his grace, our minds should be heavenly. When you go into your closet, shut out the world, that you may be alone with God. Bring your mind into a calm and heavenly frame, and endeavor to obtain a deep sense of the presence of God, |as seeing him who is invisible.| Think of the exalted nature of the work in which you are about to engage. Think of your own unworthiness, and of the way God has opened to the mercy seat. Think of your own wants, or of the wants of others, according to the object of your visit to the throne of grace. Think of the inexhaustible fulness treasured up in Christ. Think of the many precious promises of God to his children, and come with the spirit of a little child to present them before him.
5. Persevere in prayer. If you are seeking for any particular object, which you know to be agreeable to the will of God, and your prayers are not heard, you may be sure of one of two things: (1.) You have been asking amiss. Something is wrong in yourself. Perhaps you have been selfish in your desires; you have not desired supremely the glory of God; you have not felt your dependence: you have not humbled yourself sufficiently to receive a blessing; or perhaps you regard iniquity in your heart, in some other way. Examine yourself, therefore, in all these particulars. Repent, where you find your prayers have been amiss. Bow very low before God, and seek the influences of his Spirit to enable you to pray aright. (2.) Or, perhaps the Lord delays an answer for the trial of your faith. Consider then the encouragements which he has given us to be importunate in prayer. In the eleventh chapter of Luke, our Lord shows us that our friends may be prevailed upon to do us a kindness because of our importunity, when they would not do it on account of friendship. And in the eighteenth chapter, he shows us that even an unjust judge may be persuaded by importunity to do justice. Hence he argues the importance of persevering in prayer; and adds with emphasis, |And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you he will avenge them speedily.| Again; look at the case of the Syrophenician woman. She continued to beseech Jesus to have mercy on her, although he did not answer her a word. The disciples entreated Christ to send her away, because she troubled them with her cries; yet she persevered. And even when Christ himself told his disciples that he was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and compared her to a dog seeking for the children's bread; yet, with all these repulses, she would not give up her suit; but begged even for the dog's portion -- the children's crumbs. When by this means our Lord had sufficiently tried her faith, he answered her prayer. So likewise persevere in your prayers, and |in due time you shall reap, if you faint not!|
Your affectionate Brother.