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Beyond the natural order; essays on prayer, miracles and the incarnation online

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BR 85 .B47 1908

Best, Nolan Rice, 1871-1930

Beyond the natural order

Beyond the Natural Order

Beyond the Natural Order

Essays on Prayer
Miracles and the
Incarnation ^

By /


EMtor of " The Interior "



New York Chicago Toronto

Fleming H. Revell Company




Copyright, 1908, by

New York: 158 Fifth Avenue

Chicago: 80 Wabash Avenue
Toronto: 25 Richmond Street, W.
London: 21 Paternoster Square
Edinburgh: 100 Princes Street


Who also sat beneath the evening
la??ip while these pages were written

If any reader asks what coordinating
thought lies beneath these discon7tected
essays^ suffer the author to propose this :
God^ if He is our Father^ must know
His children personally and deal with
thetn individually^ for hnpersonal and
mass relations never yet were fatherly.


I. The Dynamics of Prayer

II. The Rationalities of Prayer

III. The Possibility of Miracle

IV. The Probability of Miracles

V. The Miracle of Jesus





The Dynamics of Prayer


The prayer problem which is real to praying
men is not the problem that speculative philos-
ophers debate,— how the will of God may be
moved by the petitions of His creatures, — but the
profounder moral question why God must needs
be besought at all in behalf of any good. To
require a man to ask for his own blessings before
they are given, may seem, if nothing more, an
intelligible way of impressing a beneficiary with
his dependence ; but praying for one's self does
not fill up the Bible ideal of prayer. Prayer sub-
tends also a great arc of Scripture altruism. That
believers should " pray one for another " is the
letter of apostolic exhortation and the spirit of
the prayer-teaching of Christ. The duty of in-
tercession is emphasized in every New Testament
epistle ; the example of it abounds in the biog-
raphies of our Lord. On the prayers of his con-
verts Paul himself relied both to procure him " a
door for the word " and to assure him the grace
to " speak boldly as I ought to speak." He even
made the Christians of his time responsible for
the conduct of the pagan governments under
which they lived ; for only as they offered " sup-

14 Beyond the Natural Order

plications, prayers, intercessions, ... for
kings and all that are in high place," did the apos-
tle hope for them to obtain that justice and pub-
lic order under which they could enjoy " a tran-
quil and quiet hfe in all godliness and gravity."
And not even these large uses comprehended in
Paul's faith the utmost reach of prayer ; looking
beyond all his knowledge of his fellow mortals to
the very horizons of his imagination, he thought
it a reasonable and useful duty to pray " for all

If prayer is to be to the Christian only an ex-
ercise by rote, its formal rituals may be spread to
any extent of words. But if the heart essays to
invoke all good on all mankind, there rise forth-
with distracting questions that enervate the spirit
of prayer. Why should I, an erring mortal, be
found beseeching the only good God to work
good in the world ? For what else does He sit
on the throne of creation ? Is not He infinitely
more concerned than I to exalt righteousness on
earth ? Will He have neglected aught that He
might have done for true rehgion's sake ; or will
my puny reminder recall Him to a slighted obli-
gation? Are not missions His own cause in
which He has dispatched His chosen agents to
the remotest lands, and has He now so forgotten
them that I should beg Him to prepare them " a
door for the word"? By what presumption
shall I dare to intercede for men and women far

The Dynamics of Prayer 15

godlier than I, who have already intrusted to the
Father for themselves their least and greatest
concerns ; will He wait to regard their pleas until
I interpose my unworthier petitions ?

In such perplexities I long strove to content
myself with the reflection that altruistic prayer is
certainly a cultivation of altruism, and may be
enjoined for that purpose. Without dispute it is
a good first step towards loving men to begin to
pray for them. And yet this is not sufficient to
satisfy. Any solely subjective explanation of
the worth of prayer gives me an unpleasant
sense of imputing dishonesty to God. That
certain very considerable reflex values accrue
from the exercise of prayer to him who prays, is
reasonably believable; but that wholly for the
sake of such reactions in a man's own life God
encourages a man to suppose that he is reaching
divine favour, is a proposition that ultimately
becomes impossible. It attributes to God an un-
candid makeshift. A kindergarten teacher, in
order to keep the children interested in their
calisthenics, may make believe with them that
they are brave knights with javelins ; but even
though we be children, prayer is not a game.
When I hear the voice of God inciting me to
pray that good may come into the world, I must
seriously conceive that somehow my prayer is
capable of bringing in the good. Otherwise I
shall not pray.

l6 Beyond the Natural Order

It was out of a verse in the epistle of James
that there first flashed on me a suggestion
towards the solving of this puzzle. The unique
rendering of our modern revisers held my
attention : " The supplication of a righteous man
availeth much in its working" (J as. 5 : i6). The
word ^' effectual " in the version long accepted
had been replaced by the last three words of the
revised sentence, — " in its working." Even my
slight acquaintance with the original could on
examination make out the necessity which com-
pelled the change. No mere proleptic adjective,
duplicating what the verb " avail " would express
without it, can show the lively and aggressive
force of the Greek participle involved. It would
endure an even stronger rendering : " A prayer
toihng earnestly availeth much." I trust I have
learned due caution about loading single words
of Scripture with emphasis ; the Bible writers no
more than other earnest men stopped to weigh
scruples and grams of philology. And yet a
diction so simple and straightforward as James
uses would scarcely employ a word so energetic
about prayer unless an idea of active energy stood
behind it. James conceived prayer, it would
seem, as a force at work. And why should I
deny the validity of his conception ? May it not
be true in literal fact that supplication is a deed ?
If a man turns his hand to do a kindly and right-
eous act in the world, I say he works for God.

The Dynamics of Prayer 17

If he strives to persuade his fellow men of the sal-
vation which is in Jesus Christ, I say he works for
God. Even if he thinks a great thought and tells
it for men to think after him, I say he works for
God. If he prays for men, shall I call him idle?

Perchance prayer is not after all a petition to
move the will of God ; perchance it is a power
put at the disposal of God wherewith to move
the will of men. Perhaps praying is achievement.
Physical science has its doctrine of the conserva-
tion of energy, — at this moment mayhap set in
some question of the universality assumed for it
until radium was known, but certainly not shaken
from any great area of its sway over nature.
Within all the range of average human observa-
tion it still remains indisputable that kinetic force
is nowhere obtained except at the expense of
force in some other form. The consumption of
energy is the only creation of energy. Work is
always a sort of combustion ; results prove the
eating up of fuel. Why may there not then be
in the spiritual world the analogue of this law ?
May it not be as impossible to move spiritual
means to spiritual effect as physical means to
physical effect without the process of wear which
liberates power? And may not prayer be the
combustion of a soul?

This suggestion I should not be satisfied to
have accepted simply as a graphic metaphor. It
has come to be to me something other than a

l8 Beyond the Natural Order

figure of rhetoric. Power is no more a metonomy
in the realm of mind — perhaps less— than in
the realm of matter. I am persuaded that the
human soul in the act of passionate willing and
wishing is a Hving dynamo. It is conscious with
itself of the forthputting of energy; it suffers
afterwards the weary reactions of toil. The man
who has longed mightily for great success or
great blessing knows that " virtue " has gone out
of him thereby. And if the thing wished for is
within the scope of human achievement, one may
recognize ocular and tangible demonstration that
the steadfast purpose of the mind is an achieving
power. There is a fiat force even in the will of
finite man. But when the wish of the soul
reaches upward to the things which human
hands are impotent to mold, shall all its travail
of desire, now ennobled by aspirations purer and
more unselfish than in lower spheres, lose efficacy
by very reason of its loftier spiritual exaltation ?
If a small longing is force to accomplish the pos-
sible, can a great longing to accomplish the im-
possible have no force at all ? Is there no law
of conservation in the spiritual world,— no econ-
omy to gather up the outraying spiritual energies
of men and employ them for work of a spiritual
sort ? Surely we may be bold to say that such a
law there ought to be, or else we must think that
the God who amid all the atomic excitements of
suns, planets, satellites and star-dust gathers up

The Dynamics of Prayer 19

the fragments of dynamics that nothing be lost,
has somehow betwixt the universe of the tem-
poral and the universe of the eternal forgotten
His divine frugality.

No, there is a conservation of spiritual energy,
and the law of it is the law of prayer. Prayer is
something better than presenting ourselves in the
audience chamber of God and suing for favour in
our own behalf or the behalf of those we love.
Prayer is summing up together our noblest and
ultimate desires, all that far excess of longings
which are beyond any capacity of ours to realize
save in dreams, and bringing all these hopes, so
futile in us, to the throne of the Omnipotent.
Intrusted with the sincere aspirations of His peo-
ple, God will waste, I dare believe, not so much
as one disheartened sigh. A man's first soul-felt
desires for " the profit of the many " go by hon-
est instinct into his work, wherein it is his high
honour to be " God's fellow worker." But a
good man's wish for better things in an improving
world very soon surpasses all his most zealous
toil, and prayer is a provision for banking his
overplus with God. And when God employs an
unselfish human wish as a part of the capital of
His providence and so fulfills it, a greater marvel
has come to pass, for God appears a Fellow
Worker with man. The Christian pities his
neighbour, and works the pity into a home-made,
hand-turned kindness. Ere long, with that

20 Beyond the Natural Order

benign discipline, his enlarging heart has begun
to pity the world — or some far-spread section of
it. But he cannot be kind to a whole world ; is
he then helpless? How shall his pity avail?
He shall pray, says his Lord, and his supplica-
tion shall " avail much in its working," — working
in large and distant places where the man could
not reach to work. What miracle of potentiality
then is this which is thus conferred on creatures
of clay ! If by prayer we can labour, neither
mountain nor chasm of difficulty shall be able to
hinder us. We are at the end of our own
devices ? Doubtless so. But we are not defeated.
It has simply come time to pray. With such an
enfranchisement for every hope, from what hope
— from what aspiration — shall " height or depth
or any other creature " forbid us ?

But if prayer is the going forth of energy into
the spiritual universe, we can scarcely escape
acknowledging that much of what we call prayer
ill deserves to be known by that name. Our
calm and urbane petitions, fiUing their modulated
place in our habitual worship, can hardly be sus-
pected of being ebullitions of vital force. Not
that I would seem to attribute virtue to vehe-
mence; we are not supplicating a deaf Baal.
But if not vehemence, certainly there must be
intensity in the voice of a heart that it is putting
itself forth for the world's sake in a passion of
Christly good will. At the gateway of prayer as

The Dynamics of Prayer 21

at every other gateway to the capital seat of the
kingdom " men of violence take it by force."
An overmastering wish does not march sedately
down the smooth-laid pavement of marble words ;
it runs and cries aloud. There are no hearts of
real prayer beating in our bosoms when we stand
and pray thus with ourselves : " It would gratify
us greatly, O Lord, if Thou wert pleased to bless
everybody in general very agreeably." Still as
of ancient times the ground of Peniel is beaten
hard with the feet of the wrestlers.

To be sure, there is a prayer of rest and
serenity, and it has its sweet and efficient place
in the experience of the devout. When we com-
mit to our loving and providential Father the
issues of our own welfare in the world, no stress
of soul is imposed upon us. " Your Father
knoweth what things ye have need of before ye
ask Him." Just the gentle truthful word which
tells Him what we feel of our want of Him and
how we throw ourselves upon Him for all our
necessities, — the quiet whisper which speaks in
His ear our confidence that according to His
promise He will not forget, — these outbreathings
of the soul at peace with God are by right un-
ruffled with any stir of the intense, active emo-
tions. In every case of his own fortunes " it is
good that a man should hope and quietly wait for
the salvation of Jehovah." Neither for bread
nor for garments do the trustful need to beg ;

22 Beyond the Natural Order

only to say we are looking to the Father for them
is enough. But where sin is involved — either our
own sin or others' — and stands in the way to be
conquered, prayer passes from a breath of calm
communion to an implement of pitched warfare,
and we must use it for blows struck heavy and
hard. Of the devils in ourselves and the devils
in other men, it is ever true as the Master said :
*' This kind can come out by nothing save by

A more excitable generation going before our
own would not believe that men and women
could be converted to the way of our Lord Jesus
Christ, except as with weeping and wailing they
came through some strenuous agony of grief at
the *^ mourners' bench." These forefathers were
wrong, of course, psychologically and religiously,
in supposing that the spiritual revolution of a life
can be effected by the physical simulation of any
process or supposed process of the inner nature.
Yet none the less they had sight of a great soul
fact far beyond them, and their error was greatly
less than ours if we imagine, on the opposite
hand, that a few placid reflections on the beauty
of goodness can set a man free from his habits
of sin. The exorcism of the demons is by prayer
that strains the sinews of the soul, — not by some
languorous sentimental expectation that God will
be sorry for us, seeing that we are not near as
good as we should really love to be. When head

The Dynamics of Prayer 23

and heart, the whole man is in fiery revolt against
the tyranny of evil, and life has become one ter-
rific outcry for deliverance from " the body of
this death," then the victory is at hand. But the
highway that leads away from our sins towards
God is forever a path of battle, — a path to be
traversed only with prayer at every step — all
prayers of might and main. And the battling
prayer availeth much.

It is not different when we undertake to pray
our friends out of the same bondage. We may
from some sanctimonious sense of duty keep lists
of persons within our acquaintance who are not
yet Christians, and day by day may name them
over, adding punctiliously with each, " O God,
please save this man," but there is not energy
enough in the whole of such petitions to save
one of them. We have small ground to take any
comfort of conscience out of the custom, seeing
what meagre results come from it. But when
some day the horror of our neighbour's estrange-
ment from God, the despair of his rebellion
against the divine rule, the desperation of his
helplessness in the teeth of sin, all rush upon us
to grip our own throats like the assault of furies
in the dark, then we begin to pray. Then we
ourselves feel the pall fall on our own lives. Then
the agonized soul of sympathy nerves itself to
storm, if need be, the uppermost, innermost cita-
del of heaven ere it yields its vicarious pleading

24 Beyond the Natural Order

for the sinner's rescue. And then the fallen be-
gin to be saved. The mighty prayer of love
itself becomes dynamic; it lifts men from the
pit. Its very earnestness is intrinsic force, and
God makes that force efficient. Men, planning
for revivals, ask money and organization for
bringing their plans to pass ; God asks only
prayers. He can have a revival anywhere if He
may but have enough prayers of the right kind
to work with.

So with all manifold forms of Christian enter-
prise, — whether the measures and methods of the
local church or the cosmopolite mission agencies
of the church general, — prayer is the secret of
motive power for all ahke. The only successful
type of Christian enginery which God has at work
anywhere, is prayer-burning. When that fuel
fails, the machine stands still. No amount or
character of what we call Christian work will suf-
fice as a substitute. Work is indeed of itself an
obligation. The man who knows what to do
and how to do, ought to put himself with great
force into direct, sinewy toil. But not with all
force ; a part of his vital energy he ought always
to save for prayer. When from our days of
feverish, anxious effort we come home at night
too tired to pray, we have doubtless defrauded
God of a part of His resources on which He de-
pended more than upon our active deeds. Our
Father appears to have peculiar need of our

The Dynamics of Prayer 25

prayers for His greater purposes in the world.
There are some objects which manifestly He
cannot accompHsh with only our labour in hand.
Our planning and proclaiming and persuading do
not reach very far in the kingdom. But our
prayers, rising beyond what we see and handle to
all that we long for and dream of, sweep in their
currents of force round the outer horizons of man-
kind, and in God's infinite mechanics may serve
for immeasurable results. Busy here and there,
preoccupied with tangible duties, we may very
possibly be doing only the lesser things, while
meanwhile those who pray affect races and ages.
Prayer, one can well imagine, may be espe-
cially useful for those atmospheric influences
which change the inclinations of communities.
The missionary in a foreign land, may labour long
and with painful diHgence to gain the heed of his
pagan neighbours, and win scarcely casual inter-
est from a very few. Converts he probably has
none, until behind the scattered impressions
which he has been able to make on one and an-
other by personal touch, there rises mysteriously
a background of favourable disposition amidst
the populace at large. A better air prevails ; the
missionary can speak with more freedom, more
joy and more hope, and ears that listen begin to
reveal hearts that receive. He realizes the subtle
aid which buoyed up the apostles in Jerusalem—
" favour with all the people." The worker can-

26 Beyond the Natural Order

not explain what has come to pass ; he knows
it is no new power which he has acquired ; he can
only give glory to God for providential aid. But
no doubt if we could trace the whole chain of
cause and effect, we should perceive that it is not
a blessing wrought without means. Back in the
homeland certain devout souls, remembering the
missionary, have perchance wished for him a
readier acceptance among the people to whom he
had gone out, and that strong, selfless wish — that
far-travelling missionary wish — they have told to
God. It is not for mortals to surmise how
divinely glad the Father must be, knowing well
the discouragements of that servant of His, to
grasp up those prayers and guide them hastily to
the missionary's succour. And when enough
such loving petitions have followed and lighted on
the place, all the air around will grow warm and
genial with the lively sympathy of hearts that
care — and pray. In such tropic spiritual climate
the vine which the Lord's hand has planted can-
not fail to flourish.

Even more obvious is the connection between
prayer and its outgoing spiritual effects in the
home congregation. Many a disheartened minis-
ter has failed with woeful monotony in one attempt
after another to win the faithless and unbelieving
of his town. At every turn adamant barriers de-
fied his most assiduous effort. Men with whom
he argued and men with whom he pleaded and

The Dynamics of Prayer 27

men with whom he wept aUke resisted his minis-
try. Then suddenly there came a change. His
fellow citizens turned tacitly to acknowledge the
importance of the eternal things ; sneers ceased,
and sinners erstwhile indifferent were moved to
consider their ways ; some ere long yielded their
lives to the Saviour. Here too the minister of
God's message dared not account anything from
himself to have worked the difference. But
when he sought in quiet places for the clue, he
has discovered somebody praying. And the
prayers had wrought the revolution. God above
was never uninterested in that town nor ever
careless of the preacher's unrewarded struggles.
But nobody had afforded the overlooking Lord
enough prayers to use in that town, and it had
never been sanitated of its sinful miasmas.
Prayers rising from hearts that love God are like
the salt airs that rise from the sea ; they carry
healing on their wings wherever the breath of
heaven blows them. Abundance of prayer is a
charter of health to any community.

If missionaries in heathen lands cannot suc-
ceed unprayed for, what treason to our brother-
hood with them is it for us to forget and leave
them unsupplied with this essential resource!
If the minister in the pulpit of the home church
must be surrounded with prayers before he is
strong, what cruel faithlessness to let him stand
in his place unshielded' and unsupported ! For

28 Beyond the Natural Order

the smallness of our material gifts to the great
causes of good we may excuse ourselves by our
poverty of purse, but how shall we excuse our-
selves for our penuriousness of prayer. In
wealth of praying we might any one of us be
millionaire helpers, — if we but seriously put our-
selves to the trouble of it. Grant that this is the
true working wealth of evangelization far and
near, and what a reversal of all our common
standards of importance at once ensues ! No
longer is the indispensable strength of the con-
gregation in the dignified elder who discourses
of profound theology in the week-night prayer-
meeting, nor in the adroit trustee who contrives
to rescue the annual balance sheet from deficit,
nor yet in the eloquent pastor whose sermons are
the praise of his community. But the person on
whom the success of the church most radically
depends is that member who has learned to pray,
— not as a dress-parade evolution in open meet-
ing but with the inevitable outflowing of a soul
that for great love of God and people cannot
contain itself. Most likely it is some aged saint,
long educated in the spirit and long practiced in
the mystic skill of prayer, who on the records of
heaven is written down as the most important
member of such and such a church. Obscure on
earth, the giants of secret, heart prayer are
known of God, His greatest Heutenants no doubt
in the conquests of His universal kingdom.

The Dynamics of Prayer 29

The first objection to this teaching may readily
be anticipated. It will be said that the doctrine
makes the Creator a dependent subordinate of
His creatures, bound to wait their interest and
will for permission to accomplish His intents, —
even beholden for resources of power to the
finite works of His own omnipotence. It is
bootless to deny the contradiction, but the con-

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