Edward Lyttelton.

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of Prayer, after putting ourselves as well as we can into the child-
like frame of mind. What do we know of the relation between
a normal young child and his father, which may help us to under-
stand our own relation to God, in the matter of offering petitions
to Him ? What is that human relation when it is at its best ?
and does it warrant us in withholding our petitions, for reasons
such as those hinted at in the text ?

It is characteristic of a child who knows his father's love —
and we need consider no other — to ask a good many things
that can't be granted. Sometimes they are impossible ; some-
times it would be bad for the child if they were granted. But
the important question is, Does not the asking betray a right
relation between the two, rather than the reverse ? Certainly
if all is right between them, the son will not yearn in silence for
something he knows his father could give him. If there is open-
ness between them, a strong desire in the child's mind will mean
a petition uttered. That is the normal wholesome symptom
of a right relation between father and child. We should also


say that if the requests err by excess, it is far better so, than
that they should err by defect.

Again, a child who trusts his father will perhaps ask for things
which in an adult's view are obviously impossible ; and the
frequency of such petitions must vary with the child's age. But
if the child is too young to know that they are impossible, we, his
elders, do not blame him in the least, but recognize that, in speak-
ing his wants freely, he is behaving as a healthy-minded child
should. But if we suspected that he knew the request to be
impossible, we should think the petition unnatural and foolish.

Suppose we apply these simple considerations to the great
question what ought to be our practice towards God in the matter
of offering petitions.

First we learn that we ought to make known our wants and
not bury them in the silence of our hearts, as we are bound to
do if we forget the facts of God and His nearness to us. The
filial relationship requires of us to be open and candid with our
unseen Father, and if we feel certain a calamity is inevitable,
anyhow we can ask for strength to bear it and use it to His glory.
But if, under the conviction that it must come, we keep silence,
under some supposed loyalty to the laws of nature, we may be
obeying some etiquette of the scientific world, but we are con-
tradicting our own position as His children. I would further
apply the canon of petitions changing with advancing knowledge
to this matter. A child of five might perhaps naturally ask his
father to build a bigger house for the family to live in, and to
do it to-day. If genuinely made, there would be nothing wrong
in this ; as there would be in a child of ten. When then we are
constrained to pray for rain we are asking for something about
which we know very little except that we are in sore need of it.
Our knowledge of meteorology is still astonishingly incomplete.
We have no right, in this country at any rate, to say that a dry
morrow is inevitable ; and still less right have we to assume that
the Creator of the universe is bound by His Own ordinary methods
of action. I would say then, that, as long as we are plainly in
a state of imperfect knowledge, we are behaving like healthy-
minded trustful children if we ask God for what we want.

Further, this holds good, though we may confidently believe
that in a thousand years some scientific men will be able to pre-
dict the weather in England for the morrow with certainty.
Granted that increase of knowledge may change the form of the
petition, does that constitute the slightest reason against our
opening our hearts for the satisfaction of our needs now ? The


chance of any disloyalty to our reason seems very remote'com-
pared with the urgent claim made upon us to be open and out-
spoken with God ; and if we should regard it as ridiculous to
charge a child with disloyalty to his reason, why should we be
so sensitive on the subject ourselves ?

But at this time it can hardly be necessary to point out that
the regularity of the recurrent phenomena in the universe is no
proof whatever that they go on manifesting themselves in a
purely mechanical fashion ; that is to say, independently of mind.
No one who has read Aubrey Moore's essay in Lux Mundi needs
to be reminded of this. Indeed a slight acquaintance with many
more accessible writings which have appeared during the last
twenty years would show any honest inquirer than from the
intellectual side alone there is no unanswerable case to be made
against offering petitions to God.

But so much has been said on this part of the subject that I
prefer to point out one or two more familiar truths connected
with Christ's revelation of childhood. Suppose we grasp the
main truth underlying the expression, the Immanence of God,
we shall understand that a prayer for rain, for instance, is a prayer
addressed to the divine Mind, asking that, that which we think
of as the course of this world, may be guided in a certain direction.
Assuming that the difficulties above mentioned, which may be
roughly classified as scientific, are put on one side, there remains
a moral or spiritual difficulty to which utterance is given in the
text of this book. It is this. Granting that the Divine Being
can and does guide the course of the world or universe, He is held
by His worshippers to be omniscient and all-loving ; how then
can it be necessary for us to tell Him our wants, as if He did not
know them ; and if He knows them, how can we suppose that
He will not satisfy them ; unless of course we should be better
for remaining unsatisfied, in which case our prayer had better
not be made ?

Perhaps in this matter, even more than in others, we should
remember that we are dealing with an Infinite Being. Again,
we find ourselves helped if we stick to the parallel of the child ;
and we realize that for a time it is well that he should look on his
father as all-wise, and for all matters in which the child has any
concern, as all-powerful. So far the parallel holds. Now what
should we suppose if the child kept silence as to some want, from
a belief that his all-wise father already knew of it and needed not
to be told ? Once more the answer is that such a reticence would
be unnatural ; it could not, in short, occur. But this is exactly


the consideration which we are bound to think about ; for when
Christ bade us become like little children, He certainly meant
normal children, whose behaviour is most childlike, in other
words, natural ; and so far then we may say that as this is a
practical question, are we to ask God for our needs or not, one
answer is that to decide in a negative sense would be disobedience
to our Master. But we can also see why. It is not true in human
life to say that the question whether a boon should be granted
by a father to a child is unaffected by the petition being made or
not made. Suppose a case in which it had been clearly laid down
that all wants were to be made known, and entire openness was
to prevail between the two, and then the father were to debate
within himself whether he should give some little boon which he
knew the child wanted, and was conscious of the want. Clearly,
the advisability of giving it must depend on the genuineness of
the child's desire for it ; and under the circumstances, the rule
of the house being what it is, the desire could hardly be genuine
unless it were expressed ; and further the desire itself is affected by
being expressed. But more obviously still, the risk of over
indulgence is near at hand if the child is given something which
he hasn't taken the trouble to ask for, which he wants or ought
to want, and perhaps doesn't really care for. So much is plain
in the human relation. We have no data for saying that there
are no such moral facts in the relation between us and our Hea-
venly Father ; on the contrary, we have every reason to believe
that there are.

Once more : a question casuistical of a kind is sometimes raised
as follows. Suppose three people, A, B and C, are all anxious, and
rightly so, to obtain a certain post which only one of them can
hold. A rationalist's difficulty would surely be that the more
genuine each individual's prayer, the more impossible it is to
believe that God answers all genuine petitions. It is once more
like the farmer on light land praying for rain, while his neighbour
on heavy land prays for dry weather. How can this be reason-
able or right ? 1

The difficulty in tone is not unlike that put by the Sadducees
to Christ about the woman who married seven brothers. It is

1 It is said that a boy about 12 years old, son of an eminent man,
a professed Atheist, wrote to his father from school somewhat as
follows : — ' I am going in for the History prize, and have a good
chance, tho' A and B are working hard for it too. The worst of it
is, you see, they can pray for it and I mayn't : which is a beastly


utterly below the level of the subject and is drawn from con-
siderations on a lower plane of existence, and one from which
spiritual considerations are almost wholly banished. It has
constantly been pointed out that prayer is not primarily a way
of securing benefits, but of bringing the human into conformity
with the divine will, and that reflection on the terms used
by our Lord in Gethsemane would guard any inquirer from this
mistake. But perhaps the truth may be stated as follows, with
regard to the supposed case of the three aspirants to the one
office. To make it clear, we assume that A has genuinely peti-
tioned God and fails in his candidature ; B has not prayed, and
also fails : C succeeds. Normally the result would be that B falls
a victim to the bitterness of disappointment ; A, though unsuc-
cessful, is enabled by communion with God to bear his failure ;
C, if he has prayed too, is enabled to bear the more searching
temptation of success. For prayer is a means of rising into the
divine light, from which earthly things are seen in a truer propor-
tion than before ; and the burden which was felt to be crushing
becomes less, because of the operation of some great sustaining
power which cannot be described in words.

Thus the intellectual or rational difficulty is only serious when
it is stripped of all moral and spiritual considerations, and looked
at as if it had nothing to do with the emotion of love.

These remarks only deal with that part of the subject which
may be illustrated by our Lord's parabolic admonition to His
followers with regard to their learning again to look at life through
a child's eyes. In proportion as we learn that lesson, and acquire
that priceless power, the difficulties here mentioned, and all others
like them, are not answered logically, though they can be, but
they disappear.

Printed by Butler & Tanner, Frame and London.



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Online LibraryEdward LytteltonCharacter and religion → online text (page 19 of 19)