From “The Power of Prayer in Relation to Outward Circumstances,”
a sermon by Friedrich Schleiermacher, 1768-1834
We have a direct view of the Saviour, before he fell into the hands of his enemies, in an agitated and anxious state of mind. He knew that there was a plot against his life, which was now on the point of being carried out, and plainly and calmly as he had before talked with his disciples of what was before him, now that he was to enter on the conflict (now that all, as it came nearer, looked darker and more certain) the various feelings that such a prospect could not but excite in his mind threw him into a state of stronger agitation than was at all usual with him. He sought solitude and then fled from it. From prayer, he went back to his disciples, who were in no condition to comfort or cheer him and from them, he went back again to prayer. In circumstances like these, even to those who are furthest from true piety, the old, half-forgotten memory of God comes back and they turn to him for help and deliverance. In such circumstances, even those whose spirit is bravest and who are absolutely submissive to the divine will, are yet not quite without anxiety or without wishes and, therefore, in this instance, the prayer of the Saviour took the form of one of the ordinary petitions of men for a result according to their desires.
It is the value and the power of a prayer of this kind that we wish to consider. Let us first examine carefully the case before us, to see what it teaches us, and then, secondly, note any deductions to be drawn from it.
First, then, fix it firmly in your minds that you have the privilege of laying before God your wishes about the more important concerns of your lives. It cannot be superfluous, in these times, to strengthen ourselves in this belief. Those who would like to banish everything belonging to religion from the minds of men, by allowing no room for the exercise of it in daily life, do not fail to represent such a prayer as an offence against the Most High. It is irreverent, they say, to express a wish rising out of the narrowness of our intellect and heart, about something which his decree has long ago settled; it is an ill-timed curiosity to say, I wish it might be so and so when we shall presently learn how he has willed it. Do not be perplexed by such words. Christ did it, therefore we, too, may do it. It is one of the privileges that belong to our position as children of God. That would be a slavish family in which the children were not at liberty to express their wishes in the presence of their wiser father and is anyone able all at once to suppress their desires? If we cannot do so, then let us always speak them out when our heart is moved to do so; for even if we do shut them up within us, they are not hidden from him. Do not listen to those who tell you that, before you approach God, you must have your mind composed and your heart at peace; that it is unseemly to appear before him in this agitated state, while the dread of pain and disappointment, the clinging to some good thing which you are on the point of losing, still tosses your heart to and fro and leaves no room for submission to the holy will of God. If you waited until submission had won the victory, you would feel neither the need nor the inclination for such a prayer and the privilege of offering it would be useless to you. If the feelings that stir your heart are sinful emotions, if these emotions are kindled by the fire of passion, then the thought of God and prayer to him can have no place beside them, But that disquietude, so altogether natural to people as God has made them, which agitates us at the touch of loss and misfortune or when threatened with a check being laid on our activities or with separation from those we love should not keep us back from God; for only thus will our hearts not condemn us and we shall have confidence towards God (1 John 3:21). Christ himself, as you see here, used no other means to allay this so unusual agitation in his holy soul. Prayer alone was the means he took. In the very midst of his trouble, he turned in supplication to his heavenly Father. Just when his soul was sorrowful even unto death, he left his disciples to go and pray.
But while I most sincerely encourage you to do this, I just as earnestly entreat you, in the second place, by no means to feel sure that what you ask will of necessity take place because of your prayer. The words of Christ leave no room to doubt that he really and most earnestly prayed that the suffering before him might be averted. He uses the very same words which he always used in speaking of it and we know only too well from the close of his history that the event was not according to his prayer. That which he had always foreseen and foretold befell him. He had the cup of suffering, just as he saw it set before him in his hour of sorrow and dread, to drain to the last drop and a result which his prayer did not effect will not and cannot be affected by ours. Do not then infer, as many do, from the promises in certain passages of Scripture, that God always gives what is asked of him in true faith and out of a pure heart. You will not deny that Christ had a faith that might have been pre-eminently a reason for God's favour, and in his filial and submissive entreaty you will find nothing unbefitting to a pure heart. Such an answer then must have been given to him above all others and the words spoken by himself, "Ask, and you shall receive," must, therefore, have some other meaning than that which we have indicated, since this was not the sense in which the promise was fulfilled to him, the author and finisher of our faith. And if not to him, how should it come to pass that God should fulfil your wishes because of your prayers? Do you think it might be more possible in your case than in his because his suffering and death was a part of God's great plan for the restoration of the human race? But in reality, everything is taken into account in God's plan, and it is all one plan. Whatever your heart may long for, sooner will heaven and earth pass away than the slightest tittle be changed of what has been decreed in the counsels of the Most High. Or is this your idea: it is true that the Eternal cannot change his purpose, but knowing all things beforehand, he knew when and what his pious and beloved children would ask from him and has so arranged the chain of events that the issue shall accord with their wishes? That is to try at once to honour the wisdom of God and to flatter the childish fancies of humans. God has not called us to so high a place as that our wishes should be prophecies; but certainly to something higher than that the granting of those wishes should be to us the most precious evidence of his favour. This is really among the most perverted of the devices with which people have tried to adorn religion; but it is only an invention of a warped understanding, not a conclusion drawn from the way in which God reveals himself in the world. It is dishonouring to Christ to think that he should not have been the first in this respect and it is dishonouring to people that if God had arranged all this, we should so seldom meet with examples of answered prayer.
Let us see then, in the third place, what really is the effect of our prayers, if it is not to be sought in the agreement of the result with the expressed wish. Just the effect that it produced in Christ's own case. Consider, with me, what passed, on that occasion, in his mind. He began with the definite wish that his sufferings might pass away from him; but as soon as he fixed his thought on his Father in heaven to whom he prayed, this wish was at once qualified by the humble, "if it is possible." When from the sleeping disciples, the sight of whom must have still more disheartened him and added fresh bitterness to his sense of desertion, he returned to prayer, he already bent his own wish before the thought that the will of the Father might be something different. To reconcile himself to this and willingly to consent to it, was now his chief object; nor would he have wished that the will of God should not be done, had he been able by that means to gain all that the world could give.
And when he had prayed for the third time all anxiety and dread were gone. He had no longer any wish of his own. With words in which he sought to impart to them some of the courage he had gained, he awakened his friends from their sleep and went with a calm spirit and holy firmness to meet the traitor.
There you see the effect that such a prayer ought to have. It should make us cease from our eager longing for the possession of some earthly good or the averting of some dreaded evil. It should bring us courage to want or to suffer if God has so appointed it. It should lift us up out of the helplessness into which we are brought by fear and passion and bring us to the consciousness and full use of our powers that, so, we may be able in all circumstances to conduct ourselves as it becomes those who remember that they are living and acting under the eye and the protection of the Most High.
But prayer will more necessarily produce this effect if some point is not entirely lacking in our conception of the Divine Being. If we lay before God a wish that this or that may so happen in the world as it seems to be best for us, we must remember that we are laying it before the Unchangeable, in whose mind no new thought or purpose can arise since the day when he said, "all is very good." What was then decreed will take place; we must not lose sight of the indisputable certainty of this thought. Well, and suppose that which you fear has been decreed. Suppose you are to be torn away from your beloved field of labour or to lose the friend to whom your heart cleaves, or that the undeserved calumny is still to rest on you. Inevitably our first impulse will be to thrust back those fears.
“It cannot be,” we say. “It will not be. It would be too hard; too unfatherly.”
But the thought, it cannot be, will perish in our hearts when we remember that it is the Unsearchable whom our hope seeks to limit in this way. We cannot bend his will; then what remains to us but to bring our will into accord with his?
And we are drawn to do this, and to do it from the heart, by the encouraging thought that he to whom we would present our petition is the Only Wise. You imagine something to be beneficial and good and you wish that God may allow it to happen. Does not your wish as well as your judgment stand silent at the thought of him? How far can you see into the consequences and the connection of those events, even as regards your own well-being? He knows the best and the whole. If according to his appointment you must do without what you desire, you have compensation for that in all the good that you see in the world. And thus will be called forth in us distrust of our own wisdom; humility, that looks on ourselves as only a little part of the whole; benevolence, that will find its satisfaction more in consideration of the world than in our own prosperity.
But the Wise is also the Kind. He will not let you suffer and lack your desires merely for the sake of others; his will is that to the upright man everything shall serve to his own highest good. And so there comes to us the trust that, little part as we are, account has been taken of us among the whole and from this comes repose of the spirit; for, whatever befalls us, good must come out of it and thus, at last, the quieted and soothed heart can cry, “Father, your will be done.” If we once face the dreaded evil with calmness and submission, we shall readily see in the right light the intention of all that happens to us and our chief attention will be directed to that. Those who pray must remember that everything that befalls them has its end in themselves and is intended for our improvement and the increase of good in us. Then they will become conscious that this aim of the Most High, which their excited feelings had for a little while pushed out of sight, is yet, in reality, their own aim also. And if everything can be, and ought to be, a means to this end, why should they shrink from anything that may come upon them? If both prosperity and adversity draw out and confirm good points of character; if in both they can act worthily and in a way well-pleasing to God; why should they not welcome both as coming from the hand of God and by his direction? When the heart has reached this point it has taken the right attitude.
Now we are occupied with something else than our feelings; with the question, “What will be required of me should this or that befall, what kind of powers shall I employ, what kind of stand shall I make against it, what acts of thoughtlessness must I avoid?”
And if we find that it always depends on those same qualities which we have often exercised and studied over; that the whole of what we may be able to accomplish consists of single acts which we have often before performed with good results; then the soul that had shrunk in fear comes back to the consciousness of its powers; then we feel ourselves strong enough to walk in the way that God has traced out for us, strong enough to comfort those who are sad on our account and more disheartened than ourselves and if the hour comes when the evil does befall, we can say, with a mind composed and at peace, “Let us rise and go to meet it.”
According to the example of the Saviour, these are the right effects of such a prayer. I hope they will appear to you all great and important enough to make you willingly forget the impossible and wonderful which so many regard as the main point in prayer. If you count it a better thing to teach those whose training is in your hands to bear all kinds of trouble and hardships, than always to guard them from it, then praise the divine wisdom which, in giving us prayer, has put into our hands a powerful means to the former, but not to the latter.