A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper
Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man. (Luke 21:36)
There are literally hundreds of references to prayer in Scripture and in the Heavenly Doctrines. In the Old Testament, the Patriarchs, the Kings, and the Prophets all prayed to the Lord for inspiration, for help in time of trouble, and for the destruction of their enemies. The New Testament records many times when the Lord Himself prayed for help, when He told others to pray, and when He gave specific instructions on when and how to pray. The Heavenly Doctrines of the New Church confirm these teachings and elaborate on the need to pray, teaching that after self-examination and the discovery of some evil within, the next step is to pray to the Lord for forgiveness and help in shunning that evil.
Looking at the evidence in the Word supporting the use and power of prayer, and the number of times the Lord commanded us to pray as an essential part of the process of regeneration, praying should be as natural to us as breathing is — and yet there is not a topic that causes more questions and embarrassment in the New Church as the question of how and when to pray, and for what. Our purpose for today is to see what the Word teaches on the subject so that our personal and private decisions about prayer can be made on the basis of the clear teachings of the Word.
All genuine worship of the Lord is founded on the proper use of prayer, for in speaking about the Temple in Jerusalem, the Lord said, “My house shall be called the house of prayer” (Matt. 21:22). But at the time He was actually on earth, the concept of prayer had been totally perverted, had become something purely selfish and material. He then taught us by comparison what proper prayer was, prayer suited for genuine worship to the Lord. He said, And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. … But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly (Matt. 6:5-7 Cf. Mark 12:40).
Praying to God in secret means that you must speak your heart honestly to your Heavenly Father. We are to speak with God from God, that is, to reach within ourselves to the point where we are speaking from our own true faith, our genuine principles, the things of good and truth, charity and faith, that are God’s with us. Prayer is an attempt to bring ourselves into harmony with God’s plans for our salvation, an opportunity for us to focus on the progress of our life from His perspective, rather than from our own, at least for a time.
When we turn to the Lord in prayer, when we focus on the celestial and spiritual things of His eternal kingdom, then something very much like an influx comes into our perceptions and thoughts that opens the interiors towards God. This happens differently with each person and from time to time because it is affected by the spiritual state at the time of the prayer, and it also varies according to the subject of the prayer. If we are praying from love and faith for heavenly things, then there may be something like a revelation which will be felt in the affections, a feeling of hope, a sense of comfort, a certain internal joy and confidence that all things are in the Lord’s hands and they will turn out well from the eternal perspective. These are the Lord’s gifts to those who pray sincerely from the heart for things that are of the Lord’s eternal, spiritual kingdom. (See AC 2535)
We must also remember that we are creatures of two worlds — the natural and the spiritual. Everything we do in this world has an effect on our spiritual state, and thus on the kinds of spirits who associate with us. One of the reasons for this is that the Lord uses the angelic heavens to modify and clothe His influx so that it will be softened enough to be received by men in the world, much as the earth’s atmosphere softens the power of the sun’s rays so that we are not harmed by them. As we change our spiritual states, we change our spiritual associations, and thus receive different kinds of influx. For example, we are told that saying the Lord’s Prayer from the heart creates a spiritual association with especially good, innocent spirits. Genuine, heartfelt prayers about heavenly things do have their effect on our spiritual states, bringing perceptions of comfort and hope, and bringing the association of like-minded spirits who support and encourage, and serve to bring the Lord’s inflowing life and love into our lives.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to think about when considering prayers, is the question why some prayers seem to be answered while others are not, for the Lord teaches in Matthew, And all things, whatever you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive (Matt. 21:22). And in Mark, He says, Whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them (Mark 11:24). God promises to answer our prayers, but it appears that He almost never does. What is wrong? Is it a function of the strength of our faith? Is it some kind of test? If we pray for something and we don’t get it, does that mean we don’t have sufficient strength of faith? No, it means that we are asking for the wrong things, and the Lord is answering our prayers by saying “no.”
The Lord will not answer prayers for things which He knows will serve to act against our own salvation. (See AC 8179:2,3) That means He will act in favor of prayers that are for, or agree with, the end of salvation. For example, the prayers of Zacharias for a son: The angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son” (Luke 1:13). There is evidence also that prayer is helpful in certain kinds of illness, for when speaking about a demon that the disciples could not cast out, the Lord said, This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting (Matt. 17:21).
The Apocalypse Revealed says, It is a general thing in all Divine worship that a man should first will, desire and pray, and that the Lord should then answer, inform, and do; otherwise the man does not receive anything Divine. … Moreover in the Word very often it is read that the Lord answers when they call and cry, also, that He gives when they ask. Nevertheless the Lord gives them to ask, and what to ask, and the Lord therefore knows this beforehand, but still the Lord wills that a man should ask first, to the end that it may be as from himself, and thus be appropriated to him (AR 376).
We need to pray to the Lord for help in healing us of our spiritual diseases, for although we often use the phrase “as-of-self” in the church, it really has no meaning without prayer. The concept of as-of-self reformation has to do with the process of bringing our lives into the Lord’s order with His help. We do it as if we were doing it ourselves, as if we actually had the power to fight and conquer evil, but we must at the same time acknowledge that it is the Lord’s power that fights for us. How else can we ask for the Lord’s help in temptation except through prayer? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matt. 26:41, Cf. Mark 14:38). Who can doubt that if we sincerely ask for His help to conquer evils that He will not answer our prayers? Then He said to them, ‘Why do you sleep? Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation’ (Luke 22:46). But we cannot actually reform and regenerate without the Lord’s power, and we cannot use His power without asking Him. When we do, we are speaking to Him about the things of His kingdom, with the end of our own salvation in mind. The Lord always hears and responds to such prayers. It is only through prayer that we can ask for His forgiveness for our sins. Therefore, without humble prayer to God, we cannot be regenerated.
There are many prayers that He does not answer, specifically, those that are impossible because they are contrary to the Divine order. We read from the Brief Exposition, Suppose you should pray a thousand times at home and in temples, that God the Father, for the sake of His Son, would preserve you from the devil, and should not at the same time, from the freedom in which you are perpetually held by the Lord, keep yourself from evil, and so from the devil; you could not in this case be preserved even by legions of angels sent from the Lord; for the Lord cannot act contrary to His own Divine order, and His order is that man should examine himself, see his evils, resist them, and this as of himself, yet from the Lord.
We also find that He will not listen to prayers that seek gain for self, or harm to enemies. The prayers of those who seek evil to others cannot be heard, for their selfish thought and will close Heaven to them, and in heaven, prayers are listened to solely according to the end or purpose of the prayer. If the end is contrary to eternal salvation, it is not heard. (See AC 4227:4, 8179:2,3 SD 1820)
It’s clear that we must pray for the Lord’s help in times of temptation, we must pray for His strength to conquer evils for us, but that we must not pray for selfish or worldly things. But what about praying for the sake of others whom we love, and for whom we have genuine, loving concern? Do our prayers help others who are troubled?
The Lord prayed for others. Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray (Matt. 19:13), and He taught that we, too, should pray for those in spiritual difficulty: But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you (Matt. 5:43, Cf. Luke 6:28).
Perhaps the problem comes when we feel presumptuous in praying for others, for we feel we are somehow intruding into God’s territory, telling Him His business. We know that the Lord, in His Infinite Wisdom already knows about it, for He cares for the sparrow and the Lily of the Field. Of course He was already doing everything that was possible in the sight of the Divine Providence and for the sake of that person’s eternal salvation. What more could we possibly add with our insignificant prayers?
Once again, we must remind ourselves that the Lord governs and rules the whole universe by means of influx through the angelic heaven. When a person is in trouble in this world, the Lord’s help flows down to him through the Celestial Heaven, the Spiritual Heaven, the Natural Heaven, and the World of Spirits and in this way is prepared to be received by an unregenerate human in the world of nature. Who can count how many individual spirits are involved in carrying the Lord’s love to that troubled person?
Let’s think of an illustration from this world. If we pass by and see 20 men pulling on a rope to pull another person up out of a pit, would we not stop to lend a hand? Our assistance may make up only a tiny proportion of the overall effort, but it has reduced the effort required of the others, we have made some tangible contribution to helping the one in the pit. Also, our help has not changed anyone’s mind, it has not deprived anyone of their freedom. We have simply added our own small contribution to an already established and organized rescue effort.
I believe this is analogous to what happens when we pray for someone who is in spiritual need. The Lord already knows of their need. The angelic heavens are already there, helping. By our prayer, we lend a hand, we add our sphere to those already gathered so that love and wisdom can flow in through us (imperceptibly, and just a little bit) to the one in need. And we help them by our prayers as surely as we helped the person out of the pit by pulling on the rope — and we are not interfering with God’s plans in any way.
Prayer for others has the additional benefit of turning our minds away from the selfishness and worldliness of our own lives and turning us towards the needs and concerns of others, that is, to true charity. Prayer for others also puts us in the habit of thinking of the needs of others, if not before our own needs, at least as our own. Prayer puts us in tune with the spiritual world, it brings us into the flow of the Divine Providence, if we pray for spiritual and eternal things, and if we believe what the Lord Himself says: Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them. AMEN.
Lessons: Matthew 6:1-8, Luke 21:29-38, BE 52:1-2
Brief Exposition 52: This is testified by experience. How many are there at this day, who live according to the commandments of the Decalogue, and other precepts of the Lord, from religion? And how many are there at this day, who desire to look their own evils in the face, and to perform actual repentance, and thus enter upon the worship of the life? And who among those that cultivate piety, perform any other repentance than oral and oratorical, confessing themselves to be sinners, and praying, according to the doctrine of the church, that God the Father, for the sake of His Son, who suffered upon the cross for their sins, took away their damnation, and atoned for them with His blood, would mercifully forgive their transgressions, that so they might be presented without spot or blemish before the throne of His judgment? Who does not see, that this worship is of the lungs only, and not of the heart, consequently that it is external worship, and not internal? for he prays for the remission of sins, when yet he does not know one sin with himself; and if be did know of any, he would cover it over with favor and indulgence, or with a faith that is to purify and absolve him, without any works of his But this is comparatively like a servant going to his master with his face and clothes defiled with soot and filth, and saying, Sir, wash me. Would not his master say to him, Thou foolish servant, what is it thou sayest? See! there is water, soap, and a towel, hast thou not hands, and ability to use them? wash thyself. Thus also the Lord God will say, The means of purification are from Me, and from Me also thou hast will and power, wherefore use these My gifts and talents, as thy own, and thou shalt be purified.
Take another example by way of illustration. Suppose you should pray a thousand times at home and in temples, that God the Father, for the sake of His Son, would preserve you from the devil, and should not at the same time, from the freedom in which you are perpetually held by the Lord, keep yourself from evil, and so from the devil; you could not in this case be preserved even by legions of angels sent from the Lord; for the Lord cannot act contrary to His own Divine order, and His order is that man should examine himself, see his evils, resist them, and this as of himself, yet from the Lord. This does not indeed at this day appear to be the Gospel, nevertheless it is the Gospel, for the Gospel is salvation.