MY BROTHER'S KEEPER
Letters from James Alexander (1804-1859)
to his younger brother, on the virtues and
vices, the duties and dangers of youth.
My dear brother,
The subject about which I intend now to address you is so important, that I might write many letters upon it. It is that of secret prayer. I trust that you permit no day to pass, in which you do not pray to God in some secret place.
We are nowhere taught in the Bible how often we ought to pray. It is indeed said that we must "pray without ceasing," that is, that we should all the time be in a fit state of mind for prayer; also that we should habitually observe regular seasons for prayer, and besides, that we should very often offer up petitions in our minds, while we are about our common employments. Almost all Christians have agreed that it is proper to pray to God every morning and every evening.
There is a great advantage in having a set time for secret prayer. You have often heard it said, that what is left to be done at any time, is commonly done at no time. This is true. If you rise in the morning, and put off your devotions until you feel more in the spirit for them, it is likely that you will be less and less in the right temper. When you become hurried with your studies, your work, or your play—you will be less disposed to pray than when you first arose. Besides, if you have a fixed hour for your private devotions, whenever the hour comes, you will be put in mind of your duty. You know that in a family where the meals are served up at regular hours, everyone is reminded of breakfast or dinner whenever the hour arrives.
In a late letter, I spoke to you of the importance of forming proper habits. Now it is one great use of having a stated hour for prayer, that you thus acquire the habit of going into your closet for devotion at a certain time. I remember that I used to have a particular hour for taking a walk in the morning. This became quite a habit with me. Whenever the hour came, I always set out upon my walk, and I used to feel quite unpleasantly when anything happened to prevent it. So it will be if you set a time every morning and evening for being alone to pray.
It is good also to have a particular place, where this is possible. If we go into a room where we have always been accustomed to play and be merry, it will make us think of these things, and we shall be cheerful. If we go into a room where we have seen a person die, it will make us very solemn. What is the reason of this? It is because one thing brings the other into our mind. It is called by philosophers the 'association of ideas'. On this account, almost everyone feels solemn on going into a house of worship. And in the same way, if you have a particular place where you go to read the Scriptures and pray, you will feel serious whenever you go into it. If it is only a particular corner of your chamber, it will answer a good purpose.
The best time for prayer is early in the morning. As soon as you have washed and dressed yourself, you should go by yourself and engage in devotion. At this hour the mind is fresh and cheerful, and we should give the best hours to God. You are then free from interruptions, and the bustle and hurry of the day have not yet begun. You will naturally be led to think of the goodness of God in preserving you through all the dangers of the night, and it will be highly proper for you to ask his blessing upon the whole day.
The proper time for evening prayer is when the business of the day is generally over. But you must not fix on too late an hour, for in that case you will often be heavy and drowsy, and will hurry through the duty, or perform it in a careless manner. Some thoughtless boys put off their prayers until they have got into bed, and then they pretend to repeat something in the way of devotion. They are afraid to neglect the duty entirely—but they go about it in so slothful a way, that they often fall asleep before they are through their prayers. This is a wicked practice. It is a temptation by which Satan leads many young people to leave off secret prayer altogether. At public schools, where several boys lodge in the same room, they are often tempted to this neglect. They are ashamed to let their playmates see that they serve God; and this is a dreadful sin. In such a case, it would be a good plan to take an hour before bed-time, in which you could retire to some private place.
Remember that the great thing in prayer is to have the heart right. The words which you utter with your lips are of less importance. You might say over the best prayer that ever was written, and yet if your heart was not in it, you would only be mocking God. Praying is asking. It is asking for what you desire. Now if there is no desire, there is no prayer. If you ask God for things which you do not wish to receive, you are trifling with him, and this is most displeasing to him.
Remember also that prayer is heard only for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, when you pray, you must have faith in him, or your prayers will not be acceptable. Whenever you kneel down to pray, think what a solemn thing it is that you are about to do. You are going to speak to Almighty God! O, my dear brother, think of this, and you will no longer hurry through your prayers, as if they were some idle tale. Remember the old saying, which is most true—Praying will make us leave off sinning, or sinning will make us leave off praying.
Your affectionate brother,