I suppose, if my readers are the children of pious parents, they have been taught from their earliest recollection, to retire, morning and evening, to some secret place, to read their Bible alone, and engage in private prayer. This, in very early childhood, is often an interesting and affecting service. But when young people come to a certain age, if their hearts are not renewed, they are disposed to regard this as an irksome duty, and gradually to leave it off. They find the old adage true—"Praying will make you leave sinning, and sinning will make you leave praying."
It is a sad period, in the history of a young person, when the early habit of prayer is given up. Then the heart becomes like the garden of the slothful, described by Solomon—"I went by the field of the slothful, and by the vineyard of the man void of understanding; and lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had covered the face thereof, and the stone wall thereof was broken down."
There are no good plants thriving in the prayerless soul; but weeds, and briars, and thorns, grow thick, occupying every vacant spot. The stone wall is broken down: there is no defense against the beasts of the field. Every vagrant thought, every wicked passion, find free admittance. The heart grows hard, and the spirit careless. Sin is not dreaded as it once was. The fear of God and the desire of his favor are gone. "God is not in all his thoughts." That youth stands on the very edge of a frightful precipice.
I would not have you think, however, that there is any merit in prayer; or that the prayers of one whose "heart is not right with God" are acceptable to him. But, what I say is, that everyone ought to pray to God with a right heart. If your heart is not right with God, then it is wrong; and you are to blame for having it wrong. I will suppose a case, to illustrate what I mean. You see a child rise up in the morning, and go about the house; and though its mother is with it all the time, yet the child neither speaks to her nor seems to notice her at all. After a while, the mother asks what is the matter, and why her dear child does not speak to her? The child says, "I have no heart to speak to you, mother. I do not love you; and so I think it would be wrong for me to speak to you." What would you think of such conduct? You would say, "The child ought to love its mother; and it is only an aggravation of its offence, to carry out the feelings of its heart in its conduct." "Would you then have it act the hypocrite, and speak with its lips what it does not feel in its heart?" No; but I would have it love its mother, as every dutiful child ought to do, and then act out, in its speech and behavior, what it feels in its heart. But I would never have it excuse itself from right actions because its heart is wrong. Now, apply this to the subject of prayer, and you will see the character of all impenitent excuses for neglecting this duty. And those who go on and continue to neglect it, certainly have no reason to expect that their hearts will grow any better by it, but only worse. But in attempting to perform a sacred duty, the Lord may give you grace to perform it aright, and then you will have a new heart.
If possible, have a particular place of prayer, where you can be secure from all interruption, and particular times for it. At the appointed hours, retire alone, and put away all thoughts about your studies, your work, your amusements, or anything of a worldly nature; and try to realize that God is as truly present as if you saw him with your bodily eyes. Then read his word, as though you heard him speaking to you in the sacred page; and when your mind has become serious and collected, kneel down and acknowledge God as your Creator and Preserver, your God and Redeemer. Thank him for the mercies you have received, mentioning particularly every good thing you can think of, that you have received from him; confess your sins; plead for pardon, through the blood of Jesus Christ; and ask him to give you such blessings as you see and feel that you need. Pray also for your friends, (and for your enemies, if you have any,) and conclude with a prayer for the coming of Christ's kingdom everywhere throughout the world.
Some young people neglect to pray, because they think they are not able to form their words into prayer. But you need not be afraid to speak to God. If you can find language to ask your parents for what you desire, you can find words to express your desires to God; and he will not upbraid you for the imperfection of your language. He looks at the heart. If that is right, your prayer will be accepted.
Let me earnestly entreat you to have your set times for prayer, at least as often as morning and evening; and never allow yourself to neglect them. And, especially, do not adopt the bad practice of saying your prayers in bed—but give to God the brightest and best hours of the day, and not offer to him the blind and the lame for sacrifice. You will find the regular and stated habit of prayer, thus formed in early life, of great value to you, as long as you live.
But let me once more caution you not to trust in your prayers, for they cannot save you; and do not think, because you are regular and habitual in attending to the outward forms of duty, that you must be a Christian.
Prayer, if sincere and true, will prepare you for engaging in the duties of the day, or for enjoying calm repose at night. If, for any cause, you neglect prayer in the morning, you may expect things will go ill with you all the day. You can do nothing well without God's blessing; and you cannot expect his blessing without asking for it. You need, also, that calm, tranquil, humble spirit which prayer promotes, to prepare you to encounter those things which are constantly occurring to try the feelings, and to enable you to do anything well. Therefore, never engage in anything of importance without first seeking direction of God; and never do anything on which you would be unwilling to ask His blessing.