J. W. McGarvey: On Prayer

The following is part of an ongoing commentary on J. W. McGarvey’s Sermons Delivered in Louisville Kentucky. For an introduction to and table of contents for the series, see Happy Birthday, J. W.

“No assurance is more solemnly given than that God is a prayer-hearing God, answering the prayers of His people.” It is tragic that such a statement should find so little unified assent in the Christian community. McGarvey says of his own day that “there is no subject of revelation on which there is more skepticism than on that of prayer,” and that skepticism continues to pervade the present discourse. McGarvey even goes so far as to recount the “scientific” experiment of physicist John Tyndall, who proposed setting up two hospital wards, one of which was being prayed for by Christians and one of which wasn’t, in an effort to prove the ineffectiveness of prayer. Similar experiments continue to be proposed and carried out today, and prayer is still a major battleground within Christianity and between Christians and the world.

Yet McGarvey correctly notes that prayer is one of the core features of the biblical narrative. More than baptism or the Eucharist or sacrifice or almsgiving, prayer saturates Scripture. Before Israel was a nation, the patriarchs prayed. Moses prayed before God covenanted with His people. The judges prayed long before the kings prayed; the prophets prayed and the psalmists prayed. Daniel prayed, even when it got him thrown in with the lions, and, from the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed. Jesus prayed, and he taught his disciples how to pray. How can Christians but pray, and do so fervently and with the certainly that God hears them?

As had been the case with so many subjects before, McGarvey does not pretend to understand how prayer worked or what, precisely it accomplished. Like providence, he thinks it both mysterious and mundane, and he tells the story of Elijah and the great drought to illustrate this. The first analogy he has recourse to, however, is a martial one. Understandably, as one who lived and worked in the Upper South throughout the Civil War, McGarvey (as well as his audience) knew the impact even a poorly aimed canon could have:

A man fires a rifle, taking aim, very careful, deliberate aim, and misses the mark; does that bullet accomplish nothing? Is there no force in it? In a great battle, the immense cannonading which begins the fight does little execution; most of it is vain so far as striking the mark is concerned; most of it is vain so far as killing the enemy is concerned; would you say, then, that there is no power in it? Would you say it avails nothing? Every one of those cannon balls does something. If it does nothing but split open the air, and plough up the earth, it does something. It is a tremendous force. So, if the Bible teaches the truth, every prayer that goes out of a good man’s heart, goes somewhere and hits something. It is a power in this world. It has force and power, even if it misses the mark at which it is aimed; and no man is wise enough to track it and see what it does. The bullet goes out of sight through the woods. Sometimes it strikes an animal out of sight and kills it, sometimes, a man. A prayer goes out of the heart of a good man into the world; you don’t know what it accomplishes; you can not follow its flight and see what is its effect; but you can believe that it avails much. When He to whom prayer is offered tells you that it is heard and that it avails much, can’t you believe that? His eye can trace it when ours can not. So this matter of the force of prayer is, in the main, like everything else; sometimes, like the artillery fired in a great battle, or like a rifle shot, it strikes the mark and there is visible proof of its efficacy; and at other times it misses the mark, but strikes something else.

Here he strikes a note which has recurred throughout his sermons and which clearly functioned as a defining theological paradigm for McGarvey: the trustworthiness of God. Time has, unfortunately, not permitted us to examine all the sermons McGarvey published in his Sermons Delivered in Louisville (God just didn’t put enough Tuesdays and Thursdays in March to cover twenty-four sermons), but it will be profitable in this final entry to look at the way this overriding impulse in McGarvey’s thought has shaped the way he looks at so many features of the Christian walk.

The theme came out most clearly perhaps in McGarvey’s discussion of redemption, which is ultimately why that entry focused on it. McGarvey’s central theme contradicts prevailing misconceptions about the Stone-Campbell Movement (at least historically) that it was essentially a movement founded on an assurance that human reason could lead to salvation. To whatever extent that may be true, even comparatively, cannot undermine that for McGarvey the ultimate assurance for redemption did not rest with human effort, but divine agency, not in the bounds of human knowledge, but in spite of human ignorance. This is echoed as McGarvey outlines his vision of providence. While he rejects the popular notions of his day of a heavy-handed, irresistible providence micromanaging the world, McGarvey does trust in a God who is actively, responsively working in the world to achieve his ends cooperatively with humanity. The duty of humanity is not to set its own course or to devise its own salvation, but merely to seek out and recognize the will of God and try to submit to it.

McGarvey is more than happy to admit that this will is not comprehensible and insists that its incomprehensibility is no reason to question it. Undermining, again, common stereotypes about the Stone-Campbell Movement, McGarvey says of baptism that, if we follow Paul, we cannot give too strong a voice to the countless questions that arise from our imaginations: is baptism really necessary, why is it necessary, how are sins removed in baptism? It is enough that Jesus commissioned his disciples to baptize. From there—whatever our debates may yield—our salvation is a matter of trust in God. Scripture, McGarvey reminds us from the outset, is surprisingly unreceptive to the kinds of questions we want to put to it. That is because it records the messages and purposes of God for His people and of the people for their God.

We must trust in the God who has kept His promises countless times and for countless generations that He will keep His eternal promises to us. We trust that He has not deceived us about the magnitude of sin or about our need to repent of it. We trust that He has shown us the way He has ordained to lead us out of sin and into life, even if we don’t understand that way. We trust God, foolishly and uncynically, because with childlike eyes we have perceived a God who is trustworthy. It is on this note that McGarvey ends his sermon on prayer and we end our series on his sermons:

If God was a God who did not hear our prayers, or care anything about our prayers, He might as well be made of ice. He is a living God; a God who has friends, and loves His friends; and this is the reason that He will do something for them when they cry to Him. Don’t think of God as mere abstraction, or as a being who keeps Himself beyond the sky; but think of Him as one who lives with you, who is round about you, who lays His hand under your head when you lie down to rest. So in praying, pray with the confidence of little children. One of the bitterest cries I ever heard of, came from one of the great historians of England, when he said, “I would give all I am and all I ever hope to be, for one hour of my childhood’s faith, when I looked up at the sky and called it heaven.” He had lost the simple faith of his early days, and could not get it back again. We are to believe that God is with us, that His eyes are upon us, and that He hears the prayers of His saints. Pray in the morning; pray at the noontide; pray when you lie down to sleep…Pray often; pray earnestly; and in order that your prayer may amount to anything, be righteous men and women. Walk humbly before God, and truly with the people, and your prayers will be heard.

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One thought on “J. W. McGarvey: On Prayer

  1. […] quotes.  McGarvey was, however, perhaps most poetic and profound when he recorded his thoughts On Prayer: If God was a God who did not hear our prayers, or care anything about our prayers, He might as […]

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