‘What a friend we have in Jesus’, is one of our best-known Christian hymns.
From the pen of Banbridge-born Joseph Scriven, it contains the frequent exhortation, ‘Take it to the Lord in prayer.’ Some of the occasions for that response is ‘when our friends despise, forsake us’ or when we are ‘weak and heavy-laden, cumbered with a load of care’. Let me reverently and humble suggest that there are occasions when prayer is not enough.
Yuval Noah Harari’s recent best-seller, ‘Sapiens’, with the modest strap-line of ‘A brief history of humankind’ provides an illuminating example. In 1744 two ministers of the Church of Scotland, Alexander Webster and Robert Wallace, wished to set up an insurance scheme for the widows and orphans of dead clergymen.
But how much should each member contribute to provide for this inevitability? And how much would each widow receive? And for how long could a widow be expected to live? The steps the two men took to address those questions is instructive. Harari wrote, ‘Take note of what the two churchmen did not do. They did not pray to God to reveal the answer. Nor did they search for an answer in the Holy Scriptures or among the works of ancient theologians.’
What then did they do? They contacted a professor of mathematics at Edinburgh University, and using new insights in the realms of statistics and probability, they found their answers. With those answers they projected that in 20 years their capital would total £58,347. When those 20 years had elapsed, their capital was just £1 less than the sum they had initially projected! The fund they established is known today as ‘Scottish Widows’ with pension and insurance assets worth £100 billion.
Those good men probably did pray, but they knew that for their scheme prayer was not enough. The phrase we use at weddings, ‘What God has joined together, let not man separate (Matthew 19;6) has other applications. Faith in Christ alone is vital for salvation, but faith must not be allowed to stand alone. As the apostle James put it , ‘Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead’ (James 2; 17)
Likewise, prayer needs to be allied to action. The pupil who returned from a school exam, and rushed to his bedroom with the prayer, ‘Please, Lord, let Vienna be the capital of Australia - the answer he had wrongly given in his exam - would have been better served by more rigorous preparation.
Frederick Douglass, a hero in the American struggle against slavery, once said, ‘Many a time in a cotton field in Virginia, I prayer for freedom, but God only heard my prayer when I prayed with my heels.’ Yes, ‘pray without ceasing’(1Thessalonians 5;17), but remember that sometimes prayer isn’t enough!