Concerning that part of devotion which relates to times and hours of prayer. Of daily early prayer in the morning. How we are to improve our forms of prayer, and how to increase the spirit of devotion.
HAVING in the foregoing chapters shown the necessity of a devout spirit, or habit of mind, in every part of our common life, in the discharge of all our business, in the use of all the gifts of God; I come now to consider that part of devotion, which relates to times and hours of prayer.
I take it for granted, that every Christian, that is in health, is up early in the morning; for it is much more reasonable to suppose a person up early, because he is a Christian, than because he is a labourer, or a tradesman, or a servant, or has business that wants him.
We naturally conceive some abhorrence of a man that is in bed when he should be at his labour or in his shop. We cannot tell how to think anything good of him, who is such a slave to drowsiness as to neglect his business for it.
Let this therefore teach us to conceive how odious we must appear in the sight of Heaven, if we are in bed, shut up in sleep and darkness, when we should be praising God; and are such slaves to drowsiness, as to neglect our devotions for it.
For if he is to be blamed as a slothful drone, that rather chooses the lazy indulgence of sleep, than to perform his proper share of worldly business; how much more is he to be reproached, that would rather lie folded up in a bed, than be raising up his heart to God in acts of praise and adoration!
Prayer is the nearest approach to God, and the highest enjoyment of Him, that we are capable of in this life.
It is the noblest exercise of the soul, the most exalted use of our best faculties, and the highest imitation of the blessed inhabitants of Heaven.
When our hearts are full of God, sending up holy desires to the throne of grace, we are then in our highest state, we are upon the utmost heights of human greatness; we are not before kings and princes, but in the presence and audience of the Lord of all the world, and can be no higher, till death is swallowed up in glory.
On the other hand, sleep is the poorest, dullest refreshment of the body, that is so far from being intended as an enjoyment, that we are forced to receive it either in a state of insensibility, or in the folly of dreams.
Sleep is such a dull, stupid state of existence, that even amongst mere animals, we despise them most which are most drowsy.
He, therefore, that chooses to enlarge the slothful indulgence of sleep, rather than be early at his devotions to God, chooses the dullest refreshment of the body, before the highest, noblest employment of the soul; he chooses that state which is a reproach to mere animals, rather than that exercise which is the glory of Angels.
You will perhaps say, though you rise late, yet you are always careful of your devotions when you are up.
It may be so. But what then? Is it well done of you to rise late, because you pray when you are up?
Is it pardonable to waste great part of the day in bed, because some time after you say your prayers?
It is as much your duty to rise to pray, as to pray when you are risen. And if you are late at your prayers, you offer to God the prayers of an idle, slothful worshipper, that rises to prayers as idle servants rise to their labour.
Farther; if you fancy that you are careful of your devotions when you are up, though it be your custom to rise late, you deceive yourself; for you cannot perform your devotions as you ought. For he that cannot deny himself this drowsy indulgence, but must pass away good part of the morning in it, is no more prepared for prayer when he is up, than he is prepared for fasting, abstinence, or any other self-denial. He may indeed more easily read over a form of prayer, than he can perform these duties; but he is no more disposed to enter into the true spirit of prayer than he is disposed to fasting. For sleep thus indulged gives a softness and idleness to all our tempers, and makes us unable to relish anything but what suits with an idle state of mind, and gratifies our natural tempers, as sleep does. So that a person who is a slave to this idleness is in the same temper when he is up; and though he is not asleep, yet he is under the effects of it; and everything that is idle, indulgent, or sensual, pleases him for the same reason that sleep pleases him; and, on the other hand, everything that requires care, or trouble, or self-denial, is hateful to him, for the same reason that he hates to rise. He that places any happiness in this morning indulgence, would be glad to have all the day made happy in the same manner; though not with sleep, yet with such enjoyments as gratify and indulge the body in the same manner as sleep does; or, at least, with such as come as near to it as they can. The remembrance of a warm bed is in his mind all the day, and he is glad when he is not one of those that sit starving in a church.
Now you do not imagine that such a one can truly mortify that body which he thus indulges: yet you might as well think this, as that he can truly perform his devotions; or live in such a drowsy state of indulgence, and yet relish the joys of a spiritual life.
For surely no one will pretend to say that he knows and feels the true happiness of prayer, who does not think it worth his while to be early at it.
It is not possible in nature for an epicure to be truly devout: he must renounce this habit of sensuality, before he can relish the happiness of devotion.
Now he that turns sleep into an idle indulgence, does as much to corrupt and disorder his soul, to make it a slave to bodily appetites, and keep it incapable of all devout and heavenly tempers, as he that turns the necessities of eating into a course of indulgence.
A person that eats and drinks too much does not feel such effects from it, as those do who live in notorious instances of gluttony and intemperance: but yet his course of indulgence, though it be not scandalous in the eyes of the world, nor such as torments his own conscience, is a great and constant hindrance to his improvement in virtue; it gives him eyes that see not, and ears that hear not; it creates a sensuality in the soul, increases the power of bodily passions, and makes him incapable of entering into the true spirit of religion.
Now this is the case of those who waste their time in sleep; it does not disorder their lives, or wound their consciences, as notorious acts of intemperance do; but, like any other more moderate course of indulgence, it silently, and by smaller degrees, wears away the spirit of religion, and sinks the soul into a state of dulness and sensuality.
If you consider devotion only as a time of so much prayer, you may perhaps perform it, though you live in this daily indulgence; but if you consider it as a state of the heart, as a lively fervour of the soul, that is deeply affected with a sense of its own misery and infirmities, and desires the Spirit of God more than all things in the world: you will find that the spirit of indulgence, and the spirit of prayer, cannot subsist together. Mortification of all kinds is the very life and soul of piety; but he that has not so small a degree of it, as to be able to be early at his prayers, can have no reason to think that he has taken up his cross, and is following Christ.
A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law 1686 - 1761