Friday, January 6

Normal Prayer

Prayer is the most common Christian expression of authentic faith; but it may be among the least practiced Christian disciplines. It is said that prayer is the universal language of the soul; but it is actually the solitary province of the supplicating saint. Prayer, as the unconscious heart-cry in times of distress, is the currency of all humanity; but prayer, as the deep and committed soul-bond in communion with Almighty God, is an exceptionally rare and precious jewel.

Certainly, regular seasons of prayer are essential to spiritual maturity--which is why spiritual maturity seems to be so terribly scarce. We take our time with God in snatches. We throw out petitions rapid-fire on the run. At best, we rush through our laundry lists of wants and needs. Even in the corporate life of the church prayer gets short shrift—only briefly imposed like talismans at predictable intervals in worship services, business meetings, and meals.

Thus, the great romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge sadly observed, “The act of praying is the very highest energy of which the human mind is capable; praying that is, with the total concentration of the faculties on God. The great mass of worldly men, learned men, and yea, even religious men are absolutely incapable of prayer.”

In contrast, the heroes of the faith through the ages have always been diligent, vigilant, and constant in prayer. They humbled themselves before God with prayers, petitions, and supplications always acknowledging their utter dependency upon His mercy and grace. Historical anecdotes abound. Athanasius, for instance, prayed five hours each day. Augustine once set aside eighteen months to do nothing but pray. Bernard of Clairveaux would not begin his daily activities until he had spent at least three hours in prayer. Charles Simeon devoted the hours from four till eight in the morning to God. John Wesley spent two hours daily in prayer--beginning well before dawn. John Fletcher regularly spent all night in prayer. His greeting to friends was always, “Do I meet you praying?”

Martin Luther often commented, “I have so much business I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer.” Francis Asbury rose each morning at four in order to spend two hours in prayer. Samuel Rutherford began praying at three. If ever Joseph Alleine heard other craftsmen plying their business before he was up, he would exclaim, “Oh how this shames me. Doth not my master deserve more than theirs?”

John Calvin, John Knox, and Theodore Beza vowed to one another to devote two hours daily to prayer. John Welch thought the day ill-spent if he did not spend eight or ten hours in prayer. The extraordinary thing is that such fervent praying was not considered to be particularly extraordinary. Indeed, as Homer W. Hodge argued, “Prayer should always be the breath of our breathing, the thought of our thinking, the soul of our feeling, the life of our living, the sound of our hearing, and the growth of our growing. Prayer is length without end, width without bounds, height without top, and depth without bottom; illimitable in its breadth, exhaustless in height, fathomless in depths, and infinite in extension. Oh, for determined men and women who will rise early and really burn for God. Oh for a faith that will sweep into heaven with the early dawning of morning and have ships from a shoreless sea loaded in the soul's harbor ere the ordinary laborer has knocked the dew from the scythe or the lackluster has turned from his pallet of straw to spread nature's treasures of fruit before the early buyers.”

Thus, according to E.M. Bounds, a life of constant, persistent, and fervent prayer ought to be the ordinary Christian life. “There ought to be no adjustment of life or spirit for the closet hours,” he asserted. “Without intermission, incessantly, assiduously; that ought to describe the opulence, and energy, and unabated ceaseless strength and fullness of effort in prayer; like the full and exhaustless and spontaneous flow of an artesian stream.”

The life of Bounds, was itself a testimony to the normalcy of diligent prayerfulness. He was born in 1835 along the rugged Missouri frontier. He died in 1913 in the heart of the Deep South. During the seventy-eight years in between, he panned for gold in California, worked as a lawyer in St. Louis, pastored churches in Tennessee, Alabama, and Missouri, served as a chaplain during the bitter Civil War sieges of Vicksburg, Franklin, Atlanta, and Nashville, and was a renowned journalist and publisher. But it was as the author of a number of remarkable books on prayer--including Power Through Prayer, The Preacher and Prayer, The Weapon of Prayer, The Necessity of Prayer, and The Possibilities of Prayer--that he made his mark on the world. It was in those books that he told the stories of the extraordinary ordinariness of praying men and movements. It was in those books that he underscored the Biblical verities of the life of prayer. It was in those books that he recovered for a whole new generation--and for several generations afterward--the mandate for an unremitting commitment to prayer. Indeed, he was a veritable living, breathing encyclopedia of prayer.

Though he suffered persistent failure--as well as imprisonment, persecution, impoverishment, isolation, and humiliation at nearly every turn during the long course of his faithful labors--he never wavered in his commitment to a life of prayer. He was fond of quoting the great Puritan divine, Samuel Chadwick, who wrote, “Satan dreads nothing but prayer. Activities are multiplied that prayer may be ousted, and organizations are increased that prayer may have no chance. The one concern of the devil is to keep the saints from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks at our wisdom, but trembles when we pray.”

Across the distance of a century, the testimony of Bounds is that both the testimony of the Church’s heroes and the testimony of the Scripture’s mandates are sure and true. Ours are to be lives marked by prayer, suffused in prayer, and enlivened for prayer. Normal prayer is to be our normal life.

3 comments:

covenantpromise said...

Dr. Grant,

Calvin, in his short 90 page consideration on prayer in The Institutes of the Christian Religion calls it "The cheif exercise of faith". This is the best thing I believe I have read on prayer. There is only one problem. I would rather read about prayer (even from someone as great as the mighty Calvin)rather than actually pray. I have often puzzled over this struggle. Study theology......no problem. I love to do it. Why don't I have the same affinity to pray. I know that I have been exhorted to "Pray without ceasing". I know that apart from Christ I can do nothing. Why is prayer at times something of a last resort (when all other secondary means fail) rather than a matter of first importance? I have one guesse. PRIDE!!!
There is no haughty heart on it's knees. No self reliance before his inapproachable light. All wit, cleverness and praise of man melts away when we pray. Is it the case that pride is so endemic to the human condition (even for the redeemed soul) that we naturally shrink back from that high and holy calling of prayer?
One of the great blessings of "The vicissitudes of life",is that even if the volume of my prayer life is not increased, there is certainly a different flavor or character to my prayers. A sense of desperation and utter dependence (that should be there all the time) on the mercy of Christ. During one of these times recently I was reading through my copy of Morning and Evening when Spurgeon was calling out to me to meditate upon the "Doctrines of grace". At the end of the meditation Spurgeon quoted a line from an old hymn I have sang a hundred times-

His oath, his covenant, his blood
Supports me in the whelming flood
When every earthly prop gives way
He is all my hope and stay.

It hit me like a freight train. Some times God graciously removes the earthly props so we can pray aright.

Jason p

George said...

Jason:

I have the same prideful impediment to faithful praying. That's part of the reason God puts us into community so that we can provoke one another on in faith--just as you have provoked me with the wonderful reminder here. Thank you.

Chris Ortiz said...

George,

This is my first time to comment on your blog though I've read and enjoyed it for some time now. As a former devout charismatic I spent long seasons of prayer and fasting for a number of years. At certain times I would spend upwards of 8 hours a day praying. I don't regret it but I doubt I'd ever take it up again. I don't think God would be that interested either. It's tough to be a blessing to this world when you're locked up a good portion of the day.

I eventually adopted Brother Lawrence's simplicity of practicing the presence of God. Granted, I do have times that I am set apart I am careful not to place too great an emphasis on the isolation.

Rushdoony has a fine little chapter on prayer in his "Systematic Theology" that your readers might find helpful. It seems he also adopted the Brother Lawrence approach.

I loved your last paragraph regarding normal prayer being our normal life. Having coming from overt spiritualism I certainly don't want to land in the ditch of scholasticism. I've enjoyed a balanced approach. I enjoy your blog for the same reason -- balance!

Chris