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.