I am equally convinced that Nehemiah's example in this regard ought to wrest our attentions from all other distractions if we are to have any hope of undertaking such culture-restoring work in our own time.
By all accounts, prayer is the universal language of the soul. There is hardly a Christian who does not know of prayer’s importance, prayer’s power, and prayer’s solace. The irony of course is that there also is hardly a Christian who does not struggle to actually make prayer a priority in their daily lives. Prayer may be our unconscious heart-cry in times of distress; it may be the currency of our spiritual vitality; but prayer, as a hallmark of our deep and committed soul-bond, our communion with Almighty God, is an exceptionally rare and precious jewel.
We tend to 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 charms at predictable intervals in worship services, business meetings, and meals. 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 is absolutely incapable of such prayer.”
In contrast, the heroes of the faith through the ages have always been, like Nehemiah, 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. Athanasius 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. 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. On and on and on we could go. “The story of prayer,” E.M. Bounds once said, “is the story of great achievements.”
We know too that the Scriptures are brimming over with exhortations to likewise be constant in prayer: “Oh, give thanks to the Lord! Call upon His name; make known His deeds among the peoples! Sing to Him, sing psalms to Him; talk of all His wondrous works! Glory in His holy name; let the hearts of those rejoice who seek the Lord! Seek the Lord and His strength; seek His face evermore” (1 Chronicles 16:8-11). “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Clearly, we are to be men and women of prayer. We are to pray with whole-heartedness (Jeremiah 29:13). We are to pray with contrition (2 Chronicles 7:14). We are to pray with all faith (Mark 11:24). We are to pray with righteous fervor (James 5:16). We are to pray out of obedience (1 John 3:22) and with full confidence (John 15:7). We are to pray in the morning (Mark 1:35), in the evening (Mark 6:46), and during the night watch (Luke 6:12). This is because in accord with the good providence of God, prayer is a dynamic means of grace. It binds and it looses (Matthew 18:18). It casts down and it raises up (Mark 11:23-24). It ushers in peace (1 Timothy 2:1-2), forgiveness (Mark 11:25), healing (James 5:14-15), liberty (2 Corinthians 3:17), wisdom (1 Kings 3:3-14), and protection (Psalm 41:2). Clearly, “the effective fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16).
Samuel Chadwick, a Puritan of great renown, once wrote, “Satan dreads nothing but prayer. Alas, 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.” Thus, Homer W. Hodge could say, “Prayer should 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. Oh, for such.”
The question of course, is how? How in the world are we ever to recover this extraordinary Biblical perspective of the priority of prayer? In the midst of our 24/7/365 rush, how do we actually find the time, establish the discipline, and attain the focus necessary for genuine intimacy with the Lord? When our lives seem inescapably governed by the business of busyness and the tyranny of the urgent, how do we do what we know we ought to do, what we know we need to do, what we know we really must do? How are we to “really burn for God” like the saints of yore?
Surely guilt-tripping won’t work—most of us have tried that at one time or another. If you’re anything like me, sheer discipline works for a few days at best. Then my resolve starts to lessen, my mind starts to wander, and my body gets fidgety. Most of us would readily confess that we would like nothing better than to have prayer 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.” But we’ve tried and tried, to little or no avail. Our hearts and minds and lives are cluttered with a thousand distractions. Our time and effort and energy are claimed by a million other demands. So, what to do? How should we then pray?
There is a very simple and practical answer. According to Thomas Chalmers, the great Scottish pastor, reformer, and educator, what is needed for the total reordering of our hearts and minds for prayer is “the expulsive power of a new affection.” In other words, it is a greater love that pushes aside all other competing affections, all other insistent concerns, and all other noisome bothers. It is not a consuming discipline that will make us more constant in prayer; it is a consuming love. It is a love that pushes aside—with expulsive power—every other lesser love.
When a man or a woman falls in love. Chalmers reminds us, no one needs to tell them to “think continually on the object of their affection.” No one needs to remind lovers to spend their every waking moment pondering the beauties, the excellencies, and the delights of their beloved. No one needs to prod them into spending time conversing into the wee hours of the night. No one needs to help them develop the discipline of shutting out other distractions. The smitten can think of little else. There is nothing more exciting for them. They want nothing more than to spend time with, to nurture intimacy with, and to commune with their new affection.
All throughout the Scriptures we see this principle at work in the lives of the faithful. The priority place of prayer in their lives was the result of the expulsive power of a new affection. Abraham was a man of prayer. He was “the friend of God” and thus, enjoyed close and intimate relations with Him (Genesis 15:1-21). Moses too, was constant in his fellowship with God. He delighted in His presence not out of duty but out of sheer love (Numbers 14:11-38). David, a man after God’s own heart, prayed as he arose in the dawning of the day, yielding the very meditations of his heart to the scrutiny of his beloved Lord (Psalm 5:1-3). Though naked, beaten, imprisoned, and shackled, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God in the inner prison of Phillipi (Acts 16:25). They marvelously exemplified the “expulsive power of the new affection.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught His disciples about this sort of consuming prayer—prayer that was dramatically different from anything they had ever seen before (Matthew 6:5-8). Then, Jesus drove home the idea with a warning, a command, and a promise in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). First, He reminds them that prayer is not a means for self-promotion--either before men or before God. The throne room of the Most High is not some kind of cosmic vending machine for our every want, whim, or worry any more than it is a showcase for our eloquence or our reverence. It is instead the dwelling place of our beloved father. Others make a spectacle of themselves when they pray selfishly, brazenly, and introspectively. “Do not be like them,” Jesus warns.
Second, prayer is to be habitual. It is the expression of our day-to-day relationship with God. It is to be intimate. It is to be personal. It is to be as practical as our daily bread. It is to be as lofty as the outworking of providence in heaven and on earth. It is to be as pointed as our trespasses and our trespassers. But above all, it is to be regular. “When you pray,” Jesus said. Not “if you pray,” but “when.” This is His mandate, His command. “In this manner, therefore, pray.”
Third, prayer is objectively hedged by God’s perfect, protective, and providential will. As the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession says “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to His will.” We are not to pray simply in order to get something. We are to pray in order to be something (James 4:3). We pray in order to be conformed to God's will. And “He who sees in secret will reward openly,” for He “knows the things we have need of before we ask Him.” That is His promise. And, oh what a promise! In the presence of our Beloved, we are transformed. The new affection makes all things right, good, and true!
Thus, prayer is not a job to be done. It is not a duty to be fulfilled. It is not a task to be undertaken. It is the marvelous outworking of a love that displaces ever other love. It is the blessed overflow of the smitten heart. It is the happy result of the expulsive power of a new affection.
E.M. Bounds once said, “There ought to be no adjustment of life or spirit for the closet hours. 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.”
Those stalwart heroes times gone by who practiced that sort of free flowing, natural prayerfulness were not super saints. They did not have unique constitutions that peculiarly equipped them for prayer. They simply drank deeply from the well of grace. They embraced the “expulsive power of a new affection.” And thus freed from monkish discipline, they reveled in the love of their Savior. So it ought to be with you—and with me.