Prayerful Praying Taking Hold of Yourself and God in Prayer
Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.James 5:17
The Scripture says Elijah “prayed earnestly.” The KJV marginal notes provide the alternate translation that the prophet “prayed in his prayer.” In other words, his prayers were more than a formal exercise; he poured himself into his praying. Bible commentator Alexander Ross says that idiom communicates intensity:
A man may pray with his lips and yet not pray with an intense desire of the soul.1
You might call it “prayerful praying.”
After studying the prayer lives of the Reformers and Puritans, I am convinced that the greatest shortcoming in today’s church is the lack of such prayerful prayer. We fail to use heaven’s greatest weapon as we should. Personally, domestically, and congregationally, the prayer we engage in is often more prayerless than prayerful. One-half of our calling as ministers and elders is prayer (Acts 6:4), but in reality we spend no more than 5 percent of our time in prayer. All Christians are called to pray (Col. 4:2). Is anything more essential, yet more neglected, among us than prayer?
The giants of church history dwarf us in true prayer. Is that because they were more educated, were less distracted by cares and duties, or lived in more pious times? No; undoubtedly, what most separates them from us is that prayer was their priority; they devoted considerable time and energy to it. They were prayerful men who knew how to take hold of God in prayer (Isa. 64:7), being possessed by the Spirit of grace and supplication. They were Daniels in private and public prayer.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) spent the best two hours of every day alone with God.2 Luther’s prayer life was legendary. When he was facing a day that was particularly challenging,
Luther told his friends,
I have so much scheduled for tomorrow I must pray for that I must arise an hour earlier to have an extra hour alone with God.
On another occasion, Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), Luther’s most able and trusted assistant, overheard Luther praying aloud as was his custom, for Luther said he wanted even the Devil to hear what he was praying.
Gracious God! What faith! What spirit! What reverence, and yet with what holy familiarity did Master Martin pray!
Yet such prayer took tremendous effort and self-discipline. Luther readily confessed, “Praying comes close to being the most difficult of all works.”3 Though people unacquainted with spiritual praying may think it is easy to recite a few words to God,
Prayer is a difficult matter and hard work. It is far more difficult than preaching the Word or performing other official duties in the church ... This is the reason why it is so rare.4
We must strive to grow in prayer. John Welsh (1568-1622) of Ayr, the God-fearing son-in-law of John Knox, prayed seven hours a day. He confessed, “I wonder how a Christian could lie in his bed all night, and not rise to pray.” He kept his robe close to his bed because a night seldom passed when he did not rise to commune with his God in a private room. Often his wife would find him praying and weeping after midnight. When she encouraged him to come back to bed out of fear he would catch cold, Welsh responded, “Oh, my dear wife, I have the souls of three thousand to answer for, and I know not how it is with many of them!”
Our prayerlessness is the more tragic because of the tremendous potential of prayer. The Puritan Thomas Brooks (1608-1680) wrote, “Ah! How often, Christians, hath God kissed you at the beginning of prayer, and spoke peace to you in the midst of prayer, and filled you with joy and assurance, upon the close of prayer!”5 The wife of Joseph Alleine said of her husband:
At the time of his health, he did rise constantly at or before four of the clock, and on the Sabbath sooner, if he did wake. He would be much troubled if he heard smiths, or shoemakers, or such tradesmen, at work at their trades before he was in his duties with God; saying to me often, “O how this noise shames me! Doth not my Master deserve more than theirs?” From four till eight he spent in prayer, holy contemplation, and singing of psalms, which he much delighted in, and did daily practice alone, as well as in his family.6
Let us consider the problem of prayerlessness, before we consider some solutions in a future article. If we are faithful in our efforts to acquire more of the gift and grace of true prayer, we can be sure God will help us to “take hold of him” (Isa. 64:7).
The Problem of Prayerless Praying
Let each of us begin with ourselves. Does our personal use of the weapon of prayer bring us shame rather than glory? Is prayer the means by which we storm the throne of grace and take the kingdom of heaven by violence? Is it a missile that crushes satanic powers, or is it like a harmless toy that Satan sleeps beside?
We ministers are usually more concerned about our sermons and what our listeners think of them than what and how we pray. As laypeople, we are usually more concerned about communicating with others than with God. Where is our prayerful passion for the presence of God?
Our prayer life is often “closed for repairs,” though little repair work seems to get done. Good intentions surface from time to time, but, as the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Good intentions without repentance and persevering implementation of better habits lead only to further deterioration and unfruitfulness.
When our prayer life is boarded up, everything else begins to shut down. How can we live to God outside the prayer closet when we so seldom meet Him in the closet? In that tepid condition, we often mistake prayerless praying for prayerful praying. We forget that in both we come with empty hands to God’s throne. Prayerless praying, however, comes with listless hands, while prayerful praying clings with one hand to heaven’s footstool and with the other to Calvary’s cross, stirring itself “to take hold” of God (Isa. 64:7). Prayerless praying freezes before reaching heaven, while prayerful praying pierces heaven and warms the soul.
What is the condition of your prayer life? Perhaps you have never experienced a powerful prayer life. You may repeat words of prayer in a religious meeting or over a meal. You may express yourself in elegant words or the stock phrases of conventional piety and yet be a prayerless person. You may cry out to God for some pressing need but never possess the Spirit of prayer. Prayer is the soul’s breath to God in faith, hope, and love. Does your soul ever pant after God in Christ? If not, your spiritual life is lifeless. If you are prayerless in your prayer, you are still dead in your sins. You must cry out to God in repentance, begging Him to make you alive in Christ.
Perhaps you once prayed in your prayers but your need for such prayer has grown dull. Backsliding usually begins in the inner closet of prayer. You looked forward to times of prayer. You longed to be alone with the Lord, to pour out your heart to Him with all its needs, confessions, vows, thanksgivings, and praises. You spread those before the Lord with eagerness as if He knew nothing about you, and yet with the consciousness that He knew you better than you know yourself.
But gradually your prayer life began to disintegrate. Even before you were aware of it, your prayers became more a matter of words than heart-to-heart communion with God. Form and coldness replaced holy necessity. Before long, you dropped your morning prayer. It no longer seemed critical to meet with God before you met with people. Then you shortened your prayer at bedtime. Other concerns broke in on your time with God. Throughout the day, prayer all but vanished. Previously, you prayed less on your knees throughout the day than you did with your eyes open – on the road, at work or school, or wherever you went – because most of your prayers were spontaneous.
Perhaps formality and deadness in prayer have replaced power and access to God, causing the omission of prayer to seem more reverent than engaging in prayer. “My knees are still bowed, but where is my love, urgency, necessity, and dependency on God?” we ask. “Where are the ongoing intercessory petitions for my family and the church?”
The confessions of Thomas Adam (1701-1784) may resonate with you in this condition:
I pray faintly, and with reserve, merely to quiet conscience, for present ease, almost wishing not to be heard ... Prayer and other spiritual exercises are often a weariness to me; a task, and a force upon nature. I am too well pleased with pretenses for omitting them; and when they are over, I feel myself at ease, as it were, like after the removal of a heavy weight ... Whenever I attempt to pray for others, I am soon made sensible that I do it in a cold, heartless manner; a plain indication that love is not at the bottom. It is an awful moment when the soul meets God in private, to stand the test of His all-searching eye.7
We must confront our prayerless praying, confess it to God, and plead for the renewal of our souls in recognizing the value of prayer. Charles Bridges (1794-1869) particularly speaks to pastors about the need for revival in prayer, based on Acts 6:4,
We will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.
Prayer is one half of our Ministry; and it gives to the other half all its power and success. It is the appointed medium of receiving spiritual communications for the instruction of our people. Those who walk most closely with God are most spiritually intelligent in “the secret of his covenant.” Many can set their seal to Luther’s testimony, that he often obtained more knowledge in a short time by prayer, than by many hours of laborious and accurate study. It will also strengthen our habitual engagedness of our hearts in our work, and our natural exercises and capacities for it. Living near to the fountain-head of influence, we shall be in the constant receipt of fresh supplies of light, support, and consolation – to assist us in our duties, to enable us for our difficulties, and to assure us of our present acceptance, and a suitable measure of ultimate success.8
Prayer is no less important for laypeople. How can you find a godly mate, raise your children in the Lord, and do your work for the glory of God without prayerful prayer? All things in life, from marriage to meals down to the hour of death, are sanctified by prayer and the Word (1 Tim. 4:4-5). Petitions are our sails, and the Spirit provides the wind. Without the Spirit, our prayers are prayerless, and prayerless praying results in lifeless living. Prayer is the thermometer of our spiritual condition.
Solutions for Prayerful Praying
It is far easier to generate guilt about prayerlessness than to solve the problem. It is far easier to feel bad about powerless prayer than to repent and obey. But as Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:7b, “Exercise thyself rather unto godliness.” He adds in 1 Timothy 6:12, “Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life.” I thus plead with you to aggressively seek a more fervent and faithful prayer life. This will require you to take hold of yourself and God. Since the Reformers and Puritans were masters of prayer, I will quote heavily from them in suggestions for prayerful praying. Here are their solutions.
Take Hold of Yourself for Prayer
Prayerful praying does not happen automatically. Do not think that going to a conference, listening to a preacher, or reading a book will flip a switch inside you and make you a praying machine. You must exercise self-control, which is not a legalistic mandate but a fruit of the Spirit prompted by the cross of Jesus Christ (Gal. 5:22-24). We must look to Christ as the vine who can produce good fruit in us, get a grip on ourselves, and engage in disciplined prayer.
David took hold of himself in prayer. He did not wallow in depression but engaged in self-examination, saying in Psalm 42:5,
Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me? Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance.
David did not sink into thanklessness but rose to thank God in the midst of his troubles. In Psalm 103:2 he says, “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.”
Consider the following seven principles of how to take hold of yourself for prayer.
1. Remember the value of prayer
Seek to realize the value of unanswered as well as answered prayer. William Carey (1761-1834) labored as a missionary in India for eight years before baptizing the first convert from Hinduism to Christ.9 Yet in those years Carey learned to live for the glory of God alone. He wrote, “I feel that it is good to commit my soul, my body, and my all, into the hands of God. Then the world appears little, the promises great, and God an all-sufficient portion.”10 God’s delay became marrow for Carey’s soul. “You must distinguish between delays and denials,” said Thomas Brooks.11 William Bridge went even deeper, saying,
A praying man can never be very miserable, whatever his condition be, for he has the ear of God; the Spirit within to indite, a Friend in heaven to present, and God Himself to receive his desires. It is a mercy to pray, even though I never receive the mercy prayed for.12
May God also sanctify us through seemingly unanswered petitions. Remember, in the waiting time between sowing and reaping, plants are growing. Though we may wait a long time before receiving an answer to some prayers, we must pray on, realizing that prayer itself as well as the trial of delayed answers helps our soul grow.
But if unanswered prayer is sweet, how much sweeter is answered prayer! “Good prayers never come weeping home,” wrote Joseph Hall (1574-1656); “I am sure I shall receive either what I ask or what I should ask.”13 God knows what is best for His children. He never denies us anything that we ask for in humble submission and according to His will. So pray on. Refuse to leave the Lord alone. Keep before you the encouraging words of Thomas Watson (ca. 1620-1686):
The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that fetched the angel.14
Beg the Lord to bring back the days of John Knox (ca. 1514-1572), when his enemies dreaded his prayers more than the armies of ten thousand men.
2. Maintain the priority of prayer
Apart from God, we can do nothing (John 15:5). John Bunyan wrote, “You can do more than pray, after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed.”15 He also said, “Pray often, for prayer is a shield to the soul, a sacrifice to God, and a scourge for Satan.”16 Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) wrote to ministers,
Your prayers will be your ablest assistants while your discourses are yet upon the anvil ... Prayer will singularly assist you in the delivery of your sermon; in fact, nothing can so gloriously fit you to preach as descending fresh from the mount of communion with God to speak with men ... After the sermon, how could a conscientious preacher give vent to his feelings and find solace for his soul if access to the mercy seat were denied him?17
Let us then value prayer as the chief means to assist us in our ministerial duties, reserving time for prayer before and after each church task. Struggle to avoid prayerless praying whether in private devotions or public prayers. Even if your prayers seem lifeless, do not stop praying. Dullness may be beyond your immediate ability to overcome, but refusing to pray at all is the fruit of presumption, self-sufficiency, and slothfulness. When even the outward form of prayer is gone, all is gone. It is easy to pray when you are like a sailboat gliding forward in a favoring wind. But you must also pray when you are like an icebreaker smashing your way through an arctic sea one foot at a time. No matter what, keep prayer your priority.
3. Speak with sincerity in prayer
Psalm 62:8 says, “Trust in him at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before him: God is a refuge for us.” To pray with your mouth what is not truly in your heart is hypocrisy – unless you are confessing the coldness of your heart and crying out for heart-warming grace. Sometimes a sincere prayer, such as Psalm 119, is long and carefully crafted. Sometimes a sincere prayer, such as Psalm 86:11b, is quite simple: “Unite my heart to fear thy name.” Or consider Luke 18:13: “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Either way, settle for nothing less than sincerity in your prayer.
Be encouraged to strive for sincerity in prayer by these words of Thomas Brooks:
God looks not at the elegancy of your prayers, to see how neat they are; nor yet at the geometry of your prayers, to see how long they are; nor yet at the arithmetic of your prayers, to see how many they are; nor yet at the music of your prayers, nor yet at the sweetness of your voice, nor yet at the logic of your prayers; but at the sincerity of your prayers, how hearty they are. There is no prayer acknowledged, approved, accepted, recorded, or rewarded by God, but that wherein the heart is sincerely and wholly. The true mother would not have the child divided. As God loves a broken and a contrite heart, so he loathes a divided heart.18
4. Cultivate a continual spirit of prayer
“Pray without ceasing,” says 1 Thessalonians 5:17. This refers to the spirit, habit, and condition of prayer rather than the physical act of prayer. It refers more to praying with your hat on and your eyes open than to petitioning in private. Speaking specifically to ministers on this matter, Spurgeon wrote,
If there be any man under heaven, who is compelled to carry out the precept – “Pray without ceasing,” surely it is the Christian minister. He has peculiar temptations, special trials, singular difficulties, and remarkable duties; he has to deal with God in awful relationships, and with men in mysterious interests; he therefore needs much more grace than common men, and as he knows this, he is led constantly to cry to the strong for strength, and say, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.” Alleine once wrote to a dear friend, “Though I am apt to be unsettled and quickly set off the hinges, yet, methinks, I am like a bird out of the nest. I am never quiet till I am in my old way of communion with God; like the needle in the compass, that is restless till it be turned to the pole.19
Continual prayer is the unexplainable spirit and art of communion with God, which is sometimes hidden from the wise and prudent but revealed to babes. Its wisdom often extends beyond form and words.
When thou prayest, rather let thy heart be without words, than thy words without a heart.20
Keep your heart in a praying frame towards God even when you cannot express your prayers in words.
One more thing I have found helpful in the task of continual prayer is that whenever you feel the least impulse to pray, do so. Even if you are in the midst of a difficult job that demands concentration, always obey the impulse to prayer. The impulse may be a groaning of the Spirit, and we must never consider the Spirit’s promptings as an intrusion. Do not tell yourself to wait until it’s more convenient; start praying immediately.
5. Work towards organization in prayer
The apostle Paul prayed constantly for believers and churches all over the world. Paul was a remarkably busy person whose life was full of conflicts and trials. Yet he maintained a system of prayer. We can follow his example by keeping prayer lists and, with God’s help, using them to help organize our prayers. At times you will feel more burdened to pray for some than others, but press on even when you do not feel like doing so.
Divide your list into three categories: those you intend to pray for (1) every day, (2) every week, and (3) every month. A good friend in South Africa spends an hour or more on his knees in his study every morning from 5:00 to 6:00, interceding in this manner. My family and I are on his daily list. I cannot tell you how many times I have been encouraged by realizing that this brother is daily lifting up my worthless name to the Lord of Sabaoth. No wonder John Newton (1725-1827) considered his best friends to be those who prayed for him.
Pray through your church directory, dividing the list to cover a reasonable number of people each day. If you are a pastor, you will know their needs. Praying may be the most valuable work that a minister does. It may also be the most important ministry of church members.
Use other prayer directories to pray through a list of missionaries supported by your church or denomination. Read the e-mails and newsletters of missionaries you support and pray for them after you are done reading. Otherwise you might forget.
6. Read the Bible for prayer
One reason your prayer life may be drooping is that you have neglected the Holy Scriptures. Prayer is a two-way conversation. We need to listen to God, not just to talk to Him. We do not listen to God by emptying our minds and waiting for a thought to spontaneously come to mind. That’s non-Christian mysticism. We listen to God by filling our minds with the Bible because the Bible is God speaking in written form. Our Lord Jesus Christ says in John 15:7,
If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.
When you read the Bible, do so with the intent of responding to God’s Word with prayer. For example, read Ephesians 5 with its many commands for the church and marriage. This is rich material for prayer. Praise God for the love of Christ presented in verses 2 and 25. Turn the commandments into confessions of your transgressions of God’s holy law. And bring the laws of God to Him, praying for God to write them on your heart and the hearts of others. Every Scripture passage is fuel for burning prayers.
7. Keep biblical balance in prayer
The Scriptures present various kinds of prayer: praise of God’s glories, confession of our sins, petition for our needs (spiritual and physical), thanks for God’s mercies, intercession for others (family, friends, church, nation, and the world), and our confidence that God is willing and able to answer what we have prayed. We have a tendency to favor some forms of prayer to the neglect of others. For example, you might gravitate towards intercession but neglect thanksgiving. Paul says in Philippians 4:6,
Be careful (or anxious) for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.
Another person might delight in praising God but shy away from confessing sin, forgetting that the apostle John tells us that one mark of walking in the light of God is confession of sins and finding forgiveness from God through the blood of His Son (1 John 1:7-9). Periodically examine your prayers to see if they are out of balance, and give more time and energy to the areas of prayer you are neglecting.
Taking Hold of God in Prayer
Deep within us, we know that it is impossible to solve prayerlessness by our own strength. The sacredness, gift, and efficacy of prayer are far above human means. God’s grace is necessary for prayerful praying. Yet grace does not passively wait for God to strike us with revival. We must seek grace by first seeking the Lord. David writes in Psalm 25:1, “Unto thee, O LORD, do I lift up my soul” (see also Ps. 86:4; 143:8). Paul commands us in Colossians 3:1-2,
If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.
So direct your mind and affections towards our covenant God in Christ, and draw near to the throne of grace. Just as Jacob wrestled with the Angel of the Lord and would not let Him go until he was blessed, so we must grasp hold of God until He blesses us.
Consider three principles for taking hold of God in prayer.
1. Plead God’s promises in prayer
In His sovereignty, God has bound Himself by the promises He has made to us. Augustine said his mother prayed long for his conversion, pleading God’s promises. She “urged upon Thee, as Thine own handwriting,” for God in His covenant mercy chose “to become a debtor by Thy promises.”21 Psalm 119:25 says, “My soul cleaveth unto the dust: quicken thou me according to thy word.” Thomas Manton (1620-1677), alluding to Augustine, wrote,
One good way to get comfort is to plead the promise of God in prayer ... Show him his handwriting; God is tender of his word.22
Some months ago, an elderly friend brought me a spiritual letter from my father, who passed straight from the pulpit to glory in 1993. My father wrote the letter in the 1950s, shortly after his conversion. “I thought you might like to have this,” the friend said. “Like to?” I said, “I would love to have this.” I sat down and read it immediately with great pleasure – it was so personal because it was my father’s handwriting. How do you think your Father in heaven feels when you show Him His own handwriting in prayer?
The Puritans made much of praying God’s promises back to Him. John Trapp (1601-1669) wrote,
Promises must be prayed over. God loves to be burdened with, and to be importuned (urgently pressed with requests) in, his own words; to be sued upon his own bond. Prayer is a putting God’s promises into suit. And it is neither arrogancy nor presumption, to burden God, as it were, with his promise ... Such prayers will be nigh the Lord day and night (1 Kings 8:59), he can as little deny them, as deny himself.23
Likewise, William Gurnall (1616-1679) wrote, “Prayer is nothing but the promise reversed, or God’s Word formed into an argument, and retorted by faith upon God again.”24
He also urged,
Furnish thyself with arguments from the promises to enforce thy prayers, and make them prevalent with God. The promises are the ground of faith, and faith, when strengthened, will make thee fervent, and such fervency ever speeds and returns with victory out of the field of prayer ... The mightier any is in the Word, the more mighty he will be in prayer.25
2. Look to the glorious Trinity in prayer
Much prayerlessness in our prayers is due to our thoughtlessness towards God. Our prayers may come from the stress of an immediate need or crisis, or they may become mere habitual talking to ourselves. But God dwells in our prayers most when our minds most dwell on God. Therefore when you pray, meditate on how the gospel reveals the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to draw sinners to God. Before rushing into your list of requests, bring to mind Scripture texts that speak of the glory of our God, and turn those texts into praise.
Ephesians 2:18 tells us how the three persons of the Trinity operate in our prayers, saying,
For through him (Christ Jesus) we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.
Prayer is like a golden chain that runs from the Father via the Son and the Spirit back to the Father again. It is decreed by the Father, merited by the Son, shaped into words by the Spirit, and sent back up to the Son, who, through His intercession, presents it as acceptable and pure to His heavenly Father. So lean heavily on the Spirit to help you compose your prayers and trust in Christ to make your prayers effectual. By the Son and the Spirit, your prayers will reach the ears of the God of Sabaoth.
John Owen (1616-1683) advised us to commune with each person in the triune God.26 He did so based on 2 Corinthians 13:14:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen.
So in your prayer life, pursue a deeper and more experiential knowledge of the riches of grace in Christ’s person and work, the glory of the electing and adopting love of the Father, and the comfort of fellowship with God by the indwelling Holy Spirit. In this way, you will pray not just to receive God’s benefits but to receive God Himself.
3. Believe that God answers prayer
I fear that we often do not believe in prayer as we should.
Psalm 65:2 says,
O thou that hearest prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come.
We sincerely come to God only when we believe that He rewards those who seek Him (Heb. 11:6). The Lord Jesus taught that the life of asking is a life of receiving, especially of the graces of the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:9-13). The very nature of God as Father is to give to His children. On the other hand, James rebukes those who ask God for spiritual wisdom to face trials but do not trust Him to give it generously (James 1:2-8).
A man once set up a tavern next door to a church. The wild parties, late-night hours, sinful indulgence, and morning refuse from the bar so distressed the church that people prayed God would intervene. He did. A tornado took out the tavern and left the church untouched. The tavern owner took the church to court, claiming his loss was due to the congregation’s prayers. Church members claimed innocence, saying that they had no responsibility in the tavern’s destruction. The judge marveled that an unbeliever seemed to believe in the power of prayer more than the church folk did!
May we not fall under the verdict of Isaiah 64:7: “There is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee.” Instead, we must bestir ourselves to take hold of the living God!
A Cautionary, Encouraging Conclusion
Prayer is amazing, glorious, delightful work. Yet apart from faith in Christ, prayer is also difficult, demanding, and in many ways impossible. There is not a believer on earth that cannot sympathize with that. So, though I may have bordered on the idealistic in this article, my aim is not to discourage you but to encourage you despite your convictions about your own lack of prayer.
I want to conclude with a caution: do not despair in your prayer life. Do not expect to become a Luther or a Welsh in prayer immediately – if ever. We need to be realistic as well. Luther’s prayer life was legendary even in his own time, and Luther was a legend in many other ways as well. I am sure many of his colleagues, more ordinary men in every other way, achieved less than Luther did in their prayer lives. Luther also had the benefit of long years of training in the discipline of sustained prayer in the monastery. John Welsh’s spiritual life was extraordinary if not unique even in his own time and place. Such men were indeed Daniels, but Daniel stood head and shoulders above any other man of his generation. And all of them – Daniel, Luther, Welsh, or whatever giant we may have in mind – had to start somewhere and grow into what he eventually became, often through long and hard experience. Learning to truly pray in our prayers is not just a matter of getting more intentional or focused or methodical in prayer. It involves trials, warfare, and the enabling Spirit of God.
Ask God to make you a praying Elijah who knows what it means to battle unbelief and despair, even as you strive to grow in prayer and grateful communion with God. Isn’t it interesting that James presents Elijah as someone quite like you and me? He prayed in his praying, but he could also despair in his despairing.
I share these thoughts because idealism can crush us with its incessant and insatiable demands. The Christian life is not just about being hectored for not praying, giving, or witnessing enough. Though we do need to be goaded forward, we must not turn Christianity into legalistic drudgery, with a long list of chores to do each day. In many ways, thankfulness – especially thankful prayer – is often a better motive for everything. If you are a Christian, praise God that you have something invaluable that a non-Christian lacks – you have a place to go with every need and thanksgiving. Thank God for the throne of grace.
Luther often exclaimed how great and marvelous was the prayer of a godly Christian. How amazing that a poor human creature should speak with the almighty God in heaven and not be frightened, but know that God smiles upon him for Christ’s sake. The ancients thus ably defined prayer as an Ascensus mentis ad Deum, a climbing up of the heart unto God.27 Aim more for that than for very long prayers.
Pray for grace to believe and be thankful that God decrees, gives, hears, and answers prayer. If we truly believe these things, we discover the motivation we need to undertake the journey from prayerless to prayerful praying, becoming contemporary Elijah’s who, like the Reformers and Puritans, truly pray in our prayers to our worthy triune God of amazing grace. He is always worthy of being worshiped, feared, and loved – even to all eternity.28