The Art of Prayer
C.J. Vaughan, a 19th century English scholar and theologian, once stated: “If I wished to humble anyone, I should question him about his prayers.” Any Christian knows that prayer, vital prayer, is encouraged by Scripture and is in fact necessary for the true disciple to commune with our Creator.
Why, then, do so many souls fail to pray? Why do we privately convince ourselves that our “intention” to pray suffices for the act itself, all the while fully aware that our failure is borne of spiritual lethargy and an unrepentant heart? Moreover, the excuse of “busyness” thwarting one’s prayer time is shallow in that one will find time to do what one desires to do and must do (according to our fallen minds). Great men of God (with full schedules) such as Jesus Himself, Paul the Apostle, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, William Gurnall, Stephen Charnock, Charles Spurgeon, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have testified that as one’s duties increase, so must their prayers.
In response to this hard truth some will argue the premise as impossible or at best improbable. I contend, however, that the skeptical, cynical, and minimally praying among us are those who do not seriously practice the art of prayer or fully comprehend its power and importance. Furthermore, there is not a “philosophy of prayer” one can study toward attaining a masterful approach. We can certainly inquire about, consider, and admire those prayer warriors we would aspire to emulate. Yet the fact remains: One learns about prayer by praying.
Intimate understanding of Scripture will strengthen one’s prayers and thus one’s fellowship with the Lord God. And Scripture holds the highest exemplar of what a prayerful life should look like: Jesus Christ. If prayer were of no consequence then surely the Son of God would not have saturated His life and teaching with it. Luke 5:16 states that Jesus often withdrew Himself into the wilderness and prayed. He was proactive in separating Himself from all that would distract from communion with His Father, at times rising before dawn to find solitude (Mark 1:35), seeking His Father’s will concerning miracles (Mark 6:46), and even spending full nights in prayer (Luke 6:12). Indeed, the prayerfulness of Jesus, and therein the Spirit’s power, is what enabled Him to overcome the flesh and defeat sin and death.
It should also be understood that prayer can be a “wrestling match” with God (Colossians 4:12); but to the one who perseveres blessings shall be given, as with Jacob (Gen. 32:24-30). However, vital prayer is rarely easy: Under a Gethsemane moon Jesus warned His disciples that the spirit is willing (to pray), but the flesh is weak (Matt. 26:41), therein further acknowledging His own humanity evidenced by a previous request for their moral support as He experienced deep sorrow and distress, even unto death (Matt. 26:37-38). This shows that while prayerful solitude is indeed necessary, corporate prayer with fellow believers also has its place in the life of a Christian. The trend today for weak disciples, however, is for corporate prayer to entirely replace solitary communion with God in that said weak disciples refuse to truly grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ (2 Peter 3:18), thus relying on others’ discipleship as a crutch and resulting in distorted identities that lack a clarity of conversion.
Spiritual, moral, and mental clarity is only achieved and maintained through vital prayer, which will assuredly drain one’s vitality when practiced regularly, as such requires extreme determination and discipline. And this difficulty concerning prayer is purposed to sift the half-hearted from the whole-hearted servants of Almighty God.
Far too many disciples are stuck “talking at” God via litanies of complaints, petitions, and demands. Truly, our Lord hears our cries and may give us peace and strength to endure another day. But if our prayers are more about venting and dictating than connecting with and worshiping our Creator, then we are choosing to serve Him on our own terms, not His. We must move beyond this stagnant level of so-called prayer and move into contemplative communion where we proactively invite the Spirit to ignite a holy hunger to actually know God personally, not conceptually. Then, as we consider God’s Word, it is possible to sit quietly and listen to Him, and as we learn His voice we learn how to be with Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23). This is when discipleship ceases to be a theory and flourishes into reality, for the will of Jesus Christ becomes the true heart of our hearts.
Oft times our prayers are hindered by pride, impure motives, human reason, and/or unbelief (Hebrews 11:6). Psalm 46:10 is the remedy: “Be still, and know that I am God.” We are here instructed to quiet our minds and reflect on Who God is, what He has done for us, and what He is saying to us. Listening to God is perhaps of greater importance than talking to Him, for His Spirit ever draws us to know His will if only we would have ears to hear and hearts to understand, whereupon absolute conviction is gained concerning our petitions and their alignment to His will (Rom. 8:26-28).
“The Hidden Life With Christ”
One can only be still, however, when one learns the value of the “hidden life,” meaning the life one leads in Christ apart from the scrutiny of the world (Colossians 3:3). This “hidden life” is where spiritual leaders are called, commissioned, and sent forth by God Himself. It is also where integrity is forged, such being measured by one’s conduct in private among a faithful few (spiritual integrity is measured by one’s conduct before God alone). The spiritual leader will welcome the strain and sacrifice necessary toward wielding great power with men, for it must first be won by proving oneself in the presence of the Almighty (Ex. 32:7-14, 30-33; 34:5-10). Acquisition of true spiritual power is impossible, unless we hide ourselves within the Glory of the One Who first proved Himself for us.
Spiritual leaders will command great authority due to great conviction borne only of a great closeness to God, effected by replacing humanity’s noise with nature’s quiet. This level of discipleship is foreign to most Western Church leaders and is replaced by flesh-based longings for relevancy and outright aversion to literal notions of suffering with Christ (Rom. 8:17). Nevertheless, whether or not one’s “hidden life” consists of the Judean wilderness, an Arabian desert, the third heaven, a Roman prison, an empty sanctuary, a quiet living room, or the woods out back, the undeniable power of such a life will be manifest to all as Christ’s glory radiates ever brighter.
Unfortunately, many Christians pray in the power of their own understanding, thus suffering prayers that avail nothing rather than praying in the power of the Spirit and thus suffering with Christ through prayers that avail much… wherein absolute conviction of Truth moves us from prayers of hope to prayers of faith.