by E.M. Bounds
WHY do we not pray? What are the hindrances to prayer? This is not a curious nor trivial question. It goes not only to the whole matter of our praying, but to the whole matter of our religion. Religion is bound to decline when praying is hindered. That which hinders praying, hinders religion. He who is too busy to pray will be too busy to live a holy life.
Other duties become pressing and absorbing and crowd out prayer. Choked to death, would be the coroner’s verdict in many cases of dead praying, if an inquest could be secured on this dire, spiritual calamity. This way of hindering prayer becomes so natural, so easy, so innocent that it comes on us all unawares. If we will allow our praying to be crowded out, it will always be done. Satan had rather we let the grass grow on the path to our prayer-chamber than anything else. A closed chamber of prayer means gone out of business religiously, or what is worse, made an assignment and carrying on our religion in some other name than God’s and to somebody else’s glory. God’s glory is only secured in the business of religion by carrying that religion on with a large capital of prayer. The apostles understood this when they declared that their time must not be employed in even the sacred duties of almsgiving; they must give themselves, they said, “continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word prayer being put first with them and the ministry of the Word” having its efficiency and life from prayer.
The process of hindering prayer by crowding out is simple and goes by advancing stages. First, prayer is hurried through. Unrest and agitation, fatal to all devout exercises, come in. Then the time is shortened, relish for the exercise palls. Then it is crowded into a corner and depends on the fragments of time for its exercise. Its value depreciates. The duty has lost its importance. It no longer commands respect nor brings benefit. It has fallen out of estimate, out of the heart, out of the habits, out of the life. We cease to pray and cease to live spiritually.
There is no stay to the desolating floods of worldliness and business and cares, but prayer. Christ meant this when he charged us to watch and pray. There is no pioneering corps for the gospel but prayer. Paul knew that when he declared that night and day he prayed “exceedingly that we might see your face and might perfect that which is lacking in your faith.” There is no arriving at a high state of grace without much praying and no staying in those high altitudes without great praying. Epaphras knew this when he “labored fervently in prayers” for the Colossian church, that they might “stand perfect and complete in all the will of God.”
The only way to preserve our praying from being hindered is to estimate prayer at its true and great value. Estimate it as Daniel did, who, when he “knew that the writing was signed, he went into his house; and his windows being open in his chamber toward Jerusalem, he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as he did aforetime.” Put praying into the high values as Daniel did, above place, honor, ease, wealth, life. Put praying into the habits as Daniel did. “As he did aforetime” has much in it to give firmness and fidelity in the hour of trial; much in it to remove hindrances and master opposing circumstances.
One of Satan’s wiliest tricks is to destroy the best by the good. Business and other duties are good, but we are so filled with these that they crowd out and destroy the best. Prayer holds the citadel for God, and if Satan can by any means weaken prayer he is a gainer so far, and when prayer is dead the citadel is taken. We must keep prayer as the faithful sentinel keeps guard, with sleepless vigilance. We must not keep it half-starved and feeble as a baby, but we must keep it in giant strength. Our prayer chamber should have our freshest strength, our calmest time, its hours unfettered, without obtrusion, without haste. Private place and plenty of time are the life of prayer. “To kneel upon our knees three times a day and pray and give thanks before God as we did aforetime,” is the very heart and soul of religion, and makes men, like Daniel, of “an excellent spirit,” “greatly beloved in heaven.”
The greatness of prayer, involving as it does the whole man, in the intensest form, is not realized without spiritual discipline. This makes it hard work, and before this exacting and consuming effort our spiritual sloth or feebleness stands abashed.
The simplicity of prayer, its childlike elements form a great obstacle to true praying. Intellect gets in the way of the heart. The child spirit only is the spirit of prayer. It is no holiday occupation to make the man a child again. In song, in poetry, in memory he may wish himself a child again, but in prayer he must be a child again in reality. At his mother’s knee, artless, sweet, intense, direct, trustful. With no shade of doubt, no temper to be denied. A desire which burns and consumes which can only be voiced by a cry. It is no easy work to have this childlike spirit of prayer.
If praying were but an hour in the closet, difficulties would face and hinder even that hour, but praying is the whole life preparing for the closet. How difficult it is to cover home and business, all the sweets and all the bitters of life, with the holy atmosphere of the closet! A holy life is the only preparation for prayer. It is just as difficult to pray, as it is to live a holy life. In this we find a wall of exclusion built around our closets; men do not love holy praying, because they do not love and will not do holy living. Montgomery sets forth the difficulties of true praying when he declares the sublimity and simplicity of prayer.
Prayer is the simplest form of speech
That infant lips can try.
Prayer is the sublimest strains
That reach The Majesty on high.
This is not only good poetry, but also a profound truth as to the loftiness and simplicity of prayer. There are great difficulties in reaching the exalted, angelic strains of prayer. The difficulty of coming down to the simplicity of infant lips is not much less.
Prayer in the Old Testament is called wrestling. Conflict and skill, strenuous, exhaustive effort are involved. In the New Testament we have the terms striving, laboring fervently, fervent, effectual, agony, all indicating intense effort put forth, difficulties overcome. We, in our praises sing out
What various hindrances we meet
In coming to a mercyseat.
We also have learned that the gracious results secured by prayer are generally proportioned to the outlay in removing the hindrances which obstruct our soul’s high communion with God.
Christ spake a parable to this end, that men ought always to pray and not to faint. The parable of the importunate widow teaches the difficulties in praying, how they are to be surmounted, and the happy results which follow from valorous praying. Difficulties will always obstruct the way to the closet as long as it remains true, that
Satan trembles when he sees
The weakest saint upon his knees.
Courageous faith is made stronger and purer by mastering difficulties. These difficulties but dim the eye of faith to the glorious prize which is to be won by the successful wrestler in prayer. Men must not faint in the contest of prayer, but to this high and holy work they must give themselves, defying the difficulties in the way, and experience more than an angel’s happiness in the results. Luther said: “To have prayed well is to have studied well.” More than that, to have prayed well is to have fought well. To have prayed well is to have lived well. To pray well is to die well.
Prayer is a rare gift, not a popular, ready gift. Prayer is not the fruit of natural talents; it is the product of faith, of holiness, of deeply spiritual character. Men learn to pray as they learn to love. Perfection in simplicity, in humility in faith—these form its chief ingredients. Novices in these graces are not adept in prayer. It cannot be seized upon by untrained hands; graduates in heaven’s highest school of art can alone touch its finest keys, raise its sweetest, highest notes. Fine material, fine finish are requisite. Master workmen are required, for mere journeymen cannot execute the work of prayer.
The spirit of prayer should rule our spirits and our conduct. The spirit of the prayer chamber must control our lives or the closet hour will be dull and sapless. Always praying in spirit; always acting in the spirit of praying; these make our praying strong. The spirit of every moment is that which imparts strength to the closet communion. It is what we are out of the closet which gives victory or brings defeat to the closet. If the spirit of the world prevails in our non-closet hours, the spirit of the world will prevail in our closet hours, and that will be a vain and idle farce.
We must live for God out of the closet if we would meet God in the closet. We must bless God by praying lives if we would have God’s blessing in the closet. We must do God’s will in our lives if we would have God’s ear in the closet. We must listen to God’s voice in public if we would have God listen to our voice in private. God must have our hearts out of the closet, if we would have God’s presence in the closet. If we would have God in the closet, God must have us out of the closet. There is no way of praying to God, but by living to God. The closet is not a confessional, simply, but the hour of holy communion and high and sweet communicating and of intense intercession.
Men would pray better if they lived better. They would get more from God if they lived more obediently and well pleasing to God. We would have more strength and time for the divine work of intercession if we did not have to expend so much strength and time settling up old scores and paying our delinquent taxes. Our spiritual liabilities are so greatly in excess of our spiritual assets that our closet time is spent in taking out a decree of bankruptcy instead of being the time of great spiritual wealth for us and for others.Our closets are too much like the sign, “Closed for Repairs.”
John said of primitive Christian praying, “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.” We should note what illimitable grounds were covered, what illimitable gifts were received by their strong praying: “Whatsoever”—how comprehensive the range and reception of mighty praying; how suggestive the reasons for the ability to pray and to have prayers answered. Obedience, but more than mere obedience, doing the things which please God well. They went to their closets made strong by their strict obedience and loving fidelity to God in their conduct. Their lives were not only true and obedient, but they were thinking about things above obedience, searching for and doing things to make God glad. These can come with eager step and radiant countenance to meet their Father in the closet, not simply to be forgiven, but to be approved and to receive.
It makes much difference whether we come to God as a criminal or a child; to be pardoned or to be approved; to settle scores or to be embraced; for punishment or for favor. Our praying to be strong must be buttressed by holy living. The name of Christ must be honored by our lives before it will honor our intercessions. The life of faith perfects the prayer of faith.
Our lives not only give color to our praying, but they give body to it as well. Bad living makes bad praying. We pray feebly because we live feebly. The stream of praying cannot rise higher than the fountain of living. The closet force is made up of the energy which flows from the confluent streams of living. The feebleness of living throws its faintness into closet homes. We cannot talk to God strongly when we have not lived for God strongly. The closet cannot be made holy to God when the life has not been holy to God. The Word of God emphasizes our conduct as giving value to our praying. “Then shalt thou call and the Lord shalt answer, thou shalt cry and he shall say, `Here I am.’ If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth the finger, and speaking vanity.”
Men are to pray “lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting.” We are to pass the time of our sojourning here in fear if we would call on the father. We cannot divorce praying from conduct. “Whatsoever we ask we receive of him because we keep his commandments and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.” “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.” The injunction of Christ, “Watch and pray,” is to cover and guard conduct that we may come to our closets with all the force secured by a vigilant guard over our lives.
Our religion breaks down oftenest and most sadly in our conduct. Beautiful theories are marred by ugly lives. The most difficult as well as the most impressive point in piety is to live it. Our praying suffers as much as our religion from bad living. Preachers were charged in primitive times to preach by their lives or preach not at all. So Christians everywhere ought to be charged to pray by their lives or pray not at all. Of course, the prayer of repentance is acceptable. But repentance means to quit doing wrong and learn to do well. A repentance which does not produce a change in conduct is a sham. Praying which does not result in pure conduct is a delusion. We have missed the whole office and virtue of praying if it does not rectify conduct. It is in the very nature of things that we must quit praying or quit bad conduct. Cold, dead praying may exist with bad conduct, but cold, dead praying is no praying in God’s esteem. Our praying advances in power as it rectifies the life. A life growing in its purity and devotion will be a more prayerful life.
The pity is that so much of our praying is without object or aim. It is without purpose. How much praying there is by men and women who never abide in Christ—hasty praying, sweet praying full of sentiment, pleasing praying, but not backed by a life wedded to Christ. Popular praying! How much of this praying is from unsanctified hearts and unhallowed lips! Prayers spring into life under the influence of some great excitement, by some pressing emergency, through some popular clamor, some great peril. But the conditions of prayer are not there. We rush into God’s presence and try to link him to our cause, inflame him with our passions, move him by our peril. All things are to be prayed for—but with clean hands, with absolute deference to God’s will and abiding in Christ. Prayerless praying by lips and hearts untrained to prayer, by lives out of harmony with Jesus Christ; prayerless praying, which has the form and motion of prayer but is without the true heart of prayer, never moves God to an answer. It is of such praying that James says: “Ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss.”
The two great evils—not asking, and asking in a wrong way. Perhaps the greater evil is wrong asking, for it has in it the show of duty done, of praying when there has been no praying—a deceit, a fraud, a sham. The times of the most praying are not really the times of the best praying. The Pharisees prayed much, but they were actuated by vanity; their praying was the symbol of their hypocrisy by which they made God’s house of prayer a den of robbers. Theirs was praying on state occasions—mechanical, perfunctory, professional, beautiful in words, fragrant in sentiment, well ordered, well received by the ears that heard, but utterly devoid of every element of real prayer.
The conditions of prayer are well ordered and clear—abiding in Christ; in his name. One of the first necessities, if we are to grasp the infinite possibilities of prayer, is to get rid of prayerless praying. It is often beautiful in words and in execution; it has the drapery of prayer in rich and costly form, but it lacks the soul of praying. We fall so easily into the habit of prayerless service, of merely filling a program.
If men only prayed on all occasions and in every place where they go through the motion! If there were only holy inflamed hearts back of all these beautiful words and gracious forms! If there were always uplifted hearts in these erect men who are uttering flawless but vain words before God! If there were always reverent bended hearts when bended knees are uttering words before God to please men’s ears!
There is nothing that will preserve the life of prayer; its vigor, sweetness, obligations, seriousness and value, so much as a deep conviction that prayer is an approach to God, a pleading with God, an asking of God. Reality will then be in it; reverence will then be in the attitude, in the place, and in the air. Faith will draw, kindle and open. Formality and deadness cannot live in this high and all-serious home of the soul.
Prayerless praying lacks the essential element of true praying; it is not based on desire, and is devoid of earnestness and faith. Desire burdens the chariot of prayer, and faith drives its wheels. Prayerless praying has no burden, because no sense of need; no ardency, because no vision, strength, or glow of faith. No mighty pressure to prayer, no holding on to God with the deathless, despairing grasp, “I will not let thee go except thou bless me.” No utter self-abandon, lost in the throes of a desperate, pertinacious, and consuming plea: “Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin–; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book”; or, “Give me Scotland, or I die.” Prayerless praying stakes nothing on the issue, for it has nothing to stake. It comes with empty hands, indeed, but they are listless hands as well as empty. They have never learned the lesson of empty hands clinging to the cross; this lesson to them has no form nor comeliness.
Prayerless praying has not heart in its praying. The lack of heart deprives praying of its reality, and makes it an empty and unfit vessel. Heart, soul, life must be in our praying; the heavens must feel the force of our crying, and must be brought into oppressed sympathy for our bitter and needy state. A need that oppresses us, and has no relief but in our crying to God, must voice our praying.
Prayerless praying is insincere. It has no honesty at heart. We name in words what we do not want in heart. Our prayers give formal utterance to the things for which our hearts are not only not hungry, but for which they really have no taste. We once heard an eminent and saintly preacher, now in heaven, come abruptly and sharply on a congregation that had just risen from prayer, with the question and statement, “What did you pray for? If God should take hold of you and shake you, and demand what you prayed for, you could not tell him to save your life what the prayer was that has just died from your lips.” So it always is,prayerless praying has neither memory nor heart. A mere form, a heterogeneous mass, an insipid compound, a mixture thrown together for sound and to fill up, but with neither heart nor aim, is prayerless praying. A dry routine, a dreary drudge, a dull and heavy task is this prayerless praying.
But prayerless praying is much worse than either task or drudge, it divorces praying from living; it utters its words against the world, but with heart and life runs into the world; it prays for humility, but nurtures pride; prays for self-denial, while indulging the flesh. Nothing exceeds in gracious results true praying, but better not to pray at all than to pray prayerless prayers, for they are but sinning, and the worst of sinning is to sin on our knees.
The prayer habit is a good habit, but praying by dint of habit only is a very bad habit. This kind of praying is not conditioned after God’s order, nor generated by God’s power. It is not only a waste, a perversion, and a delusion, but it is a prolific source of unbelief. Prayerless praying gets no results. God is not reached, self is not helped. It is better not to pray at all than to secure no results from praying. Better for the one who prays, better for others. Men hear of the prodigious results which are to be secured by prayer: the matchless good promised in God’s Word to prayer. These keen-eyed worldlings or timid little-faith ones mark the great discrepancy between the results promised and results realized, and are led necessarily to doubt the truth and worth of that which is so big in promise and so beggarly in results. Religion and God are dishonored, doubt and unbelief are strengthened by much asking and no getting.
In contrast with this, what a mighty force prayerful praying is. Real prayer helps God and man. God’s kingdom is advanced by it. The greatest good comes to man by it. Prayer can do anything that God can do. The pity is that we do not believe this as we ought, and we do not put it to the test.
“The deepest need of the church today is not for any material or external thing, but the deepest need is spiritual. Prayerless work will never bring in the kingdom. We neglect to pray in the prescribed way. We seldom enter the closet and shut the door for a season of prayer. Kingdom interests are pressing on us thick and fast and we must pray. Prayerless giving will never evangelize the world.” -A. J. GORDON
(Purpose in Prayer, Chapter 10 – E.M. Bounds)
by E.M. Bounds