A Passion for Prayer

Dr. Brian Allison

I suppose that one of the least welcomed questions that a Christian would like to be asked in reference to his or her spiritual life is: How is your prayer life? I make this supposition both from personal experience and from talking with different Christians. Consistent prayer seems to be a real struggle for many Christians. The intentions are often good, the desire is often right, but the actual practice of prayer seems to remain a perpetual difficulty. The Scriptures teach that we are to have a passion for prayer.

Romans 12:12 reads, "Rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer." Much of life is characterized by tribulation. In the midst of tribulation, we are exhorted to persevere; we are to persevere in order to attain to the hope of the resurrection, of glory, and of eternal life. Now by what means are we enabled to persevere and attain unto this hope? Simply, prayer. Through prayer we receive God's grace which enables us to press on.

As Christians, we should not simply pray, but we should be 'devoted to prayer.' That is, we are to persist in it. We should be diligently occupied with it as one who would master a field of study. To be devoted to prayer does not mean that we should be praying every moment of every day. Rather, we ought to be praying regularly and consistently. Prayer is to be a vital, intricate, and essential part of our lives, even as it was for Robert Murray M'Cheyne (1813-1843), one of most pious of the Church of Scotland ministers. In his journal, he wrote, "I ought to spend the best hours in communion with God. It is my noblest and most fruitful employment, and it is not to be thrust into a corner. The morning hours, from six to eight, are the most uninterrupted and should be thus employed. After tea is my best hour, and that should be solemnly dedicated to God. I ought not to give up the good habit of prayer before going to bed; but guard must be kept against sleep. When I awake in the night, I ought to rise and pray. A little time after breakfast may be given to intercession." The most powerful symbol of devotion to prayer that I have seen is the calloused knees of an elderly saint in the small town of Port Cobourne; she was a prayer-warrior. How is your prayer life?

Examples of devotion to prayer

I am often impressed, and even mystified, as I consider the Christian saints of old and their sterling prayer life. For instance, Charles Simeon (1759-1836), a Church of England minister, would rise at 4:00 a.m. and devote four hours to worship and prayer. The Methodist revivalist John Wesley (1703-1791) would also rise at 4:00 a.m. and would pray for two solid hours. The life of John Fletcher (1729-1785), a Methodist preacher and theologian, was saturated with prayer. On one occasion, he confessed, "I would not rise from my seat without lifting my heart to God." His greeting to a friend was always: "Do I meet you praying?" The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther testified, "If I fail to spend two hours in prayer each morning, the devil gets the victory through the day. I have so much business I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer." In fact, one of Luther's mottoes was: "He who has prayed well has studied well."

Devotion to prayer distinguishes the more notable saints of God's kingdom. For example, Archbishop Robert Leighton (1611-1684), a Scottish theologian and preacher, spent so much time alone with God that he seemed to be in a perpetual meditation. One of his biographers wrote the following concerning him, "Prayer and praise were his business and his pleasure." Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), a Scottish Covenanter, would rise at 3:00 a.m. to pray. Joseph Alleine (1634-1668), the Nonconformist preacher, would rise at 4:00 a.m. to pray and would feel ashamed if he heard the steps of tradesmen making their way to work before he himself had bent his knees to pray.

Devotion to prayer: a normal practice

Do you really give the value, attention, and importance to prayer that it really deserves? Is prayer what you 'tack on' at the end of the day, or something you do just before you partake of a meal? What is your attitude towards prayer? This devotion to prayer was the normal practice of the early church. For instance, after Jesus ascended on high and His disciples were gathered together in an upper room, "these all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers" (Acts 1:14). Again, on the day of Pentecost, thousands of people came to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ "and they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (Acts 2:42). Prayer, indeed, should be a primary and central practical concern to professing Christians. Is it for you? Again, what is your attitude toward prayer? How much time have you given to prayer this past week? Are you devoted to prayer?

As we think of prayer on the back drop of our various tribulations, we should realize that prayer is to be our first line of defence, as well as our natural and immediate recourse, in the face of those tribulations. We are to pray, not so much out of duty as out of faith. Prayer must be a personal priority. When that unexpected bill of $2,000.00 or $5,000.00 comes in, your first response is not to scramble and look for your cheque book (though such action may be an inevitable course of action), but your first response is to pray. When a family member is injured or falls ill, your first response is not to phone the doctor (though that again may be an inevitable course of action), but to pray. When you receive the bad news that you have been fired or that you have been laid off, your first response is not to survey the Toronto Star Want Ads, but to pray – "Be devoted to prayer." Again, prayer should be your first line of defence, as well as your immediate recourse, to life's difficulties and problems.

The impetus of devotion to prayer

Andrew Murray (1828-1917), the Dutch Reformed South African minister, was of the persuasion that at the very heart of prayerlessness is unbelief. I think he may be right. The story is told of a Scottish minister who prayed one morning that it would rain that day because of the drought. When he left to go to the church in the afternoon, his daughter handed him an umbrella. He looked confused as he peered out the window at the blazing sunshine. The daughter asked, "Dad, did you not pray for rain today? Do you not expect God to send it?" He sheepishly took the umbrella, affirming indeed that he did. That umbrella provided welcomed shelter for him that day from a drenching downpour. Belief, expectant faith, is the impetus of prayer.

Often we do not pray because we really do not believe that God is able or ready to answer us. We give confession that He is able or ready, but when the 'crunch' comes, we really do not believe that He is. This fact is clearly demonstrated by what our first response is to life's problems and difficulties. Do we first turn to God in prayer or do we turn to people, plans, and personal ingenuity?

The account of John Foster (1770-1843), a Baptist minister and theologian, underscores the regret that some of us have felt, and will yet feel, in neglecting prayer. On his death bed, Foster, who was noted for his piety and deep devotion to God, confessed, "'Pray without ceasing' has been the sentence repeating itself in my silent thoughts, and I am sure that it will be, it must be, my practice until the last conscious hour of my life. O why was it not my practice throughout that long, indolent, inanimate half century past! I often think mournfully of the difference it would have made in me. Now there remains so little time for a mere genuine, effective spiritual life." Do you regret your lack of consistent prayer? Will you lie on your death-bed in shame and remorse, considering the wasted years, the time you did not give to God, and how things could have been radically different if you had given yourself to God in prayer?

The fruit of devotion to prayer

Why should prayer be the primary (not the exclusive) response to life's tribulations? First, through prayer, we receive the stability, strength, and stamina to endure life's particular tribulations. God communicates power through prayer, and the result is that we can endure. The Scriptures read, "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Php. 4:6,7). The Lord Jesus wrestled and agonized against temptation in the garden of Gethsemane. He was at a point of physical weakness and emotional exhaustion; He was being tempted to avoid the cross and to abort His saving mission. We read that "being in agony of soul He was praying very fervently" (Lu. 22:44a). Through that fervent prayer, He was strengthened and enabled to resolutely set His face to Calvary. He was strengthened in order to resist the temptation to quit, to give in, or to break down, and so it will be with us, if we pray. When you see life crashing down around you, and you find that you are stretched beyond measure, and you are about to break, let your recourse be prayer. Pray that you may resist temptation and press on regardless of the obstacles, problems, or opposition. The Lord says, "But keep on the alert at all times, praying in order that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man" (Lu. 21:36). Could it be that you often feel weak and enfeebled because you do not pray?

Secondly, through prayer, God may be pleased to remove or reduce the pain of the tribulations, by revealing His goodness and power, with the result that we praise His name. The apostle says, "Now I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me, that I may be delivered from those who are disobedient in Judea" (Rm. 15:30, 31a). While you are praying, God may be pleased to come and deliver you. He delights in saving His people from difficulties and problems by manifesting His power. Shortly after it was founded in 1924, Dallas Seminary was on the verge of bankruptcy. The foreclosure date had been set. One morning, the founders of the school met in the president's office to beseech the Lord for financial provision. Harry Ironside was one of the men who attended that meeting. During his turn, Ironside succinctly prayed, "Lord, we know that the cattle on a thousand hills are Thine. Please sell some of them and send us the money." A short while later, the president's secretary knocked on the door, believing that her interruption would be welcomed, and handed Dr. Lewis Chafer a cheque for the exact amount of the debt. Chafer, looking at the signature and recognizing it to be that of a cattle rancher, turned to Ironside and exclaimed, "Harry, God sold the cattle!"

God wants His people to pray for deliverance, even though we ought to be content and accepting even if God is not pleased to bring about such deliverance. Indeed, we are to say: God's will be done; but we are not to assume a fatalistic attitude; we are not to glorify suffering. Though life is characterized by suffering, and we are to accept this fact, it does not mean that we are to rejoice with the suffering (though we are to rejoice in it). We are to accept suffering and tribulation, but if we can experience some alleviation of the pain, then we are to pursue that route.

So, for example, we are to pray specifically for God's healing if we are afflicted by disease or illness. We are to pray specifically for relief if we are experiencing job stress from belligerent coworkers who want to undermine us and make the work place unbearable. We are to pray specifically for the restoration of strained relationships. We are to pray specifically against the persecution we may experience for the sake of the Gospel. God wants us to pray for deliverance. Thus the imprisoned apostle Paul affirmed, "For I know that this shall turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope" (Php. 1:19,20a). James reminds us, "You do not have because you do not ask" (4:2b).

What are you going through right now? What has been your tribulation this past week? What has been distracting you this day? What has been preoccupying your mind – worrying about getting enough money to pay the rent; wondering whether the boss will reprimand you because you failed to fulfil certain requirements or meet specific deadlines; suspecting whether you have a terminal disease? Have you prayed? Have you really prayed?

So, Christians are to be devoted to prayer. It is to be their passion. If prayer is your passion, it will become your deliverance. C. H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) taught, "Prayer pulls the rope down below and the great bell rings above in the ears of God. Some scarcely stir the bell, for they pray so languidly; others give only an occasional jerk at the rope. But he who communicates with heaven is the man [or woman] who grasps the rope boldly and pulls continuously with all his might." Maybe you are experiencing some tribulation today. If you have a problem or a personal struggle right now, something weighing on your heart, why not take a few seconds now and silently pray to the Lord. Pray specifically concerning what you want God to do for you. May I encourage you to keep on praying. Remember, God delights in answering the prayers of His people.