The Perfection of Fellowship with God: Always Praying
Dr. Brian Allison
After my wife finished reading one of my recent sermons, "The Perfection of Fellowship with God," I asked her if she had any questions. She responded, "Just one; how do you get there?" That is the primary question. How is it possible to experience that deep communion with God, that higher plane of spiritual existence, that fullness of Christ's presence? There are three building blocks or, if you like, a threefold foundational block: first, the need of prayer; second, the need of meditation and contemplation; and third, the need of obedience or the works of love. In this article, we shall concentrate on the first need – prayer.
Prayer is the path that we must travel if we are going to spiritually arrive at hearing and seeing God. D. M. M'Intyre (1859-1938), the colleague and successor of Andrew A. Bonar (1810-1892) at Finnieston Church, Glasgow, wrote a little book entitled, The Hidden Life of Prayer. The book begins with a brief biographical sketch and tribute to D. M. M'Intyre by Francis Davidson. Davidson writes, "Pre-eminently David Martin M'Intyre was a man of prayer. He lived in the presence of God. It is a major mistake, however, to imagine that he was 'so heavenly as to be no earthly good.' He was a practical mystic. Like Moses, he descended the mount of communion with God, his face shining, and in the divine power became a great leader of multitudes." Perhaps M'Intyre was influenced by his predecessor Bonar, of whom it is said, "[he] was a man of deep and fervent prayer which became a fixed habit of his life. Much prayer seemed to make his other arduous duties lighter and easier. Jesus Christ was a very real Person to him" (Elgin S. Moyer). These statements highlight the centrality of prayer in securing intimate fellowship with God. Because Bonar and M'Intyre were men of prayer, they knew the personal presence and fellowship of God.
Persistence in prayer
A little phrase in Ephesians 6:18 is very helpful in capturing the essential aspect of the kind of prayer required in order to spiritually arrive at hearing and seeing God – "pray at all times." Now, most Christians would readily admit that they should pray. Most Christians would admit that prayer is basic to Christian life and experience. Most Christians would admit that prayer helps one to grow spiritually and to mature. They realize the need for prayer; they realize the importance of prayer; and yet, for all that knowledge, I ask the searching question: How many actually pray? Do you pray? How much do you pray? If you are to enter that higher life in Christ, if you are to be completely surrendered to Him and express that submission of heart, if you are to experience that perfection of fellowship with God, then you must not simply engage in prayer, but rather you must engage in persistent prayer. John Fletcher (1729-1785), a Methodist preacher and theologian, always greeted a particular friend with these words, "Do I meet your praying?" What would be your response to such a salutation?
Many Christians pray; few Christians pray at all times. Many Christians offer a few words to God periodically; few Christians pray continually. The Scripture repeatedly exhorts us to pray always – Romans 12:12, "devoted to prayer;" Colossians 4:2, "devote yourself to prayer;" 1 Thessalonians 5:17, "pray without ceasing." Unless you persistently pray, you will not 'enter in,' or 'break through,' to where intimacy with God is found. Admittedly, this kind of praying is demanding. Not many are prepared for this kind of spiritual labour. Many view it as being too costly; for they must give up their comfort and convenience. E. M. Bounds (1835-1913), a Methodist minister and writer who perhaps was the foremost researcher in the life of prayer, emphasized, "Prayer is not a little habit pinned on to us while we were tied to our mother's apron strings; neither is it a little decent quarter of a minute's grace said over an hour's dinner, but it is a most serious work of our most serious years. Spiritual work is taxing work, and men [and women] are loath to do it. Praying, true praying costs an outlay of serious attention and of time, which flesh and blood do not relish."
Jesus Christ: the model of persistent prayer
Jesus is our practical model. He is not only our Saviour and Lord, but He is our pattern for godly devotion. Jesus experienced a deep, intimate fellowship with God, not simply because He is the Son of God and His very divine nature naturally and necessarily is united with that of God's; but because He was a man of prayer. Jesus, being human, was subject to the same spiritual and religious laws as are all human beings. He had to pray, He had to seek the Father, He had to worship God, because such is required of all of God's creatures. Thus, we read of our Lord, "And in the early morning, while it was still dark, He arose and went out and departed to a lonely place, and was praying there" (Mk. 1:35); again, "And immediately He made His disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side to Bethsaida, while He Himself was sending the multitude away. And after bidding them farewell, He departed to the mountain to pray" (Mk. 6:45, 46); again, "But the news about Him was spreading even farther, and great multitudes were gathering to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But He Himself would often slip away to the wilderness to pray" (Lk. 5:15,16); and again, "And it was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God" (Lk 6:12). Jesus did not simply have a prayer life, He had a life of prayer. He persisted in prayer, and so must we.
Persistent prayer takes work
No doubt, you have heard the cliché, "No pain, no gain." That is no more true than in this area of prayer. But, having entered into this perfection of fellowship with God, through 'labouring' prayer, you will then realize (having put in the time and effort) that it was a minor sacrifice, in comparison with the infinite spiritual gain. Now, the problem that many people have in this matter of prayer is that they want results immediately. They are impatient. They want to simply pray for a few days, and then (magically) enter into the fullness of fellowship with God. For example, they may acquire determination and enthusiasm through, for instance, listening to a sermon and thus say, "I am ready for prayer. Starting tomorrow, I am going to devote myself to an hour of prayer." The first day may be easy; but the next day typically may become more difficult. The third day may be even more challenging; and if there are no results by the four day, mostly likely they will be back where they were initially. People want results immediately. They do not want to wait. But prayer is not an easy road, nor a fast lane. It is hard spiritual work; it requires time and effort. As one cannot pick up a musical instrument and play instantly, without practice and commitment, so one cannot acquire facility and comfortableness in prayer without a similar practice and commitment.
What persistent prayer means
The original language underlying this phrase is somewhat interesting. The term 'pray' in the original Greek is not a verb, but a participle (i.e., a verbal adjective) and the import of the language is this: prayer should be viewed not only as an act but as an activity, a habit, or a practice. The language suggests the state or the process of prayer. The language suggests the idea of an ongoing or continuous undertaking, and so the better translation is this: "praying at all times." Such a combination of terms thus sounds almost redundant, but such a construction was most likely for the sake of emphasis
The activity of prayer should be undertaken during all seasons, throughout the whole day – morning, afternoon, and night (and not simply before meals or at bedtime). This exhortation means that we are to be engaged in this activity of prayer on happy occasions, as well as on sad occasions – when that unexpected cheque comes, as well as when that bad report arrives. We are to be praying on special days, as well as on regular days. We are to be praying when we are feeling spiritually dry, as well as when we are feeling spiritually alive. Prayer should be the spiritual air which our souls continually breathe. Christians should live and function in the context and atmosphere of prayer. Stonewall Jackson (1824-1863), the American Confederate general and professor of the military tactics at the Virginia military institute, wrote, "I have so fixed the habit of prayer in my mind that I never raise a glass of water to my lips without asking God's blessing, never seal a letter without putting a word of prayer under the seal, never take a letter from the post without a brief sending of my thoughts heavenward, never change my classes in the lecture room without a minute's petition for the cadets who go out and for those come in." Jackson prayed at all times.
To pray at all times does not mean that we should always be on our knees, though such a consistent practice should be an essential part of persistent prayer. Specific set times of prayer are necessary. For instance, Robert Murray M'Cheyne (1813-1843), one of most pious of the Church of Scotland ministers, wrote in his journal, "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." Like Murray M'Cheyne, we ought to have daily intense devotions where we shut out the world and close in with God. We need these regulated, concentrated times of prayer because, by nature, we are lazy, undisciplined, and neglectful. It is good to impose external standards upon ourselves so that we might do what God calls us to do.
But praying at all times does not mean always being on our knees, and thus neglecting our daily responsibilities and commitments. What we are dealing with is the way we should carry out our responsibilities and commitments. Prayer should not simply be a doing, but also a being. We should always be in an attitude of prayer, while we are engaged in the various activities of our life, whether it be typing, answering the telephone, stacking boxes, or conferring with customers. While we are engaged in doing these things, we should be in continual communion with God, asking for His leading and guidance, seeking to know His will only. We should cultivate immediate and spontaneous prayer-thinking. We need to always be turning to God, either mentally or verbally. We thus can pray at all times and in all places – in the office, in the car, or in the basement. We can be in constant dialogue, a constant conversation, with God.
James Oliver Buswell, the well-known American preacher, in his book entitled, Problems in the Prayer Life, writes, "This conversation with God, need not always be in words, but it should never be broken off. It ought to be essentially continuous in its nature. The continuous nature of prayer may well be illustrated by the conversation of intimate friends. Words are not constantly exchanged, but fellowship is not interrupted. We must not only have regular and frequent times for prayer, but, whenever there is a break in the occupation of our minds, we ought to revert to the conscious communion with God just as involuntarily as we would continue in conversation with a friend near at hand." My Christian friend, it is possible. I am not trying to lay upon your shoulders a burden too heavy for you to bear. The real problem may be that you are not even prepared to bear any kind of burden. But "His yoke is easy and His burden is light" (Mt. 11:30). The problem is not with the burden, my friend, the problem may be with your heart. You may say that you want more of God, but do you want more of God bad enough? Maybe you do not want to make the investment – the time and the energy – and as a result you will not receive the 'spiritual returns.' 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."
The obstacle to a life of persistent 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 or to reveal Himself to us. The Scripture says, "And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him" (Hb. 11:6).
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 persistent prayer? Will you lie on your deathbed 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?
Requirements for a life of persistent prayer
So, 'praying at all times' entails a way of thinking. We should live in an attitude of prayer. It is possible, if we have two things. First, there needs to be a desire for a life of prayer. You need to really want it. Unless you have a desire for it, you may lack the motivation to strive for it. Some Christians are content simply to be good and moral people; they desire nothing more. How badly do you want this life of prayer, and hence deep, intimate fellowship with God? When you begin to see the beauty of Jesus Christ and gaze upon His loveliness, then you will want it. You may complain that you do not have the desire, though you would like such a desire. One problem may be that you have not 'seen' Christ. You may know about Him, but you have not 'seen' Him; because when you see Him spiritually, my friend, you will desire Him, and you will recognize that He is the altogether lovely One. His beauty will draw you, and then you will hunger and thirst after Him.
Second, there needs to be discipline to attain such a life of prayer. This kind of life – persistent prayer, resulting in intimate fellowship with God – is possible if you are determined to pursue it. You must not allow anything to deter you. At this point, you cannot be governed by your feelings; you must be governed by truth. You must act on the basis of what you know to be right, regardless of how you feel.
This past week I had to mark exams for my students. I dislike marking exams. It is the bane of teaching, but I do it out of duty; and thus I discipline myself to do it. I try to cultivate the right attitude because I want to be objective and fair in my marking. With respect to the activity itself, I do not like it, but I discipline myself to do it, regardless of how I feel. So it is with prayer. Stop giving into your feelings and allowing them to rule so that if you do not like or want it, you do not do it. You must act because it is right and is what God calls you to do. You yourself make the decision; you must choose for yourself. Having 'entered in,' you will realize that such a price was little payment for the vast treasure of tasting and drinking deeply from the fountain of life.
The life of persistent prayer is the prerequisite for, and part of the very substance of, deep, intimate fellowship with God. Brother Lawrence is well-known for his depth of spirituality. He writes, "There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful than that of a continual conversation with God. Those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it." The perfection of fellowship with God is nothing less than total self-surrender to God, the heart of which is prayer. David Eastman in his book, No Easy Road, which is a book of inspirational thoughts on prayer, reminds us that Brother Lawrence knew what it was to surrender to God. He writes, "No one has learned better the value of such surrender than the monk Brother Lawrence. A simple book on Lawrence's life has effected millions. The book The Practice of the Presence of God contains a friend's analysis of Lawrence: "His prayer was nothing but a sense of the presence of God, his soul being at that time insensible to everything but Divine love; and that when the appointed times of prayer were past, he found no difference, because he still continued with God, praising and blessing Him with all his might, so that he passed his life in continual joy. This is a silent surrendering to God."
Seeking a life of persistent prayer
A life of persistent prayer is possible, my friend, if you have the desire and the discipline. How badly do you want it? Are you willing to pay the price? You may be sitting there saying, "Well, I am in a rut. I hear what you are saying, but how do I even get started?" Here is the answer – just start! E. M. Bounds in his book, The Weapon of Prayer, says, "Thus we see that the remedy for non-praying is praying. The cure for little praying is more praying." There is nothing magical about securing this kind of life. Do not sit there waiting for God to 'zap' you. God can do that, but it is unlikely that He will. There is no secret formula; only a simply response. If you have a problem with praying, just start praying. Just do it!
Begin by asking God to give you the Spirit of prayer and supplication. We cannot do it on our own; God has to do it, but there is the need for human responsibility. If you are lacking drive, the sense of commitment, the desire for more, begin by asking God for the Spirit of prayer and supplication. Let your need lead you. You may be surprised by what God will do. God looks at the heart and its intents; and He knows your struggles and sincerity. Have you asked God for the Spirit of prayer and supplication? Many of us do not feel like rising early in the morning, but we do it because we must. Similarly, you may not feel like praying, but just do it; and with discipline, there will soon be delight. Once you 'enter in,' you will say that it was worth it all. It will be worth it all when we see Jesus, not simply at His return, but when He is pleased to break into our normal experience and make Himself known in a new way. It will be worth it all!