BY W. E. SANGSTER
ONE DAY a university student came to see me on the matter of prayer. He reminded me of an address which I had given and asked whether he had understood me aright that John Henry Newman and Andrew Bonar both gave two hours a day to prayer. I said he had heard me correctly. I went on to say that there was nothing singular about that so far as the saints were concerned and talked to him of the devotional habits of other people who hungered and thirsted after righteousness and how, despite their exceedingly busy lives, they spent many hours in prayer.
His bewilderment grew. “What beats me,” he said, “is how they filled up the time. It is hard to imagine how men with many duties to do could give the amount of time to it, but it is still harder to know how they
used it, once it was set aside. I can’t pray for ten minutes. I’ve tried. I kneel down every night and just ask God to forgive me for anything I’ve done wrong. I thank Him for His blessings. I mention mother and father and my other relations. I say a word about my friends, and the church, and then I’m done. Sometimes I stay a bit longer, but my mind keeps going off at a tangent, and I’ve nothing more to say. Five minutes covers it. How people can pray for two hours beats me.”
The perplexity of that young man is a very common one. It is not to be confused with doubts about the theory and efficacy of prayer; it is a matter of method and practice. Many people who have no difficulty about the duty and value of devotion and who are not barring their own way by deliberate indulgence in known sin fail in the act of prayer. Some who have been Christians for years are still in the kindergarten of this school and, seeing that prayer is the very heart of the devotional life, their spiritual progress clearly depends on learning how to pray. In the days of His flesh, His disciples said, “Lord teach us to pray.”
He is able to teach us still.
The Obstacle of Time
The obstacles to prayer are many, though some are mere excuses and would quickly yield to a resolute act of will. There is the difficulty about time. People complain that their busy lives give them no time for
prayer, but it is usually a shallow evasion because they clearly find time for less important things-the newspaper and amusements. No one deeply in love would fail to find time for a daily word with the loved
one, if the loved one lived at hand. Christ stole time from His sleep to pray. Wesley rose every morning at 4 a.m. for the same purpose. Francis Asbury was astir at five.
The first thing in the morning is the best time for prayer, but if peculiar circumstances really make that impossible, the keen mind will find time before the day is old. One of the busiest women I have ever known, a working-class woman with a large family, keeps her tryst with God in the early afternoon when the last member of the family has returned from the midday meal. Before beginning again, she reads the Book of God and spends time in unhurried prayer. “Then,” she says, “I wire in again.”
It is not always possible for a will to find a way, but it is possible in the matter of prayer. Time can be found. One could begin with a minimum rule of fifteen minutes each day. Even so slight an investment
of well-used time would bring a vast and precious gain.
The Obstacle of Place
Then there is the difficulty about place. If it is possible, it is glorious to have a little oratory in the home, some private spot kept for devotions and marked by a sacred picture or symbol. Such a spot gathers associations and calls us to prayer even when inclination ebbs.
But that is not always possible. In overcrowded homes privacy is hard to find, and people complain that this prevents them from praying. It need not. Let them start earlier for work and slip into a church and
And let them strive to build an oratory within their heart, a sacred silence inside them, to which they can retreat in the midst of noise and chatter. It is astonishing how real a secret chamber can be built within the heart by imagination and consecrated thought. In an overcrowded room, in a bus or train or tram, the mind can learn by practice how to be deaf to all distractions and climb the hidden stair to the sacred place: a chapel, a quiet room, a garden, howsoever one has pictured it, but where Jesus abides and greets you with a smile and says, “You have come.” The saints have long known the secret.
Nor should it be forgotten by those whose prayers are hindered by the lack of privacy that it is always possible to go for a walk with Jesus. What conversation one can have with Christ on a lonely walk! Who does not know of the walk that Alexander Whyte had with God during his Christmas holiday at Bonskeid, “the best strength, and the best sweetness of all my Christmas holiday?” And how, after eight cold miles, he saw at last Schiehallion clothed in white from top to bottom, and poured out his soul as David did: ‘Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 5:7). Who does not remember how he walked back under
the rising moon with his heart in a flame of prayer?
Where’er we seek Thee Thou art found, And every place is hallowed ground.
The Obstacle of Tiredness
Some people complain that they are too weary to pray. Enquiry shows that this excuse is made by those who leave their prayer to the end of a tired day. It is both irreverent and unprofitable, to treat our
devotions in such a fashion. The majority of us come to our beds heavy with fatigue, and some final act of committal is the most we are capable of. “Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” If our serious prayer is all left till then, it is small wonder if we find it a burden and fall asleep as we pray.
“Rabbi” Duncan, at one time professor of Hebrew in New College, Edinburgh, and a man of vast learning in the Oriental tongues, was suspected by his students of offering his private prayers in Hebrew. It is said that two of them determined to prove the truth or falsity of this rumor by listening outside his bedroom door just after he had retired for the night. Everything went according to plan. They heard the old scholarputter about his room for some minutes and then kneel to pray. But it was no Hebrew that came. The erudite old saint just said:
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, Look upon a little child, Pity my simplicity, Suffer me to come to Thee. Amen!
That was all. His deep prayer had been offered earlier in the day with a fresh mind. He committed himself to God at the last with the simple words of childhood. The listeners heard the bed creak and knew that
“Rabbi” Duncan had gone to sleep. Reverence, as well as the simple sense of the thing, demands that we pray before we are too weary to pray well.
Lack of imagination and an undisciplined mind are also obstacles to prayer. Building a chapel in the soul, for which we have pleaded, seems impossible to people deficient in imagination, and, if imagination built it, their inability to concentrate would make it difficult for them to worship there. The great Bishop Butler certainly assumed “a license in the use of words” when he derided imagination. It is a great gift of God to men. Modern psychology is emphathic on the point. To see the unseen by an effort of the mind, to look at Jesus, to be present (as Ruskin said) “as if in the body, at every recorded event in the history of the Redeemer”-this gives a wing to earthborn creatures and scales the heights of heaven.
What need there is to exercise imagination in prayer! The person who feels that he is merely speaking into space soon ceases to speak at all. The person who both reads his Bible and prays with imagination finds that the book becomes autobiographical and that his prayers produce a deep delight.
It is a sanctified imagination which would revolutionize the devotions of many people. If they lived in the Gospels and felt themselves to be the leper whom Jesus healed, the blind man whose sight He restored, the dying thief whom He pardoned, the disciples who first heard that He had risen from the dead, what a delight the book would become! And if they turned in that spirit to prayer and saw Him, how swiftly the prayer would flow. The Psalmist said, “I have set the Lord always before me.” So can the simplest soul. Imagination was given to us that while yet on earth, we might mingle with the heavenly throng. We close our eyes in prayer that we might open them to glory. Let us see God, and prayer will break from us as the water gushed from the rock.
Lady Tennyson had a lovely face. Even the scornful housemaid who contemptuously referred to her master, the poet, as “only a public writer,” said of her mistress, “Oh, she is an angel.” Tennyson himself remarked one night to a friend, after his wife had gone to bed, “It is a tender, spiritual face.” Her looks matched her spirit, and her sanctity was outstanding even in an age of formal goodness. She knew the use of imagination in prayer. She told her husband once: “When I pray, I see the face of God smiling upon me.”
Let no beginner in prayer abandon the privilege because of mind wandering. It can be conquered. A brisk, live imagination and a resolute will cannot be denied. Even though, in the early stages, the precious minutes tick away and all the time seems spent in bringing the mind back from its wanderings and fixing it again on prayer, they are not moments lost. Such discipline will exercise the muscles of the will, and the day will dawn when the sweetest meditation and the most earnest prayer will be possible even amid distraction.
Emotions as Obstacles
Enslavement to feeling is another fruitful cause of neglected prayer. People do not pray because they do not feel like it, and they offer the excuse with a certain cheerful assurance that it will be accepted. They assume that prayers are only efficacious when they rise from an eager and emotional heart.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Many of the saints believe that floods of feeling belong only to the elementary stages of discipleship. All of them agree that we must keep our appointments with God, whether we feel like it or not. The most noble and enjoyable vocations bring their times of drudgery. If life was lived on a basis of feeling alone, nothing would be stable; appointments would not be kept; morality would be undermined; caprice would dethrone order in this world. If we have an engagement with a friend at a certain hour, we keep it, however disinclined we may feel when the time comes. Are we to be less courteous with God?
Nor should it be forgotten that God can do more for us when we pray against inclination than when we pray with it. The meek submission of our will deepens our surrender; our resolution to engage in prayer
strengthens thought control. We rise from such prayers infinitely stronger than if we had knelt only at the dictate of desire. Faith, not feeling, measures the efficacy of prayer. Jesus never said, “Thy feeling hath made thee whole.” He put the emphasis always on faith, and faith receives a finer witness when we pray against inclination than when we pray with it.
The Obstacle of Silence
Too much stress upon speaking is the final common obstacle that we will mention. People unpracticed in prayer suppose that no prayer is being offered unless they are talking all the time. They seem to know nothing of quiet adoration or the silent rapture of gazing on those glorious scars. Augustine said that our prayers ought to contain not multa but much speaking, but much prayer.” The method of prayer taught by
Studdert Kennedy was largely wordless. It depended on lifting pictures, by a devout imagination, from the gospels and gazing and gazing on them. None who has practiced it will deny its power. To join the company in the upper room and have one’s feet washed by Jesus is an awesome experience blasting the pride in our soul as by a great explosive.
There are times when speed is easy and when one can pour out the heart to God in a torrent of words, with all the natural simplicity of a child talking to his father, but never let it be thought that prayer is only for the fluent. God forbid! The most inarticulate can pray. When grief or disappointment or sin strikes one dumb, devotion does not end. There is still the upward look. Even when one weeps, it is one thing to
weep to oneself and another to weep to Christ.
All the world knows now of old Pere Chaffangeon, who used to remain for hours before the altar in the church at Ars without even moving his lips; it seems that he was speaking to God.
“And what do you say to Him?” the Cure asked.
“Oh,” replied the old peasant, “He looks at me, and I look at Him.”
“The greatest of mystics,” says Henri Gheon “have found no formula more simple, more exact, more complete, more sublime, to express the conversation of the soul with God.”
Christ’s Help for Prayer
But let us turn from the obstacles, and our simple counsel on how they may be overcome, to the help which Christ offers; so that the impulse to pray is nourished and the duty lost in the delight. A few minutes
spent with the Bible is usually a swift preparation for prayer. A short, unhurried meditation on some fragment of Scripture and then silence quickens the spirit of devotion. George Muller of Bristol always approached his mighty prayers in that way and claimed that it delivered him from mind-wandering.
Then think of the many aspects of prayer. The people who find their times of communion tedious often regard prayer as nothing more than asking for things. The many-sided nature of the devotional life is
strange to them. There is adoration, the awesome, humbling obeisance of the self before God, and rapt gazing on glory when the soul soars “and time and sense seem all no more.”
There is confession, which is not some trite phrase which bundles all our beastliness together and skates lightly away, saying, “Forgive me for anything I have done wrong.” But confession involves a mind which
pursues holiness with method, digs out the evil things inside us, and in the pure presence of God, looks and loathes.
There is intercession. How any man with faith in prayer and a heart to pity can fail to fill an odd half-hour at any time in earnest intercession is hard to understand. The burdens of mankind are so numerous and heavy that those who do not intercede lack either faith in prayer or feeling for their fellows.
There is thanksgiving, too. Addison declared that eternity was too short to utter all the gratitude of his heart, but most people leave it out entirely or dismiss it with a word. Is it hard for you to pray for ten minutes? In ten minutes one could hardly think of all the things which demand thanksgiving, much less include all the other aspects of prayer!
And if we leave petitions aside-and petitions can always look after themselves-there is still consecration, the fresh surrender of all the heart to God. “That vow renewed shall daily hear.” What joy it is to gather every wandering thought and put one’s whole life on the altar. What inward rest it is to feel the wonder of acceptance anew.
And all these are only some of the aspects of prayer. A wider survey of the country to be covered would surely serve the folk who find a sparsity thought when they pray.
Not only is prayer quickened as we dwell on its many-sidedness but, still more, as we dwell upon its efficacy.. Think of what it does. It changes the most intractable stuff in the universe-human nature-and
makes sinners into saints. It brings heaven to earth. It fights vice and fosters virtue. It rescues souls in peril and becomes a password at the gate of death.
Prayer puts the sick and the infirm in the forefront of those who fight the battle of God. No one has ceased to serve who thinks to pray. It will dampen the delights of heaven for some of us when we discover how
much prayer did on earth and remember that we prayed so little. A wounded soldier told me during the war that his convalescence at home had had one great pain for him. He witnessed his mother’s anxiety for
his brothers who were still at the front. He heard her prayers and saw her feverish anxiety concerning the letter carrier. He saw the furrows deepen in her face when neither letter nor field card was put in her hand. “It made me think,” he said, “how often I might have written myself when I was out there, but thoughtlessly put it off.” The memory of his selfishness was a shadow on the joys of home.
The memory of our prayerlessness may be a shadow on the joys of heaven. It may be that the greatest thing which we can do for anybody is to pray for them.
If a man treasures up the singular answers to prayer which he had heard, if he practices prayer and has his own answers to treasure up with them, he will not lapse into doubt. The experiment will end in an
experience. There are many, many theoretical difficulties about prayer, but they are only academic questions to the people who pray. They know that it works and is real. They know.
William E. Sangster (1900-1960) was the “John Wesley” of his generation as he devoted his life to evangelism and the promotion of practical sanctification. He pastored in England and Wales, and his preaching ability attracted the attention of the Methodist leaders. He ministered during World War II at Westminister Central Hall, London, where he pastored the church, managed an air-raid shelter in the basement, and studied for his Ph.D. at the London University! He served as president of the Methodist Conference (1950) and director of the denomination’s home missions and evangelism ministry. He published several books on preaching, sanctification, and evangelism, as well as volumes of sermons. This message comes from He is Able, published in 1936 by Hodder and Stoughton, London.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.