Category Archives: Prayer

Just Pray

Sometimes, the hardest thing in the world is to start praying.

We want to feel in the right mood. We want to feel spiritual. Even holy. So, we put it off. We delay.

Richard Foster, in his book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, sympathizes with us. Here’s how he puts it:

I used to think that I needed to get all my motives straightened out before I could pray, really pray …

And so I would determine never to pray again until my motives were pure. You understand, I did not want to be a hypocrite. I knew that God is holy and righteous. I knew that prayer is no magic incantation. I knew that I must not use God for my own ends. But the practical effort of all this internal soul-searching was to completely paralyze my ability to pray. (8)

Then, Foster says he discovered this important insight about prayer:

The truth of the matter is, we all come to prayer with a tangled mass of motives – altruistic and selfish, merciful and hateful, loving and bitter. Frankly, this side of eternity we will never unravel the good from the bad, the pure from the impure.

But what I have come to see is that God is big enough to receive us with all our mixture. We do not have to be bright, or pure, or filled with faith, or anything. That is what grace means, and not only are we saved by grace, we live by it as well. And we pray by it. (8)

He concludes with this thought:

This is precisely how it is with prayer. We will never have pure enough motives, or be good enough, or know enough in order to pray rightly.

We simply must set all these things aside and begin praying.

In fact, it is in the very act of prayer itself – the intimate, ongoing interaction with God – that these matters are cared for in due time. (8)

In essence, what I hear Foster saying is this: We will never be holy enough to start praying. So, don’t wait till you feel holy to pray. Pray because you need the God who can make you holy.

We don’t pray because we feel holy or spiritual. It’s as we pray that we become holy and spiritual.

The key is to just start praying. Don’t wait. Don’t delay. Don’t put it off any longer. Just pray. Start now.

The moment we start, God can begin to work His grace more fully into our hearts. The longer we delay, the longer it will take for God to get His grace into us.

So, just do it. Just pray. Begin now.

 

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Prayer & Reading: Isidore of Seville

Isidore of Seville (ca. 560-636 AD), who was Archbishop of Seville, Spain starting around 600 AD, wrote a collection of maxims called the Sententiae. In Book 3, chapter 8, he said this about prayer and reading:

Prayer purifies us, reading instructs us. Both are good when both are possible. Otherwise, prayer is better than reading.

If a man wants to be always in God’s company, he must pray regularly and read regularly. When we pray, we talk to God; when we read, God talks to us.

All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection. By reading we learn what we did not know; by reflection we retain what we have learned.

Reading the Holy Scriptures confers two benefits. It trains the mind to understand them; it turns man’s attention from the follies of the world and leads him to the love of God.

The conscientious reader will be more concerned to carry out what he has read than merely to acquire knowledge of it. In reading we aim at knowing, but we must put into practice what we have learned in our course of study.

The more you devote yourself to study of the sacred utterances, the richer will be your understanding of them, just as the more the soil is tilled, the richer the harvest.

The man who is slow to grasp things but who really tries hard is rewarded, equally he who does not cultivate his God-given intellectual ability is condemned for despising his gifts and sinning by sloth.

Learning unsupported by grace may get into our ears; it never reaches the heart. But when God’s grace touches our innermost minds to bring understanding, his word which has been received by the ear sinks deep into the heart.

I find especially helpful his insight into the interplay between prayer and Scripture reading in the early part of the quote.

Prayer cleanses our heart and mind. It’s like a filter for the soul. Reading Scripture, especially if done in a prayerful manner, is the way we hear God speak through what God has already said. But, the key to that is faithful obedience. We read not to understand, but to obey, to fully integrate God’s Word in our lives.

Both are necessary, but if we have to choose one or the other, choose prayer.

I like that. It makes a lot of sense out of the tension between the two. What do you think?


What Makes You a Theologian?

These days when we say the word ‘theologian,’ we generally tend to think of an academic specialist who knows a lot about the Bible, philosophy, and speculative theology.

It’s what I often think of, at least.

However, Evagrius the Solitary (ca. 346-399) has a slightly different idea:

If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian. (On Prayer, 61)

Εἰ θεολόγος εἶ, προσεύξῃ ἀληθῶς, καὶ εἰ άληθῶς προσεύξῃ, θεολόγος εἶ.

It’s a refreshing idea.

The real theologian is not the person who can speak eloquently about the deep things of God. Rather, the real theologian is the person who embodies that understanding of God in prayer and holiness.

That is, a theologian is not the person who has a theoretical knowledge about God, but rather the one who has a practical and experiential knowledge of God.

I wonder what would happen to the church if we shared Evagrius’ conviction.

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Three Degrees of Prayer

As I’ve been reading about prayer, I’ve run into an interesting distinction. Many discern at least three different degrees, or kinds, of prayer. Generally speaking, they are:

1. The Prayer of the Mouth, or Oral Prayer:

This is pretty much what it sounds like. It’s when we simply say a prayer with our lips, reciting it aloud, preferably with meaning.

According to the church fathers, the problem with this type of prayer is that the mind tends to wander. We don’t always think about what we’re praying. Consequently, we may not always mean what we pray.

In other words, oral prayer lends itself to being rote ritual.

2. The Prayer of the Mind, or Mental Prayer:

Mental prayer is when we reel in the mind and we focus on the words of what we are praying. We pray what we mean, and we mean what we pray.

For the church fathers, this is a marked improvement over mere oral prayer. However, it still falls short of the ideal. The mind may mean what it says, but the heart still may not be in it. It’s prayer without feeling.

Think of those times when you’ve prayed and it feels as dry as dust and you wonder if God was even listening. That’s the limit of mental prayer. It’s prayer of the mind without the heart.

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How Do You Pray Without Ceasing? – The Jesus Prayer

How do you pray without ceasing?

I doubt many of us have ever really worried about answering that question all that much. Sure, the Apostle Paul ends one of his letters with the admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), but most of us don’t really take it all that seriously.

It’s like when the apostles tell us to “sin no more.” Nice advice, but is that really possible in this life? Maybe in heaven, but here and now? It’s just not something we really worry about.

I guess it’s why it surprised me that there is a long tradition in the eastern church that takes Paul’s admonition far more seriously than you and I might. There are whole books devoted to answering that question.

One such is The Way of a Pilgrim, the anonymous tale of a Russian pilgrim trying to answer that question of how to pray without ceasing. And part of the answer he finds is something called the Jesus Prayer.

Maybe you’ve heard of it. I hadn’t. It was new to me. But, I find the idea fascinating. If we’ll just pray this little prayer over and over again, it will bring us into such close contact with Jesus that not only will we unceasingly pray in our heart, but what’s more, we’ll be transformed by God’s grace.

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What Is the Nature of Prayer?

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about prayer these days, trying to get a handle on what the nature of prayer is and the role it plays in our relationship with God.

Along the way, I’ve run into the following quotes, and I thought I’d share them since they’ve helped me some.

This one is from a church father called Theophan the Recluse:

What then is prayer? Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God in praise and thanksgiving to Him and in supplication for the good things that we need, both spiritual and physical.

The essence of prayer is therefore the spiritual lifting of the heart towards God. The mind in the heart stands consciously before the face of God, filled with due reverence, and begins to pour itself out before Him.

This is spiritual prayer, and all prayer should be of this nature.

In another place Theophan puts it this way:

The principal thing is to stand with the mind in the heart before God, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.

Finally, St. Mark the Ascetic says:

Prayer is called a virtue, but in reality it is the mother of the virtues: for it gives birth to them through union with Christ.

There are a couple of things in these quotes that stand out to me.

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Maxie Dunnam Quote on Prayer

Recently, I was sharing with a group of church people about the need for corporate prayer, especially intercession, when the following quote came to mind:

What if there are some things that God either will not do or cannot do until and unless we pray?

Maxie Dunnam, former president of Asbury Theological Seminary, used to ask that question every so often in chapel or in small group conversations. And often, in his usual Maxie-style, he would quickly add, “Let me say that again.” And he would repeat the question, just to make sure you heard it.

The first time I heard him say it, it didn’t mean that much to me. However, the longer I’ve lived with it, the more meaningful it has become.

God has invited us to participate in His work here on earth. Though He could do it without us, He has chosen not to. He wants our help. He longs for our participation.

Prayer is a part of that. Consider: What if there really are some things that God has decided not to do until we ask Him for them?

That’s an incredible thought. God’s waiting on you and me to ask for certain things in prayer before He will do them. He wants to do it. He wants to bless. He wants to heal. He wants to redeem. But, He is waiting on you and me to pray for it. What if we never ask? What if we never pray for it?

Perhaps that’s part of why the church is the way it is today. We do not have because we do not ask. (cf. James 4:2-3)