EVERY Christian knows that he should pray, but not every Christian seems to realize deeply enough how indispensably important prayer is for the spiritual life. 60 It has been said that prayer is the breath of the soul. I am not putting it too strongly when I state that just as physical breath is literally the difference between biological life and death, so prayer is literally the difference between spiritual life and death.
The born-again person who does not practically grasp this vital fact cannot be a confident, successful, victorious Christian. Moreover, he will not be a Christian, in the true sense of the word, for long. He cannot be.
Of course, failing to pray is not the only reason for spiritual death. Nevertheless, I re-emphasize, failure to pray will bring the end of the vital spiritual life as surely as failure to breathe will end the physical life.
Prayer is not termed the breath of the soul for nothing. There are significant parallels between breathing and praying.
On one occasion Jesus told His disciples a parable by which He taught them the lesson "that men ought always to pray, and not to faint" (Luke 18: 1). He was talking, of course, of losing heart, becoming discouraged, which is one meaning of the term faint. When one fails to pray he loses heart.
The parallel is apparent, of course. One reason why a person faints physically is because of a lack of air. And the Christian "faints" spiritually because of a lack of the spiritual "oxygen" that comes through prayer.
In Ephesians, chapter six, verses 13-17, the apostle Paul metaphorically likens certain elements important to the Christian to parts of an armor such as was worn by soldiers of his day. The belt he likens to truth; the breastplate to righteousness; the sandals to the gospel, the message of peace; the shield he sees as comparable to faith; the helmet, to salvation; and the sword, to the Scriptures.
Extending Paul's Metaphor
Paul's metaphor does not extend to the next element he mentions. But if the figure we have been using had occurred to him, he might very well have used it.
"Pray at all times in the Spirit," he then exhorted the Christian warrior (verse 18, R.S.V.). Applying our figure of prayer as the breath of the soul, we recognize that the warrior in battle who, for some reason, does not breathe properly cannot fight well. His power of endurance is very limited; his strength is soon gone; he is easily overcome. "Apart from prayer," says Carl Henry, "all our virtues are placed in peril, for prayer sustains them in weakness and guards us from pride in their presence." -Christian Personal Ethics, p. 582.
Each of these ideas gives us some conception of how essential is prayer for the Christian.
The essential nature of prayer is underscored in another way as we continue to liken prayer to breathing. We may stress this importance by asking, How many times do we breathe in a day? Once? Twice? Three times? Four times? The implications of these questions are, of course, somewhat ridiculous.
"But," someone asks, "are you actually implying that we should pray as continuously as we breathe?"
What "Pray Constantly" Means
Well, what does Paul mean when he counsels, "Pray constantly" (1 Thess. 5:17, R.S.V.)? We believe he means we must have a continuous attitude, an undiminished spirit, of prayer. When the mind is occupied with the affairs of life there is an almost unconscious praying going on, like the background music that is so pervasive in so many stores and business institutions today. And when the mind is not otherwise occupied, prayer surges to the foreground and becomes the conscious music of the soul. 61
While engaged in our daily work, we should lift the soul to heaven in prayer. These silent petitions rise like incense before the throne of grace; and the enemy is baffled. The Christian whose heart is thus stayed upon God cannot be overcome. No evil arts can destroy his peace. All the promises of God's word, all the power of divine grace, all the resources of Jehovah, are pledged to secure his deliverance. It was thus that Enoch walked with God. And God was with him, a present help in every time of need. -Gospel Workers, p. 254.
We may commune with God in our hearts; we may walk in companionship with Christ. When engaged in our daily labor, we may breathe out our heart's desire, inaudible to any human ear; but that word cannot die away into silence, nor can it be lost. Nothing can drown the soul's desire. It rises above the din of the street, above the noise of machinery. It is God to whom we are speaking, and our prayer is heard. -Ibid., p. 258.
Of course, even praying without ceasing can become a spiritually meaningless, routine ritual; a sort of religious talking to oneself. It can be as empty of spiritual content and vitality as is the endlessly turned prayer wheel of the Tibetan Buddhist. It may become a dead habit of praying to which God has quit listening long ago. For prayer is far, far more than words, even in the mind. Prayer is talking to God with the heart. Its source must be deep in the heart. It springs from an experience with God.
So far I have been considering mainly the importance of prayer. I have written primarily with the Christian in mind. Now I want to turn to the "how-to" of prayer, which will bring us to some problems that even the long-time Christian has to confront sometimes. At the same time I hope to make some suggestions for those who have seldom, perhaps never, prayed before but who wish now to get through to God.
An Obstacle to Prayer
Before I get into this we must be aware of one obstacle to prayer that, unless removed, will make useless all our efforts to pray meaningfully, successfully.
The psalmist put his finger on it: "If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened" (Ps. 66: 18, R.S.V.).
These words should be examined carefully. The psalmist did not write, "If I had been a sinner, the Lord would not have listened." The text says, If I had cherished sin. A person may have committed a half-dozen murders, robbed two dozen banks, committed adultery, homosexuality, lied ten thousand times. But if he comes in prayer to God in genuine repentance, with a broken heart, God will forgive. 62 "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, 0 God, thou wilt not despise" (Ps. 51: 17).
On the other hand, even though a person has had his name on the church books for decades, if he comes to God nurturing a spirit of resentment against a brother, he has disconnected the line between himself and God. The line can only be reconnected when he is willing to surrender his resentment.
Now, to the "how-to" of prayer. I shall discuss it in the context of private, personal prayer, on the knees in the bedroom, the study, or wherever we find seclusion with God. The "pray without ceasing" attitude and habit springs out of this time spent with Him.
Personally, when I can, I like to prepare my mind and heart for this special time of communion with God by reading something appropriate from the Bible or Spirit of Prophecy, and to meditate a little. In this way my thoughts and emotions are directed away from my job or other activities, and tuned to communicate with heaven. "The reading of the word of God prepares the mind for prayer." -Review and Herald, March 11, 1880.
"I Don't Feel Like Praying!"
But suppose I cannot get into the spirit of prayer. Does this mean that I decide, I'm not in the mood for prayer; I don't have the feeling for it? Or I'm not fit to pray, or I'm too much of a sinner or a hypocrite to pray; there's no use? So I do not pray.
How you feel, or what you are, is not the important point at all. The important point is Do you need to pray? Do you need God? Do you need help from God? In all honesty, your answer must be Yes.
Now read this:
Our great need is our only claim on God's mercy. -The Desire of Ages, p. 317.
We have nothing to recommend us to God; but the plea that we may urge now and ever is our utterly helpless condition that makes His redeeming power a necessity. -Ibid.
So your very condition of mind and heart is the very reason why you must pray.
Now, on your knees, begin to pray in a positive spirit of thankfulness. And don't try to tell yourself that you have nothing to be thankful for, that your whole roof has fallen in. Suppose it has. You are still alive. God is still there. He is good. He loves you. He is more than willing to listen to all your problems, and to help. And be thankful for prayer itself, which gives you a channel to God. Suppose you didn't have that?
But if you feel you can't be thankful-you might feel rebellious, instead-pray! Keep your need in the forefrontó"God, this is the way I feel, but I need You. I need Your help, the kind only You can give."
Pray in the name of Jesus. He is the ordained Intermediary by which we approach the Father. "Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name," Jesus told His disciples, "that will I do" (John 14: 13).
Pray in faith. But, you say, that's part of my problem; I don't seem to have faith. But the very fact that you are praying almost certainly indicates that you have some faith. You believe there is a God! You wouldn't try praying to "nobody or nothing." In that one belief, if in nothing else, you can exercise faith. Like the father of the demon-possessed boy who came in agony of spirit to Jesus to free his son, we may say, "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief" (Mark 9:24).
God will bestow upon us every needed blessing if we ask Him in simplicity and faith. -Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 201.
It is a part of God's plan to grant us, in answer to the prayer of faith, that which He would not bestow did we not thus ask.-- The Great Controversy, p. 525.
Be earnest; be resolute. Present the promise of God, and then believe without a doubt. Do not wait to feel special emotions before you think the Lord answers. Do not mark out some particular way that the Lord must work for you before you believe you receive the things you ask of Him; but trust His word, and leave the whole matter in the hands of the Lord, with full faith that your prayer will be honored, and the answer will come at the very time and in the very way your heavenly Father sees is for your good; and then live out your prayers. -Messages to Young People, p. 123.
Ask for the presence of the Holy Spirit to soften and impress your heart. Ask Him to give you contrition and repentance as you need it; to help you to commit yourself sincerely to God.
Don't, don't become discouraged and quit praying because nothing seems to happen the first time, or the first several times, you pray. Sometimes God has to set certain machinery in motion to answer our prayers, or it may take time for us to recognize that He really is at work for us. 63
Sometimes God does not answer our prayers immediately so that we ourselves may be led to examine our faith, our sincerity, our real need of what we prayed for.
There is another reason:
God does not always answer our prayers the first time we call upon Him; for should He do this, we might take it for granted that we had a right to all the blessings and favors He bestowed upon us. Instead of searching our hearts to see if any evil was entertained by us, and sin indulged, we would become careless, and fail to realize our dependence upon Him, and our need of His help. --ELLEN G. WHITE, in Review and Herald, June 9, 1891.
God's Wants Rather Than Ours
Pray according to God's will. It is easy to be self-centered and self-seeking in prayer. Sometimes we are so involved in thinking of what we want that we forget what God wants.
In our prayers we may ask for protection from certain trials and dangers; we may ask to be kept from sickness, from the loss of property, or job, or friends. But God may know that just the thing we are asking to be saved from is the very experience we need to save our souls. So "Not my will, but Thine be done" must be the hub of every prayer. This means that each time we pray we will give our wills to His will. Prayers acceptable to God are unselfish prayers.
And in our praying we must put spiritual things first. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God .. ."
In all things, under all circumstances, pray. "It is impossible for the soul to flourish while prayer is neglected." --Steps to Christ p. 98. "The darkness of the evil one encloses those who neglect to pray." -Ibid. p. 94.
Let no feeling, no circumstance, no condition, no attitude, nothing, discourage you from