Developing a Good Prayer Life
I remember a poem in the Ladies Home Journal where a group of men argued around the cracker barrel about the best way to pray. Some said the best way to pray was standing up with eyes open to heaven. Others argued that it was best to pray with head bowed; others said prostrate, or kneeling, and so on. But then Jeff Brown, the well driller, spoke up. He told how he had been drilling a well over at the widow Jones’ property, and it had caved in, and he had fallen down the shaft. And he said, “The prayinest prayer I ever made, I was standing on my head.”
Now there is no doubt that God is not interested in the physical attitude of prayer. How did they pray in the Bible? I believe you can find nine different physical positions in the Bible. Jesus prayed with His eyes lifted to heaven; He prayed prostrate on the ground. Hezekiah prayed in bed with his face turned to the wall. But it doesn’t make any difference in what horizontal, vertical, or oblong direction your carcass happens to be; if your soul is not down before God, you are not praying. Your body can be in any condition, but if your soul is bold, upright, defiant against God, you know nothing about prayer.
Prayer is the growth of a soul as we come in contact with God. As the soul grows, the prayer life deepens.
First of all, chronologically, a prayer is nothing more than petition. When you were first taught to pray as children, your prayers were primarily to ask God for things. “Bless Papa and Mama, and make me a good little boy.” And then, “I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”
Some time ago, a school teacher in New York taught the Lord’s Prayer to her class, and they all learned it. Then one time she called up her pupils one by one and asked each one to repeat the Lord’s Prayer. One of the boys said, “Harold be Thy name” instead of “Hallowed be Thy name.” Another said, “Give us this day our jelly bread.” Another said, “Lead us not into Penn Station.” Another said, “Deliver us from eagles.”
Now this is understandable because little children do not know these words. And I’m quite sure that God is able, if the heart is right, to give us this day our jelly bread. It is possible to say things that are theologically wrong, and yet if the heart is right toward God, He can sort out the difficulties.
But this is baby prayer. When you’re asking for something, your praying is the lowest form of prayer. As your prayer life develops, it should go beyond this.
Now secondly, as a child develops a little, he’s taught to say “thank you,” and he’s taught not only to say it to his parents, but he’s taught to say to God, “Father, we thank Thee for this food.”
The child then learns about Thanksgiving Day in school. It’s associated with the image of a pumpkin with a cut-out face, or the picture of the Puritans hunting turkeys in the fields, or the Puritans bowing their heads in thanksgiving.
Third comes intercession. Intercession is where we stop asking for something just for ourselves and our little circle and begin to plead with God for blessings for others.
Many people have been taught that prayer is a cheap way to get anything. When they find themselves in desperate need they pray, and they do not get an answer. A boy prays, “Oh God, I want to pass that examination,” or a girl prays, “Oh God, don’t let me be the only girl who doesn’t get asked by a boy to the basketball game.” And if she happens to be the only one who doesn’t get the invitation, she may say in despair, “Oh, I don’t believe in prayer; it just doesn’t work.” As a result, her whole spiritual life may become a mess because she has not been taught the true nature of prayer. Prayer is not saying to a distant God, “Do this and that,” but prayer is basically getting to know God.
Much of the difficulty of spiritually growing up is the shifting of gears that takes a child out of spiritual childhood into a spiritual maturity. When we are children, we live largely on our parents’ faith. We say what they say; we have what they have, and we do what they do. But then comes the time when we have to shift gears, and we have to know God alone. For it is only when we know God that we begin to develop into the higher brackets, the higher attitudes of prayer.
The first three steps that I have spoken of — petition, thanksgiving, and intercession — can be entered into by almost anybody. In fact, even among the heathen there is this much knowledge about prayer.
When Mrs. Barnhouse and I were in Japan, we went to the great shrine of Ise, one of the most beautiful places in the world. And when we came to the inner sacred precincts we saw the specially robed priests. But what saddened us most of all was to see these people, with such agony and emptiness in their faces, bow in front of the shrine and then clap their hands as if to say, “God, wake up! Can’t you hear us?”
Well, much of our prayer is like this, too. There must come a time in our spiritual development when, beyond recognizing that God is the One Who can give us what we want, we learn to pray for the purpose of knowing Him better. In fact, there is no real prayer until we get beyond petition and pray for the purpose of knowing the Lord.
So the fourth step in prayer is worship. Worship, of course, comes from the old English word for worth-ship — the recognition of the worth of God, to look upon Him in wonder and see Who He really is. That is worship. To say with the men of the Old Testament, “There is none like unto thee, thou alone art our God” — that is worship (see Psalms 86:8; Jeremiah 10:6-7). To recognize His sovereignty and His majesty, to long to know Him and to reach out to Him — that is worship. Jesus says in John 4:24-25, “The Father seeketh such to worship him.” There is no true prayer unless we worship Him in spirit, in the Holy Spirit, and in truth, and that means we must come through Him Who is truth, the Lord Jesus Christ.
I remember hearing a hymn in England written by Frederick Faber that brings out this meaning.1
My God, how wonderful Thou art, Thy majesty how bright!
How beautiful Thy mercy-seat, in depths of burning light!
Oh, how I fear Thee, living God, with deepest tenderest fears;
And worship Thee with trembling hope, and penitential tears.
Yet I may love Thee too, O Lord, Almighty as Thou art;
For Thou has stooped to ask of me the love of my poor heart.
No earthly father loves like Thee, no mother half so mild
Bears and forbears, as Thou hast done with me, Thy sinful child.
Father of Jesus, love’s Reward! What rapture will it be,
Prostrate before Thy throne to lie, and gaze and gaze on Thee.
When Faber wrote that, I think he was spiritually coming to that place that a young man comes to when he’s fallen in love with a girl. No matter where he is, in what company, he just sits and gazes at her. Well, there is a phase in the Christian life when we begin to get to know the Lord that way.
There are two things left in the development of a prayer life. There is judgment in prayer, prayer when you know God well enough and know His holiness well enough that you can ask Him to curse something that is evil. One must advance in the Christian experience by a very long step before he has come to the place where he is directed by the Holy Spirit to partake in imprecatory prayer. Now the Psalms hold many such prayers: “Let them be confounded and put to shame who seek after my soul; let them be turned back and brought to confusion who devise my hurt” (see Psalms 35:4; Psalms 40:14; Psalms 83:17). The more that you know of the holiness of God the more you can enter into this judgment and hatred of sin, and ask the Lord to confound those that are misleading the children of God.
As I know God better and as I come close to Him, there wells in my heart a great desire that that day will come when God Almighty will crush all of the things that would lead people into false doctrines, that would take them away from the simplicity that is in Jesus Christ. I believe that when you read of some great evil that has been done, you must take sides with God and say, “Oh, God, I’m not going to take the matter into my own hands. I don’t want to destroy the man who has done evil. I pray for him, and I leave this in Your hands, but, Oh God, I do thank You that the day will come when You will send out the angels, and they will pluck out of Your kingdom the things that offend and all people that offend.” Paul said to the Corinthians, regarding the fornicator among their membership, “Deliver such as one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5).
And now the last and most delightful part of prayer is what I call conversation. Mrs. Barnhouse and I probably have as abnormal a life as anybody in America. One summer we traveled for three months of preaching engagements all across the country. For three months, Mrs. Barnhouse and I were together no more than 25 feet apart at any moment day and night. We were together at night and in the morning as we went down to the church. She sat there while I preached, and then we went back to the coffee shop and then back in a motel room where I sat at my typewriter. I realize that such a life is abnormal, humanly speaking, and yet, it may be applied spiritually. With God this is normal. We live in closer contact with Him than being cooped up together in a motel room. When Mrs. Barnhouse and I are both concentrating on something, I may begin to say something, and if she is busy, she will respond, “Wait a minute.” When she’s through with what she’s doing, she then will ask, “What is it?” But with God things are quite different; He is never interrupted. God is always leaning toward us with both ears. He’s always intent for us; He’s ready to listen to us.
Now recently I was asked how much time a day I spent in prayer. So I began to analyze it. I would jot down on a memo pad the moments at the beginning of the day, the family worship, the times definitely spent in prayer. The times I pray for missions, for all the radio listeners, and for all the readers of my books and magazine. Then I realize that if you add up all of this time, it might not make too great a show in point of time spent in prayer. But yet to me the greatest amount of time spent with God is conversation.
Now this is the highest part of prayer, when you delight yourself in the Lord. You see, He’s always with you. Your body is His temple; your whole life is His. Any time you say, “Lord,” He’s there. Even when you hear a good joke, you laugh, and say, “Thank you, Lord, for a good sense of humor.” And all of these glories are joys.
When my sons were growing up, I first knew them as babies, and they knew me as their father who came and played with them. They got to know me better as they grew up, and there were times of struggles when their will was set against my will. This is the way I was in my growth with the Lord. As time went on and these boys grew into men and began to enter into maturity, a new relationship developed, so that I would rather sit down and talk with them on serious problems of theology, the Christian life, and the Bible than I would with even my closest friends. We have now come over the hump of all stresses and tensions that we knew when they were in their teens and have become the closest of friends.
This, you see, is the way we grow with God. God likes for us to come to Him and be chatty with Him, to talk over everything and look to Him and rejoice in Him. And when you begin to know God like this, you are going to discover that you are living a life of prayer that fulfills what the New Testament teaches: “Pray without ceasing.”
When you come to the place where you can know the Lord in an intimacy that He creates, you begin to really know how to pray. Soon you discover that your heart is so yielded to His that you want nothing but what He wants. And you learn to delight yourself in the Lord; then He gives you the desires of your heart. And as you talk with Him, your purpose is to know Him better. Then you will realize the true purpose of prayer: not that you get something at a discount but that you might know Him.
How to Pray
Most Christians put fences around their prayers to save face. Many Christians have offered so many prayers through a sense of duty, and without any thought of being answered, that they are astonished when an answer truly comes from God. Consider, as an example of this, an incident that occurred in the early church as recorded in the book of the Acts. It was the time of the fifth persecution recorded in that early history of the church. Herod was king and began a persecution in which James, the brother of John, was killed, and Peter was put in prison.
We read, “Peter, therefore, was kept in prison; but prayer was made without ceasing by the church unto God for him” (Acts 12:5). The whole story gives us the picture of Peter in prison in one part of the town and a group of believers gathered together elsewhere praying for Peter. Then, suddenly, God intervened. Though Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and with guards in front of the prison door, an angel came and cast a sleep upon the guards and delivered Peter, who suddenly found himself in the street, alone.
Peter soon realized that he had been delivered by the power of God and made his way through the streets to the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many were gathered together, praying. Peter knocked at the door of the gate, and a young woman, named Rhoda, came to the door to listen. Peter announced himself, and she was so confused with joy at the sound of his voice that she left him standing on the outside of the unopened gate and ran back into the house with the news of his deliverance. Now, if they had had any faith, they would have thanked God for the answer and taken it as a gift from God. But we read, “They said unto her, Thou art mad” (Acts 12:15). How sad that a group of Christians in a prayer meeting should think a person crazy who came to tell them that their prayers had been answered, but this is the fact. When the young girl constantly affirmed that it was true and that Peter was there, the leaders of the prayer meeting said, “It is his angel” (verse 15). This is a sad commentary of our slowness of heart to believe the promises and the power of God. “But Peter continued knocking” (Acts 12:16). There was no getting away from that noise at the gate, and the leaders went out and opened the gate. When they saw him, we read further that they were astonished. And even after this, it took some convincing by Peter before they really understood what had happened.
In the light of this we must not be too astonished that the church today is generally prayerless and spiritually careless. The average prayer meeting in the average church is a vain thing. In thousands of churches the prayer meetings have been eliminated, and where the mid-week service of prayer has gone by the board the Sunday evening service has generally followed. Whenever there is a true prayer meeting there is always a witnessing church, and a church with power. If anyone reading these words is looking around for a church, select one whose doctrinal creed is biblical and then look for an individual congregation whose prayer meeting is well attended, and where people are truly fervent in prayer. That is a church where there will be real spiritual life.
In seeking to learn to pray as we ought, we now come to the consideration of what it is to pray in the will of God. In John’s first epistle there is one of the greatest prayer promises in the Bible. There we read, “And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us; And if we know that he hear us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him” (1 John 5:14-15).
The first thing that we must realize about this text is that it does not refer to everybody. If “we” ask anything . . . He hears “us.” Who are the “we” and the “us” in this text? The answer is in the context. It concerns only those who have been given life through Jesus Christ. It does not refer to Mohammedans or Buddhists. Nor does it refer to Protestants or Catholics who are Christians in name only. It is a promise that belongs exclusively to those who are the present possessors of eternal life. Listen to the preceding verses: “He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself . . . And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his son. He that hath the Son hath life . . . These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God, that ye may know that ye have eternal life” (1 John 5:10-13). The prayer promise follows immediately. To be honest with the Word of God it must be admitted that the promise belongs only to those who have everlasting life and who know it.
In the light of our text we must read it: “This is the confidence that we [who are saved and know it] have in him, that if we [who are saved and know it] ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us [who are saved and know it.] And if we [who are saved and know it], know that he hear us [who are saved and know it], whatever we [who are saved and know it] ask, we [who are saved and know it] know that we [who are saved and know it] have the petitions that we [who are saved and know it] desired of him.”
With this established, we may now ask the second question that the text poses. What is it to ask according to the will of God? There is no one text that is going to furnish the complete answer to that question. The whole of the Bible must be studied to find out that which is the will of God. We may, perhaps, summarize it by saying the will of God for any human being is that which is in consistent accord with the nature of God’s attributes — His holiness, His justice, His righteousness, His love, His truth. The details are to be found by living under the dominance of the Holy Spirit within the sphere of the whole of the Bible. This is the heart meaning of, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
Men who were unbelievers once asked the Lord Jesus, “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered, and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” (John 6:28-29). We may further define our theme, therefore, by pointing out that the will of God always begins, centers, and ends in Jesus Christ. As far as we can discern from the whole biblical revelation, God has no thought or desire apart from the glorification of the Lord Jesus Christ. The only prayer that an unsaved man could pray acceptably, therefore, is the thought contained in such a prayer as this: “Oh God, I deserve nothing from Thee but Thy just wrath; but Thou sayest that Thou didst love me and gave Jesus Christ to die for me. Now as best I know I stop trusting in anything that is of myself, and believe Thy word about Christ—that Thou art satisfied with His death instead of mine, and that in Him Thou doest give me life eternal.”
When such a prayer has been prayed God is already looking upon such a man in grace, and he may then come with great boldness to claim all of the promises which have been given to us in Christ. Thus our ignorance will be banished since our Lord said, “If any man will [determines to] do his will, he shall know of the doctrine [teaching], whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 7:17). Thus, the willingness, to do the will of God brings light upon the direction of the will of God for us in any set of circumstances.
When believers have reached this point they may pray with very great confidence. There are many prayers that we may offer to which we do not need to add the qualifying phrase, “if it be Thy will.” For example, when the Holy Spirit brings to our hearts a longing for deeper holiness of living, we may cry to God for it, expecting that He will answer. The ground of such expectation is in the Word, where we read, “For this is the will of God, even your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). It is on this same foundation that the promise of Christ rests, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).
In the light of this, let us consider, for a moment, the reasons why so many church prayer meetings are rather empty, and why, like the members of the early church, a true answer to prayer seems almost unbelievable. It is because the gathered believers are praying aimlessly without a true sense of the majesty of God and His righteousness, and with little thought of seeing wonders worked by the all-loving and all-powerful Father. The average prayer meeting lasts for an hour. The first ten or 15 minutes are spent in singing hymns, sometimes the fruit of true praise, and sometimes mere time-fillers. How many times have we heard such an announcement as this: “Now we will sing another hymn while the late-comers are arriving.” A hymn loses all the inwardness of praise in such circumstances, and it is not astonishing to see people whispering to each other, or looking around the room. Following this, the leader fills up a few more minutes with an introductory prayer, thanking God for the privilege of coming together to praise Him and asking Him to be with them that there might be true praise and a real sense of His presence among them. Then another hymn, perhaps, and then the announcements, and finally, the suggestion that prayer requests be presented. For a few minutes there are various suggestions—the name of the sick of the congregation are brought to mind, the missionaries, the various needs of the church, perhaps a request for the salvation of some loved one, and at last, comes the time to pray. The deacon with the longest memory usually starts and goes over the list of things that have been mentioned. Then another prayer will be offered for some of the things that have been omitted. A few more prayers, generally more and more brief, and by now, most of the praying men and women have spoken. Then comes a long silence, and finally the voice of the leader in the closing prayer. Then, for there are still some 20 minutes left, the hour is filled up by a sermonette, sometimes called Bible study. The hour draws to a close, a final hymn is sung, and the benediction is pronounced.
Believe me, this description has been given, not with any sense of irony, and certainly with no sense of criticism, but with a deep sense of grief that so many of the Lord’s people miss so much of the blessing that He is so eager to give. Too many believers are existing on ground meat which they did not mix themselves, and whose ingredients they often ignore, instead of having the finest cuts of the meat prepared as only God can feed us.
Let me suggest a program for an alternative meeting. Let the believers gather together and spend two minutes suggesting subjects of praise. Then sing a stirring hymn of praise. Then let someone mention some of the glories of the Lord Jesus Christ, and follow this with a hymn that exalts the wonders of His being and His work.
Following this, assign each person five chapters — different chapters — to read rapidly, silently, for one purpose, namely to discover some expression that shows what the will of the Lord is. When these chapters have been read, and the findings summarized on the blackboard, then spend 20 minutes in prayer for the things that have been found, and let not the words, “if it be Thy will,” be spoken even once. Let there be the tone of triumph that goes with the certain knowledge that a check is being presented that must be cashed because the bank has acknowledged that it is a certified check, and that you have been fully identified. Above all, eliminate such prayers as those faithless clichés, “We ask Thy presence with us tonight;” or, “Wilt Thou, in grace, be with us in this hour.” To pray such a prayer is like asking the host who had provided all the ingredients for a Christmas dinner, and who had set the table, and who had taken his place at the head of the board, if he would please come to dinner with the guests. He is already there. He has planned it for the sake of the larger fellowship.
How wonderful to begin a meeting of believers with the triumphant cry, “Thou art here, dear Heavenly Father! Thou art here, blessed Lord Jesus! Thou art here, Spirit of truth to guide us!” There are no ifs, ands, buts, or maybes. There is the acknowledgment of a divinely revealed fact. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I” (Matthew 18:20). And remember He is not there because there is any place on this earth that is a sanctuary. Men call buildings churches, but in the beginning it was not so. The church is the group of believers, and it was others who began to call the buildings they ultimately began to meet in by the name of the believers who gathered there. The Lord is in a meeting because one believer, whose body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, walks into the presence of another believer on an arrangement to be gathered together in the name of the Lord. In the moment of their meeting, the Holy Spirit Who dwells in each believer, comes in the added power of the presence of Christ to give joy and blessing.
Prayer meetings that are ordered on these divine principles cannot fail to attract those who know the Lord in reality, and who are free to join with other believers at the time and place of the gathering.
In all such meetings there should be a portion of the time spent in praying for those things for which there is no clear light as to the will of God. It is God’s will to be with you in presence and in power; it is God’s will to make you holy; it is God’s will to forgive you from all sins that are confessed; it is God’s will to bless the going forth of His word to condemn or to save; it is God’s will to bless His people, to conform us to Christ, to teach us His will, and to bring us on in growth, performing His work in us unto the day of Jesus Christ. But we may have a portion of the meeting where we proceed very slowly. One man is sick. We certainly may not ask God with positiveness to raise the man up, for it may be the will of the Lord to take that one to Heaven. To such a prayer we must add, “if it be Thy will.” We may not ask God to protect us from accident, or loss, or disaster, for it may be His will to bring us into these things in order that we may learn that “in” all these things we are more than conquerors.
As time goes by we grow in spiritual life. At the outset of our experiences with Him we may pray ignorantly. The Heavenly Father will not look at us askance because of this. Sometimes — yes, many times—He answers us even when we ask ignorantly. He loves us more than we love our children.
One of my sons once wrote me two letters from college, both asking me for 50 dollars. The letters came about six weeks apart. One of them was several pages long and asked for the money with great details as to how it would be spent. It was hedged about with arguments to make the request plausible. In spite of this he did not get the money. The second letter was about seven lines long, but he got the money by return mail.
The first letter began by telling me that he was on the dean’s list. The second paragraph spoke of his friends. They, too, were honor roll students. He was laying the ground work for his request, and he was doing it by telling of his own attainments and by reminding me that he was a companion of good men. The letter then outlined the plan of the request; they were to leave Boston by car and drive out to Ohio, missing only their Friday and Saturday classes, and attend a social function in honor of the sister of one of the young men. My son’s part of the expenses would be about $50.00, including flowers, entertainment, and travel. The letter closed with the equivalent of a request — if it be thy will, dear earthly father — for 50 dollars. He did not get the 50 dollars.
A few weeks later there came a terse note: “Dear Daddy: There was an accident today in the chemistry lab, and another fellow broke a beaker of acid that spilled on my clothes. It burned a big hole in my coat and another hole about four by five inches across in my trousers. I have ordered another suit and must have 50 dollars at once. Your loving son, David.” He got the money by return mail. It was according to my will to send him that money. I am his father, and one of the obligations of parenthood is that a son be kept in pants.
None of this should cause us to think that we should go slowly in approaching our heavenly Father with our requests. “We know not how to pray as we ought,” but we are coming to our Father. In all matters where we know His will, we come with gladness and holy boldness. Wherever there is doubt we must tell Him that we are asking and not insisting, for we want nothing other than His will. He will never be angry with us, and He will always be patient with us. He is our Father. He loves us.