Posts Categorized: Prayer

Luther’s Advice: Concentrate When You Pray

Martin Luther’s mighty prayer life is legendary. He is supposed to have said this famous statement: ‘I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.’ That is not advice that regularly crops up in the ‘Professional Growth’ or ‘Personal Success’ genres.

Despite our ready admittance that prayer is among the most important things we can do with our time, I have not met a Christian who is satisfied with their prayer life. I confess that I have always found prayer difficult, and not least because I have a propensity to get distracted very easily (something my wife finds irritating five minutes after she’s requested help with something).

When Luther’s barber, Master Peter (the one responsible for that hair) asked for some advice on prayer, Luther wrote a kind of open letter called A Simple Way to Pray. In it he urges a readiness and eagerness to pray, writing, ‘It is of great importance that the heart be made ready and eager for prayer… What else is it but tempting God when your mouth babbles and the mind wanders to other thoughts?’

He gives an example of a priest praying in Latin, getting distracted with every other line, and you don’t need a word of Latin to recognise what’s happening:

Deus in adjutorium meum intende. Farmhand, did you unhitch the horses? Domine ad adjuvandum me fastina. Maid, go out and milk the cow. Gloria patti et filio et spiritui sancto. Hurry up, boy, I wish the ague [malaria] would take you!

For Luther, it is a regret that he had prayed many hours of these worthless and ‘blasphemous’ prayers. And so he goes on to offer this simple yet priceless advice:

So, a good and attentive barber keeps his thoughts, attention, and eyes on the razor and hair and does not forget how far he has gotten with his shaving or cutting. If he wants to engage in too much conversation or let his mind wander or look somewhere else he is likely to cut his customer’s mouth, nose, or even his throat. Thus if anything is to be done well, it requires the full attention of all one’s senses and members, as the proverb says, ‘Pluribus intentus, minor est ad singula sensus’—‘He who thinks of many things, thinks of nothing and does nothing right.’ How much more does prayer call for concentration and singleness of heart if it is to be a good prayer!

It seems to me that learning to do this well — to pray with concentration and focus — requires a good deal of self-knowledge. I recall reading (or hearing?) John Piper speak of his habit of turning to Jonathan Edwards first thing in the morning to warm his heart before he opens the Bible and prays. Martin Lloyd-Jones would often speak of the need to know oneself; what helps you? what lifts your mood? Perhaps you pray best after meditating on Scripture, or whilst walking the dog, or in your attic.

If knowing yourself is the first step, the second is surely making decisions and sticking to them. I think many of us fail to pray because we have not decisively answered the simple questions like where? when? how? I know for myself that I must make clear plans and even write them down, because I rarely find myself spontaneously drawn to focussed prayer.

Look again at Jesus. ‘And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed’ (Mark 1.35). I take comfort from the inference that even Jesus needed to take quite decisive steps to get rid of distractions. How much more do you and I?

This post first appeared over at Think Theology.

Keller’s Powerful Spiritual Diagnostic

I’ve recently finished reading Tim Keller’s new book on prayer, and it is truly outstanding. But there was one section that stood out as one of the most helpful things I’ve read on prayer and the spiritual life for a very long time. It’s towards the end of the book and Keller is seeking to leave us with some parting thoughts and motivations to actually commit to prayer (as one friend of mine recently commented, it’s far easier to read a book on prayer than to pray). Keller gives us this spiritual diagnostic to help you understand your experiences of prayer, and give you hope to keep going:

I often ask Christians to evaluate their situation with regard to prayer by using a metaphor. Imagine that your soul is a boat, a boat with both oars and a sail. In this case here are four questions:

Are you “sailing”? Sailing means you are living the Christian life with the wind at your back. God is real to your heart. You often feel his love. You see prayers being answered. When studying the Bible, you regularly see remarkable things and you sense him speaking to you. You sense people around you being influenced by the Spirit through you.

Are you “rowing”? Rowing means you are finding prayer and Bible reading to be more a duty than a delight. God often (though not always) seems distant, and the sense of his presence is fairly rare. You don’t see many of your prayers being answered. You may be struggling with doubts about God and yourself. Yet despite all this, you refuse self-pity or the self-righteous pride that assumes you know better than God how your life should go. You continue to read the Bible and pray regularly, you attend worship and reach out and serve people despite the inner spiritual dryness.

Are you “drifting”? Drifting means that you are experiencing all the conditions of rowing—spiritual dryness and difficulties in life. But in response, instead of rowing, you are letting yourself drift. You don’t feel like approaching and obeying God, so you don’t pray or read. You give in to the self-centeredness that naturally comes when you feel sorry for yourself, and you drift into self-indulgent behaviors to comfort yourself, whether it be escape eating and sleeping, sexual practices, or whatever else.

Are you “sinking”? Eventually your boat, your soul, will drift away from the shipping lanes, as it were—and truly lose any forward motion in the Christian life. The numbness of heart can become hardness because you give in to thoughts of self-pity and resentment. If some major difficulty or trouble were to come into your life, it would be possible to abandon your faith and identity as a Christian altogether.

In this metaphor we see that there are some things we are responsible for, such as using the means of grace—the Bible, prayer, and church participation—in a disciplined way. There are many other things we do not have much control over—such as how well the circumstances in our lives are going as well as our emotions. If you pray, worship, and obey despite negative circumstances and feelings, you won’t be drifting, and when the winds come up again, you will move ahead swiftly. On the other hand, if you do not apply the means of grace, you will at best be drifting, and if storms come into your life, you might be in danger of sinking.

In any case—pray no matter what. Praying is rowing, and sometimes it is like rowing in the dark—you won’t feel that you are making any progress at all. Yet you are, and when the winds rise again, and they surely will, you will sail again before them.

Prayer, Timothy Keller, p.259-260

This post first appeared over at the Grace London blog.

Church plant: A request for your prayers

I first announced the church plant in May, a little over two months ago. During that time our small core team have been meeting together regularly to pray hard about the future, and I want to invite you to put us on your prayer list too.

Every time I meet with the team who are helping to plant this church I’m amazed and grateful to God for the rich array of gifts and skills they possess. But over and above that, there is a real sense of faith, of believing that God’s with us.

A couple of big milestones are in front of us, and if you want to pray in a focussed way these are the things I would encourage you to pray for. Continue reading

The inspiring example of James Fraser

Phil Moore, leader of Everyday Church in Wimbledon, has written a series of blogs describing lessons from the life of James Fraser.

Fraser was a pioneer missionary to the Lisu people in China in the early 1900s . I remember reading a little of his story when I was a child, and in particular the account of his prayer life which proved more effective by far than his personal witness and evangelism!

Phil has spent a couple of months immersing himself in the life and writings of Fraser, seeking to discern the vital elements that made his ministry so effective. It is no exaggeration to say that the man’s legacy continues to ripple on through China to this day. To us who long for revival of true Christianity here in Europe, we would do well to pay careful attention to these gleanings from Fraser’s life.

I recommend sitting and reading these posts in one go, but if you don’t have the time, make sure you bookmark them: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

 

One man’s pursuit of God

In his (mostly) excellent and provocative book, Church Zero, Peyton Jones tells this stirring account of his pursuit of God in revival:

“Years ago, as a college student, I read countless books on revival and was so moved in my own soul that I kept looking to the church to see it happen. After receiving countless puzzled looks after trying to share my burden, I realised it wasn’t going to happen in my church. I was in advanced microbiology at the time, and so I decided to start an experiment. Just like a cultured agar dish, I sought to see what would happen if I really went for it with God, no strings attached. My agar dish caught fire.

“Now that would be bad in a science class but gets top marks in your spiritual life. I sought the Lord every morning for a couple of hours and then prayed in the afternoons for revival as I drove from Huntington Beach to Hermosa Beach and back. As I drove in my old VW up the 405 freeway, I begged God to send a consuming fire that would ignite our love and passion for Jesus. I started fasting on Sundays and setting the whole day aside to read through Lloyd-Jones’s eight-volume commentary on Ephesians. I was 18 years old. In front of the fireplace of my living room, with a cup of vanilla almond tea in one hand and the Word of God in the other, I started to learn how to go on a date with God. Just me, the Doctor, the Republic of Tea, and God.

“A fire was lit in the hearth of my soul that burned hotter than the fireplace. My experiment worked. I sought the Spirit of God with all my heart, found Him, and was filled. It was personal revival. Revival might not have been raging outside me, or around me, but my soul wouldn’t be satisfied with that excuse. In the spirit of Moses who pitched his tent away from the camp, crying desperately to God, “Show me Your glory!” I wanted to see His glory so badly that I didn’t care who came with me. I had gone it alone, but I didn’t stay alone for long.

“Because fire spreads.”

(Peyton Jones, Church Zero, p.208 loc.2489)

Concentration in Prayer

Luther urges concentration in prayer:

“So, a good and attentive barber keeps his thoughts, attention, and eyes on the razor and hair and does not forget how far he has gotten with his shaving or cutting. If he wants to engage in too much conversation or let his mind wander or look somewhere else he is likely to cut his customer’s mouth, nose, or even his throat. Thus if anything is to be done well, it requires the full attention of all one’s senses and members, as the proverb says, ‘Pluribus intentus, minor est ad singula sensus’—‘He who thinks of many things, thinks of nothing and does nothing right.’ How much more does prayer call for concentration and singleness of heart if it is to be a good prayer!”

(Martin Luther, A Simple Way to Pray)