The Devotional author Richard J Foster wrote; “Real prayer is something we learn”. Unfortunately, we do not find ourselves to be masters of prayer at the onset of our religious experience. For some prayer, as a vocation is a daunting one, and as a pastor, I have encountered so many people that find it hard to pray. Usually, we do not have time to sit at the feet of a devotional master of prayer and even more we find ourselves seldom embarrassed by our lack of prayer. Where we start in prayer is where we end as Christians and we can be assured that to be a follower of Jesus Christ is to follow Him in a desire to communicate to our Father in prayer. Here are eleven books that I have found extremely helpful to guide me to a richer life of prayer (Again in no particular order).
Andrew Murray: “With Christ in the School of prayer”.
Written from Wellington on the 28th of October 1895 Murray cautions us that “Jesus has opened a school, in which He trains His redeemed ones, who specially desire it, to have power in prayer. Shall we not enter it with the petition, Lord! it is just this we need to be taught! O teach us to pray”. Murray truly believed that we can petition heaven and see great change in our communities and individual lives. This Scottish South African knew that the foundational vocation of individual Christians was to pray and he dares us to petition heaven in all circumstances applying prayer to all circumstances. Murray was a controversial figure within the reformed Church that dearly believed in speaking with other tongues and praying for the sick. But in all of this he truly believed that prayer was central to the life of the individual Christian. He writes “In connection with this there is another truth that has come to me with wonderful clearness as I studied the teaching of Jesus on prayer. It is this: that the Father waits to hear every prayer of faith, to give us whatsoever we will, and whatsoever we ask in Jesus’ name. We have become so accustomed to limit the wonderful love and the large promises of our God, that we cannot read the simplest and clearest statements of our Lord without the qualifying clauses by which we guard and expound them. If there is one thing I think the Church needs to learn, it is that God means prayer to have an answer, and that it hath not entered into the heart of man to conceive what God will do for His child who gives himself to believe that his prayer will be heard. God hears prayer; this is a truth universally admitted, but of which very few understand the meaning, or experience the power. If what I have written stir my reader to go to the Master’s words, and take His wondrous promises simply and literally as they stand, my object has been attained”.
J.C. Ryle: “A Call to prayer”.
This is surely one of the books that impressed me deeply to pray. Ryle writes; “This is one of the common marks of all the elect of God, “They cry unto him day and night.” (Luke 18:1). Ryle surely never had the ability to speak salient words to sooth the irreligious soul but demands that the heart and purpose of the one who place their affection on Christ with the knowledge of their own woundedness will always be desperately in prayer. He writes: “Many, even those who use good forms, mutter their prayers over after they have got to bed, or while they wash or dress in the morning. People may think what they please, but they may depend upon it that in the sight of God this is not praying. Words said without heart are as utterly useless to our souls as the drum beating of savages before their idols. Where there is no heart, there may be lip-work and tongue-work, but there is no prayer. Saul, I have no doubt, said many a long prayer before the Lord met him on the way to Damascus. But it was not until his heart was broken that the Lord said. “He prays.”
The Book of Common Prayer.
The Book of Common prayer was the central source next to the Christian Scriptures that shaped the devotional and liturgical lives of the people in England from 1549 as a result of the English Reformation. Under Edward the VI the Church constituted and structured their own practical guide to give them direction in the praxis of their own faith. As Anglicanism grew this became the central book that was used to structure services and do practical theology in this central denomination. Here is a prayer that is close to my own heart. “A Collect for the Presence of Christ:”
“Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know thee as thou art revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of thy love. Amen”.
Even if you are a beginner in prayer and do not really know what to say exactly, this is a wonderful guide that will aid you in confession and a fruitful relational perspective with the Divine!
Richard J. Foster: “Prayer”.
Probably one of the most influential devotional authors of our time who endeavors to explain a plentitude of prayers that moves from the inward to the upward and the outward forms of prayer. Sometimes criticized for being to pragmatic or even to inclusive, Foster tries to write historically and not theologically. He calls on the wisdom of all Christian spiritual traditions and show that at the heart of our rich tapestry of traditions we can learn so much about prayer. Foster is not foundationally writing for the theologically curious but the relationally hungry. That being said, our theology should always be informed by our prayer life.
Prayer starts with the central posture of love, Foster writes: “This book is about a love relationship: an enduring, continuing, growing love relationship with the great God of the universe. An overwhelming love invites a response. Loving is the syntax of prayer. To be effective pray-ers, we need to be effective lovers.” He adds, “Real prayer comes not from gritting our teeth but from falling in love”.
A must read for those who want to know the dynamics of prayer!
Donald S. Whitney: “Praying the Bible”.
Whitney has the ability to make you want to pray. Every word is infused with the reality that prayer is accessible wherever you are under the stars. he also sums up the central priority of prayer which is always to pray the will of the Father. Why don’t we pray? Whitney asks: “Indeed, why would people become bored when talking with God, especially when talking about that which is most important to them? Is it because we don’t love God? Is it because, deep down, we really care nothing for the people or matters we pray about? No. Rather, if this mind wandering boredom describes your experience in prayer, I would argue that if you are indwelled by the Holy Spirit—if you are born again—then the problem is not you; it is your method”.
Whitney assures us that even when we fall in the rut of prayer, the Holy Spirit will lead us to pray in a new and fresh manner. He writes, “a person may be ninety-nine with a heart encrusted by the traditions and experiences of the years, but pulsing underneath is the ever-fresh, evergreen work of the Holy Spirit manifested in every person in whom he dwells”.
Madame Guyon:“Experiencing God through Prayer”.
This is a very short little book that can edify your to pray by practicing various principles. Guyon tries to propel the individual forward to make Him more of a tangible reality. Guyon writes, “we are called to pray… prayer is nothing more than turning our hearts towards God and receiving His love in turn”. In a culture where there is a lot of emphasis on ‘making it happen’, Guyon actually shows that prayer is the ultimate act of abandonment. Prayer is truly relying on the initiative of Christ. She writes, “Our highest form of activity is to press on into a total dependence on the Spirit of God”… “Since the Holy Spirit is the express image of God the Father, it is necessary that He alone works in us. His image could not be formed in us by our own effort. This is why we must remain passive in the hands of the workman”.
She ends, “move only when Jesus moves”. What a special intention when we lean on God in prayer, we cannot think that prayer is deduced from our efforts, like salvation, we pray by grace. Guyon was incredibly persecuted for her ideas of ‘quietism’, but ultimately she tried to give God full reign. And from this we can only benefit in the matter of prayer.
Philip Yancey: “Prayer: Does it make any difference?”.
There have been few authors that could sum up central questions to the human condition like Philip Yancey. With great courage and sometimes an ample bewilderment he allows for us to flex our minds and ask if prayer really has an effect. He affirms “I have come to see prayer as a privilege, not a duty”. What a bold claim, sometimes we pray out of obligation, but obligation constructs no merit. he gives us the honest truth when he writes: “Prayer includes times of ecstasy and also dullness, mindless distraction and acute concentration, flashes of joy and bouts of irritation. In other words, prayer has features in common with all relationships that matter”.
Yancey crushes the romantic idea of prayer and show us that it is a discipline that is evident in the grid called life! Sometimes we pray as a form of distraction or even an escape, we willfully ask sometimes because we don’t want to face the consequences of our actions or restitute for the fallacies of our behavior. This is not the intention of prayer! Prayer always leads to taking responsibility, and that responsibility is fueled by our own responsiveness, a responsiveness to obey and petition the God of truth!
P.T. Forsyth: “The Soul of prayer”.
Forsyth became disillusioned with the liberalism of his age and as a theologian abandoned it for the lack of it dealing with the reality of sin. In his pursuit to write on prayer he writes with both a theological wit and a rugged heart. Forsyth points to the reality that prayer is not a wandering into an abstract reality. He writes: “Prayer is not mere wishing. It is asking–with a will. Our will goes into it. It is energy. Orare est laborare. We turn to an active Giver; therefore we go into action. For we could not pray without knowing and meeting Him in kind”. He also communicates to us that the chief end of prayer is our own transformation. He adds: “Prayer is turning our will on God either in the way of resignation or of impertration. We yield to His Will or He to ours. Hence religion is above all things prayer, according as it is a religion of will and conscience, as it is an ethical religion. It is will and Will. To be religious is to pray. Bad prayer is false religion. Not to pray is to be irreligious. “The battle for religion is the battle for prayer; the theory of religion is the philosophy of prayer.” In prayer we do not think out God; we draw Him out. Prayer is where our thought of God passes into action, and becomes more certain than thought. In all thought which is not mere dreaming or brooding there is an element of will, and in earnest (which is intelligent) prayer we give this element the upper hand. We do not simply spread our thought our before God, but we offer it to Him, turn it on Him, bring it to bear on Him, press it on Him”.
For Forsyth, the most natural experience of the Christian is to communicate with God. Even though we sometimes lack words to express our ideas about God, God draws us into a place where we can enjoy communion with the Father.
Anthony Bloom: “Beginning to Pray”.
Written by a great Orthodox theologian and a great thinker of the faith Bloom helps us gain perspective in the absence of God. Sometimes the presence of God is not seemingly apparent and evidential but in this it requires faith. He writes: “When God breaks through to us or when we break through to God… we have never before perceived.. in ourselves a depth where prayer abides and out of which it can gush forth, there is no problem of prayer. When we are aware of God, we stand before Him, worship Him, and speak to Him”. Bloom also describes the fact that God is not really distant and just because we fail to perceive that He is close “God is never really absent”.
In fact, the idea that we ever escape the proximity of God is an illusion that must be crushed. God as the greatest conceivable being is constantly conscious, thinking of us even when we loose our hair. we are the apple of His eye and our names engraved on His hands, to therefore think he does not hear us or lack the ability to feel what we are going through is simply false!
George Mueller: “Answers to prayer”.
Mueller was the founder of the ‘New Orphan house’ in Bristol and his testimony to answered prayer would edify even the strictest heart. Mueller described his predicament saying: “Sometimes I found children of God tried in mind by the prospect of old age, when they might be unable to work any longer, and therefore were harassed by the fear of having to go into the poorhouse. If in such a case I pointed out to them, how their Heavenly Father has always helped those who put their trust in Him, they might not, perhaps, always say, that times have changed; but yet it was evident enough, that God was not looked upon by them as the LIVING God. My spirit was ofttimes bowed down by this, and I longed to set something before the children of God, whereby they might see, that He does not forsake, even in our day, those who rely upon Him”. Mueller experienced an awakening and immediately thrust himself into the work of taking care of these orphans. He had to learn the hard way to trust God but says, “Nine-tenths of the difficulties are overcome when our hearts are ready to do the Lord’s will, whatever it may be.” The interesting point he makes is that God takes great joy to answer us differently to keep us close to Him, believing Him, watching Him, relying ONLY on Him! He wrote, “God is pleased continually to vary His mode of dealing with us, in order that we may not be tempted to trust in donors, or in circumstances, but in Him alone, and to keep our eye fixed upon Him.”
The greatest joy is the joy of answered prayer! He recalls numerous incidents where God just supernaturally provided an outcome. Even an incident where they had not a morsel to eat and as they sat to thank God for what He would provide someone brought food to the orphanages door as soon as they thanked God and said amen! What an incredible adventure in faith witnessing the faithfulness of God! Mueller testifies that “the joy which answers to prayer give, cannot be described; and the impetus which they afford to the spiritual life is exceedingly great.”
Eugene H. Peterson: “Answering God: The Psalms as tools for prayer”.
Eugene Peterson is well known for “the Message Paraphrase” that he wrote, but in all seriousness he is a well-established pastor and author that is seriously worth the read! Peterson writes that “At the center of the whole enterprise of being human, prayers are the primary technology. Prayers are tools that God uses to work His will in our bodies and souls. Prayers are tools that we use to collaborate in His work with us”. Our central vocation is therefore to pray! What qualifies us to pray? Peterson helps us: “Right words and correct forms are not prerequisite to a heavenly audience. God is not fastidious in these matters”. Interestingly, we place such a high demand on eloquence, and even though some people can paint with words, others just find it hard to do the same. The qualifying factor cannot therefore be eloquence. The qualifying factor is that “prayers give voice to aspiration towards the Highest”. Peterson then leads us to the Book of Psalms. here we find that “god’s word precedes these words: [of ours] these prayers don’t seek God, they respond to the God who seeks us…the Psalms are our answers…” From here Peterson takes us on a journey where we can take the Words of the Psalmist and direct these prayers back to the Our Father.
Even though these books are obviously based on my own personal preference I really hope that they will guide you to a place where you can find a deeper understanding of God and venture forth to communicate with Him in depth and fecundity.
Rudolph P. Boshoff.