Today I want to examine what I think is a tragically neglected topic in the Christian life: prayer. I think most Christians realize the amazing privilege we have as believers to be invited to pray to our heavenly Father, and the incredible power available to us in prayer. As James tells us, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16b, ESV).
Yet too often we settle for a lot less than is possible in our prayer lives. Maybe it’s partly because we’re affluent when compared with the rest of the world and don’t really understand how to rely upon God. We think we can handle it—whatever “it” happens to be—pretty much by ourselves. Perhaps it’s because we’re thoroughly modern in our worldview and don’t really expect God to work outside of the mechanistic process of cause and effect that we see every day.
Often when I pray and don’t get what I desire, I’ll simply shrug my shoulders, say something about my request probably not being God’s will, and quickly move on, wanting to protect God’s honor, secretly wondering why He let me down. Yet perhaps the problem lies not in God but in me—or in my understanding of the purpose of prayer.
God wants us to pray to Him, and He has given us some clear guidance in the Bible about the kinds of prayers—and the kinds of people—He honors and answers. Although prayer is not a meritorious work in God’s eyes—the fact that we can pray to our Creator at all is pure grace—the Lord is not indifferent to how and why we pray. He has laid down some qualifications in His Word if we want to see our prayers answered, and if we want to grow in our dependence on Him and see Him glorified in our prayers.
That’s why I’d like to alert you to a challenging little book that is causing me to think more deeply about my own prayer life. The book is not on any bestseller lists. It boasts no fancy marketing campaign. The cover art for my copy is anodyne at best. This slim volume was first published more than 100 years ago, and it has the straightforward title “How to Pray.” There is no subtitle designed to draw you in. Everything about the book is no-nonsense—like its author.
Reuben Archer Torrey, the superintendent of what became Moody Bible Institute and pastor of Chicago Avenue Church (later, Moody Church), wrote the book at the dawn of the 20th century, when American industrial might was just coming into its own. It was a time of growing prosperity and change. Traditional understandings of the Bible were coming under attack from the Higher Criticism. Optimism about human potential, untainted as yet by two devastating world wars, was growing.
Despite the impressive evangelistic and social reform work of men such as D. L. Moody and Torrey, worldliness among God’s people was rampant. Torrey, who could be severe and uncompromising, wrote “How to Pray” in part to encourage what he called a “general revival” in America. Torrey was unsparing in his judgment on the state of the church, its ministers, and the larger society, and he stood his ground when some tried to paint him as a pessimist.
“If facing the facts is to be called a pessimist,” he wrote, “I am willing to be called a pessimist. If in order to be an optimist one must shut his eyes and call black white, and error truth, and sin righteousness, and death life, I don’t want to be called an optimist. But I am an optimist all the same. Pointing out the real condition will lead to a better condition.”
What would Torrey, a leader in the early fundamentalist movement, say about the America of 2017? I can only guess. One thing I do know—this eventual dean of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles would take his stand on the Bible, and he would urge you and me to do the same. And he would tell us to take God at His word, get on our knees—and pray.
Torrey’s first instinct when his prayer was not answered was not to take it as settled but to take stock. He ever sought to ensure that his prayers were aligned with God’s will as stated in Scripture. Torrey could not comprehend a vibrant Christian life without this kind of definite, expectant prayer. “Prayer is God’s appointed way for obtaining things,” he said, “and the great secret of our lack is neglect of prayer.”
Torrey’s book lays out some guidelines to help us obtain God’s promises through prayer. Here is an outline, with key verses and comments from Torrey.
Praying unto God
“So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.” —Acts 12:5
“Before a word of petition is offered, we should have the definite and vivid consciousness that we are talking to God, and should believe that He is listening to our petition and is going to grant the thing that we ask of him.”
Obeying and Praying
“And whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” —1 John 3:22
“The one who expects God to do as he asks Him, must on his part do whatever God bids him.”
Praying in the Name of Christ and according to the Will of God
“Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” —John 14:13-14
“To pray then in the name of Christ is to pray on the ground, not of my credit, but His; to renounce the thought that I have any claims on God whatever, and approach Him on the ground of God’s claims.”
Praying in the Spirit
“. . . Building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit.” —Jude 20
“True prayer is prayer in the Spirit; that is, the prayer the Spirit inspires and directs.”
Always Praying and Not Fainting
“And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” —Luke 18:1
“We should be careful about what we ask from God, but when we do begin to pray for a thing we should never give up praying for it until we get it, or until God makes it very clear and very definite to us that it is not His will to give it.”
Abiding in Christ
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” —John 15:7
“Now for us to abide in Christ is for us to bear the same relation to Him that the . . . branches bear to the vine; that is to say, to abide in Christ is to renounce any independent life of our own, to give up trying to think our thoughts, or form our resolutions, or cultivate our feelings, and simply and constantly look to Christ to think His thoughts in us, to feel His affections and emotions in us.”
Praying with Thanksgiving
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” —Phil. 4:6-7
“In approaching God to ask for new blessings, we should never forget to return thanks for blessings already granted.”
Along the way, Torrey commends for our examination and emulation the prayer life of Jesus Christ during His earthly ministry, discusses common hindrances to prayer and ways to address them, and encourages Christians to pray for a “general revival.” It is a short book, but it is packed with content.
Perhaps because he was a man of his age, Torrey doesn’t discuss godly figures—including Jesus and Paul—who agonized in prayer in all faith but did not get their first requests. While honest doubt may not be a Christian virtue, it need not be a sin—and it is definitely part of the normal Christian life, for some more than others.
Yet Torrey reminds us from over a century ago—a blink in church history, after all—that when it comes to prayer, our default setting should be not doubt, but faith.
Stan Guthrie, a licensed minister, is Editor at Large for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and for Christianity Today. Stan blogs at www.stanguthrie.com. His latest book is “God’s Story in 66 Verses: Understand the Entire Bible by Focusing on Just One Verse in Each Book.”