Method in Prayer
An Exposition and Exhortation
W. Graham Scroggie
MY BELOVED FATHER AND MOTHER
—WHOSE KNEES WERE
MY FIRST “THRONE OF GRACE,”
FROM WHOSE LIPS
I FIRST HEARD THE “LIVING ORACLES,”
AND IN WHOSE LIFE I FIRST SAW THEM INCARNATE—
GRATEFULLY DEDICATE THIS VOLUME
AS AN EXPRESSION OF
MY ENDLESS DEBT
The subject of this book is of supreme importance. The treatment of the subject is worthy of the title. It is a practical illustration throughout of the value of Method, in “exposition and exhortation.”
The reader is led from one great prayer- topic to another, and from one aspect of that particular topic to another, by sure and measured steps of progress, singularly helpful alike to understanding and to memory— both of which mental actions are as much helped by true method as they are baffled by its absence. Dr. Scroggie’s mastery of method extends itself, even to his structure of sentence and phrase, including many (not too many) alliterations, often felicitous in their point.
And the soul of the book if I may put it so, is the true counterpart of its body. The writer is, beyond mistake, though no one could be more modestly reticent about his experience or attainment, a genuine expert in prayer. He writes as they only can write who really know the way into the Presence, in reverence and in faith, and who, once in it, know what it is to open the soul to its Lord in the precious exercises of adoration, confession, petition, intercession, and thanksgiving, with the purposeful “labour in prayer” which St. Paul loved to see in his dear Epaphras of old. The perusal of the book has been a means of help to my own soul, by way of much searching of heart, and much invaluable suggestion. I trust, and I expect, that it will prove likewise a gain, a guide, and a living stimulus to very many other readers.
May our Lord use it widely, to increase the volume of that mighty implement of power with God and with man, the Prayer of Faith.
In that little classic on Prayer, The Still Hour, by Dr. Austin Phelps, these words occur: “A consciousness of the absence of God is one of the standard incidents of religious life”; and they are comparatively few in number who will be prepared to challenge that solemn statement. If we who profess to belong to Christ were to make frank confession of our experience in the secret place, we might, perhaps, most fittingly do so in the words of Bishop Hall, “If God had not said, ‘Blessed are those that hunger,’ I know not what could keep weak Christians from sinking in despair. Many times, all I can do is to complain that I want Him, and wish to recover Him.” If this be true of a very large proportion of the people of God, and we fear it is, then, assuredly, we are face to face with the explanation of our flabby faith, and fruitless service. One of the greatest mistakes that a Christian can make, is to imagine that increased social or spiritual activity can be any compensation for the lack of secret communion with God.
A prayerful life is always a powerful life; and a prayerless life is always a powerless life.
If we cannot pray aright, we really can do nothing aright; but how slow we are to believe that. We find a spiritual law at work in the uniform experience that the more we pray, the more we need to, and want to; and the less we pray, the less is the desire to do so. The same thing is true of Bible study, and Christian service. There are very many quite conscious of all this, and desirous that this state of things shall give place to a life of peace, and joy and power in God and with men, but they know not how the change may be brought about.
Well, surely the first thing must be a confession of failure: “We know not what we should pray for,” neither how we should pray, “as we ought”; and then, with trustful heart we must make request of the Lord, as did the disciples of old, “Lord, teach us to pray.” In reply to such confession and request will come the answer, “After this manner therefore pray ye.”
It is about the manner or method of prayer that I wish to say a little, in the hope that that which has been of inestimable value in my own life, may prove to be a like blessing in the lives of some others. Of course, prayer is a thing of the spirit, and no method can be of any avail which does not fully recognize that fact. We must pray in the Holy Ghost, with all prayer in the Spirit, Who Himself maketh intercession for us. That is the mystical and fundamental fact, but in order to its becoming a happy and abiding experience with each of us, we must co-operate with the Divine Spirit in ways reasonable and essential. Two of the most important of these are: Time and Method.
Without time for prayer, nothing can be accomplished; and yet not unfrequently men excuse or explain their lack of prayerfulness by saying they have not time. There’s time for business, time for pleasure, time for social and Christian service, but no time for that exercise which would give to all these, and other things, power and effect.
Daniel prayed three times a day, and David, it would seem, seven times: and we cannot read the Gospels with any care and not be impressed with the fact that our Lord’s was a life of communion with the Father.
“Cold mountains and the midnight air
Witnessed the fervour of His prayer.”
The simple fact is, we must find time for prayer, or we shall perish: we must regard it to be as essential to our souls as is our daily dinner to our bodies. For every child of God some time each day must be reserved for private communion with Him; and we can better afford to drop anything in today’s programme than that. What time that should be, or how long, no one can judge for another, as circumstances so widely differ; but that there should be some such time is not a matter of opinion, but an unquestionable necessity. Robert Murray McCheyne has said: “I ought to spend the best hours of the day in communion with God. It is my noblest and most fruitful employment, and is not, therefore, to be thrust into any corner”; and we know from his biography, that it was his habit never to see the face of man until he had seen the face of God. To take time out of prayer to put into service is a bad investment; but on the contrary, if the most of us took a portion of our service-time, and put it into our prayer-time, we should find that the gain was enormous.
But what about those who do give time daily to prayer, and yet derive no appreciable benefit from it, and to whom it is no delight? Dr. Phelps described this experience in a graphic way when he said: “Are there not many ‘closet hours’ in which the chief feeling of the worshipper is an oppressed consciousness of the absence of reality from his own exercises? He has no words which are, as George Herbert says, ‘heart deep.’ He not only experiences no ecstasy, but no joy, no peace, no repose. He has no sense of being at home with; God. The stillness of the hour is the stillness of a dead calm at sea. The heart rocks monotonously on the surface of the great thought of God, of Christ, of Eternity, of Heaven—
“As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.”
That this is actually the experience of many cannot be questioned, neither can we doubt that large numbers of these deeply deplore the fact. But how may it be corrected? How may our quiet time become a supreme joy, to which, through all the hours of the day, we shall look back and forward? Surely this is God’s purpose for us, and surely it is worth any effort to attain.
Assuming the pre-requisites of time, and a heart and mind in adjustment with the will of God, the most important thing in the prayer-life is to have a right method; and we are convinced that it is for the lack of this, that so many fail, and become discouraged. Our conception of what prayer is, has been pitifully narrow. For the most part, it has been limited to asking things from God, and even within that limitation, the things asked have not been always the highest and best. What we need is a real vision of what prayer is, and such a vision will come to us only as we bring the Bible and our prayer-life into intimate relation. Too long have prayer and Bible study been divorced, and with sad results. What God has joined together, we should never have put asunder. His Word to us, and our word to Him are vitally related in His purpose, and must be vitally related in our practice. We are exhorted to “take the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit,” and again, we read of what is “sanctified by the Word of God and prayer.” In the Bible God speaks to us; and in prayer we speak to God: and although it is an instinct of the human soul, apart from revelation, to pray, how to pray can be learnt only from the inspired Word.
The outstanding need of the Church is twofold—a knowledge of God through His Word, and power with Him in prayer. Books simply abound on the subject of prayer, and yet how rare a thing is the effectual practice of it! And why? Are there not two errors of which the people of God stand in danger—the one, of knowing the Bible intellectually without being concerned to know it experimentally: and the other, of striving after the experimental in prayer either in ignorance or neglect of its mental aspect and requirements? These are opposite errors which should be avoided. One might have an excellent knowledge of the content of Holy Scripture, and at the same time be blind to its divine beauties, and ignorant of its divine power, because his knowledge is of the “letter,” and not of the “spirit.” In our study of Scripture something more than mental activity is needed, and that is, divine illumination. But when we come to the subject of prayer, this error is generally reversed; that is to say, we look to the Spirit of God for some illumination, some message or vision, apart from the Bible, while we tarry on our knees before Him, with the common result that our thoughts are scattered and slow, and our soul is in a state of perpetual unrest, so that, accomplishing nothing, we become weary, disappointed, and discouraged, and our prayer-life becomes forced and unnatural.
Is not this state of things to be accounted for in part by the fact that we neglect what may be called the mental means of prayer? Our whole being must enter into the “business” of prayer, and our being is not all “heart”; there are also “mind” and “will.” Bishop Hamilton, of Salisbury, used to say that “no man was likely to do much good at prayer who did not begin by looking upon it in the light of a work to be prepared for and persevered in with all the earnestness which we bring to bear upon subjects which are in our opinion, at once most interesting and most necessary.”
This must mean that our entire being is brought into action in the work of prayer; an action which shall far remove us from that sleepy and often sentimental reverie which we are wont to regard as of the nature of true devotion.
The Mind must be at work,
“I will pray with the understanding.”
The Heart must be at work,
“My heart panteth after Thee, O God!”
And the Will must be at work,
“I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless me.”
And this will be very much the order of action, so far as we may distinguish order in the workings of our souls.
Plainly, then, we must have a mental basis for prayer; upon that the heart’s longings will rest, and these the will must keep together and urge until they are satisfied. I fear that it is precisely for lack of such a mental basis that prayer has become to thousands quite a weariness, and an utter failure. But all that may be changed.
We turn, therefore, to the Bible to learn what prayer is, and, also, to make it the medium of our thought and utterance. This latter point is most important, and determines the order of our devotions—not prayer and then the Word, but the Word and then prayer; the former being the medium through which the latter is conceived and expressed. The importance of this is witnessed to by one who knew more about prayer as a practical power than most Christians can claim to know. George Muller of Bristol, has written thus on the subject—
“It has pleased the Lord to teach me a truth, the benefit of which I have not lost for more than fourteen years. The point is this: I saw more clearly than ever that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not how much I might serve the Lord, or how I might glorify the Lord; but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished. For I might seek to set the truth before the unconverted, I might seek to benefit believers, I might seek to relieve the distressed, I might in other ways seek to behave myself as it becomes a child of God in this world; and yet, not being happy in the Lord, and not being nourished and strengthened in my inner man day by day, all this might not be attended to in a right spirit. Before this time my practice had been, at least for ten years previously, as an habitual thing, to give myself to prayer after having dressed myself in the morning. Now, I saw that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the Word of God, and to meditation on it, that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed; and that thus, by means of the Word of God, whilst meditating on it, my heart might be brought into experimental communion with the Lord.
“I began therefore to meditate on the New Testament, from the beginning, early in the morning. The first thing I did, after having asked in a few words the Lord’s blessing upon His precious Word, was to begin to meditate on the Word of God, searching as it were into every verse to get blessing out of it; not for the sake of the public ministry of the Word, not for the sake of preaching on what I had meditated upon, but for the sake of obtaining food for my own soul. The result I have found to be almost invariably this, that after a very few minutes my soul has been led to confession, or to thanksgiving, or to intercession, or to supplication; so that, though I did not, as it were, give myself to prayer, but to meditation, yet it turned almost immediately more or less into prayer. When thus I have been for a while making confession or intercession or supplication, or have given thanks, I go on to the next words or verse, turning all, as I go on, into prayer for myself or others, as the Word may lead to it, but still continually keeping before me that food for my own soul is the object of my meditation. The result of this is, that there is always a good deal of confession, thanksgiving, supplication, or intercession mingled with my meditation, and that my inner man almost invariably is even sensibly nourished and strengthened, and that by breakfast time, with rare exceptions, I am in a peaceful if not happy state of heart. Thus also the Lord is pleased to communicate unto me that which, either very soon after or at a later time, I have found to become food for other believers, though it was not for the sake of the public ministry of the Word that I gave myself to meditation, but for the profit of my own inner man.
“The difference, then, between my former practice and my present one is this: Formerly, when I rose, I began to pray as soon as possible, and generally spent all my time till breakfast in prayer, or almost all the time. At all events I almost invariably began with prayer, except when I felt my soul to be more than usually barren, in which case I read the Word of God for food, or for refreshment, or for a revival and renewal of my inner man, before I gave myself to prayer. But what was the result? I often spent a quarter of an hour, or half an hour, or even an hour, on my knees, before being conscious to myself of having derived comfort, encouragement, and humbling of soul; and often, after having suffered much from wandering of mind for the first ten minutes, or a quarter of an hour, or even half an hour, I only then began really to pray. I scarcely ever suffer now in this way. For my heart being nourished by the truth, being brought into experimental fellowship with God, I speak to my Father and to my Friend (vile though I am, and unworthy of it) about the things that He has brought before me in His precious Word. It often now astonishes me that I did not sooner see this point. In no book did I ever read about it. No public ministry ever brought the matter before me; no private intercourse with a brother stirred me up to this matter.”
To go back to the early years of the eighteenth century, we get this word to the same effect from William Law: “When at any time, either reading the Scriptures or any book of Piety, you meet with a passage that more than ordinarily affects your mind, and seems as it were to give your heart a new motion toward God, you should try to turn it into the form of a petition, and then give if a place in your prayers. By this means you would often improve your prayers, and store yourself with proper forms of making the desires of your heart known unto God.” And again, returning in another place to the same subject, Law says: “If they were to collect the devotions, confessions, petitions, praises, resignations, and thanksgivings, which are scattered up and down the Psalms, and range them under proper heads, as so much proper fuel for the flame of their own devotions: if their minds were often thus employed, sometimes meditating upon them, sometimes getting them by heart, and making them habitual as their own thoughts, how frequently would they pray who came thus prepared to pray.”
But the great classic in illustration of this method is the Private Devotions of Lancelot Andrewes, who died in 1626. These Devotions, embracing all the elements which unite in prayer, considered in its widest aspect, “are filled with all the best passages in the Psalms, in the Prophets, in the Gospels, and in the Epistles, as also in the sermons and litanies and liturgies of the Fathers and the Saints.” No work of its kind in the whole range of literature is so perfect an example of what is meant by praying through the Scriptures, and a copy of it should be in every Christian home.
Were attention given to this matter the experiences in prayer of thousands of God’s children would be transfigured.
What, then, may we say, are those parts, revealed in the Word of God, which go to make the complete idea of prayer? And how may we use the Word in the exercise of those various parts? The answers to these two questions should lead us to a true conception of prayer, and put us in the way of a sound method for the effectual employment of it. Let us, then, attempt to answer these questions.
The complete idea of prayer must always include—
- Adoration, the worship of God:
- Confession, the acknowledgment of sin:
- Petition, faith’s claim for personal need:
- Intercession, the soul’s ministry at the throne of grace on behalf of others:
- Thanksgiving, the heart’s expression of joy in God.
These ideas are closely related, and yet they must be separately apprehended, and, in some sense, separately put into operation. It will not be possible, of course, rigidly to sever them in the practice of prayer, and yet the distinctions must not be lost sight of. How best these various parts may be balanced in the exercise of prayer, must be discovered by each individual; but, unless one can remain a considerable time in the “secret place,” and thus have opportunity to traverse the entire field of devotion, it is well, on the whole, to make one or other of these parts prominent each time one goes aside to meet with God. As a suggestion only, for no hard and fast rule can be made, I would say: Let Worship be prominent in the morning, Intercession at mid-day, and Thanksgiving at night; and each time, let the other two circle around these. Such a method would give definiteness and directness to prayer, and, where one was fully surrendered to God, would prove an unfailing source of joy and of power.
Let us now examine these five great parts of Prayer, and see, also, how we may use the Scriptures in the exercise of them.