Learning to Pray from Those Who Came before Us

Whenever I read of faithful saints from the past, from missionaries on the field to preachers in their study, the one common aspect of their lifestyles is this, they were committed to prayer.

My grandmother was a prayer warrior.  She had a china cabinet in her dining room, but it wasn’t there to display her dishware.  In fact, I can’t even remember if she had any dishes in the cabinet since it was instead covered by photographs. 

Sure, many of the pictures were of her children and grandchildren, siblings, and other loved ones.  But there were far more pictures on this cabinet that I didn’t recognize.  I would ask her each time I visited, “Nene, who is this?”  She’d look carefully and say, “I’m not sure, so and so brought it and we put it up.”  Why would she display pictures of those she doesn’t even know? 

This was her wall of prayer… any picture put on this cabinet would be prayed for at least twice a day: early in the morning when she arose, late at night when she settled for bed.  For her, prayer was a joy, refreshment, her favorite part of the day.

I love recounting this memory because it is so important, so humbling, so convicting.  Whenever I read of faithful saints from the past, from missionaries on the field to preachers in their study, the one common aspect of their lifestyles is this, they were committed to prayer.  This wasn’t about discipline or mere practice, it was about faith and trust in a God they walked with personally; it was about a love they had for their Lord, with whom they desired to commune daily.

Paul writes to the Thessalonians, pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  He tells the Ephesians that part of their defense against the enemy’s attacks is “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication (Ephesians 6:18).”  Jesus Himself often went off to be alone with the Father.

We know just how important prayer is, so why such difficulty?  Why is it that we are far more likely to seek out another human’s counsel before looking to the Lord in prayer?  Why can we fill Bible Study gatherings but can only get a few to join us at morning prayer?  Why is it easier for me to write about prayer than to run to it?

As I’ve considered this question, part of the answer, it seems, is in how we view prayer.  If we view it primarily as a discipline, we force ourselves to tend to it.  If we think of it as a duty, it becomes about us and what we are doing unto the Lord.  There is some reality to these perspectives, we are commanded to pray.  But this view can’t keep most of us coming back for more and it only presents a small part of our relationship to prayer.

When I read the description of prayer from James Owen, a 17th-century Presbyterian pastor in England, it struck me.  We must know the joy, the beauty, and the riches of prayer to be devoted to it.  We have to understand the privilege and advantage that is ours in that the Lord Jesus has given us access to the throne of God.  We should be enthralled by prayer. 

What Owen says about prayer is both beautiful and inspiring:

“Prayer is the wings of the soul upon which it mounts to the highest heavens, and the promises are the wings of prayer.  Prayer is the key that unlocks the treasures of God, the Christian’s chariot in which he rides upon the high places of the earth, a messenger, that dispatch’d into heaven never returns empty: Prayer opens the door of our hearts to God, and it opens the heart of God to us; the more in prayer, the more in heaven:  some think Paul was caught into the third heaven, when he was at prayer.”  Wow!

Owen gives us a picture of prayer that enraptures our hearts and gives us a sense of what God is providing in this kindness of His condescension.  He highlights the following:

  • Prayer is our access to the treasures of God
  • Prayer is our foretaste of the heavenly realm
  • Prayer is our communion with God Himself

Prayer was not simply a duty or obligation to this man, prayer was a life-giving honor and privilege, an opportunity to be lifted from this fallen world to the throne of grace by way of the shadow of the cross.  Prayer is God’s provision, His life-sustaining supply.  It is more about God, far less about us.

Like so many other faithful men and women, Owen understood what the sons of Korah meant when they wrote, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God (Ps. 84:1-2).”  Or elsewhere, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God (Ps. 42:1-2a).”

Prayer gives us God’s treasures as we surrender our own counterfeit riches.  Prayer gives us a taste of the heavens and then we lose our taste for the artificial, the temporary, the mundane.  Prayer allows us fellowship with God and then we know real life.

As Owen wrote, God’s promises are the wings of prayer.  When we seek Him, He promises that we will find Him.  When we hunger or thirst for Him, He is our provision

I want to learn from the generations of the past to pray.  They understood something we often miss.  Prayer is more about God’s grace than it is about my commitment, it is more about His kindness than my service.  I want to receive deeply of my God’s glorious abundance.  Lord, teach me to pray.

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