November 2009 - Vol. 34

Our Neglect of Prayer

There is no progress in religion without prayer 
by W.E. Sangster

William Edwin Sangster, a great Methodist preacher and writer, lived between 1900-1960. During World War II, he served as senior minister at Westminster Central Hall in London, the "cathedral" of Methodism. In 1949 Sangster was elected president of the Methodist Conference of Great Britain.
Keeping to facts, not causes
I have often heard it said by thoughtful people that all the ills which beset the Church can be traced to our neglect of prayer. The statement is probably a little exaggerated, but contains enough truth to warrant careful scrutiny. Is it a fact that we are praying less than we did? 

Certainly prayer meetings are less common than they were in the spacious days of evangelical religion. It is as rare now, as once it was usual, for evening worship to be followed by a prayer meeting. Plenty of reasons could be given for the decay of the prayer meeting and not all of them bad ones but I am dealing now, not with causes, but with facts. The prayer meeting is by no means as common as once it was. 

Family prayer, so far as my observation goes, is less common, too. Here and there the sweet custom survives, but it has ceased to be the practice even in Christian homes. It may be the conviction that prayer is a very private thing, which has led to the decay of the custom, or the fear in the mind of a sensitive host that a guest in the home might be embarrassed if he were called to prayer. I do not know. But keeping again to the facts rather than the causes, it seems clear that family prayer is no longer a general practice, even among devout people. 

Is private prayer decaying? 
What of private prayer? Is that decaying too? Who can say? Being private, no one can know. Yet I believe (writing with a sense of responsibility and after much thought) that the same is true here also. The lack of keenness for prayer meetings and family prayer might seem to point that way, but it could not prove it. I am more impressed by the fact that after nearly thirty years of ministry, much of which has been given to personal interviews with people about the health of their soul, hundreds and hundreds have admitted to me that they had no disciplined prayer life worth the name: some even rationalized their neglect and argued that it did not matter, so long as they were good: many were still in the kindergarten of the school of prayer, and some consistently scamped all their intercourse with Heaven. 

There will, of course, be thousands of souls who are much drawn out in prayer and may even pattern themselves in this regard on the greatest figures of the past. (I know at least one devout and very busy man who gives three hours a day to intercession.) But, surveying the Church as a whole, and admitting the difficulty of reaching certainty in any judgement on this subject, I say in pain but in positiveness that our prayer life appears to be unworthy of our Christian profession, and might almost argue doubt in our mind of the real accessibility of God in Jesus Christ. 

No progress in religion without prayer
Now, this is very serious. There is no progress in religion without prayer. We can be sure of this both by the testimony of the saints and the experience of the Church. All those who have gone right on with God have gone right on by prayer. There are some things on which the saints do not agree. They agree on this. Prayer and more prayer! If you would be "thick with God," there is no other way than prayer. 

The experience of the Church confirms this. Periods of spiritual power in the Church have been preceded by, and sustained by, great prayer. There are many unsolved problems of prayer, but the greater need of those of us who profess to believe in it is more of the practice of prayer. No limit can be put to its power. While some of the problems still remain unsolved, prayer does things. We do not fully know how, but often God uses it to heal the body. Prayer cannot turn a moron into a genius, but it clears and sharpens the minds of millions of men and women. It is the only way to the sanctifying of the soul. 

I grow more and more sure of the supreme importance of prayer. I know as a minister that I have failed my people most, not in my preaching or pastoral work, but in my prayer. Yet anyone may enter this "Order." Man or woman: minister or layman: the sick and the well. 

Let us think together about prayer not the problems of it, but the practice of it. How would we answer people who approached us in the way the Apostles approached the Lord and said: "Teach us to pray"?

Sincerity is not enough
I am afraid I may have startled and even shocked some who are reading this by the statement I made that a busy friend of mine spends three hours a day in prayer. 

Let no one be intimidated by that. He is (as the Scots would say) "far ben," and would suffer the sharpest distress if any disclosure of his practice so overwhelmed a novice that the novice lost all heart to begin at all. Fifteen minutes in the morning and ten at night, consistently adhered to, would begin to make amazing differences in the life of any man or woman. 

Yet even that amount of time seems overlong to some people. Years ago, a student confessed to me his inability to pray beyond five minutes. It was his habit, it seemed, to pray only at night. He asked to be forgiven for anything he had done wrong, thanked God for his blessings, mentioned his mother and father and certain of his friends, and in five minutes there was not another relevant thought in his mind. How people could pray for hours was a mystery beyond his understanding. 

What is prayer?
Our thinking on prayer will always be small if we limit it largely to petition. 

I was in a women's meeting the other day. It was lovely to hear those good women warm the church and warm their own hearts by singing their choruses. They sang with special fervor one entitled: "A little talk with Jesus makes it right, all right."

Would that do as a definition of prayer? 

It would, in a way, and God forbid that I should seem so technical about prayer that I left folk supposing it was like a doctor's prescription, and would be wrong if even one element was omitted, but truth compels me to affirm that 'a little talk with Jesus' could be very self-centered, very narrow, and (among other omissions) leave no room for listening at all. 

Some folk speak as though the only thing required to make prayer holy is to be sure that it is sincere. 

But the test is not stern enough. We can be sincere and selfish. Think of the classic prayer found among the papers of John Ward, M.P., who, many many years ago, owned a part of Dagenham: 

O Lord, Thou knowest I have mine estates in the City of London, and likewise that I have lately purchased an estate in fee-simple in the County of Essex. I beseech Thee to preserve the two counties of Middlesex and Essex from fire and earthquake, and, as I have a mortgage in Hertfordshire, I beg of Thee likewise to have an eye of compassion on that county; for the rest of the counties, Thou mayest deal with them as Thou art pleased... 
It is impossible to doubt the sincerity of this prayer, yet it is anything but holy. Prayer, properly understood, is not just petition or a little talk with Jesus, or the outpouring of selfish sincerities: it has range, and richness, and sweep.... A child can use it, but the profoundest saint cannot bottom it. It is indeed, the highest activity of which mortals are capable. It is learning to know God at first hand. It is the sovereign way to holiness. It is the royal road to assurance. 

Parasitic faith or conquering power?
So much religion, alas! is second-hand. So many people live a parasitic life on the faith of others and believe in God only vaguely and because somebody else they admire holds the faith with firmness. Such a religion will not succor them when "waves and storms go o'er their head." 

What would it be worth to you in this atomic age to be utterly sure of God? 

What would it be worth to you when you are beaten by sin and "weary of passions unsubdued" to feel the conquering power of God mounting within your soul? 

Prayer is the way. All progress in religion centers in prayer.

[This article is excerpted from Teach Us to Pray by W.E. Sangster © 1954 Epworth Press. Used by permission of Methodist Publishing.].

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