My son Marty, always on the alert to keep his dad out of trouble, has remarked on the irony of my beginning this series on prayer with the assertion that “there are no experts on prayer.” If there are no experts, he asks, am I not presenting myself as one with all these articles laden with instructions on how to pray?
I thanked him for the observation, and have been considering it ever since. (What he calls irony, someone else could call hypocrisy.)
The main response that suggests itself to me is that a third-grader might have some points to share with others in his class, or in the younger rooms, but he always knows he is still the child with so much to learn.
In the middle of his wonderful book on this subject (“The Meaning of Prayer” is a genuine classic), Harry Emerson Fosdick takes up a similar consideration. (I suggest you not buy everything Fosdick peddled over his lengthy ministry; he was admittedly and proudly a theological liberal with all that implies, but he sure could teach most of us a great deal about real prayer. Being a conservative, I’m still wrestling with how to reconcile those two!)
“A critic with discriminating insight has objected to Voltaire’s writings on the ground that nothing could possibly be quite so clear as Voltaire makes it. A book on prayer readily runs into danger of the same criticism. For, like every other vital experience, prayer in practice meets obstacles that a theoretical discussion too easily glosses over and forgets.”
Fosdick goes on to add, “Even when prayer is defined as communion with God, and our thought of it is thereby freed from many embarrassments, as a kite escapes the trees and bushes when one flies it high, there remain practical difficulties which perplex many who sincerely try to pray.”
So, I say to myself and to our longsuffering readers, that once we fill this “features” box with perhaps fifty articles on the subject of prayer, there will still be so much more to be said on this subject. No one has yet written and this one certainly shall not be the definitive last word on prayer.
In Hebrews we are told that as a result of what Jesus did in opening the way for us into the Father’s holy presence, “we may come boldly to the throne of grace.” (Heb. 4:16) Modern translations prefer “with confidence” to “boldly,” for good reasons, I suppose. We cannot imagine the New Testament encouraging us to rush foolishly into the Divine Presence as a four-year-old barging into his father’s office. In “The Message,” Eugene Peterson puts it, “So let’s walk right up to Him and get what He’s ready to give.”
That’s good, and that’s the right idea. We’re not to cringe in the shadows, afraid to speak, fearful of being struck dead. Christ has opened the way, and we come in His merit, through His name, by God’s grace. “Not by works of righteous we have done, according to His mercy” (Titus 3:5).
On the other hand, when we seek to counsel God’s children on how to pray, we tread on thin ice. There are exceptions for almost every rule we may concoct. If we say, “Do not be long-winded,” we immediately remember Jesus’ praying all night on more than one occasion. If we say, “Get to the point and don’t beat around the bush,” we think of the Psalms, which in so many occasions are nothing in the world other than prayers filled with bush-beatings in which the author is thinking great thoughts of God and frequently asking Him for nothing.
How does that line go, “There are exceptions to every rule–including this one.”
Carl Hubbert pastors the First Baptist Church in suburban Harahan, Louisiana, and is presently working on his doctorate at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. In a class he’s taking on prayer, he is to read so many classics and interview several “experts” on prayer. Today, in a Monday afternoon gathering with several young pastors, he said to me, “Now what am I to do? You have just announced to the world that ‘there are no experts on prayer!'”
I laughed and slid across the table a note I had written to myself only this morning. Here it is, verbatim.
“I’ve changed my mind. There are some experts on prayer, but they don’t know who they are!”
“Because of the two greatest elements in effective prayer:
1) Faith. It’s about Him. Big God.
2) Humility. Little me.
“If I begin feeling I am an expert on anything in the Kingdom, it’s doubtless an indication that I’m getting these two reversed.”
In preparation for future articles, I’m re-reading some of the wonderful books about prayer I’ve accumulated over the years. That’s another reason I’m tempering my earlier statement that there are no experts on prayer. Sidlow Baxter, Huber Drumwright, and Harry Emerson Fosdick might not have considered themselves experts in this field, but let’s face it: we lesser mortals do.
From time to time, I plan to share some morsels from these and other authors with helpful contributions to the rest of us on the subject of effective praying.
And if you find places where I contradict something written earlier here on the subject of prayer, and if you are tempted to call my hand on it and that wonderful term “hypocrite” comes to mind, may I suggest you follow Marty’s example and call it by its more pleasing name: Irony.