Prayer; Filling our souls with Heaven
by David MacIntyre, Puritan Pastor; author of The Hidden Life of Prayer
Prayer is the most sublime energy of which the spirit of man is capable.
It is in one aspect glory and blessedness; in another, it is toil and travail, battle and agony. Uplifted hands grow tremulous long before the field is won; straining sinews and panting breath proclaim the exhaustion of the ‘heavenly footman.’ The weight that falls upon an aching heart fills the brow with anguish, even when the midnight air is chill.
Prayer is the uplift of the earth-bound soul into the heaven, the entrance of the purified spirit into the holiest; the rending of the luminous veil that shuts in, as behind curtains, the glory of God. It is the vision of things unseen; the recognition of the mind of the Spirit; the effort to frame words which man may not utter.
A man that truly prays one prayer,’ says Bunyan, ‘shall after that never be able to express with his mouth or pen the unutterable desires, sense, affection, and longing that went to God in that prayer.’
The saints of the Jewish Church had a princely energy in intercession: ‘Battering the gates of heaven with storms of prayer,’ they took the kingdom of heaven by violence. The first Christians proved in the wilderness, in the dungeon, in the arena, and at the stake the truth of their Master’s words, ‘He shall have whatsoever he saith.’ Their souls ascended to God in supplication as the flame of the altar mounts heavenward. The Talmudists affirm that in the divine life four things call for fortitude; of these, prayer is one.
One who met Tersteegen at Kronenberg remarked, ‘It seemed to me as if he had gone straight into heaven, and had lost himself in God; but often when he had done praying he was as white as the wall.’
David Brainerd notes that on one occasion, when he found his soul ‘exceedingly enlarged’ in supplication, he was ‘in such anguish, and pleaded with so much earnestness and importunity,’ that when he rose from his knees he felt ‘extremely weak and overcome.’ ‘I could scarcely walk straight,’ he goes on to say, ‘my joints were loosed, the sweat ran down my face and body, and nature seemed as if it would dissolve.’ A living writer has reminded us of John Foster, who used to spend long nights in his chapel, absorbed in spiritual exercises, pacing to and fro in the disquietude of his spirit, until his restless feet had worn a little track in the aisle.
One might easily multiply examples, but there is no need to go beyond Scripture to find either precept or example to impress us with the arduousness of that prayer which prevails. Should not the supplication of the Psalmist, ‘Quicken Thou me, according to Thy word…quicken me in Thy righteousness…quicken me after Thy loving-kindness…quicken me according to Thy judgments…quicken me, O Lord, for Thy name’s sake;’ and the complaint of the Evangelical Prophet, ‘There is none that calleth upon Thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of Thee,’ find an echo in our experience?
Do we know what it is to ‘labour,’ to ‘wrestle,’ to ‘agonize’ in prayer?
Another explanation of the arduousness of prayer lies in the fact that we are spiritually hindered: there is ‘the noise of archers in the places of drawing water.’
St. Paul assures us that we shall have to maintain our prayer energy ‘against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.’ Dr. Andrew Bonar used to say that, as the King of Syria commanded his captains to fight neither with small nor great, but only with the King of Israel, so the prince of the power of the air seems to bend all the force of his attack against the spirit of prayer. If he should prove victorious there, he has won the day.
Sometimes we are conscious of a satanic impulse directed immediately against the life of prayer in our souls; sometimes we are led into ‘dry’ and wilderness-experiences, and the face of God grows dark above us; sometimes, when we strive most earnestly to bring every thought and imagination under obedience to Christ, we seem to be given over to disorder and unrest; sometimes the inbred slothfulness of our nature lends itself to the evil one as an instrument by which he may turn our minds back from the exercise of prayer.
Because of all these things, therefore, we must be diligent and resolved, watching as a sentry who remembers that the lives of men are lying at the hazard of his wakefulness, resourcefulness, and courage.
‘And what I say unto you,’ said the Lord to His disciples, ‘I say unto all, Watch! ‘
There are times when even the soldiers of Christ become heedless of their trust, and no longer guard with vigilance the gift of prayer. Should anyone who reads these pages be conscious of loss of power in intercession, lack of joy in communion, hardness and impenitence in confession, ‘Remember from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works.’
‘Oh, stars of heaven that fade and flame,
Oh, whispering waves below!
Was earth, or heaven. or I the same,
A year, a year ago!
‘The stars have kept their home on high,
The waves their wonted flow;
The love is lost that once was I,
A year, a year ago.’
The only remedy for this sluggish mood is that we should ‘rekindle our love,’ as Polycarp wrote to the Church in Ephesus, ‘in the blood of God.’ Let us ask for a fresh gift of the Holy Spirit to quicken our sluggish hearts, a new disclosure of the charity of God.
The Spirit will help our infirmities, and the very compassion of the Son of God will fall upon us, clothing us with zeal as with a garment, stirring our affections into a most vehement flame, and filling our souls with heaven.
‘Men ought always to pray, and ‘-although faintness of spirit attends on prayer like a shadow-‘not faint.’
The soil in which the prayer of faith takes root is a life of unbroken communion with God, a life in which the windows of the soul are always open towards the City of Rest. We do not know the true potency of prayer until our hearts are so steadfastly inclined to God that our thoughts turn to Him, as by a Divine instinct, whenever they are set free from the consideration of earthly things.
‘The vision of God,’ says Bishop Westcott, ‘makes life a continuous prayer.’ And in that vision, all fleeting things resolve themselves and appear in relation to things unseen.
In a broad use of the term, prayer is the sum of all the service that we render to God, so that all fulfillment of duty is, in one sense, the performance of Divine service, and the familiar saying, ‘Work is worship,’ is justified.
‘I am prayer,’ said a Psalmist (Psa. cix. 4). ‘In everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving,’ said an Apostle.
In the Old Testament that life which is steeped in prayer is often described as a walk with God. Enoch walked in assurance, Abraham in perfectness, Elijah in fidelity, the sons of Levi in peace and equity. Or it is spoken of as a dwelling with God, even as Joshua departed not from the Tabernacle; or as certain craftsmen of the olden time abode with a king for his work.
Again, it is defined as the ascent of the soul into the Sacred Presence; as the planets, ‘with open face beholding,’ climb into the light of the sun’s countenance, or as a flower, lit with beauty and dipped in fragrance, reaches upwards towards the light.
At other times, prayer is said to be the gathering up of all the faculties in an ardor of reverence, and love, and praise. As one clear strain may succeed in reducing to harmony a number of mutually-discordant voices, so the reigning impulses of the spiritual nature unite the heart to fear the name of the Lord.
Source: David MacIntyre, The Hidden Life of Prayer