Table of Contents
Part VII: One Man's Answers
Some Practical Questions
requires considerable energy and since habit is an economy
of energy, it is helpful to establish some habits in this regard.
There are things that one can do to energize one's prayer life
as there are things one can do to condition one's muscles or
discipline one's brain. Setting a time, choosing a format, adopting
an orderly sequence with an established list of requests, and
fixing on a "place" � all these may help one to
overcome the daily distractions and temptations to postpone.
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One can learn best how to pray
by doing it, not merely by reading about it, though learning
of the experience of others can be helpful at times. But I remember
reading in S. D. Gordon's Quiet Talks on Prayer that more
books were being written on prayer than on any other aspect of
the Christian life and yet few people really engage themselves
in it. I don't know whether that is still true. But not too many
people have discovered how many occasions there really are when
praying is not merely all one can do but is the very best
thing one can do. When you are waiting for someone, think
of the ministers you know who need the Lord's blessing; or when
you can't sleep, have a list handy of your friends and their
needs, and work through the list as you lie in bed or sit in
the dark. You would be surprised how it opens up a whole new
world � and how time flies! And only eternity will show the
results. One can go for a walk alone (or even with someone else)
and can pray as one walks, instead of being occupied in idle
conversation. And I mean people can pray aloud together. I know
people who normally always pray standing with their eyes open.
And why not!
is no need to suppose that prayer should never be "planned"
but always entirely spontaneous and unprepared. Yet most of us
are inherently lazy � or to speak euphemistically, low in
energy � and it is worthwhile therefore to work out a schedule:
missionaries on Monday, ministers on Saturday, Christian schools
some other day, one's own relatives some other day, and so on.
We really should obey the injunction to "Let everything
be done decently and in order" � not necessarily being
regimented, but not being haphazard and casual either. Without
some kind of plan, prayer life becomes anemic like muscle undisciplined
in its use. And we have a better chance of getting our sights
above and beyond our own little problems if we take the trouble
to look around us at the needs of others.
There are times when prayer is
not the best thing, either because the situation demands
action rather than request, or because the objective is
clearly not according to the mind of God. To pray for vengeance
is surely wrong. So is praying for a miracle when one has it
in one's power to do something oneself. There is a time for action,
and when that time comes it does no good to say, "We must
pray about it." In Exodus 14:15 we have a good example of
this kind of thing: "Wherefore criest thou unto Me? Speak
unto the children of Israel that they go forward." There
are times when praying about a matter is merely a timid alternative
to unjustifiable inaction. Sometimes inaction is caused by belief
that we must do something but don't know exactly what it is:
and so we ask for a sign. Is this acceptable with the Lord, or
should we step out in faith and trust Him to slam the door if
we are going the wrong way? What about asking for signs?
There are several views about asking
for signs. It is a biblical procedure, of course, for Gideon
did it and God was very patient with him about his hesitations.
But many people feel that in Gideon's case it was an accommodation
to immaturity. It is all right for the young Christian, it is
said, but out of place for the man of faith. Perhaps. . . .
I early came to certain agreements
with the Lord in regard to asking for signs and still find it
necessary, now and then, to covenant with Him in this way. I
believe we may find, individually, some particular sign which
the Lord will graciously agree to but which may not be appropriate
for others. My own personal arrangement arose without any special
design and has limitations; but the Lord is pleased to meet my
need for guidance through it, though only when I make it a matter
of deliberate prayer since, by its very nature, it could be misleading.
some situation arises where I am not certain whether I should
go ahead and make contact with or come to some agreement with
or seek help or advice from a particular individual, in a way
which can naturally be done by telephone, I first of all ask
the Lord to give me a busy signal or no answer at all if I am
not to follow through. Then I give the Lord time to arrange for
the phone to be "busied". I make my call, and if there
is no answer or there is a busy signal, I try again. If contact
is still not made, I try once more. If for these three calls
I get either a busy signal or no response, I have learned to
accept this as the Lord's way of saying, "This is not the
way to go."
Of course, all kinds of questions
can be raised: What if the party later calls you about it, even
though you were unable to contact them? My answer is that I would
then normally proceed, trusting that some circumstance has changed
and that what was improper before is now approved of God. The
really important point is, to my mind, that God will agree
to some such personal arrangement if we are serious, knowing
as He does how difficult it is for us to sort out our own motives.
If, in self-will, we abandon the agreement upon occasion because
the circumstances did not work out as we wanted them to, then
I am certain that God will not speak to us or continue to direct
our actions through our personal cue. In short, we have to play
the game. We cannot use the arrangement when things turn out
as we want and ignore it under other circumstances.
I have frequently had three busy
signals when I certainly did not expect or want to have them,
and I have then assumed I should not phone again until the situation
has changed in some significant way. Conversely, I have sometimes
had three busy signals and was very thankful at the time that
I did not have to proceed. Needless to say, one must be fair
and not phone three times within as many minutes. And though
one never knows in some cases what might otherwise have transpired,
it is better to keep one's part of the bargain � even when
reason suggests an explanation for the busy signals which might
be some justification for phoning once more. I should say also
that I don't use this agreement with the Lord frequently. But
it is there, and I am convinced that the Lord accepts it.
Now, this particular "fleece"
may have no relevance to anyone else. But I believe that any
covenanted sign at all is acceptable to God if we will only abide
by it without fail or if we confess the sinfulness of failure
when we do. Dreams will serve quite as well if God once
finds that we will listen and act upon
them. I know that God
gave dreams to pagan kings as a means of communication when He
knew the dreamer would take his dream seriously (Genesis 20:1-18).
The basic principle is always the same: as soon as the Lord finds
that you will act upon what you believe to be a private communication
from Himself to you, He will thereafter use that private channel
until you begin to break your side of the bargain.
People feel that such means are
wrong because we ought to be able to be guided without "crutches"
of any kind. But I think sometimes that such people who speak
in this way are a little afraid that through some unequivocal
sign God might make some demand on them and they would simply
have to act! This has been true in my own life. I have refrained
from asking for a clear sign for fear it should be given, because
I did not want to be forced to decide. In a sense, I had therefore
So, in my judgment, while it is
an admission of weakness and perhaps immaturity to ask the Lord
for a sign as Gideon did, it is an acceptable way with God, who
will respond as long as we obey the sign He gives whichever way
it goes. If the sign is given to go ahead, then one should go
ahead boldly. After all, the Lord is more concerned than we are
that we fulfill His will. He will rule the circumstances or overrule
them to His own glory and our joy.
I suppose guidance for future action
looms very large indeed in all our prayers, especially when we
are young. Now and then I have asked the Lord for a verse to
guide me. I don't do it often � twice, in fact, in forty
years. But I've done it when I was very low or very bewildered.
Let me tell you about these two cases, for they have long since
been proven in the course of my life.
When the Great Depression was about
at its worst, it seemed to me at one point that I could not hope
to survive decently in Canada, having none of my relatives here
from whom to gain encouragement and support (they were all in
England, my native land) and having no professional nor technical
qualifications at the time. It seemed to me that I ought seriously
to consider returning to the Old Country, where I was sure that
family connections would guarantee me some employment. But my
family in Canada would naturally be involved with me, and I had
already been over here for six or seven years and largely lost
contact with old friends overseas. Altogether it seemed a gamble,
as well as involving an outlay of money for fares which I did
not have and would be forced to borrow. I was most unhappy and
prayed a great deal about
the situation without any real assurance in any direction. Finally,
almost in despair, I went down on my knees and opened my Bible
at random, and the verse which seemed to spring out of the page
before my eyes was Isaiah 37:3: "Trust in the Lord and do
good; so shalt thou dwell in the land and verily thou shalt be
The words were almost spoken to
me and not merely read from the page, and I rose from my knees
with a marvelous sense of assurance. The promise has been fulfilled
most abundantly. When I still dream at times, thirty-five years
later, of going back to England to live � now that I am retired
� this verse comes back to me with a kind of gentle insistence
and says, "No, stay in the land." And I believe this
is really what I must do.
The second instance was some twenty-five
years later. We had begun the rather large task of producing
the Doorway Papers. It has been a giant undertaking
for us � some 21/2 million words � and there have been
not a few very low periods when it hardly seemed worth carrying
on. For weeks on end no orders came in. Some months our total
sales might be five dollars or ten dollars and no more. And all
the while we watched others having their efforts to publish rewarded
in all kinds of ways with large circulation and reviews in all
the important places: or so it seemed to us. We were simply being
ignored, save for the occasional letter of commendation which
encouraged us immeasurably.
But this was a particularly low
low! We scarcely felt it worth looking into the mailbox at
all. In fact, we actually didn't, at times. One night, quite
late, I lay on my bed wondering and complaining to the Lord about
it all. As I lay there I reached out to a bookshelf for that
wonderful little collection of verses called Daily Light,
which at that time I was not reading faithfully as I do now.
I opened it quite at random, and my eye was captured by a portion
of God's Word which had been chosen as a heading for a morning
reading. This is what it said: "Take this child and nurse
it for Me and I will give thee thy wages" (Exodus 2:9).
It seemed an extraordinary verse
to apply in such a situation! Yet it came to me so very personally
and with wonderful freshness The Doorway Papers were indeed
my "child" by now, and it seemed to assure me that
if I nourished them and brought them up for Him, He would give
me my wages. I was not to faint. I went to sleep with a sense
of peace about it all. We would press on . . . and we have done
so. Only one paper remains to be written when the present one
on this occasion, in the cold light of morning I found my spirits
again depressed. I wondered whether such an interpretation of
a passage like this could possibly be justified � or whether
perhaps I was simply boosting my own morale by a somewhat wild
interpretation. So I wrote to a very dear friend of mine whom
I had known almost since I came to Canada, a very wise and experienced
man of God. I asked him whether he thought I was kidding myself,
imagining things, distorting the plain sense of a verse which
had a very pragmatic context. He wrote back at once, very simply:
"The Word of God is not bound." How wonderful it is!
Praise God! It is true.
So I believe the Lord does accommodate
Himself to our needs even when we are acting in a less than mature
way. If prayer goes unanswered or if prayer seems to go
unanswered � which is much more likely � it is not because
the Lord is chiding us for a childlike faith: there is usually
some other reason. And this brings me to a second question, Why
is prayer sometimes unanswered?
I believe this
is the way we usually ask ourselves this question, yet I doubt
really if it is ever true, except that prayer may sometimes be
unheard (Isaiah 59:2) and therefore answered by silence. But
though this surely does happen, I think it is a comparatively
rare thing, since the very act of prayer clearly indicates some
real need for God's help and in itself is a token of godly desire.
We do find sometimes, however,
that the heavens are as brass and our requests seem to be denied
or at least interminably delayed. Some of mine have been and
still are, even in matters which seem to me so obviously important
to the Lord and do not appear to be based on any self-seeking.
But No is an answer: and so is Wait. Sometimes
we have not obeyed in some prior step which must first be taken
in faith, and sometimes we are not really serious. And then again,
we may pray to our own hurt and contrary to the Lord's will.
To "wait patiently" is
very difficult for me! Because of the need for discipline here,
the Lord sometimes practices what I would like to call �
not irreverently � "divine brinksmanship". I think
the Lord delights to do things at the last minute, as though
to save us out of rather then from a predicament.
I don't know why, except perhaps that it strengthens or is intended
to strengthen our faith.
I had the privilege of giving a
series of twenty-five lectures on "The Christian Faith"
to a large denominationally mixed audience in a church in Brockville,
Ontario. As we prepared for it, the minister
of the church � whose
idea it really was � was rather anxious that the lectures
be given in the sanctuary rather than in the church hall; I think
his feeling was that a certain atmosphere of devotion and worship
would be maintained which would not be felt in the hall. Personally
I was not altogether of the same mind in this, though in all
else we were entirely agreed. But since it was he who had the
vision to see the possibility of such a series and the courage
to initiate it, I was convinced of the need to accept his position.
I still felt uncomfortable about
it. I felt I could never lecture with the same freedom, that
blackboard facilities would create problems, that the distance
between the pulpit and the pews would reduce the sense of contact
with the audience which was important to me, that freedom of
discussion would be inhibited, and that we might end up with
a tiny group of people lost in a large church. My faith was too
small to visualize such a church filled, and I foresaw the tiny
flock of "backbenchers" and the great void between
us! It really troubled me. Naturally I prayed about it as I prepared
myself and finally was resigned to this arrangement, for it did
not seem that the Lord was going to act to change the situation.
But at the very last moment, the
Lord did intervene and graciously removed the lectures from the
sanctuary to the hall. The circumstances transpired on the day
when the lectures were to begin. We still don't know exactly
what happened, but here is the way the Lord worked.
Tuesday of the first lecture was quite cool, and the minister
went into the church early in the forenoon to check the temperature.
To his surprise, the heating system was not operating. He and
his assistant and the caretaker all tried to find out why heat
was going into the hall but not into the sanctuary, and it was
soon apparent that the sanctuary blower system was not functioning.
Every effort to get it going proved ineffective, and finally
a heating man was called in. Though he, too, worked much of the
afternoon, he had no success in finding out what was wrong. Indeed,
there seemed to be nothing wrong with it whatever.
The minister called
me on the phone and we settled for the Sunday school hall. I
was honestly very thankful to the Lord, but it troubled
me that there should be this heating problem, since this could
indicate a need for major renovation of some kind. Anyway, that
evening we had our first lecture and were greatly encouraged
by the turnout and the interest shown.
morning, the minister's assistant phoned me and said: "Do
you know what, Art? The heating system is okay: nothing the matter
with it! Just the main switch to the sanctuary blowers had been
turned off. . ."
after I had recorded this incident, I checked with the minister's
assistant to learn whether it was ever found out how the switch
had been turned off. He said: "To this day we never found
out, nor can we figure out now why not one of us checked it at
the time � except we had no reason to suspect it."
If only we could
trust the Lord for all those things which concern us personally,
how much more energy we would have to share the burdens of others
who ask us to pray for them. Only, perhaps if we didn't worry
a little bit about our own troubles, we would not experience
the wonderful sense of relief and thankfulness that comes to
us when the Lord steps in.
There are just
three little matters in connection with prayer that I want to
comment on briefly. The first is when to pray and when not to
pray; the second is where to pray; and the third is what form
to use in public prayer.
first, the When.
It is all too
easy to be trapped in a habit that begins as an appropriate exercise
but can all too quickly degenerate into a chore. It seems to
be a normal practice for almost everyone who lectures or gives
any kind of address to "open with a word of prayer."
I am persuaded that sometimes this is a mere formality and a
source of some embarrassment to non-Christians in the audience.
If one has thoroughly prepared oneself, such preparation must
necessarily be prayerfully undertaken and there shouldn't really
be any need on the speaker's part to again publicly ask the Lord
to bless. We seem to have accepted an "opening prayer"
in the same kind of way we accept the "chairman's remarks."
There will be justification under certain conditions, but I think
we often open with prayer merely out of habit and because we
have not thought out a sometimes more appropriate way to begin
There are times
when public prayer is indeed proper, and I think such prayer
requires as much prayerful preparation as the giving of
any address. But, alas, all too often we don't prepare, we don't
adequately prepare either ourselves or our words. I don't think
it is enough to assure ourselves that the
Holy Spirit will tell
us what to say when the time comes unless we are going
into a situation for which we cannot, in the nature of the case,
prepare our words adequately. In such a case I still believe
that we must prepare ourselves, even though we cannot
prepare our words.
I am trying to
underscore the fact that prayer needs preparation just as much
as preaching. I think, too, that it is a mistake to be too personal
when leading in public prayer involving people who are strangers
to oneself and probably strangers to the Lord also. I know a
minister, whom I admire greatly, who is cautious about praying
with people, even in a hospital situation, unless he is quite
sure that the context of the visit makes it an appropriate exercise.
The principle is that prayer which is an embarrassment to others
is not likely to be helpful to them, even though we may feel
we are fulfilling a role expected of us.
us to the question of Where to pray.
now of private prayer, not public prayer. There is no question
that we may turn to the Lord at any time and in any place: but
I think it is still true that there are some places where we
can collect our thoughts more readily, where just the fact of
being in that place predisposes our hearts toward a prayerful
spirit. Many people find they pray more easily kneeling down,
but not everyone, by any means. I know people who have one chair
where they sit down to pray and find it more difficult to pray
with equal concentration in any other part of the house. No doubt
one could discipline oneself to pray anywhere at all, but we
seem to be so constituted that the environment has an influence
on us in this matter. This being the case, it seems to me sensible
to form habits that are conducive and not place an unnecessary
challenge to our spirit by expending energy in overcoming hindrances
on the assumption that all spiritual exercises ought to
On the other hand, we may place
ourselves in a situation which proves so restful that we find
ourselves falling asleep in prayer. If this doesn't happen too
frequently, I doubt whether it matters very much. To adopt a
policy of accepting discomfort as a means of self-discipline
may be heroic, but one can end up being more conscious of the
aching joints than of the presence of the Lord. One answer to
restlessness which I have found helpful is to walk around while
praying. In the country in daytime or indoors at night, it is
surprisingly easy to speak to the Lord while thus exercising.
a word about the Form of public prayer.
Many earnest Christians
find it difficult to accept the idea of written prayers, chiefly
on the grounds that they become repetitive and meaningless. The
danger is there, undoubtedly. Yet observation shows that if a
single individual leads in public prayer very frequently, his
prayers will not only tend to be remarkably repetitive in form
but equally repetitive in content. One of the great advantages
of a liturgical form of service (the Anglican service is such)
is that a minister is in a position to lead the congregation
in a prayer which is not only good English but far more comprehensive
in subject matter. And surely, in speaking with the Lord, one's
language ought not to be sloppy.
which are entirely extemporaneous are apt to reflect the fluctuations
in the spiritual life of the one who leads, and those who are
led are thereby affected for good or ill as the situation changes
in a way that is less likely to occur when prayers are written
down beforehand. Some people find it difficult to make this kind
of preparation and equally difficult to reproduce their own text
with sincerity. Perhaps practice is needed.
However, I'm sure
there is no bondage to be imposed here. Some will find themselves
bound and some will find themselves freed by the use of written
prayers; it is worth a try, though it requires a surprising amount
of extra effort to do it successfully.
May I summarize
something of what I have found in my own experience about this
matter of prayer.
First of all, I believe it is very important to look for and
identify the answers we may have � and having done so, to
give thanks. One of the best ways to do this is to keep a record.
But I think that anyone who does so may well discover in time
that specific answers to prayer become less frequent as one grows
older in the faith, not because the Lord is less willing to respond
but because our needs become more diffuse. What were formerly
written down as details will tend now to be set forth almost
as a psalm of praise and sometimes as a comment on a particular
passage of Scripture that has experimentally come to life.
Secondly, I do not think anything is too small to
be made a subject of prayer, nor too mundane. I believe we must
accept No and Wait as legitimate answers: and we need to examine
ourselves to see whether delay may not be due to a failure to
do our part.
Thirdly, I believe
that the Lord is very patient and will meet our indecision and
our desire for some guiding sign in any given emergency by accepting
whatever proposals we may make. But He will do it only so long
as we demonstrate that we really will be obedient whichever way
the sign points. I think that the number of different kinds of
"fleeces" which the Lord is willing to use is probably
infinite in variety. The really critical element in this kind
of transaction with the Lord is that we must obey.
Finally, I think
we must always guard against the danger of making the Lord's
special dealings with us a source of subtle pride, by giving
our testimony with an inappropriate emphasis upon our own faith
rather than upon the Lord's graciousness, for even the heart
of the child of God is still desperately wicked when the old
nature has the upper hand (Jeremiah 17:9).
Do start keeping
a journal. Who knows how someone may be helped by it in time
to come � even yourself!
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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