[The 19th century bishop, J.C.Ryle, wrote a 12000 word paper on Prayer. Here it is reduced to 3000 words and rewritten for easier reading. DRJH]
Jesus taught that "his disciples ... should always pray and not give up" (Lk 18.1). Prayer is the most important part of the Christian life. Reading the Bible, Sunday worship, hearing sermons and Holy Communion are all vital. But none are as important as prayer. Here are seven reasons why.
Prayer is essential for salvation
Leaving aside the issues of the very young and those who have never heard the gospel, no one can expect to be saved who does not pray. Yes, salvation is by grace. But there is no salvation without asking for it. The Bible teaches that no one will be saved by their prayers, but it does not teach that anyone will be saved without prayer. No one can eat, drink or sleep by proxy. As it is with the body, so it is with the soul. Its health and well being depend on each one going to Christ in prayer for themselves. To be prayerless is to be without God, without Christ, without grace, without hope and without heaven. It is to be on the road to hell.
A habit of prayer is one of the surest marks of a true Christian. From the moment there is any spiritual life and reality, a person prays. The first sign of life in an infant is breathing; so the first act of a born again believer is to pray. God's chosen ones, says Jesus, "cry out to him day and night" (Lk 18:7) and the Holy Spirit makes them cry, "Abba, Father" (Rom 8.15). The godly in the Bible pray. The wicked do not (1 Pet 1.17; 1 Cor 1.2; Ps 14.4). In church history great Christians – whether rich or poor, educated or not – have all been people of prayer. True, there can be hypocritical praying. But the absence of prayer is a clear sign that a man or woman is not yet a Christian. The Lord himself suggests prayer is the best proof of true conversion. When he sent Ananias to Saul in Damascus, the evidence he gave of Paul's change of heart was this: "he is praying" (Acts 9.11). The first act of faith is to speak to God.
Faith is to the soul what life is to the body. Prayer is to faith what breath is to life. How someone can live and not breathe is beyond understanding. Similarly, how someone can believe and not pray is also beyond understanding. Their views of doctrine may be correct. But this may only be head knowledge. The vital question is this: do they speak to God as well as speak about God?
No duty is so neglected as private prayer
Even some calling themselves Christian may never pray. They eat, drink, sleep, work and play. But they never speak to God. So they live like animals - without a word to say to the one in whose hands are their life and breath and from whose mouth one day they will receive their eternal judgment.
It is not natural to pray. The natural desire of a person's heart is to get away from God and to have nothing to do with him. Why then should someone pray who has no sense of sin or an awareness of spiritual needs?
Nor is it fashionable to pray. It is something many would be ashamed to own. So the lives many live are without prayer; and the deaths many die are without prayer. They die the deaths of those who seem strangers to God.
Encouragements to pray
God has done everything to make prayer easy. There is a way by which anyone, however sinful, can draw near to God the Father. Jesus Christ has opened that way by the sacrifice he made for us on the Cross. So the holiness and justice of God should never frighten sinners and keep them back. They need only cry to God in the name of Jesus, pleading his atoning death, and they will find him gracious and willing to hear. The name of Jesus is a never-failing passport when praying. Jesus Christ is an advocate and intercessor. He waits to present the prayers of those who will use him. The Holy Spirit, also, has a special role of assisting Christians speak to God (Rom 8.26).
There are great promises for those who pray. Jesus said: "Ask and it will be given to you... For everyone who asks receives" (Mat 7.7,8); "if you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer" (Mat 21.22); "I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father" (Jn 14.13). And he told the Parables of the Friend at Midnight and the Persistent Widow (Lk 11.5 and 18.1). These are great encouragements to pray.
There are also wonderful examples of the power of prayer. Nothing seems too great, too hard or too difficult for prayer. In the Bible we read that prayer opened the Red Sea in Moses' day and brought down fire on the sacrifice at Carmel in Elijah's day. In Church history we read of Mary Queen of Scots saying: "I fear John Knox's prayers more than an army of ten thousand men."
Faithfulness in prayer - a key to holiness
There is a vast difference among true Christians. They are all doing the Lord's work – but some do more than others! They all love the same Lord and Saviour – but some love him more than others! There are some of the Lord's people who seem never able to get on from the time of their conversion. They are born again but remain spiritual babies. Others seem to be always getting on. Every year they appear to see more, know more and grow in grace. They not only have good works to prove the reality of their faith, but they are zealous for good works. They not only do good, but they do not get weary in doing good (Gal 6.9). They attempt great things and they do great things. Why? They pray.
Prayer receives fresh and continued outpourings of the Spirit. The Spirit alone begins the work of grace in a person's heart. But a believer is to pray for the Holy Spirit who gives strength for holiness (Lk 11.12). So prayer is a remedy against the devil and besetting sins.
Neglect of prayer - a cause of backsliding
A person can go back in the Christian faith after making a good start. People may do well for a period, like the Galatians, but then go after false teachers (Gal 1.6). There are those who sound good when their enthusiasm is high, like Peter, but then, in a time of trial, they deny their Lord. Others lose their first love, as the Ephesians did (Rev 2.4). It is miserable being a backslider. True grace will never by extinguished, and true union with Christ never broken. But a person, it seems, can fall away so far that they lose sight of their own security and despair of their own salvation.
What is the cause of such backsliding? One of the causes is, surely, neglect of private prayer. Bibles read without prayer, sermons heard without prayer, marriages contracted without prayer, travel undertaken without prayer, homes chosen without prayer, friendships formed without prayer, or the daily act of prayer itself being hurried over and gone through without meaning – these are some downward steps by which many a Christian descends to a condition of spiritual palsy, or reaches a point where God allows them a tremendous fall. We may be sure people fall in private long before they fall in public. They backslide on their knees long before they backslide openly before the world. Like Peter, they first ignore the Lord's warning to watch and pray; then, like Peter, their strength is gone and, when tempted, deny their Lord. If you do not wish to be a backslider, check your praying.
Prayer - a recipe for happiness and contentment
We live in a world where, since sin entered, there is great sorrow. Few live long without sorrows or cares. Their bodies, property, families, children, relations, colleagues, friends, neighbours and work – all are sources of care. Sickness, death, financial loss, disappointments, separations, ingratitude, slander – are common to all.
What is the best solution? Answer: take everything to the Lord in prayer. This is the plain advice of both the Old and New Testaments: "Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you" (Ps 50.15); "cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you" (Ps 55.22); "do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil 4.6-7); "is any one of you in trouble? He should pray" (Jas 5.13).
Happiness does not depend on outward circumstances, but on the state of the heart! Prayer can lighten crosses whatever their weight. It can call down the one who will "never leave you nor forsake you" (Deut 31.8). Prayer is a secret of being a happy Christian.
So prayer is the most important part of the Christian life. Now, however, there are a number of practical comments that need to be made.
First, for those who do not pray
Such people need to be solemnly warned. They are in fearful danger. If they die in their present state, they are eternally lost. It is no good saying they do not know how to pray. Prayer is the simplest act of all. It is simply speaking to God. It needs neither learning nor wisdom to begin. It needs nothing but an honest heart and will. The smallest infant can cry when hungry. So anyone can find something to say to God, if only they have a mind to.
It is no good saying they have no suitable place to pray in. Jesus prayed on a mountain; Peter on a house-top; Isaac in a field; Nathaniel under a fig tree; and Jonah in the stomach of a large fish. Any place can be a place of prayer. It is no good saying they have no time. Time may be short but time is always long enough for prayer. Daniel was a top civil servant but prayed three times a day. David was the ruler of a powerful nation, yet said: "Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and [God] hears my voice" (Ps 55.17). It is no good saying they cannot pray until they have faith and a new heart and so they must wait until then. This is to add sin to sin. Isaiah said, "call on [the Lord] while he is near" (Is 55.6); and Peter said to Simon Magus, "Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord" (Acts 8.22). If someone wants faith and a new heart, they should cry to the Lord for them.
Secondly, for those wanting to be saved and where to start
In every journey there is a first step. A journey may take a long time. The Israelites were forty years in the wilderness; but someone first went out of Egypt at the Exodus. When does someone take the first step in turning from sin and the world to God? Answer – when they first utter a heartfelt prayer.
Such a person who desires salvation should go to Jesus Christ and ask him, in prayer, to save them. They should tell him they have heard he receives sinners and has said: "whoever comes to me I will never drive away" (John 6.37). They should ask for deliverance from the guilt, power and consequences of their sin; and they should ask him to give them a new heart and to plant the Holy Spirit in their lives. They should tell him this in their own words. If a doctor came to them when they were sick, they could tell him where they felt pain. Similarly if they are really aware of their spiritual sickness, they can find something to tell Christ. Nor must they think that he will not save them because they are sinners. He himself said, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Lk 5.32).
And they should not be frightened because their prayers are not fluent. A mother understands the first words of her child. So Christ understands sinners. Nor should they be disheartened if they do not get answers immediately. While they are speaking, Jesus is listening. If he delays, it is only for their good. They should pray on.
Thirdly, for those who do pray
Many often despair of their own praying. There are few genuine believers who do not find prayer a conflict. However, people can be poor judges of prayers (and prayer meetings). Prayers which please them least may often please God most. Here then are twelve suggestions for true believers about what is important in prayer.
1) the importance of reverence and humility in prayer. It is a solemn thing to speak with God. When Abraham spoke to God, he said, "I am nothing but dust and ashes" (Gen 18.27). Similarly when Job spoke to God, he said, "I am unworthy" (Job 40.4).
2) the importance of praying spiritually – that is to say people should seek the help of the Holy Spirit for their private prayers - to help avoid a wrong sort of formality. Yes, everyone must go over old ground in their prayers. But if the skeleton and outline of their praying has to be a form, they should seek to ensure that the clothing of that skeleton is, as far as possible, of the Spirit.
3) the importance of making prayer regular in life. Regular times can help. God is a God of order. Disorder is one of the fruits of sin. But no one should be under bondage. Only this must be insisted on - that for a person's spiritual health they make praying part of the business of every twenty-four hours. They allot time for eating, sleeping and work. So they should allot time for prayer. They should choose their own time. At the very least they should speak with God in the morning before they speak to the world and at night after they have finished with the world.
4) the importance of perseverance in prayer. Once having started the habit of prayer, it should never be given up. Someone may say: "I have important work to do today" - and prayer is ignored. Prayers do not always have to be the same length. But no one should ever give up on prayer. Paul said: "pray continually" (1 Thess 5.17). He did not mean that people should always be on their knees, as a sect, called the Euchitae, thought. He did mean, however, that prayer should be like the Old Testament continual burnt offerings, with fire on the altar, not always consuming sacrifices but never completely going out. Longer prayer times may be tied together by an endless chain of short ejaculatory prayers throughout the day. Even when with others or at work or at school or travelling, people can silently be praying to God as Nehemiah did in the presence of Artaxerxes (Neh 2.4).
5) the importance of earnestness in prayer. No one needs to shout or scream or be very loud. But it is good for people to be fervent and warm and ask as if they were really interested in what they were doing. Elijah "prayed earnestly" (Jas 5.17). His was not sleepy or lazy praying. The Bible speaks of "crying and knocking" in prayer. Jesus, the Bible says, "offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears" (Heb 5.7).
6) the importance of praying with faith. Christians should believe their prayers are always heard and will be granted if asked according to God's will. The plain command of Jesus is: "whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours" (Mk 11.24). Faith is to prayer what the feather is to an arrow: without it prayer will not hit the mark. The habit of pleading God's promises should be cultivated. Psalm 119 is full of things asked for "according to your word." Then above all the habit of expecting answers to prayer should be cultivated. Businessmen expect to see a return. So should true believers. Often they do not. The church at Jerusalem prayed for Peter in prison; but when prayer was answered, they hardly believed it (Acts 12.15). Robert Traill, a 17th century Scot, said: "There is no surer mark of trifling in prayer, than when men are careless of what they get by prayer."
7) the importance of boldness in prayer. There is an improper familiarity in some people's prayers. But there is such a thing as holy boldness. This is the boldness of Moses who pleaded with God not to destroy Israel: "why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them ... '? Turn from your fierce anger" (Ex 32.12). Many do not sufficiently realize the believer's privileges. They do not plead as often as they might: "Lord, are we not your people? Is it not for your glory that the gospel should be effective and the church should grow?"
8) the importance of fullness in prayer. Jesus warns against the Pharisees for their long hypocritical prayers. But he himself could spend all night in prayer to God. Today people are not likely to err on the side of praying too much. Many pray too little. The aggregate of time many Christians spend in prayer is probably very small. They pray just enough to prove they are spiritually alive and no more. The Bible says: "you do not have, because you do not ask God" (Jas 4.2). So much is offered in Christ. The Lord says: "open wide your mouth and I will fill it" (Ps 81.10).
9) the importance of being specific in prayer. People should not be content with generalities in prayer, but with particulars. Needs should be specified and specific sins confessed. Jacob told God exactly what he feared in regard to Esau (Gen 32.11). So did Eliezer, when he sought a wife for his master's son (Gen 24.12ff). Nothing is too small to be named before God. What would be thought of patients who told their doctors they were ill, but never went into details? Christ is the true physician of the heart. Secrets should not be hidden from him.
10) the importance of intercession in prayer. By nature all are selfish. Selfishness can still stick, even when a person is converted to Christ. So they can tend to pray only for their own needs and forget others. But there should be a public spirit. People should be careful to pray for others. The whole world should be prayed for – the secular world, the pagan world (including Muslims), Jews, false teachers, true believers, the government and nation, the Church of and in England, the local church and the family. To pray for others, or "intercede", enlarges sympathies, expands hearts and is for the benefit of all.
11) the importance of thankfulness in prayer. Yes, asking God is one thing and praising him is another. But there is a close connection between praise and prayer. Thankfulness must be a part of prayer. Paul says: "in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God" (Phil 4.6). It is only by God's mercy that true believers will not be in hell, have a hope of heaven, have been called by the Spirit, are still alive and have opportunities of glorifying God. There is much for which to thank God.
12) in the last place, the importance of being watchful over praying. Prayer is that point above all others in the Christian life where people must be on their guard. Here true religion begins and flourishes; but here it also decays. A person's prayer life shows their spiritual state. Prayer is the spiritual pulse: by it spiritual health can be tested. Sermons, books, meetings and fellowship are all valuable. But they will never make up for the neglect of private (and corporate) prayer. So Christian believers should find out what places, people and things unhinge their hearts from communion with God and so be on their guard. Equally they should find out what, or who, helps them be in a spiritual frame of mind and most ready to speak to God. These they should cling to and stick to.
It is so important to get prayer right. May the times in which we live be praying times and may Christians be praying Christians.
[The 19th century bishop, J.C.Ryle, wrote a 12000 word paper on Prayer. Here it is reduced to 3000 words and rewritten for easier reading. DRJH]