Fainting in Prayer

Men ought always to pray, and not to faint–Luk. 18:1

Jesus Taught Men to Pray

This is one of the passages in which our Lord gave encouragement to prayer. He taught on many different occasions, that men ought always to pray and not to faint. Our Lord says nothing, not one single word, about the intellectual difficulties of prayer. Just as He took the thought of God for granted, so He took the fact of prayer for granted. Ail the difficulties in prayer of which our Savior spoke are those which are natural to human weakness, and these He amply recognized. He knew how prone men were to give over praying. He knew how ready they were to faint in praying. He knew how hard it was for men and women to pray always. And therefore by parable and precept, and more particularly to His own disciples, our Lord taught that men ought always to pray and not to faint.

Jesus Lived Prayerfully

Not only did He give such encouragement in His teaching. He gave it still more emphatically by His example. Our Lord was a Man of prayer. The picture of our Savior which is enshrined in the tenderest memories of Christendom is that of the Man of Sorrows. But not less true would it be to all we who know of Him, and to the wellsprings of His being, if our most cherished picture of Him were that of the Man of Prayer. Often have men gathered together all the times in the Gospels when we find our Lord at prayer. It is a singularly helpful study and I commend it to you. But even when you have collected all these instances, and learned something of our Savior’s habits of prayer, even then you have not gained a just impression of the place in the Savior’s life which prayer occupied. His service was the other side of prayer. His sinlessness was the victory of prayer. His life in all its activity and suffering was the reflection of His Father’s will. And if He always did what pleased His Father, and moment by moment was reinforced from heaven, it was because He always prayed and never fainted. Great then is the encouragement to prayer which we should draw from our Savior’s teaching, but greater still is the encouragement we should draw from His example.

Jesus Lives Yet to Pray for Us!

Nor does that example end with His earthly life. It is carried over into His heavenly life. He ever liveth to make intercession for us. He ever liveth–to pray. Will you think of the wonder of that for a moment? In His earthly life our Lord was limited. He was made of a woman; made under the law. From the very fact that He had become our Brother, He had to limit Himself to certain forms of service. But from the moment of the ascension, glorified, freed from earthly limitations, it was for Him to choose, for the advancement of His kingdom, any of all the ministries of heaven. I shall not speculate on the ministries of heaven. Eye hath not seen and ear hath never heard them. I only want you to note this, that our Lord still chose the ministry of prayer. And nothing is better fitted to awe our hearts with a new sense of the magnificence of prayer, than that choice of the ascended Savior. He ever liveth to make intercession for us. He ever liveth to pray. Out of all the armory of glory He hath chosen the weapon of All-prayer. And so by His teaching, and His life on earth, and His life on the right hand of God, Christ exhorts us powerfully that we ought always to pray and not to faint.

Why, Then, Are We So Prone to Faint?

And yet there is no human activity in which we are so prone to faint. How often our prayers are as the morning cloud and as the early dew. In spite of the spoken encouragement of our Lord–in spite of the example of His life–in spite of the wonderful thought that now and always He is making intercession for us–how easily are we overcome in prayer. In our spiritual literature we have many diaries of men who were pre-eminently men of prayer. We have the diaries of Andrew Bonar and of McCheyne and of Boston and of Wesley. Ah, what a struggle in every one of them to maintain a living fellowship with God and how prone every one of them to faint! True, there come hours when prayer is easy, and often when they come we know not how. The wind bloweth where it listeth, that is all, and lo! The heart is going out to God. But day by day, amid life’s duller duties, to maintain the life of prayer in its fervency, who to know that our Savior understands, to know in the midst of all the difficulty, that He encourages us to persevere. And if He, who lived in the sunshine of God’s presence, needed the strengthening of prayer continually, who can estimate our need?

Prayer Is a Most Demanding Task

From this proneness to faint in prayer there is one thing that we learn, and it is something that is worth the learning. It is that prayer is work, and perhaps the hardest work in which a human being can be engaged. How ready we are to think of prayer as easy or as the occupation of a vacant moment. How seldom we come to it with that determined spirit which we bring to bear upon our daily business! There are fortunes, brother, to be made in prayer, far more lasting than any made in commerce, and yet how few apply themselves to prayer with the zest and keenness that they bring to business. In all work three parts of our being are involved. There is the understanding, by which we work intelligently; there is the heart by which we labor willingly, there is the will by which we labor doggedly. And yet I know not any kind of work that calls for all these three in constant exercise so urgently and so utterly as prayer. A handicraftsman may ply his task and yet his thoughts may go wandering far away. A student may set himself to work through habit, even when his affections are far away else where. But the moment prayer becomes habit it is dead, the moment the thoughts go wandering it is over, and the moment the heart is drawn away to other things, prayer is an idle repetition. All that is needed for our daily labor is needed for the exercise of prayer–our understanding that we may pray intelligently, our affection, and our will. And they are needed, moment by moment, every time we pray, in such activity, and life, and exercise, that prayer, true prayer, so far from being idleness, is one of the sternest labors in the world. That view of prayer is amply corroborated by the terms in which it is described in Scripture. It is a wrestling, a striving, a laboring; at its intensest with our Lord it is an agony. Clearly, then, prayer is no easy thing, no light employment of an idle moment. It is the most difficult, the most blessed, the most victorious labor that can engage the faculties of man.

Indeed, brethren, it’s very difficulty is an argument for its efficiency. For nothing that a man can take in hand so rouses the antagonism of the powers of darkness. Let a man busy himself with preaching merely, and the devil will not tempt him above measure. Let him study or let him teach or let him visit, and he is not conscious of unseen antagonism. But the moment anyone begins to pray, to do it deliberately and earnestly, it is as if all the powers of hell had been let loose against him, to baffle him in his endeavor. Distractions and interruptions multiply as by the cunning of some unseen opponent. Thoughts that at other times are light as air acquire a strange and terrible insistency–it may be some name we have forgotten, it may be some rankling word that has been spoken, it may be something we have left undone. With a malevolence that is as real as it is subtle we are assaulted from without and from within. It is as if all the powers of darkness had combined to disgust us with the exercise of prayer. And that tremendous enmity that meets us, and fights against us, and never gives us rest, is but a proof how Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon his knees. If prayer were powerless it would be easy. The prince of the powers of the air would not concern himself. He would let it alone, as he lets so much alone that we dignify with the name of Christian service. And the fact that no man ever yet began to pray but immediately he was tempted of the devil, shows what a mighty instrument true prayer must be for the pulling down of the strongholds of the night. My friend, Christ understood all that. He had proved the virtue of All-prayer. In His eyes it was the one victorious weapon that God loved and the devil hated. And therefore He went about urging men, knowing perfectly their human weakness, that they ought always to pray and not to faint.

How Real Is Prayer?

One of the great causes why we faint so readily is just that prayer seems to be so unreal. We cannot feel; we cannot realize; we seem to be speaking into empty darkness. We speak for instance to a friend, and there is a human face to answer ours. By the expression, by the eyes, by the attention given, we know that we are being listened to. But when we speak to God with open eyes it is only the empty air that is around us, and when the eyes are closed we see not anything. Nor does the unreality cease there. It goes a great deal deeper than such vacancy. For who does not know how it assails the heart again even when the most earnest prayer is over–as if nothing had happened, as if time were wasted, as if the world were just as it had been, and we as ready, at the first temptation, to give ourselves to the old sin again. It is this haunting sense of unreality that has led men and women to pray to the Virgin Mary. It is this which has led to praying to the saints which is so universal in Roman Catholic countries. And anyone who has ever sought to pray can understand that feeling perfectly–and yet I show you a more excellent way.

I was speaking the other day to a Belgian woman, and our talk fell on prayer. And I asked her if she prayed to the saints, and she said, “Oh yes, I pray to the saints.” And then she added as a child might have done, and, adding it, was wiser than she knew–“but when I want anything very much, then I pray to the Father.” My friend, that is what Christ has done. He has taught us to lift our hearts and say “Our Father.” With all the loving reality of Fatherhood He has brought God very near to all of us. And for him who has dwelt in the Fatherhood of God, and learned even a little of its love, prayer can never be unreal again. That thought of Fatherhood dwelling in the mind, makes God as real as any living friend. It clothes the eternal Spirit with such tenderness that we can tell Him everything and know He hears us. We need no Virgin Mary anymore, bending down in womanly compassion, when we can say “Our Father which art in heaven.” Oh, how close He is to all of us, that heavenly Father who will never leave us! How He is bending down and brooding over us to catch the faintest whisper of His child! Nothing has ever been taught us in the ages that has helped to make our prayers real like that–“Our Father which art in heaven.”

You Are Being Summoned to Pray

I therefore call you, friend, to remember the ministry of prayer. The times are wakening us to the great need of it, and we must not miss the summons of the times. Some of you perhaps have never really prayed, though you have always kept to the daily habit of it. Some of you may have ceased long years ago even to preserve the form of prayer. And all of us, however we have been serving, know that our greatest failure has been here, for none of us have been praying as we should. My brother, God is using these present times to bring thousands back to prayer again. In every country of the world today there are multitudes praying who never prayed before. And if only you, with all your opportunities, will join in that mighty ministry of prayer, we shall yet live to see such blessings given as will make it bliss for us to be alive. It is not easy, but nothing high is easy. There is little time, but you can make time. For anything your heart is really set on, it is wonderful how time can be made always. Blessings are waiting us, and power is waiting us, and I believe that national peace is waiting us, waiting and ready for that hour when God is given His own place again. When our life is drawing to a close and we look back over the years that we have had, there will be a thousand things we shall regret, for they will seem to us then to have been vanity. But there is one thing that we shall not regret even on the margin of the grave, and that is the time we gave to prayer. Then it will be far more real to us than it was in the hour when we were praying. Then it will be far more real to us than things that once were of supreme importance. Then we shall wonder at our inveterate folly in having toiled and served and labored for the Master, and been so forgetful of the amazing promises that He has given to everyone who prays. My brother and sister, anticipate that hour. It is coming swiftly and it is coming surely. Live today as you would like to have lived when you look back from the end upon it all. And remember that whatever Christ hath taught you, by precept, by example, He hath taught you this, that men ought always to pray and not to faint.

Author: Patriarch Gregg