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About the Book

Table of Contents

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Part VII

Part VIII

     

Part VII:  One Man's Answers to Prayer

Chapter 3

Some Practical Questions

     SUSTAINED PRAYER 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.
     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!

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     There 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.

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     If 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

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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 already decided.
     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 disturbed and

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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 fed."
     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 is finished. 

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     Yet, 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  

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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.

     The mid-September 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. 

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     Next 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. . ."
     Sometime later, 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.

     Considering 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 our presentation.
     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

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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.

     This brings us to the question of Where to pray.

     I'm thinking 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 be difficult.
     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.    

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     Finally, 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.
     Moreover, prayers 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.

Conclusion

     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.

 

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     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! 

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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

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