I remember hearing a well-known minister and theologian talk about how he had once been asked to write a book on prayer when he was younger. He declined, citing his feelings of inadequacy to meet the required challenge, and instead gave the publisher several names of other ministers whom he believed would be better qualified for such a task. The publisher smiled rather sheepishly in response and confessed that he had actually already approached each of the other ministers and that they too had declined citing the very same feelings of inadequacy.
There is something about prayer that makes even the most mature Christian feel inadequate. We know full well that we have fallen short in this area of our lives. We know that we don’t pray as often as we ought, as fervently as we ought, or as eloquently as we ought. We know that our minds wander when we pray, that we give up praying far too easily, and that we don’t usually pray with expectation that God will answer.
So, why would I think to write a book on prayer (my book Persistent Prayer, published by P&R, released on September 22)? Well, it certainly isn’t because I have prayer all figured out. Far from it! I struggle with prayer in many of the same ways that we all do. But I have learned a few things about prayer over the years in the midst of my struggles. And that is what I hope to share with others. In the words of the English Puritan Richard Baxter, I am simply one beggar showing other beggars where I have found bread.
Just over 16 years ago, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Over 150,000 homes were destroyed in Mississippi alone. First Presbyterian Church in Gulfport had just called me to be their pastor, and I wasn’t due to arrive until several months later as I was still working on finishing my Ph.D. dissertation. Katrina destroyed the church facility beyond repair and the homes of almost 60 families in the church. Several leaders within the congregation asked me to step up my plans and to consider moving to the area sooner than we had originally anticipated doing. They needed help rebuilding the community, the church, and their lives.
I arrived several days after the hurricane and was immediately overwhelmed by what I saw. The whole area looked like a war zone. There was debris everywhere—clothing strewn over the ground and in almost all the trees, the destroyed remains of what used to be houses and furniture scattered as far as the eye could see, and mangled cars with the windows blown out. There were so many huge craters along the beachfront highway that it looked like the whole place had been carpet-bombed. About a week or so after I arrived, the power company began clearing the roads to allow their crews access to restore electricity to as many places as they could reach. They brought in large snow plows and simply pushed the debris to the sides of the roads and mounded it up there as if it was simply snow being cleared out of the street. I can still remember standing in the middle of 2nd Street after they had cleared it. Both sides of the road contained debris piled up 10 to 12 feet high and probably 20 to 30 feet wide as far as I could see in both directions. It was surreal. What was most surreal of all, however, was realizing that it wasn’t just debris that was piled up all around me but people’s possessions: their clothing, their furniture, and their family heirlooms. I watched as people carried their most prized possessions to the curb and threw them away because they could not be salvaged. Gut-wrenching is the best way that I can describe the scene.
What does a not-yet-ordained, recent seminary graduate do in times like this? Where does one even start? There was no class in seminary on how to lead a church in the wake of this kind of devastation. I was in over my head, and I knew it. What’s more, the elders were in over their heads too, and they knew it. So what did we do? We prayed. It sounds silly to say that now, because it sounds like we ran out of options and, as a last resort, we turned to prayer. But that is basically what happened. And isn’t that the way it is for most of us? As long as we see some way forward, we will try it. We typically do not pray—at least not with urgency and desperation—until and unless we have exhausted all other options. Theologically speaking, that is not the way it should be. Prayer should never be a last resort for Christians. But, practically speaking, it oftentimes is a last resort. The hurricane was, therefore, a severe mercy to teach us to pray—and to do so with persistence, with urgency, and with fervency—and to teach us to bring everything, no matter how great or how small, to the Lord in prayer.
We don’t usually pray in these ways until we face circumstances that are so clearly beyond us that we have no other choice but to cast ourselves upon the Lord. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could pray like this when we aren’t forced to by our circumstances? How can we do that? I remember visiting with Eric Alexander, one-time minister at St. George’s Tron in Glasgow, Scotland, who told me that he read the book Power Through Prayer by EM Bounds every year of his ministry in order to motivate him to pray. Without this kind of constant motivation, he said, he lost sight of the urgency of prayer until adverse circumstances came into his life and forced him to reconsider.
I think the same can be true for us too. And that is why I am convinced that we need more books on prayer published each year. We need more reminders about the urgency of prayer and more motivators to encourage us to pray. A friend recently asked me why I would want to write a book on prayer when there are already so many out there. What was so different about mine? I answered this brother with the same ideas that I have written here. I told him that we need more books on prayer, not less. We need more reminders and more motivations to pray with persistence, with urgency, and with fervency, and more encouragements to bring everything, no matter how great or small, to the Lord in prayer. That need, in my opinion, demands that we overcome whatever feelings of inadequacy we might have in order that, as beggars, we might share our bread with others.
The Bible is one long record of God using the prayers of His people to accomplish His perfect purposes. When God’s people pray, God moves. He acts. He changes things. He changes us. And, through it all, He turns the world upside down. Isn’t that what we want? We want His kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. So, let us pray to that end!