Principles of Prayer
by Francis Foulkes ©

Chapter 7 ATTITUDES IN PRAYER (Continued)

5 Importunity and persistence

"Keep alert and always persevere in supplication".
`Concentration - commitment - communion: this is the rhythm of prayer, with communion ever leading to new concentration, to deeper commitment, to profounder communion --.'
(Max Warren)

Persistence in prayer means continuing in a spirit of dependence on God even though we may not at first see any result of our praying. There are many exhortations to this attitude in the Bible. "Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving" (Col.4:2). Anthony Bloom speaking of vigilance takes the example of:

`the vigilance of a soldier who stands in the night as still as he can and as completely alert and aware as possible of anything that is happening around him, ready to respond in the right way and with speed to anything that may happen. In a way he is inactive because he stands and does nothing; on the other hand, it is intense activity, because he is alert and completely recollected.' `--- if we are alert and vigilant, we are on the lookout for anything that may come our way and not for one particular thing. We must be ready to receive from God whatever experience is sent.' (6) .

Vigilance and persistence belong together in the life of Christian discipleship and in the functioning of Christian prayer. Whether it is in action in life or in prayer we must persist - as Jesus did totally - in seeking the will of God. Stephen Winward puts it that just as Jesus "steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem", in prayer we must set our face in the direction of God. `There must be the will, the steadfast intention, the quiet determination to live in fellowship with God -. In practice this means having a rule of prayer, however simple or modest.' (7)

The succession of "ask", "seek", and "knock" in Matthew 7:7-8 indicates the same stress on persistence in prayer. This teaching in the parallel in Luke 11:9-10 is preceded by the parable of the friend who came to his neighbour at midnight and refused to leave him till he received what he needed. In Luke 18:1-8 there is the similarly motivated parable of the woman who would not leave the `unjust' judge till she had satisfaction. H.E. Fosdick says about this parable, `If it was worth while waiting persistently upon the unjust judge, how much more surely worth while to wait patiently on God, our Father!' (8) The message is that our attitude to God is not to be an easy-going asking, but a deep and strong seeking. So Jeremiah 29:12-13 expresses it, "when you call upon me, and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart."

Another aspect of this is presented by the apostle Paul's instruction, "Pray without ceasing" in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. The meaning, of course, is not that we should pray and do nothing else, but relate prayer to every activity of life. Live in a constant dependence on God. 1 Timothy 5:5 speaks of the widow who "has her hope set on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day". The whole of life is to be related to God, or, as Hebrews 13:15 puts it, "let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God". Such is the way that Paul himself sought to live, and the spirit in which he could say, for example, to the Christians in Rome, "God ---- is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times" (Rom.1:9).

The 14th Century Christian Gregory Palamas put it,

"When the Apostle commanded us to "Pray without ceasing" (1 Thess.5:117), he meant that we must pray inwardly with our mind; and this is something that we can do always. For when we are engaged in manual labour, and when we walk or sit down, when we eat or when we drink, we can always pray inwardly and practise prayer of the mind, true prayer, pleasing to God.' (9)

The Bible teaches both constancy and determination in prayer. In Colossians 4:12 the apostle speaks of Epaphras "wrestling" in prayer on behalf of the Colossian Christians, and we may compare the way that Jacob is said to have wrestled with the angel, determined to know the blessing of God on his life, surely an example of persistence and importunity in prayer (Gen.32:22-30). There is a sense in which prayer is often a struggle. We have the desire to pray, but we have to struggle against the weakness of the `flesh'. Professor Blaiklock put it,

`The world and the day press in, and prayer tails off in preoccupation and incoherence. With the world so close, its noise without and within, it is difficult to break from the obtrusive, overwhelming presence, into that other world of quietness where God is a real presence to be adored and addressed.' But `if Christian living fails on the battleground of prayer it is most grievously defeated.' (10)

It is in fact by persisting in prayer that we learn how to pray. Stephen Winward compares the footballer or the musician , and quotes the way that `Paderewski, the famous Polish pianist, once said, "If I stop practising the piano for a day, I notice the difference; if I stop for two days, my family notices the difference; if I stop for three days my friends notice the difference; if I stop for a week the public notices the difference". -- just as some of the problems of life are solved not by thinking them out, but by living them out, so the art of prayer is learned, and its difficulties overcome, by praying.' (11)

The last word on the need to persist in prayer we can take from the Lord's warning to his disciples in Gethsemane, stressing the vital importance for them to stay awake to pray (Mk.14:38). Faithful discipleship calls for discipline, and first of all discipline in prayer. 1 Peter 4:7 emphasises this, "be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers". The necessity of this commitment to prayer was felt from the beginning of the life of the Church. Even before Pentecost the disciples "were constantly devoting themselves to prayer " (Acts 1:14). Then after Pentecost the life of the first Christians could be summed up by its being said, "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). Commitment to prayer remains as important as any principle whether for the individual Christian or for the life of the Church.