Skip to main content

4. A Lesson in Prayer

Cover page for Glenn Clark The Soul's Sincere Desire

4. A Lesson in Prayer
by Glenn Clark
The Soul's Sincere Desire

Prayer is governed by the same laws that govern the growth of the flower in the crannied wall; it is controlled by the same laws that control the flow of a stream, the art of a game, the life of a bee. For as God is in all things, so are His laws prevailing in all things; and as God is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever, so are His mighty laws the same yesterday, to-day, and forever. As prayer is life raised to its highest degree, so the laws of prayer are the laws of life raised to their highest expression. A man who learns and practises the laws of prayer correctly should be able to play golf better, do business better, work better, love better, serve better. For to learn how to pray is to learn how to live.

And to make this lesson very intimate, simple, practical, let us learn how to pray as we would learn how to play golf—naturally, joyously, as a part of the day’s happiest experience. Let us go away from our lesson in prayer refreshed and unselfconscious, as we would go home from a golf game, an auto trip, or a fishing-excursion. I would that we might feel such complete freedom from all restraint that we should find ourselves talking about it easily, spontaneously—yes, enthusiastically, over our teacups, at the club, on street corners, in hotel lobbies, just as we would talk of any other interesting and natural experience of life. For it is the same, or should be the same, as all our other vital experiences, with this one difference, that there will be a quality of reverence surrounding it, greater perhaps than in the average experience, but a reverence that is such a part and parcel of our genuine selves that it can find its most appropriate and natural expression in simple, glowing enthusiasm and eagerness to serve rather than in timid reticence, silent withdrawal, and stern asceticism.

For the art of prayer, as we are going to learn it, derives its inspiration from the baptism of Jesus—not from the baptism of John. For John, you remember, “came neither eating nor drinking, and they say. He hath a devil. The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say. Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber.”

For prayer, as Jesus saw it, was not a withdrawal from life and a fasting from the good things that life affords. It was a glorious taking-in of the completeness, the fullness of life; an actual hunger, if you will, for those infinite riches of the Spirit that, when properly understood, often result in surrounding one with good things on this earth as well—especially those good things which Macbeth, after he had lost the power to pray, felt he had forfeited: “honor, love, obedience, troops of friends.” And where on this earth can be found riches more precious than these?

So I invite you, my friend, to join with me in a little game of golf. Leave the book unopened, the letter unanswered, the business unattended to. Those who think that the book, the letter, and the business must have the first attention should be reminded that all these things will be made much easier after they have come for a while further into God’s out-of-doors, where the day is full of sunshine and the night is full of stars.

And what shall you bring with you to this game? Merely the willingness to give your attention, your thought. In other words, be sure to bring your brain bag with its neat assortment of clubs, those marvelously constructed powers and capacities constructed by the great Manufacturer, the Creator of all things. Bring besides a purpose, round and smooth and hard, which you would like to drive down the course of life toward ultimate success. A bag of clubs and a ball, a set of capacities and a wish—these are all that the game requires.

And now we have arrived at the starting-point. The first thing to do is to tee-up your ball, ready for the first stroke. A great box of sand tempts you to overdo this job, and if left alone your first mistake will be to half-bury your ball in the sand. Lest you do this, let me tell you what this sand represents: it represents trouble. Not until you have driven your ball into a sand bunker some day and wasted a dozen strokes trying to get it out will you realize the full significance of the truth I am telling you. But in the meantime take my word for it and use this sand carefully, sparingly, that is to say, scientifically. Make it serve you, not crush you. Just as a flag cannot grow without mire nor a reed without water, neither can one start a game of golf without sand nor a life of prayer without trouble. After a man gets out on the fairway he does not always have to use trouble to raise and sharpen his stroke; but, strange as it may seem, I have never seen a man make an efficient start in a life of prayer without having, first of all, to tee-up his purpose upon a little mound of trouble. Trouble is actually one of the greatest blessings that can come to a man who wishes to learn the game aright, provided he knows how to use it and not let it use him.

With the sand you make, as I said before, a tee. When properly made we call this tee a “lie.” Use your imagination, your parable method of looking at life,—as you have learned in an earlier chapter,—and convert your trouble, or tee, into a lie. And remember that the more sand you find in the box, the better the lie you will be able to make, which means the better the start you will be able to make in your game. Now, having picked your best driver, you are ready to learn the big rules of the game.

The first rule you must heed is: “Don’t top the ball.” The instinct that leads you to do this is the grandfather of all the troubles of golf-playing. It is the instinct to draw the club up to yourself. It is the intrusion of the little self-thought into a great and ancient game that began long before you were born and will continue long after you are gone.

You may have smiled years ago when you read in Rostand’s Chantecler how the pompous little cock thought that the sun’s rising each morning awaited his summons. You may now smile again when you top the ball, for it manifests the same exaggerated illusion of self intruding into your golf stroke.

This intrusion in prayer expresses itself in the ever recurring question: “What does this mean to me? What glory, what gain shall I get out of it?” One of the reasons for Jesus’ extraordinary power is traceable directly to the complete overthrowing of this insidious temptation in the Wilderness at the very beginning of His public ministry. Later He gave powerful and uncompromising utterance to the law which was revealed to Him in that hour, when He said:—

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are; for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

The classic example of the man who hesitated to take the self-thought out of his dealings with God was Jonah, and to this day, when a message is laid upon us to deliver to our fellow men, we have our choice—to become a Jonah or a Moses, that is to say, to make ourselves a barrier or a channel. It was not until Jonah was willing to sacrifice self, even to the extent of being cast into the raging sea of annihilation, that he ceased to be a “Jonah,” in the figurative sense, and became a saviour of men.

In contrast, note what a selfless channel Simon Peter was from the first moment that Jesus called him to become one of the fishers of men. Nowhere is this more forcefully brought out than in that Gospel which many commentators believe that Peter dictated to Mark during a sojourn in Rome. Only twice in the four Gospels is there a record of Jesus’ pronouncing eulogies upon mortal men—one was upon John the Baptist, the other was upon Peter. The first was recorded in detail by the amanuensis of Peter, but the second, that which more than anything else must have made Peter’s heart swell with joy, he withheld from Mark’s gospel. On the other hand, the rebuke which Jesus gave Peter when he would have dissuaded Jesus from submitting to His appointed suffering, and the warning he received by the first crowing of the cock, were given in their entirety by Mark.

This modesty, which prompted the elimination of all personal allusions that would tend to glorify the writer, was characteristic of all the other inspired Gospel writers. An example of this is Matthew’s conspicuous failure to mention the banquet he gave to Jesus immediately after he had been called, although the other Gospel writers deemed it important enough to be given a prominent place in their immortal records.

That their own Master was the purest example of this beautiful freedom from all personal vanity may be gathered from the following utterances: “I can of mine own self do nothing.” “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do.” And again, “Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is, God.” The Gospel records are full of such utterances.

This modesty or subordination of the little I or self to the great I AM, or God, is characteristic of all the writers of that great book, the Bible. Perhaps it is partly due to the anonymity of the writers that one has said, “The Bible comes out of profounder depths of human experience than any other book.”

The time may be past when anonymity shall be a virtue in poets, historians, and dramatists; but the time will never be past when the impersonal, selfless prayer will not hold power over the egotistical, self-seeking prayer. Let us take care lest we, in the midst of the most unselfish work for the most unselfish causes, may not find ourselves one day praying the prayer of the Pharisee in the temple, forgetting that the simple, selfless prayer of the publican is more acceptable at the throne of Heaven. Rather than that such a thing should happen, let it be said of us as it was of Jesus by the railers before the Cross: “He saved others; himself he cannot save.”

The next two rules are so allied to the first, as well as to each other, that they must be introduced with one breath. They are: “Don’t pull the stroke, and don’t slice the ball.” If you pull the stroke the ball will curve in one direction and become lost in the high trees of Anger at one side of the course. If you slice the ball it will curve in the other direction and be lost in the high grass of Worry at the other side of the course. Both these “don’ts” are so closely related that we might say they are the lineal children of the inhibition that rises from the thought of self.

If this is true of golf, how much more true it is of prayer. Anger and worry, those twin offspring of the thought of self, have blocked more prayers, ruined more churches, retarded more the spiritual development of the race than all the other vices put together. Anger is a sign that we do not love God, for “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Worry is the sign that we do not trust God, or that we ascribe more power to something else than we do to God. Anything which affects the flow of love and trust toward God blocks the perfect flow of prayer. Jesus was particularly outspoken in his denunciation of both these sins.

A man once said to me, “I wish that when Jesus gave the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples, he had added a footnote, telling them how to give it.” As a matter of fact, that is exactly what Jesus did. This is his footnote:—

For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Is it not a striking fact that the only comment He made on this prayer was to the effect that it would work perfectly, provided the one who gave it had first rid himself completely of every unforgiving thought toward his fellow men, and that it would not function at all unless he did so purify himself.

In another place, when speaking of anger, He restated the same thought in different words: —

Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother and then come and offer thy gift.

Thus we see that when Jesus discussed prayer in this immortal sermon He ended it with the emphatic injunction that anger must be absent from it; and when He discussed anger he stated emphatically that it must never be taken with the gift of prayer to the altar. From whichever angle he approached these two subjects he never neglected to make it plain that anger and effective prayer, like water and oil, could never mix.

If anger, that is to say, “hating God,” blocks the perfect prayer, then worry, or “doubting God,” is almost equally inimical to the perfect effect of prayer. Jesus’ clarion call for perfect trust, which stands as the climax to the great Sermon on the Mount, is too fixed in our memory to require repetition here. Suffice it to say that the opening sentence should be emblazoned in every schoolroom and in every church until all who doubt God learn to trust Him:—“Be not anxious.”

That John, the beloved disciple, considered fear one of the major sins is evidenced from the fact that he placed it first when enumerating the sins that separate man from God:—

But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.

John was especially the disciple of love, and he held that love and fear could not abide together. He says, “Perfect love casteth out fear.” He might have added, “Absolute fear casteth out love.” Without love we cannot have perfect prayer. James also adds his word concerning the impossibility of combining fear and prayer on the altar of God:—

But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord.

If we begin a prayer with fear in our hearts and end with fear totally gone, completely annihilated, we may rest assured that our prayer is answered—if not in our way, at least in God’s way. If when we end our prayer our fear remains, we may know then that our prayer is not yet answered, and that more and purer prayer is needed. Often we are confronted with situations from which there appears to be no extrication, and from which it seems impossible that fear should be banished. But remember that Jesus has many times repeated His miracle of stilling the tempest, and can do it within the night of our heart just as easily as He did it in the night of Galilee.

How can we have this perfect trust? By knowing that every need has its own fulfillment, just as every seed has its own fruition; by using Jesus’ parable method, and looking through the need to the reality it represents. When we plant a grain of corn we do not then stick a stalk into the ground above it. For the stalk comes out of the seed—from within it, never from without. Wait upon the Lord, and in His own way, in His own good time, we shall see the harvest issue from the need, just as the farmer sees the full-grown wheat come from the seed. Or we can think of ourselves as the little child described by Phillips Brooks: “The little child digs his well in the seashore sand, and the great Atlantic, miles deep, miles wide, is stirred all through and through to fill it for him.” In the same way, in the presence of our human need all the divine forces in the universe are stirred through and through to fill it for us. Let us give ourselves up to such thoughts as this, knowing that around us are forces more fitted to take care of us than we ourselves. Let go, and know that God reigns and we are in His hands.

But these first three rules stated in the form of don’ts are not merely negations; they teach a lesson that is also constructive, affirmative, upbuilding. These three don’ts are don’ts of purification. We are taught in our grammar lessons that two negatives make an affirmative. In this case we may say that three negatives make one great affirmative—Be free! Be free for what? Be free to see God. When Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God,” He meant more than an arid asceticism; He had in mind more than a rule of conduct compounded chiefly of negatives; He meant rather a whole cleansing of the soul, a removal of all debris which would obstruct the clear flow of God’s will. We must first remove all the beams and motes of Self, with its vanity, covetousness, and egotism; of Anger, with its brood of jealousies, envies, and faultfinding; and of Worry, with its children of fear and cowardice; and after this cleansing we can turn the strong, clean, crystalline lens of the soul upon the infinite riches of Heaven and see them as they are in all their majesty, beauty, and glory.

Merely to see these riches is to possess them. Merely to see God is to have Him. In short, to see with the lens of the purified soul is to possess that which we see. This kind of seeing is infinitely higher than thinking. Spiritual seeing means spiritual possession. One who sees—that is, one who possesses in his soul—is one whose prayers are answered. This is verified by the custom that has come down to us from ancient times of calling the man whose prayers are answered not a thinker, but a seer.

These three don’ts, then, are not don’ts that bind; they are don’ts that liberate; and liberation is anything but negative. They make the way straight for the message of God to come to us. If we expect to get a message from the Father of Love we must see that the receiving apparatus is pure and vibrant with love. Any unloving thought clogs the flow of God’s love, just as rusty pipes retard or prevent the even flow of life-giving waters from the great reservoirs in the mountains.

The first step, then, in preparing ourselves for prayer, is the clearing of the channel, making ready for the inflow of God’s love. This is best done not by thinking of one’s self, but by fixing one’s eyes on God. Think of Him as all loving, all powerful, all perfect, with no anger and no distrust and no fear. Then, keeping your gaze steadily upon Him, feel the petty annoyances, the prejudices, and the selfish desires falling away like worthless garments. Remember that every residue of wrong thinking, of malice, or of selfishness in your heart or brain clogs the reception of the downpouring light of love. Wipe from the glass of your vision the mist of self, and as Paul says, you will cease to see through a glass darkly and see face to face.

© 1925, The Atlantic Monthly Press Inc.