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The Joy and Work of Prayer: Review Article

Alan D. Strange

Prayer, by Ole Hallesby, translated by Clarence J. Carlsen. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994, 208 pages, $8.99.

Prayer is both the greatest privilege and the hardest work. There is, at times, a sweetness and joy in prayer unlike anything else, and there is, at other times, an incomparable agony and misery in prayer. We are told to “pray without ceasing,” and the other commands of perpetual obligation in the latter part of 1 Thessalonians 5 tend also to be associated with prayer, commands to “rejoice always,” “give thanks in all things,” and the like. As important as the Word and sacraments are, particularly the preaching of the Word, we are not commanded to “do them” unceasingly as we are prayer. Prayer is commanded corporately, in public worship, privately, and secretly (WCF 21.6).

WLC 178 defines prayer as “an offering up of our desires unto God, in the name of Christ, by the help of his Spirit; with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies.” This is a rational, and right, definition of prayer. Yet prayer is also a mystery that surpasses the comprehension of us all. It’s hard to reduce what prayer is to mere words, because, as the hymn says, “Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire, unuttered or expressed.” Some say that the Word and sacraments are objective—God speaking to us—and prayer is subjective—us speaking back to God. And yet, it is God who moves in us so that we pray, Christ who ever lives to make intercession, and the Spirit who works in us to pray and himself prays for us with unutterable groaning. Prayer is not a solitary activity. It is made to the Father in the Son by the Spirit. It is God himself working in us, breathing through us, as it were, back to himself, lifting us up so that we have fellowship in prayer in the heavenly places with the triune God.

Many saints grow discouraged in prayer, finding it to be more difficult than they think it should be. If it’s an offering up to the Father of our desires, in the name of the Son, by the help of the Spirit, how difficult could it be? Given the great salvation that we have in him, would we not be most eager to confess our sins and acknowledge his mercies? These and other matters associated with prayer are addressed with great skill and insight in the timeless work on prayer by Ole Hallesby (1879–1961). This is no new book but a classic written by a Norwegian pietist pastor, who also worked as a seminary professor in Oslo for many years, having been imprisoned in World War II for his resistance to the Nazi regime. This is a book that has gone through dozens of editions since its first publication in 1931 and that Augsburg Fortress Press keeps in print.

A few caveats about Hallesby’s book. As a conservative pietist, he has some theological positions out of sync with confessional Presbyterianism, evident at points where he treats predestination, the extent of the atonement, and like issues. He tends toward the mystical at times, giving mild credence to visions and other non-cessationist phenomena. All told, however, his theology is better than one might expect, particularly as it pertains to the plight of man and the sole sufficiency of Christ our redeemer. In fact, what he gets right in this book more than makes up for his theological deficiencies. This is one of the best books that I have ever read on prayer, and likely to be of significant comfort and help to saints struggling with the holy calling of prayer.

In his first chapter, a long one entitled “What Prayer Is,” we can immediately and thankfully sense the difference between this work and so many others on prayer, particularly of the last half-century. Most books on prayer of recent years have had the “how to become a prayer warrior” flavor about them, leaving honest souls weighed down, feeling that sinners the likes of us have little hope of ever growing in our prayer lives. Hallesby is quite different, immediately acknowledging the depth of our plight and treating the whole subject of prayer with refreshing honesty. Hallesby deals at some length with our helplessness and faith, arguing that prayer consists largely of two things: the recognition on our part of our utter helplessness, and the belief that Christ is the only one who can do something about it. We must recognize, because we are creatures, and sinful ones at that, that we are helpless. That alone, however, would lead to despair. The realization of our helplessness must be coupled with faith, belief in the Lord Jesus Christ as the only one who can do us poor sinners any good. In one sense, Hallesby says time and again, prayer is simply letting in Christ who is knocking at the door of our heart. God both initiates prayer and is its answer.

Hallesby deals with “Difficulties in Prayer” in chapter 2. Many believers wonder how prayer has gone from being the delight that it was earlier in their Christian lives to the burden that it often becomes. In part, Hallesby writes, this is due to several difficulties: we think that we must help God to fulfill our prayers; we think that prayer involves commanding God to do our bidding; and we fail to pray in Jesus’s name. Failing to pray in Jesus’s name means failing to rest profoundly in him, failing to see our prayer chamber as a resting place “in which we lie at the feet of Jesus and point to all those things which we lack and which make our hearts tired and weary” (61). We need to recover that sense of rest in Christ so that we would look forward to entering into prayer.

Prayer is resting in Christ, but prayer is also work to which we are to be committed throughout the whole of our Christian life. Chapter 3 is about this holy work and calling: It was the calling of the apostles to conquer the world by and through the work of prayer. Hallesby suggests that we should pray for all that we encounter, and if that seems an undue burden, he suggests that since we criticize others easily and quickly, why not pray for them instead? We need to come to see that prayer is the most blessed work in which we can engage. It is, in fact, “the most important work in the kingdom” (70). I recall visiting a dear saint years ago when I was an intern. I sought to encourage her that, though home-bound, she could still play an important role in the life of the church by study and prayer. My suggestion yielded something I did not expect: she reluctantly revealed that she read the Bible through seven times a year and prayed at least two hours daily, including through the local church directory (of over two hundred members) daily and the entire OP directory weekly. What a mighty work in which she was engaged! I left duly humbled, realizing what a spiritual pygmy I was compared to this giant.

I also recall encouraging my father-in-law when he was downcast because he was no longer able to be active in all the life of the church as he had been. As I told him, he may have been the most important member of the church, because of the amount of time that he spent in prayer for the church, his family, friends, and neighbors. Hallesby rightly argues that prayer is a prerequisite to all the other work of the church, to preaching, pastoring, etc. Because prayer gives expression to our utter dependence, the Lord is often pleased to use that to make effectual the other means of grace. The means of grace are efficacious only as the Spirit of God empowers them, and prayer is that needy posture whereby we seek the Spirit’s blessing on the appointed means. Without prayer, all of our preaching and sacramental administration remains fruitless. Prayer is that waiting upon God in which we acknowledge that he and he alone can bless and we look to him for that blessing in all the means that he has appointed.

Chapters 4 and 5 are on “wrestling in prayer.” Many Christians express perplexity as to why prayer entails so much difficulty and suffering. Hallesby answers:

If prayer is, as we have seen, the central function of the new life of faith, the very heart-beat of our life in God, it is obvious that our prayer life must become the target against which Satan directs his best and most numerous darts.” (89)

The enemy appeals to our carnal nature, seeking to enlist the cooperation of our flesh in the battle against our prayer life. All of our difficulties in prayer arise because “we are not in harmony with the Spirit of Prayer” (100). Because of our persistent fleshliness and neediness, all prayer ultimately becomes prayer for “the Spirit of Prayer” (101). The last chapter of the book, chapter 11, treats the need of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Prayer (169–176).

It is often, wrongly, thought that wrestling in prayer means wrestling with God until he yields up what it is that we seek. But, Hallesby declares, such a notion is pagan. In fact, Hallesby insists several times in this book, those who say “we should pray . . . in order to get God to give us something” (153) reveal that their view of prayer is not Christian but pagan. Though passages like Genesis 32:22–32 and Matthew 15:1–8, not to mention Luke 18:1–8, might suggest to some that wrestling in prayer does mean “seeking to get something” from God, “our striving [in prayer] is a struggle, not with God, but with ourselves” (110). It’s a struggle with our selfishness and our sense of ease. Hallesby has a wonderful treatment of this (as he does of many of the biblical passages treating prayer), ending with a helpful treatment on prayer and fasting, the last being a lost discipline among the broader Christian public.

In chapter 6, Hallesby addresses misuses of prayer, such as that of James and John in their request to sit on Jesus’s right hand in the coming Kingdom. Hallesby notes how tenderly the Lord treats James and John, though the disciples are angry with them. The Lord is quite kind to us, giving us what we need and withholding what we don’t need, answering our prayers always for our good and his glory, even when we misuse prayer (James 4:3). In chapter 7, Hallesby addresses the meaning of prayer: “Prayer is given and ordained for the purpose of glorifying God” (129). Doubtless we receive many benefits; in fact, we receive just what we need in prayer. And the wonderful truth is, that which we most need as God’s children, and that which most glorifies him, are one and the same. Prayer is coming to him in acknowledged helplessness, giving everything over to the Lord, resting and trusting in him to do what is most needed, and waiting upon him. This is what Paul did. He prayed three times to be relieved of his thorn in the flesh. The Lord told him that he would continue to suffer, because, in Paul’s weakness, the Lord’s strength was made perfect (2 Cor. 12:9–10). Even Jesus prayed three times for the cup to depart. But he also prayed, “nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (KJV Luke 22:42). The ultimate goal of prayer is not that our way would prevail but that our hearts would be brought into perfect conformity with his and that our ultimate prayer would be “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven” (KJV Matt. 6:10).

In his chapter 8 on “forms of prayer,” Hallesby’s pietism shines through, especially in his conviction that prayer should be “free and spontaneous” (137). He is no fan of prayer books, though I would advise a judicious use of things like Valley of Vision, the Trinity Hymnal, the Book of Common Prayer (1928 or before) to help us, particularly one struggling in forming prayers. He then lists five kinds of prayers (supplicatory, thanksgiving, praise, conversation, and wordless). There is no explicit mention of confession of sin here, though presumably it’s part of supplication (for forgiveness); it’s still odd given the book’s constant emphasis on how weak, needy, sinful, and helpless we are that there is no explicit section here on confession of sin. Nonetheless, he gets at the heart of prayer several times in this chapter, writing, “to pray is to let Jesus into our lives” and “prayer is the breath of the soul” (145). While he is hardly a confessional Calvinist, we ought not too quickly to dismiss his statements about “letting Jesus in.” The first chapter sets this plate well and convincingly: Jesus initiates the relationship, but we must ever open up ourselves to him, and this is no small part of prayer.

He also deals in chapters 9 and 10 with “problems of prayer” and the “school of prayer,” in which we work through objections and are taught the necessary self-denial for prayer. In terms of the later, all self-denial comes from the Spirit enabling us to die to the flesh so that we might live to prayer. As far as the problems of prayer are concerned, Hallesby lists five, including: How can prayer, being weak, accomplish great things? Why should we pray? Does God need intercessory prayer? Is prayer consistent with God’s government of the world? And does God answer the prayers of the unconverted? These and other answers can be found in Hallesby’s warm, encouraging and helpful book. A series of study questions for each chapter, under the rubric of Review, Examine, Apply, Compare, and Think have been added in more recent editions of the book.

It’s impossible to replicate in a review the encouragement and, frankly, delight that this book affords. One is often asked to write in an area of expertise. Who can say that they are such on prayer? I am certainly not, but I have read a few books and preached a bit on the subject. There are excellent things by John Owens, Matthew Henry, and many other older writers on prayer. There are some good things by newer writers, particularly on the Lord’s Prayer. But for the struggling and the discouraged, for those keenly sensing their helplessness, I have not read anything in memory more fitting than Hallesby’s work on prayer. If that “sweet hour of prayer” seems to be eluding you, perhaps it would be worthwhile to peruse (prayerfully, of course) Hallesby’s modern classic.

Alan D. Strange is associate professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in New Lenox, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, March, 2012.

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