Prayer and the Affections

Private prayer is taught in Scripture and almost universally exhorted by the Christian world in books, sermons and even hymns. The fact that these biblical and extra-biblical exhortations exist testifies that we are prone to ‘faint’ when it comes to prayer. We are prone to ‘cease’. A kind of inertia within us creates drag and slows whatever momentum we seem to make in our private worship.

The modern exhortations seem to take two different approaches to grow and sustain prayer. To generalise and simplify, we might term these the discipline approach and the desire approach.

The discipline approach exhorts Christians to practise self-denial, rise early, keep prayer lists or journals, and otherwise plan, structure and supervise themselves in the training of prayer. There is sometimes a suspicion that people who do not pray with such precision are guilty of messy, vague and unclear prayers. Prayer is seen as obedience to the many commands to pray, and reluctance and discomfort are to be mortified as works of the flesh. Desire is often seen as a happy consequence of dying to self or gaining a good habit of prayer; its absence or presence is however regarded as fickle and unreliable as a motive or means. Sometimes, the disciplines are valued as ends in themselves.

The desire approach exhorts Christians to pray from a wholehearted, inclined and united heart, that comes to God as He is with our desires as they now are, and seeks to gain greater desire from the act of prayer. The Spirit’s filling and illumination are primary to desire, so that God is the source of our prayer, not our own willpower. Here there is usually an antipathy towards prayer fulfilled as a duty, and a suspicion that prayer which is performed as an obligation is prayer that is insincere. Discipline is not shunned, but it is seen in reverse order from the discipline advocates: desire becomes the engine for good habits. (Often, such people exhort us to ask God to change our hearts’ desires when they are cold, instead of applying more discipline. Consequently, people exposed to such ideas find their hearts’ coldness puzzling and discouraging, since they asked God for a change of heart.)

Certainly no one subscribes entirely to either one or the other, everyone recognises the need for both. However, people tend to fall on one side of the spectrum or another, placing either desire or discipline as primary to prayer.

If we believe the affections are central to the Christian life, we believe they are the driving force behind true religion. This, in turn, means that the affections must drive prayer. And viewing the affections as primary to prayer gives us a somewhat conciliatory position on the matter of desire and discipline.

On the one hand, the affections are, in one sense, the desires of the heart. They are the inclinations, the dispositions, the tastes, the sensibilities of the heart. They are what (and how) the person loves and values things and people. In this vein, we would say that desire is primary to prayer. Furthermore, we’d agree that the affections are not driven by an act of will. In fact, the reverse is true. We agree that the inclinations of our hearts are things which cannot be changed by direct control. Prayer which ignores the current disposition of the heart, and seeks to overcome it with sheer willpower, may fall into the trap of Colossians 2:23.

On the other hand, we assert that there are ways of shaping and driving the affections. (We disagree that it comes by merely pleading with God to give you more desire.) We have discussed previously how the affections are shaped by imagination, example and exposure. And this is where discipline takes its place. Only by disciplining ourselves to engage in the act of prayer, can we be shaped by it. Only by structuring circumstances to make prayer more likely, or more lively, or more specific, can our hearts gain a taste for it. And here is where I’d part company with die-hards in both groups.

I suggest in the matter of exposure, we ought to discipline ourselves to experience prayer more and more intensely than we do. (Prayer-lists, alarm-clocks, and journals may be helpful to these ends.) However, not to the point where prayer has become a bitter experience, for then we must overcome even more mountainous opposition to it the next time we attempt it. Self-denial is one thing; putting a hedge of thorns in your own way is another. Rather, we should coax ourselves out, aiming for a few minutes earlier, a few minutes longer, or a focus that is more intense than previously. We must realise that a taste for prayer must be nursed, not force-fed. Deny the flesh mercilessly, yes; but give your heart time to grow.

In terms of example, we can do no better than to be frequently reminded of Christ’s prayer life. The prayers of Paul give us insights into God’s priorities. For that matter, there is a place to be exposed to the prayers of others, seeing by example how other believers have addressed God. Reading books on prayer and accounts of the prayer and piety of past saints can shape us to desire prayer more. However, let us beware that we do not parrot one man’s discipline, hoping it will produce in us overnight what took many years to shape in him. Rightly used, example will shape our affections towards prayer. Discipline will make sure that we are not far from the examples of godly pray-ers and prayers.

Finally, what of the religious imagination in prayer? It would seem to me that when David prays, as recorded in the Psalms, he more often than not addresses God through metaphor (“my Rock”, “my Shield” “my Shepherd”). He is concerned to get his heart to apprehend what God is like, before his understanding makes requests of God. I would suggest this is right. We are not to ‘visualise’ God. However, we are to seek to apprehend who He is, by what He is like. When our hearts are gripped by who He is, they gain spiritual momentum to maintain the act of praying, and they pray aright. Here discipline would insist that our wandering thoughts focus on biblical metaphors, and maintain a steady focus on them. Once again, not until it is painful and plainly distasteful, but longer than our Google-scan minds are used to.

A.W. Tozer said, “The presence of God is not imaginary, neither is prayer the indulgence of a delightful fancy. The objects that engage the praying man’s attention, while not material, are nevertheless completely real; more certainly real, it will at last be admitted, than any earthly object. The value of the cleansed imagination in the sphere of religion lies in its power to perceive in natural things shadows of things spiritual…I long to see the imagination released from its prison and given to its proper place among the sons of the new creation. What I am trying to describe here is the sacred gift of seeing, the ability to peer beyond the veil and gaze with astonished wonder upon the beauties and mysteries of things holy and eternal. The stodgy pedestrian mind does no credit to Christianity. Let it dominate the church long enough and it will force her to take one of two directions: either toward liberalism, where she will find relief in a false freedom, or toward the world, where she will find an enjoyable but fatal pleasure.”

Our failures are usually twofold: we either attempt too much, and failing, we withdraw for days or weeks, or we do not pray because our desires are not present, and we think it more sincere to not pray. Either one is a failure to see desire and discipline correctly. You cannot overcome your heart’s tastes by ‘cramming’ prayer. You cannot wait for your heart to love prayer on its own.

For our affections to be ordinate in the matter of prayer, discipline has its place to expose us to more and better prayer, to study examples of prayer, and to meditate carefully and seriously on God as revealed in Scripture. When discipline attends to these circumstances, desire may slowly and steadily grow.

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2 Responses to “Prayer and the Affections”

  1. Simon Thomas Says:

    Still struggle with Prayer, J C Ryle says you can almost refrain from other means of grace but never prayer! Do you think its ok to use read written prayers like “valley of Vision” purtain prayers?

  2. David Says:

    I do see value in written prayers like those found in Valley of Vision. The greatest value would be to internalise well-thought prayers, and begin to pray with the same clarity and intensity yourself. And then there are times when you may be so weak that you would want another man to simply do the praying for you, and hence the written prayer.

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