Pray Until You Pray

Pray until you pray. That is Puritan advice. It does not simply mean that persistence should mark much of our praying—though admittedly that is a point the Scriptures repeatedly make. Even though he was praying in line with God’s promises, Elijah prayed for rain seven times before the first cloud appeared in the heavens. The Lord Jesus could tell parables urging persistence in prayer (Luke 11:5-13). If some generations needed to learn that God is not particularly impressed by long-winded prayers, and is not more disposed to help us just because we are garrulous, our generation needs to learn that God is not impressed by the kind of brevity that is nothing other than culpable negligence. He is not more disposed to help us because our insincerity and spiritual flightiness conspire to keep our prayers brief. Our generation certainly needs to learn something more about per-sistence in prayer. Even so, that is not quite what the Puritans meant when they exhorted one another to “pray until you pray.”

What they meant is that Christians should pray long enough and honestly enough, at a single session, to get past the feeling and the formalism and unreality that attends not a little praying. We are especially prone to such feelings when we pray for only a few minutes, rushing to be done with mere duty. To enter the spirit of prayer, we must stick to it for a while. If we “pray until we pray,” eventually we come to delight in God’s presence, to rest in his love, to cherish his will. Even in dark or agonised praying, we somehow know we are doing business with God. In short, we discover a little of what Jude means when he exhorts his readers to “pray in the Holy Spirit” (Jude 20) — which presum-ably means it is treacherously possible to pray not in the Spirit.

If God is the one “who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13), then of course he is the God who by his Spirit helps us in our praying. Every Christian who has learned the rudiments of praying knows by experience at least a little of what this means. The Puritans knew a great deal of it. That is why they exhorted one another to “pray until you pray.” Such advice is not to become an excuse for a new legalism: there are startling examples of very short, rapid prayers in the Bible (e.g., Neh. 2:4). But in the Western world we urgently need this advice, for many of us in our praying are like nasty little boys who ring front door bells and run away before anyone answers.

Pray until you pray.

— Don Carson

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