The story is told of a slave in Maryland in the 1800s known as Praying Jacob. Jacob obtained the nickname due to his habit of praying three times a day, at the same time each day, regardless of where he might be and what he might be doing. One day, Jacob’s master, a cruel man, strode up to him while he was praying, held a gun to his head, and ordered him to stop. Jacob calmly finished his prayer and respectfully said to his master, “Your loss will be my gain.”
Where did Jacob discover this habit of praying three times a day? No doubt, he looked to Scripture, where he saw Daniel following the same pattern. No doubt, he took inspiration from Scriptures like Psalm 55:17, which reads, “Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.” He was following, in other words, a pattern set by saints who had gone before. Where did he get the courage and the fortitude to persist in prayer despite the threat to his life? No doubt, through prayer!
As we continue considering what it means to walk with God, I want to consider the reality that one way to walk with God is to walk with God’s saints. By this, I do not mean regular church attendance or praying in the public gatherings of the church, though those are good things to do. I have in mind, instead, the idea of learning to walk with God by learning from previous generations of saints who have similarly walked with God. Specifically, I want to focus on learning from their prayers.
The writer to the Hebrews noted that, when believers gather with the church to worship, they come “to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (12:23). Whatever else it might be saying, this verse teaches that the church today cannot be divorced from the church in the past. We stand in a long line of saints who have gone before us and we should learn from their devotion to the Lord. Previous generations can play a significant role in teaching us to walk with God.
Churches like ours pay too little attention to church history. We easily forget that generations of Christians in past eras have learned to walk with God and have much to teach us in that regard. One way we can learn from them is by learning from their prayers.
Many Christian traditions make good use of the prayers of saints of old. Anglicanism, for example, employs The Book of Common Prayer, which offers a host of old prayers that can be prayed at specific times and in specific circumstances. Phyllis Tickle has produced a similar work titled The Divine Hours: A Manual for Prayer. The Valley of Vision and Piercing Heaven are two books that compile and categorise Puritan prayers to help believers to pray in different circumstances. While Christians in our own tradition don’t typically make as much use of written prayers as other traditions, there are some good reasons to do so.
First, using a prayer book may help you remain regular in prayer. If it is part of your daily habit to prayerfully read a prayer from one of the above books (or many others like it), you will find yourself praying with regularity.
Second, using a prayer book will help you to remain connected to the larger church. As you pray the prayers of The Valley of Vision or Piercing Heaven, you hold hands with brothers and sisters who have prayed the same words for generations. As you use these resources, you pray the same words that brothers and sisters around the world are using today. It is difficult to isolate your relationship with God with your relationship with his people if you are praying with them.
Third, a good prayer book is an invaluable resource for teaching you how to pray. There is nothing inauthentic about written prayers. Spontaneity is not inherently superior to prepared prayers. Collected prayers are rich in their theology and devotion and can help us learn how to pray more effectively. (In this regard, Piercing Heaven is a good start, since, unlike The Valley of Vision, it contains prayers that are richly and authentically Puritan but in modernised language.)
Regular prayer is indispensable to a growing walk with God, and spontaneous prayer is good and necessary. But learning to pray by praying with the church throughout the ages will certainly assist you as you walk with God. Why not try it?