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Can you pray too much?


Colin Sedgwick shares thoughts on how long we should be praying for

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I was still a very young, very new and very inexperienced minister, insecure and easily bruised. So a remark made by a keen young man in the church had a pretty demoralising effect on me.

As soon as he said to me, “Colin, you know what’s wrong with this church?” my heart sank. Whatever came next, I just knew it would make me feel a guilty failure. I wasn’t far wrong: “What’s wrong with this church is that we just don’t pray enough.”

Of course! As if I didn’t know!

Every now and then you would hear or read about churches that seemed to pray (and fast!) for days on end; ministers who spent hours in prayer before breakfast. And look at us! What puny, pathetic specimens we were! No wonder our little church was so lacking in spiritual vitality and power.

I can’t remember, all these years on, what I said in reply. Probably not much, preferring to slope off and lick my wounds.

But it wasn’t long before a nagging question entered my mind: all right, no doubt we didn’t pray enough, but how much prayer precisely would constitute “enough”? An hour a day? Three hours a day? A weekly night of prayer and fasting? Or what?

Which raised another question: was God up there in heaven holding a stop-watch while we prayed, to see if we were measuring up? Should we picture him shaking his head sadly after a prayer session and saying, “Oh dear, they’ve only managed seventeen and a half minutes! They really will have to do better than that.”

And I realised how meaningless - though well-intended - that young man’s comment was.

I’m not questioning that there may be times in our lives when we pray at length and perhaps with great intensity. Just recently I was reading about Samuel, the part where it says he “was angry, and cried out to the Lord all that night” (1 Samuel 15:11). And there’s plenty more like that in the Bible, not least in the experience of Jesus himself.

But there’s plenty too in the same vein as, for example, Paul in Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

Literally, Paul tells his Philippian friends to “make their requests known to God” (as if God doesn’t know them anyway!). What strikes me is his very matter-of-fact, down-to-earth tone. You could even describe it as business-like: there are things on your mind? - well, tell God about them then. What’s your problem?

Once you start thinking along these lines it’s hard not to think about the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13).

Have you ever thought how short it is? Even if you pray it very slowly, it takes less than sixty seconds. I realise, of course, that it’s good to flesh it out, so to speak, rather than simply repeat it as if it’s all the praying we need to do.

But the fact is that it’s extremely concise and condensed: those words “business-like” and “matter-of-fact” come to mind again. Indeed, you could almost see the Lord’s Prayer as a tick-box exercise: “... may your name be hallowed (tick)... may your kingdom come (tick)... may your will be done on earth as in heaven (tick)... give us today our daily bread (tick)... forgive us our trespasses (tick)...”

Don’t get me wrong - I’m not suggesting that we should pray the Lord’s Prayer in this way. But you get the point.

Here’s another story from those early days in my ministry. A young woman, a new convert, was talking to me about her struggles in prayer. Praying as long and hard as she knew how, but not seeming to get very far, a day came when she suddenly realised that - to use her own words - “I wasn’t really praying at all; what I was really doing was just worrying in prayer”.

Yes! Prayer, which we think of as such a spiritual activity, can in fact become nothing more than a “holy” form of fretting or brooding. And could it be that God up in heaven is thinking, “Oh, I do wish you would stop praying and get on and do something!”

“Present your requests to God”. If it takes faith to come to God in prayer (and it does), may it not also take faith to stop praying? The faith to say: “All right, I’ve told God all the things that are on my mind; I’ve laid them at his feet. Now it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get on with the business of the day.”

Pray in faith. And when you have said all that needs to be said, have the faith to stop praying, confident that you have been heard.



Picture | Prayer | Creationswap

Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister with many years’ experience in the ministry. He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications. He blogs at sedgonline.wordpress.com

Baptist Times, 18/08/2017
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