Prayer All-Stars, Why I'm Not One, and Why That's Okay

[I'm working on finishing up drafts for the chapters to Live Prayerfully: Three Time-Proven Ways Ordinary Lives Become Prayerful. The general of the aim of the book is to provide guidance on historic practices of prayer in simple ways. Below is an excerpt from a section of the third chapter (Praying With Your Own Words), which discusses why it's okay if we don't have some of the same kinds of prayer experiences as famous Christians.] One of my favorite stories about a prayerful person is a story about George Mueller. Some of you may recognize his name. He became a fairly well known for his work with orphans in the 1800s in England. He decided from the outset of his ministry that he would never ask for financial support for his orphanage. He would simply ask God to provide for his needs through prayer, and trust that God would do so.

By the end of his life, Mueller’s orphanages had cared for more than 10,000 children, and he established 117 schools which provided education to more than 120,000 kids. He was so effective at providing an education to poor children that he was actually accused of “raising the poor above their natural station in life.” And all of this was through a man who was radically dependent on God and was extremely prayerful.

The story goes that Mueller was on a ship that was sailing for America, when they came into a dense fog.

“Because of it the captain had remained on the bridge continuously for twenty-four hours, when Mr. Mueller came to him and said, ‘Captain, I have come to tell you that I must be in Quebec on Saturday afternoon.’ When informed that it was impossible, he replied: ‘Very well. If the ship cannot take me, God will find some other way. I have never broken an engagement for fifty-seven years. Let us go down into the chartroom and pray.’

“The captain continues the story thus: ‘I looked at that man of God and thought to myself, What lunatic asylum could that man have come from? I never heard such a thing as this. ‘Mr. Mueller,’ I said, ‘do you know how dense the fog is?’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘my eye is not on the fog, but on the living God, who controls every circumstance of my life.’ He knelt down and prayed one of those simple prayers, and when he had finished I was going to pray; but he put his hand on my shoulder and told me not to pray. ‘Firstly,’ he said, ‘because you do not believe God will, and secondly, I believe God has, and there is no need whatever for you to pray about it.’ I looked at him, and George Mueller said, ‘Captain, I have known my Lord for fifty-seven years, and there has never been a single day that I have failed to get an audience with the King. Get up and open the door, and you will find that the fog has gone.’ I got up and the fog was indeed gone. George Mueller was in Quebec Saturday afternoon for his engagement.” 

(Glenn Clark, as quoted in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants by Rueben P. Job)

Isn’t that great? I love to read the stories of some of the “prayer giants” like that. For more than 50 years, John Wesley awoke between 4-5 a.m. for prayer. He said that he often had so much to do in a day that he could not afford not to spend at least three hours in prayer.

I have read stories about men and women like that for years, and for a long time I imagined that if I was ever going to be teaching others about prayer, my doing so would be full of stories like theirs, trying to inspire us to imitate their efforts.

The main obstacle that keeps me from trying to inspire others to imitate the efforts of the Muellers and Wesleys of history is simple: I can’t imitate their efforts. I tried to pray like Wesley once. I gave up on day two, because, man, I was tired. To be someone who prays for hours every day, and sees things happen like fog disappearing from Mueller’s ship... I have started to believe that those kinds of experiences may not be for me, nor for most of us. And it’s interesting that while Wesley and others like him certainly urged others to pray, they generally never encouraged others to pray in the ways that they did.

So, at this point in my life, I think I’m okay never making it into the prayer hall of fame. I don’t need to become a superhero and have extraordinary experiences. Instead, what I really, deeply desire is simply to keep becoming a more prayerful person. Remember again the story of Albert Haase from our Introduction, whose spiritual director told him, “The point of praying is to make us prayerful people,” meaning that the point of the times that we spend set aside for prayer is so that we will be more able and likely to pray and be aware of God’s presence through the rest of our day. We pray during some parts of each day so that the rest of every day can be lived prayerfully

Therefore, please understand that we don’t do the kinds of things we discuss in this book in order to try to become the prayer all-stars. Rather, my hope is simply that we can learn time-proven ways of praying that have been helpful to other followers of Jesus for a very long time, some of whom we may know their names, but the huge majority of whom were never known beyond the people right around them.

I still think it’s good to be inspired by stories of people like Mueller or Wesley, but I hope that none of us have prayer’s equivalent of football’s all-pro quarterback in mind when we think of what it would mean to live a prayerful life. If we’re going to associate a word with the lives of God’s prayerful ones, I think it is much more helpful to us, and much more consistent with the message of the scriptures, to get rid of images and words like superstar or hero, and replace them with another, much simpler word: friend.