Nearly every morning, I am in the lap pool, doing my thirty minutes of swimming. It’s become my morning ritual—up at 4:45, in the pool by 5:30. I look at the clock and begin. There is some rigor to it all, but during the course of swimming, I engage in something far more strenuous—prayer.
Prayer is one of the most challenging disciplines of my life. Every day, I work through one aspect of God’s character, praying for it to become more embedded in my life and in the lives of my family and friends. Today is generosity. I work my way through my list of people, pray for different regions of the world, pray for our government (this is where I stop my laps and get on my knees!), pray for the church, pray for my work, pray for the oppressed, pray for those I know who need Christ, and pray for my life. This includes my future, my finances, my ministry, my needs, and my hopes. Both the end of my workout and the end of my prayers generally time out together.
Like swimming (and I do hate swimming), I have to stay at it. Like swimming, praying is not natural. It helps to know that, in the act, I am keeping company with God. It also helps that my praying comes after time in the Word. As Eugene Peterson put it, praying amounts to answering speech. God must always have the first word. So I enter my study before I head for the pool. It’s in the water that I begin to respond, I honor, give thanks, and then I ask. What I am learning most is that my asking must not be mere asking, but strenuous petition.
There is a reading from Harry Emerson Fosdick that I can’t get away from. It has become a necessary complement to my morning prayers. I reenter my study and reread. He checks my pleadings. Did they represent full-scale gushers or intermittent geysers? Were they lame prayers? Am I serious about this? As one put it, “Easiness of desire is a great enemy to the success of a good man’s prayer. It must be an intent, zealous, busy, operative prayer.” When we beg tamely, our prayers bring shame to our spirits.
In all of this, I find myself getting bolder about the things that matter. It’s not about praying louder or shifting to monotonous repetition (something the Pharisees did). It’s slowing, taking the time to back up certain requests with thoughtful reasoning. J.I. Packer teaches that we should lay before God the reasons why we think what we are asking for is right, especially if we are convinced they are in tune with the character of God and his ways. I will not give up unless God shows me otherwise. In the process, lesser concerns will get sifted out. There is an “I will do what it takes” to these prayers.
The parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) lends credibility to such acts. Jesus told this story to make a point—God invites us to pray and not give up. Importunate prayers. Prayers that are unrelenting. Insistent to the point of obstinate. At the end of the story, Jesus asks a fitting question, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” I hear him asking, “Will God find the kind of faith that asks and keeps asking, seeks and keeps seeking, knocks and keeps knocking?” E.M. Bounds must have understood this. After writing eight books on prayer, the author came to the conclusion: “Prayer in its highest form and grandest success assumes the attitude of a wrestler with God.”
This does not guarantee God’s answers. I still find myself knocking. Sometimes it feels like God is stalling. But as Fosdick puts it, persistent prayer is not about coaxing God. It is needed to express, and by expressing, deepen our readiness for the good for which we seek. “Some things God cannot give to a person until one has prepared and proved one’s spirit by persistent prayer.” Only then is the house ready and God can come in. I am finding that there are some rooms that are still not ready.