George Herbert on Prayer (4)
Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” Luke 11.1
Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
- George Herbert
The disciples recognized what everyone understands who prays: Prayer isn’t easy. We don’t know how to pray as we should, as the Apostle Paul reminds us (Rom. 8.26). We have difficulty controlling our thoughts in prayer; like the anonymous Irish poet who wrote, “On the Flightiness of Thought,” we understand that we need “the grace of the sevenfold Spirit” to keep our thoughts in check and focused on the Lord.
Prayer is just hard work – orare est laborare. Yet prayer is the life-breath of faith. What breathing is to our mortal bodies, prayer is to our souls. Stop breathing and you cease to live; stop praying and your soul will wither and die.
George Herbert knew that we need the Lord’s help to enable us to pray as we should. “Prayer is God’s breath in man returning to his birth…” God breathes His life into us by His Spirit, and we are born again; then, by that same Spirit, He empowers us to pray, acknowledging Him as our Father and beginning that communion with Him which is the secret and power of true prayer (Gal. 4.4-6).
In prayer we “breathe back” to God what He “breathes into us” by His Word and Spirit. As He shapes, stirs, and enlarges our souls – heart, mind, and conscience – we commune with Him in prayer, bringing our spirits into line with His so that, through the promises of Christ, we participate in His very being (2 Pet. 1.4).
Prayer is a bit like CPR in that respect, except that we don’t just need prayer to “jump start” our spiritual lives; we need it continually. We need to know the breath of the Lord – His Word and Spirit – filling the “lungs of our souls”, so that we can respire in His strength the praise, thanks, worship, supplication, and intercession which are the content of our prayers.
We need God to teach us how to pray, as the disciples understood. But we also need Him to call us to prayer (Jer. 33.3), to sustain us in it, guide us through it, and nourish us by it. God receives the prayers of His faithful people like sweet incense (Ps. 141.2): He “breathes” our prayers in with His own “breath” and they give Him delight, for He recognizes in them in His own breath, His Word and Spirit.
We need to keep our “spiritual lungs” free of the contaminates of the world so that, when we come to prayer, our minds can be clearly focused on the Lord, our hearts fully devoted to Him, our consciences rooted in pleasing Him, and all our words and strength “breathed” toward the Lord with the breath of His Word and Spirit. Thus our prayers will return to Him Who birthed us, sustains us, and receives our breaths of prayer as a sweet offering of true spiritual life.
A conversation starter: Talk with a Christian friend about how you can help one another better to prepare for the work of prayer, so that when you enter into prayer, you will have that sense of “breathing” with the Lord’s breath before and with Him.
T. M.’s books on prayer include God’s Prayer Program, a guide to learning how to pray the psalms; The Psalms for Prayer, in which all the psalms are set up to guide you in how to pray them; and If Men Will Pray, a serious attempt to call men of faith to greater diligence in prayer. Follow the links provided here to purchase these from our online store.