In the first chapter of Fresh Pathways on Prayer, pastor and author Julian Hardyman offers this delightful definition:
“Prayer is not writing ‘help’ on a piece of paper, putting it in a bottle and throwing it out to sea in the hope that someone will read it and do something. Prayer is talking to a heavenly Father in the total security of being in his family.”
Those are rich words, but the substance of this book is not spent simply on definitions, important as they are. The strength of this book lies in Hardyman’s practical and wise counsel on prayer. It’s not the work of some self-identifiying ‘prayer-expert’, but neither is it a book of formless theory that feels a million miles from everyday life. Rather, Hardyman effectively puts his arm round us and begins to share what he has found helpful in cultivating a prayer-full life.
The chapter titles give you a sense of how he does this: When I don’t know how to get (re-)started; When I don’t feel like praising him; When God seems invisible or distant. This is neither a biblical theology of prayer, nor a Bible-study on prayer. Instead Hardyman begins from the assumption that many of us struggle with prayer – and find it strange to talk about it. Some of us will find prayer unrewarding, and some of us just don’t really pray. As such, Hardyman begins from these issues or feelings that put us off prayer and aims to offer ‘ideas for going deeper in prayer, particularly prayer as the expression of our relationship with God and one of the main way we experience God.’
Talking about Prayer
I wonder if there is sometimes a reluctance to spell out the ‘practicalities’ of prayer. Maybe we’re nervous of imposing a particular way of praying? We certainly don’t want to be legalistic. And maybe some of us would say that the way to grow prayerfulness is to talk less about ‘prayer’ and more about Jesus and the gospel and how God is now our heavenly father. That’s what will lead to more prayer.
Certainly, prayer flows from seeing the wonder of the gospel. If prayer is ‘the chief expression of faith’ (a la Calvin), then the way to grow it is to grow in faith, and we know ‘faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ’ (Romans 10:17). As Mike Reeves puts it in Enjoy Your Prayer Life (my review), ‘faith – and so prayer – is birthed by the gospel’.
But I don’t think that means we shouldn’t get practical and talk about the nuts and bolts – and my sense is that Hardyman agrees, hence the book. Of course, the aim isn’t to over-complicate prayer and turn it into a ‘thing’, but if we’re never talking about prayer, then we’re not really helping anyone imagine what prayerfulness could look like. And whilst we can model it on a Sunday at church, or in one-to-one meetings, or when people are invited into our homes, that seems to still be giving a fairly selective impression of prayer. In fact, this then works against our original thesis! Because we’re only demonstrating prayer in certain, typically public, situations, then we are communicating a model of prayer, but it’s a fairly limited model that sees prayer as something confined to gatherings of Christians.
And as well as talking about our prayer lives, maybe we also have to ask whether our culture of not-talking-about-prayer-and-just-talking-about-the-gospel really is breeding prayerful Christian lives and churches, or if it’s in fact inadvertently cultivating a prayerless culture. Hence, these are some of the reasons why I was so grateful for Handyman’s attempt to begin that ‘fuller’ conversation.
Listening into a Conversation
One of the tools Hardyman uses throughout the book is to imagine a dialogue about prayer between two Christians. These really help you work a question or challenge through (such as busyness or apathy), by opening up the issue and seeing the way our hearts often work. Inevitably such dialogue may seem unrealistic to some of us – after all, we’re all different – and there were a couple of times where I found myself thinking, ‘I’d put it differently to that bloke’.
But of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing: we’re all learning! And Hardyman is careful not to say that the counsel modelled in these fictional conversations is infallible. He instead gets the reader to reflect on what they found helpful or what they particularly identified with in the conversations.
Brimming with Ideas
Whilst the book unpacks a clear and understandable theology of prayer (as seen in the definition in the opening paragraph above), Hardyman is also full of ideas to help embed prayer into all of life. For example, he talks about having set times of the day where he uses particular ‘set’ words to pray, e.g. the Lord’s Prayer and the ‘Jesus Prayer’ (‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner‘). He helpfully points out that Jesus’ warning in Matthew 6:7-8 is not a command to never repeat oneself, but is instead against repeating oneself mindlessly in the hope that God will hear us if we so repeat. And so praying something over and over may legitimately be a way to ‘hide’ God’s word deep in our hearts (Psalm 119:11). Such prayers and truths are thus ‘closer to the surface of our active memory’. When unexpected situations occur or we’re left wondering about lift, these prayers are what’s in our heads and hearts. As Hardyman acknowledges, this is not dissimilar to memorising Bible verses in order that they ‘bubble’ up unexpectedly and helpfully when perhaps we might not expect them, or when we struggle to find words or to anchor our thoughts. This may seem unfamiliar to those of us who tend to just pray ‘off the cuff’, but it’s a really helpful challenge.
I also found his description of ‘drawing near to God’ (as in Hebrews 10:19-22) helpful to ponder as I think about my daily routines. Likewise Hardyman’s attempt at unpacking what the apostle Paul means when he describes contemplating the Lord’s glory (2 Cor 3:18) is worthy of further consideration. There’s also useful advice for extroverts and introverts in prayer.
As well as being something we don’t often talk about, I can’t help observing that prayer is also a subject that evangelical Christians often feel guilty about. When asked about our prayer lives, we tend to think in terms of ‘could do better’, as if we were filling in a school report card. Maybe the problem is that we’re treating prayer like a Top Trumps attribute: ‘How are you at prayer?’ Think, for example, when was the last time you heard someone speaking positively about their experience or practice of prayer? When did you last hear someone delighting in private or corporate prayer? Perhaps sharing the joy or comfort they had found in entrusting something to God, or an awareness of his presence through speaking with God?
Yes, we need to challenge our own self-sufficiency and apathy to the things of God. Yes, prayerlessness is evidence of a heart that thinks it can ‘go it alone’. Yes, there’s always room for a relationship to grow in trust and intimacy and understanding. In other words, we all know that none of us have a ‘perfect prayer life’, but does that mean we can’t speak positively of the impact communing with God through prayer has upon our lives?
That’s part of what I really enjoyed about this book. It gives you a vision for what your prayer life could look like. It’s realistic about the challenges of busyness and tiredness and self-reliance, but it’s also positive and inspiring about the joy of prayer.
Fresh Pathways on Prayer will be a breath of fresh air for Christians who wish their lives to be more marked and shaped by a trust in our good, good Father, the Sovereign Lord who invites us to come to him through Christ.
You can pick up a copy of the book from the publisher here.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher, but I hope this is still a fair and honest review.