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The great Southern Presbyterian theologian, Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898), described prayer as the Christian’s vital breath. Just as you don’t need to be told to breathe, so you don’t need to be commanded to pray. Even when you are not fully conscious of it, if you are regenerate, if the Spirit of Christ dwells in you, you have ”irrepressible promptings” to talk to your heavenly Father.

Prayer is the vital breath of religion in the soul. It cultivates our sense of dependence and of God’s sovereignty. By confessing our sins, the sense of sin is deepened. By rendering thanks, gratitude is enlivened. By adoring the divine perfections, we are changed into the same image, from glory to glory. From all this it is apparent that prayer is the Christian’s vital breath. If God had not required it, the Christian would be compelled to offer it by his own irrepressible promptings. If he were taught to believe that it was not only useless, but wrong, he would doubtless offer it in his heart in spite of himself, even though he were obliged to accompany it with a petition that God would forgive the offering. To have no prayer is, for man, to have no religion.

[Robert L. Dabney, Systematic Theology, p. 716]

The great danger is to turn the duty of prayer into a law that leaves you feeling guilty for your lack of prayer. The paradox of law-based motivations to godliness is that the more guilty you feel, the less you will do what you know you ought to do. And the more you fail, the more guilty you feel. It is the never-ending spiral of law-sin-guilt from which one cannot be extricated apart from the gospel.

So try something new. Follow Dabney’s encouragement and think of prayer as something that you already do without realizing it. Or, perhaps more accurately, as something that your regenerate heart wants to do, if only you would capitalize on those irrepressible promptings from the Spirit and turn them into conscious prayers. Instead of thinking of prayer as something arduous and requiring tremendous amounts of discipline and effort, see it as something easy. As soon as the thought, “I should pray about this,” pops into your heard, do it right then and there. Just talk to the Lord, even if for the briefest moment, even for a second or two (what I call “arrow prayers”).

Even when you have sunk into a pit of spiritual emptiness, where even the thought of trying to crawl out makes you feel exhausted and hopeless, the irrepressible promptings of the Spirit are there, perhaps nothing more than the simple, abject cry, “Lord, help me!” It is not really the case that we are prayerless. It is just that we have such an exalted conception of prayer that we have overlooked the many prayers that we have despised as unworthy of the name of prayer.

Lee Irons

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