June 18, 2021

Prayer, the Soul's Blood

In his first poem on prayer, George Herbert (1593–1633) refers to prayer as the soul’s blood. What can he mean by this? Two things, I think.

First, I think he means that, just as the blood is one of the essential agents for sustaining our life, so prayer is absolutely essential for sustaining and bringing life to our soul, because it is one of the most fundamental ways to keep our relationship with God vital and vibrant. Of course a person can “get by” in life without actively seeking communion with the Lord, but why would you? Why starve yourself, why deprive yourself, when you can be coming to know the God in whose very presence is fullness of joy?

But there is a second way in which prayer is the soul’s blood, in that it can be spilled out. Every Christian soon comes to learn that earnest prayer is work, sometimes very hard work, and that it is labor. When our Lord implores us to “beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest,” he is using a word suggesting a fervency and an earnestness. “Beseeching” is not the polite act of folding the hands and offering up an effete request, rather it is earnestly grabbing someone by the lapels, fixing them with your eye and imploring them to help you out in your situation. Jesus speaks with approval in Lk. 18:5 of people who ‘wear God out’ with their importunate prayers, and Paul talks about our approaching God with boldness and confident access. A contemporary of Hudson Taylor said of his prayers, “I had never heard anyone pray like that. There was a simplicity, a tenderness, a boldness, a power that hushed and subdued me, and made it clear that God had admitted him to the inner circle of His friendship. Such praying was evidently the outcome of long tarrying in the secret place, and was as dew from the Lord.” The soul’s blood, indeed!

Herbert also calls prayer ‘reversed thunder’—thunder normally rings down loudly from heaven to earth, but in prayer, our Lord has given us His own authority to thunder at Heaven. John Donne (1572–1631) says of prayer, “Earnest Prayer hath the nature of Importunity… Prayer hath the nature of Impudency; We threaten God in prayer… And God suffers [permits] this impudency, and more. Prayer hath the nature of Violence… we besiege God… and we take God Prisoner… and God is glad to be straitened [squeezed] by us in that siege.”

Are we in the habit of thundering at Heaven? Are we in the habit of importuning God with our requests? Are we developing the characteristic of beseeching our God, of spilling our soul’s blood in praying for this world?

In his book, A Call to Spiritual Reformation, D.A. Carson examines about a dozen prayers of the Apostle Paul for those he cared for, and Carson shows that these prayers can be examples for us, to show us how a godly person prays. Earnest prayer is a demonstration both of faith and of love, of faith that our gracious God hears and heeds our prayers, and of love for those we pray for, whether they are close by or distant.

Let us demonstrate our faith, demonstrate our love, let us nurture our souls, let us be willing to spill our blood: let us learn to pray, and persevere at it.

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