Praying with the ‘fire of God’s Word’: Whitney revives ancient spiritual discipline
EDITOR’S NOTE: In what follows, Donald S. Whitney, professor of biblical spirituality at Southern Seminary, discusses his book Praying the Bible with Towers editor S. Craig Sanders.
CS: You introduced the concept of praying Scripture in your book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. What’s the story behind how that section became the material for this book?
DW: March 1, 1985, I’m pastoring in the Chicago area and we had a guest speaker in our church for a few days leading morning and evening Bible studies. In the mornings he was taking us through the prayers of Paul. That’s where most people have heard something about praying the Bible, that we should pray these prayers today. And so that’s what he was doing. But then at one point he held up his Bible and said, “Folks, when you pray, use the prayer book.” And it just clicked for me that the whole Bible is a prayer book. So I started praying the Bible at that point. Many years later, I realized this is an ancient practice and many years after that discovered really it’s a biblical practice. Twice on the cross Jesus prays Psalms, and in Acts 4 when they pray and the place was shaken, they were praying Psalms. George Mueller had a great influence on me in seminary and I require students to read his biography for my Personal Spiritual Disciplines class. He said that for 10 years into what he called his “life of faith” — not when he’s a nobody, he’s already known around the world as a great man of prayer and faith — his habit was, after getting dressed, he would pray until breakfast. Sometimes it would take him 30 minutes to an hour before he got into the spirit of prayer. And only then did he really begin to pray. He would try to pray for 30 minutes to an hour and finally he would feel like praying. He said he did this until making one small alteration in his prayer life: he began to pray Scripture. That was very influential for me: The man considered by many of the greatest man of prayer and faith in history of the church said that his methodology was to pray Scripture. I can say that in all my devotional life there is nothing that more quickly and consistently kindles my cold heart like praying through Scripture. I have done that almost every day since March 1, 1985. I almost never feel like praying when I go to pray, but God said to Jeremiah, “Is not my word like a hammer and a fire?” I can take the fire of God’s Word and plunge it into my cold heart so that pretty soon I do begin to feel like praying. I think it’s fairly normal — you wake up, you go to pray, and if George Mueller didn’t feel like praying when he got up, don’t be surprised if we don’t feel like praying, too.
CS: You mention Mueller but recently your dissertation Finding God in Solitude on Jonathan Edwards’ personal piety was published. Did your study of Edwards in any way influence your understanding of prayer?
DW: In one of his sermons [“Hypocrites Deficient in the Duty of Prayer”] he argues from Luke 18 — the story of the Pharisee and the Publican — that the hypocrite can do just about everything that the true Christian can. What he can’t do is persistently pray in private because he has no appetite for it. He gets no recognition for it. If he prays in public everyone sees him and says, “Ooh, look at him,” but he won’t persistently pray in private. There’s no perceived benefit from man in doing so. So that sermon clarified and expressed some things very well. Edwards said if a person has no appetite for personal prayer, it looks very darkly upon his religion.
CS: You mentioned that this isn’t something that was invented in 1985; so really you’re reviving an ancient practice. Why do you think praying Scripture has disappeared from contemporary Christianity?
DW: Well, number one, as simple as it is, I doubt it’s been expressly taught, and you can’t expect people to do what they’ve never been taught to do. I think just about everyone does that every once in a while, although maybe not consciously. They read a verse in the Bible and they just pause and use those very words in talking to God. But in terms of making it a regular practice, they’ve not been taught to do that. To the degree that a given church minimizes the Bible in the pulpit, it will tend to be minimized in the life of the individual believer and their personal piety.
CS: You mentioned that boredom is a problem, “praying the same old things about the same old things.” What other factors do you think contribute to distracted prayer besides just saying the same old things?
DW: Our lives don’t tend to change dramatically from one day to the next. If your life doesn’t change dramatically from day to day, you’re going to pray about the same old things. People read the Bible every day and they close it and say, “I don’t remember a thing I’ve read.” If they don’t pause and meditate, it’s just going to be more words every day. But to pause and reflect and absorb the text, then the Word will do its work. That’s the single greatest devotional need for most Christians, I think: meditation on Scripture. That’s why they don’t remember what they read and that’s why they don’t feel what they read. So, reading the Bible gives us the information, the exposure to the truth, and that’s a starting place. Even Bible reading will feel routine and boring without meditation. In the same way, prayer and talking with God can be boring if you say the same old things about the same old things. So, prayer without variety leads to words without meaning.
CS: Thirty years ago, when you first began praying the Bible, you didn’t have the same technological distractions you have today. How does that change things?
DW: Well, it certainly is distracting, there’s no question about that. It’s a blessing and it has downsides. In one sense, in this world just about every blessing is a burden — there’s no greater blessing than a child, but there’s also no greater burden than that child. One of the downsides of technology is distraction. Everybody’s experience testifies to that. So for me, I keep the Bible on my phone. I use it to my benefit. The downside is if I don’t turn the phone off, I’ll get a phone call while I’m reading and praying. So the ubiquity of it can serve me, but it can be an equal distraction. I tend to think it probably, at least in terms of our mobile devices, is more distracting and problematic than it is helpful in balance. I used to carry a New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs book in my hip pocket so when I’m walking I just pull it out of my pocket. And it doesn’t ring. But God made us alive at this time in history and we’re supposed to live as biblically Christlike, Christ-centered Christians in this culture. Ecclesiastes tells us not to long for the “good old days.” We have phones and iPads, and we have to be Christ-centered Christians with our phones and iPads. I don’t think there are any secrets here, you just have to put distractions aside when it’s time to be alone with God.
CS: What are the hardest parts of the Bible to pray?
DW: Anything that we find devotionally difficult, we’re going to find more difficult to pray. Some people find Proverbs easy and even though I’ve read a chapter from Proverbs every day since the late 1970s, Proverbs is not easy for me to pray through because it jumps around. I love it, I read it every single day, but because it tends to jump thematically from one verse to the next, I find that somewhat distracting. I come back to the Psalms — they’re easier than the narratives, but once you try the narratives, the more difficult sections of the Prophets, the Pentateuch — those tend to be more challenging to pray through, just as they’re more challenging to be helpful devotional reading.
CS: How do we avoid vain repetition of Scripture with passages like the Lord’s Prayer?
DW: Well, with mindfulness of what we’re praying. But if you pray Scripture, if you pray the Bible, very soon you pray all the elements of the model prayer. And we know the apostles didn’t understand the Lord’s Prayer to be a set prayer because we never see them pray it again in the New Testament. We certainly may pray it as-is, but every other prayer in the New Testament is different than the model of prayer. If a person will make a habit of praying the Bible, they will incorporate all those elements — “Our Father who art in heaven” — you pray the Psalms, you’re going to pray praise. So, you will incorporate the elements of the model prayer if you consistently pray the Bible.