Prayer - Lesson 1

Obstacles to Prayer

You will gain insight into the struggles and obstacles people face in their prayer lives, particularly in the context of a secularized and technicalized world. The speaker shares their personal journey of feeling inadequate and guilty about prayer and the influence of their father, who was a great prayer warrior. They discuss the historical background of faith missionaries who relied solely on prayer for support, mentioning figures like George Müller and Hudson Taylor. The importance of breaking through personal barriers and inhibitions in prayer is emphasized, with an emphasis on each individual's unique relationship with the Lord. The speaker explores the connection between theology and prayer, the paradoxical detachment from prayer among theological students, and the prejudice against contemplative prayer and mysticism. They highlight the need to embrace a personal and authentic prayer life, while avoiding excessive self-centeredness. The lesson concludes with the reminder that prayer is a distinct and vital aspect of the Christian experience.

Lesson 1
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Obstacles to Prayer

I. Obstacles to Prayer

A. Personal struggles with prayer

B. Challenges in a secularized and technical world

II. Personal Experience with Prayer

A. Guilt and inadequacy in prayer

B. Influence of a father's strong prayer life

C. Historical context of faith-based missionary support

III. Unique Approach to Prayer

A. Breaking through personal barriers

B. Prayer as friendship with God

IV. Theology and Prayer

A. The inseparability of theology and prayer

B. Dangers of objectifying prayer and theology

V. Misconceptions and Prejudices about Prayer

A. The inhibitions of a structured approach (ACTS)

B. Misunderstandings about contemplative and mystical prayer

VI. Individual Experience of God's Presence

A. Uniqueness of each person's awareness of God's presence

B. Prayer as a personal and unique relationship with God

VII. Ambiguity and Danger in Prayer

A. Recognizing ambiguity and narcissism in prayer

B. Navigating the challenges of the prayer relationship

All Lessons
Lesson Resources
  • Insight into struggles in prayer, influence of great prayer warriors, historical background of faith missionaries, breaking through barriers, unique prayer relationship, theology and prayer connection, paradoxical detachment, prejudice against contemplative prayer, embracing authenticity in prayer.
  • Gain insight into the significance of prayer in Christianity. Despite secular endorsement of meditation, Christians often overlook prayer. Balancing cognitive approaches through meditation fosters transformation, while struggles with intangibility and sustainability persist. Honesty, transparency, and trust in God are crucial.
  • Gain insight into the indispensability of prayer for salvation, its central role in the Christian faith, and the need to cultivate a prayerful life for growth and holiness. Understand prayer's transformative power, sensitivity to sin, and rejection of cultural obstacles. Embrace a counter-cultural stance and discernment in action.
  • Discover the misunderstandings surrounding prayer, such as perceiving it as a habitual practice, reciting prayers without genuine belief, relying on it as a magical substitute, and recognizing prayer as a profound spiritual relationship.
  • This lesson discusses the importance of prayer companionship and journaling, and the barriers to prayer such as anger, unforgiveness, timidity, woundedness, prejudice, childhood emotions, and distorted self-images, emphasizing the need for simplicity, rejoicing, constant prayer, gratitude, and humility in overcoming these obstacles.
  • Explore theologians' perspectives on prayer, from absolute dependence to God's rule. Discover Bonhoeffer's friendship concept and Von Balthasar's contemplative approach. Embrace parrhesia, boldness in prayer.
  • You will gain knowledge and insight into the relationship between prayer, temperament, and personality, understand the influence of the herd instinct and the dangers of exaggeration, explore different prayer styles, and grasp the importance of individuality and authenticity in personal prayer, along with an understanding of diverse experiences of God's presence in the Gospels.
  • You will gain insight into the cultivation of gracious affections for God, understanding that they are initiated by God's grace, implanted through a new heart and spirit. Gracious affections are directed towards God, bringing about new sensing, a profound conviction, and a transformed life of humility, gratitude, and praise.
  • Expand your understanding of the transformative power of religious affections. Discover the distinction between temperament and personality, the signs of change, and the practicality of living out these affections in day-to-day life. Embrace gentleness, simplicity, and an insatiable hunger for God.
  • By engaging with this lesson, you're embarking on a journey to understand the transformative power of art through Rembrandt's works and how different personality types influence our spiritual practices, based on psychological theories developed by Carl Jung and others.
  • Engaging with this lesson provides you with an understanding of the Enneagram, its benefits, and potential risks. You gain knowledge about self-awareness and uncovering addictive tendencies. The lesson emphasizes the dangers of overreliance on the Enneagram in an individualistic culture. It explores the fears driving addictive behaviors for each Enneagram type. Additionally, the lesson delves into the connection between the Enneagram and different prayer approaches, such as meditation, expressive prayer, and quiet prayer. Various books on the Enneagram are mentioned, offering diverse perspectives and applications.
  • This lesson offers a deep exploration of prayer, particularly Hesychasm, emphasizing the importance of the heart as the center of prayer and personal encounter with God, bridging the dichotomy between heart and mind, and viewing prayer as a sacrificial offering reflecting God's presence within us.
  • The lesson explores the significance of the desert in spiritual traditions, emphasizing solitude, silence, and poverty of spirit. The desert is a metaphor for the soul devoid of God's presence. Solitude creates space for God, silence brings peace, and poverty of spirit liberates from attachments. It's a transformative journey of self-renunciation and spiritual growth.
  • The lesson explores the importance of stillness, silence, non-verbal communication, prayer, tears, and balanced asceticism in your spiritual journey, helping you integrate your whole person before God, express love through eye contact, and attune yourself to God's whisper of love guiding your actions.
  • In this lesson, Dr. Houston dives deeper into asceticism and its understanding of unselfishness. He will provide further insight into spiritual growth, enriched prayer, balanced discipline, and contextual forms promoting the Gospel. Through the lesson, you will understand the significance of celibacy, the reform against excesses, and the value of Hesychia for balance and symmetry.
  • Studying Augustine's life and teachings provides a comprehensive understanding of prayer, emphasizing inner reflectiveness, God consciousness, the exploration of inner space, dialogue between the city of man and the city of God, the concept of "memoria," the balanced view of the body, and the pursuit of true happiness in God.
  • In this lesson, you will learn that Augustine teaches that the inner life is a journey toward God, with constant change and new insights. It involves looking inwardly and upwardly, using our abilities of reflection and relying on grace. Love, selflessness, and indwelling of Christ are emphasized. Memory becomes a treasure house of experiences with God. The city of man is self-love, while the city of God is ruled by love. Amor Dei encapsulates Augustine's teachings.
  • Gain insight into Augustine's transformative interpretation of the Psalms, which guide prayer, anticipate Christ's work, embody the community, inspire new songs, and provide moral guidance in personal and historical contexts.
  • In this lesson, you'll gain insight into Augustine's interpretation of the Psalms and their role in prayer. They symbolize union with the Trinity, cleanse us from sin, and lead us to praise and find joy in God's presence.

This class on prayer offers a rich tapestry of insights and wisdom, drawing from various perspectives and historical figures. Throughout the lessons, you'll uncover the profound importance of prayer in the Christian faith. It begins by addressing the challenges faced in a secularized world, where prayer often seems inadequate. You'll explore the historical backdrop of faith missionaries who relied solely on prayer, like George Müller and Hudson Taylor, and the personal journey of the speaker who grappled with feelings of inadequacy. The journey continues with a deep dive into Augustine's teachings on prayer, where you'll discover his profound views on the Psalms and their transformative potential. Ultimately, this class emphasizes that prayer is not a mere ritual but a dynamic and essential aspect of the Christian experience, offering a path to profound connection with the divine and personal transformation.

Professor James Houston
Obstacles to Prayer
Lesson Transcript


What greater privilege can we have than to reflect together and meditate together on prayer. It's not a subject; it's a relationship with our Lord. So let us pray. Loving Father, we pray that Your gentle spirit will guide us and lead us, indeed encourage us, so that we more deeply and joyously and freely enter into Your presence with great hopefulness in the transformation that we want You to make in our lives, so that prayer becomes our breath and our existence before You. So we pray now that You will guide us and illuminate us. As the disciples requested, so we request this morning, Lord, teach us to pray. And all of this we ask in the name of Jesus. Amen.

In this first lecture, it's really more of a meditation. We're going to start looking first at the struggles and the obstacles that we have to prayer in our own lives and in the context of this highly secularised and technicalised world in which we live today.

I found in my youth that prayer was what prompted me to have most guilt. If somebody asked me how's your prayer life, immediately I was paralysed with guilt. And so if there are others like me that feel inadequate, that nothing is more the litmus test of what it is to be a Christian than the question of our prayer life, then I can join you very much, indeed. And in fact, when I wrote a book many years ago on prayer as a transforming friendship, I wrote it because I didn’t know how to pray. I was speaking to myself. I wasn’t thinking of others. I was just feeling that this was something that I had to primarily face up in my life.

We have many different reasons why prayer can be a blockage within our lives. And ironically, my blockage was that my own father was a great man of prayer. Well, we know that if somebody is a great engineer then it's natural for his son to say the last thing in the world I want to be is an engineer. Or if somebody is famous for something else then you run away because you're going to be totally eclipsed if you try and compete with father. So it's very natural for a child to want to have a way of escape from a professional life that is so dominating the household. But how can you escape from being a Christian if your father is a great prayer warrior? And the background to my father's prayer life is itself a heritage that we've had in the great missionary enterprise of the world in the last century.

The reason why my father was so deep in his prayer life was that he was a faith missionary. In other words, he was not beholden to a missionary society for his support. He lived by prayer. He was like the prophet that had to pray that the birds of the air would feed him. And so he knew that the next morning's breakfast, there might not be very much on the table for us as children, the three of us. And he lived in the poorest part of Spain with my mother, in La Mancha in South East Spain, which is semi-desert. So in the poverty of the environment and in the poverty of his own way of life, father could only do one thing and that was pray. And so he spent sometimes most of the night praying and that was the vision that I had. My father's prayer life paralysed me from prayer.

Now, what is perhaps interesting for many of us - to do first of all a sidetrack - how did this faith enterprise of depending on prayer for one's missionary support, how did it come? Well, it came out of the debate in 1859 between Darwin and Bishop Wilberforce, which was a very misguided debate and which drags on in the life of many Christians today over the subject of evolution and Darwinism and creationism. And it's all very misleading, but it's another subject completely. But evangelicals really felt they'd been defeated, their faith was in great jeopardy, the credibility of Christianity was no longer, in this deeply religious society of Victorian times. And so the response that was made a generation after the debate was well, we can't prove that God exists unless we prove that He answers prayer. And so this was the approach that was then taken, that God is a god who answers prayer.

And so I'm not clever enough to debate with you philosophically or biologically or in fact scientifically about the creation, but what I do know is God is alive. And God is alive because He answers prayer. And so there was a baron from Germany, an aristocrat, who came to England, called George Műller. Baron von Műller was really his original title, but he simply became George Műller. And he started an orphanage and the purpose of the orphanage was a kind of spiritual laboratory that although he had compassion on these orphans, he was much more concerned about God providing for the orphans himself. And so they would sit down to breakfast and there was perhaps very little for the orphans to eat that morning in Bristol where the orphanage was created and so it was amazing how event after event took place. The baker had over-baked or somebody had withdrawn an order and so suddenly there was a bread supply at the door, or the milk truck might just break down in its cart and so they had to deliver the milk from the cart. But there were all these miracles of prayer.

And, of course, many of you know the story of Hudson Taylor, who himself was going to live this life of faith, and he was going to test God at even a greater test than George Műller because when he went to China, he knew that he would have to anticipate that God knew the need six months in advance because of the sailing and then the travelling through China to reach him just the day when he needed the supply. The experiment that he took was that as a young physician in training he had a Christian boss, but he was very absent-minded, but he had pledged his landlady that on the last day of every month there would be the cheque for the rental. Well, this particular month, the absent-minded physician had not given them his pay cheque on the Friday. And so he suddenly realised I have no money to give my landlady tomorrow morning, so he spent the night in prayer: O Lord, remind my boss that he owes me the money. So sure enough, the next morning there was a knock at the door and it was the physician apologising I'm so sorry that I forgot to give you the money last night. Those are the sagas of God answering prayer. And so our whole missionary enterprise was started. And my father belonged to, as I say, this tradition of going to Spain and not belonging to a missionary society, but believing that God would answer prayer.

Now, mercifully, we’re not in the agony that those people had, but we have our own agonies. We have our own struggles as to how we exercise prayer in a very different generation. And so it's with this background that we want then to say that I had to learn that basically prayer is your fingerprints before God, that you have to break through all the barriers and inhibitions about your own prayer life by saying that the way God wants you to pray is unique to yourself and that the more you read books on prayer, the more paralysed you get about prayer. And therefore, stop reading books on prayer! I mean, I used to tell my students the more books you read on prayer, the less likely you are to pray. And then it begins to paralyse you like I got paralysed by my father. So some of us may get paralysed by Augustine, or some of us may get paralysed by Jonathan Edwards, whatever it is, but the breakthrough is the prayer of all prayers is Lord, I don't know how to pray, so Lord, teach me to pray. And how does the Lord teach me to pray? By simply being intuitive about your own need of God and just simply breaking through that barrier. So it was an enormous relief to me to find that when I began to say that prayer is friendship with God. My father never told me that. Well, that’s how I discovered that I could break through the barrier of my own father's tremendous, powerful life of prayer.

And so that that’s what we’re going to say this morning is just be yourself and just say Lord, you alone can teach me to pray. All these other good books can stimulate me, can enrich me and can enlarge me. And we’ll be using them ourselves as we talk today about this. But primarily, it's just having your own unique relationship with the Lord. But of course, there are people in the past that have indicated that the centrality of prayer in the Christian's life is the crucial issue. Evagrius Ponticus, who was one of the more sophisticated and educated of the desert fathers in the 4th century, he says that theology and prayer are the same thing. To pray is to do theology. To do theology is to pray. What he meant by that is that theology and prayer are all about God. It's the relationship with God and whether we teach it theologically, or whether we exercise it prayerfully, it's the same thing. So in our curricula in seminaries when we try and divide this all up, we make a bit of a mess.

One of the enigmas then that many theological students have, seminary students, is that they go to the theological school and then they discover that their prayer life gets inhibited. They get more detached than talking about God. They get more objectified about doctrine. And the consequence is that, oddly enough, when they should be more in prayer, they end up being less in prayer. So that’s one of the paradoxes that we have that when we distance ourselves by objectifying prayer or theology, that’s when we find that the conviction of what it should be for us evaporates. That's probably one of the reasons why, as we've been talking in a previous course of lectures on the loss of transcendence in our culture, that one of the elements of that loss of transcendence is having a hyper-cognitive understanding of life - that we’re too rational, that we've lost our emotional life in being so much absorbed about thinking and knowing. And it's in that realm that therefore it's so easy for us to be inhibited about our prayer life.

In my earlier generation, we used to talk about ACTS and we would summarise that prayer is adoration and confession, thanksgiving and supplication. Well, that’s all very neatly spelt out: A-C-T-S. But the problem there again is we can so abstract it by calling it four different categories of prayer that even that simple exercise can again paralyse us to say oh, do I do enough adoration? Or I do I do enough confession? Or am I thankful enough? Or am I not vocalising more supplication in my life? Well you see, when you get self-conscious about ACTS, again you get paralysed. So we want to get off those paved ways of vocal prayer and into the byways of what the spontaneity of true prayer is.

One of the things too that has been a prejudice among evangelicals as being a bit too popish is that the Catholics seem to be much more mystical, that they seem to be much more contemplative and so we have felt well, contemplative prayer, it sounds more like the Catholic saints than what I want to be as an evangelical. Or it's perhaps too mystical. I remember writing an essay in the early '90s on why is it that evangelicals are afraid of mysticism. Because in that generation, it was the Catholic saints who were mystics and we had to avoid the idea of being caught up with Catholicism. Well again, that’s all very wacky when you look back upon it and realise no, of course, the heart of the prayer life of a Christian should be like the prayer life of these wonderful saints. And in another course of lectures, we'll be exploring the life of the saints and how they inspire us by their exercises of prayer.

So we get terribly confused in the cross-currents of culture and of cultural change and so these things we also have to realise have confused us. And as for meditation, the meditative posture is so strong in the Middle Ages it's what, as we've seen before, is called Lectio Divina, divine reading, of how we should have a posture in opening God's Word and meditating and contemplating the Word before the Lord. But you know, when we think about all this, we realise that even the disciples were confused.

And it's an interesting study that we'll look at later how Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are all interpreting the presence of the Lord differently. In other words, all of us have to recognise that our experience of the presence of the Lord in our prayer life is unique to me and that if you try to imitate somebody else's awareness of the presence of God, we shouldn’t do it. We can be encouraged by it, but we have to realise, as I said at the beginning, that prayer is like our fingerprints. It belongs to my relationship with the Lord.

Now of course, we can be excessive about that and therefore we can even be narcissistic about that. That’s why it's a slippery thing to realise that there's always danger, there's always ambiguity about the whole issue of our relationship with the Lord and with our friends in the life of prayer.