A Guide to Prevailing in the Battle of Prayer

A Guide to Prevailing in the Battle of Prayer by Bryan Litfin  for The Gospel Coalition

The Gospel Coalitions’ note: Taking the advice of C. S. Lewis, we want to help our readers “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” which, as he argued, “can be done only by reading old books.” Continuing our Rediscovering Forgotten Classics series we want to survey some forgotten Christian classics that remain relevant and serve the church today.

Prayer is an old-fashioned Christian virtue that we retain today because we know we should. “I’ll be praying for you,” we tell our friends who are facing trouble. Yet how much effort do we later expend? Even worse is the expression, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to you”—an offering so bland that even unbelievers can use the verbiage when tragedy strikes. Modern prayer has become mere well-wishing.

Of course, there are certainly some legitimate prayer warriors in our midst. The church always has its Daniels. Yet most of us wish we were better at praying. It’s not that we don’t do it; we just don’t do it with the power and energy that such a central aspect of the Christian life deserves.

Our problem isn’t new. Previous generations faced it as well. We know this because D. L. Moody (1837–1899) wrote a book about it: Prevailing Prayer: What Hinders It? His searching question—what makes our prayers triumph instead of fail?—is one we still ask today. And Moody provided answers just as relevant now as when he penned them back in 1884. His wisdom from those bygone days of top hats and muttonchops still applies in our age of hipster beards and skinny jeans. Prayer is a constant struggle in the Christian life.

Prayer as Warfare

The term prevailing was a Gilded Age way of speaking about victory in combat. Google’s analytics of English word usage show a steady decline in the use of prevail from 1800 to today. Yet the meaning is clear enough. It means winning or triumphing, especially in a warfare situation. Prayer was envisioned as a kind of battle, an endeavor in which we could win or lose. For Moody’s original hearers, the Civil War was still fresh in everyone’s minds, so it made sense to think about life in martial terms.

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