Project Canterbury

The Good News

By Bernard Iddings Bell, D.D.

Milwaukee: Morehouse Publishing, [1921]

Chapter X. How to Talk with God

IT has been said by a number of holy men and women in former times that the only way to learn how to pray is to pray. That is, of course, quite true. Talking to God is like any other sort of conversation. Facility comes only with practice. That tongue-tied embarrassment which bothers most of us when we meet new people, especially in our younger and less experienced days, usually grows less only as we come to know those new people the better through having, perhaps stumblingly and stupidly, attempted to converse with them. There are many who, attempting to realize their comradeship with God in prayer, give up because they find it in the beginning difficult, and themselves self-conscious and embarrassed. They do not realize that most of those who have found the greatest joy and strength in talking with God have started their praying in the same halting and difficult manner.

When, however, one tells the beginner in religion that he ought to pray, one should also give him at least a few hints about how to go about it. That is what this chapter is an attempt to do.

First of all, it is well constantly to remember who the God is to whom the Christian is praying. Many people fail in their prayers because the deity with whom they attempt to converse is merely a vague abstraction in their minds. It is a simple matter of fact that no one can talk easily and naturally with any vague abstraction.

That is why, with many who do not understand Christianity, the prayers of childhood are more vivid than those of later years. It was so in my own case, as I well remember. When I was little I had a very definite idea of the God to whom I prayed. My mother told me that He was in Heaven and that I-leaven was "up there". This I took literally, and domiciled my deity on the roof. There He lived. He was a little past middle age, with a benevolent and somewhat ruddy face, with silvering whiskers, wearing gold-rimmed spectacles. In other words He was to me a somewhat glorified copy of my paternal grandfather. To talk through the ceiling to such a Person was a vivid experience. Gradually this very definite object of devotion was, by my education, dematerialized and delocalized. No other concept of Deity of a human and comprehensible sort was introduced. God was a vague aura, a spiritual influence, a permeating benevolence. Consequently, although during this period I was confirmed and made my communions more or less regularly, my prayers were, when said at all, perfunctory and uninteresting. I can well understand how many people, going through the same experience, cease to pray at all. I nearly did so myself.

Fortunately--at about this time--I ran across the notion of a practical comradeship with God made possible for man through His having come down to us on earth in terms of our humanity. The Incarnation, which previously had been merely an abstract and unimportant doctrine, to be held by all respectable persons, was at length seen in its practical importance. I commenced to visualize Jesus when I talked to God. God was thus again for me localized, humanized,--if you will, materialized,--and prayer meant something once more.

"Through Jesus Christ Our Lord,"--that that is the way to talk to God is evidenced by most of the prayers offered in our churches. Whether liturgical or extemporaneous, they usually end with these or equivalent words. A good many people seem to think that this means that Jesus takes prayers somewhere up to a God other than Himself; that they pass "through Jesus Christ" as a letter goes "through the post-office". As a matter of Christian fact Jesus is God, Deity manifested. We see the Eternal "through Him" just as, when confined within the walls of a room, we see the sun-lit landscape outside "through the window". If, therefore, the Christian simply prays to Jesus Christ, with the human, compassionate, understanding Jesus to think of as he talks, he will find that his prayers immediately cease to be vague and without terminus. [To assist in attaining this directness in prayer, many people have in former times as well as our own found great help in placing before them, when they pray, pictures of Our Lord or statues of Him, either standing in kindliness or else nailed to that Cross on which He so gloriously triumphed.]

The second suggestion that may be made to the one starting out in the praying life is that he avoid all books of prayers and so-called devotional manuals. Such volumes have their place in public or "common" prayer, where the desire is that a whole group of people shall talk together to Our Lord. For most people, however, they are a hindrance and a nuisance in private talking with Him. One needs no books to teach one how to talk to one's mother. One's sweetheart would be dumbfounded if one began to make love out of a manuscript, even if the speeches therein contained were an hundred times more eloquent than one's own attempts. When one speaks to one's dear friends one must, it is well understood, speak simply and unaffectedly that which lies close to one's heart. So it is with talking to God. God would rather hear a man's own honest, stumbling, even stupid speech than to listen to a recitation of some eloquent utterance made of old by St. Thomas à Kempis or St. Theresa. It is a safe thing to say that no one ever found much joy in praying until he began talking to God for himself.

A third thing that is necessary for successful prayer is that it should be properly balanced, and not over-inclined to mere petition. Some people never get down on their knees before God without searching their brains madly, saying, "What on earth shall I ask God for now?" If, as we saw in the last chapter, no prayer made primarily with the idea of getting something ever is answered, we ought always to be on our guard against this easy and suicidal lack of proportion in our speech with God.

In the days of my own very young manhood an old and wise priest, summing up, as I later found out, the experience of many of the saints, gave me the following advice:

"When you pray, my son, remember that what you are really doing is talking as a child to its father. You would not think much of a child who never spoke to its earthly parents except to say, 'Give me something.' If you were the parent of such a child you probably would give that child nothing, for fear of making it more selfish. As a parent you would expect that occasionally the child might say 'Thank you' after you had benefited him. If he was a proper child he would wish to do so. If you had been forced to discipline or correct that child for its faults, it would rejoice your heart to have the child confess that it had been bad. It would make you know that the child recognized in you not a vindictive enemy but one who chastened because you loved. It would be a pleasure to you, and an evidence of rightness in the youngster, if occasionally he came asking not for himself but for his brothers and sisters. And you would be a queer parent not to find your greatest joy in his spontaneous coming to you and climbing up in your lap and throwing his arms around you, whispering in your ear, 'Dad, I love you a lot. You are a great dad.'

"Even so, my son, is it with God your father and you, His child.

"When you talk with Him, start with the thought of Him rather than the thought of yourself. Tell Him how much you love Him, how great you recognize Him to be, how marvellous, how powerful, how loving, how true, how calm and serene. There are foolish people who say that to do this is to flatter God. Such critics never had children of their own. This sort of prayer is known as Adoration.

"Then, when you have thus contemplated Him, you may safely think about yourself. In the light of Him you will at once perceive your limitations, your silliness, your stupidity, your cowardice, your fretfulness, your mistakes, your pettiness, your ignorance, your sins. Tell them to God. Of course He knows about them already, a great deal better than you do; but He wishes to see that you also recognize them and bewail them. Tell them all to Him, fully and frankly. This sort of prayer is called Confession.

"The next step, obviously, is to utter your gratitude to the adorable God for being so patient with your undeserving self. Many blessings He has given to one who ill deserves them. There is your life itself, with its opportunity for growth of mind and spirit; your food and clothes and shelter; your friends who love or have loved you; all the good things of life; all the sorrows which have deepened and developed you; His own love in becoming human for you. There are no end of things to mention gratefully, even for those whom the world in its ignorance deems unfortunate and abused. This part of prayer is named Thanksgiving.

"Having thus contemplated God adoringly, confessed your own insufficiency and ill-deserving, and thanked Him from your heart, then turn your thinking to your brethren. There are many, many people you know who need to be brought in your compassion before Divine compassion: your worried husband; your house-bound and weary wife; your children unfolding day by day; your old mother and father; your sisters and brothers; the neighbor in sorrow and loneliness; your employees whose lives are constricted or your employer harassed with the thought that there may be no contents for your next pay envelope; those seeking to save America from self-destruction; the starving nations of Europe and the near-East; those trying to Christianize our pagan industrial processes;--brethren innumerable to love and remember before God. This praying has received the name of Intercession.

"And finally, if you have any time left, which probably you will not have, it is permitted, here at the end of your praying, to ask God something for yourself. Even here, however, you must be careful how you pray. We are bidden confidently to ask God for our daily bread; but we are nowhere bidden to beseech Him for French pastry. Luxury, abundance, God may in trust bestow upon some men, but no man has a right to ask for it as though it belonged to him. You are permitted rightly to request just enough of this world's goods, just enough of immaterial happiness, to enable you to do your work, day by day, like a man. Never should one ask the God who Himself gave all for us to give an atom more than just one's 'daily bread.' This praying for one's self is called Petition."

I have written down these words as nearly as I can now recall them, because they are indeed the wisdom of many, many persons who have tried the way of prayer. No matter whether one has an hour to pray, or only a minute or two, one can always talk to God the better if he will remember that each true prayer has something in it of

, and last and least of all,

Finally, the suggestion may be made that prayer is intended to be a conversation. I once knew an old lady who used to sail in upon her friends and continue, from the moment she entered their house until she left it a half hour later, a constant stream of words. Her hosts occasionally got a word or two in edgewise, but it was always a difficult process. Almost invariably, when she left, she would say, "My dears, I am so glad I came. It has been such a lovely conversation." Of course there had been no conversation at all. There had been a monologue. Much prayer is of a similar sort. The praying person gets going and talks a great deal, with no interruption, says, "Amen", and goes about his business. Such a one cuts himself off from most of the joy and benefit of prayer. There should be quiet times, when one says nothing, but rather listens. There are many things God wishes us to know, comforts that He wishes to give, guidances in perplexity, encouragements to new endeavor, frequent calmings for troubled souls; but how can they be given to those who never stop to hear? God spoke in olden times to men and women, spoke so vividly that they insisted they had heard His voice. He speaks to men and women equally to-day, if in their prayers they wait to know His will.

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