Ole Hallesby was a Norwegian pastor in the early 20th Century and author of one of the most approachable books on prayer I’ve ever come across. He aimed to write “a presentation of a few simple rules for the benefit of souls who are fainting in prayer”, and he nailed it. Here’s what he had to say about what prayer is and the first of two keys to prayer: helplessness [you can find the other key here].
What Prayer Is
To pray is nothing more involved than to let Jesus into our needs. To pray is to give Jesus permission to employ His powers in the alleviation of our distress. To pray is to let Jesus glorify His name in the midst of our needs.
The results of prayer are, therefore, not dependent upon the powers of the one who prays. Our intense will, our fervent emotions, or our clear comprehension of what we are praying for are not the reasons why our prayers will be heard and answered. Nay, God be praised, the results of prayer are not dependent upon these things!
To pray is nothing more involved than to open the door, giving Jesus access to our needs and permitting Him to exercise His own power in dealing with them (Rev 3:20). He designed prayer in such a way that the most impotent can make use of it. For to pray is to open the door unto Jesus. And that requires no strength. It is only a question of our wills. Will we give Jesus access to our needs? That is the one great and fundamental question in connection with prayer.
To pray is nothing more involved than to lift the eye of prayer unto the Savior who stands and knocks, yea knocks through our very need, in order to gain access to our distress, sup with us and glorify His name.
Let us think of patients who are ill with tuberculosis. The physicians put them out in the sunlight and fresh air, both in summer and in winter. There they lie until a cure is gradually effected by the rays of the sun. The recovery of these patients is not dependent upon their thinking, in the sense of understanding the effect of the sun’s rays or how these rays work. Neither does their recovery depend upon the feelings they experience during the rest cure. Nor does it depend upon their wills in the sense of exerting themselves to will to become well. On the contrary, the treatment is most successful if the patients lie very quietly and are passive, exerting neither their intellects nor their wills. It is the sun which effects the cure. All the patients need to do is to be in the sun.
Prayer is just as simple. To pray is nothing more involved than to lie in the sunshine of His grace, to expose our distress of body and soul to those healing rays which can in a wonderful way counteract and render ineffective the bacteria of sin. To be a man or woman of prayer is to take this sun-cure, to give Jesus, with His wonder-working power, access to our distress night and day.
The First Key to Prayer: Helplessness
Prayer is something deeper than words. It is present in the soul before it has been formulated in words. And it abides in the soul after the last words of prayer have passed over our lips. Prayer is an attitude of our hearts, an attitude of mind. Prayer is a definite attitude of our hearts toward God, an attitude which He in heaven immediately recognizes as prayer, as an appeal to His heart. Whether it takes the form of words or not, does not mean anything to God, only to ourselves. What is this spiritual condition? What is that attitude of heart which God recognizes as prayer? I would mention two things.
In the first place, helplessness. This is unquestionably the first and the surest indication of a praying heart. As far as I can see, prayer has been ordained only for the helpless. It is the last resort of the helpless. Indeed, the very last way out. We try everything before we finally resort to prayer.
This is not only true of us before our conversion. Prayer is our last resort also throughout our whole Christian life. I know very well that we offer many and beautiful prayers, both privately and publicly, without helplessness as the impelling power. But I am not at all positive that this is prayer. Prayer and helplessness are inseparable. Only those who are helpless can truly pray.
Listen to this, you who are often so helpless that you do not know what to do. At times you do not even know how to pray. Your mind seems full of sin and impurity. Your mind is preoccupied with what the Bible calls the world. God and eternal and holy things seem so distant and foreign to you that you feel that you add sin to sin by desiring to approach God in such a state of mind. Thus honest souls struggle against the dishonesty of their own being. They feel themselves so helplessly lost that their prayers freeze on their very lips.
Listen, my friend! Your helplessness is your best prayer. It calls from your heart to the heart of God with greater effect than all your uttered pleas. He hears it from the very moment that you are seized with helplessness, and He becomes actively engaged at once in hearing and answering the prayer of your helplessness.
If you are a mother, you will understand this, too, better than the rest of us. You care for your little ones night and day, even though they do not understand what you are doing, sacrificing and suffering for them. They do not thank you, and often they are even contrary, causing you not a little difficulty. But you do not let that hinder you. You hear and answer incessantly the prayer which their helplessness sends up to your mother-heart. Such is God. Only that He does perfectly what human love can only do imperfectly.
Befriending Your Helplessness
My helpless friend, your helplessness is the most powerful plea which rises up to the tender father-heart of God. He has heard your prayer from the very first moment that you honestly cried to Him in your need. It is not your prayer which moves God to save you. On the contrary, your prayer is a result of the fact that Jesus has knocked at your heart’s door and told you that He desires to gain access to your needs. You think that everything is closed to you because you cannot pray. My friend, your helplessness is the very essence of prayer. To pray is to open the door unto Jesus and admit Him into your distress. Your helplessness is the very thing which opens wide the door unto Him and gives Him access to all your needs.
Be not anxious because of your helplessness. Above all, do not let it prevent you from praying. Helplessness is the real secret and the impelling power of prayer. You should therefore rather try to thank God for the feeling of helplessness which He has given you. It is one of the greatest gifts which God can impart to us. For it is only when we are helpless that we open our hearts to Jesus and let Him help us in our distress, according to His grace and mercy.
From the heavenly perspective many things look different than they do here on earth. I think that our prayers, too, look different when viewed from above. There is, for instance, the prayer meeting. One after another prays. First they pray who are accustomed to pray aloud in the presence of others. They pray well, and their prayers edify. When they say, Amen, everybody acquiesces quietly in the fact that it was a good prayer. But at the same prayer meeting there may also be another believing soul who would like very much to lift his or her voice in prayer at the meeting. This individual feels a greater need, perhaps, than any of the others. However, being not accustomed to it, the person does not succeed very well in the effort. Thoughts become disconnected, and the speaker stumbles. Finally the person becomes bewildered and even forgets to say, Amen. After the meeting the speaker is so downcast because of the prayer offered and because of the condition of his or her heart that he or she scarcely dares to look anyone in the face. But I know that a new song of praise has already been sung by the saints in glory, rejoicing because they have heard someone pray to God who in his or her helplessness did not know what else to do. Such prayers make an impression in heaven.
While up to this time this has put our whole being into a state of rebelliousness and anxiety, now we have experienced the fact that helplessness is a sinner’s proper plea in the presence of God. At all points we are equally helpless: whether it be in connection with the forgiveness of sins, the conquest of sin, the new life in our souls, growth in grace or faithfulness in our daily life with God and other people. Our helplessness now becomes a new factor in our prayer life. Before, our helplessness was the storm center of our prayer life, either driving us to supplicatory cries of distress, or stopping our mouths so effectively that we could not find a single word with which to give utterance to our needs. Our helplessness has now become the quiet, sustaining power of our prayer life. A humble and contrite heart knows that it can merit nothing before God, and that all that is necessary is to be reconciled to one’s helplessness and let our holy and almighty God care for us, just as an infant surrenders itself to its mother’s care.
Prayer therefore consists simply in telling God day by day in what ways we feel that we are helpless. We are moved to pray every time the Spirit of God, which is the spirit of prayer, emphasizes anew to us our helplessness, and we realize how impotent we are by nature to believe, to love, to hope, to serve, to sacrifice, to suffer, to read the Bible, to pray and to struggle against our sinful desires.
It often happens that we slip out of this blessed attitude of helplessness before God. Our former self-conceit and self-sufficiency reassert themselves. The result is that we fail again to grasp the meaning of helplessness. Once more it fills us with anxiety and perplexity. Everything becomes snarled again. We are not certain of the forgiveness of sins. The peace of God disappears from our lives. Worldliness, slothfulness and lack of spiritual interest begin to choke our spiritual lives. Sin gains the victory again in our daily lives, and an unwilling spirit works its way into the service we render toward God.
This continues until God again can make us humble and contrite of heart and we again become reconciled to being helpless sinners, who can do nothing but this one thing: to permit the infinite God to have mercy on us, to love us and care for us. Then our helplessness reestablishes us in our right relationship both to God and to others. Above all it restores us to the right attitude in prayer.
I never grow weary of emphasizing our helplessness, for it is the decisive factor not only in our prayer life, but in our whole relationship to God. As long as we are conscious of our helplessness we will not be overtaken by any difficulty, disturbed by any distress or frightened by any hindrance. We will expect nothing of ourselves and therefore bring all our difficulties and hindrances to God in prayer. And this means to open the door unto Him and to give God the opportunity to help us in our helplessness by means of the miraculous powers which are at His disposal.