In Ole Hallesby’s book Prayer, he gives a great deal of assistance to those who struggle with prayer. In the last post, we looked at his definition of prayer as simply “telling God day by day in what ways we feel that we are helpless.” Here, he explains the second key to prayer: faith.
Praying In Faith
I come now to another aspect of that attitude which constitutes the essence of prayer, that condition of the heart which God recognizes as prayer, whether words are used or not. It is written, “Without faith it is impossible to be well-pleasing unto him” (Hebrews 11:6). Without faith there can be no prayer, no matter how great our helplessness may be. Helplessness united with faith produces prayer. Without faith our helplessness would be only a vain cry of distress in the night.
The Bible contains many pointed passages about praying in faith if we expect to be heard. “If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do what is done to the fig tree, but even if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou taken up and cast into the sea, it shall be done. And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive” (Matthew 21:21-22). “But let him ask in faith, nothing doubting: for he that doubteth is like the surge of the sea driven by the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord; a doubleminded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6-8).
These words have sent many a poor man and woman of prayer down into the dust of despair and rendered them so completely helpless that they have felt it impossible to pray. Honest souls who examine themselves in the light of the Scriptures soon find that faith is just what seems lacking in their prayers. It says that they should ask in faith, nothing doubting. They do just the opposite. They doubt before they pray, while they pray and after they have prayed. They are in distress; they are helpless; and they pray. But they do not receive what they pray for, even though they pray fervently and frequently and cry to God in their distress, on their own behalf as well as on behalf of their loved ones. They feel that God has passed judgment upon their prayer. God cannot hear them because they do not pray in faith. They pray, doubting. Alas, how doubt bores its way into every prayer! It makes them anxious and afraid of prayer, afraid of sinning against God by the very act of praying.
My doubting friend, your case is not as bad as you think it is. You have more faith than you think you have. You have faith enough to pray; you have faith enough to believe that you will be heard. Faith is a strange thing; it often conceals itself in such a way that we can neither see nor find it. Nevertheless, it is there; and it manifests itself by definite and unmistakable signs. Let us examine these briefly.
The essence of faith is to come to Christ. This is the first and the last and the surest indication that faith is still alive. Faith manifests itself clearly and plainly when sinners, instead of fleeing from God and their own responsibility, as they did before, come into the presence of Christ with all their sin and all their distress. The sinner who does this believes. A living faith sees its own need, acknowledges its own helplessness, goes to Jesus, tells Him just how bad things are and leaves everything with Him. You and I can now tell how much faith we need in order to pray. We have faith enough when we in our helplessness turn to Jesus. This shows us clearly that true prayer is a fruit of helplessness and faith. Helplessness becomes prayer the moment that you go to Jesus and speak candidly and confidently with him about your needs. This is to believe.
The reason that more faith than this is not necessary in order to pray lies in the very nature of prayer. We have seen above that prayer is nothing more involved than to open the door when Jesus knocks and give Him access to our distress and helplessness with all His miracle-working powers. It is not intended that our faith should help Jesus to fulfill our supplications. He does not need any help; all he needs is access. Neither is it intended that our faith should draw Jesus into our distress, or make Him interested in us, or solicitous on our behalf. He has long since cared for us. And He Himself would like to gain access to our distress in order to help us. But He can not gain admittance until we “open the door,” that is, until we in prayer give Him an opportunity to intervene.
Doubt versus Unbelief
You have looked upon that state of doubt and inner uncertainty, in which you so often have gone into and returned from the hour of prayer, as unbelief. This is due to confused thinking, which, alas, is very common, but none the less dangerous to our prayer life.
Unbelief is something very different from doubt. Unbelief is an attribute of the will and consists in the refusal to believe, that is, refusal to see one’s own need, acknowledge one’s helplessness, go to Jesus and speak candidly and confidently with Him about one’s sin and distress. Doubt, on the other hand, is anguish, a pain, a weakness, which at times affects our faith. We could therefore call it faith-distress, faith-anguish, faith-suffering, faith-tribulation. Such faith-illness can be more or less painful and more or less protracted, like all other ailments.
If we can begin to look upon doubt as suffering which has been laid upon us, it will lose its sting of distress and confusion. All suffering which is laid upon us should work together for our good. So also faith-suffering. It is not as dangerous as we feel that it is. It is not harmful to faith nor to prayer. It does serve to render us helpless. And, as we have seen above, helplessness is, psychologically, the sustaining and impelling power of prayer. Nothing so furthers our prayer life as the feeling of our own helplessness.
These thoughts seem, however, to conflict with the Scripture passages cited above. They stated categorically that he who prays, doubting, cannot expect to be heard. But these passages must not be torn out of their context. We must compare them with other passages of the Scriptures bearing on the same thought. Special mention must be made of the characteristic little account in Mark 9:14-30. While Jesus and three of His twelve disciples were experiencing the Transfiguration on the mountain top, a man had brought his boy, possessed with demons, to the other disciples; but they were not able to cast out the evil spirit. The father expresses exactly what he feels: “If thou canst do anything, have compassion on us and help us!” He is really not fully certain that Jesus can help him. When challenged by Jesus he says, “I believe; help Thou mine unbelief!”
The characteristic thing to notice here is that he uses the expression unbelief. He himself condemns his doubt as unbelief. That is what sincere faith always does; it judges itself strictly and unmercifully. But we should notice what judgment Jesus passed upon this doubting, unstable, shaky condition. In His eyes this was faith. This is clearly evident from the fact that Jesus healed the boy. Had the father’s doubt actually been unbelief, Jesus would not have been able to heal him (see Mk 6:5-6). Here we see how weak, unstable and doubting faith can be. Notice how faith at the moment of prayer condemned itself as unbelief. And yet faith was there. What is the reason that such a weak, unstable and doubting faith could be heard and answered? Because it was characterized by the essence of living faith: it went to Jesus. It pleaded its distress before Him. It complained of its faith-distress by telling Jesus how full of doubt this faith was.
This insight into the nature of prayer and faith will undoubtedly simplify our prayer life and make it easier. In the first place, it has become clear to us that the answer to prayer is nor dependent upon our emotions or our thoughts before, during or after prayer. The illustration about the afflicted father in Mark 9 has shown us that plainly. His emotions were less than nothing to build upon both before, during and after his prayer. Everything seemed hopeless. And his thoughts gave him no mote encouragement than his feelings. “If thou canst do anything?” He was not at all certain whether the Lord could succeed any better than the disciples. And when he understood from Jesus’ words that it depended somewhat upon him, too, upon his faith, he despaired still more.
This is something for us to think about, we who have exactly the same experiences when we pray. We vacillate between doubt and faith. We ate not certain whether we are praying right, whether we are praying according to the will of God, or nor. And even if we feel certain that what we are praying for is according to the will of God, there is frequently so little earnestness and sincerity in our prayer that we, for that reason, doubt that we will be heard. We feel that it is almost blasphemy toward God to pray in such a state of mind.
At such a time it is blessed to know that we have faith enough when we bring our needs to Jesus and leave them with Him. And though there be much doubt and but little faith in our hearts, we can do as the father did who came to Jesus. We can begin by telling Him about our doubts and our weak faith. This makes it easier for us, and we can pray more confidently.
I need not exert myself and try to force myself to believe, or try to chase doubt out of my heart. Both are equally useless. It begins to dawn on me that I can bring everything to Jesus, no matter how difficult it is; and I need not be frightened away by my doubts or my weak faith, but only tell Jesus how weak my faith is. I have let Jesus into my heart. And He will fulfill my heart’s desire.