Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:16 (NASB)
“The throne of grace.” The word grows as I turn it over in my mind, and to me it is a most delightful reflection that if I come to the throne of God in prayer, I may feel a thousand defects, but yet there is hope. I usually feel more dissatisfied with my prayers than with anything else I do.” —Charles Spurgeon[i]
A thousand defects. Over the past ten years or so I have read a lot of books on prayer. I have twenty on the shelf before me right now. They all are good and have lots to offer. They have all enriched my prayer life. But there are many, many times, overwhelmed in the clouds of doubt and fear, words do not come. And I feel “a thousand defects.” I feel dissatisfied with my prayers, but worse, I fear that God is dissatisfied too. That’s why I love Spurgeon’s “but yet [!] there is hope.” And I am comforted when he goes on to say:
But, brethren, suppose in our prayers there should be defects of knowledge: it is a throne of grace, and our Father knoweth that we have need of these things. Suppose there should be defects of faith: he sees our little faith and still doth not reject it, small as it is. He doth not in every case measure out his gifts by the degree of our faith, but by the sincerity and trueness of faith. And if there should be grave defects in our spirit even, and failures in the fervency or in the humility of the prayer, still, though these should not be there and are much to be deplored; grace overlooks all this, forgives all this, and still its merciful hand is stretched out to enrich us according to our needs.
One of the books before me is The Cloud of Unknowing by an anonymous monk. In it, the author recommends one-word prayers.[ii] That is about my speed in these times when I am in this “cloud of overwhelmed.” One of my favorites has become, “Help!” Just “help.” In the same chapter the author speaks of “a naked intent toward God, the desire for him alone.” And I think that those inexpressible prayers, those prayers reaching out from our hearts to His, stripped of everything but childlike, unguarded, helpless desire for Him – those are the most powerful and – for God – the most satisfying prayers of all.
It’s not a magical incantation. It’s not a precise liturgy, though liturgy is beautiful and can help lead us to the throne. It’s not a perfect recipe of words mixed with the right amount of faith, seasoned with the correct sprinkling of fervency or humility, in the prescribed position and vocal volume.
“True prayer is an approach of the soul by the Spirit of God to the throne of God. It is not the utterance of words; it is not alone the feeling of desires; but it is the advance of the desires to God, the spiritual approach of nature towards the Lord our God. True prayer is neither a mere mental exercise not a vocal performance. It is far deeper than that. It is spiritual commerce[iii] with Creator of heaven and earth.”
It’s a spirit to Spirit communication, a reaching out in the darkness and overwhelmedness. But it’s also that confidence thing. We cannot come to him naked and bare without complete trust and confidence. The word translated confidence in Hebrews 4:16 is parrhesia, which means “openly, frankly, without concealment, free and fearless confidence, cheerful courage, boldness, assurance.”
Little children come this way to their moms and dads all the time, with requests, inarticulate, but confidently and with complete expectation of being understood and answered. “Owie,” “drink,” “belly,” “up!” Little one-word requests that we jump to satisfy. Or sometimes they come with no words at all, just arms outstretched yearning for the parent’s comforting embrace.
“Help!” may be all I have right now. But it is all I need. Let me run into His merciful arms.
From the end of the earth I will cry to You, when my heart is overwhelmed; Lead me to the rock that is higher than I. Psalm 61:2 (NKJV)
(For more on the naked intent toward God, see A Naked Intent Toward God)
[i] All Spurgeon quotes from The Throne of Grace, sermon given November 19, 1871. Reprinted in The Power in Prayer. Whitaker House, 1996.
[ii] The Cloud of Unknowing and Privy Counseling. Edited by William Johnston. 1973. Chapter 7.
[iii] Definition of the word “commerce” from Spurgeon’s time: interchange (especially of letters, ideas, etc.); communication. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles.
Image by DVIDSHUB, from flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/dvids/13938506188