The Soul of Prayer: A Review

Jeffrey Bruce has recently posted a review on PT Forsyth’s The Soul of Prayer. He writes:

One of my great failures as a Christ-follower pertains to prayer. Throughout my life, I have consistently failed to cultivate this spiritual discipline. Sure, I throw up a few petitions each day, and set aside times for focused prayer every now and again; but, it does not characterize my living. Frankly, I find this disconcerting. Great Christians seems to pray…all the time…like Paul commands (1 Thess 5:17). In High School, I remember reading about Martin Luther, and how he would lament when constrained to spending only three hours in prayer at the beginning of the day.

Given my deficiency in this discipline, I deemed it wise to read a book on prayer. I began by going to one who, in my opinion, is an expert on the subject; Bud Burk, the children’s pastor at Whittier Hills. Bud immediately recommended The Soul of Prayer, by P.T. Forsyth. Sometimes described as an English pre-cursor to Karl Barth, Forsyth (1848-1921) was a leader in the Congregational church in Scotland. Early in his tenure as a minister, he was inimical to orthodoxy, and sought to reformulate Christianity according to his liberal sensibilities. However, in 1878 he had a conversion experience, wherein he went from (in his own words), “a lover of love to an object of grace.” He gained notoriety as a British non-conformist, who taught his generation the depth and reality of God’s grace. This book is dense, brief (only 107 pages), and chalked full of theological grist. Though his writing suffers at times from awkward phraseology,
and some of his theologizing raises the eyebrow, this tome remains a gem, and, as Eugene Peterson says, “goes straight for the jugular.”

Forsyth divides his discussion into various qualities of prayer; viz. the inwardness of prayer, the naturalness of prayer, the moral reactions of prayer, the timeliness of prayer, the ceaselessness of prayer, the vicariousness of prayer, and the insistency of prayer. In each section, Forsyth hones in on misconceptions regarding prayer, and tries to get behind the inner workings of the divine-human interaction.

He is eminently quotable. Allow me to demonstrate.

“Prayer has its great end when it lifts us to be conscious and more sure of the gift than the need, of the grace than the sin…We shall come one day to a heave where we shall gratefully know that God’s great refusals were sometimes the true answers to our truest prayer. Our soul is fulfilled if our petition is not.” (12)

“God is the answer to prayer.” (35)

“If it be true that the whole Trinity is in the gospel of our salvation, it is also true that all theology lies hidden in the prayer which is our chief answer to the gospel.” (51)

“Prayer is not identical with the occasional act of praying. Like the act of faith, it is a whole life thought of as action. It is the life of faith in its purity, in its vital action. Eating and speaking are necessary to life, but they are not living.” (69)

“Petition is not mere receptivity, not is it mere pressure; it is filial reciprocity. Love loves to be told what it knows already. Every lover knows that. It wants to be asked for what it longs to give. And that is the principle of prayer to the all-knowing Love.” (72-73)

“Let prayer be concrete. actual, a direct product of life’s real experiences. Pray as your actual self, not as some fancied saint. Let it be closely relevant to your real situation. Pray without ceasing in this sense. Pray without a break between your prayer and your life. Pray so that there is a real continuity between your prayer and your whole actual life.” (74)

“…as we learn more of the seriousness of the gospel for the human soul, we feel the more that every time we present it we are adding to the judgment of some as well as to the salvation of others. We are not like speakers who present a matter that men can freely take or leave, where they can agree or differ with us without moral result.” (83)

“Prayer is given us as wings wherewith to mount, but also to shield our face when they have carried us before the great throne. It is in prayer that the holiness comes home as love, and the love is established as holiness.” (85)

“Our public may kill by its triviality a soul which could easily resist the assaults of oppositions or wickedness.” (91)

“Strenuous prayer will help us to recover the masculine type of religion – and then our opponents will at least respect us.” (95)

“Prayer is not really a power till it is importunate. And it cannot be importunate unless it is felt to have a real effect on the Will of God.” (95)

What struck me most deeply were the following points;

(1) Prayer must be (in Forsyth’s words) importunate. Indeed, Jesus wanted to actually teach us something through the parable of the persistent widow! Prayer is strenuous, a mental exercise, and the passive resignation that so often characterizes prayer is not always a sign of piety. God wants us to pray mightily. We need not be afraid of urging and pleading with God to act. This is what he wants from us.

(2) Take public prayer seriously.

(3) Good theology can be prayed, and good prayer is theological.

(4) God is the answer to prayer.

I still have a few misgivings about Forsyth. In his attempts to be profound, I feel he sounds a tad pantheistic (though I know he is no pantheist). Moreover, his thoughts on resisting the lower will in God to arrive at his higher will need copious nuancing. Overall though, this book definitely hits hard, and presents a challenge to any alacrity in one’s heart for the discipline of prayer.

It is always encouraging to see Forsyth’s work being read. A pdf version of many of Forsyth’s books, including The Soul of Prayer, is available from here.

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